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Joseph Hutchins | Archive | Email
Staff Writer

Top 10 Dropouts
Running Backs
Quarterbacks | Running Backs | Wide Receivers

“Past performance does not guarantee future results.” No kidding, right? Football junkies such as myself have long comprehended the wisdom in that little caveat emptor, fastening our fantasy hopes and dreams to NFL players whose performance often fluctuates wildly from one year (or even one game) to the next. Nevertheless, this knowledge never stops us from bravely predicting the unpredictable come every August.

In that spirit, I’ve attempted to handicap the future performance of the game’s elite, fool’s errand though it may be. I’ll examine the reigning top 10 running backs, and take a stab at determining who is likely to maintain that status, and who is bound to disappoint, in 2011. I’ll use as my guide the lessons we may have learned from the dropout class of 2010. Sound like a plan? Let’s do this.

Note: All rankings are based on FFToday’s default standard scoring.

 Top 10 Running Backs- 2009
Rank Player
1 Chris Johnson
2 Adrian Peterson
3 Maurice Jones-Drew
4 Ray Rice
5 Frank Gore
6 Thomas Jones
7 Ricky Williams
8 Ryan Grant
9 Steven Jackson
10 Joseph Addai
  Top 10 Running Backs- 2010
Rank Player
1 Arian Foster
2 Peyton Hillis
3 Adrian Peterson
4 Jamaal Charles
5 Chris Johnson
6 Darren McFadden
7 Rashard Mendenhall
8 LeSean McCoy
9 Michael Turner
10 Matt Forte

Missed the Cut in 2010 (8 of 10): M. Jones-Drew, R. Rice, F. Gore, T. Jones, R. Williams, R. Grant, S. Jackson, and J. Addai

In case you hadn’t noticed, the running back position in the NFL can be a bit of a gristmill. Seven of the top 10 rock-toters in 2008 failed to achieve that status again in 2009. Eight more missed the mark in 2010. In fact, only Adrian Peterson has managed to rank among the top 10 backs in each of the past three seasons. If you’re scoring at home, that’s a heckuva lot of turnover at the most critical position in fantasy.

Historically, health (or the lack thereof) has been the primary reason a running back fails to match production year-over-year. That was certainly the case for half of the dropouts last season. Maurice Jones-Drew missed his final two contests, but still finished in the top 12. Add a couple of MJD-ish games to his tally and he’d have easily been a top 10 returnee. Frank Gore was clipping along at his usual pace (around 80 yards per contest) when he was felled by a fractured hip in a Week 12 tilt with Arizona. Ryan Grant’s season ended almost before it began when he injured his right ankle in Week 1. Joseph Addai suffered a severe neck/shoulder injury just as he was starting to gain steam midway through the campaign. None of these men are particularly old and Addai was even re-signed by the Colts, a rarity for that organization (see Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James). Rebounds can probably be expected. Nevertheless, it isn’t difficult to see why the life of an NFL running back is often nasty, brutish, and short.

None of the other four dropouts, on the other hand, missed significant time in 2010. And by “significant,” I mean any. Ray Rice was a 20-yard scamper away from reclaiming his status but missed the mark despite 53 more carries. He also continued to yield to Willis McGahee much of the time. Thomas Jones moved from Gotham to the plains and saw his carries drop from 331 to 245 as he split time almost equally with the younger Jamaal Charles. Ricky Williams again shared the Miami stage but ceded the leading man role to Ronnie Brown, losing almost 100 carries in the exchange. Only Steven Jackson, of these final four, had the spotlight all to himself, though suiting up for a crummy St. Louis squad often playing from behind definitely took its toll on his bottom line.

Clearly, forecasting the performance of NFL running backs can be problematic at best. Add to that a burgeoning trend toward job-sharing and…well, it’s become almost maddening. Since 2007, the league’s leader in carries has averaged 348 totes. In the preceding seven seasons (2000 through 2006), that average was roughly 384. Moreover, fewer and fewer backs are reaching the 300-carry threshold, let alone the 400-carry workload guys like Larry Johnson (2006) and Eddie George (2000) took on within the past decade. With more bodies in the mix, it’s going to be awfully difficult to handicap who will emerge on a year-in, year-out basis.

Most Likely to Fall in 2011:

Matt Forte, CHI: The Bears’ main man hasn’t missed a game in his first three seasons and has been a top 10 performer in two of those. He’s averaged well over 1,000-yards on the ground and caught at least 50 passes each year. A durable, productive, and versatile youngster sure doesn’t seem to fit the profile of top 10 tumbler. Nevertheless, there are concerns.

First, Chicago’s run to the NFC Championship game in 2010 was made in spite, and not because of, its offensive production. In fact, the stat geeks over at Football Outsiders ranked the Bears’ offense 28th in the league using their go-to metric, DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average). Forte was good and Jay Cutler wasn’t terrible so the onus for this lowly ranking falls squarely on an offensive line that didn’t protect the latter and didn’t open a lot of holes for the former. While that certainly speaks to Forte’s inherent run-to-daylight abilities, it also means he’s not getting a lot of help.

Second, the line was not significantly upgraded and, quite possibly, got worse during the offseason. Olin Kreutz was allowed to walk and will no longer be manning the all-important center position. His former linemates have been reshuffled and it’s anybody’s guess whether they’ll succeed at their new positions.

Finally, the Bears brought in Marion Barber III to, ostensibly, do what Chester Taylor couldn’t last year (effectively relieve some of Forte’s burden). I’m dubious he’ll be able to provide much more production but there is the possibility he’ll be used strategically on short-yardage plays or, worse yet, near the goal line. Forte doesn’t score a lot to begin with so fewer opportunities in the red zone would likely bump him out of the top 10.

Michael Turner

Riding Turner may be a thing of the past for the Falcons.

Michael Turner, ATL: Atlanta rode “The Burner” like a rented mule back in 2008 (376 carries), much to the delight of fantasy owners everywhere (1699 yds and 17 scores). Alas, the cost of this workload was only deferred as he broke down halfway through 2009 and ended up logging fewer than half as many carries in an injury-shortened campaign. Coaching staffs have apparently taken notice (including Atlanta’s) because, though Turner’s carries were curtailed in 2010 (334), he still led the league.

There’s reason to believe they will be again this season, maybe even more so. Jason Snelling, a very capable complement, was retained. Additionally, the Falcons added Jacquizz Rodgers, a smaller, more dynamic change of pace option, in the draft this past April. Clearly, Mike Smith and company are bound and determined not to abuse their meal ticket in 2011.

Further, and more significantly, the Falcons’ brain trust learned a valuable lesson in the 2010 playoffs. To boot, they weren’t going to be able to beat the Green Bay’s, Philly’s, and New England’s of the world by playing solid defense and keep-away on offense. The defense is mandatory, yes, but the offense needed to become more dynamic and more versatile in order to keep up with the Joneses. Thus, the Falcons added…a Jones. Literally. And boy did Julio come at a steep price. You don’t trade away two first-round picks, a third-rounder, and two more fourth-rounders unless you’re intending to diversify your offense in a big way. Suffice it to say there will probably be more aerial action, and less ground-pounding, on display at the Georgia Dome this season.

Darren McFadden, OAK: You think Houston Nutt ever wonders how he managed to lose four games at Arkansas in 2006 despite having three future NFL starters in his backfield? I know the Hogs faithful sure do. McFadden, aka Run DMC, was the undisputed cream of the crop back then but has been lately eclipsed by his unsung former teammate, Peyton Hillis, in the NFL. This despite the fact he finally put it all together in 2010, topping the 1,000-yard mark and hitting paydirt ten times. Many are expecting even more production in 2011 but there appear to be two good reasons the former Razorback may struggle to reclaim that lofty status. Stop me if this starts to sound familiar.

First, McFadden has yet to string together sixteen straight games as a professional. Actually, he’s never played more than 13 in a season due to turf toe, a balky knee, and a bad hammy, in order. Sure, running backs get hurt. We’ve established that. This could be the year he goes wire-to-wire, though, and…wait, he’s hurt again? Already? Granted, a fractured orbital bone is unlikely to keep the Raiders’ meal ticket out of action come September but it’s at least concerning we’re forced to consider his health before this, his fourth season, even gets off the ground.

Second, McFadden’s inability to stay healthy has created opportunities for his running mate, Michael Bush, to gain a foothold as option 1B in the Oakland offense. Bush was actually drafted one year earlier but didn’t play a down his rookie season due to a broken leg suffered at Louisville. Despite the inauspicious debut, Bush has rebounded to carve out a nice, little niche as McFadden’s counterpart and/or replacement, proving in several career starts he can carry the load when necessary. He’s also the more likely of the Oakland backs to garner carries near the goal line, as evidenced by his eight rushing TDs in 2010 (to McFadden’s seven).

Next: Wide Receivers