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Foster leads a questionable core of runners in 2012

Other positions: Quarterbacks | Wide receivers | Tight ends

 

"Running backs are the lifeblood of fantasy football."

In more than a decade of work in this business, I can't tell you how many times I've written that sentence. Well, times have now changed. In today's fantasy football, quarterbacks rule the roost. How's this for a stat: In 2011, Ben Roethlisberger (13th in fantasy points at his position) scored more points than Marshawn Lynch, who was fifth among runners. So despite being a disappointment, Big Ben still put up more points than a fantasy "stud."

To further de-value the running back position, there are a ton of players who will enter next season with major question marks, including superstar Adrian Peterson. Whether it's due to age or injury, it's tough to find guaranteed production from a position that has lost a lot of its luster. In turn, that makes it difficult to pass on a top-notch quarterback in favor of a runner in the first round.

Here's an early look at how the top of the position will look in 2012.

1. Arian Foster, Texans (2011 - 250.10 points): Foster finished fourth at his position last season, but he averaged more points than all other backs. If you ask me, he's the closest runner in the NFL to former fantasy superstar Marshall Faulk. I have him rated as the No. 1 overall player for 2012.

2. LeSean McCoy, Eagles (2011 - 280.40 points): A versatile back, McCoy is coming off a monster season with over 1,600 scrimmage yards and 20 total touchdowns. It's a coin flip between McCoy and Ray Rice here, but I'll go with the Eagles runner in what will be an explosive offense.

3. Ray Rice, Ravens (2011 - 296.84 points): Rice led all runners in fantasy points in 2011, and an upcoming schedule that includes games against the AFC West (Broncos, Chargers, Chiefs, Raiders) makes him an even more attractive option. He's guaranteed to be a top-five pick in drafts.

4. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars (2011 - 262.00 points): Despite having no help on offense, the man nicknamed "Pocket Hercules" still rushed for a career-best 1,606 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. He could see a slight drop in numbers in 2012, but Jones-Drew remains a top overall pick.

5. Ryan Mathews, Chargers (2011 - 186.60 points): Mathews has all the talent in the world, has a favorable schedule and is in a position to break out in 2012. With that said, he comes with some risk due to his proneness to injuries. I'd consider Mathews a viable late first-round pick in most drafts.

6. Matt Forte, Bears (2011 - 168.70 points): One of the more talented backs in the league, Forte was having a solid season before suffering a knee ailment in Week 13. Depending on his contract situation, he could end up either moving past Mathews into the top five at running back -- or dropping out of the top 10.

7. Chris Johnson, Titans (2011 - 168.50 points): Johnson would be ranked in the top five among backs if he hadn't posted such a miserable 2011 campaign, but he's still just 26 and remains one of the most talented backs in the league. There might not be a bigger risk-reward selection in 2012 fantasy drafts.

8. Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks (2011 - 215.60 points): One of the heroes of last season, Lynch finished fifth in points among backs and helped countless owners win a title. That makes him worthy of being a top-10 runner. Be aware, though, that Lynch could struggle to duplicate his 2011 success.

9. Jamaal Charles, Chiefs (2011 - 13.20 points): Charles tore his ACL way back in Week 2, so he'll have had plenty of time to recover for the start of next season. The concern is that most players coming off reconstructive knee surgery struggle in their first year back, so there are no guarantees.

10. DeMarco Murray, Cowboys (2011 - 119.80 points): The Cowboys are set to hand over the starting role to Murray, who put up terrific numbers while in a featured role as a rookie. However, Murray's durability is an issue -- he missed the final three weeks of 2011 with a broken ankle.

11. Darren McFadden, Raiders (2011 - 104.80 points): McFadden is one of the league's most talented backs, but he's terribly brittle. He's never played more than 13 games in a season and was active just seven times in 2011 due to a foot injury. Consider McFadden a risk-reward choice.

12. Darren Sproles, Saints (2011 - 185.30 points): Sproles finished 12th in fantasy points among backs and was one of the best draft bargains in fantasy football last season. A playmaker with great speed, he should once again lead all Saints runners in touches in 2012. He's a high-end No. 2 back.

Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com. Have a burning question on anything fantasy related? Tweet it to @Michael_Fabiano or send a question via Facebook!

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