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Fantasy Football 2011 Preview – Ranking The Top Five Running Backs

chris johnsonIt’s finally here! The 2011 fantasy football season is finally underway with mock drafts, projections, and rankings galore infesting the lives of football fans like me. It is still early but I wanted to take a look at the most important position you will draft this season, the fantasy football running back.

I don’t care how great your draft is, if you don’t have a top five running back you rarely win in fantasy football. Sure, it can be done but having at least one of the top five running backs generally is difference maker between winners and everyone else.

Why is the running back so important? One word, production! Unlike a receiver who may only grab a handful of catches a game, the running back will get his carries. Do you want to draft a guy like Andre Johnson with your first pick who may get shut out a game or two or Adrian Peterson who you know will get at least 15 carries a game? Give me the running back with consistent production over anyone else any day of the week.

[adinserter block=”2″]That is why it is critical to do your homework on the running back as well as every position when you walk into your draft. Especially the top five, because you don’t want to be the guy that passed up on one of these top five guys with your top five pick only to regret it later when he is scoring 30 points on your 10 in Week 8. Hopefully I can help cut out some of that work for you with a little bit of homework of my own.

Keep one thing in mind here. Nobody and I mean nobody can account for injuries when compiling preseason fantasy football rankings. It is important to target the handcuff to your first pick early in the draft to overcome any injury jinxes during the season. Unfortunately if a running back’s teammates go down your player may wind up underperforming in the stat column which is no fault of your own or the prognosticator who ranked him high.

1 – Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans. I know he is holding out but do you really expect Johnson to sit out during the regular season? I don’t, nor does anyone else. In my opinion, Johnson is the only stud running back without a lot of question marks. Adrian Peterson has a suspect line and new wide receivers to take pressure off of the running game. Until a Houston Texans running back under Gary Kubiak produces in back to back seasons, I won’t believe the hype or drink the Arian Foster Kool Aid. So to me, knowing what you are going to get with Johnson is what makes the difference to me.

It is fair to point out that the Titans quarterback position does worry me a bit. Matt Hasselbeck hasn’t played a full season in years. Jake Locker is a rookie with very little weapons. This could be a problem. Yet as long as Johnson’s offensive line stays healthy, he should be okay. He is in a good division for running backs, doesn’t have any threats for a time share, and should be money all season at the top spot.

2 – Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings. Peterson is a tough one here. He still ranks at the top for many prognosticators but at some point something has to give. He was injury prone quite a bit in college, yet hasn’t missed much time in the NFL. Will that come back to haunt him this season or was it just a string of bad luck at Oklahoma?

I like a few things about Peterson. One, his schedule is very friendly to running backs. Again, that could change during the season but on paper his schedule looks great. Donovan McNabb will bring the deep ball threat to the quarterback position for the first time in ages. Defenses will have to honor the threat, thus not stacking the box against Peterson. Three, fantasy owners don’t have to worry about bonehead coaching decisions by Brad Childress which greatly impacted Peterson’s production at times last season. Four and maybe the most appealing, it is Peterson’s contract year. Yes there are a lot of questions about his offensive line, but if he stays healthy he should be a beast this season.

3 – Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens. I have had Rice on teams since his rookie season and he has been a home run for the most part. I like Rice this year a lot, a whole lot! If not for his division, I probably would have put him at the top of the list.

I can’t think of many running backs that got more of a bump this offseason than Ray Rice. The Baltimore Ravens dumped Joe Flacco’s two favorite receiving targets. Does anyone not think that Flacco will be checking down to Rice even more this season? The Ravens shipped out Rice’s two biggest vultures L’Ron McClain and Willis McGahee. The Ravens signed some fantastic offensive linemen, including one who is arguably the best lead blocker in the NFL. Add in that Rice is playing in the final year of his rookie contract and you have a guy with huge homerun potential all season in Rice.

It is fair to point out that the Ravens signed Ricky Williams this week to back up Rice. Williams could steal some goal line carries. However, Williams is on the downside of his career. I don’t see him making a huge difference in Rice’s numbers. He certainly won’t be cutting into Rice’s receiving production. I am not concerned, although it is fair to point that out when talking about Rice’s upside in 2011.

4 – Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs. I struggled a bit with ranking Charles ahead of Peterson but that threat of the time share still looms large over Charles. However, his production was so good last season that even in a time share with Thomas Jones, Charles produced elite fantasy running back numbers. The kid is the real deal.

I love a lot of things about Charles this season. One, his quarterback is in his third year in the offense and should have a firm grasp of it for the first time in three seasons. Two, Thomas Jones is older and probably less of a threat to steal carries from Charles at his age. Three, Todd Haley has made a commitment to give Charles more carries. Four, he is in a great division for fantasy running backs.

My only concern with Charles is the signing of Le’Ron McClain who vulture Ray Rice quite a bit in Baltimore last season. There is a great chance he will steal some goal line carries from Charles. But, Charles broke off some huge runs last season, averaging over six yards a carry. He’ll get his touchdowns, long ones, and that will make up for any threats of McClain cutting into Charles production.

5 – LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles. This was a tough one here. Do I think that McCoy will have a better season than Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden, Arian Foster, Frank Gore, and Rashard Mendenhall? Probably not, but what I do know is that all of those running backs have injury questions surrounding them in 2011. McCoy doesn’t and if I am picking at number five, I want a guy that has the most stability. I don’t like taking upside picks before six, so I think you go with McCoy here.

[adinserter block=”1″]McCoy picked up nicely last season where Brian Westbrook left off as that dual run/catching threat running back. Michael Vick will be back and defenses will be so worried about preparing for Vick, that they will leave McCoy open in some one-on-one coverages that are sure to benefit Shady. The kid is built for the Philadelphia Eagles offense and now has the full trust of Andy Reid. He will be part of the game plan and I expect McCoy to put up big numbers in 2011.

Finally, the Eagles offseason has given McCoy a big bump. The Eagles signed Ronnie Brown but he is on the downside of his career. Did anyone see what he did or didn’t do in Miami last season? Reid doesn’t have a lot of patience for guys like that and will abandon him quickly after a few non-productive games. Other than an occasional wildcat play, McCoy doesn’t have any vulture threats here. Evan Mathis makes the Eagles a better running team immediately. If Mathis can stay healthy and block for McCoy all season, the sky is the limit for Shady.

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