Fantasy Football Forecast: Running Back Spotlight

Adrian Peterson

Listen -- can you hear that? The sound of whistles, full-contact drills in pads, and coaches screaming at the top of their lungs? That's right, faithful fantasy football followers, our days of hibernation are at an end, and it's time to embrace the onrushing 2013 NFL season, much like an All-Pro quarterback calmly surveys the field as the blitz bears down on him, ready to uncork a game-winning pass…

If you're like the Fantasy Football Forecast (MFFF) and are already piecing together your fantasy football squad's draft strategy, it's time to get down to brass tacks. In the next few weeks we'll gather our thoughts for the season to come, including pinpointing players who we think may surprise, offering some tips for your draft, and noting potential pitfalls.

With the NFL becoming such a wide-open passing league, the running back position might seem a little diminished these days, but in some ways, having that reliable RB on your roster may be more important than ever. Receivers have good days and off days, quarterbacks can slump, but having the right mix of RBs on your roster who can offer consistent performance is the bedrock that can get you through the lean times, and push you over the top at the right time.

Top of the Top:

Adrian Peterson, Minnesota  Vikings Arian Foster, Houston Texans Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks

If you have a shot at any of these players in the top two rounds, they're worthy pickups. Opinions vary on who is the best fantasy RB in existence -- it's hard to go against Adrian Peterson, who showed inhuman recuperative powers coming back from ACL and MCL injuries to register over 2,000 yards rushing last year. Can he repeat the feat, or even better it? We wouldn't bet against him. Arian Foster remains an elite running and receiving talent who has maintained remarkably consistent stats over the past three seasons.  It might be a tall order for Doug Martin to replicate his 2012 stats (1,926 yards from scrimmage and 12 TDs), but he's the only game in town in Tampa's backfield, and with the Bucs unsure about whether QB Josh Freeman can take the next step in his development, he should receive plenty of carries (and fantasy love) in 2013. Ditto for Marshawn Lynch, who piles up yards at about the same impressive rate as he gorges on Skittles, and figures to maintain his high output in Seattle's run-friendly offense.

The Next Level:

Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs Trent Richardson, Cleveland Browns LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins C.J. Spiller, Buffalo Bills

All the players in this group can easily be first-tier fantasy producers, but have a caveat or two that keeps them out of the top group. Still, they're worth getting in the top 3-4 rounds of your draft.

Baltimore's Ray Rice is a proven performer, but with fellow RB Bernard Pierce proving his worth during the Ravens' Super Bowl run last year, Rice may see less touches this year, especially in the red zone. Trent Richardson, on the other hand, doesn't have that problem, as he's the Browns' only threat at RB. He showed plenty of promise as a rookie in Cleveland last season, but the Browns' overall mediocrity and lack of any other gamebreaker on offense threatens to drag down his stats a bit. Buffalo's C.J. Spiller is one of the most explosive runners in football (a whopping 6 yard-per-carry average in 2012), but can he continue to be productive with a new coach (Doug Marrone) and offensive scheme? It also remains to be seen if he handle a 300+ carry load. LeSean McCoy seems to be a great fit for Chip Kelly's spread offense in Philly, and he's only two years away from a 20-TD season in 2011, but injuries reared their ugly head last year and may indicate the beginning of a decline, with a capable backup (Bryce Brown) waiting in the wings. Chiefs fans are similarly holding their breath for Jamaal Charles, who should be productive in new coach Andy Reid's offense, but is also susceptible to injuries. Injuries may affect last year's top rookie rusher, Washington's Alfred Morris, in another way -- with QB Robert Griffin III either sidelined or gimpy to start the year, defenses will feel more comfortable with focusing on stopping Morris first and foremost. Potential Steals:

Monte Ball, Denver Broncos Shane Vereen, New England Patriots Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins David Wilson/Andre Brown, New York Giants Make way for the youngsters -- if you're looking for a RB flying under the radar to take a gamble on, we suggest players from this group. Rookie Monte Ball has apparently all but nailed down the starting RB job in Denver, and with Peyton Manning flinging footballs left and right, he should benefit from the resulting lack of defensive attention. In Green Bay, James Starks is the presumptive starter but rookie Eddie Lacey is turning heads in training camp, and we wouldn't be surprised if he moves up to a starting role quickly. Miami's Lamar Miller hasn't caught much buzz even though he averaged 4.9 yards per carry last year -- with Reggie Bush out of the picture, it's Miller's show now, and he should take advantage. All the off-season news in New England has focused on the loss of Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski's lingering injuries, and Aaron Hernandez's arrest, which has led many to ask the question: Who will Tom Brady target? Answer: How about Shane Vereen? The shifty RB was an effective change-up and even spot starter last season, and this year he's already seen time at slot receiver, tailback, and outside receiver in practice. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has gotten credit for his innovations in using Gronkowski and Hernandez at TE; he may be ready to do the same with Vereen. Finally, keep an eye on the two-headed running attack of David Wilson and Andre Brown in New York -- last year Wilson flashed gamebreaking ability on kick returns and a few long runs, and Andre Brown showed a nose for the end zone (8 TDs in 10 games) before an injury ended his season. Much depends on whether Brown can stay upright and if Wilson can continue adjusting to NFL competition, but if one of these two starts producing consistently (or you handcuff them in your draft), you're going to look awfully smart.

Only at the Right Price:

Reggie Bush, Detroit Lions Matt Forte, Chicago Bears Stephen Jackson, Atlanta Falcons Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars Rashard Mendenhall, Arizona Cardinals DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys

Most of the players in this bracket have a history of fantasy production, but carry more serious injury concerns, or need to adjust to a new system. They're not bad for filling out your roster, but don't expect top-notch starter numbers from them.

Reggie Bush showed more durability the past two seasons with the Dolphins than many gave him credit for, but can he thrive in Detroit's pass-happy offense, which has yet to produce a legitimate threat at RB during the Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson era? Maurice Jones-Drew is a fantasy heavyweight when his body is right -- the question is, how right will he be in 2013, and will he thrive in Jacksonville's new zone-blocking running scheme? You would think that placing veteran RB Stephen Jackson in Atlanta's high-powered offense is a recipe for instant success; on the other hand, he has a lot of tread on the tires, his numbers have steadily declined the last three years, and the Falcons' O-line isn't especially proficient at run-blocking. Chicago's Matt Forte gained more than 1,400 yards from scrimmage in 2012, and he's a reliable receiver out of the backfield, which should benefit new coach Marc Trestman's West Coast offense, but Michael Bush is taking away his goal-line carries and he hasn't played a full season since 2010. The Titans' Chris Johnson bounced back from a lackluster 2011 with 1,243 rushing yards last year, but his days of getting 1,500+ yards and scoring double-digit TDs seem a distant memory, and Tennessee doesn't seem ready to take the next step forward as an offense. With DeMarco Murray it's all about staying healthy, as he's put up impressive yardage when he's on the field, but the Cowboys tend to score via the pass rather than the run, and his injuries (nine missed games the last two years) are a red flag. Finally, Rashard Mendenhall is the front-line starter in Arizona, reuniting with his former Steeler offensive coordinator Bruce Arians; however, after seeing his numbers drop off a cliff in 2012 due to injury, and now operating  behind a below-par Cards offensive line, he's going to have to prove he's all the way back.

Buyer Beware:

Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers Chris Ivory/Bilal Powell/Mike Goodson, New York Jets Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders

Like his fellow rookies Monte Ball and Eddie Lacy, it would seem that Bell has the inside track to a starting position in Pittsburgh, so why are we lukewarm about his impact? Recent history shows that the Steelers are quick to interchange their backs if things aren't going well, and as far as we can tell, the same average Steeler line from last season is still there. With Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman waiting in the wings, we may see a situation in which no one stands out from the crowd. Darren McFadden? An exciting player no doubt, and with the Raiders going back to a power running scheme, it would seem to be a good bet for McFadden to replicate his 2010 numbers, when he rushed for 1,157 yards in 13 games. Ah, but there's the rub -- McFadden has yet to make it through a full season unscathed, and has averaged under 10 games a season the past two years. Still, if you don't mind being ready to dump him for another RB when the annual injury bug hits, you should get some useful points out of him. The same can be said for Ryan Mathews, who has flashed ability when healthy, but whose ability to stay on the field remains in question. And what about the Jets? With Rex Ryan's oft-stated "ground and pound" philosophy, you would think that someone from the triumvirate of Chris Ivory, Bilal Powell and Mike Goodson should step up to provide quantity, if not top quality, at RB. But with Ivory dinged up, Goodson mired in legal troubles and Powell still unproven as a full-time starter, not to mention an unsettled QB and WR situation, you'd be hard-pressed to predict even moderate production from this group.

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