Depending on your league's scoring settings, Running Back can be the most important position. This value, combined with the increasing use of the platoon system makes it increasingly more difficult to identify a true lead back.
It makes them even more valuable on draft day too, because there are so few of them.
1. Arian Foster
Foster was largely unknown to those of your who don't follow College Football, until he exploded onto the scene for the Texans in 2010. He is suited perfectly to the zone scheme that he Texans use. He is a big back, who thrives in the one cut system. He has averaged 1420 yards and 13 touchdowns his first 2 years. There were some concern s with Texas losing Eric Winston off the right side, but the Texans have expressed confidence in their replacements. The zone system is also much more forgiving than the traditional blocking schemes. Look for more of the same from Foster.
2. Ray Rice
Ray Rice has been the engine that makes the Ravens offense for years. He has been making noise about being tired of the Ravens being an also-ran. He got the contract he was looking for, and now he wants to make a run at a title. They are going to lean on him heavily, and that is big news for fantasy football owners.
3. LeSean McCoy
The Eagles offense is full of difference makers, and I don't know that any of them are bigger than Shady McCoy. With him at the tip of the spear, the Eagles showed a better rushing attack than Philly has shown in years. He is also one of the better receiving backs. Flat out, Shady is a stud. The only reason he is third, is because of talent through the Philly roster.
4. Chris Johnson
Johnson shot himself in the foot last season. He held out and missed an entire season while a new offense was being put in place. This year is not the same case. Now you have one of the most explosive running backs with a full year of getting into the flow of their new offense. You also have a team that is going to start a new QB with their #1 Wide Receiver out to start the year. That means that Chris Johnson is going to be leaned on in a big way.
5. Maurice Jones-Drew
MJD could very well be the best running back in the NFL. If you are playing in a PPR league, he would likely be the best running back. I say would, because his holdout of his cannot do him any good. He has a young QB who is, reportedly, coming into his own. And MJD is not there to work with him. He is going to come in having missed the off-season workouts and the hitting that comes with it. Also, and more importantly, he is missing the off-season work with their new Offensive Coordinator. This is the Chris Johnson situation all over again. I have no doubt that he will be strong by the end of the year, but the first month of the season could be lost. He is not near as petulant, in general, as Chris Johnson, so I am expecting a faster recovery, but this is still a scary situation for FFL Owners...oh and Jags fans.
6. Adrian PetersonWe haven't seen him on the field yet. They are protecting AD (All Day) and his rebuilt knee in Minnesota. They say that he is recovering faster than was expected and that he should be on the field for day one. However, there is risk when we haven't see him.
7. Matt Forte
Forte is close behind Shady, Ray Rice, and MJD in the argument for who is the best all-around back in the league. He has been the focal point of the Bears' offense for a few years. He finally has help this year with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffry coming in as outside receivers. This is great news for the Bears offense as it will allow them to better allow them to make use of Jay Cutler's tremendous talents. It is not great news for Matt Forte because, frankly, there are more talented people who are going to get touches on the offense. It could help him stay healthy, but he will catch a lot less balls. He is still a top back, but it will hurt his stats.
8. DeMarco Murray
Murray was known to College Football fans while he was at Oklahoma, but was never a dominant running back. He was known more as the all-around back who was excellent in the passing game. Well, it turns out that he was excellent in the passing game because he played in a passing offense. He came out of nowhere as a rookie to be one of the most productive backs in the league once he took over the starting spot in Dallas. He was lost at the end of the season with a broken ankle, but is reported to be fully healthy. The Cowboys line is still not the best in the league, but I look for Murray to have a very good season. I don't expect many 250 yard games though as he will not be sneaking up on anyone in year 2.
9. Ahmad Bradshaw
Bradshaw is officially the top back in New York. I look for a season along the lines of the one he had in 2010. 1200 yards and a solid number of touchdowns. He should be the lead back for the Giants, at least for the first part of the season. It remains to be seen how much of a platoon will be the end result of David Wilson's development this season.
10. Steven Jackson
Jackson has played the good soldier as the Rams went downhill throughout his career. He is still a big back, with big time speed, and he will put up 1100 yards and 6 touchdowns. If they can get some balance to back teams out of the box a little more, he could do better. There are concerns about the amount of wear he has left on his tired though. That's the downside of 2100 career carries.
11. Darren McFaddenCan Run DMC give you a full season? If he does, watch out for the Raiders. McFadden is as dynamic a running back as there is in the NFL. However, he has not been able to stay healthy. He is a risk, so if you pick him, handcuff him. But if he can 200 carries, you will get 1000 yards.
12. Marshawn Lynch
This is more about having the Seahawks starting running back than it is having Marshawn Lynch. Pete Carroll is going to run the ball. The problem here is that it is looking like Lynch's starting spot might actually be in jeapardy. If he loses it, draft whoever took it because they will get 20+ carries a game behind a solid O-Line.
13. Fred Jackson
Jackson was on pace for the best year of his career last year before being lost with a broken leg. He is back at full speed, and is a solid all-around pro. The problem for FFL owners regarding Jackson is that the Bills have CJ Spiller too. Spiller is one of the most dynamic athletes at running back in the league. The Bills need Jackson to be himself, while Spiller is the home run hitter. It's a good problem for the Bills as Jackson is an effective back in his own right, as he proved by averaging better than 5 yards per carry last year. But a good problem for the Bills, is still a problem for FFL owners. In a deep league, Jackson is worth a #2 Running Back spot, but if you can wait....do. In a couple weeks, we should have a better idea of what the Bills are going to do.
14. Ryan Mathews
Mathews was looking like a #1 running back, but you have to be wary of injuries in training camp. Mathews was looking like he was coming into his own with a near 1100 yard season last year. His biggest issue is staying on the field, somewhat reminiscent of Darren McFadden. The reason that Matthews is so much lower is because he may miss games. Not only that, but his backup is Ronnie Brown, who was a star in this league not that long ago. He could easily find himself in a platoon system if he is not at full speed for week one.
15. Jamaal CharlesJamaal Charles has looked very good in the preseason. He has run hard, and he has run with some effectiveness. However, there are a few items which are not in his favor in terms of FFL. First, the Chiefs has a new offense. This could be good or bad. It is expected to a run-heavy offense, but it is still a new offense which they don't look to be running very well yet. How long will it take for the team to get it figured out? Second, the Chiefs are planning on a platoon system, having brought in Peyton Hillis to be the Battering Ram to Charles' lightning bolt. Charles can thrive in a platoon system, but how many touches will he get, and how will his rebuilt knee hold up? The risk may be worth it, but not as a #1.
16. Reggie BushReggie Bush had the best year of his career last year. It was no coincidence that it was also his first year where he was treated as a traditional, primary back. He was the most effective member of the Dolphins' offense, and he was durable. And he did this on a team that had a very limited passing game. However, the passing game got worse in the off-season with Brandon Marshall being traded away. The Fins are going to be run heavy, with a rookie starting QB, and everyone knows it. I am concerned about how Bush is going to hold up. If he is going to last, it's going to be because either Daniel Thomas or Lamar Miller is taking some carries. The interesting concept, that may help, is that he is probably the best Receiver on the Dolphins team. If they leverage that, he may not be off the field when those other backs come in. Move him up a bit if you are in a PPR league.
17. Michael TurnerTurner is a true lead back in a balanced offense. He has averaged 1320 yards and 12+ touchdowns a year since he went to Atlanta. True workhorse backs are hard to find, and he is one. So, why is he so low? First, he is 30 years old. You have to be concerned about the wear on his body over the past few years. Second, the Falcons have one of the better pair of outside receivers in the league, and they are going to use them. This is going to cut into his opportunities. In turn, it may keep him off the injured list by saving him a few carries a game, but you are trading carries for touchdowns. That doesn't help FFL owners. Third, Quizz Rodgers is going to get some carries, especially on passing downs. He is a small back, who is surprisingly effective between the tackles. I expect to see a platoon system in Atlanta, though it has not been announced.
18. Willis McGahee
McGahee snuck onto this list, and if weren't as old as he is, he would be higher. Flat out, Peyton Manning and John Fox want to run the ball and the Broncos have the personnel to do that. Peyton is best when running play action, and McGahee can still do the job, when he is healthy. But, he is 31, and fought through serious knee injuries early in his career. If he can give them 14 starts, he is a borderline #1 back, depending on the depth of your year. I think that is a big if, but he is definitely worth a flier.
19. Cedric BensonBenson played his free agency very smartly, and he landed in a great spot. An effective power back was the one thing that the Packers didn't have, and Benson has a chance to win a title. Just think about this for a second with me. The Packers are the most explosive passing attack in the NFL, arguably. They have multiple Wide Receivers who require safety help, and one of the best receiving tight ends in the league as well. So, you play a nickel, or a dime, and put your speed on the field. Cedric Benson is a power back who is worthy of at least 7, if not 8, in the box. Oh, and he is decent in the passing game. If he can hold onto the ball, this could be the missing piece for Green Bay. That all tells you why this is a good move for Benson and the Packers. Why, you are probably asking, is Benson so low on this list then? Well, the Packers throw the ball....a lot. Benson is not going to see 300 carries for the Packers. 225 is probably a good target for him, which might get 1000 yards. But he will get red zone carries.
20. DeAngelo WilliamsIf only the Panthers had traded Jonathan Stewart. Williams has averaged over 5 yards a carry in all but 2 for his seasons. He is a perfect back to put in an offense with a dynamic talent like Cam Newton. Williams is great in space, and catches the ball well. He is not a big back, and so is well suited to a spread-style attack. He loses carries to Stewart though, and in nearly a half portion of the overall carries. Stewart is a quality talent himself, and I understand why the Panthers are in favor or rotating them, but it prevents either of them from being a starting FFL option. Some are taking the approach that you may be better off to handcuff him by hiding Stewart on your bench. If either of these guys can be a true lead back, you will get a season like Williams had in 2008 or 2009, where he averaged 1316 yards and 12.5 touchdowns. Except, Cam is going to get some carries at the goal line, or Mike Tolbert might steal a few. Williams is their 'lead' back, if there is one, and I expect 1000 total yards and a half dozen TD's, but it's going to be interesting to watch the Panthers offense settle out.