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Gridiron 11: Second-tier RBs

Gridiron 11

As football season quickly approaches it's time to switch gears in this space from baseball's Nine for Now to football's Gridiron 11. Each week we're going to look at the top 11 of something that will help you with the week-to-week management of your team, often pointing out emerging talent and player trends culled from the previous week's action.

For now, however, we're right in the middle of draft-prep season, so what better place to start than running back. Since there are a consensus top four (Chris Johnson, Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson in my rank order), today's list looks at the next 11 you should have high on your wish lists.

Steinbrenner often treated his real-life team as a fantasy squad, and like all of us, he had his ups and downs. During the dark period from 1982 to 1994, a time the recent five World Series titles has helped push to the dark recesses of Yankees fans memories, the biggest criticism of Steinbrenner was that he sacrificed his young talent to acquire high-priced veterans. Who can ever forget Frank Costanza's disgusted rhetorical question to Larry David's portrayal of "The Boss" on Seinfeld asking "What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for?" referring to the 1988 deal that sent the then-young slugger who'd end up with 310 career home runs to the Mariners for DH Ken Phelps, who'd hit just 17 home runs for New York. In the later years Steinbrenner's advisors convinced him to be less impetuous with young players, resulting in long careers for the homegrown Core Four. Still, a few current former Yankees farmhands are making an impact away from the Bronx. Here are the Top 9.

For more insights, follow SI's fantasy expert David Sabino on Twitter at SI_DavidSabino.

1Frank Gore, 49ers
Frank Gore, 49ers
The only man with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 40 receptions in each of the last four seasons, Gore has never been considered the top fantasy back in the league but he's consistently been atop the second tier; that type of staying power may be an even more impressive feat.
 
2Steven Jackson, Rams
Steven Jackson, Rams
Perhaps the most overlooked elite back in the NFL, Jackson and Thomas Jones are the only players to reach 1,000 yards in each of the last five seasons. Although he's seemingly been around forever and developed a reputation for being fragile, Jackson turns 27 July 22 and should be entering the prime of his career right when the Rams' fortunes, with Sam Bradford at quarterback, are looking brighter.
 
3Michael Turner, Falcons
Michael Turner, Falcons
An ankle injury torpedoed Turner's chances of following up his 1,699-yard starting debut of '08, but he still managed to score 10 touchdowns in the 11 games he played in 2009 while raising his yards per carry average from 4.5 to 4.9. The only drawback in his game is his lack of involvement in the passing game, catching just 22 passes in six seasons, the fewest among any active starting back with at least two years experience in the NFL.
 
4Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers
Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers
He did a great job of making Steelers fans forget Willie Parker's struggles last season, rushing for 1,063 yards, the seventh-highest total in the league after becoming a starter in early October. This year, though, the challenge is greater as he'll have to carry the load for the offense while Ben Roethlisberger serves a four-game suspension. The job won't be easy, especially without massive right tackle Willie Colon, who will spend the year on injured reserve after suffering a torn Achilles' during an offseason workout.
 
5Jonathan Stewart, Panthers
Jonathan Stewart, Panthers
Hallelujah! After two seasons during which Stewart has been unable to reach his full potential due to a bum heel, he has finally proclaimed himself 100 percent healthy, which is bad news for opposition defenses but great for fantasy owners. He and DeAngelo Williams easily form the best running back duo in the league and with not much of a passing game to speak of, they comprise nearly all of Carolina's offense, meaning there will be plenty of run for each. Don't be surprised to see both above the 1,000-yard line again, but this time with Stewart holding the lead.
 
6Shonn Greene, Jets
Shonn Greene, Jets
After trading their entire Day 2 of the 2009 draft for him, New York reaped dividends in the playoffs, where Greene was the league's leading rusher. Thomas Jones is now in Kansas City, and LaDainian Tomlinson's best days are behind him, which leaves Greene in the driver's seat of the NFL's No. 1 rushing offense in '09. Better still, he'll be behind a line that should see an improvement with second round pick Vlad Ducasse replacing the aging Alan Faneca at left guard.
 
7Cedric Benson, Bengals
Cedric Benson, Bengals
After beginning his career by underperforming and alienating his Bears teammates, Benson has found a home in Cincinnati, where he has become a big part of the team's renaissance the last two years, finally living up to the potential most believed he had when he was the fourth overall pick from Texas. Last season only Tennessee's Chris Johnson averaged more rushing yards per game (96.2), which beat Rudi Johnson's old team record set in 2005 by more than five yards per contest.
 
8Beanie Wells, Cardinals
Beanie Wells, Cardinals
Kurt Warner's retirement and the departure of Anquan Boldin has created a lot of uncertainty on what was until recently one of the league's top units. That should open the door for a much bigger role for Wells, Arizona's first-round pick last year, who managed just 11 carries per game as a rookie while splitting time with Tim Hightower. Before landing in the desert, coach Ken Whisenhunt's history was as the coordinator of a run-heavy Steelers team, so with the personnel upheaval, a return to that style should come as no surprise.
 
9Jamaal Charles, Chiefs
Jamaal Charles, Chiefs
From the time he became a starter on Nov. 8 until the end of the season only Chris Johnson (1,182) gained more than Charles' 1,004 yards and nobody gained more yards per rush than his 6.0, which was 0.7 higher than the second rated Jonathan Stewart. The addition of Thomas Jones to Kansas City's attack complicates matters, but with an offensive line much more adept at run blocking than pass blocking, and with limited wide receiver talent, new play-caller Charlie Weis will have to rely on the team's strengths for success, which should mean big ground gains again.
 
10Ryan Mathews, Chargers
Ryan Mathews, Chargers
Lots of well-placed folks believe Mathews will be the talk of the league, an overnight success who'll immediately replace LaDainian Tomlinson, even providing an improvement over LT2 the past couple of seasons. Given that optimism, Mathews should be a top 5 guy, but I'm not so sure. First off, San Diego was the league's 31st-ranked rushing team last year and it's going to take a lot to get them back to the middle of the pack, namely 400 more yards. Possible? Yes. Likely? No. Then there's the problem of third-down back extraordinaire, Darren Sproles, who accounted for 138 plays from scrimmage and is in a contract year once again.
 
11Matt Forte, Bears
Matt Forte, Bears
Whenever Mike Martz takes over an offense there's a fantasy frenzy surrounding quarterbacks and wideouts. But running backs, especially those like Forte who are adept at catching the ball out of the backfield, have also thrived playing for the offensive innovator. We're not saying Forte is the new Marshall Faulk or even Frank Gore, but he's in a much better position than Kevin Jones was in 2006, when he gained 689 rushing yards, 520 receiving yards, and scored eight touchdowns while under Martz.
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