Regardless of any changing scenery their might be in the real NFL, the running back is still king in Fantasyland. Let's say, for example, that you have the second pick in this year's draft. Presumably your top options will be Aaron Rodgers, Ray Rice, and LeSean McCoy. For the sake of argument, let's say you choose Aaron Rodgers here, thinking that you will go double running back with the 19th and 22nd picks in your snake draft. Odds are you will be looking at players like Trent Richardson, DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden, and Steven Jackson as the next few RBs on the board. Alternatively, you go Ray Rice at the second overall pick. You can still at Trent Richardson as your RB2 (an absolutely stellar running back tandem) while grabbing another top QB, probably someone like Tom Brady or Matthew Stafford, or you could get a great WR at this position. The difference between a Rice-Richardson combo and a Richardson-Muray combo is probably greater than the difference between Rodgers and Brady, Brees, Newton or Stafford. If this were my decision though, I would probably grab both Richardson and Murray after grabbing Rice, depending on the remaining WRs. Having that flex spot solidified with a #2 back is a true luxury, and I can stock up on QB and WR later in the draft. Without further ado, here is my top 20 list of running backs for the 2012 season.
My Top 20 Running Backs of 2012 (compare to NFL Analysts' Top Backs)
1. Arian Foster: There is really no question here. Assuming he can stay healthy, Foster is a certain #1 pick. The man catches the ball like a WR and can get a big gain on any play. The Texans' improved defense means that they are running the ball a lot more, so Foster should score you QB-like points every single week.
2. Ray Rice: You really can't go wrong with Rice. He had a really low number of rushing attempts last season, less than 300 attempts, meaning that he should still be fresh for another season. Rice is special because of his value as a receiver. Unlike Foster, who almost exclusively catches balls out of the backfield, Rice can line up as a wide receiver and catch passes 50 yards down the field. Rice even threw a touchdown pass last season. The man can, and will, do it all.
3. LeSean McCoy: Another player I would pick over Rodgers. McCoy is a feature of the Eagles offense, and might have squeaked by Rice if it weren't for LT Peters' unfortunate injuries. He catches the ball and plays in a dynamic offense. McCoy does not feel like a dynamic runner, but he gets enough touches and has enough skill to score huge points every week.
4. Chris Johnson: After breaking an NFL record and scoring a huge contract, Johnson failed to live up to expectations last season. I don't foresee another season like last year, but he falls to fourth because of his potential as a bust. Fortunately, he was not injured last season and was sparingly used, so health should not be a concern. I am still picking Johnson ahead of Rodgers.
5. Maurice Jones-Drew: I have serious durability concerns for Pocket Hercules, after he ran the ball over 360 times last season. He played through injuries all of last season, and that Jaguars passing game is not looking any better than it was last year. Those two points can be spun in a positive light or a negative light depending on whether you want to take MJD next season. His value is equal to Rodgers'.
6. Ryan Matthews: If this guy can stay healthy for a whole season he will have a huge year. Matthews has the ability to amass 2000 all purpose yards pretty easily now that Tolbert is out of San Diego. With the added goal line touches and his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, Matthews has the strongest chance to push into the top 5.
7. Darren McFadden: This guy won't be drafted this high, but he has the ability to play this well. Not a huge pass catcher, McFadden was on fire until his latest injury sidelined him for the rest of the season. I would look for the Raiders to play it a little safer with him early in the year and hopefully he won't miss any games from injury. He needs to live up to his lofty draft position. With Michael Bush out of Oakland, McFadden should be a feature back as long as he is healthy.
8. DeMarco Murray: We got a brief glimpse of what Murray offers in terms of Fantasy production last season. The second year player should come through and have a big season, lest his durability issues catch up with him. Dallas needs a strong runner to help them regain control of the NFC East.
9. Marshawn Lynch: Lynch is young in terms of carries, and he was the only player to surprisingly crack the top 10 running backs last season. The issue with Lynch is less his ability and durability, but is more vested in the ability of those around him. The Seahawks have difficulty keeping their O-line healthy and quarterback is a quagmire at the moment. The 'Hawks just recently added their rookie QB to the competition, and we likely won't know who the starter is at that position until the end of the preseason. It is hard to imagine anyone benefiting from this fractured situation.
10. Matt Forte: Forte deserves better than this, but he cannot get along with the front office in Chicago and will likely be sharing carries with Michael Bush this season. I don't think Bush can take many carries from Forte, but there is always that threat if Matt decides not to partake in offseason activities with the Bears. Contract issues loom.
The next group will just be listed in the order that I would draft them.
11. Trent Richardson
12. Jamaal Charles
13. Michael Turner
14. Adrian Peterson
15. Frank Gore
16. Ahmad Bradshaw
17. Reggie Bush
18. Darren Sproles
19. Steven Jackson
20. Beanie Wells
There are a lot of break-out candidates in the 21-40 range who will provide real depth and solid flex play. The Law Firm, Doug Martin, Fred Jackson, Shonn Greene and Roy Helu could all play well. Statistics say that a number of these runners will have serious health issues this season. Having 3-4 solid running backs can really save a team. They are much more valuable than Wide Receivers and Quarterbacks. You need to grab them in the draft rather than in free agency.
Final Words: I do not believe in handcuffing. I would rather add a borderline back like James Starks or Isaac Redman in the last 4 rounds than pick up a guy like Kendall Hunter who only has value if Gore gets hurt. Every roster spot should be optimized.