Oh, happy day. I participated in my first fantasy football draft of the season tonight (way too early, I know) and I’m already super psyched for the season. I ended up with a core of Frank Gore, Reggie Bush, Brandon Jacobs, Antonio Gates and Vince Young- Madden Curse be damned. As any experienced fantasy footballer will tell you, championships are won in the trenches with quality running back play so I’m extremely pleased with my squad right now. Then again, if you don’t feel comfortable with your team in the hours after a draft then something is wrong. With draft season starting, it’s time for ETB to start ranking and re-ranking players starting with those all-important running backs.
Today we tackle the elite running backs who are likely to fly off the board in your draft’s first round. For my money, these are also the top 11 picks out there. Sure, you could go with a QB or WR in the first round. You could also draft a closer or mediocre center in the third round of your baseball or basketball draft, too. I don’t advise it. Tomorrow we’ll get into some of the more sticky situations: guys involved in platoons, aging fan favorites, up and comers and the necessary handcuffs (kinky, no?). Make sure to keep checking back as we’ll be updating these lists regularly and with increasing frequency as camps break and the NFL season draws nigh. Let the debates begin Rudi Johnson, Travis Henry and Peyton Manning fans.
1 Ladainian Tomlinson: He’s pretty good. I guess. Seriously though, if Tomlinson doesn’t go first in your league it’s time to make some new friends.
2 Steven Jackson: A lot of people worry that he’ll lose TD opportunities to the new weapons in St. Louis (Bennett, McMichael). Not me. Jackson won’t catch nearly as many balls, but this offense should roll all season long and he’ll get all of the goal-line chances. An absolute joy to watch, Steven may be the most gifted back in football. He has sprinter speed on the outside, pounds it inside well and should have no competition on the depth chart. The dude posted 2,334 total yards and 16 TDs last season. That’s sick. With a top pick all you want is a productive foundation that you can set in your lineup every week and forget about and S-Jax will fit the bill.
3 Frank Gore: Every year during draft season it’s extremely important to not chase last year’s stats. Gore had a monster 2006 seemingly out of nowhere and as a third-round pick he was the steal of the year. I finally like the direction that San Francisco is going on offense and Gore’s freakish skill set simply can’t be ignored. Alex Smith should be greatly improved this season, I’m a believer in the talent of Vernon Davis out wide and there’s little reason that Frank the Tank can’t repeat or improve upon his 2006 numbers.
4 Larry Johnson: The workload he’s endured over the last few seasons makes injury a serious concern, but there’s no doubt Johnson is a stud and the focal point of this offense. If Brodie Croyle is named the starter over Damon Huard there could be an adjustment period and the loss of a couple of Pro Bowl offensive lineman is going to hurt. Still, it’s hard to ignore a guy with 37 TDs in his last 32 games. In all likelihood Johnson will carry your squad all season long.
5 Shaun Alexander: If Alexander plays like we had grown accustomed to prior to the 2006 season, this is obviously a huge bargain. He’s still one of the elite talents in the NFL, but the loss of Steve Hutchinson (perhaps the best run-blocking lineman in football) and a cracked bone in his foot derailed Shaun last year. Hutchinson isn’t coming back and word is the cracked bone may never heal. Still, this offense will put some points up and Alexander is a nice bounce-back candidate. 17 TDs and 1,400 yards sounds about right.
6 Laurency Maroney: Maroney went from strong handcuff a year ago to absolute stud heading into this season. He’s a bruising, physical back with deceptive speed and fantastic instincts in the open field. Maroney is capable of being a between-the-tackles workhorse, but he can also bust off the home run. While he won’t be returning kicks this season, the added weapons in New England could make this offense scary. Expect to see this guy get a ton of work from endzone to endzone and expect to see him excel.
7 Joseph Addai: This could easily be too low of a ranking for Addai. He’s the back for the NFL’s best offense and possesses a tremendous combination of instincts, speed and athleticism. While inexplicably splitting carries with Dominic Rhodes last year Addai posted 1,406 total yards and 8 TDs with a tremendous 4.8 YPC. Addai’s blocking skills mean he can stay on the field in long third down situations, and he’s a threat to go the distance every time he touches it. With Rhodes out of town Addai should also inherit the lion’s share of Rhodes’ 223 touches from 2006. My one concern is that Peyton Manning is such a stat hog that Addai will lose some goal-line touches, otherwise he may be two spots higher. As crazy as it sounds, 1,800 total yards and 16 TDs are the upside here.
8 Willie Parker: Parker is officially The Man in Pittsburgh (368 touches last season). Health will always be a concern for the smallish back, but he’s only missed one game in the last two seasons and has a legitimate shot at 15 TDs and 1,500 yards. Mike Tomlin is going to pound the ball and Parker shouldn’t be wanting for carries. Roethlisberger does give me pause because I just don’t think he’s a very good quarterback, but I expect the defense to perform like Metamucil: they’ll put Fast Willie in the red zone with regularity.
9 Brian Westbrook: Electric. A healthy Brian Westbrook is amazing to watch, but I’d be loath to rely on him as my first-round pick. I’ve drafted him in the past and every year I’m looking to sell high after three injury free weeks. I just don’t need or want that kind of stress from my cornerstone player. He may be the best pass-catching RB out there and Westbrook is a threat to score on any given play, but he’s made of glass. He’s never played in 16 games and he’s never registered more than 240 carries in a season. On top of that, he’s always a candidate to lose goal-line carries. I’m also very nervous about the whole Eagle’s offense this year, from McNabb on down. Still, despite all the negatives I just listed I have him ranked 9th here so that tells you something about his jaw-dropping ability.
10 Reggie Bush: Westbrook Jr. For now. I’ve seen a lot of rankings that have Bush in the teens with the caveat, “Bump him up a few notches in PPR leagues.” Nuts to that. Bush may have accumulated a bulk of his total yardage in the passing game (742 yards), but 1,307 yards is 1,307 yards. He shared duties and started slow as a rookie, so it’s safe to assume he’ll top those impressive 2006 numbers. This is a guy who didn’t score his first TD until week 10 and only had one game of 100 total yards under his belt at that point. Then he blew up. Bush is proof that there’s simply no denying talent. On top of that, Deuce McAllister is on his way out of town and should see fewer touches this year. Late in the first round of the draft I’d feel great about buying the potentially high-reward Bush and getting the chance to root for him at the local watering hole every Sunday.
11 Ronnie Brown: A little high, right? I’m willing to forget Brown’s putrid 2006 campaign because the guy can be extremely effective with his legs and hands when healthy. Brown was limited to 241 carries last season and his 5 TDs and 4.2 YPC left a lot to be desired. Well, like the rest of the free world I’ve read about new Dolphin’s coach Cam Cameron (the man conducted the San Diego offense from 2002-06 and “led” Tomlinson to 101 TDs during that run), and like everybody else, it’s piqued my interest. As a Brown owner I also remember that gutty 157-yard performance he put up in Chicago during week 9 and the 250 total yards he posted in the final two games. The talent is there, the coaching may be there and if the rest of the offense can keep up Brown will be a stud.