Eric Mack: Fantasy football 2012 running backs preview - Sports Illustrated

Fantasy football 2012 RB preview

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The answer is almost always a running back, and this year it is one of Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy or Ray Rice. We say Foster, for reasons stated below, but only about eight percent of fantasy owners should care. That fortunate minority is the only sect that has to make that call. The rest of us are just mostly picking through the leftovers.

Running backs don't score as many points as other positions in fantasy, particularly quarterbacks, but the elite ones are the most valuable commodities in the fantasy marketplace. They are just so scarce. It makes spending the most of your time analyzing the top of the RB rankings paramount before draft day.

How you fill your RB position(s) will determine your fantasy fate, even in this record-setting, pass-heavy NFL.

Foster should be the choice over Rice, McCoy and Maurice Jones-Drew, last year's top fantasy backs, because of his incredibly high ceiling, his record as the No. 1 before, the offense that is built around the running back and the fact he has a mop-up man (Ben Tate) to keep from being overused early in the season.

It is great to have the highest scoring in September, but that usually leads to diminishing returns later in the season. Foster figures to be kept productive in a powerful Texans offense still built to run the ball. He has had some of the biggest games in fantasy the past few seasons and even posted 132 rushing yards against a strong Ravens run defense in the playoffs last January, proving he performs well against elite run defenses.

Still, the best argument for Foster over McCoy -- who scored more times a year ago -- and Rice -- who was more durable and gets more touches -- is his quarterback situation. Matt Schaub isn't necessarily a slouch, but he isn't in the fantasy class of McCoy's Michael Vick or Rice's improving Joe Flacco. Those backs can be "rested" by their teams relying on the passing game. That just won't happen in Houston with Schaub and Tate to take some of the load off.

Foster is still the bell cow of the best running game in football (even if they lost two starters this offseason). Make him the No. 1 overall pick in fantasy, if you're lucky to land in that draft position.

We break down the entire RB position in depth here, including the top 85 potential draft picks by tiers below:

DeMarco Murray, Cowboys -- A few picks later in Round 1 will see this Cowboys back go off the board. If not for a surgically repaired ankle and the continued presence of yet-to-pop Felix Jones, Murray would be a candidate to be picked in higher. He might be anyway. At times last season, Murray looked like the best back in fantasy, bursting on the scene with 253 rushing yards in one game and posting a pair of 100-plus-yard games in November. Those games were a glimpse of what he can do, but Murray hasn't done it for a full season yet. The odds are he won't again, but those big performances have many dreaming of the possibilities.

Ryan Mathews, Chargers -- If you're really a Mathews lover, you should be rejoicing the fact his injury will cause him to slip into the third round. Before breaking his clavicle on his first carry of the preseason, Mathews was going fifth overall in average draft position. It was all based on potential, because he had proven to be a fantasy disappointment in his first two seasons. You are assuming high risk when picking Mathews on draft day, particularly since he hasn't played a full season yet. But you are getting a potentially high reward on someone who might get more than 1,200 yards rushing, 600 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns, maybe even 15. At 24 and no longer having to split carries with the likes of Darren Sproles and Mike Tolbert, Mathews has a clear path to be the talent so many expect him to be -- assuming he can get/stay healthy.

Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars -- MJD has had more productive seasons in fantasy terms -- because of big touchdown totals in 2008 and '09 -- but his 343 carries and 1,606 yards in '11 blew away his career bests. He was relied upon heavily in an offense led by a weak rookie quarterback. Further, MJD lost his backup running back, Rashad Jennings, who was placed on IR in training camp and lost for the season -- an ill-advised move because Jennings said he would have been ready to play again by Week 5.

The factors combined for a heavy workload for MJD, who was drafted a bit later into the NFL because it was thought he was undersized and couldn't handle the punishment. Instead, he led all backs in touches (343 carries and 43 catches) last season. MJD has held up far beyond expectations, especially since he was coming off a troublesome knee issue that cost him a couple games in '10.

This might be the year things collapse on him. His holdout is particularly problematic, because the Jags say Jennings will be their starter to open the season. MJD has to earn his job back once he reports to the team, proving first to be not only in shape, but in football game shape. Once ready to start again, a poor offense and lack of supporting cast to take the pressure off him should worry you as well.

Michael Turner, Falcons -- He was second to MJD in carries last season after leading the NFL in '10. Unlike MJD, Turner is 30, the age of breakdown for fantasy running backs. The Falcons are planning to limit Turner's touches, particularly early in the season, and might even go to a pass-heavy scheme with the maturation of Matt Ryan coupled with the second year of future star receiver Julio Jones. Turner not only stands to lose touches, but also should expect to be slower with the ones he does get. Turner has been a model of consistency, playing all 16 games in four of the past five seasons. At 30, that might just mean he is due for something catastrophic. Even if you wind up with Turner after the top 15 backs are off the board, you almost have to back him up with the likes of second-year burner Jacquizz Rodgers and plodder Jason Snelling.

Shonn Greene, Jets -- The 26-year old's progression has seemingly been frustratingly slow, but Greene's numbers have improved each of his three seasons in the NFL. Now, with a true ground-and-pound offense in New York, he should finally take off -- just in time to make it expensive for the Jets to keep him around. Greene is entering a contract year in a perfect storm. He can reach career-high totals of around 1,200 yards and 10 TDs, even if Tim Tebow takes away some of the goal-line scores in the Wildcat formations. That would make him a candidate to pick in the first round next year. This year you should be able to get him in the fourth round or later as a second starting running back.

Mark Ingram, Saints -- Everyone loves what Darren Sproles did a year ago in the wide-open, record-breaking Saints offense, but it is easy to forget Ingram struggled through an injury-plagued year. He was drafted to be the bell cow, but instead got his own bell rung. Now, everyone is picking Sproles as a fantasy starter, perhaps, and maybe even drafting Trent Richardson in Round 1.

Ingram is going to be on the board much later, and it should be remembered he was Richardson a year earlier. Ingram is also in a much more explosive offense than Richardson and has a chip on his shoulder after a disappointing year. Ingram looks healthy now and capable of changing the way the Saints approach their game plans. He won't take the ball out of Drew Brees' hands but he can grind out the clock when Brees lights teams up in the first half. Ingram is a comeback story before he has ever truly arrived.

Roy Helu, Redskins -- Sleepers are difficult to gauge at the RB position because a lot of value is derived from the team's needs and offensive focus. There are extremely talented players (Ben Tate) who are stuck behind heavily-used studs (Arian Foster) or solid young players (Helu) stuck behind a veteran (Tim Hightower).

The Redskins hope Hightower is ready for the start of the season after ACL surgery around nine months ago. If he is, they say he will start. That might be news enough to lower Helu from being a top-20 back to moving out of the top-35. In terms of talent and effectiveness in a Mike Shannahan rhythm passing game, Helu is an outstanding sleeper out of the first few tiers. Three consecutive 100-yard games late last season show he is ready to be a workhorse back even if Shannahan's Redskins aren't willing to feature him as such. They really want Helu to prove more durable this preseason. If he does, look out.

Jahvid Best, Lions -- Speaking of backs with durability issues, Best might be just one more blow away from retirement. He might also be one healthy season from being the best RB in fantasy. In a potent Lions offense, Best could be a candidate for 12-plus touchdowns combined and perhaps 70 catches and 750 yards receiving, in addition to what he does on the ground. Mikel LeShoure and Kevin Smith, who have had their own injury-plagued young careers, are the clear backups if Best is cleared to play after his concussion issues a year ago. Best is going to be the most talented back in fantasy not drafted as a sure-fire Week 1 starter.

1. Linchpins -- Like the breakaway in the grueling mountain stages of the Tour de France, this is a very select group. While others have the potential to be in this class, this trio appears to be the safest early round picks at this keystone position.

2. Round 1 candidates -- This is a pretty fluid group that figures to shuffle during the preseason, namely the health of 2011's banged-up backs and the status of Marshawn Lynch's potential suspension stemming from his July DUI arrest.

3. Second starters -- While these are drafted as the second starters on fantasy teams, that figures to change as the preseason or season moves on. They are in this group because they are somewhat flawed. Those flaws tend to reveal themselves and they wind up less useful, or those flaws disappear and they move up a tier in production.

4. Flex options -- This used to be a section of fantasy where you gave yourself RB depth and had another productive starter. Now they merely should be considered RB depth. The pass-happy NFL makes third and fourth receivers better Flex options than third RBs now. It doesn't figure to change this season.

5. What-ifs -- This is a small set of backup RBs that could jump a few tiers if they wind up starters before the beginning of the season.

6. Handcuffs -- These backs don't hold a significant amount of value on their own, but when handcuffed to the starter ahead of them, they represent a strong insurance policy on someone selected with a premium draft pick.

7. Roster fillers -- They are not significant names now, but the injured-plagued nature of the RB position makes it possible these names become waiver gems, if not all-league starters at points this season.

Eric Mack writes fantasy for You find him on Twitter, where you can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy. He reads all the messages there (guaranteed) and takes them very, very personally (not really).