Running back rankings hinge on uncertain quarterback situations

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Friday July 8th, 2011

It is well known the career-span of an NFL running back is five to six years. A fantasy team's life-span can be less than five to six games if you don't draft the position wisely.

Tracking player movement, depth charts and injury news are imperative in training camp as it relates to running backs. Doing so could have netted you the find that was Arian Foster a year ago. You could have also helped avoid the bust that was the Jets' Shonn Greene, because LaDainian Tomlinson looked so capable in the preseason.

Quarterbacks might score the most points and the wide receivers might be the showy divas, but fantasy football still revolves around the backs. Even the age of running back committees has enhanced this fact. It has made the position deeper and forces fantasy owners to draft more and more backs ... just in case one becomes the workhorse.

We have already taken an early look at the QBs, here are how the RBs breakdown in to tiers (as in, if your early round RB breaks down, you will be in tears):

1. Adrian Peterson MIN2. Chris Johnson TEN3. Arian Foster HOU

These are the true No. 1 overall candidates. And, like the top five QBs, you could order them in any way. We place Foster third coming off his breakthrough season, because he came out of nowhere and will have to deal with a prospect (see the middle of Tier VII below) stealing carries.

Peterson and Johnson would be more certain No. 1s if they had better QB situations around them. Maybe Donovan McNabb could join one of them? If either gets a solid veteran to slot ahead of the early round QB their teams picked, move him up to No. 1 overall.

4. Jamaal Charles KC5. LeSean McCoy PHI6. Ray Rice BAL7. Rashard Mendenhall PIT8. Darren McFadden OAK

This is still an intriguing group of rushers. In fact, all of the top eight picks in fantasy this year should be RBs.

McCoy and Charles are in potentially dynamic offenses, which is why they lead the group, but all five of these still could challenge to be the highest-scoring back in fantasy this year. Rice would be a dynamo already in the linchpin tier if he didn't have a TD vulture gobbling up his goal-line carries. If he doesn't, move him up to the top at No. 4 overall.

9. Maurice Jones-Drew JAC10. Frank Gore SF11. Steven Jackson STL12. Michael Turner ATL13. Matt Forte CHI14. Peyton Hillis CLE

This is the group of rushers most likely to suffer an injury-related breakdown. It makes them risky picks in Round 1. You might be better off selecting a QB or a WR at the back end of the first round and then taking what's left of this group. All of them have their warning signs.

MJD is the one who just dropped into this tier. He has said publicly his knee is not 100 percent and the Jags want to give his backup more carries to lessen the workload. A healthy MJD belongs in the top tier. It doesn't appear we are going to get a healthy MJD to start the season with, though.

15. Ahmad Bradshaw NYG16. BenJarvus Green-Ellis NE17. DeAngelo Williams CAR18. Shonn Green NYJ19. Ryan Mathews SD20. Jonathan Stewart CAR21. Knowshon Moreno DEN22. Ryan Grant GB23. LeGarrette Blount TB24. Cedric Benson CIN25. Felix Jones DAL26. Jahvid Best DET

A 12-team, two-RB, no-flex format makes all but two of these players starters in a standard league. Offseason movement or preseason injuries will likely reduce this tier to just 24.

Everyone in this group still has 1,000-yard, 10-TD potential but they either have yet to prove it or will have to deal with a time-share. Unless you are really going to load up on backs in the middle rounds on draft day, you should try to have at least two from the top four tiers on your team through Round 4.

27. Daniel Thomas MIA28. Mark Ingram NO29. Marshawn Lynch SEA30. Joseph Addai IND31. Fred Jackson BUF

This group should represent the amount of backs who are standard starters in leagues with a flex option. There is 1,000-yard, 10-TD potential here, but time-shares make it far less likely than those in the fourth-tier.

Thomas and Ingram, likely back-to-back, should be the first rookies off the board. Thomas gets the edge right now because he is projected to start. If the Dolphins add a starter like DeAngelo Williams in the coming weeks, move Williams up and slide Thomas out of this group altogether. Ingram will have to deal with the time-share the Saints like all of their players in; otherwise, he could have been a candidate for the top 15 overall.

Lynch and Addai are nice sleepers that can move up a tier, too. The former resurrected his career after the trade to Seattle, while the latter is a third-tier back (a fantasy starter) if he proves healthy and worthy of full-time duty in training camp.

32. Brandon Jacobs NYG33. LaDainian Tomlinson NYJ34. Ronnie Brown MIA35. Pierre Thomas NO36. Reggie Bush NO37. Ryan Williams ARI38. C.J. Spiller BUF39. Ryan Torain WAS

There are varying degrees of potential here, depending on how much time these players actually earn in the preseason. With full-time roles, they can be viable fantasy starters. At this point, you have to assume they are going to be backups for their teams and fantasy owners initially.

The top five of this group has injury question marks to boot. The bottom three has talent, but they are less likely to be trusted to carry the load initially. If one of that latter trio does, though, look out for a potential breakthrough.

40. Thomas Jones KC41. Roy Helu WAS42. Michael Bush OAK43. Beanie Wells ARI44. Montario Hardesty CLE45. Mikel Leshoure DET46. Rashad Jennings J47. Demarco Murray DAL48. Mike Tolbert SD49. Donald Brown IND50. Justin Forsett SEA51. Tim Hightower ARI52. Cadillac Williams TB53. Danny Woodhead NE54. Willis McGahee BAL55. Ben Tate HOU56. Delone Carter IND57. Tashard Choice DAL58. Marion Barber DAL59. Brandon Jackson GB60. Ricky Williams MIA61. Toby Gerhart MIN62. Joe McKnight NYJ63. Javon Ringer TEN64. Clinton Portis WAS65. Keiland Williams WAS66. Darren Sproles SD

Here is the largest group of backs and those most likely to shuffle both in and out of its own tier. You are likely to find value in most of these guys in the latter rounds for when they come into starts, or a significant number of carries.

A lot these players will get picked solely because their fantasy owners drafted the starters ahead of them in the earlier rounds. The young unknowns in Helu, Hardesty, Leshoure, Murray, Tate, Carter and Keiland Williams have the highest ceilings of the bunch.

67 Mike Goodson CAR68 Chris Ivory NO69 Shane Vereen NE70 Kendall Hunter SF71 Anthony Dixon SF72 Jacquizz Rodgers ATL73 Brian Westbrook SF74 Jason Snelling ATL75 Dion Lewis PHI76 Tiki Barber FA77 Jalen Parmele BAL78 Isaac Redman PIT79 Jordan Todman SD80 Taiwan Jones OAK

Those above are more likely to be on and off the waiver wire than get drafted at all in standard leagues. We have to mention them in the event they get carries, though.

The rookies of the group -- Vereen, Hunter, Rodgers, Lewis, Todman and Jones -- are the ones most likely to wind up as fliers on draft day.

As you can see, there are still a lot of chips to fall in the coming month to firm up these rankings. But the best policy with drafting running backs remains the same: pick them early and often.

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. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time.

ON SALE SOON: 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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