In recent years, the do-it-all feature back has fallen out of style. Most teams now employ the services of multiple running backs, keeping many on the roster to insert in the game as “change of pace backs.” With most fantasy leagues requiring two starting running backs, it becomes extremely important to snatch up the remaining few feature backs. These workhorses are worth early draft picks and can lead your team to a fantasy championship.
Peterson finished 2012 with nearly 400 more rushing yards than any other running back in the league, despite coming off of surgery repairing a torn ACL suffered in 2011. His 2,097 yards were second most of all time in a season (behind Eric Dickerson), although he finished with a better yards per carry average than Eric Dickerson did in his historic 1984 season. Needless to say, Peterson is a safe pick and should go first overall in most draft formats.
Charles might have the most upside of any running back. He currently has the best yards per carry average of any running back in NFL history (5.8). In 2010 he finished with the second most rushing yards in the league. 2011 was tragic for Charles as he injured his ACL early on and sat out for most of the season. 2012 was considered both a success and a disappointment. His amazing rehabilitation was overshadowed by Adrian Peterson’s similar comeback, and he quietly rushed for a career high in yardage despite playing for an anemic offense. The Chiefs have upgraded their offensive line, acquired a real quarterback in Alex Smith, and signed head coach Andy Reid all in the same offseason. Reid has a history of getting the ball to his running backs through a variety of screen plays, and Charles is the most talented back he has ever coached. Charles could easily lead the league in fantasy points in 2013.
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In his rookie year, Doug Martin finished with the second most fantasy points of all running backs. Two pro bowl guards in Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph return from injured reserve to create even bigger lanes for Martin in 2013. Barring injury, Martin is a guaranteed top five fantasy back and possible number one. He can certainly be considered in the same tier as Peterson and Charles in terms of fantasy.
Foster is a model of consistency. He is the only running back to finish in the top five in fantasy points in each of the past three seasons. In his worst year of the three, he still managed to provide over 1,200 rushing yards and 600 receiving yards despite missing three games due to injury. His strained calf is a cause for concern along with his dipping yards per rush average (4.9 in 2010, 4.4 in 2011, and 4.1 in 2012). Foster should still finish the year in the top five, as usual.
New head coach Chip Kelly is a master at getting big numbers out of his running backs. If people played fantasy college football, it would be viable in any Chip Kelly year to take Oregon’s starting running back first overall. That’s extremely impressive in college, with so many players changing each year and against so many other teams. LeSean McCoy finished second in fantasy points for running backs in 2011, and would have had another strong year in 2012 if not for injuries. McCoy is quick, young, and athletic enough to thrive in Kelly’s offense and make a huge impact on the fantasy world.
Marshawn Lynch is the only running back outside of Arian Foster to finish in the top five in fantasy points in both 2011 and 2012. It is never appropriate to judge a player based on a single play, except in Lynch’s case for his touchdown run in the 2010 playoffs against the Saints. Any player that can break nine tackles on a single run in the playoffs is a worthy first round fantasy pick if he’s not injured and younger than 30. Even if nine Saints defenders is the equivalent of five NFL defenders. Lynch is 27 and finally has the tools around him to compete for a championship. We already have seen what he can do when motivated, so it will be interesting to see how he performs over the course of a season for a true Super Bowl contender.
Rice was the top fantasy back of the 2011 season. Though a disappointment in 2012, Rice still put up respectable numbers, finishing with over a thousand rushing yards for the fourth straight year. Rice seems to always finish with 1,000-1,300 rushing yards and 500-700 receiving yards. Bernard Pierce started to get hot late in the year and eat into Rice’s carries, so Rice may finish on the low end of those ranges, but Rice’s consistency is proven and I expect his numbers to stay within these lines.
Morris finished second in the league in 2012 with 1,613 rushing yards. He had more rushing yards and touchdowns than fellow rookie standout Doug Martin. Nobody can take away from the impressive season Morris had, especially considering how unlikely it was. Morris would be a top five fantasy back if not for his inability to catch out of the backfield and the uncertainty of play time under coach Shanahan. Shanahan is known for turning overlooked running backs into thousand yard rushers, but he never seems to stick with a single running back for more than two seasons. Morris could easily get a minor injury and be forever replaced on the depth chart. This is why it is always scary to own a running back coached by Mike Shanahan, but at the end of the day, he’ll get somebody rushing yards.
Steven Jackson’s rookie year in 2004 was the last time he didn’t rush for at least a thousand yards. That’s eight straight years of consistency while being surrounded by a multitude of players better suited for arena football. The St. Louis Rams were too busy being the Rams and throwing away their draft picks on bust defensive players to ever give Jackson any help whatsoever. Though Jackson will be 30 at the beginning of the season, he will have much better talent around him than he has ever experienced in his career. Jacquizz Rodgers will get some carries, but Jackson will probably get the bulk of the yards and touchdowns. Any starter for the Falcons offense is worth grabbing early.
Spiller has improved greatly in his three years in the league along with his role on the team. Fred Jackson is now 32 years old, and his role is decreasing as the team moves forward. Spiller averaged 6 yards per carry last season en route to 1,244 rushing yards. He is a dynamic playmaker who is equally dangerous receiving out of the backfield, and this sort of dual threat player has very high fantasy upside. Spiller finished seventh in fantasy points for running backs in 2012, and if he continues these trends, he’ll finish even better in 2013.
Chicago has made the offensive line a priority in the offseason, and Matt Forte should be getting excited. Forte finally has the help he needs to potentially thrive in new coach Marc Trestman’s system. Forte can catch out of the backfield and is a tough runner that can get all-purpose yards and win fantasy games without even scoring touchdowns. All Forte needs to do to have a career season is stay healthy, but that’s always difficult for him. He does seem to play through his injuries a lot though, so don’t avoid drafting him for fear of missed playing time.
Richardson was outplayed in 2012 by fellow rookies Doug Martin and Alfred Morris. Richardson arguably had it harder than the other two, battling through injuries and the emotional trauma that comes along with being a member of the Cleveland Browns. The talent is definitely there for Richardson to be a top fantasy back, but it will be tough unless quarterback Brandon Weeden can figure out a way to take some of the defensive pressure off.