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Joseph Hutchins | Archive | Email
Staff Writer

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

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 scoring.

 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
  Top 10 Running Backs- 2011
Rank Player
1 Ray Rice
2 LeSean McCoy
3 Maurice Jones-Drew
4 Arian Foster
5 Marshawn Lynch
6 Michael Turner
7 Ryan Mathews
8 Adrian Peterson
9 Michael Bush
10 Darren Sproles

Missed the Cut in 2011 (6 of 10): P. Hillis, J. Charles, C. Johnson, D. McFadden, R. Mendenhall, M. Forte

Bill Simmons recently published an entertaining and germane piece about LaDainian 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 league.

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:

Michael 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.

Michael Bush

Bush won't sniff the top ten as Forte's backup.

Michael 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 lowered significantly.

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.

Darren 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