As the only position that regularly approaches 20 touches from scrimmage, running backs generally make up the bulk of high selections in fantasy drafts. More touches mean less risk, and you need to make low-risk selections with your first picks if you want to give your team something to build on.
The rankings below are primarily an extension of that logic – while it's great to be ahead of the curve and hit the jackpot on a high-upside player, these running backs are ranked with an emphasis on reliability over potential.
Given that our top-10 overall ranking featured nine runners, these rankings include the top-20 RB so as to provide a decent glimpse at players who haven't already been analyzed.
1. Arian Foster, Houston
Foster crushed the competition last year and has the build and athleticism to take another huge workload in 2011. With a healthy passing game and a solid offensive line on his side, the pieces are in place for him to post more big numbers.
2. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
Arguably the league's top workhorse back, Peterson is just about a lock to get his owners double-digit touchdowns yearly. He's in a declining offense, though, and won't have it as easy as Foster.
3. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City
Charles posted truly great per-play numbers last year and could have accumulated historic stats if it hadn't been for Thomas Jones. It's hard to see him not getting more touches in 2011.
4. Chris Johnson, Tennessee
Like Peterson, Johnson is dealing with what will likely be a below average offense. But also like Peterson, there's no questioning Johnson's elite ability. He's Tennessee's top offensive threat, and he generally produces when he gets the ball.
5. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville
He failed to hit double-digit touchdowns last year, but he accomplished the feat in all but one of his other NFL seasons. It would surprise if he went consecutive years without 10 scores.
6. Rashard Mendenhall
His rushing average was not good last year, but he was dealing with a beat up offensive line and had to play four games without his starting quarterback. With those two variables resolved heading into 2011, he should improve his per-play production while maintaining a big workload.
7. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia
He gets limited carries in Andy Reid's pass-happy offense, but he's the feature back in one of the league's elite offenses. Even if he has to do it as a pass-catcher, McCoy looks poised to make plenty of big plays in the upcoming years. Rank him higher in PPR leagues.
8. Darren McFadden, Oakland
This is the first “upside” pick among these rankings. McFadden has a boom-or-bust tendency due to durability issues, not to mention the presence of Michael Bush. But McFadden put up huge numbers when he was on the field, and he can present top-three value if he plays 16 games.
9. Ray Rice, Baltimore
Rice's rushing average fell off a cliff last year, but it would surprise if he didn't bounce back a bit in 2011. He gets the ball often and he's a skilled player, so he's a nice asset to grab if you're picking late.
10. Matt Forte, Chicago
After showing an unimpressive rushing average his first two years, Forte took his game to the next level in 2010, averaging 4.5 yards per carry while showing a very impressive average of 10.7 yards per reception. When you add everything up, you get 1,616 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns. I'm guessing that's somewhat of a best-case scenario for Forte, but he looks like a reliable player either way.
11. Ryan Mathews, San Diego
After an injury-plagued rookie year, you can bet Mathews will be under the radar in most leagues this year. Plenty of owners who drafted him a year ago will hold irrational bitterness toward him for his disappointing season, but it's important to remember two things. First, Mike Tolbert will be pushed to the background in 2011. He's a nice player, but Mathews is clearly the better runner, and San Diego didn't trade up to the 12th pick for Mathews to split carries. Second, it's still the Norv Turner show. Last year's situation was an anomaly – his starting runners almost always put up big stats. Expect 2011 to be a return to the usual routine for the San Diego running game.
12. Peyton Hillis, Cleveland
If Montario Hardesty wasn't a threat to steal carries, Hillis might be ranked higher than this. Despite his fumbling problems, Hillis was one of the all-around best running backs last year, proving to be tough both as a runner and receiver. His value is hurt by facing Pittsburgh and Baltimore twice a year, but he looks to be productive, especially in PPR leagues, the rest of the season.
13. Frank Gore, San Francisco
You know the drill with Gore: you take big per-game numbers in exchange for a few missed games. History says he's more likely to miss a game or two rather than five like last year, so if you can land him in the early second round, he still should be a nice asset when complemented by a steadier pick from whom you can expect 16 games. And if he plays all 16? You'll look like a genius.
14. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina
This ranking is only under the condition that DeAngelo Williams is no longer around. While Mike Goodson was decent enough last year, a competition between him and Stewart will result in the latter running away with the workload. Although he likely won't do better than about 20 receptions, history says Stewart should approach something like 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground if Williams is gone.
15. LeGarrette Blount, Tampa Bay
Blount definitely had an impressive end to the 2010 season, but there are two things to consider here. First, he took over the Tampa running back spot mid-season with fresh legs. Debuting while well rested when defenses aren't can make a runner look better than he is (see: Julius Jones' rookie year). Second, his biggest numbers last year were against weak defenses. As promising as he was, the bottom line with Blount is that he's still an unproven commodity. Yet with all the hype he generated last year, you can bet on him being overdrafted in many leagues.
16. Steven Jackson, St. Louis
While it seems like Jackson has to start slowing down any second now, it's still tough to bet against the ultra-consistent runner. He seems like a lock to reach about 1,500 yards from scrimmage each year, and his activity as a receiver makes him even more valuable in PPR leagues. Expect his workload to decrease a bit in 2011, but also expect his rushing average to go back over four yards per carry.
17. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, New England
His inconsistent workload last year and general inactivity as a pass catcher are both concerning, but Green-Ellis should remain New England's primary red-zone ballcarrier next year, and the Patriots figure to make plenty of trips into that part of the field.
18. Ryan Grant, Green Bay
James Starks looked pretty good at times toward season's end, but the same would have been true for almost any other NFL runner when compared to Brandon Jackson. Grant is a trusted commodity for coach Mike McCarthy, which means that he should be good for about 1,200 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns in 2011.
19. Michael Turner, Atlanta
Turner is no long The Burner, and he showed serious signs of slowing down last year despite an easy schedule. With 1,150 NFL touches in addition to 1,005 from his days at Northern Illinois, the bruising runner has taken lots of hits by now. It wouldn't be at all surprising if the wheels fell off in 2011, knock on wood.
20. Felix Jones, Dallas
jones has huge upside, but his injury history makes him a high risk at the same time. The loss of Tony Romo and the general dysfunction of the Dallas offense led to his rushing average falling from 8.9 and 5.9 to 4.3, but you can expect it to push back toward 5.0 next year. Still, he doesn't get much work in the red zone and will need to make his living with yardage totals. It's worth noting, however, that he turned into an impressive receiver overnight last year, hauling in 48 catches after posting just 21 in his first two seasons. Don't expect Marion Barber to be around next year, by the way.
Three players who can alter those rankings with certain moves in free agency are Ahmad Bradshaw, Brandon Jacobs and DeAngelo Williams. If Bradshaw returns to the Giants next year, expect 2011 to mostly replicate the seasons both he and Jacobs had last year. If Bradshaw leaves and Jacobs gets the Giants offense to himself, go ahead and move him into the top 15 or so. If Bradshaw or Williams earn clear starting spots with other teams, they too could make a push for the top 15.