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2009 Player Rankings: Running Backs
Updated: September 10, 2009
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Tier 1
Huddle Rank: 1
Keeper: 1
Auction 10: 36%
Auction 12: 40%
2007 MIN 14 1609 13 238 1341 5.6 12 19 268 1
2008 MIN 16 1885 10 363 1760 4.8 10 21 125  
Avg   15 1747 12 301 1551 5.2 11 20 197 1
Proj FA   2030 18   1790   16 22 240 2

Let’s get the fumbling thing out of the way first. Yes, Peterson’s four lost fumbles ranked first among running backs; it was also exactly one more than Marion Barber, Frank Gore, Ryan Grant, Steven Jackson, Clinton Portis, and Anquan Boldin—none of whom are seeing their fantasy value tweaked by concerns about butterfingers. There were no offseason reports of Peterson visiting Tiki Barber to talk about the cure for fumblitis, but rest assured that with Brad Childress coaching for his job this year he isn’t about to put his best player on the sidelines for anything more than the occasional gulp of oxygen or Gatorade.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about AP’s 1,760 rushing yards and 1,885 yards from scrimmage—both tops in the NFL. While Peterson was stuffed more often (40 times) than any other back, he also ranked second (behind Michael Turner) in runs of 10 yards or more. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry over his first 10 carries each game… and 4.6 ypc on carries 21 and above. He reached triple-digit yardage 10 times, scored an equal number of touchdowns, and failed to do either in just four of 16 games. And while he’s still a bit player in the passing game, the Minnesota offense still runs through him as he touches the ball almost 25 times a game. Peterson talked of bulking up to as much as 230 pounds to better absorb the pounding he takes, but as of minicamp he was still in the 217 range—though, if it’s possible, an even more muscular 217.

While the Vikings’ offseason seems dedicated to upgrading the passing game, the ulterior motive is more running room for Peterson. An improved threat at quarterback (Sage Rosenfels or Brett Favre) prevents defenses from loading up against the run, while the downfield playmaking of Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin force opponents to direct attention their way instead of moving safeties into the box. And if Phil Loadholt is half the road grader at right tackle he was on the left side with Oklahoma the Vikings will be able to balance a running game that went left (behind Steve Hutchinson and Bryant McKinnie) twice as frequently as they went right. Despite the lack of receptions (and subsequent perceived value drop in PPR scoring systems), Peterson should account for more than enough yardage and touchdowns to live up to his current status as then consensus first overall fantasy selection.

Huddle Rank: 2
Keeper: 2
Auction 10: 32%
Auction 12: 36%
2006 JAC 16 1377 15 166 941 5.7 13 46 436 2
2007 JAC 15 1175 9 167 768 4.6 9 40 407  
2008 JAC 16 1389 14 197 824 4.2 12 62 565 2
Avg   16 1314 13 177 844 4.8 11 49 469 1
Proj FA   1960 14   1370   13 60 590 1

Jones-Drew goes into 2009 armed with a new four-year deal worth $32.8 million with $17.5 million guaranteed. He also no longer has Fred Taylor there to drain away carries and apparently will actually become a full-time back. The Jaguars made no motions towards replacing Taylor other than drafting Rashad Jennings who was the final running back taken in the NFL draft with the 7.41 pick (not exactly a commitment to finding a replacement waiting for 19 other runners to be taken). Expect to take Jones-Drew very early if you want him – he’s sparked tremendous fantasy interest this year with Taylor gone even though he could have the “I got mine!” contract hangover.

Last year showed that Jones-Drew was more than ready for the workload since his 259 touches resulted in 1389 total yards and 14 touchdowns. He led all running backs with 565 receiving yards and was #2 with 62 catches. The Jaguars have roughly the same schedule strength as last year when he gained 4.2 yards per carry. And the Jags only added Torry “probably not the same” Holt so Garrard could continue to throw to Jones-Drew. He’ll need some help since even in a very limited year for Fred Taylor, he still had 159 touches and throwing that on top of Jones-Drew’s 259 yields 418 touches. That’s unlikely to happen. The duo shared 439 touches in 2007. This is an offense that loves to use the running backs and Jones-Drew should really benefit.

A minor consideration is that he’ll have week 16 in New England when most fantasy championships are held but the two weeks prior are home games against the Dolphins and Colts which could help get you there. Jones-Drew has been durable and should absorb an expanded workload without any problems. He’s now sure to be the #1 concern of every defense but he’s a dual threat as a receiver. This should be as good as it gets for Jones-Drew and what could be a rare, true full-time back who shares only minimally.

Huddle Rank: 3
Keeper: 4
Auction 10: 35%
Auction 12: 38%
2006 SDC 16 2323 31 349 1815 5.2 28 56 508 3
2007 SDC 16 1949 18 315 1474 4.7 15 60 475 3
2008 SDC 16 1536 12 292 1110 3.8 11 52 426 1
Avg   16 1936 20 319 1466 4.6 18 56 470 2
Proj FA   1780 16   1380   14 50 400 2

Tomlinson was hampered by toe and groin injuries almost all of 2008 and his stats did not justify him being the #1 pick in almost every fantasy draft last summer. That all said, his “demise” still included 1110 rushing yards and 426 receiving yards with a total of 12 touchdowns. That was the lowest rushing total of his illustrious career though and while he ran for only 3.9 yards per carry, he did the same in 2004 when he was also banged up much of the year. 2008 was the first sub-300 carry season of his career (292). In his place Darren Sproles came on strongly in the final games of the year and begged the natural question – Is Tomlinson in irreversible decline and how much will Sproles cut into his action this year?

First about Sproles. He was impressive but only in two home games (DEN, IND) and only ended the year with 330 yards on 61 carries with one rushing score. Tomlinson banged up had 1110 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. Sproles best effort was in Denver when he ran for 115 yards on 14 carries and scored once. Tomlinson had 14 runs for 96 yards and three touchdowns in that game. The only other game where Sproles had any fantasy value rushing was in the wildcard game where Tomlinson ran for 25 yards on five carries and then left the game with a groin injury. Sproles racked up 105 yards and two scores in the home win. Sproles did have a career best 324 yards on 29 catches with five touchdowns but thanks to the two late season games, the prevailing wisdom is that Sproles was much better than he really was. And that Tomlinson was worse than reality.

HC Norv Turner has already said that Tomlinson looks as healthy as ever and wants to give him 320 carries this year much as he has gotten every year. The notion that the Chargers backfield will be a committee this year isn’t supported by the coaching staff who are all that matter. The biggest concern for Tomlinson is his own health rather than the 5-6, 180 pound Sproles supplanting him in any measure. And so far – Tomlinson looks like he should have at least one more good season left in the tank. He didn’t blow an ACL last year, just had toe and groin injuries that are now healed.

Tier 2
Huddle Rank: 4
Keeper: 6
Auction 10: 30%
Auction 12: 32%
2008 CHI 16 1715 12 316 1238 3.9 8 63 477 4
Avg   16 1715 12 316 1238 3.9 8 63 477 4
Proj FA   1820 12   1320   10 52 500 2

It could be argued that Forte was the biggest rookie surprise last year when he went to the talent-starved backfield of the Bears and produced 1715 total yards that included 477 pass yards (both marks #3 among all RB’s). No running back had more than Forte’s 63 catches last year. It was those receptions that helped Forte’s stats and made him a big bonus in points-per-reception leagues. He’s going very early in drafts and why not? He ranked #2 in most PPR leagues and #4 in those without reception points. What’s not to like?

There are a few things at least worthy of note here. Forte had 379 touches last year that included 316 carries. He ranked #4 in touches and carries. But he only gained 3.9 yards per carry on average and only topped 100 rushing yards three times though he had 11 games with over 100 total yards thanks to the receptions. Rushing for 1238 yards and eight touchdowns with a 3.9 YPC is decent but his high value stemmed from the 63 catches for 477 yards and four more scores. Will he get that many passes this year? OC Ron Turner has already said that Forte will not be involved in 84% of the Bears plays this year and that Kevin Jones is slated to do more work relieving Forte. No other running back in the NFL had such a high percentage of his team’s offensive plays. That will simply not continue.

The addition of Jay Cutler will have a large effect as well. Will he be able to help a wide receiver crew that ranked in the bottom five for catches, yards and touchdowns last year? Did Kyle Orton turn to Forte more than Cutler will? Forte was the leading receiver for the Bears last year with 63 catches while tight end Greg Olsen ranked second with just 54. Forte remains the starter and has roughly as good of a schedule as last year so the only question is how much less will he play and gain stats? 2008 saw the Bears rank #12 in passes to the running backs (82) and yet Cutler in Denver only ranked 31st with just 31 passes to all running backs. Different scheme but different quarterback. Safer bet is that Forte will lose at least some catches and carries and likely will be drafted too early by someone expecting a repeat of 2008.

08-02-09 Update: Just a drop of one spot that comes from continued statements about how good Kevin Jones looks and how Forte will have a reduced workload and that his role as a receiver will be decreased to let him focus more on being a runner. He's still a solid pick, just with less upside.

09-04-09 Update: Forte was overworked last year and as a result he had big numbers. This year the plan is to involve him less and focus more on him as a runner. Problem is that Kevin Jones just sprained his ankle badly so at least to start the season we're back to Forte all day, every day.

09-04-09 Update: Torn ligament in Jones' left ankle means injured reserve. Forte once again falls into a situation where they will be using him heavily.

Huddle Rank: 5
Keeper: 8
Auction 10: 30%
Auction 12: 32%
2006 SDC 13 549 2 80 502 6.3 2 3 47  
2007 ATL 16 332 1 71 316 4.5 1 4 16  
2008 ATL 16 1740 17 376 1699 4.5 17 6 41  
Avg   15 874 7 176 839 5.1 7 4 35 0
Proj FA   1530 15   1480   15 8 50  

When Michael Turner left the shadow of LaDainian Tomlinson, no one expected that he would outshine him in the first year. For that matter, Turner ranked #2 in the NFL with 1740 total yards, 17 rushing touchdowns and 1699 rushing yards. After five years as the backup in San Diego, Turner exploded when given his chance to be the starter in Atlanta by rushing for 220 yards in week one. He ended with eight games rushing over the century mark and twice eclipsed 200 yards. He had almost no role as a receiver but with 376 carries, he had plenty of work anyway.

It was an amazing year on a team that was only in the first year of a total rebuild. The Falcons were fortunate to have had an easier schedule last season but 2009 appears roughly the same – perhaps a bit tougher. Turner also tended to pick up his yards in chunks and balance out big games with mediocre efforts. Six of his games only featured 60 rushing yards or less and his lack of receptions cannot balance that out. To his credit he did score in 11 games and really only had three truly bad games from a fantasy perspective and they all came in the first half of the season. It was a major success no matter how you look at it.

Turner may have more up and down games this year since the Falcons are playing the NFC West (good thing) and the NFC East (bad thing). But the offense will be in its second season and the addition of Tony Gonzalez could serve to make Turner’s rushing lanes more open. He’s a low risk pick but drops in leagues using reception points. He only had six catches last season.

Huddle Rank: 6
Keeper: 3
Auction 10: 28%
Auction 12: 30%
2008 TEN 15 1488 10 251 1228 4.9 9 43 260 1
Avg   15 1488 10 251 1228 4.9 9 43 260 1
Proj FA   1680 12   1300   10 60 380 2

Johnson was perhaps the most pleasant surprise among rookie running backs when he gained 1228 yards on 251 carries and ran in nine touchdowns. That’s basically the same rushing yardage as Matt Forte had only with 65 less carries because Johnson averaged 4.9 yards per carry. He had nine games with at least one score and seven of over 100 total yards. His performance would have been even more impressive if he did not have to play the Steelers and Ravens last year. HC Jeff Fisher has said that Johnson is in line for more work this year than his 294 touches as a rookie and that he wants to get him the ball more “out in space” as a receiver or running around end where his speed and moves are deadly.

There is a chance that the Titans passing game will be better this year with Nate Washington and Kenny Britt and that can only help Johnson who was the sole focus of defenses last year. Any success by Collins passing means more stats for Johnson when he runs. The Titans were already ranked top five for running back carries, rushing yards and touchdowns. This year, you have to love how the Titans get a quirk of scheduling that benefits the fantasy world. All three games during the fantasy weeks are at home – ATL, MIA and SD. Johnson already had 43 receptions last year and should have even more in 2009. He’s a dynamic fantasy stud no matter what the scoring rules.

Huddle Rank: 7
Keeper: 5
Auction 10: 28%
Auction 12: 28%
2006 STL 16 2334 16 346 1528 4.4 13 90 806 3
2007 STL 12 1273 6 237 1002 4.2 5 38 271 1
2008 STL 12 1421 8 253 1042 4.1 7 40 379 1
Avg   13 1676 10 279 1191 4.2 8 56 485 2
Proj NEP   1750 9   1150   7 50 600 2

(-Risk) Jackson is likely the only Rams player with significant fantasy value this year. It should be a very good one at that since Jackson is a very accomplished receiver and now will play in the same offensive scheme that Brian Westbrook does. New OC Pat Shurmur envisions Jackson as the central focus of the offense as both a runner and a receiver. Jackson has already rushed for over 1000 yards in each of the last four years despite missing four games in both 2007 and 2008. Jackson can handle all the passes that Shumur wants thrown to him since he led all running backs in 2006 with 90 catches.

Jackson will enjoy his rushing schedule – he goes from having one of the worst rushing schedules in 2008 to one of the easiest in 2009. And the Rams have tried to upgrade the offensive line but his problems will be twofold this year. He must stay healthy which has been a challenge in recent years and he will be perhaps the sole focus of every defense that they face. Between Jackson, Keenan Burton and Donnie Avery, the defense may just stick all eleven guys on Jackson and take their chances with the others. Jackson has never played in an offense that has no receivers of note.

You have to consider Jackson as a top back this year since he won’t be sharing much and could have a monster year from both rushing and receiving. But there is plenty of risk as noted so Jackson is the biggest “roll the dice” player this season.

08-22-09 Update: Jackson falls a spot because the Rams are looking so bad - and with an injury bug already starting - that Jackson is a higher risk because defenses may have nothing else to think about but him.

Huddle Rank: 8
Keeper: 7
Auction 10: 24%
Auction 12: 26%
2006 SFO 16 2180 9 313 1695 5.4 8 61 485 1
2007 SFO 15 1538 6 260 1102 4.2 5 53 436 1
2008 SFO 14 1409 8 240 1036 4.3 6 43 373 2
Avg   15 1709 8 271 1278 4.6 6 52 431 1
Proj MIA   1680 9   1230   8 55 450 1

Gore didn’t fare quite so well with Mike Martz last year though he still managed to rush for 1036 yards and had 43 catches for 373 yards and eight total touchdowns. Gore missed two late season games because of his ankle which has since healed. New OC Jimmy Raye will be installing an offense that should favor Gore both as a runner and a receiver. There has been conflicting word as to a committee backfield forming or that Gore remains the single back, full-time runner which is much more likely. The 49ers drafted Glen Coffee to help out but at least initially – and probably for this year - Gore will take a heavy load and be spelled only when he needs it. The 49ers have a decent rushing schedule this year and even more notable – Gore plays against ARI, @PHI and DET in the fantasy playoff weeks.

Consider Gore in the same light as when Norv Turner was there. This should be a favorable offense for him and the offensive line has been upgraded.

Huddle Rank: 9
Keeper: 11
Auction 10: 20%
Auction 12: 22%
2006 CAR 13 814 2 121 501 4.1 1 33 313 1
2007 CAR 16 892 5 144 717 5.0 4 23 175 1
2008 CAR 16 1636 20 273 1515 5.5 18 22 121 2
Avg   15 1114 9 179 911 4.9 8 26 203 1
Proj FA   1470 12   1250   11 23 220 1

(-Risk) The third year was the charm for Williams who stepped out from DeShaun Foster’s shadow last year and proved what we all wondered – why in the world did they ever stick with Foster? Williams turned in a league-leading 18 rushing touchdowns and ranked 3rd best with 1515 rushing yards. He produced eight games with more than 100 rushing yards and ended as the #1 fantasy running back in many leagues. Williams was nearly unstoppable in 2008 and carried more than a few fantasy teams to their championship.

Normally the #1 running back would naturally be the top ranked runner the next season but Williams has not been accorded that sort of respect in most leagues. He still manages to go in the first round but typically more in the middle or latter half. There are a few reasons why this is appropriate. First, he doesn’t catch that much and only had 22 receptions for 121 yards last year. That devalues him in point-per-reception leagues. Secondly and more importantly, he will literally be going from the best rushing schedule in the NFL to the worst. Major change in the quality of defenses this year and that will be telling for a player that just runs and doesn’t offer much of a dual threat.

Not to be dismissed as well is the second season of Jonathan Stewart who was getting roughly 40% of the carries last year. Williams had a monster season thanks to rolling up five games with more than 120 rushing yards. He only had more than 20 carries in four games and never more than 25. It is a safe bet that Williams will remain with more carries but his career best season will not repeat in 2009. He doesn’t catch much, he has a horrible schedule and Stewart is there to take 40% of the workload. Also consider that the fantasy playoff games feature the Panthers playing @NE, MIN and @NYG which should be no treat.

08-25-09 Update: That bad rushing schedule hasn't improved but then again neither has Jonathan Stewart. Williams gets a small bump up from looking so sharp in preseason games.

Huddle Rank: 10
Keeper: 9
Auction 10: 20%
Auction 12: 24%
2006 WAS 8 693 7 127 523 4.1 7 17 170  
2007 WAS 16 1651 11 325 1262 3.9 11 47 389  
2008 WAS 16 1705 9 342 1487 4.3 9 28 218  
Avg   13 1350 9 265 1091 4.1 9 31 259 0
Proj FA   1540 9   1400   9 22 140  

Portis enters his eight NFL season despite only being 28 years old. He’s been money every year other than 2006 when he missed over half of the season because of injury. Otherwise, he’s been a lock to rush for at least 1300 yards and about ten touchdowns almost every season. Portis has been dinged in the past for not being durable but he has not missed a game in the last two seasons.

Portis is also one of those rare (and getting rarer) running backs who routinely get over 320 carries each year and don’t share the ball much at all. The new offense did not feature him much as a receiver in 2008 with only 28 catches for 218 yards but all combined he’s deserved to be a first round draft pick in all seven of his previous seasons. Not only is he consistent, he also faces a much softer schedule this year. Portis may never seem like an exciting pick but he’s as solid a choice as any for running back.

07-07-09 Update: Portis drops a little because of his continuing differences with the coaching staff. It's probably nothing but it adds a little risk.

08-22-09 Update: Portis falls slightly from repeated news that the Redskins want to incorporate LadDell Betts more on third downs. Betts is now a mandatory handcuff for Portis owners.

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