The end of a calendar year is always time for reflection, to consider what you did right in 2011 and what you hope to change for 2012. We looked back at the season that was in the Target Report; now we'll look back and see which RBs had the most touches for this season, and what it means for your draft next spring. Want to know which RBs to take in the first round, who will fall out and who's rising up the draft boards? Let's take a look.
How good was Maurice Jones-Drew during the second half of the season? Jacksonville completely lacked a passing game, yet he averaged over 15 points a week from Week 10 on. He caught a few passes during that stretch as well, and more importantly, showed he no drop-off after the knee concerns of this past off-season. He's still a late first-round pick in your draft.
There are only two reasons MJD drops at all. First, there will be a bigger run on QBs in the first round of your draft next year. Second, we will pass-catching RBs drafted higher than ever before. Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy will still be early- to mid-first rounders because of this ability, and because they don't have to deal with touchdown vultures taking scores away inside the 5-yard line.
Arian Foster will be (arguably) the number one overall pick in your fantasy draft in 2012. Me, I'm going to go with Aaron Rodgers (which I'll explain in further detail later on this week). There's no surer bet than Foster, who proved 2010 wasn't an anomaly. If you're not taking him number one, the latest he's going is fourth.
How about Marshawn Lynch? He has been the best fantasy RB since Week 9. But "Beware the beast," I say. He's in a contract year, and I'm always wary of guys who give you a sudden surge just when you're ready to write them off, especially those who change teams after such a surge, which has a good chance of happening with Lynch. Someone is going to reach into the second round for him, but don't be that owner. Do you really expect him to duplicate his 2011 success when he hasn't done it at this level until now, five years into his career? As great as his numbers have been to date, Lynch is only averaging 4.2 YPC this season.
Cedric Benson is the RB you never want to draft. If you do, you invariably end up congratulating yourself when he plays huge and cursing yourself when he does not. He's all-or-nothing, and his lack of consistency keeps him from being drafted higher. In 2012, he'll be the last of the true bell-cow RBs to get drafted (well, him and Beanie Wells). You have to have consistency in your No. 1 RB, but Benson and Wells can't give you that. They're great flexes, but to count on every week? Too much of a roll of the dice for me.
The alarm bells go off when it comes to Frank Gore too, just because of his injury history and advancing age. He hasn't had as many carries as you'd expect over his career, but I don't want to take a guy if I feel like I have to hold my breath every week, praying I don't see his name on the injury report Sunday night. In the first round, I go with someone else.
Not on this list (and falling out of the top of the first round, where they've been for the last few years) are Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson. You have to be wary of Johnson's mediocre 2011; when an RB who is all about speed loses some of it, that speed often doesn't come back. He may fall all the way to the third round. Peterson, on the other hand, will be coming back from a torn ACL, and who knows if he'll even be ready by the start of the 2012 season? If he's not, he's a fifth-rounder at best. You're better off with Jamaal Charles coming off ACL surgery, though I'm not that high on him since his game is mainly about speed as well, and it takes many players a year to get back to where they were pre-injury.
Right now there are four RBs who will be early, sure-fire first-round picks in 2012 (Foster, Rice, McCoy, MJD). Matt Forte may be in that mix, too, for everything he did before getting hurt, but he's in the same place Lynch is, contract-wise. Still, it's possible he sneaks into the late first-round mix. If you're drafting 9-12, who would you rather get, Forte, Tom Brady, Matt Stafford or Calvin Johnson? I'd feel much better taking a different player in the first and then coming back to Forte in the second round.
See Jason Smith on "NFL Fantasy Live," airing Sundays at 11:30 a.m. ET on the "NFL RedZone" channel, and Tuesday-Friday on NFL Network at 2 p.m. ET and 12 a.m. ET/9 p.m. PT. He writes Fantasy and other NFL pith on NFL.com daily. Talk to him on Twitter @howaboutafresca. He only asks you never bring up when the Jets play poorly.