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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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