There are so few workhorses in today’s game that they have become a valuable commodity. That being said, there are a few backs who are better off splitting carries. Either way, the days are gone when you had to take a runner with your first two picks. If you don’t have a top-4 pick, you might be better off waiting until the mid-rounds and loading up on talented young guys with upside.

Tier 1a.

Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson

I’d rather have Peterson. 1,391 yards and 18 TDs last year while sitting out 3rd-down and passing situations because of Chester Taylor. The Vikings receivers making up their own ward at Minnesota Regional Hospital. Brett Favre’s indifference to coming back for 2010. Take your pick. Add to my reasons the fact that Johnson’s 2009 is about as repeatable as Tom Brady’s 2007. Also, the Titans have to play the Dolphins, Jets, and Patriots twice each this season. Meanwhile, the Vikings get the Bears, Packers, and Lions twice each. Could CJ repeat or even better his numbers from last year? Yes. Could he also plummet back to Earth and finish outside the top five or even top 10 of fantasy RB? Yes. Could Peterson score 20+ times? Yes. Could he finish outside the top 10 of RB? Barring injury, I say no. Just like my argument for Peyton Manning as my top QB, if I take safe picks early (in this case #1) then it lets me take some chances later. And I think Peterson is safer.

Tier 1b

Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice

These two are basically interchangeable. Both are absolute studs who deserve to go #3 and 4 in any normal draft. They are pretty safe in their jobs, and neither is particularly worrisome on the injury front.

Tier 2

Frank Gore, Rashard Mendenhall

If the difference between Tier 1a and b is like Kim and Khloe Kardashian, the difference between 1b and 2 is like Rachel McAdams and Matthew Berry. This isn’t so much a knock on Mr. Berry as it is an admiration of Rice and MJD. All signs point toward both these backs having outstanding years. They are both clearly workhorse backs. The Niners might begin to throw more than they have in the past, but that should help protect Gore from the ticky-tack injuries he has experienced in the past. And Mendenhall should get off to a red-hot start because of Big Ben’s suspension. Both of these guys should go in the late first or early second round and should not disappoint.

Tier 3

Michael Turner, Steven Jackson, Ryan Grant

Jackson is on a short list of guys I won’t draft. He has played 16 games just once in his career, 2006. He has been the only source of offense on that team since 2005 when Marshall Faulk handed off the rushing duties. He has carried the load for five years, and that doesn’t seem to be changing with a rookie quarterback, and coming off a one-win season. His brittle body scared me before Bradford took over. Now it simply petrifies me. Turner showed signs of wear after 376 carries in 2008. I see more upside in Turner than Jackson. The Falcons offense as a whole seems to be improving, and Matt Ryan and Roddy White should attract enough attention for Turner to find some holes. He should return to 1,000 yards, and double-digit touchdowns again. Grant is one of the most underrated fantasy rushers in the game. Two straight years of 1,200+ yards, and he more than doubled his touchdowns last season. There is no reason to believe he will not be the top threat out of the backfield in Green Bay. I might like Grant more than either of the other backs in this tier.

Tier 4

Shonn Greene, Knowshon Moreno

Young backs with uncontested jobs, who will both split carries with more experienced backs. Greene has Tomlinson behind him and the home run threat in Joe McKnight. However, the Jets ran over 600 times last year, and the offense should look similar this year. Keep an eye on how LT is used early on. Moreno has Buckhalter behind him, but that’s not the threat to carries it used to be. They took him in the first round to be “the man”, and he is capable of jumping to that next tier as a workhorse back if he works hard and matures quickly. 1,000 yards and 10 TDs are both in reach.

Tier 5

DeAngelo Williams, Cedric Benson, Beanie Wells, Jonathan Stewart, Jamaal Charles

Charles sticks out of the this group because he has the biggest upside for this season. He had over 1,000 yards in, really, half a season of work. The only question is how he can hold up to an expanded workload over an entire season and how much Thomas Jones will factor in. Wells also has a clear majority workload, but with Leinart at the helm, we don’t really know what that offense will look like. If there was a more defined QB there, Wells would be a serious sleeper, so if Leinart shows up, look out. Stewart and Williams have shown two backs on the same team can be fantasy relevant. Stewart rushed for 1,133 yards and 10 TDs while Williams added 1,117 and 7. They are both solid #2 RBs. And lastly, I’m not buying Benson’s 2009. I see defenses not being scared of the passing game and loading up to stop the run, and I don’t think the Bengals will just run through the Steelers, Ravens, and even the Browns defense can be solid.

Tier 6

Leshean McCoy, Ryan Matthews, Pierre Thomas, Felix Jones, Matt Forte

Is this the year Jones stays healthy? If he does, he could have a massive breakout year. His first two years he has 8.9 and 5.9 yards per carry numbers. He can run and catch and is a threat to score on every touch. Look out. Ryan Matthews lands in a plum job, but I am very wary of rookies who start right away, so don’t go all in on him yet. Kolb is in at quarterback, and we have yet to see what effect, if any, that has on the Eagles offense. McCoy will get his yards, both rushing and receiving. The question mark is how many chances he will get for TDs. He isn’t a “powerful” runner, and the Eagles are known for passing in the red zone, so be ready for 1,300 all-purpose yards and, say, 7 TDs. Matt Forte was the quintessential fantasy bust last year. He was a consensus top four pick and never really got going. This year he can be had late in drafts and might provide good value, even with Chester Taylor in town. Pierre Thomas is extremely talented but he is held back by his team’s desire to throw the ball. With Drew Brees in town, that doesn’t look like it will change so his yardage may be less than appetizing, but he should be plenty of shots at the end zone, so keep an eye on him.

Tier 7

Ronnie Brown, Joseph Addai, Brandon Jacobs, Jerome Harrison, CJ Spiller, Clinton Portis, Jahvid Best

A first round pick in many leagues last year, Jacobs looked soft around the goal line and battled injuries in an overall disappointing year. He will probably be splitting carries more with Ahmad Bradshaw, but could still get those touchdown chances. Spiller’s value shot up when Fred Jackson got hurt in practice last week, and if Jackson’s injury becomes long term, we might see more from Spiller right away than expected. Best is expected to get the Lion’s share (pun intended) of the carries in Detroit. He is quick and could produce, or the workload might be too much and he breaks down halfway through the season. Rookie RBs are unpredictable, and therefore terrifying. Addai isn’t sexy, but he gets the job done. Don’t underestimate the value of all-purpose yards, even when the rushing stats aren’t sparkling. Harrison’s potential is largely unknown because he hasn’t been given starter’s carries in Cleveland. With Hardesty in town, that may not change, but it’d be fun to see him really let go and given 15-20 touches per game, just to get an idea of his ceiling. We all know the Dolphins’ wildcat they run with Brown and how effective it has been. Brown is a very talented runner, but his injury problems, plus Ricky Williams still stealing carries leaves some to be desired from the former Auburn Tiger. It’s hard to get a clear picture of the Redskins backfield, but it looks like Portis is in line to be the #1 guy. If that is the case, don’t forget what he did under Mike Shanahan in Denver. The one-cut blocking scheme produced back-to-back 1,500+ yard, 14+ TD seasons. Just don’t forget.

Tier 8

Reggie Bush, Marion Barber, Ladanian Tomlinson, Ricky Williams, Justin Forsett, Ahmad Bradshaw

These are all guys who won’t be the featured back on their teams, but who could provide serious value week-to-week. Bush’s all-purpose yards are respectable, and the Saints are talking as if they want to let him loose and see how special he can be. Tomlinson will have plenty of touches if the Jets even approach their 600+ running plays from last year. Barber will vulture touchdowns from Felix Jones, and might have some games of 15+ carries as well. Williams is ALMOST a 50/50 split with Brown in Miami, so he should continue to rack up TDs, with decent yardage attached as a bonus. All these guys can be had in the late-middle rounds and make for solid value picks. Forsett has a chance to be featured, but in Seattle, with Leon Washington and Julius Jones also in town, that doesn’t mean a whole lot. He has some deep sleeper potential, but be very skeptical of any Seahawks offensive player this season. Bradshaw has a chance to be the majority runner this season, and he has a chance to be special in that role. But Jacobs will still get the goal-line and short yardage carries for the time being, limiting Bradshaw’s short-term value.

Tier 9

Darren McFadden, Fred Jackson, Donald Brown, Laurence Maroney

Jackson injury put him here. Before that story broke, I had him much higher, in fact several spots ahead of CJ Spiller in Buffalo. But now I just don’t see him getting enough opportunities week-to-week to produce. McFadden has been given more than enough time to live up to his expectations, and soon might be crowned the second colossal first-round bust of very recent Raiders drafts. This might be Brown’s year to soar over Addai and become the man in Indy. It will be someday, it might be this day. If he does get those carries, and if his pass-blocking has improved, Brown could skyrocket quickly.The Patriots teased us with Maroney’s nine touchdowns last year. He is in a contract year and could rise to the occasion, but he was inconsistent last season, and New England under Bill has never really “featured” a back. Buyer beware.

Tier 10

Michael Bush, Darren Sproles, Carnell Williams, Montario Hardesty

Williams is the #1 running back of a horrendous team. He also has two backs breathing down his neck for carries, so expect a maddening game of musical running backs as Tampa tries to keep their foreheads above water. Sproles is still a big-play threat in San Diego, and might get more carries if they try to work Matthews in more conservatively. But don’t expect reliable numbers as he lives on big plays. Hardesty might get more touches than we initially thought. The Browns seem to want to work him in short-yardage and goal-line situations where him and Jerome Harrison might end up destroying each other’s value. If the Browns stuck with one, that one would be a solid option.

This is obviously not a comprehensive list of NFL RBs, but these are the names to know in a standard 12-team league. I didn’t use the word “handcuff” once, because in the day of backfield platoons, I don’t think there is a “handcuff” worth drafting. Some examples would be Gerhart in Minnesota or Anthony Dixon in San Fran. But in a 12-team league, I would leave those guys on the waiver wire. That’s all for now. I’ll be back with receivers and tight ends tomorrow.

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