Finding a featured running back might be the toughest task for Fantasy owners heading into 2012. They are a dying breed.
When looking for a workhorse rusher you want someone who is going to dominate the carries and also work as a receiver. A heavy dose of work for a running back is 20 touches a game, and there were only nine running backs in 2011 who reached that total on average (Maurice Jones-Drew, Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice, Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, Steven Jackson and Fred Jackson).
That number is down from 2010 when there were 12 running backs who averaged 20 touches a game with their combined carries and catches, and you have to assume the number could continue to dwindle. More teams prefer to use tandems and committees to solo acts.
Based on our estimation, there are only 10 running backs this year with the chance to average 20 touches a game. Foster, Rice, McCoy, Jones-Drew, Johnson and Steven Jackson should remain featured options, as should Lynch if he avoids a lengthy suspension following a July arrest. Ryan Mathews and Darren McFadden also have the ability to average 20 touches a game, but they have to stay healthy. And Trent Richardson could average 20 touches a game even as a rookie if he lives up to early expectations.
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Every other team will use a tandem or committee backfield, which makes it difficult for Fantasy owners. But we're here to help. We'll look at the difficult running back situations around the NFL heading into 2012. Some you'll like. Others you'll want to avoid.
Editor's note: The teams/tandems are listed in order of most frustrating backfields to the easiest ones to figure out. The splits listed for each team are based on our speculation as to how each running back will be used on rushing downs, passing downs and near the goal line.
Evan Royster/Roy Helu/Tim Hightower, Redskins
The Redskins appeared set at running back with a young duo of Helu and Royster until the team decided to re-sign Hightower in May. With Mike Shanahan calling the shots that means it's anyone's guess who the best running back will be in Washington, including rookie Alfred Morris. We still have high hopes for Helu, who was a standout option once Hightower suffered a torn ACL last year. He had double digits in Fantasy points in five of the six games when he had double digits in carries, and he has the most upside of this backfield. But Royster now looks like the best option heading into the season following a strong training camp, especially with Helu and Hightower dealing with injuries. Hightower played well last year before getting hurt with double digits in Fantasy points in the first three games of the year, but he should be No. 3 on the depth chart at best. In all leagues draft Royster in Round 7 or 8, Helu in Round 9 or 10 and Hightower with a late-round pick. And, based on Shanahan's history, be prepared to add Morris off the waiver wire at some point in the year.
Rushing downs split: 50/30/20 Royster/Helu/Hightower
Passing downs split: 40/40/20 Helu/Hightower/Royster
Goal-line split: 40/30/30 Royster/Helu/Hightower
Kevin Smith/Mikel Leshoure/Jahvid Best, Lions
Prior to training camp, the Lions depth chart for Fantasy owners was Leshoure, Best and Smith. But since then, things have changed dramatically, with Smith now easily the best of this trio. Leshoure, who missed his rookie year with a ruptured Achilles and will be suspended for the first two games, has struggled with injuries during the preseason. Best is still dealing with last year's concussion issues and could start the season on the PUP list, leaving him out for at least six games. We could see Smith as the No. 1 running back in Detroit for the whole year. Leshoure has the most upside of this group because he can handle running between the tackles and should work at the goal line. If he returns at 100 percent then he could reach double digits in touchdowns even in just 14 games. Best is a standout Fantasy option when healthy, but he has been banged up for two seasons, which hurts his value and makes him almost undraftable. Smith has been solid when given a chance, and he could end up as the best Lions running back by default just because he's healthy. He should be drafted in Round 6, with Leshoure likely coming off the board as early as Round 8 or 9.
Rushing downs split: 50/30/20 Smith/Leshoure/Best
Passing downs split: 40/40/20 Best/Smith/Leshoure
Goal-line split: 50/40/10 Leshoure/Smith/Best
Jonathan Stewart/DeAngelo Williams/Mike Tolbert, Panthers
If you thought the Panthers were annoying last year -- Stewart had 142 carries and Williams had 155 -- just wait until this season with Tolbert added to the mix. The Panthers say Tolbert will line up at fullback, but he is a sure bet to work at the goal line and catch passes. He had 21 total touchdowns the past two years for the Chargers with 79 catches over that span. Add in Cam Newton and his rushing prowess -- he had 14 rushing touchdowns in 2011 -- and this backfield is beyond messy. We still like Stewart's upside the most, but don't expect Williams to disappear. Both are No. 3 Fantasy running backs worth mid-round picks around Round 7 or 8, with Tolbert only worth drafting in deeper formats.
Rushing downs split: 50/40/10 Williams/Stewart/Tolbert
Passing downs split: 50/30/20 Stewart/Tolbert/Williams
Goal-line split: 50/30/20 Tolbert/Stewart/Williams
Frank Gore/Brandon Jacobs/Kendall Hunter /LaMichael James, 49ers
Gore has been consistently among the best Fantasy running backs since his breakout season in 2006, including last year when he totaled 1,300 yards and eight touchdowns. But the 49ers want to make sure Gore is fresh for the playoffs, which is why they added Jacobs and James this offseason. Jacobs should assume short-yardage duties and James should play on passing downs. With Hunter proving to be worthy of some carries also, this backfield has become quite crowded. We still consider Gore a No. 2 Fantasy running back, but he should only be drafted in Round 4 at the earliest. Hunter and Jacobs are worth late-round picks at best in standard leagues, and James is worth a late-round flier in PPR formats. We hope Gore is able to play at a high level again, but you're probably looking at around 1,100 total yards and seven touchdowns at best.
Rushing downs split: 50/20//20/10 Gore/Hunter/Jacobs/James
Passing downs split: 40/30/20/10 Gore/James/Hunter/Jacobs
Goal-line split: 40/30/20/10 Jacobs/Gore/Hunter/James
Stevan Ridley/Shane Vereen/Danny Woodhead, Patriots
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is now in Cincinnati, and the Patriots should turn to their young duo of Ridley and Vereen. Ridley is the running back to target in this backfield since he should see the majority of Green-Ellis' departed production, which included 24 rushing touchdowns the past two years. Ridley can easily reach 1,000 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, which makes him a steal in Round 6 as a low-end No. 2/high-end No. 3 Fantasy option. Vereen is also worth a late-round pick, especially in PPR leagues, and the same goes for Woodhead in deeper formats.
Rushing downs split: 50/30/20 Ridley/Vereen/Woodhead
Passing downs split: 40/40/20 Vereen/Woodhead/Ridley
Goal-line split: 60/20/20 Ridley/Vereen/Woodhead
Isaac Redman/Rashard Mendenhall/Chris Rainey, Steelers
The Steelers running back situation got messy when Mendenhall was activated early off the PUP list. The initial thought was he was going to be out for the first six weeks of the season following a torn ACL in Week 17 last year. Redman still has the chance for a breakout campaign, but he has to stay healthy (he suffered a hip injury in training camp) and do enough early in the season to hold off Mendenhall when he returns. You might also see Jonathan Dwyer play a role, but he's only worth a look if Mendenhall is out for the majority of the season. Redman should be drafted in Round 7 as a No. 3 Fantasy running back with the chance to be a No. 2 option. He looked great in the playoffs against Denver with Mendenhall out, rushing for 121 yards on 17 carries with two catches for 21 yards, so he showed he can handle the role. If Mendenhall is ready for Week 1 we would still draft Redman first, and Mendenhall is worth a pick in Round 10. Rainey is only worth a late-round flier in deep PPR leagues.
Rushing downs split: 60/30/10 Redman/Mendenhall/Rainey
Passing downs split: 40/40/20 Rainey/Redman/Mendenhall
Goal-line split: 50/40/10 Redman/Mendenhall/Rainey
Cedric Benson/James Starks/Alex Green, Packers
When talking about the Packers running backs you have to consider Aaron Rodgers and John Kuhn since the quarterback and fullback combined for seven rushing touchdowns, which was six more than Starks last year. Brandon Saine could also be in the mix, but the signing of Benson means he will likely be the best running back in Green Bay this year. We're not going to completely discount Starks, who shared carries with Ryan Grant last year. But Starks struggled in training camp, which is why Benson was brought in. This isn't an ideal backfield for Fantasy owners, especially with how much the Packers throw the ball, but Benson could end up as a No. 3 Fantasy option, especially in deep standard leagues. He is better off being viewed as a No. 4 option, and Starks should also only be drafted with a late-round pick. Green had some upside before Benson was brought in, but he might only be someone to add off the waiver wire after coming back from last year's torn ACL.
Rushing downs split: 50/30/20 Benson/Starks/Green
Passing downs split: 50/30/20 Starks/Benson/Green
Goal-line split: 40/40/20 Benson/Starks/Green
Ryan Williams/Beanie Wells, Cardinals
The Cardinals showed faith in Wells and Williams being healthy by not adding a running back this offseason. Both have issues with knee problems, but Williams is the better Fantasy option this year since he has been healthy in the preseason. Wells had a breakout season in 2011 with 1,047 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, but he slowed down quite a bit in the second half with just three games with double digits in Fantasy points after Week 8. Williams is coming back after missing his rookie year and he has more upside than Wells. Even though you might see Wells go first on Draft Day, Williams is the running back you want. Wait for him in Round 7 or later and pass on Wells unless he falls to the right spot.
Rushing downs split: 55/45 Wells
Passing downs split: 60/40 Williams
Goal-line split: 60/40 Wells
Willis McGahee/Ronnie Hillman, Broncos
McGahee will open the season as the starter for the Broncos, but it's not a guarantee he will finish as the No. 1 running back. Hillman could easily pass McGahee on the depth chart, especially if McGahee goes down at some point with an injury. Keep in mind, McGahee was banged up in 2011 even though he had a resurgent year with double digits in Fantasy points in eight games. We consider McGahee a low-end No. 2 Fantasy option worth a pick in Round 5. But you might be better off passing on McGahee there and waiting for Hillman in Round 9 or 10, especially in PPR formats. If Hillman can do well in pass protection early in his rookie year then he could be on the field for the majority of snaps, especially if he develops a rapport with Peyton Manning.
Rushing downs split: 70/30 McGahee
Passing downs split: 70/30 Hillman
Goal-line split: 70/30 McGahee
Darren Sproles/Mark Ingram/Pierre Thomas, Saints
On paper, you would assume Ingram was the best Fantasy running back for the Saints coming into the season, Thomas would be No. 2 and Sproles would only be useful in PPR leagues. But the Saints are a pass-first team, and Sproles is their best Fantasy option out of the backfield. He had 1,300 total yards and nine touchdowns last year (seven receiving) and finished with double digits in Fantasy points nine times in standard leagues. He should be considered a No. 2 running back in standard leagues and a borderline No. 1 option in PPR formats. Ingram should rebound from a disappointing rookie campaign that was marred by injuries, but he has to stay healthy. He could reach 1,000 total yards and double digits in touchdowns, but he'd have to play 16 games for that to happen. Thomas will continue to get his touches and is worth a late-round pick, but he should be drafted well after Sproles (Round 3 or 4) and Ingram (Round 8).
Rushing downs split: 40/35/25 Ingram/Thomas/Sproles
Passing downs split: 60/20/20 Sproles/Thomas/Ingram
Goal-line split: 60/30/10 Ingram/Thomas/Sproles
Reggie Bush/Daniel Thomas/Lamar Miller, Dolphins
Bush surprised everyone last season by proving he could be a lead rusher and work between the tackles. He only missed one game due to injury, which was Week 17, and had nine games with double digits in Fantasy points. The Dolphins offense won't be so run heavy this season like it was in 2011, but Bush should be used in a variety of ways. You have to assume Thomas will have a bigger role, and the Dolphins like Miller as a potential third-down back, but Bush will again get the majority of work when healthy. He is worth drafting in Round 4 or 5 in most leagues, with Thomas worth a late-round pick in standard formats. Miller is worth a late-round flier in deep PPR leagues.
Rushing downs split: 50/30/20 Bush/Thomas/Miller
Passing downs split: 50/30/20 Bush/Miller/Thomas
Goal-line split: 40/40/20 Bush/Thomas/Miller
Jamaal Charles/Peyton Hillis, Chiefs
There are some Fantasy analysts who believe Charles will return at 100 percent and pick up where he left off in 2010 when he totaled 1,800 yards and eight touchdowns. We just don't see it happening at that level, especially coming off last year's torn ACL in Week 2 and the addition of Hillis, who is being reunited with his former offensive coordinator in Cleveland, Brian Daboll. Charles should be fine, but we're probably looking at closer to 1,300 total yards and five touchdowns, with Hillis working at the goal line. You might have to draft Charles in Round 2 or 3 in all leagues, but I'd rather wait on Hillis in Round 6. He might not only present better value than Charles, he could out-produce him altogether.
Rushing downs split: 60/40 Charles
Passing downs split: 55/45 Charles
Goal-line split: 70/30 Hillis
BenJarvus Green-Ellis/Bernard Scott, Bengals
The Bengals signed Green-Ellis this offseason to replace Benson, but that might not be much of an upgrade. Sure, Green-Ellis did well scoring touchdowns in New England, but that was in one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. The Bengals won't give Green-Ellis that many chances to score, and he should be considered a low-end No. 2 Fantasy running back whom you settle for in Round 5. The Bengals have said Scott will be used in tandem, but most likely he will see action in passing situations. He's worth a late-round pick in standard formats, with his value slightly higher in PPR leagues. Scott actually has more upside than Green-Ellis, but his value will be determined by his playing time. This isn't a backfield to be excited about, but Green-Ellis could fall into enough production to help your Fantasy team if you draft him in the right spot.
Rushing downs split: 60/40 Green-Ellis
Passing downs split: 70/30 Scott
Goal-line split: 80/20 Green-Ellis
Fred Jackson/C.J. Spiller, Bills
Jackson was having a monster season in 2011 before suffering a broken leg in Week 11. Prior to going down, he had double digits in Fantasy points in seven games, including at least 20 points four times. Spiller then took over and had double digits in Fantasy points in four of his final five outings. It would be great to see Spiller get a chance at the full-time job, but Jackson will return as the starter. Still, Spiller isn't going away, and he's worth a mid-round pick in most leagues, especially PPR formats. We consider Jackson a solid No. 2 Fantasy option, and he should be drafted in Round 2 or 3 in all leagues.
Rushing downs split: 70/30 Jackson
Passing downs split: 60/40 Jackson
Goal-line split: 80/20 Jackson
Doug Martin/LeGarrette Blount, Buccaneers
Martin has plenty of upside and should make this tandem into a solo act, but Blount isn't going to give up his starting job without a fight. A hamstring injury for Martin during minicamps allowed Blount to prove he still deserves carries, and we can see him working as a change-of-pace rusher and at the goal line. We consider Martin a solid No. 2 Fantasy option since he could also be a quality receiver out of the backfield, and he should be drafted in all leagues by the beginning of Round 4. Blount is still worth drafting with a late-round pick, and hopefully he can produce if he gets the majority of goal-line carries.
Rushing downs split: 60/40 Martin
Passing downs split: 70/30 Martin
Goal-line split: 70/30 Blount
Matt Forte/Michael Bush, Bears
Forte's Fantasy outlook is a lot brighter now that he signed a four-year contract extension in July, but he will still lose playing time to Bush. We wish Bush signed with another team where he could have been a featured rusher (Cincinnati or Green Bay would have been great destinations), but he will cut into Forte's production. You should figure Forte to reach about 1,500 total yards and six touchdowns, which makes him a low-end No. 1 option in standard leagues and a Top 10 running back in PPR formats. Bush can still gain about 800 total yards with eight or nine touchdowns, worth drafting in Round 8.
Rushing downs split: 60/40 Forte
Passing downs split: 70/30 Forte
Goal-line split: 70/30 Bush
DeMarco Murray/Felix Jones, Cowboys
Murray could be a featured running back if he can stay healthy. Once he took over as the Cowboys starter last year in Week 7 he had five games with at least 20 carries over a six-game span. But Murray suffered a broken ankle in Week 14 and missed the final three games, and injuries could be a problem for him until he proves otherwise. Jones is worth drafting in all leagues with a late-round pick, especially if you draft Murray in Round 1 or 2, but he likely won't post great production unless Murray misses significant time.
Rushing downs split: 70/30 Murray
Passing downs split: 60/40 Murray
Goal-line split: 70/30 Murray
Ahmad Bradshaw/David Wilson, Giants
The Giants let Jacobs go and they got younger with Wilson, who was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft from Virginia Tech. It changed the dynamic of their backfield since Bradshaw can now be a featured rusher, with Wilson more of a complementary option. But Bradshaw has a lengthy injury history, especially with his feet, and Wilson isn't going to just sit on the bench waiting for an injury. We consider Bradshaw a high-end No. 2 Fantasy running back, and he should be drafted in Round 3 in the majority of leagues. Wilson is worth drafting in Round 9, but if Bradshaw goes down then he could see a tremendous spike in production. D.J. Ware could also get in the mix, but he's not worth drafting in most leagues.
Rushing downs split: 60/40 Bradshaw
Passing downs split: 60/40 Bradshaw
Goal-line split: 60/40 Bradshaw
Shonn Greene/Bilal Powell/Joe McKnight, Jets
The Jets are going to lean on Greene in their new run-first offense, but Powell and McKnight should also play role. The problem for the running backs will be how many snaps, especially in the red zone, will go to backup quarterback Tim Tebow. Greene posted solid stats in 2011 with 1,054 rushing yards and six touchdowns, and he could have his best season yet with new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano's run-based system. The key for Greene will be how many touchdowns he loses to Tebow, so temper expectations and consider him a low-end No. 2 running back worth drafting in Round 4 or 5. Powell should replace the retired LaDainian Tomlinson, who had 94 catches the past two seasons. Powell is worth a late-round flier in PPR formats, and McKnight is only worth adding off the waiver wire.
Rushing downs split: 70/30 Greene
Passing downs split: 70/30 Powell
Goal-line split: 80/20 Greene
Donald Brown/Vick Ballard/Delone Carter, Colts
We often wondered how Brown would do if Joseph Addai was out of the picture, and we got a glimpse in 2011 when Addai missed multiple weeks with a hamstring injury. Brown ended up doing a nice job with double digits in Fantasy points in three of his final five games. This year, Brown has the chance for a career year, and we consider him a No. 3 Fantasy running back worth drafting in Round 6. He is not someone you want start on a weekly basis, but with a favorable matchup he could be a great fill-in rusher. Ballard and Carter will battle for the No. 2 job, but Ballard has more upside with a better preseason and should be considered a sleeper since the Colts could be more run-heavy than in years past under new coach Chuck Pagano.
Rushing downs split: 50/40/10 Brown/Ballard/Carter
Passing downs split: 70/20/10 Brown/Ballard/Carter
Goal-line split: 40/30/30 Ballard/Brown/Carter
Michael Turner/Jacquizz Rodgers/Jason Snelling, Falcons
There is a lot of talk about the demise of Turner this season, which is somewhat silly. While he might lose carries to Rodgers and even Snelling, and with the Falcons becoming more pass-happy, it's not like Turner is sitting on the bench. I wouldn't draft Turner in the first round, and I might even pass on him in Round 2. But he's still a candidate for 1,300 total yards and 10 touchdowns, which is hard to come by in today's NFL. Now, Rodgers is going to take on an increased role, especially in the passing game, and Snelling will get some looks. We wouldn't draft Snelling in any leagues, but Rodgers is definitely worth a late-round flier in PPR formats.
Rushing downs split: 70/20/10 Turner/Rodgers/Snelling
Passing downs split: 60/30/10 Rodgers/Snelling/Turner
Goal-line split: 80/15/5 Turner/Snelling/Rodgers
Adrian Peterson/Toby Gerhart, Vikings
We hope Peterson is back at 100 percent after he suffered a major knee injury in Week 16, but we expect him to be limited to start the season, which should allow Gerhart to gain value. You probably have to draft Peterson in Round 2 if you want him on your team, but I would pass on him and take Gerhart in Round 8 or 9. Gerhart had double digits in Fantasy points for five games in a row from Week 12-16, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Gerhart is never going to be a dominant running back, but it's clear he can be a weekly starter if given enough touches. If something happens to Peterson in his comeback then look for Gerhart to shine.
Rushing downs split: 60/40 Peterson
Passing downs split: 60/40 Peterson
Goal-line split: 60/40 Peterson
Arian Foster/Ben Tate, Texans
Foster is a featured running back. That's a given. He should be considered the No. 1 overall selection in the majority of leagues, and he should once again average 20 touches a game. But Tate will also get his share of work, and Texans coach Gary Kubiak said this offseason Tate could be a breakout player. You should plan on drafting Tate in Round 7 or 8 whether you draft Foster or not, and Tate showed in 2011 he can post stats even when Foster was healthy with double digits in Fantasy points in six games.
Rushing downs split: 70/30 Foster
Passing downs split: 80/20 Foster
Goal-line split: 70/30 Foster