The RB position has morphed over the past decade more than any other in the modern NFL. We have very few true "feature backs," the descendants of Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Marshall Faulk. Instead, we're left with platoon backs, system backs and role backs. That's the future, and as we continue to see the position evolve, we'll need to evolve our drafting strategies along with it.
The value equation is still based on the need to go three deep at the position. Until leagues offer more flexibility, RBs will remain slightly inflated in fantasy football. Between evolution and value, fantasy owners are forced to go far deeper with RBs than any other. No one will look askance at drafting six or seven RBs in a normal draft. I've seen strategies out there that involve taking one backup at every other position, then loading the bench with RBs. Many will have four or five RBs drafted before taking a second QB, even with the upswing in injuries to QBs in the last five seasons.
All that makes it even more important to risk-adjust your RB rankings. I use SI.com's Eric Mack's rankings, but no matter who's rankings you choose to use, it's important to risk-adjust above and beyond what they have done. The fact that one in three RBs will underperform projections is largely a function of injury and therefore a function of risk-adjustment.
Timing is everything. Fred Jackson's broken fibula is a six-week injury, but he did it with just six weeks left in the season (and nothing to play for at that point.) He'll be 100 percent before camp and it won't hurt his production too much that he has to split carries with the dynamic C.J. Spiller. Jackson should be fine absent another unexpected trauma like his broken leg.
Reggie Bush probably takes a bit more heat for his injuries than he should. He's relatively durable absent the big traumatic injuries that just happen -- broken leg, knee problems -- to a smallish back playing on turf. Grass helped him and he showed more durability than expected as the RB1. A lot of Bush's value will depend on finding some sort of passing game so that the defense doesn't creep forward at the edges. If Daniel Thomas can stay healthy, Bush could lose some short-yardage carries as well. Surprisingly, Bush might be underrated at this point in his career and I'd risk-adjust him into the top tier of RB2s.
This is going to be another committee for Bill Belichick's Pats. Stevan Ridley will take over the BenJarvus Green-Ellis role and could see the most carries, but Danny Woodhead is still going to get his share of touches. Shane Vereen mixes in if he could stay healthy, but even in this backfield, Ridley has ridiculous upside. There's a chance Ridley ends up a feature back on a great team, but almost no one is drafting him until the late rounds. If teams figure out how to cover Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the TDs could shift back to Ridley quickly.
Shonn Greene's never been able to hold the job, losing touches to a fading LaDanian Tomlinson and even Joe McKnight. Now Greene's going to lose some opportunities to Tim Tebow. It's an ignominious list to be losing out to, especially considering that he's reasonably durable. Greene's value -- perhaps his only value -- is in that durability. He shows up, he gets carries, but that's better suited for pairing with a more risky RB1 (like Adrian Peterson or Jamaal Charles) as an RB3 or even RB4.
Ray Rice took the goal-line carries last year. His success there transformed him into a potential 1-1 RB. He wasn't too overworked, tried to avoid the big hits and didn't lose much when defenses dared Joe Flacco to beat them. Whether you like LeSean McCoy or Rice really depends more on whether you like Flacco or Michael Vick.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis isn't taking over the Cedric Benson role like many thought. That would have likely overexposed him anyway. Instead, Green-Ellis will be part of a committee approach, which should keep him healthy and allow for decent point totals. The worry here is that his one weakness -- pass protection -- may limit his play count the same way it could with Donald Brown in Indy. There's no question Andy Dalton is more important than Green-Ellis in the scheme of things.
Heading into this rookie season, Trent Richardson has the help of the offensive minds who helped Steven Jackson and Adrian Peterson. He has no one above him on the depth chart. He has a bright future ahead of him. Perhaps the only worry is what's under him.
Richardson spent part of the offseason recovering from knee surgery, something he's had before. It's minor, sure, but the wear and tear appears to wear down Richardson to the point that rest isn't enough. He's hardly "injury-prone," but he's not proven durable either. Early camp problems are proving this to be the case. Another knee scope forces you to handcuff him ... but with who? Brandon Jackson missed much of last year with a toe injury and Montario Hardesty is hardly a fantasy stud. The better pick might be to tie him to someone in the division, even a Rashard Mendenhall, though that would force a RB3 pick higher than you'd probably like.
Isaac Redman has gone from "nice backup" to some people's idea of a valid fantasy RB2 based on the expectation that Rashard Mendenhall won't be back. Mendenhall might not be listed here (perhaps a mistake!) and he might not be the amazing Adrian Peterson, but he's not dead yet either. Mendenhall isn't making hard cuts, but even the Steelers expect him back before midseason. I'd expect he'll have the job back at that point. Redman's never been asked to be a feature back before, with only three career games with 10 or more carries, so there's no evidence of durability here. And with a significant groin straing suffered in training camp, Jonathan Dwyer might get the first shot at starting in the backfeld.
It goes without saying that Arian Foster is a health risk. He's able to rack up huge fantasy points in spite of this and with a credible backup in Ben Tate. Foster simply hasn't been able to stay healthy, going back to his high school days. If you're OK with losing a couple games with a risk of more, go ahead and take him in the top three picks. Tate's had his own injury problems, but is a decent and almost mandatory handcuff.
Donald Brown's a good runner, but he's a miserable blocker. The infamous "Dammit, Donald" clip reminds us that even with a clear blitz, Brown isn't going to always pick it up or even slow it down. That limits his ability to stay on the field. The "upside" here is that the Colts don't have a better option, even though they know how important it is to protect Andrew Luck. The Colts brought in Mewelde Moore, a guy Bruce Arians already trusts on third down, so if you're believing that Chuck Pagano really thinks Brown is an every-down back, I've got a beachfront place here in Indy to sell you.
People keep thinking back to Chris Johnson's holdout from a year ago and his subsequent falling off the table after it when trying to evaluate Maurice Jones-Drew. Remember that while injuries increase for some unknown reason after holdouts, Jones-Drew is as solid as they come. Last season was his third as the feature back and he took more touches without wearing down. At 27, he's probably nearing the end of a run, but not just yet.
Chris Johnson has bulked up a little coming into 2012, but he's going to get fewer touches in the revamped Titans offense. He's also a bit subject to having his fortunes changed by whether Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker wins the QB job. Those are both a plus and minus, but mostly a minus. Johnson has been very durable and seems to be able to take more touches than he's going to get this season. At 18 touches a game -- which could be high -- he'd be about an 1,100-yard guy on the ground. Without big TD numbers to support that, you end up with a durable back who's not scoring much. That's the definition of an RB3, not a first-round possibility.
The Broncos hope Peyton Manning feels like it's 2006 all over again, but behind him, it might be. Ronnie Hillman is playing the part of Joseph Addai, highly touted and explosive. Willis McGahee is the steadying influence who does the necessary things like pass blocking and not fumbling. The split in carries probably won't be the same, but McGahee's not going to get much more than 50 percent in what will likely be a more pass-happy offense than he's used to. Add in the return of Knowshon Moreno at midseason and there's risk taking McGahee high.
The "other" RB coming back from ACL reconstruction and the one that might not be as much of a physical freak, Jamaal Charles remains someone worthy of consideration. Charles doesn't rely on quick, hard cuts, which would tax his knee. Plays can be designed to get him outside -- stretches or tosses -- that will reduce any demands. He does lose some value due to the presence of Peyton Hillis, who could take both touches and goal-line carries.
Darren McFadden would be in the discussion for the top tier if not for the continual injury problems. McFadden has the size and the speed to be elite, but not the health. There are a couple ways to play this. You could draft McFadden high -- late first round, early second -- but you'll need to come back with not one but two other upper tier RBs. The other way is to pass up McFadden and his risk, which is tough to do given his upside.
Ryan Mathews was creeping up draft charts until he broke his clavicle in the first preseason game. His selection spot seems to be the pivot point in most drafts where people stop taking the RB slot and start shifting over to other positions. The Chargers want to take Mathews up from the 222 carries he had last year, but no one seems sure that he can handle an increase and keep his health. Lingering muscle strains and his body type lead me to think that he's always going to have those kind of concerns, which will lead to Ronnie Brown getting more touches than anticipated.
DeMarco Murray made his bones with a ridiculous Week 7 performance in which he blew up for 250-plus yards. Then his season ended on a fractured ankle. Murray's odd stat line only includes two TDs, despite a high YPC. Given his lack of track record, it's hard for me to accept the risks of someone with an injury history and an unknown durability as a high second-rounder.
With Brandon Jacobs gone, Ahmad Bradshaw should be jumping up the charts, not falling, right? Somehow, he is, even among experts. Bradshaw has plenty of backups who can keep him from being overexposed. His foot injury last year depressed his stats, but the Giants showed just how good they are with their playoff run. Bradshaw has risk with his recurrent foot problems and his size, but he's also the perfect fantasy RB2.
With 20 TDs in 15 games, LeSean McCoy is no joke. McCoy did all that despite Vick missing games. Actually, it was McCoy taking on the TDs that did in Vick's fantasy value. TDs tend to be randomly distributed outside of the goal line, but it's predictable in the sense that you can determine role. There's more than enough offense to go around, and in the prime of his career, McCoy hasn't been overused.
Roy Helu proved himself a nice pickup last year as he emerged as the back to have in a bundle. With a real QB in front of him, the expectation is that Helu won't be overexposed, allowing him to do the things he does well and make slight maturations to his game. It's a solid expectation. The risk is more that Robert Griffin III is a bit more Cam Newton, taking some of the touches and TDs from Helu than injury. Tim Hightower is also going to get some carries, but he's never been able to hold a job long term and starts the season recovering from a knee injury. Evan Royster is also in the mix.
Matt Forte is coming back from a sprained MCL, not an ACL as many seem to think. He's had plenty of time to heal, and I'm sure the Bears were confident in the knee before he signed the big extension this offseason. There's no reason to think that the knee will hold him back. With an improved offense around him, Forte could put up elite numbers if he and Jay Cutler stay healthy. That means the Bears need massive improvements on the O-Line. If you believe that will happen, Forte could be worth a top five pick.
Jahvid Best still hasn't been cleared to return from concussion, and as with any longstanding concussion problem, there's just no way to tell when he might be ready. The Lions' frustration with him shows the culture of the NFL hasn't changed significantly. Balancing Best's best interests with the team's is necessary, but the perception can't make Roger Goodell very happy. This risk, along with the presence of Kevin Smith and Mikel LeShoure (who's proving very injury prone himself), make Best a late pick at best.
James Starks is the best back for a team that really doesn't use one. The Packers will pass to set up the run again, then use a committee of runners once they do start handing the ball off. There's limited upside here, but Starks is probably a bit underrated given his actual talent.
Adrian Peterson may not be human. He's ready to come back from ACL surgery and seems to be exactly where he left off. He could have been ready as quickly as four months, so even while he's ahead of schedule now, it might be even more extreme. Peterson is risky, yes, but likely far too low and a real steal if he drops into a second tier of RBs behind a couple QBs and WRs. A recent article on value based drafting by Chet Gresham had Peterson at a ridiculous ADP of 24! An argument can be made for picking Peterson 1-1, but it's hard to make any argument other than the knee for dropping him below 1-5. I'm here to tell you that argument is a loser. Arian Foster is a bigger health risk.
Forget 370. The Falcons realize that even 300 carries might be a bit much for "The Thighs" at this stage in his career. Fewer touches isn't a bad thing for Michael Turner. He'll still get the bulk of carries, some goal-line looks, and won't be supplanted by the likes of Jacquizz Rodgers, even if an increased role makes him a valid fantasy option. Turner's durability is an asset here, even if his lack of upside turns some away.
DeAngelo Williams returned from a sprained foot to show he still had something left. It's a very fluid situation in Carolina. While Jonathan Stewart might be on the way out, Cam Newton took up some of the runs. Williams will likely lose some goal-line carries to Mike Tolbert as well. The talent is still there, but once again the opportunities aren't. If you're wondering about Stewart, my editors would probably like it if I just said "see DeAngelo Williams" here. It's almost all the same for Stewart, except he's actually more durable. The timeshare works for the Panthers, not for fantasy players.
Mark Ingram's first season was marred by injuries and ineffectiveness. He never became the kind of runner that Sean Payton thought he was drafting. Then again, what runners have really succeeded in Payton's New Orleans offense? It's pass first, leaving the carries to the grinders like Pierre Thomas. Stuck between Thomas and Darren Sproles (who is more durable than you'd expect from someone his size) while trying to come back from knee surgery is a tough situation for anyone. Ingram might end up being Reggie Bush Part II, without the burst.
The Bucs surprised a bit with their pick of Doug Martin, which made people sit up and think they were missing something. He's better and way faster than LeGarrette Blount, but that's hardly a compliment. Martin was healthy at Boise State, so health and durability shouldn't be one of the unknowns for him.
Beanie Wells has not proven he can stay healthy over any significant period. His knees seem to be degrading by the day, giving the Cardinals only brief, tantalizing flashes of the talent they drafted. He showed up at camp still hobbled by offseason knee surgery that was far more involved than the Cards let on. It opens an opportunity for Ryan Williams to come back from his own season-ending patellar tendon rupture and establish himself as an option. The coaches seem to love Williams' work ethic, so there's a lot to worry about for Wells' few remaining fans.
Some fantasy analysts, including some I really respect, are down on Steven Jackson. While there are certainly issues to be aware of, like the bad Rams offense and Jackson's age, I have to disagree with ranking him in the mid-20s. Jackson has gone for 1,000 yards in seven straight seasons. He's played 15 or more games the last three seasons. He's amped up his workouts, so much so that a guy who looked like he was chiseled out of stone last year is getting "best shape of his life" stories already. Jackson is perhaps not the sure thing he once was, but if he slipped to me in the second round, I'd take him.
Frank Gore is another back with exceptional talent but someone whose career has been defined more by injuries. Oddly, Gore has a combination of the traumatic and the nagging, both intertwined. However, the risk is a bit overplayed. He's played in 14 or more games five out of the last six seasons, bookending years ('06 and '11) in which he played in all 16. Jim Harbaugh has other options in the backfield, but none have Gore's talent or upside. Sometimes understanding the risks of a player leads to downgrades. Gore is one of them where understanding the risk usually leads to an upgrade. Don't bite too hard on Brandon Jacobs, who never established himself as a goal line option in New York. At best, Jacobs is a handcuff.
Fantasy players shouldn't have to worry about the moral failings of their players. I draft for production, not sainthood. Marshawn Lynch might lose some of that production to a suspension. A previous season-starting suspension led to a disappointing season, so there's that as well. Lynch's one epic playoff run has colored his value, which includes some nagging health concerns. He's probably slightly overvalued here, with good value being more toward the back end of the RB2 line.