Prior to the 2010 season, the debate over the top fantasy pick was generally narrowed to Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson.
The question was whether one should invest that top pick in the reliability of Peterson, who had topped 1,300 yards and double-digit touchdowns on the ground in each of his three NFL seasons, or if an owner should instead gamble on the less proven but more electric Johnson, whose extreme big-play ability and gigantic workload easily made him the top fantasy player of 2009. Of course, Johnson's 2009 workload was so mammoth that it turned out to be an indictment against his 2010 value – no running back, let alone a 191-pounder, is built to handle 408 touches per season.
As it turned out, both sides of the argument had it almost entirely correct, and the lack of consensus on the matter proved to be a preview of the generally similar production posted by the two players. Peterson, though unable to match his especially lofty 2009 production, churned out more than 1,600 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Johnson's 2009 average of 6.15 yards per touch dropped to 4.47, but his big workload (360 touches) allowed the drop in per-play production to still translate into 1,609 yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns. The difference between the two players wasn't significant enough to make or break the fortunes of the owners who drafted them.
Of course, Arian Foster came out of nowhere and showed up both Peterson and Johnson. And thanks to Foster's arrival, the picture is even blurrier as we head into 2011 – there's now a third dimension in the debate that ensued a year ago. Do you turn to the past success of Peterson or Johnson or should you look to Foster, who has the freshest legs of the three but could ultimately turn out to be a one-year wonder? Is it even possible that there are candidates besides these three for the top spot?
Take a look below as we sort through these variables and assemble the top-10 fantasy targets heading into 2011. The rankings are based on standard, non-PPR scoring.
1. Arian Foster, RB, Houston
A few things to consider: first, Foster was far and away the top fantasy back in 2011, as his 2,220 yards from scrimmage and 18 total touchdowns blew away the competition. Second, although last year's 393 touches are a big concern when you note how much Chris Johnson's production fell after 408 touches in 2009, Foster still finished the 2010 season with far fewer NFL touches than his competition. With 455 career touches, Foster is way behind Peterson (1,317) and Johnson (1,062). Simply stated, any tread concerns with Foster should apply in an equal if not greater capacity with the other two. Also, it's worth noting that Foster has a thick build at a listed weight of 227, making those 393 touches much less worrisome than the 408 Johnson shouldered at 191 pounds.
The other reason Foster should top the fantasy rankings (for the time being) is the fact that his offense is in much better shape than Minnesota or Tennessee's. If the season started today, Peterson and Johnson likely would be subjected to brutal quarterback play, which would allow defenses to stack the run in ways that a Matt Schaub-Andre Johnson passing attack won't allow.
Another minor point: the arrival of Ben Tate is likely more of a blessing than a problem for Foster. While Foster's touches likely will decrease, a lighter workload is probably necessary to maximize Foster's per-play production. Furthermore, Tate is basically no threat to Foster's passing-down work, meaning another year of 60-plus catches is entirely feasible for Foster.
2. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota
Peterson might not get any help from his quarterback(s), but Brett Favre wasn't particularly useful in 2010, and that didn't stop Peterson from putting up very good numbers. Obviously, Joe Webb is probably a slightly worse proposition than Favre was, but it's not as if Chris Johnson's situation in Tennessee is looking much better.
Finally, although Peterson's bruising running style makes him an injury concern, he doesn't seem to be wearing down as far as effectiveness goes. After taking 357 touches in 2009, his rushing average actually increased from 4.4 to 4.6 in 2010. The difference is mostly negligible, but it's still evidence to support the idea that Peterson's trademark consistency is something that should carry into 2011.
3. Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City
Surprise! While Chris Johnson is definitely in the mix for this spot, Charles deserves a promotion after his spectacular 2010 season.
Although the concern over Charles' workload (particularly in the red zone) remains an entirely valid one, Charles should be a solid pick in this range due to his superb
yardage production. He trailed in the touchdown department last season (five rushing, three receiving), but his yardage totals made up for it. He totaled 1,935 yards from scrimmage in 2010, which fantasy-wise is the equivalent to roughly 1,600 yards and five touchdowns. When you combine that with the eight touchdowns he scored, you've got yourself a clearly elite fantasy back.
4. Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee
Johnson isn't a slam-dunk to be listed even at the fourth spot, as more than a couple others are in the mix, too. But the lingering memory of his 2009 accomplishments and the near certainty that his 2010 numbers would have been significantly better had his organization not entirely imploded has to earn him some benefit of the doubt.
Outside of a slump in the final six weeks of the season, perhaps not coincidentally during the peak of the Jeff Fisher-Vince Young feud, Johnson was mostly his usual self in 2010, surpassing 100 rushing yards and/or scoring in seven of his first 10 games. One of those three disappointing games was against the Steelers, moreover, which makes the lack of production entirely forgivable.
While there remain concerns about the offense around him, it's hard to imagine that the Titans could be any more dysfunctional in 2011 than they were in the second half of 2010, so Tennessee shouldn't really have anywhere to go but up in that regard.
5. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville
Considered by many to be the third-best running back behind Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson prior to 2010, a slightly down year and some late-season knee troubles have created slight cause for concern.
Still, there's generally no reason to believe Jones-Drew and his reliable fantasy production are going anywhere in 2011. In fact, there's probably reason for optimism more than anything, as he generally improved as the season went along, which indicates that he isn't slowing down yet. After disappointing his owners with a weak start to the season (two touchdowns in the first six weeks, both from the same game), he went on a seven-game rampage, totaling 923 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns.
His seven total touchdowns last season were a disappointment, but given that he totaled 54 touchdowns the previous four years, odds are that he'll return to double-digit territory in 2011.
6. Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Pittsburgh
The 3.9 yards per carry he averaged in 2010 was hardly impressive, but you can expect him to do better than that in 2011 both because he'll (barring injury) have a full season with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, and because Pittsburgh likely will upgrade its offensive line this offseason.
Moreover, Mendenhall has minimal competition for touches on a team that always has a great defense. Great defenses get off the field. That means steady work for Mendenhall, and consistency is key for first-round fantasy picks.
7. LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia
While Andy Reid will never engineer a run-heavy offense, McCoy makes up for it with his receiving production. With 78 receptions in 15 games, McCoy might bring the NFL its most prolific pass-catching running back since Marshall Faulk (that's not to say he's anywhere near as good, obviously).
The bottom line with McCoy is that he's a playmaker in an offense that should be one of the NFL's best. Another encouraging point is that the Eagles basically never gave Jerome Harrison the ball last year despite him being a more than capable backup. That indicates the Eagles are committed to giving McCoy a near-exclusive hold on the running back spot.
8. Andre Johnson, WR, Houston
Many take it as a given that Roddy White is the top fantasy wideout heading into 2011, but don't look for that to be the case outside of maybe PPR leagues. White's 1,389 receiving yards last year were a career high. Johnson, on the other hand, has averaged just less than 100 yards per game for three consecutive years. Like White, you can expect him to hover right around 10 touchdowns.
So to recap: history says the absolute best-case scenario for White is about 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns, whereas the typical scenario with Johnson will be about 1,550 yards and 10 touchdowns. The odds are that White will not match Johnson in 2011.
In fact, White likely wouldn't have matched Johnson last year if Johnson hadn't missed three games. If you project Johnson's numbers over 16 games, he finishes with 1,496 yards and 10 touchdowns.
9. Darren McFadden, RB, Oakland
McFadden represents one of the more boom-or-bust candidates for the first round of fantasy drafts. After burning owners who drafted him during his first two NFL seasons, McFadden finally became what everyone expected in 2010.
Unfortunately, he was also a bit injury prone, playing only 13 games. And Michael Bush doesn't seem likely to go anywhere. Still, McFadden surpassed 1,600 yards from scrimmage and scored 10 times last year, and that probably makes him worth the risk.
10. Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore
Rice's lack of activity in the red zone definitely limits his upside, but he also possesses minimal downside as Baltimore's default feature back.
Last year was a down year for Rice, and yet he finished with 1,776 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns. If you can add a player like that in the late first round, you're laying a very solid foundation for your team.