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Which running backs are consistently great?

Senior Fantasy Writer
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There's one thing all Fantasy owners can agree on -- a first-round pick should be a weekly no-brainer starter who should deliver big on a near-consistent basis. Anything short of finishing the season outside the Top 10 at his position is considered a disappointment. Why else would they have taken a player in Round 1 if he doesn't perform like a Round 1 talent?

Misfiring with a first-round pick can be catastrophic to a Fantasy team. And since most owners lean toward running backs with their top choice, that catastrophe plays itself out far more often than you might imagine.

Consistently Consistent
Only seven rushers have averaged a Top 12 finish while in their current role over at least three seasons.
Player Years Avg. Top 12 Rank
Adrian Peterson 4 3.0
Chris Johnson 3 5.7
Maurice Jones-Drew 5 8.8
Frank Gore 5 10.4
Steven Jackson 5 11.0
Matt Forte 3 11.3
Michael Turner 3 11.7

In a study going back the last 15 seasons, 55.3 percent of the running backs who finished in the Top 10 in total Fantasy points in standard scoring formats did not stay in the Top 10 the following year. Worse yet, that percentage jumped to 64 percent when looking only at the last five seasons, suggesting that the running back turnover from year to year is getting worse. As recently as last year, only three running backs -- Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice -- posted back-to-back Top 10 campaigns.

You probably knew the running back position was volatile to begin with, but that information is enough to make you sprint to a quarterback in Round 1. Is that a good idea? Given that many teams have moved to a multi-pronged rushing attack, as well as an added emphasis on passing by more and more teams every year, it's not the Fantasy suicide it once was. But most owners start at least twice as many running backs (and wide receivers) as they do quarterbacks, which is why they're taken ahead of them even though signal-callers typically generate more Fantasy points. It's the ol' supply and demand economic model on display in every draft.

So what happens to running backs who finish in the Top 10? Why don't they get back there? In a study focusing on just the last five years, the No. 1 reason is the most obvious: injuries. Thirty-eight percent of running backs couldn't repeat as Top 10 rushers because injuries kept them out for anywhere from a couple of games (Maurice Jones-Drew in 2010) to nearly the entire season (Ryan Grant in 2010). Compare that with the 36 percent of the running backs who did repeat in the Top 10 over the last five seasons and you can figure that the odds of getting a repeat stud rusher are about on par as getting an injured rusher you hoped would be a stud.

Then there are the Top 10 running backs who didn't repeat their feat but managed to stay healthy. Over the last five years, 10 percent of rushers changed teams and/or changed roles after their sensational seasons and as a result saw their stats suffer. Thomas Jones going from the Jets to the Chiefs is a perfect example from 2010. Another 16 percent of backs remained Top 20 performers at the position, just not quite good enough to crack the Top 10. That's not necessarily bad news for Fantasy owners, but no one takes a running back hoping he finishes in the Top 20. Expectations are higher.

Now the point of this isn't necessarily to talk you out of taking a running back with your first pick. Granted, if you crave safety, then maybe you should be ready to draft Aaron Rodgers or Michael Vick above all others. But there are some interesting dynamics with last year's Top 10 running back class that you should take note of before making that decision.

For starters, there are 11 players in the Top 10, not 10, because there was a tie for 10th place between Matt Forte and Ray Rice in total Fantasy points. All but one of those 11 running backs will enter 2011 at 26 years old or younger (Michael Turner is 29).

While it's important to note that five running backs have been in the Top 10 previously in their careers, the more alarming number is that six running backs made their Top 10 debut in 2010. The last time there were more than two running backs who were "one-hit wonders" was 1993 when there were five. Odds are that the majority of the six first-time Top 10 studs (Jamaal Charles, Arian Foster, Peyton Hillis, LeSean McCoy, Darren McFadden, Rashard Mendenhall) will get into the Top 10 again, although it doesn't have to necessarily be this season.

As it pertains to role and workload, only one back (Hillis) is expected to lose touches this season compared to last season, but even he is still expected to be very active. Everyone else in the Top 10 should remain productive, stay with their current team and not have a noticeably depreciating role in their respective offense.

So who's at risk of not being in the Top 10 again in 2011? Let's survey the field and draw some conclusions.

Jamaal Charles, Chiefs
Finished 2010: 3rd overall
Number of Top 10 finishes: One (2010)
Risk factor: Low. Charles wasn't even his own team's leading rusher last season and he still finished with killer stats. Thomas Jones be darned, Charles has enough of a track record to warrant high Fantasy expectations. In fact, word out of Kansas City is that the Chiefs will keep Jones around to pick up carries, but that Charles will see more rushes. Since high school, Charles' health is clean save for minor knicks and tweaks in his rookie year and in college. After what he did last season, how could Chiefs head coach Todd Haley choose to limit him any more?

Matt Forte, Bears
Finished 2010: tied 10th overall
Number of Top 10 finishes: Two (2008, 2010)
Risk factor: Mild. Forte overcame all of the sligns and arrows critics threw at him last season, providing stability in Chicago's backfield and overcoming some perceived issues with Mike Martz's offense. More good news: Forte has never missed a game, even playing all of 2009 with an injury, and has put up at least 1,400 total yards with at least 50 receptions every season. With Chester Taylor not even a factor in Chicago last year and the Bears not addressing the running back position in the draft, signs point to Forte having a busy year. Hopefully that includes end-zone visits -- he's rushed for 10 scores and caught three more over the last two seasons. There shouldn't be much trepidation in drafting Forte in Round 1.

Arian Foster, Texans
Finished 2010: 1st overall
Number of Top 10 finishes: One (2010)
Risk factor: Mild. No Texans rusher has stood the test of time, be it with Gary Kubiak as head coach or not. That speaks to Foster's long-term value more than anything else, so if we just focus on this upcoming season and what Foster brings to the Texans as far as an explosive one-cut runner with great hands, there's plenty to like. Even after a minor knee operation this offseason and Ben Tate getting healthy and ready to ease a little bit of the rushing burden, Foster should be a Top 5 pick.

Repeat the feat?
Year Top 10 repeats Didn't repeat (injury) Didn't repeat (performance)
2010 3 3 4
2009 3 3 4
2008 4 4 2
2007 4 4 2
2006 4 3 3
2005 5 4 1
2004 5 3 2
2003 6 0 4
2002 4 1 5
2001 3 3 4
2000 6 2 2
1999 4 5 1
1998 5 2 3
1997 6 2 2
1996 5 3 2

Peyton Hillis, Browns
Finished 2010: 4th overall
Number of Top 10 finishes: One (2010)
Risk factor: Moderate. There's no way Hillis is getting 321 total touches again -- that number figures to be around 275 this season. The Browns are going to play it smart and let Hillis share. Montario Hardesty should be fine after missing his rookie season with a knee injury and another change-of-pace back is expected to join them. Hillis should still be Cleveland's main man at the goal line and remain a factor out of the backfield, but there's room for him to come down from the 1,600 total yards and 13 total touchdowns he had last year. With opportunities trending downward and his rushing style opening him up to possible injuries, Fantasy owners who overvalue Hillis on Draft Day could be disappointed. Given the circumstances, he's not worth taking with a first- or early second-round pick.

Chris Johnson, Titans
Finished 2010: 5th overall
Number of Top 10 finishes: Two (2009, 2010)
Risk factor: Low. Johnson's productive consistency is rivaled only by Peterson's. He's had at least 1,450 total yards and double-digit total touchdowns in each of his three seasons. And while some will call last season a "bad" year for him given his uneven performances, he still managed to be very solid coming off a year where he had 408 touches. That's impressive. Some will point to the Titans' uncertainty at quarterback, but they've never had a staunch passer with Johnson before and we all know how well he's produced. Johnson is a back you shouldn't talk yourself out of taking with a Top 3 pick.

LeSean McCoy, Eagles
Finished 2010: 7th overall
Number of Top 10 finishes: One (2010)
Risk factor: Low. Let's face it -- the guy is who we said he was the day he was drafted: A Brian Westbrook clone. Except there's one difference -- so far, he's not as injury prone. Let's hope McCoy keeps it that way because as the rusher in an offense piloted by Michael Vick with DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin roaming downfield, the defensive fronts he'll face will never be overwhelming. He's got sick potential and is an easy first-round pick.

Darren McFadden, Raiders
Finished 2010: 6th overall
Number of Top 10 finishes: One (2010)
Risk factor: Moderate. The big risk with McFadden is injury, which partially prevented him from living up to his potential in his first two years. As such, McFadden has never played more than 13 games in a season due to leg, knee and toe problems. And for what it's worth, the last time the Raiders had a running back post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons was Marcus Allen in 1984 and '85. Even with Michael Bush not a lock to return to Oakland, picking a quarterback over McFadden might not be a bad idea in Round 1.

Youth is not served
Rookies and second-year rushers have not represented well in Fantasy. Here are the percentages of rookies/second-year backs that made up the cumulative Top 10 over the last 15 years.
Rookies 9.3 pct.
Second-year 12.7 pct.

Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers
Finished 2010: 8th overall
Number of Top 10 finishes: One (2010)
Risk factor: Moderate. It's hard to not like Mendenhall given what he's delivered over the last two seasons and the 2011 schedule he has in front of him. But as my colleague Jamey Eisenberg pointed out, running backs coming off of a full season and postseason including the Super Bowl tend to not live up to expectations the following year. Also, don't forget that Mendenhall's numbers were somewhat inflated in the Steelers' first four games without Ben Roethlisberger (three 20-touch games, four of 13 touchdowns, two of three 100-yard games, although he had a pair of 99-yard games with Big Ben). If he can survive the bugaboo that comes with running backs that play 19-plus games in a year, then there's a lot to like with Mendenhall.

Adrian Peterson, Vikings
Finished 2010: 2nd overall
Number of Top 10 finishes: Four (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010)
Risk factor: Low. Peterson has been as consistent as they come for Fantasy owners, putting up double-digit touchdowns and over 1,500 total yards in every year of his career. Sure, he's going to have a big question mark at quarterback this season and his O-line is declining, but there's no doubt that Peterson has delivered in a Tomlinson-esque way since stepping foot on NFL turf. It's hard to expect him to struggle in any way. He's worth a Top 3 pick.

Ray Rice, Ravens
Finished 2010: tied 10th overall
Number of Top 10 finishes: Two (2009, 2010)
Risk factor: Low. Words like fast, electric and versatile have been used to describe Rice. Now there's one more: Consistent. Given the chance to accrue touches on a weekly basis, Rice has posted back-to-back 1,700-total-yard seasons. The touchdowns aren't as plentiful as Fantasy owners might want, but that's because Willis McGahee stole a lot of them. McGahee is not expected to stay with the Ravens, which means Rice could see some goal-line work and bolster his stats. He also told CBSSports.com this offseason that his goals are higher than they've ever been. Assuming the Ravens give him the chance, he should reach his goals considering the schedule they have. It wouldn't be a mistake to draft Rice with a Top 5 pick.

Michael Turner, Falcons
Finished 2010: 9th overall
Number of Top 10 finishes: Two (2008, 2010)
Risk factor: Moderate. Turner is the oldest of the Top 10 rushers from 2010 at 29 years old. But that's misleading because he only has 1,116 career carries, so there's plenty of gas left in his tank. But Fantasy owners shouldn't overlook the Falcons' rookie additions this offseason, as Julio Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers could take some touches away from 'The Burner,' nor should they overlook the 344 total carries he had in 17 games last year (including the postseason). Turner did not hold up well after getting over 370 carries in 2008 and could be at risk for an injury again this year. If the Falcons address that with Rodgers and Jason Snelling aiding in the rushing workload, that works against Turner's productivity, too. He's not the most attractive first-round pick.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter . You can also follow Dave at @daverichard . Do you have a question or a comment for our Fantasy staff? Drop us a line at dmfantasyfootball@cbs.com .

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Player News
QB struggles begin to impact Cardinals DST
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(2:13 am ET) The Cardinals DST scored just one Fantasy point in standard CBSSports.com leagues Week 16 against Seattle, interrupting a stretch of 10 games in which it averaged 15.1, and the Cardinals' offensive woes may have had something to do with it.

Specifically, they've been unable to find a decent quarterback since losing Carson Palmer to injury in Week 10. Backup Drew Stanton at least mounted some kind of threat, but with him sidelined by a sprained knee in Week 16, the Cardinals had to turn to third-stringer Ryan Lindley. He turned the ball over twice without once leading his team into the end zone, completing less than half of his passes in the process.

The quick trips back to the sideline gave the Seahawks more chances to pile up points and yards, and they did, finishing with 35 and 596. Only one other time have the Cardinals allowed more than 30 points in a game, and the 596 yards were a season high. Worse yet, they were lacking in big plays, recording one sack with no takeaways.

Fortunately, the Cardinals will take on a struggling 49ers offense in Week 17, so even if Lindley is back under center, the DST at least has a chance of a respectable performance. Still, if you've been relying on it all season, you might want to make sure there isn't an appealing matchups play on the waiver wire.


Seahawks DST can't be stopped
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(2:04 am ET) The Seahawks DST had another dominant performance Week 16 at Arizona, continuing a nine-week run that has made it once again arguably the top unit in Fantasy. During that stretch, it has averaged 16.2 Fantasy points, allowing 11.9 points on 231.3 yards.

It allowed only six points on 216 yards in Week 16, recording four sacks and one interception. Of the Seahawks' 33 sacks this season, 20 have come in their last five games.

Clearly, they had a favorable matchup in this one, but they also shut down the Eagles in Week 14. You don't have any reason to shy away from the Seahawks DST against St. Louis in Week 17.


Kenbrell Thompkins comes out of nowhere
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:58 am ET) After making only modest contributions since coming over from the Patriots in Week 6, Raiders wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins suddenly emerged as quarterback Derek Carr's favorite target Week 16 against Buffalo, catching five passes for 90 yards. He hadn't caught even one pass since Week 13, and his previous high in yardage was 47.

Of course, you should know how this goes by now. Fellow wide receivers James Jones and Andre Holmes have both had their stretches of Fantasy relevance this season, as has tight end Mychal Rivera. The Raiders have a multitude of viable receiving targets, but their roles aren't so clear, which makes the task of picking the most impactful from week to week next to impossible.

In other words, you'd need to play in an especially deep league to take a flier on Thompkins for the season's final week.


Latavius Murray trustworthy up to a point
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:51 am ET) If his 23 carries Week 14 against San Francisco didn't convince you, Latavius Murray's 23 carries Week 16 against Buffalo should make the message loud and clear: He is the Raiders' top running back, and they're putting more faith in him than they ever did Darren McFadden.

Granted, it hasn't translated to much production yet, but the 49ers and Bills are two of the toughest defenses against the run. Unfortunately, Denver, the Raiders' Week 17 opponent, is ranked even higher at both.

Can you trust Murray to get his carries? He's gotten them two of the last three weeks, so most likely, yes. And with 20-plus chances, there's always the chance he breaks a long one. But the matchup will make it difficult.

You'd like to start him given his ever-increasing role, but you shouldn't force him into your lineup if you have two (or maybe three) respectable running backs already.


One way or another, Fred Jackson gets his
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:44 am ET) Trailing early Week 16 at Oakland with their playoff hopes on the line, the Bills didn't stick with the running game for long, attempting only three runs in the second half. But in a way, that worked to running back Fred Jackson's advantage. He's such a good pass-catcher out of the backfield that he still topped 100 total yards, doing so for the first time since returning from a groin injury in Week 12.

Even with the return of C.J. Spiller from a long-term shoulder injury, Jackson still led the Bills in carries, but with only six for 10 yards. He also led the team in catches with nine for 93 yards. He had 10 catches just two weeks ago, so clearly, he's a PPR stud.

Is he worth starting in standard leagues as well? Well, he's also gotten 20 carries twice in five games since returning. He hasn't been as effective on the ground as through the air, but yards are yards, however he gets them.

Their matchup Week 17 at New England will probably force the Bills to go pass-heavy again, so unless you're stacked at running back, you can find a spot for Jackson in your lineup.


Desperation fuels Kyle Orton's performance
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:35 am ET) Bills quarterback Kyle Orton didn't have the most efficient day throwing the ball Week 16 at Oakland, but from a Fantasy perspective, it was a productive one. He threw for 329 yards and three touchdowns but also had two interceptions.

What's crazy, though, is that 196 of those yards came in the second half. The Bills were trailing a winnable game with their playoff hopes on the line, and their desperation showed. Unfortunately, that desperation also contributed to the second of Orton's interceptions.

The Bills have been eliminated, so no matter how much they're trailing Week 17 at New England, they probably won't be quite as desperate. You can expect more typical numbers from Orton -- maybe about 250 yards with one or two scores -- even if the matchup appears to be a favorable one, making him a player better left for two-quarterback leagues.


Kenny Britt clearly better with Shaun Hill
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:27 am ET) Rams wide receiver Kenny Britt caught a season-high nine passes on a season-high 11 targets Week 16 against the Giants, but his 103 receiving yards actually weren't a season high.

That's because he had 128, along with a touchdown, Week 11 against the Broncos.

That was Shaun Hill's first game back under center. Week 16, obviously, was his latest one. In the six games since Hill reclaimed the role, Britt has averaged 3.8 catches for 66.3 yards. In the nine games before then, he averaged 2.3 catches for 34.7 yards.

Britt has been especially good lately, averaging 73.3 yards in his last three games. Hill has also been fond of Stedman Bailey, but he doesn't seem to have a clear preference for one or the other.

Of course, the Rams passing attack isn't prolific enough to sustain both, so if you're going to target Britt or Bailey off the waiver wire, make sure it's in a deeper league. You wouldn't want to roll the dice on either in the season's final week if you can help it.


Andre Williams showing more ability
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:19 am ET) Carrying the load for the third straight game with Rashad Jennings sidelined by an ankle injury Week 16 at St. Louis, Giants rookie running back Andre Williams delivered his second 100-yard effort during that stretch, picking up 110 yards on 26 carries. Of course, just like in Week 14, it wasn't the steadiest performance. He had a 50-yard run in that one en route to a career-best 131 yards. He had a 45-yard run en route to his 110 yards in this one.

But that's true for most 100-yard rushing performances. The best backs break long runs occasionally, which makes up for all the 2- and 3-yard gains in between. It's easy to discount Williams' performance because of a long run here or a long run there because he's been so bad on a per-carry basis this season (take that 45-yard run away, and he averaged only 2.6 yards per carry -- oh noes!), but the fact is those long runs count, too. And he barreled over a couple of tacklers to complete it, which was nice to see.

Because Williams is short on receiving ability, his numbers don't look so great when he doesn't break a long run, but with all the carries he's getting now, his chances are better than not of breaking one. He's worth starting in standard leagues Week 17 against Philadelphia.


Rueben Randle not overshadowed for once
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:08 am ET) Since the emergence of rookie Odell Beckham in Week 9, and especially since his even bigger emergence in Week 12, wide receiver Rueben Randle has been an afterthought in the Giants passing game, averaging 2.3 catches for 31.8 yards in the four games leading up to Week 16 at St. Louis. But quarterback Eli Manning finally had enough yards to go around in that one, delivering Beckham his usual eight grabs for 148 yards and still finding Randle on six passes for 132 yards.

Randle even caught a touchdown pass, his first since Week 5. Of course, Beckham caught two and is now up to eight in his last five games, averaging 9.6 catches for 131.4 yards during that stretch.

You see the problem here, don't you? Manning was able to sustain both Beckham and Randle in this one, but that's only because he threw for a season-high 391 yards. If he regresses to a more modest total Week 17 against Philadelphia, we all know Randle is the one taking a back seat. Beckham has other-worldly talent, and Manning is smart enough to deliver him the ball as often as possible.

Of course, the Giants will probably have to throw a lot to keep pace with the Eagles, which bodes well for Randle, but you should still treat him as no more than a No. 3 wide receiver in Fantasy.


Odell Beckham making Eli Manning a stud
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(12:58 am ET) Giants rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham had another eight catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns Week 16 at St. Louis, which has become par for the course for him. It was his second straight game and third game in five with more than 140 receiving yards and multiple scores.

What you may not have noticed, though, is that quarterback Eli Manning has taken off during that same stretch. He had a season-high 391 yards and three touchdowns in Week 16, completing 25 of 32 passes. Over his last five games, he has averaged 297.2 yards with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.

It stands to reason, of course. Beckham couldn't be putting up all those numbers without someone throwing him the ball. This may be one of those rare cases of the wide receiver making the quarterback as opposed to the other way around. Beckham is clearly a special talent, and Manning has made a point to deliver him the ball as often as possible.

It's reason enough to give Manning another chance Week 17 against Philadelphia if you've been suffering with Matthew Stafford or Colin Kaepernick and are somehow still alive in spite of it.


 
 
 
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