While LeSean McCoy and Shonn Greene led the way as impressive rookie running backs in 2009, be ready for a haul of stud backs to enter the league this season. With two-sure starters as well as a handful of projected backups expected to receive good workloads, this could be a very good year for brand new running backs in the NFL. Let’s get started with the rankings:
Ryan Mathews – San Diego Chargers
Speaking of workloads, that is exactly what is expected of Mathews in 2010. The Chargers released LaDanian Tomlinson in the offseason and are expecting to have Mathews step in and fill his void without losing any production from the running back position. With hopes for 250 carries and 50 receptions, as given by the head coach Norv Turner, Mathews is being targeted in the second, if not first round of most fantasy re-draft leagues this year. In dynasty drafts, Mathews should be the far-and-away first overall pick. My favorite running back in the 2010 NFL Draft, Ryan Mathews burst onto the national scene in 2009 when he led the country in rushing with 1,808 yards and 19 touchdowns on 276 carries (6.6-yards per carry average). A strong, powerful runner who is a north/south, downhill type of back who runs with authority, Mathews is as complete of a running back as you will find from this year’s draft class. Mathews has all of the tools needed to shoulder the load and be a full-fledged workhorse for the Chargers immediately. With 534 carriers during his college career, Mathews enters the league with fewer miles on his tires than most legitimate rookie running backs typically enter with. When you consider that star receiver Vincent Jackson may be out for quite some time, Mathews’ role with the Chargers becomes even more important, making him a near-lock to be a stud fantasy back for owners this season. In dynasty leagues don’t hesitate to draft this stud first overall, and in re-draft leagues, you could make an easy argument for using your first round pick on this kid. Expect to see big numbers this year!
Jahvid Best – Detroit Lions
In my 2010 Draft Preview I claimed that Jahvid Best has “Barry Sanders-like moves to make defenders miss;” how fitting that he landed in Detroit. With explosiveness, elusiveness, quickness, speed, agility, and soft hands to catch the ball out of the backfield, Jahvid Best has all of the tools that a scout looks for in a dynamic, playmaking running back in the NFL. Best is expected to produce right away in Detroit, stepping right into the starting role at running back while lining up behind one of the young stars of the league in Matthew Stafford. Best offers the cutback ability and change-of-direction moves needed to take the ball to the house anytime that he touches it. With how talented of a receiver he is, Best should also be on the radar of all PPR owners. Long-term, Best’s durability is a bit of a concern, as he’s been nicked up over the course of his career, however from a re-draft standpoint, Best has what it takes to be a very solid No. 2 running back for a fantasy team. Give it a couple of years, and he could be a No. 1 back. I’d have no hesitation drafting Best this year; his workload could be large.
C.J. Spiller – Buffalo Bills
I like Spiller, but drafting a change-of-pace back who never carried the load in college, who is coming from a warm-weather climate and doesn’t fit a team that plays consistently in the snow No. 9 overall puzzles me. Spiller enters camp as the team’s No. 3 back behind Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch, however it’s expected that he will climb the depth chart quickly and will receive his share of touches early and often, whether it’s as a rusher, receiver, or on returns. From a fantasy standpoint, most owners will most out on the area that Spiller is at his best, as a returner on special teams. A lightning-quick running back whose explosiveness and agility were among the best in the draft in 2010, think of C.J. Spiller as a slightly slower Chris Johnson; which is exactly why the Bills decided to draft him. According to reports, the Bills were hoping to land their own C.J. (no pun intended) when they took Spiller with their first round pick. Spiller’s hands are a great asset to him and would provide owners in PPR leagues a reason to lean towards Spiller over another back. Spiller’s ceiling is that of a Chris Johnson-type of running back, while the worst that I could see him being is a third-down, change-of-pace back for the Bills while Jackson shoulders the load on first and second downs. From a dynasty perspective, Spiller is well worth the investment of a high pick because of the upside that he possesses. In re-draft leagues, it’s hard to know for sure what type of impact that C.J. will have in his first year, however one thing is for sure: he easily has the talent to be a Rookie of the Year candidate if given the chance to produce at that level.
Dexter McCluster – Kansas City Chiefs
One of the most versatile players in the 2010 NFL Draft, Dexter McCluster was selected by the Chiefs in the second round to be an all-purpose weapon for them, both on offense as well as on special teams. With electrifying speed and agility as well as the cutback ability to take the ball the distance from anywhere on the field, McCluster projects as a change-of-pace runner/wildcat quarterback/slot receiver/and returner for the Chiefs. McCluster is an interesting player from a fantasy standpoint; he’s playing behind both Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones at running back, which is why I’d be surprised if he was given anything more than a few carries a game as a running back. However, the team’s receiving core is one of its weaknesses and they could really use him to help open up their passing game this season. Listed as a receiver with the Chiefs, McCluster finished his career at Ole Miss having rushed for 1,955 yards and 15 touchdowns on 304 carries as well as catching 130 passes for 1,703 yards and three touchdowns. In my opinion, McCluster projects as a nice No. 3 receiver for a fantasy team with the potential to develop with the Chiefs into a better running back, and thus potentially a No. 2 running back for a fantasy team. As a rookie, I expect to see him catching a lot of passes in the slot and out of the backfield, which is why I could see him being a valuable player for a fantasy team, especially in PPR leagues, in the same mold as what Percy Harvin did last year.
Montario Hardesty – Cleveland Browns
Suffering an injury in the first week of training camp has done nothing to help Hardesty win the starting running back job in Cleveland, however there’s still hope that the rook can steal the job away from Jerome Harrison later in the year preseason. I wasn’t as high on Hardesty as the Browns were in the draft; a strong runner whose cutback ability is one of his greatest strengths, Montario Hardesty was an underachieving former top recruit whose career was riddled with injuries before having a breakout senior season. In 2009, Hardesty ran away with the starting running back job, beating out one of the top recruits in the country in Bryce Brown, as he ran for 1,345 yards and 13 touchdowns on 282 carries. Hardesty is the type of back, in my opinion, who doesn’t have the ceiling to develop into an elite running back in the NFL, however he has the talent to be a nice stop-gap for the team in the next few years. Considering he was injured over the course of his career, and was injured almost immediately once camp started, I’d be cautious about investing too high of a pick in this workhorse. If he can win the starting job, Hardesty has the tools to rush for over 1,000 yards as a rookie. Keep an eye on him both in re-draft and dynasty leagues.
Toby Gerhart – Minnesota Vikings
This thumper from Stanford is just one Adrian Peterson injury away from the starting running back job in one of the best offenses (assuming Favre comes back) in the league. A large running back with tremendous size, bulk, and strength, Gerhart is a down-hill, north/south runner whose momentum carries him through each of his runs. He possesses very good vision with ability to see the field well and adjust as a ball carrier when needed. Toby is a patient runner who does a great job of waiting for his blocks to develop before following them through the hole. Gerhart excels at playing in an I-formation where he can follow a lead blocker through the hole as well as where he can use his power and strength to his advantage between the tackles. I love the way that he keeps his legs driving and will just plow through defenders without losing any momentum. Gerhart is a great fit for the Vikings offense if they intend to use him the same way as they use Peterson, between the tackles and on stretches outside. If Peterson stays healthy all year, expect to see Gerhart see time giving him a breather and could steal some work around the goal line. However, if Peterson goes down, Gerhart will be thrust into the starting lineup, guaranteeing him at least 20-30 carries a game. Gerhart is arguably the most important handcuff player in fantasy football this year, making him a sure-pick for both re-draft and dynasty leagues.
Ben Tate – Houston Texans
The Houston Texans used the 58th pick in the draft on Tate, and they must not have known exactly what they were getting with him, as all signs in training camp this year point to him still needing a lot of time to develop. Tate is stuck on the depth chart behind Arian Foster and Steve Slaton right now, with not much light at the end of the tunnel in terms of immediate playing time. Tate is more of an option for dynasty owners rather than re-draft leagues, considering he likely won’t see the field much as a rookie barring injury from the two guys in front of him. I had Tate rated as my 14th best running back in the draft, No. 168 overall, so I wasn’t exactly in favor of him being selected 110 picks higher than that. A prototypical I-formation tailback who has the bulk to be a workhorse running back in the NFL, Ben Tate had the best season of his career in 2009 when he rushed for 1,326 yards and 10 touchdowns on 263 carries. Tate is a battering ram who excels at carrying the ball between the tackles and is a bit of an old-school type of running back, in that he isn’t flashy, but he gets the job done by just pounding the ball up the middle. Tate is a north/south, downhill-type of runner who has good power and strength. He’s a tough back who was durable over the course of his career. Tate also has experience catching the ball out of the backfield and is a reliable receiver, having caught 53 passes for 336 yards over the course of his career at Auburn. Don’t expect much from him this year if he remains third on the depth chart, however if he develops well, he could be a fine running back for one of the most high-powered offenses in the league in a year or two. Keep an eye on Tate.
Other RB’s to keep your eye on:
Jonathan Dwyer – Pittsburgh Steelers
This stud running back fell in the draft, all the way to the sixth round, and is the top option for the Steelers running game behind Rashard Mendenhall. Great handcuff pick.
Joe McKnight – New York Jets
It’s going to be hard for this exciting playmaker to see the field with Shonn Greene and LaDanian Tomlinson in front of him on the depth chart, however he could make some plays if given the chance.
John Conner – New York Jets
The top fullback in the 2010 draft, Conner is expected to take over as the Jets’ starting fullback. Looking back at the way the Ravens used Le’Ron McClain, don’t be surprised if head coach Rex Ryan opts to use Conner in the same way, who is also a talented runner between the tackles.
James Starks – Green Bay Packer
A talented back who missed his entire senior year due to injury, Starks enters Green Bay as a change-of-pace option behind Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson.
Shawnbrey McNeal – San Diego Chargers
A junior from SMU, McNeal has drawn praises from the Chargers’ coaching staff and is the favorite to win the No. 3 running back job behind Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles.
Anthony Dixon – San Franciso 49ers
A mammoth running back who excels at carrying the ball between the tackles, Dixon is another back with potential but is stuck at third on the depth chart behind Frank Gore and Glen Coffee.