Fantasy Football: Grading first round running backs

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The first round of fantasy football is the most important round there is. You don’t want to flop on drafting your first pick. It’s just like in the NFL, if you mess up a first round pick, it’s going to set your team back.

Most people end up selecting a running back with their first selection, myself included. High quality running backs tend to quickly in fantasy drafts, so it’s important that you take one early. However, if someone like Aaron Rodgers is available then you might want to take him instead, depending on who is available at running back. That’s why I’m going to grade the running backs that are being selected within the first round and I’m going to tell you if you should take them, or avoid them.

The player’s grades will reflect how they are as a first round draft pick, not how they are overall as a pick or as a player.

1) Arian Foster, Houston Texans

Arian Foster should be the first pick in everybody’s draft. The only reason you shouldn’t take him is if your league counts passing touchdowns as 12 points, in that case I’d go with a quarterback. Foster pretty much guarantees you 100 all-purpose yards every game. He puts up great rushing stats and he’s a threat out of the backfield.

LeSean McCoy will try and repeat his success from 2011.

He also finds the endzone on a consistent basis. Out of the 13 games Foster played last season he only had three games without a touchdown, and in two of those games he went over 100 all-purpose yards.

Grade: A+

2) LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles

LeSean McCoy is next best option after Foster. He’s another guy who is going to give you great games every week. In the 15 games that McCoy played last season, there were only two games where he didn’t score a touchdown. In six games he scored more than one touchdown.

Another great thing about having McCoy on your team is that you know he’s going to be the workhorse in Philly. His backup is Dion Lewis and he isn’t expected to make that much of an impact this season. Just look at what Ronnie Brown did in a backup role for them.

Grade: A+

3) Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens

Ray Rice is insane. Rice basically filled up two stat lines in 2011 as he caught over 700 yards. A wide receiver has a solid year catching 700 yards. On top of that, he rushed for 1,364 yards, which was good enough to be second in the NFL last season.

Rice is the Ravens offense. I consider him, McCoy and Foster as the “the big three,” and if any one of these players is available, you draft them. These players will get your team started the right way.

Grade: A+

4) Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers

Mathews may not be involved in “the big three,” but he’s still one of the elite running backs in fantasy football. The Chargers running back will be able to score touchdowns this season now that vulture Mike Tolbert is a member of the Panthers.

Since Mathews isn’t in “the big three,” I would consider taking Aaron Rodgers or even Calvin Johnson over him (depending on your league scoring). I’d still take a good long look at Mathews, though. His abilities and situation almost made him a member of “the big four.” The only reason he’s not is because we haven’t seen if he can be the main guy and he’s known for being injury prone.

Grade: A-

5) Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans

The artist formerly known as CJ2K had a bit of a down year in 2011, but Chris Johnson still managed to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark. Now that he’s holdout free and will have a full training camp under his belt this season, he should be back to contend for the rushing title in 2012.

The biggest concern for Johnson last season wasn’t so much his yards, but his big dropoff in touchdowns. In his first three seasons, Johnson put up double digit touchdowns every year. Last year he only had four. I expect his touchdown total to get back to its normal ways in 2012.

Grade: A

6) Matt Forte, Chicago Bears

Remember when I said Ray Rice is the Ravens offense? Well Matt Forte is the Bears offense. Forte ended up being the Bears’ leading receiver (in terms of receptions) in 2011 even though he injured himself in week 13.

Matt Forte has his contract and is hoping to make a huge impact this season.

Forte’s 2012 season began looking grim since he and the Bears organization could not agree on a long-term deal, but now that the deal is done, the 26-year-old can focus purely on football. If Forte keeps on the pace he had in 2011, he’s going to place as one of the top fantasy players this season.

Grade: A

7) Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders

I’ve been pretty gracious with my grading up to this point, nothing out of the A range, but that’s going to change now. Darren McFadden is one of those guys who is going to either be the best player on your team or he’s going to leave you with a huge hole at your RB1 position.

Remember when I talked about how you didn’t want to flop on your first pick? That’s why I’d be cautious drafting McFadden. He can be one of the most electric players in the NFL, but he hasn’t been healthy enough to last a full season yet. If McFadden falls to you in the second round and you took a running back in your first round, then I would feel comfortable taking McFadden.

Grade: C+

Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars

One would think that the NFL’s leading rusher from a year ago would be a highly targeted fantasy player, but as of this moment…he isn’t. That’s because Maurice Jones-Drew is currently holding out for a contract that the Jaguars won’t give him.

Even if Jones-Drew ends up playing this season, he would have missed a lot of training camp and practice time with his team. We saw what happened to Chris Johnson last season when he held out. Sure Johnson put up over 1,000 rushing yards, but it was well below what was expected of him. If I’m drafting MJD this season, I’m going to have to wait until he’s too good of an offer to pass up. On a side note, backup Rashad Jennings is a nice selection late.

Grade: B-

Trent Richardson, Cleveland Browns

Typically rookie players are drafted much later in fantasy football drafts, but Browns rookie Trent Richardson isn’t your typical player. Richardson is one of the best running back prospects and he’s expected to be the main guy. Based on his talent and his situation, he’s worth being drafted in the late first round or early second.

I really see no reason why Richardson can’t have a great season this year. The only thing that might slow him down is teams will key in on the run against Cleveland, but even that doesn’t stop elite running backs.

Grade: B+

DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys

If you were lucky enough to pick up DeMarco Murray last season, you most likely ended up in the playoffs. Murray exploded onto the scene in week seven against the St. Louis Rams. He ran for 253 yards on 25 carries (over 10 yards per carry!) as he proved to Dallas ownership that he could take over as the starter against Felix Jones.

He followed that performance up rushing for over 100 yards in two of his next three games. He will try and keep that pace up as a full-time starter in 2012. He still has Jones behind him, but Murray should get the bulk of the carries.

Grade: A-

Other running backs that sometimes sneak into the first round include Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch. All three of these players have red flags on them. Charles is recovering from a knee injury and has Peyton Hillis to vulture his touchdowns. Peterson is recovering from an even more serious knee injury (that happened later in the 2011 season) and Lynch is facing a possible suspension after getting arrested this off-season.

These backs are mainly being drafted in the second round, where they should be taken. The only guy I might take a chance on (out of those three) in the late first round is Charles.