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Fantasy running back rankings

A preseason ago, everyone was lovin' on Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson as the No. 1 overall pick in fantasy, for very good reasons. They are in a class by themselves. But a year later, the love affair seems to have become a love square with Arian Foster and Jamaal Charles.

It shouldn't. A.P. and C.J. are still the men among boys.

Fantasy owners believe they have 20-20 vision. They all do -- think it not, have it. Some fantasy pundits do, too. They can even see the future, or so they think. They are really seeing the past year and considering it gospel according fantasy.

Hindsight is always 20-20. That is what they tend to forget.

It is not 20-20 vision, it is tunnel vision.

Bad quarterback play set Peterson and Johnson back and it makes rankings the elite backs a little more weird. Not like kissing your sister awkward, but close.

Well, this lockout-drive McOffseason has given some potential revival at quarterback for the Vikings (Donovan McNabb) and Titans (Matt Hasselbeck). No, they're not game-changers in their own rights, but with the backs behind them, they are going to more than serviceable to keep their offenses afloat long enough for those backs to make them swim like machines.

Let's update the tiers of backs to target on draft day and outline some of the breakouts, busts and sleepers:

Shonn Greene, Jets -- If he can ever take hold as the go-to back for the Jets, he will join the elite tier of fantasy rushers. The problem is LaDainian Tomlinson remains on the roster. That is good news and bad news. L.T. drags Greene's value down and makes him an affordable option. Once L.T. gets banged up, Greene is in an offense geared to pound the ball and a defense geared to produce great field position. The best-case scenario for Greene is an injury to the TD-vulturing L.T. Now, where's that voodoo doll we had?

Ryan Mathews, Chargers -- If not for fumbling and pass-protection issues, he might have already been a first-round-pick candidate. Mathews went through the Year 1 growing pains that can get all backs. In that potent Chargers offense, the keys are to possess the rock and protect the passer. Mathews struggled with both tasks. He is still a talented runner in a system that could make him a superstar. The bet here is it comes a year later than so many anticipated.

LeGarrette Blount, Bucs -- Blount shot out of nowhere a season ago and provided some huge punch -- pun intended -- for fantasy owners. Despite getting started in Week 7 of his rookie season, he still reached 1,000 yards. The back, who was suspended his senior season at Oregon for knocking out an opponent postgame, proved to be the Bucs' feature back. He will open in the role again, unchallenged this time, and will be on his way to fantasy stardom. He is a rock solid pick where he is getting drafted.

Cedric Benson, Bengals -- He finally put a full 16-game season together in 2010, but he is going to be the focal point of defensive schemes now. Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton isn't going to scare anyone -- especially not if Carson Palmer really hasn't in recent years. Benson is also entering the age of breakdown for top backs (28). Despite solid full-season numbers, he was already hit-and-miss a season ago. It is going to be more miss than hit this year.

Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars -- He has taken a beating and it is showing with the health of his knee. The Jags need to take some pressure off him and there's no telling whether that knee can hold up under his prior workload. Jacksonville is already planning to give Rashad Jennings more touches to take the load off MJD some. This is likely to make MJD more of a risky late first-rounder than the surefire one he had been.

Peyton Hillis, Browns -- Hello, Madden cover; hello, jinx. Sure, that is a mythical thing, but Hillis came out of nowhere last season and now may have to deal with a time-share with Montario Hardesty. Also, Hillis is a battering ram who takes lots of punishment. Those types of backs are more susceptible to injury. Anyone picking Hillis before the latter part of the second round will be regretting their decision.

DeAngelo Williams, Panthers -- In the right situation, with a season of health, he could challenge for an Arian Foster-like year. But Williams' decision to re-sign with the Panthers leaves him far less intriguing than he would have been in Miami, New York or even Denver. He is coming off an injury-plagued year. He has a bad quarterback situation -- the Panthers might start the less offensive of rookie Cam Newton, journeyman Derek Anderson or bust Jimmy Claussen. He has a bad team that figures to abandon the running game like it did so many times last season. And he has a running mate in Jonathan Stewart to pull touches away from him. All of these things cloud the fact Williams was the No. 1 running back in fantasy the last time he was completely healthy. He is going to slip a bit on draft day because of the perceived extenuating circumstances, but his talent will help him outperform his modest draft position.

Joseph Addai, Colts -- The proof is in the Benjamins -- as in Franklin. If you're not confident in Addai's ability to come back from his injury, just look at the money the Colts tossed the potential free agent. Actually, don't look, you'll vomit. Just know it was plenty enough for you to feel confident picking Addai if he falls past the top-20 rushers on draft day. That offense is still going to be potent, and Addai can still pick up a lot of easy one-yard touchdown plunges to go with yards running out the clock after Peyton Manning builds big leads on some bad defenses in the AFC South.

Felix Jones, Cowboys -- Jones was a good talent last season who just didn't get a chance to take off. With Marion Barber now playing battering ram in Chicago, Jones will get his chance. About the only thing not to like about the speedy former Arkansas Razorback is the presence of newly drafted Demarco Murray. You saw how the Cowboys work their running back pipeline last year. Year 1 is more about being the change of pace. It is Jones' time to take off running.

If any position can change with one turn of an ankle or a twist of the knee, it is this one. It makes the depths of the position all the more important to mine for potential:

Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy.

ORDER NOW: Sports Illustrated's Fantasy Football 2011 issue tells you where all the free agents landed and what their fantasy impact will be, along with the critical draft strategy and stats analysis you need to win your league. Available in mid-August.

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