You should go ahead and pencil in Arian Foster as a top-2 pick in your Fantasy draft, just behind Adrian Peterson and just in front of everyone else. But after posting another season with at least 1,600 total yards and 12 total touchdowns there are some concerns about a Foster breakdown. For starters, we've seen his rushing average decline over three years. We also learned after the season he was treated for an irregular heartbeat that hopefully won't impact him going forward. But the biggest red flag is that for the first time, Foster had more than 400 carries over 16 regular-season games and two postseason matchups. That does not include the 55 catches he had over those games. Typically when a player has that kind of workload one year he declines the next. Foster's breathtaking production might be too alluring to pass up, particularly for one of the other backs in the draft, but he is human and could struggle at some point in 2013 because of the wear and tear he's put on his body. This does not mean you have to pass on Foster, but it does mean that more than ever backing him up with Ben Tate is a must. If you take Foster with an early round pick, plan on taking Tate in Round 7 just to make sure you protect yourself.
Ray Rice should be in the conversation as a top-10 pick, but not necessarily a top-5 pick. True, he had another excellent season in 2012 when he totaled over 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns and scored double-digit Fantasy points in 11 games. But toward the end of last year, we saw Rice split reps with Bernard Pierce, so there's a little concern he could cut into Rice's workload in 2013. He also didn't produce the huge numbers he did before the Ravens made a coordinator change as Joe Flacco sort of took over the direction of the offense. We wouldn't be as worried about those things as we would a hangover from the Super Bowl -- running backs tend to struggle posting big numbers in the season following a title game run. Rice had 331 carries and 69 catches over 20 games, which is a lot of work but nothing to get completely alarmed about (he had 411 total touches in 2010 and was fine in 2011). This is why we caution you about taking him with a super-early pick. Is he still one of the best players in Fantasy? Sure, but he's got a lot more company at the top of the running back heap than he did a year ago. We'd aim for Rice no higher than sixth overall in drafts.
There are some Fantasy owners worried about LeSean McCoy this season. He is coming off a bad year, playing for a new coach in Chip Kelly and has some potential competition for carries in Bryce Brown. All of that is true, but have no fear because McCoy remains an elite Fantasy option. Yes, 2012 was a tough year for him. He missed four games with a concussion and went from 20 total touchdowns in 2011 to just five. He also failed to reach 1,500 total yards (he had 1,200) for the first time since 2009. But despite his struggles, McCoy still had double digits in Fantasy points in 10 of his 12 outings. He still remains the starter, and Kelly will lean on him. And even if he comes off the field for Brown at times, it's not like this is a 50-50 split. McCoy will continue to do the heavy lifting for this offense. We definitely recommend drafting McCoy in Round 1, and he should be considered a Top 10 overall pick. Brown is worth a late-round selection as a handcuff, but figure McCoy to be around 1,500 total yards again with the chance for double digits in touchdowns and close to 50 catches. He's an elite Fantasy option, and he will regain his form this year.
Chris Johnson has totaled at least 1,400 total yards in each of his five NFL seasons, but his past few seasons have delivered headaches to his Fantasy owners. Two years ago he missed camp, had some conditioning issues and struggled to stay consistent. Last year he was in camp and was seemingly in better shape but still performed at a gross level until he was able to exploit some weak opponents and post numbers in blowout losses. The Titans had enough – they improved the offensive line with veteran Andy Levitre and first-round pick Chase Warmack and also got Shonn Greene to aid in their run game. Greene will pick up the goal-line work Johnson didn't have much of in the first place but also be there to complement Johnson and potentially replace him if he doesn't get off to a good start for the third year in a row. A difficult schedule and a potential dip in carries combined with Johnson's underwhelming numbers make him a little scary but consider this: He's still averaged at least 90 total yards per game in each of his last two seasons and last year had nine games with at least 10 Fantasy points. And now his offensive line shouldn't be a problem. Johnson will slide out of the first round on Draft Day but is worth a look at the halfway point of the second round, particularly if you pencil him in as your No. 2 running back.
Talent-wise, Darren McFadden might be the best running back in the NFL. Health-wise, he might be the worst. McFadden comes into this season once again trying to prove he can be an elite running back. He missed time again in 2012, this time it was four games with an ankle injury, and struggled with Oakland’s zone-blocking scheme. He had a career-low 3.3 yards per carry and finished with 216 carries for 707 yards and two touchdowns and 42 catches for 258 yards and one touchdown. It was a miserable year, but the Raiders remain committed to McFadden. The zone-blocking system is gone with Greg Olson replacing Greg Knapp as the offensive coordinator, and McFadden will now try to stay healthy for the first time in his career (he’s never played more than 13 games). We still have optimism for McFadden, but there are obvious red flags. Because of that he should only be drafted with a late-second round pick at the earliest. Your best bet is to get McFadden in the third round and hope he surprises you like he did in 2010 (1,600 total yards and 10 touchdowns). We’d all take that McFadden, and we hope he shows up this year.
DeMarco Murray has a lot to prove heading into his third year in the NFL. He's battled injuries and inconsistent play through two seasons, but now is his time to shine. Murray is starting to look more like Darren McFadden than Adrian Peterson, which is not good. He's already missed nine games through two seasons, and Fantasy owners are frustrated. He should be ready to go for the start of this year, and we hope he can put together a full season of quality outings. In 2012, Murray appeared in just 10 games. He had at least seven Fantasy points in every outing with double-digit points in five games, so he's capable of being a big point producer. But he has to stay on the field to live up to the hype. Based on talent, Murray is a first-round pick, but we would let him fall to Round 2 at the earliest. He should be considered at least a top-15 Fantasy running back, and if he can play 16 games we could be looking at a top-10 option in all leagues.
Marshawn Lynch should be considered the No. 3 running back for Fantasy owners coming into the season behind Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster. He's that good. In 2012, Lynch had 315 carries for 1,590 yards and 11 touchdowns and 23 catches for 196 yards and a touchdown. He had double digits in Fantasy points in 11 games, including five in a row to close the season. And in two years as the starter for Seattle he has scored 25 total touchdowns with more than 1,400 total yards in each season. If he can avoid a suspension from last year's DUI arrest in July -- the matter has yet to be resolved – then he should be a star. You can debate all you want about how good Ray Rice is, the potential of Doug Martin and Trent Richardson or the upside for guys like Jamaal Charles or C.J. Spiller, but Lynch has been unstoppable with the Seahawks. Lynch is definitely a top-5 overall pick, and if he's guaranteed the chance to play all 16 games then draft him at No. 3.
Fantasy owners have fallen hard for Trent Richardson after a rookie year that saw him total 1,317 yards and 12 touchdowns. There's no doubt that he'll remain a heavy volume workhorse for the Browns as they transition to an offense led by new head coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Despite some problems in San Diego last season, Turner has done a great job converting young running backs into excellent stat producers. Not that Richardson had a lot of problems producing numbers for much of last year -- he was one of nine running backs with at least 11 games with 10-plus Fantasy points last season thanks not only to his work on handoffs but also his receiving skills (51 catches on 70 targets). With an eye on improving his 3.6 rushing average and playing a full season, Richardson should deliver some excellent numbers in 2013. Count on him as a top-5 pick in drafts.
Ryan Mathews has a lot of work to do before Fantasy owners can trust him. In 2012, Mathews was expected to be an elite Fantasy option. Instead, he was among the biggest busts of the year. A broken clavicle in training camp derailed the start of his season, and he never recovered before suffering a second broken clavicle in Week 15. He finished the year with 184 carries for 707 yards (3.8 yards per carry) and one touchdown and 39 catches for 252 yards. In 2011, Mathews looked like a star in the making when he had 222 carries for 1,091 yards and six touchdowns and 50 catches for 455 yards - an average of 12.4 Fantasy points per game. But now health is again an issue for him, which wasn't helped playing behind a poor offensive line. The Chargers also brought in Danny Woodhead and kept Ronnie Brown, meaning Mathews will likely come off the field on passing downs. Still, based on potential, Mathews should be considered a low-end No. 2 Fantasy running back, and he's worth the risk with a pick in Round 4 or 5 in the majority of leagues.
For the first time in his 10-year career, Steven Jackson won't be playing for the Rams. He signed with the Falcons this offseason, and he will be the new starter in Atlanta. The Falcons – and Fantasy owners -- hope to get the Jackson we saw at the end of last season because that running back was a beast. After a slow start in 2012, Jackson turned it on following the bye in Week 9. He closed the season with double digits in Fantasy points in six of his final eight games and had at least eight points in each outing. For the season, Jackson had 257 carries for 1,042 yards and four touchdowns and 38 catches for 321 yards. He has been a workhorse for the majority of his career -- and a successful one at that. Since 2005, Jackson has at least 1,300 total yards in all but one season, which was 2007 when he was limited to 12 games. He still managed 1,273 total yards that year. We'd like to see Jackson score more (he has one season with double digits in touchdowns), which should happen with the Falcons, and coach Mike Smith already plans to involve Jackson in the passing game. He should remain a solid No. 2 Fantasy running back, and he's worth drafting with a second-round pick. Jackson, who will be 30 in July, is definitely near a decline, but he should still have plenty of positive moments this season with a Super Bowl-contending team.
Fantasy running backs don't come much safer than Matt Forte. The Bears running back is on a five-year streak of landing at least 1,400 total yards per season, though he hasn't produced double-digit touchdowns since his rookie campaign. He'll work with a new playcaller in head coach Marc Trestman, who has a solid track record of using his running backs, including a single rusher totaling over 1,500 total yards in four of five years in Montreal. Forte is a good fit for Trestman though the coach has been in favor of using a different back at the goal line in the past. Expect Forte to remain a constant for the Bears, making him worthy of a second-round choice.
Fred Jackson went from a viable Fantasy running back from 2009-11 to a potential roadblock for C.J. Spiller. And Fantasy owners just want him out of the way. Jackson was set up for a productive year in 2012 before a knee injury in Week 1 derailed his season. When he went down, Spiller took off, and now Jackson could find himself playing second fiddle at age 32. If Jackson remains in Buffalo, which is a strong possibility, he will be the backup to Spiller. But the Bills should still give Jackson plenty of work. He will likely be a No. 3 Fantasy running back on Draft Day, and we would take him with a mid-round selection.
Maurice Jones-Drew figures to be one of the most polarizing Fantasy running backs this summer. On one hand he's coming off a Lisfranc fracture, averaged "only" 83.3 total yards per game in 2012 and will be 28 when the season starts. On the other, he's considered among the most prolific Fantasy rushers thanks to averaging at least 110 total yards per game over the last three years while easily collecting over 320 touches in each season. All signs point to Jones-Drew having a much different offseason than he had a year ago when he sat out of training camp because of a contract dispute. Now Jones-Drew is comfortable finishing out the final year on his deal with the Jaguars and should be in a role similar to what we're used to seeing if he looks OK in camp (that's a big if). That's looking good after he shed a walking boot and began jogging in early April. Though the Jaguars' offensive system is getting a makeover with the zone-blocking scheme coming into town, Jones-Drew still figures to be a prominent option for Fantasy owners to target as a No. 2 player with the potential to put up numbers like a No. 1. Expect him to get picked somewhere between 20th and 30th overall in all drafts.
It appears Doug Martin will be among the first group of running backs taken in every single draft this summer. Why wouldn't he be? After all his rookie year consisted of 1,926 yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns. That was enough to finish tied for second-best running back in all of the NFL last season with Arian Foster, compiling 12 games with at least 10 Fantasy points. If there's a nitpick it's that a huge chunk of his production came in a two-game span against the Vikings and Raiders, where he had 61 total touches and amassed 486 total yards and half of his total touchdowns on the year. Those two weeks pushed his numbers to enormous heights, but it's not like he didn't have many other big weeks, especially after the Bucs' bye when he had at least 100 total yards in nine of 12 games. You'll find Martin picked between third and eighth overall in all basic standard and PPR leagues this summer.
Ahmad Bradshaw is looking for a new employer after he was cut by the Giants this offseason in a salary-cap move. Bradshaw is also coming off foot surgery, but he’s expected to be fine. Still, foot problems have plagued him most of his career, and whoever takes a chance on him will have to trust he can stay healthy. In 2012, Bradshaw missed just two games and finished the season with 221 carries for 1,015 yards and six touchdowns and 23 catches for 245 yards. It’s the second time he’s had at least 220 carries and 1,000 rushing yards, and he’s had at least six touchdowns in every year since 2009. Bradshaw can still be a solid Fantasy option in all leagues, especially with the right team, so keep an eye on where he lands. He should remain a starting Fantasy running back worth a mid-round pick if he gets a starting job, but if he accepts a backup role then just take Bradshaw with a late-round selection.