The biggest decision Fantasy owners might have to make in 2012 is when to draft Adrian Peterson. His knee injury has now made him a risky Fantasy option.
Peterson has been a first-round Fantasy draft pick in every season since 2008, which was his second year in the NFL, but a torn ACL and MCL in Week 16 has left his status for the start of 2012 in doubt. There is a chance he could even open the season on the PUP list.
In taking a look at an initial Top 12 list of running backs for 2012, Peterson is not among that group. He is not a running back I would target on Draft Day because of the severity of his injury and since it happened late in the year. But Peterson is not alone in his comeback from a serious knee injury.
Jamaal Charles, who also suffered a torn ACL, is in better shape than Peterson. He is worth drafting with an early round selection because his injury happened in Week 2. He should be able to make a full recovery and be ready to go for the start of the season.
We wish Rashard Mendenhall was like Charles, but he is closer to Peterson since his torn ACL happened in Week 17. He might not be ready for Week 1 in 2012, and he should not be drafted prior to Round 4 in the majority of leagues as long as he makes a full recovery.
The injuries to Peterson and Mendenhall have opened the door for Toby Gerhart and Isaac Redman to have increased Fantasy value and fall under the sleeper category. Some other potential sleepers include Mikel Leshoure, Stevan Ridley and Montario Hardesty.
Leshoure, who missed his rookie season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon, could be the starter for the Lions in 2012. Ridley has the chance to be the best running back in New England, especially if BenJarvus Green-Ellis leaves as a free agent. And Hardesty could be the starter in Cleveland with Peyton Hillis not expected back. But Hardesty has to prove he can stay healthy and play at a high level.
Some potential busts include Reggie Bush, Cedric Benson and Fred Jackson. Bush and Jackson were Top 15 Fantasy running backs this season, but they should falter in 2012. Daniel Thomas should be more of a factor in Miami, which will hurt Bush, and C.J. Spiller showed he deserves a more prominent role next year after he did a nice job replacing Jackson when he was hurt. Benson is a free agent, and his days as a featured running back are likely over, especially if he leaves the Bengals.
A few other running backs I would draft with caution in 2012 would also be Michael Turner, Steven Jackson and Frank Gore, who were Top 15 Fantasy running backs this season. Even though they are still productive and featured options, they are headed for a breakdown in the near future. And if it happens this year you could be disappointed if you drafted any of them with an early pick.
Top 12 Running Backs for 2012
Arian Foster, Texans
2011 stats: 278 carries for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns; 53 catches for 617 yards and two touchdowns (71 targets); three fumbles
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 238 (18.3)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 3 overall (Round 1)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 1 overall (Round 1)
Foster finished 47 Fantasy points behind Rice for the No. 1 running back spot this season, but that was with him getting just three points over the first three weeks of the season because of an injured hamstring. If Foster hit his average weekly points during that period he would have finished with 293 Fantasy points and ahead of Rice. We like Foster to be No. 1 in 2012 with Gary Kubiak back because the system in Houston is catered to rushing success. Foster could also be in a contract year if he's not signed this offseason, and he again has a favorable schedule in his division and against Buffalo, Green Bay, New England and Denver – all teams that struggled in run defense this season.
Ray Rice, Ravens
2011 stats: 291 carries for 1,364 yards and 12 touchdowns; 76 catches for 704 yards and three touchdowns (104 targets); two fumbles; one passing touchdown
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 285 (17.8)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 4 overall (Round 1)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 2 overall (Round 1)
Rice is a free agent this offseason, but we hope he can work out a new contract to stay with the Ravens without any problems. He showed this season that he can be a featured rusher, and he was second in receptions and targets at running back behind Darren Sproles. Rice can easily repeat as the No. 1 running back in 2012, but we would take him just after Foster. He also has a favorable schedule next season against Denver, Oakland, New England, Kansas City, San Diego and Washington. The Ravens will likely bring in another running back to help share the load with Rice, but he should continue to be the No. 1 option on offense in Baltimore.
LeSean McCoy, Eagles
2011 stats: 273 carries for 1,309 yards and 17 touchdowns; 48 catches for 315 yards and three touchdowns (69 targets); one fumble
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 270 (18.0)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 9 overall (Round 1)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 3 overall (Round 1)
McCoy might have been the No. 1 running back this season if he played in Week 17. He sat out the season finale against Washington with an injured ankle, and Rice had 31 Fantasy points to take the top spot. McCoy was the picture of consistency this year with double digits in Fantasy points in all but one game. He was No. 2 in weekly average for non-quarterbacks behind Foster, and he should have another outstanding season in 2012 with Andy Reid back. McCoy will be entering a contract year in 2012, which could give him more incentive for a big season, but he is proving that Reid can do wonders with running backs since he is playing just as well, if not better, than Brian Westbrook did in his heyday. McCoy should again be a star next season.
Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars
2011 stats: 343 carries for 1,606 yards and eight touchdowns; 43 catches for 374 yards and three touchdowns (63 targets); one fumble
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 249 (15.6)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 12 overall (Round 1)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 6 overall (Round 1)
Many Fantasy owners doubted Jones-Drew heading into this season because of his knee problem and the lack of talent around him in Jacksonville. All Jones-Drew did was lead the NFL in rushing with a career year in carries and yards. He also had double digits in touchdowns for the third time in four years, and he should remain the focal point on offense under new coach Mike Mularkey. Jacksonville needs to get better players to help Jones-Drew on offense if the team wants more success, but the Jaguars should remain a run-first team for the immediate future. Jones-Drew might be nearing a decline in production, but he should again post solid stats in 2012.
Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks
2011 stats: 285 carries for 1,204 yards and 12 touchdowns; 28 catches for 212 yards and one touchdown (41 targets); two fumbles
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 203 (13.5)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 84 overall (Round 7)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 8 overall (Round 1)
Lynch is a free agent this offseason, and we hope he can return to Seattle without any problems. He has the chance to remain a star after his best season in the NFL. The Seahawks have a good system in place to run the ball, and their offense should improve with a new starting quarterback to replace Tarvaris Jackson. Lynch had a touchdown in 11 consecutive games this season with at least 11 Fantasy points in 10 of those outings. We had him as a sleeper heading into this year, and he is now worth drafting as a Top 10 overall player in 2012. Some Fantasy owners will be concerned about Lynch falling off after a big year, but he should play well as long as he returns to Seattle next season.
Matt Forte, Bears
2011 stats: 203 carries for 997 yards and three touchdowns; 52 catches for 490 yards and one touchdown (76 targets); two fumbles
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 157 (13.1)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 21 overall (Round 2)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 9 overall (Round 1)
Forte is a free agent this offseason, but he is expected to stay with the Bears with at least the franchise tag. We hope there isn't a holdout because Forte has proven to be a star when healthy. He finished the season with a Top 10 weekly average at running back, and he would have had better overall numbers if he didn't injure his knee and miss the final four games of the season. The loss of offensive coordinator Mike Martz will hurt Forte, but he should remain a focal point on offense under new coordinator Mike Tice. You can take Forte ahead of Lynch or even Jones-Drew, but I consider Forte the No. 6 running back coming into the season and a solid selection on Draft Day.
Ryan Mathews, Chargers
2011 stats: 222 carries for 1,091 yards and six touchdowns; 50 catches for 455 yards (59 targets); two fumbles
2011 Fantasy points (average): 173 (12.4)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 52 overall (Round 5)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 11 overall (Round 1)
Health is always going to be an issue for Mathews, who missed two games this year and was limited all season with nagging injuries. But he could be ready for a huge season in 2012 if Mike Tolbert leaves as a free agent. Keeping Norv Turner as the head coach is great for Mathews, who had a solid sophomore campaign this season. He had nine games with double digits in Fantasy points, and that's with scoring only six touchdowns. He showed his versatility as one of only eight running backs with at least 50 catches, and that number could skyrocket if Tolbert leaves since he also had 54 catches this year. Mathews could be a steal with a late first-round pick, and we expect him to have a breakout season in 2012.
Chris Johnson, Titans
2011 stats: 262 carries for 1,047 yards and four touchdowns; 57 catches for 418 yards (79 targets); one fumble
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 157 (9.8)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 5 overall (Round 1)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 12 overall (Round 1)
Ranking Johnson at No. 8 was tough for me because I don't know if I would draft him in the first round of most leagues. The hope is that Johnson will improve with a full offseason, and now that he got paid, he should want to show that he can be an elite playmaker. Keep in mind that Johnson is still a workhorse, was among the league leaders at running back in receptions this season and can easily reach 1,500 total yards and double digits in touchdowns, which is something he basically did in all four seasons in the NFL (he had 1,488 total yards as a rookie in 2008). There's now a risk involved in drafting Johnson in the first round, but he should be worth it since there aren't many running backs in the NFL who can do what he does when he's playing at a high level.
Darren McFadden, Raiders
2011 stats: 113 carries for 614 yards and four touchdowns; 19 catches for 154 yards and one touchdown (23 targets); one fumble
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 100 (14.3)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 18 overall (Round 2)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 15 overall (Round 2)
McFadden was on his way toward a monster season before he hurt his foot and missed the final 10 games. Prior to the injury, he was averaging 16.7 Fantasy points per week. Over 16 games, McFadden would have finished with 267 Fantasy points, which would have made him the No. 3 running back in standard leagues. Now, we know McFadden has a lengthy injury history, and he has yet to play more than 13 games in a season. But 2012 could be a big year if Michael Bush leaves Oakland as a free agent as expected. That means McFadden won't lose many carries, and the Raiders should again lean on him to carry their offense, which should be more explosive with Carson Palmer at quarterback (the two didn't start a game together this season). McFadden is worth the risk in Round 2, but just be prepared for him to miss some time. The hope is he misses three games or less and not the majority of the season.
Jamaal Charles, Chiefs
2011 stats: 12 carries for 83 yards; five catches for 9 yards and one touchdown (six targets); one fumble
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 11 (5.5)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 6 overall (Round 1)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 23 overall (Round 2)
This is likely the spot when Fantasy owners will have to make a tough decision with Peterson, Gore and Fred Jackson. All of them are worth drafting here, especially in comparison to Turner and Steven Jackson. And Peterson will move up if he proves to be 100 percent healthy. But Charles has the edge over Peterson in his recovery from a torn ACL since his injury happened in September. He should return at close to 100 percent by the time training camp starts. And the good news for Charles is the Chiefs will likely lean on him quite a bit, especially if Thomas Jones is gone. Kansas City has a great schedule with games against Indianapolis, Carolina, Cleveland, Buffalo and Tampa Bay, as well facing the AFC West. Charles also was a beast prior to his injury with 2,587 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns and 85 catches for 765 yards and four touchdowns in the two years prior to 2011.
Michael Turner, Falcons
2011 stats: 301 carries for 1,340 yards and 11 touchdowns; 17 catches for 168 yards (27 targets); two fumbles
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 203 (12.7)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 13 overall (Round 2)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 18 overall (Round 2)
As stated above, Turner is one of several running backs I don't want to draft this year. He had a successful season this year with more than 1,300 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, but this is now three times in the past four years where he has at least 300 carries, which is beginning to take a toll. He is not a threat as a receiver, and the Falcons are trending toward a passing team with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. Turner will remain a candidate for double digits in touchdowns, which is why he remains a Top 12 running back, but his yardage should begin to slip. He closed the season with only two games with double digits in Fantasy points in his final six outings, and he will be 30 in 2012. Draft him early, but do so with caution.
Steven Jackson, Rams
2011 stats: 260 carries for 1,145 yards and five touchdowns; 42 catches for 333 yards and one touchdown (58 targets); one fumble
2011 Fantasy points (weekly average): 170 (11.3)
2011 Average Draft Position: No. 19 overall (Round 2)
2012 Projected Average Draft Position: No. 21 overall (Round 2)
Jackson is another running back on the decline, but he might have at least one good season left. He remains a risky option to draft in Round 2, but there aren't many workhorse running backs like him. He will have a great schedule in 2012 against weaker run defenses in Green Bay, Washington, New England, the Jets, Tampa Bay and Buffalo, along with his division opponents. New coach Jeff Fisher will emphasize the run, and the Rams should look to improve their offensive line to also help protect Sam Bradford. Jackson closed the season on a high note with double digits in Fantasy points in three of his final four games, and you should expect 300-plus touches and quality production. We'll find out if the Rams add a running back in the draft, which is likely, but Jackson can still be helpful for what might be his final standout year as a featured rusher.