With approximately 75 fantasy football magazines currently available at any given supermarket, it is safe to assume that the fantasy football season has officially begun. In order to get myself ready, and because I’m so nice I have ranked the top 30 skill position players and then provided the in-depth commentary on why I have done so. Will my rankings differ from yours or many of the other rankings out there? Uh, is an apple different than a stapler? YES! Opinions on all rankings will vary, but just remember that all of the rankings out there are just that, opinion and speculation. My intention is for these rankings to get your mental, fantasy-sports-related juices flowing if they haven't already. Also, due to possible fantasy league spies these rankings may be slightly different from my actual rankings. Or they may not. Only I will know and that’s just the way I’m going to keep it!
As always, enjoy and feel free to disagree vehemently while calling for my head in the comments.
WARNING: This whole thing is pretty long, so you better have some free time to read it or at least be bored at work. Either that or print it out -- it makes excellent bathroom reading, I've heard.
TOP 30 FANTASY RUNNING BACKS
30. Jonathan Stewart (CAR) - Although my support for DeAngelo Williams is well documented, even I can’t deny that the talented rookie Jonathan Stewart will win the Panthers starting job. He has power, he has speed and he apparently has the support of nearly every single person in the Panthers organization save for Williams himself. Barring a major setback in his recovery from a turf toe injury, Stewart should be the new rusher in town as well as provide your team with a decent amount of fantasy points.
29. Julius Jones (SEA) - Even though Jones never did stand out in the Cowboys offense, playing second fiddle to Marion “The Barbarian” Barber and all, a change of scenery and a new offense that will favor the running game might be just what Julius needs. T.J. Duckett will take much of the goal lines carries away, but Jones should be given the bulk of the overall workload. He’s definitely an upside pick, so don’t put too much stake in him or you may regret it when he puts up similar stats from when he was in Dallas.
28. Rashard Mendenhall (PIT) - Regardless of Willie Parker’s rankings free fall due to his broken leg and low 2007 TD total, he will still be the go to guy in Pittsburgh. Mendenhall on the other hand is an upside pick with not a lot of risk since he’s going to be getting most of the goal line carries and spelling an often fragile Parker, anyway.
27. LenDale White (TEN) - Despite playing in an offense with hardly any passing game, White sprung upon the scene last year with 1,108 yards and 7 TD’s. With this being Vince Young’s second year with his primary receivers, White should enjoy an increased amount of defenses dropping more people back to defend the pass. Or at least that’s what the Titans organization hopes. Regardless, even though rookie Chris Johnson may spell him, White should see the majority of carries and goal line attempts.
26. Thomas Jones (NYJ) - The fact that T.J. had a total of two TD’s last year has overshadowed that he managed to rack up 1,119 yards behind one of the worst lines in the league. The off-season signings of Alan Faneca and Damien Woody should ensure that he will at least have a competent offensive line. It’s a risky pick because he’s either going to excel with his improved blockers or flop and show everyone that he just doesn’t have what it takes to be a starter. That decision is up to you.
25. Darren McFadden (OAK) - Despite being touted as the best back in the NFL draft, McFadden is not the top back in most running back rankings. This is likely due to the fact that McFadden will be lining up behind JaMarcus Russell, who is still technically a rookie himself. Since it takes inexperienced quarterbacks a lot longer to get acquainted with the game than their running back counterparts, McFadden will get a plethora of carries and an official diploma from the NFL’s rookie running back university.
24. Fred Taylor (JAX) - The past couple years has seen Fred Taylor do the exact opposite of what everyone had predicted him to do, with that opposite being him producing. Taylor has had more than 1100 yards and at least 5 TD’s in each of his last two seasons. While it’s hard to imagine him just suddenly dropping off, he is 32 years old and it is going to happen eventually. The question is, when? With Maurice Jones Drew entering his third season and maturing all the while, Taylor may still be productive this year but not enough to warrant a key RB spot on your roster. Although he is a solid and safe late round pick. Do with it what you will.
23. Matt Forte (CHI) - With news of the release of team castoff and Ricky Williams-esque Cedric Benson, Forte’s stock has soared. Even before he was the unanimous number one back on the roster, Forte had created a buzz that was not heard during the Draft due to his emergence from Conference USA. Although the Bears themselves have proclaimed the rookie as their starter, he still finds himself on the Bears offense which has question marks at quarterback, wide receiver and pretty much ever single position except for running back. So despite him getting the majority of all the carries, don’t expect his rookie year to be Adrian Peterson-esque. Think more along the lines of a poor mans, rookie Marshawn Lynch.
22. Michael Turner (ATL) - How Michael Turner will turn out can likely be put in a better perspective when you take into account his performance last year when he filled in for an injured L.T. in the playoffs. Although 3.8 yards per carry isn’t necessarily bad, it was a bit worse than his career average that he’d racked up shredding fatigued defenses as Tomlinson’s backup until that point. That was then. Now, Turner finds himself on a Falcons team that is in the process of rebuilding with inexperience at many key parts of the offense. Although you wouldn’t know it by looking at his contract, Turner’s quarterback Matt Ryan is actually a rookie, who will go through the learning curves that plague all rookie signal callers.
21. Edgerrin James (ARI) - Edge has officially turned the magical yet dreadful age of 30, which is the benchmark age for when running backs will begin to decline. After a largely disappointing 2006 considering his success in Indianapolis, Edge improved slightly in 2007 in yards, average and TD’s. Although 1,224 yards and 7 TD’s isn’t necessarily bad, it is safe to say that it may be very close to his ceiling now that he’s turned the big three-oh. Even with promise of a more balanced attack, the Cardinals offensive line is still unfortunately the same and it is likely Edgerrin’s stats will stay that way as well.
20. Willie Parker (PIT) - With Parker’s 11 TD decline from 2006 into 2007, breaking his leg late in the season didn’t help his fantasy stock. The arrival of rookie Rashard Mendenhall also didn’t bode well for his future TD total either. What Parker does bring to the table is the yardage that he racks up. He is still an incredibly skilled rusher that can put up big numbers on the ground no matter how TD-less or injury prone his season may be.
19. Brandon Jacobs (N.Y.G.) - The heir to Tiki Barber’s throne after his retirement, Jacobs proved he could handle the job when healthy. Unfortunately for Jacobs, so did Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw. Bradshaw’s recent court troubles could get him suspended if the event in question happened post-draft. A Bradshaw suspension could be all Jacobs needs to claim the starters spot once and for all so it would behoove you to keep an eye on the situation.
18. Jamal Lewis (CLE) - Even though the Browns offense and more importantly offensive line have largely remained the same, many are still doubting Lewis can repeat his 2007 success. Without a suitable backup or a threat to steal some of his goal line carries, the only thing that could stop Lewis from continuing upon last year’s success is either injury or age. Lewis is approaching 30 and the enormous amount of carries he has on his odometer has to take it’s toll at some point. It’s hard to imagine his decline happening so quickly and suddenly without some type of injury, though.
17. Lawrence Maroney (N.E.) - Being the RB on one of the best passing games of all time doesn’t leave you in a position to get tons of carries. Nor does it help having a coach who likes to spell his backfield every two downs or so. Entering his 3rd season and with Kevin Faulk likely to see a decreased role, Maroney is a prime candidate to breakout this year. Unfortunately, “breaking out” for a running back on the Patriots offense means about 1,100 yards and 8 TD’s. On the bright side, that’s still better than Rudi Johnson who you targeted last year.
16. Reggie Bush (N.O.) - Reggie Bush is a classic case of too much hype due to college performance. Although Bush has proven he is a worthy complimentary rusher and a skilled receiving back, the Barry Sanders like expectations have left many disappointed after his first two seasons in the league. With his rushing skills likely to improve over time, it may just take him a few more years until he’s a suitable starter. Even in his current complimentary situation, his rushing yards and receiving yards combined equal enough points to make him a worthy target in your draft. Not to mention his ceiling would have him turning into a Brian Westbrook type back. Not bad. I we think we can finally chill out with comparing Hall of Fame players to rookies that are being drafted, though. No?
15. Earnest Graham (T.B.) - Graham proved to be one of the most valuable, out-of-the-blue waiver wire pickups of the 2008 season. The only option after injuries to Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman, Graham nearly rumbled himself to 1,000 yards, finishing instead with 898 and 10TD’s. With Warrick Dunn’s return to Tampa, Graham will likely lose some carries, but he can easily claim the starting spot if he can prove that last year wasn’t a fluke. 175 fantasy points if you can guess correctly!
14. Ronnie Brown (MIA) - Although his recovery from an ACL tear is a major concern, Brown benefits from sustaining the injury early in the season last year as well as returning to a vastly improved Dolphins offense. With Ricky Williams back in town, he likely won’t need to carry all of the load immediately as long as Williams stays away from the reefer. Brown is still a risky pick, but as 602 yards and 7 TD’s in 7 games last year showed, not one without a potential hefty reward.
13. Willis McGahee (BAL) - Even though the Ravens have major question marks on offense, the rushing game is not one of them. A top notch rusher and capable receiver, McGahee should top 300 carries for the first time since 2005 due to the sub-par and inexperienced options at quarterback. Although his new and improved ACL will be tested under such a workload, if he can handle the strain and put up his usual numbers than his fantasy numbers will be just fine. Even if he is in on one of the worst offensive units in the game.
12. Larry Johnson (K.C.) - A slow start, poor passing game and foot injury all contributed to Johnson’s worst season as a starter last year. Even if he can avoid the slow start and injuries this year, the Chiefs still have no passing attack and the shoddy offensive line remains the same. Although he‘ll get his carries, he will also be the focal point of every defense the team plays. Good thing we’ve seen what he can do before so you can educated decision on whether or not to take the gamble. The upside is high, although the downside is low. Take your pick.
11. Maurice Jones-Drew (JAX) - Even with Fred Taylor still going strong, Jones-Drew should slowly but surely take over primary back duties. With a rushing average of a bit more than 5 yards per carry average in his first two years, superb hands out of the backfield and game breaking ability, Jones-Drew’s low touches are overshadowed by his supreme upside. Whenever he takes over the reigns in Jacksonville and gets more time on the field, expect his value to skyrocket up the charts. Even if this year is not his year, he still pumps out a solid amount of fantasy points and presents upside that is hard to pass up on.
10. Ryan Grant (G.B.) - Grant won biggest out-of-the-blue honors in 2007 and helped many teams win championships had they had the clarity to pick him. I for one ended up taking Priest Holmes over Grant with my last waiver wire pick up in my keeper league. Suffice to say, I did not make the playoffs and will probably never forgive myself. Grant placed a firm hold on the starter position with his end of the season performances last year and isn’t realistically threatened by anyone as long as he can continue production and stay away from injuries. Therein lies the catch, however. The question is if Grant will be able to continue his break-out year last year and stay away from the injuries that can plague a starting RB. All aren’t huge concerns but worth taking into account should you find yourself about to draft him.
9. Marion Barber (DAL) - Anyone with the nickname “The Barbarian” had to have earned it somewhere down the line and it’s no surprise if you’ve seen Barber run. He is a powerful, agile back who doesn’t stop running until the whistle blows. He has a wreck less abandon for anything but positive yardage and ultimately the end zone. Even with Jerry Jones favorite Felix Jones being plugged into the offense and taking some carries away, Barber will be the goal line back and Barber will get the majority of the carries. You can’t be the best back on one of the best offenses in the league for nothing, you know.
8. Frank Gore (S.F.) - Gore’s 1,102 rushing yards, 436 receiving yards and 6 total TD’s isn’t very impressive at first glance, but take into account that he did it all on the worst offense and the league and you’ve got yourself a better picture. Gore was the only bright spot on an otherwise anemic 49ers offense last year. Having brought in Mike Martz to fix the offense has caused many people to declare Gore a sleeper for next year. Since I still don’t know the correct definition of sleeper, all I will say is that if Martz can turn Alex Smith into a competent QB than Gore has the talent to reap all of the rushing and receiving rewards a Martz system has to offer the starting RB. His rushing total may go down, but his receptions, receiving yards and total TD’s should all go up. Cha-ching!
7. Marshawn Lynch (BUF) - Lynch is another RB who put up impressive stats on a not-so-impressive offense. In 13 games last year he ran for 1,115 yards and 7 TD’s. With Trent Edwards looking to be everything J.P. Losman was not, Lynch at least has a suitable and blossoming passing game to take some attention away from him. Rumor has it that the Bills will also be utilizing Lynch’s pass catching skills a lot more this year which in layman‘s terms means he‘ll be on the field even more. An injury last year is a small concern as to his dependability, but a year through the gauntlet should have taught him what it takes to be a starter in the NFL.
6. Clinton Portis (DEN) - Portis returned to pre-2006 form last year, finishing in the Top 5 for fantasy points accrued. A new system has turned some people off as to Portis’ 2008 potential, but he is too talented a player not to utilize half of the offensive play calling on. Though he’ll likely see less carries, Portis should still fare just fine, especially considering his pass catching skills. Portis caught 47 balls for 389 yards last year and although he’ll get less carries, he’ll get more receptions. It all evens out. Trust me.
5. Joseph Addai (IND) - Although Addai didn’t get as many yards as the top RB’s last year, he more than compensated with his end zone trips. Addai had 15 total TD’s last year to pair with a solid 1,072 rushing yards and 364 reception yards. He’s the top back on one of the most prolific offenses in the game, but his total upside keeps him out of the upper-echelon. If your looking for a safe pick who will have plenty of opportunities to score TD’s than Addai is your guy. Although enjoying Peyton Manning’s commercials also helps.
4. Stephen Jackson (STL) - In only twelve games and behind one of the worst offensive lines in the game, Jackson still managed to amass just over 1,000 yards and tack on 6 total TD’s. With a healthy offensive line and a more run-heavy offense, Jackson could very well return to pre-2007 form, where he was in the conversation for top running back overall. He gives you rushing yards, he gives you reception yards and he scores TD’s. Injuries are a problem due to last year, but should his offensive line remain healthy, he should cruise through the season with little to no problems.
3. Adrian Peterson (MIN) - As fantastic as Peterson was last year and as much hype as he caused, I still find it hard to rank a back who’s had one fantastic year over a back who’s had them for his entire seven-year career. Peterson very well could prove that he’s the top running back in the game this year, however his quarterback is questionable and his backup running back proved he could do a suitable job if given spell-carries. If A.P. can have an equally impressive Year 2, he’ll not only win over just me, he’ll likely win over the entire game of professional football. We’ll be watching!
2. LaDainian Tomlinson (S.D.) - Tomlinson has basically been a machine until he showed us his mortality with an MCL injury in the playoffs. He has been the face of fantasy football since he stormed upon the league in 2001 and with good reason: He can run, he can catch, he can score and if you haven’t heard -- he’s awfully classy! With the birthday cake reading 29 this year, L.T. may finally see the decline we thought impossible for so many years. Even so, he’ll still likely put up top-notch numbers this year and many years down the road. His upside is way too high to not warrant him at least a number 2 ranking.
1. Brian Westbrook (PHI) - After gaining sole control of the Eagles RB spot sometime in 2005, Brian Westbrook has made a steady improvement in his game and more importantly, his fantasy points. The year 2006 saw the biggest jump while Westbrook showed us in 2007 then he can run for more yards as well as improve on his already ridiculous reception numbers. Going into 2008 he is the whole package. He does everything you could want from your featured fantasy running back and he does it while proving his injury critics incorrect. Having played in 15 games in each of the last two seasons, Westbrook is slated for perhaps the finest season of his career in 2008. At age 28, he could very well have his peak season this year. Even if he has peaked and he backpedals a bit, 240 fantasy points isn’t too bad for a RB’s low side is it? Is it? Hello? Is anyone still reading this?