Originally written on Midwest Sports Fans  |  Last updated 7/17/12

Arian Foster is a top running back, but Ben Tate actually performed statistically better last season.

Arian Foster may be the top-ranked back, but Ben Tate performed better last year. (Photo by AJ Guel via CC BY-2.0)

Maurice Jones-Drew led the league in rushing last year, but he figures not to get nearly as many attempts this year.

Ryan Matthews is slated to get a significantly larger role, but durability remains a huge question mark.

Matt Forte is a PPR monster and was headed for a career year in 2011 but does not score much and will now be replaced in goal-line situations.

Expectations are enormous for No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson, but remember he is a rookie.

And the production of all of the above can fall to zero with one wrong twist of a knee.

If you are still one of those who clings to the theory that running backs should be taken early and often in fantasy football drafts, you are quickly falling behind.

It isn’t just the fact that the NFL is now geared towards the pass more than ever – it’s that running backs have become like starting pitchers in baseball, almost all basically now have what you amont to a pitch count.

With the exception of Maurice Jones-Drew, no NFL back saw more than 301 carries last year. The age of mega-touchdown seasons is becoming rare as well – LeSean McCoy scored 20 times last year, but no other back scored more than 15.

The evolution makes sense, what is going to be work heading into the fourth quarter – a tired back approaching 30 carries, or a committee (first-second down/’change of pace’/third down back) each running 10 times.

Never mind Bill Belichick–if Tony LaRussa were an NFL coach you might be seeing six different backs getting five touches each.

There are still a handful of backs worth first-round picks and several others in the second round. But also remember the attrition rate at the position is much higher than at quarterback/receiver/tight end, and there will be some expensive targets throughout the season in FAAB formats and be mindful of handcuffs. There’s a good chance that someone not even close to the top of this list may win a fantasy title for a lot of owners.

See Ryan Grant, 2007… On to the Fantasy Football 2012 Running Back Rankings.

1. Arian Foster (HOU)

I’ll be honest, I am not bananas over Foster but have him here because he is the consensus #1 overall pick on most boards. If I were drafting first overall this year, I would seriously consider trading down. With 30 touchdowns in his last 29 games, Foster owns the best TD per game ratio over the past two years.

But backup Ben Tate got more than a nice size sample last year, rushing 175 times for 942 yards, a nice 5.4 average. If I was drafting first, I’d have to draft Arian, but I would also make absolutely certain to handcuff him with Tate, as in selecting Ben over another warm body in the middle rounds and well higher than any ADP ranking you may see – I would say Round 7 for Tate, before a rival owner even thinks of it.

2. Ray Rice (BAL)

This is almost who I want to select number one overall. Not only does Rice have 850 touches the past three seasons, he has also averaged over 70 receptions per season, and there is also not an experienced backup on the Ravens roster. Last year’s 15 TD effort was his first foray into double figures, and although Baltimore could find a goal-line specialist, I can still conservatively pencil him in for 12-14 scores. As I ranked this Ray had just inked up to a 5-year/$40 million contract, which makes him the third-highest paid back in the league – there are no holdout worries here.

3. LeSean McCoy (PHI)

Here is your 20 TD man from last year who has also averaged an even five yards a pop the past two years. Although not that highly regarded coming out of Pitt a few years back, LeSean has proven to be the real McCoy. Only downside is his receptions dropped from 78 to 48 last year, which may be more of an aberration. As a number three or four overall pick I would look for 1,500 total yards/60 catches/and conservatively 12 or so touchdowns.

4. Maurice Jones-Drew (JAX)

There is actually a fourth member of the top-tier, and MJD led the league in both rushing attempts (343) and was the league’s lone 1,500 yard runner (1,606, and 1,980 combined yards). The downside is that Jones-Drew is not a TD scorer–he has only found the end zone 18 times last two years.

An avid follower of the fantasy game, MJD feels that he can one day surpass Emmitt Smith’s all-time rushing yardage record. What worries me right now is the specter of a training-camp hold out, although ESPN’s John Clayton is on record saying MJD will report to camp well before Week 1 and perhaps even report to camp on time. If there is a protracted holdout, then the risks of rust and injury come into play. I do not see Drew getting 300 carries this year. Rashard Jennings projects as a nice #2 who will see some time and that will actually be a good thing for MJD.

5. Trent Richardson (CLE)

I feel slightly uncomfortable putting Trent this high. True, unlike Alabama predecessor Mark Ingram, you will not be seeing Richardson as part of a committee. The obvious comparison is when Adrian Peterson came into the league in 2007 – in the pre-draft workouts that year, AD was timed at 4.38 with a 38-inch vertical and doing 20 reps.

Meanwhile Trent this spring was timed in the low 4.4’s/36 inch vertical/25 reps. Very slightly slower but perhaps more powerful – so they are similar, and AD didn’t exactly start slowly with a pair of 200-yard games (and one in which he rushed for 250 in the SECOND HALF). Problem is Peterson could be had third-round in ’07, it’s likely going to take a late first-round pick to get T-Rich, and that bar may be set too high. I wouldn’t be comfortable going for Richardson until early Round 2.

6. Ryan Mathews (SD)

At this point there are a variety of opinions on who is next on the board, which is why Round 2 may be the better spot to find your back this year. If you listen to everything coming out of the 6-1-9 this off-season, word is that Mathews’ load is going to increase significantly in year three, and he did get 222 carries last year averaging nearly five yards per carry and totaling over 1,500 total yards. The presence of Mike Tolbert (now gone) cut into Matthews’ TD production–he has only scored five times as a pro. If he can stay healthy (a big if), 2,000 total yards and double-digit scores are possible.

7. Chris Johnson (TN)

That 2,000-yard rushing season may have been in 2009, but it almost seems like a decade ago now. That’s how quickly someone can fall off the top perch at this level. I’m going to bank on Johnson’s second-half stats from last year, which saw him approach nearly 900 combined yards in his final eight games, far more resembling that ’09 model.

8. Darren McFadden (OAK)

I don’t know how many more years I am going to keep swinging for the fence on DMac, with a rushing average of more than five yards per carry, McFadden would be near the top of the list if you knew he was going to stay healthy and get 300 carries. If you do select McFadden, make sure to grab #2 Taiwan Jones as a handcuff, who looked very impressive last pre-season.

9. Marshawn Lynch (SEA)

An afterthought in most drafts last year, Marshawn was one of the league’s most prolific backs down the stretch last year, with a 10-game scoring streak from Weeks 7 through 16. Some people will over-think and downgrade Lynch since the Seahawks face the top-ranked 2011 run defense in the Niners in Week 16 – but that’s too far off to worry about. Will Lynch be in the lineup then?? Will the SF defense be banged up by then?? Have to get to Championship Week before thinking about winning it. UPDATE: Just as this goes to press comes word of Marshawn being involved in a DUI charge in the East Bay, Lynch was suspended three games by the league for an off-field issue in 2009 – so now we have to factor in how this will play out in the Roger Goodell wheel of discipline…

10. Michael Turner (ATL)

Like 1,300 yards and double-digit TD’s?? Then you would have been quite happy with Turner past two seasons. The downside is that Michael is a liability in PPR formats, and his odometer is starting to get quite high at age 30. The second-best known Turner in Atlanta still gets massive work but will start to trend downward in 2012.

Click here to find out where everyone else ranks in the top 50.

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