This week Iíll be ranking the running backs and before the month is through, Iíll tackle the wide receivers. Keep in mind these are my rankings are as of right now and are subject to change at any time, as news filters in and injuries occur.
1. Arian Foster, HOU Ė Houston will again stick with a ďrun-firstĒ mentality this season and for good reason. When drafting Foster, you get not only an elite running back, but one working behind one of the better offensive lines in the league. Running the football is much easier when you donít get touched until three or four yards down the field. While there is a bit of injury concern when it comes to Foster (he missed three games last season), there isnít a ton of mileage on him when compared to those on the rest of this list. If he plays 16 games in 2012, 2,000-plus yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns is the floor here.
2. Ray Rice, BAL Ė Looking back now, doesnít it seem a bit silly that Rice wasnít the Ravensí goal-line back from the get-go? Rice is coming off a career year where he surpassed 2,000 yards from scrimmage and scored 15 touchdowns. For the second time in three years, he averaged 4.7 yards per carry and was targeted over 100 times in the passing game. His five carries of 40-plus yards led all running backs, showcasing his big-play ability. While Iím ranking these players based on standard formats, Riceís 76 catches demonstrate that heís even more valuable in PPR formats. Heís been an iron man as well and hasnít missed a game in the last three seasons, including the playoffs.
3. Maurice Jones-Drew, JAC Ė MJD was just shy of 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 2011 despite working along with the worst passing attack in all of football. This season, the team has added Laurent Robinson and drafted Justin Blackmon, which should help force defenses to respect the pass more. The fact that MJD won the rushing title with opposing teams knowing he was essentially the Jagsí only weapon makes that feat even more impressive. Jones-Drew has had knee issues, but overall heís been very durable, missing just three games in six NFL seasons. While thereís a lot of carries under his belt, heís shown no signs of slowing down and getting to the double-digit touchdown plateau should be a foregone conclusion again.
4. Adrian Peterson, MIN Ė Iím going to have him ranked much higher than most and heíll end up on my team as a result. This is a classic case of ignoring what happened last season and going back to look where he was drafted in each of the previous three seasons. Heís never had less than 10 touchdowns or averaged less than 4.4 yards per carry. Weíve seen numerous athletes come back from ACL surgery and as of now heís not only running, but cutting on his surgically-repaired knee. Peterson is going to likely fall into the second round (at least) of many drafts and I think heíll pay a nice dividend there.
5. Trent Richardson, CLE Ė Iím having trouble not ranking him higher, truth be told, although this is my most controversial ranking. Heís entering a great situation where theyíre going to let him get 20-plus touches a game, which is a rarity these days in the NFL. Clevelandís offense canít be any worse than last season and Greg Little, coupled with Brandon Weeden, provides at worst a decent threat to opposing defenses. Joe Thomas should pave the way on the left side of the line and Richardson should only come out of the game when he needs a breather.
6. LeSean McCoy, PHI Ė By putting him here, Iím ultimately calling him a bust, right? McCoy, as a result, wonít end up on any of my teams and let me try to give some justification for this low ranking. First off, itís quoting Captain Obvious to say he wonít get 17 rushing touchdowns this season and some pundits will ask ďwhere does that number fall to?Ē The answer to that is likely in the 10-12 range and considering heís never surpassed 1,700 yards from scrimmage, that makes him more mortal in the fantasy world. Andy Reid has already said that he overused McCoy last year (likely thinking back of former Eagle Brian Westbrook) and has alluded to giving Dion Lewis more work as a result. This is a classic case of ďdonít pay for last yearís numbersĒ in my book.
7. Chris Johnson, TEN Ė This is another case of looking at his body of work, rather than where he ended up last season. At this point you canít find another running back who has had 2,000 yards from scrimmage, let alone that many rushing yards for one season. Heís already participating in voluntary workouts -- a change for him -- and is a credible threat in the passing game. The Titans had the 31st rushing offense in the league last year, so they have nowhere to go but up and our guess is that Johnson is more likely to bounce back than regress in 2012.
8. Ryan Mathews, SD Ė The only reason Mathews is this high on my list is that Mike Tolbert is no longer around to vulture goal line carries. The truth is that Mathews comes with a bunch of red flags. Mathews, who had five fumbles last season, has an injury history dating back to college and itís not like itís only been one ailment. The passing game, minus Vincent Jacksonís ability to stretch the field, could take a hit and in turn limit Mathews upside. He could be great, but then again, he could be mediocre.
9. Marshawn Lynch, SEA Ė Iíve witnessed ďBeast ModeĒ first hand from his time in Buffalo and of late, Lynch has shown the ability to break tackles better than anyone in the league. Despite the fact that he seems to have been around forever, he just turned 26. Working in his favor is that left tackle Russell Okung is a beast as well and he should be healthy again after a season-ending injury last December. Lynchís numbers over the final nine games of the 2011 season looked like this: 941 rushing yards (including a 100-yard game vs. the 49ers) and nine rushing TDs. The addition of Matt Flynn could increase his role in the passing game and Iím starting to think this ranking isnít high enough.
10. Michael Turner, ATL Ė No, he has next to no role in the passing game, but find me a season since joining Atlanta where he hasnít had double-digit touchdowns. Turner has played a full 16-game slate in each of the last two seasons and the threat of the teamís passing game has never been better. Heís not the sexiest pick here but heís not a bad one for those trying to limit their risk early on.
Why Didnít I Rank You?
I donít have an issue if Iím off on a ranking, but at least give me a reason why and it should be more than moving a player up or down a few spots.
Darren McFadden, OAK Ė Find me a season where heís been fully healthy, plus they traded for the under-utilized Mike Goodson to complement him. Enough said.
DeMarco Murray, DAL Ė Ditto health concerns (yes one season) but check out the defenses he ran against when he went nuts (home vs. SEA, WAS, BUF).
Matt Forte, CHI Ė Forte, whose contract status could get testy, hasnít had more than 1,060 yards rushing or six rushing touchdowns in any of last three seasons and is coming off an injury. Moreover, Michael Bush is now on the Bearsí roster.
Jamaal Charles, KC Ė If he didnít have to contend with Peyton Hillis, heíd easily crack the top-10, assuming his knee is sound. Remember Thomas Jones and the strange idea that Charles isnít a goal-line back. Ray Rice wasnít either, right?
Frank Gore, SF Ė Brandon Jacobs, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James are in the 49ersí backfield mix as well and while youíre at it, add a lot of mileage and a significantly-reduced role in the passing game last season to Goreís profile.
Ahmad Bradshaw, NYG Ė Too big of a health concern again and the Giants drafting of David Wilson was no coincidence. That being said, Bradshaw is not too far off the top-10 if he proves to be healthy.
Reggie Bush, MIA Ė The Dolphins will be one of the worst teams in the league this season and Lamar Miller joins Bush and Daniel Thomas in a crowded backfield. Weíve already witnessed Bushís career-best season, in my opinion.
Fred Jackson, BUF Ė Even with C.J. Spiller proving capable, Jackson isnít too far out of the top-10. The Billsí offensive line has been improved through the draft and should be healthier this season. Iíd be surprised if Jackson didnít end up as a top-15 back and thatís a conservative estimate.
Steven Jackson, STL Ė Love this guy and he plays hard even though he hasnít been in the greatest offense over the last few years. Jackson hasnít had more than seven rushing touchdowns in any of the last five years and he enters this season with over 2,000 carries on his resume. Heís not a running back who avoids contact, so that stat means a lot.