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updated: 8/28/2012 8:09 PM

Tougher than ever to figure running backs

This year's group of RBs figure to drive fantasy owners batty

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  • Fantasy football writer John Dietz believes that the Bears' Matt Forte will be a lock for 1,500 yards from scrimmage this season, which is a big reason Dietz ranked Forte fourth among running backs.

    Fantasy football writer John Dietz believes that the Bears' Matt Forte will be a lock for 1,500 yards from scrimmage this season, which is a big reason Dietz ranked Forte fourth among running backs.
    Associated Press


The stud running back.

They used to be the lifeblood of our fantasy football teams.

They'd pile up 100-yard games, double-digit TD seasons and make our opponents throw sharp objects at their TV sets.

The goal of any fantasy football owner worth his salt was to get two of these studs and watch our team steamroll through the league.


Now, we've entered into a temple-pounding, head-scratching, mind-boggling era where the feature back has gone the way of the VCR, the cassette tape and the hand-held camcorder.

Yes, a few of you lucky ones will snarf up Arian Foster, Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy. But every other back after that has his issues, such as:

•He comes out on third down.

•He comes out on the goal line.

•He needs a breather after a long run.

Seriously, Walter Payton is rolling over in his grave.

The best draft-day strategy circa 2012 should be to do the best you can with your top running back, then pile up them up in the middle rounds like the way my wife adds to her shoe collection.

As I said, after our top three, the rest come with some sort of question mark. So let's wade through this minefield and see if we can't maneuver around the roadside bombs while unearthing a few gems.

Matt Forte (No. 4): Some drafters will look at the Giants preseason game when Forte managed a paltry 4 yards in 8 first-half carries and say, "No way I'm drafting this guy. Even I could audition for that offensive line!" And while those thoughts aren't crazy, let's remember three things:

1. Those numbers came in one half of preseason football against a stout run defense.

2. Forte does much more than run behind the tackles, averaging 55 catches and almost 500 receiving yards per season.

3. The Bears have some real patsies on their schedule, especially early on (Indy, St. Louis, Jacksonville, Carolina and Tennessee all in the first eight games).

"What about Michael Bush?" you ask.

Yes, TD vulture Bush will drain Forte's value a bit, but among the other running backs on the board, which ones are nearly a lock for 1,500 yards from scrimmage?

Exactly. None.

Forte is as safe a pick as you can get in the top 10 and why I have him at No. 4.

Darren McFadden (No. 5): Here we have the opposite of Forte in terms of risk. McFadden, who has yet to play in more than 13 games in four NFL seasons, is also someone who could lead all of his peers in points by season's end.

Consider this: In 2010, McFadden went over 100 yards from scrimmage in nine of his 13 games and over 150 YFS in five of those nine. Last year, after just six games, he was on pace for 2,029 YFS and 13 TDs before going down for good in Week 7.

McFadden has burned me before, but if he's there in the second round, I'm probably going to bite.

Jamaal Charles (No. 6): He's a full year removed from ACL surgery after a sensational 2010 campaign (1,935 YFS, 8 TDs). While that yardage number may be too much to expect, Forte-like production seems reasonable.

Adrian Peterson (No. 7): Here is the biggest question mark in the entire draft and taking Peterson definitely comes down to a leap of faith. Do you believe he will be the automatic double-digit AP of old? Or will his surgically repaired knee act up, making him nothing more than a huge bust?

Three ESPN analysts rank him 12th, 14th and 20th (wow!), so they clearly aren't very optimistic. For sure, AP owners must get backup Toby Gerhart as insurance, but I have faith that AP will outproduce the likes of Chris Johnson, Fred Jackson, Ahmad Bradshaw and Steven Jackson.

Maurice Jones-Drew (No. 8): Remember what happened to Chris Johnson last year after his lengthy holdout? I'm not touching MJD unless he falls into at least the third round.

Chris Johnson (No. 9): He has something to prove and will do so. Watch for a nice bounce-back season.

DeMarco Murray (No. 12): Other analysts have Murray in the top 10, and maybe I am too low on him. Don't be afraid to slide him up a few notches if you believe.

Ahmad Bradshaw (No. 13): Despite 19 TDs the last two seasons, this guy scares the pants off me. He's got impressive rookie David Wilson (170 YFS in three preseason games) possibly stealing work, and that foot injury from last year may or may not be a problem. Still, don't let him fall too far because the Giants' offense is extremely potent and the points will come often.

Ryan Mathews (No. 14): The Chargers' brittle lightning bolt is probably out until Week 3, but once he returns, Mathews has the talent to be one of the most productive backs around. (Full disclosure here: I keep flip-flopping Mathews with Bradshaw but can't in good faith put an injured back above a starter like Bradshaw. Still, I can see Mathews out-pointing Bradshaw by season's end).

Cedric Benson (No. 21): As the list of reliable RBs grows thin, it seems silly not to consider Benson, the only real tailback the Packers possess. A personnel man at the team's third preseason game said, "He looked good really good. Quick. He looks like he fits the offense well." For us, what's not to like about a guy on a top-3 offense who is coming off three straight 1,000-yard seasons?

Stevan Ridley (No. 25): It's difficult to trust Bill Belichick when it comes to running backs, but Ridley's looked very good. I'd get his backup, Shane Vereen, as insurance, but Ridley seems to be the real deal.

Doug Martin (No. 26): The 31st overall pick of the draft out of Boise State has beaten out LeGarrette Blount in Tampa Bay, which means solid numbers are possible.

Kevin Smith (No. 29): The Lions' backfield situation is a complete mess, and for now Smith is the leading candidate to carry the load for a video-game like offense. Roll the dice and hope for the best.

Rashard Mendenhall (No. 41): As you fill in your roster in the later rounds, Mendenhall (out until about Week 5) is worth stashing. If he comes back strong, you are suddenly adding a nice piece to the puzzle.

The Redskins mess: As this went to print, there is no clear-cut feature back in Washington. Roy Helu Jr., Tim Hightower and Evan Royster are all dealing with some sort of ailment. The guy to grab might be sixth-round rookie Alfred Morris, who according to the Washington Times could play a "significant" role in the team's plans.

John Dietz ranks the running backs

Player, team Projected Projected Comment

yards TDs

Cream of the crop

1. Arian Foster, Texans 1,400-,1575** 12-16 1,841 YFS in just 13 games

2. Ray Rice, Ravens 1,250-1,400** 11-15 Averaged 654 rec. yds. last 3 yrs.

3. LeSean McCoy, Eagles 1,225-1,350* 12-17 20 TDs in 2011; 9 in 2010

Still rock solid

4. Matt Forte, BEARS 1,200-1,325** 6-8 Offensive line scares me

5. D. McFadden, Raiders 1,075-1,400* 8-14 Do you trust he'll stay healthy?

6. Jamaal Charles, Chiefs 1,250-1,400* 7-9 I'm buying that he's back

7. Adrian Peterson, Vikes 1,250-1,375* 11-15 Could be steal of the draft

8. M. Jones-Drew, Jags 1,250-1,375* 8-12 Holdouts always affect RBs

Still solid

9. Chris Johnson, Titans 1,150-1,375* 8-11 Scary fast, and a scary pick

10. Fred Jackson, Bills 1,100-1,275* 6-9 Was on pace for 2,200 YFS in 2011

11. Steven Jackson, Rams 1,175-1,250* 6-7 7 straight seasons of 1,270+ YFS

12. DeM. Murray, Cowboys 1,000-1,200* 7-10 Avg. 114 rush yds Weeks 7-13

13. Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants 875-1,200 8-11 Foot a concern, but he scores TDs

14. Ryan Mathews, Chargers 975-1,100* 6-8 Last 5 games: 511 yards, 3 TDs

15. Frank Gore, Niners 1,150-1,250 7-10 Erratic TDs: 8-5-13-8-6-9

16. Reggie Bush, Dolphins 950-1,100* 6-8 Last 4 games: 519 yards, 2 TDs

17. Darren Sproles, Saints 575-675** 7-10 PPR monster: 86 catches last yr.

Questions beginning

18. T. Richardson, Browns 1,100-1,225 7-10 Can rookie lift lackluster offense?

19. Mar. Lynch, Seahawks 1,075-1,150 7-9 First double-digit TD season in '11

20. BenJarvus G-E, Bengals 925-1,100 9-12 24 TDs last two seasons

21. Cedric Benson, Packers 950-1,100 7-9 Other experts too low on ex-Bear

22. Michael Turner, Falcons 825-975 8-10 Gut feeling: Burner is burned out

23. Willis McGahee, Broncos 1,050-1,200 5-8 In 8 yrs., only 2 times 10-plus TDs

24. Stevan Ridley, Patriots 775-1,050 6-9 Tough to trust Belichick

25. Doug Martin, Bucs 800-1,050 5-8 Bucs comparing him to Ray Rice

Guys worth a shot

26. Beanie Wells, Cardinals 850-975 6-9 366 of 1,047 yards came in 2 gms!

27. Jon. Stewart, Panthers 750-925 6-9 Only 8 total TDs last two seasons

28. Donald Brown, Colts 725-900 4-7 Team will abandon running game a lot

29. Kevin Smith, Lions 650-900 3-7 At this point, why not?

30. Shonn Greene, Jets 900-1,075 4-6 Tebow big drain on Greene's value

31. DeA. Williams, Panthers 750-850 6-7 Never had more than 15 carries in '11

32. Mark Ingram, Saints 675-800 6-10 Big TD number possible

33. Peyton Hillis, Chiefs 700-850 6-10 Hillis should get 10-12 touches/gm.

34. Ben Tate, Patriots 725-825 4-6 Must-have handcuff for Foster

35. Michael Bush, BEARS 500-800 6-9 Must-have handuff for Forte

Now you're reaching

36. Isaac Redman, Steelers 350-600 2-7 Likely starter in Weeks 1-3

37. LeG. Blount, Bucs 450-800 4-9 Stumbled in 2011 but still dangerous

38. Shane Vereen, Pats 450-700 3-6 He's not that far behind Ridley

39. Alfred Morris, Redskins 300-900 3-6 Rookie may be the guy

40. Daniel Thomas, Dolphins 550-750 3-5 Good pick for your bench

41. R. Mendenhall, Steelers 550-850 4-6 Should return in Week 5

42. Tim Hightower, Redskins 475-600 3-5 He's the starter ... for now

Other must-have handcuffs: Rashad Jennings (Jaguars); Kendall Hunter (Niners); Toby Gerhart (Vikings); C.J. Spiller (Bills); David Wilson (Giants); Robert Turbin (Seahawks); Dion Lewis (Eagles); Felix Jones (Cowboys)

Keeper watch: Jonathan Dwyer (Steelers); Ryan Williams (Cardinals); Alex Green (Packers); Mikel LeShoure (Lions); Evan Royster and Roy Helu Jr. (Redskins)

** 500-plus receiving yards likely; * 300-plus receiving yards likely

YFS -- Yards from scrimmage

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