Let’s examine the Top 10 running backs from 2011—along
with those who dropped out from 2010—and see if we can identify
some potential underachievers for the upcoming 2012 season.
Note: All rankings are based on FFToday’s default standard
Missed the Cut in 2011 (6 of 10):
P. Hillis, J. Charles, C. Johnson, D. McFadden, R. Mendenhall, M.
Bill Simmons recently published an entertaining and germane piece
Tomlinson’s fantasy football legacy. In it, he observes
that nobody in NFL history has matched LT in terms of long-term
statistical domination at the running back position, that nobody
has, more importantly, singlehandedly made or broken fantasy matchups
as regularly. The Sports Guy is right, but he stops short of predicting
there won’t be another like him any time soon. I’ll
take it one step further: The running back position has changed
irrevocably and isn’t nearly as valuable—in real or
fake football—as it was when Tomlinson was terrorizing the
There are several reasons for this, one of which I’ve already
alluded to (it’s the passing game, my friend!). Running backs
are also, for obvious reasons, a lot more brittle than other players.
While linemen get beat up every play and quarterbacks occasionally
get walloped, running backs pretty much get lit up every time they
touch the pigskin. Extrapolate those beatings over the course of
a 16-game season and you’re talking about a lot of cumulative
punishment, provided a player even makes it through a full slate.
Four of our 2011 exiles can attribute their freefalls to multiple
DNPs caused by these beatings. Matt Forte missed the final month
of last season with a sprained knee. Darren McFadden made it through
a mere six games before bowing out with a mid-foot sprain. Jamaal
Charles only managed to play in a single full contest before tearing
an ACL early in Week 2. Finally, Rashard Mendenhall lasted all the
way to the regular season’s final week…before tearing
an ACL and jeopardizing his chances of playing at all this year.
Predictably, NFL powers that be have come to realize the wisdom
in spreading these beatings out over more bodies (the dreaded committee
approach). A consequence of this change in philosophy can be illustrated
by the cases of Peyton Hillis and Chris Johnson, our last two dropouts
and poster children for this diminution of importance. The former
was embroiled in a contract standoff with the Browns almost from
the get-go in 2011. He seemed distracted, eventually missed some
time over a mysterious (strategic?) bout of strep throat, and ultimately
ended up rushing for only 587 yards and three scores. Johnson, meanwhile,
locked horns with Titans management over his admittedly puny rookie
contract. Though he ultimately got a raise before the season started,
he wasn’t ready to play and epically underachieved (just a
shade over 1,000 yards and four measly touchdowns).
These contract squabbles point to a growing divergence in perceived
value that running backs and those who write their checks place
on the actual work being done (carrying a football). This divergence,
moreover, is caused by the very brutality against which the running
backs are trying to insure themselves. No, not at all fair. Still,
Hillis and Johnson probably won’t be the last two meal tickets
to disappoint because they’re preoccupied with getting paid
before their bodies betray them (see Jones-Drew, Maurice).
The Most Likely Candidates to Fall from the
Top Ten This Year:
Turner, ATL: Hey, remember that time I bragged about
nailing the Top 10 dropouts for 2011? Did I mention I actually went
nine for ten? Here’s the lone, overachieving soul who stood between
yours truly and prognostication perfection. And if you think I’ve
forgiven “The Burner” or whatever the heck they called him back
when he was a mid-major nobody and before his legs got all ginormous
and before he started ruining fantasy advice columns and such….
Not that I’m bitter or anything.
The reason I think Turner will slide down the ranks in 2012 is the
same reason I thought he would last year: running backs have only
so many miles on their legs and his, prodigious as they are, must
be reaching the limit. I suggested before last season that Mike
Smith et al. would attempt to limit Turner’s touches after several
years of 300+ carries and that this, more than anything, would prevent
him from retaining Top 10 status. Well, they didn’t and…it didn’t.
It’s called playing a hunch, folks, and I’ve learned my lesson.
This just in, though: The Falcons’ brass are actually talking
about limiting Turner’s touches heading into 2012! I believe
that’s called actual evidence—evidence I’ll use to support this
particular assertion, thank you very much.
I also suggested in last year’s piece that the Falcons could
probably stand to become more dynamic on offense. Nope, haven’t
changed my mind there, either, especially after watching them soil
the bed against the G-Men in the playoffs. Matty Ice can really
sling the leather and Roddy White and Julio Jones together make
a Top 5 wide receiver duo. In a passing league, it simply makes
sense to make these guys the focal point of your attack.
Bush, CHI: Need further proof the running back position
is being deemphasized across the league? Michael Bush wasn’t even
the starter in Oakland until after the Raiders’ bye in Week 8. Are
you kidding me? The dude only started for half a season and he cracked
the Top 10. And, no, it’s not like he made up for lost time by going
on a Tomlinson-esque tear during that abbreviated spell. He topped
the century mark precisely two times and scored exactly five touchdowns
after McFadden went down. Simply put, Michael Bush was a Top 10
running back last season because the bar for running backs has been
Bush won't sniff the top ten as Forte's
This is not to take anything away from him, of course. In fact,
your fearless author tagged him as
a great mid-round backup (with a main man’s skill set) heading
into the 2011 campaign. So it stands to reason the former part-timer
would parlay his half-season audition into a full-time gig on the
open market, right? Try again. Maybe the Raiders would make him
a decent offer and he’d reprise his role as Darren McFadden’s relief
man? Strike two! For all his contributions to the Raiders’ somewhat
successful 2011 season, the former Louisville Cardinal was awarded…a
job as Matt
Forte’s backup in Chicago. Say goodbye to the Top 10, Mr. Bush.
We hardly knew you.
As an aside, I’m planning to live to be 100. When I reach
that jolly old age, I’ll still have no earthly idea why the
Raiders do the things they do.
Sproles, NO: This mighty mite’s 2011 numbers don’t necessarily
help prove the devaluation of the running back position. They do,
however, prove that some running backs are being utilized more and
more in the service of the passing game. To put it another way,
Sproles catapulted himself into the ranks of the running back elite
by acting suspiciously like a wide receiver for most of the year.
Consider that of the total 1,313 yards he gained from scrimmage,
fewer than half were accumulated on running plays. Of the ten touchdowns
he recorded (one on a punt return), fewer than a quarter occurred
on actual rushing attempts. Darren Sproles is a “running back” like
Tim Tebow’s a “quarterback.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Production is production
and Sproles absolutely produces. Here’s the thing about guys
who primarily catch passes for a living, though. They, more than
any other fantasy asset, rely on good quarterback play and, more
importantly, what defenses are willing to concede them. Drew Brees
is as good as they come, yes, but are opponents going to continue
letting him check down to the diminutive but dangerous Sproles in
2012? Can they afford to? A big, physical O-line and a punishing
ground-pounder can still impose their collective will on a defense,
even in the NFL. It’s much tougher for a single receiving
target to impose his own will when a defense won’t let him.
Don’t overspend for a guy who’s probably in line to
receive the fourth most carries on his own team. After all, you
wouldn’t draft a wide receiver to fill your running back slot,
even if you could.
Next: Wide Receivers