The fantasy community frequently absorbs injuries in the preseason that have an impact on drafts and auctions. This is an immutable fact and it's why leagues should draft as close to the start of the regular season as possible. However, the fantasy community rarely sees two of its likely first rounders go down in the first week of August, causing major changes to the complexion of the top of the consensus draft board. That is precisely what has happened this year, with the Chargers' Ryan Mathews and the Browns' Trent Richardson both on the shelf for the remainder of the preseason. While they're expected back early in the regular season -- they both could end up playing Week 1 -- their injuries have doubtlessly shook up the early rounds of every fantasy draft.
Mathews was seen as potentially the fourth pick behind the Arian Foster-Ray Rice-LeSean McCoy triumvirate, and Richardson, thanks to his assumed status as one of the few true workhorse running backs, was going at the back end of the first round after Calvin Johnson and the elite quarterbacks were coming off the board.
With those two out of the first-round picture, the running back pool becomes even shallower than it already was. Despite the rise of the passing game in today's NFL and the fact that yards are yards and touchdowns are touchdowns, no matter if they're on the ground or through the air, I don't think you can ignore running backs for a QB-WR or WR-WR combo this year. There are simply too many quality receivers to be found in the middle rounds to do that. All the running backs after the trio listed above have their question marks, but that doesn't mean they don't warrant your early attention.
Who steps into the breach created by the injuries to Mathews and Richardson? Let's take a look at the running backs who can conceivably round out the top five at the position.
Darren McFadden, Raiders -- Not only do I believe McFadden is worthy of being considered the No. 4 running back heading into the season, I'd take him with the fourth overall pick. When do preseason results matter for established players? When they're returning from injury. In his preseason opener, McFadden looked every bit the explosive back we saw in 2010, and before he got hurt last year, running twice for 20 yards, and catching a pass for 18 yards. On his reception, McFadden motioned from the backfield and split out wide before catching a pass across the middle and racking up solid yards after the catch. The Raiders will no doubt continue to feature McFadden in a number of different ways to get the ball in the hands of their best playmaker by any means necessary. With Michael Bush in Chicago and no one other than Mike Goodson to take away carries, McFadden looks every bit the bell cow as Foster, Rice and McCoy. Even if he misses a couple games due to injury, a contingency you have to plan for when selecting McFadden, if he produces like an elite back for even just 12 or 13 games, he warrants a selection this high.
Matt Forte, Bears -- Speaking of Michael Bush, I'm pretty sure his presence is the only negative thing you can say about Forte's 2012 prospects. Forte is a do-it-all back, the Bears figure to have one of the strongest offenses in the league with the additions of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and his knee appears to be fully healed. While Bush may steal goal-line carries, Forte remains the engine of the Bears offense and this will be his first year in the NFL with reliable receivers to take some of the pressure off him. Remember, in just 12 games last year, he had 1,487 yards from scrimmage and 52 catches. He has never caught fewer than 51 passes in a season, a trend that should continue this year. The obvious knock on him is his lack of touchdowns, but with an improved offense should come more opportunities to score. While he doesn't feature breakaway speed, he averaged 4.9 yards per carry last year and 4.5 in 2010. If he plays all 16 games this year, he could approach 2,000 total yards, which would likely make him a top-10 player. He's my No. 5 running back entering the year.
Chris Johnson, Titans -- Johnson's inclusion here is more about his competition and some blind faith that his holdout and the lockout were the main causes of his lackluster 2011 season. We know what a motivated, healthy Johnson can do, and after being written off by plenty of critics, we have to believe the former CJ2K is plenty motivated this season. In addition to a strong, pre-2011 track record, Johnson is a true three-down back, and is easily the best player on Tennessee's offense. Javon Ringer should not be a legitimate threat to take away too many of his carries, especially at the goal-line, given his stature is similar to Johnson's.
Still, it was disconcerting to see Johnson not really show up for the Titans' first preseason game, and even more so to see Ringer come in and outperform him. While you'd expect Ringer to put up better numbers playing against a second-team defense, he also looked the more decisive runner. The Titans look to be starting an unproven Jake Locker, and with Kenny Britt's 2012 status up in the air, the passing game will likely leave plenty to be desired. Johnson is still just 26-years old and is freakishly talented, so I'm perfectly willing to buy into a bounce back season from him. He's sixth on my running back board going into the season, though I can't guarantee I won't take this next guy over him, depending on what happens the next few weeks.
Adrian Peterson, Vikings -- Peterson continues his unthinkable return from a gruesome knee injury, coming off the PUP list earlier this month. That has him ready to participate in practice, and perhaps get into a preseason game to test the knee at game speed. If he did not suffer the injury Week 16 last year, he'd be a consensus top-four pick, and would likely be ranked second by plenty of pundits behind Foster. He had what was a down year by his standards last year, which meant he only had 1,109 total yards and 13 touchdowns in 12 games. He also missed large parts of two of those games thanks to injury. Yes, there is plenty of risk in this pick. Yes, you must monitor his progress over the next few weeks. But if Peterson proves healthy, he'll be the steal of every single fantasy draft conducted this year, given the fact that he is typically going off the board around the 30th overall pick, or so. If he plays even just 13 games this year, he'll end the year as the fifth ranked back in fantasy. If he manages to play all 16, he'll be in the top three. You heard it here first.