Forecasting the 2012 fantasy RBs

During the regular season, I wrote a weekly column breaking down which running backs had the most touches (carries plus receptions) game-to-game. At the end of the season, I did a 'Year In Review' to illustrate the trends that played out in 2011. Because it's never too early to talk fantasy for next season, we're giving you 'Touches in Preview.' I know, 'Touches in Preview' sounds like an indie movie about a guy who can see the future but can't save anyone from a tragic fate (Jim Carrey could be the star). Anyway, I'll attempt to look into the fantasy future and predict how what we saw last season will play into what we haven't yet seen.

Remember, this is a dark time in fantasy for running backs. More teams than ever have time-shares fully in place, or will have stars coming off of injuries. So where do you go for production? Think of this as sort of a cheat-sheet for the coming season. We'll go by the numbers.

17: That's how many times Jamaal Charles had the football in his hands before he ran into the mascot and on to injured reserve. He's the most dicey fantasy pick you'll have to make. I'm always wary of guys who rely on speed and are coming back from a torn ACL. Yes, Charles is young and the injury happened early in the season, so he has that going for him. The best news for Charles is that no one really stepped up in his absence in the Chiefs backfield, and there's no stud that will be available when they pick at No. 11 in the draft. But man, is he going to be hard for fantasy players to bet on. I mean, he went first overall and no later than third in most drafts before being hurt. So where's the best place for him? For me it's the third round -- after you've gotten your stud quarterback, running back or receiver. He's not a first-rounder, so to take him as your No. 1 is too dicey. I'm as much a riverboat gambler as the next guy, but those odds are too rich for me.

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29: That's how many RZGTG (red-zone goal-to-go) carries Mike Tolbert had in 2011. That's nearly two a game. And it's not like the Chargers didn't have a great No. 1 RB in Ryan Mathews already. The Chargers have had the luxury of playing Tolbert as a backup the past couple of seasons. This offseason, though, someone is going to see him as the next Michael Turner and give him a huge contract. But don't expect 1,300 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's not that kind of back. Stamina isn't his strong suit; how many times did you see him take a long breather after making a big play this season? But that doesn't mean he shouldn't be your No. 2 RB in 2012. Tolbert had 121 carries and 54 receptions; his new team will likely use him more in the running game (say, 200 carries total) and slightly more in the passing game. You can expect him to be a solid 12-to-16-point player for you next season, because he can be on the field for any situation and will get all the goal-line carries. He should go off your draft board as your No. 2 RB.

30: The age Cedric Benson will turn next December. He had 288 total touches this season, after a whopping 349 in 2010 and 318 in 2009. Benson's about to hit the wall in a huge way. During the last half of this season, Benson was an average running back, gaining just around 3.5 yards per carry. Everything has been trending downward for him the past three seasons, including rushing attempts and rushing yards. He also has just 19 touchdowns over that time, meaning he only got into the end zone once every three games. This from someone who had 58 red-zone touches this season -- fourth-most in the league! I'm not telling you to draft Benson low; I'm telling you not to draft him at all. Let someone else take a chance.

56:Joe McKnight's touches this season. That number should nearly quadruple under Tony Sparano, with the Jets wanting to be a running team once again. Let's be realistic. After his free-wheeling locker-room analysis and declining production, LaDainian Tomlinson will be gone. McKnight is a Rex Ryan draft pick who showed flashes of potential this season. Right now, he's the closest thing to a game-breaker the Jets have on their offense (which is really saying something). With so many things to fix in the offseason, the Jets will be more than happy to let Shonn Greene and McKnight split the workload. Greene has proven he's not a 300-carry-a-year player, and needs help. The Jets desperately want McKnight to blossom, so that letting Danny Woodhead go will seem like less of a mistake. McKnight has tantalizing ability, and plenty of owners will sleep on him. Take him late -- like in the eighth round or later -- and watch as he becomes potentially the best fantasy flex RB in the game next season.

111: The number of targets Darren Sproles had in 2011. The question is, is he special or did he merely take advantage of uncertainty in the Saints' backfield? The answer is yes and yes. Sproles always was special, but Sean Payton, who could never find the right way to use Reggie Bush, figured out how to maximize Sproles' abilities. Don't be concerned that a healthy Mark Ingram will eat into Sproles' numbers in 2012. Sproles had 86 rushing attempts this season to go along with his 87 receptions. Sproles will still get the ball on the ground five times per game, and you can expect him to also continue to catch around five passes per game. I can't tell you how valuable he'll be; in a fantasy era where you're scrambling for running-back production, Sproles guarantees you double-digit points every week, with 15-plus possible every once in awhile. I'd take him as my No. 2 RB and feel great about it.

146 and 209: The number of touches, respectively, for C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson this season. The Bills have already intimated they're going to use both guys next season. Great news for Buffalo fans, horrible news for fantasy owners. So how is this going to play out? I see those numbers flipping. Jackson is going to be 31 years old, and the Bills have to figure out whether Spiller is a franchise running back. He'll get the bulk of the carries, while Jackson will be used in the same way that the Jets utilized L.T. over the past few years: He'll get his dedicated series and will catch some passes out of the backfield. But make no mistake, it'll be Spiller's show, unless he falls flat. Take him in the third or fourth round, and Jackson in the eighth or later strictly as insurance.

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259: The total number of touches Reggie Bush had. This number is going to increase by about 50 next season. Remember, Bush didn't really start carrying the football until his breakout game against the Giants. New head coach Joe Philbin is going to try to implement a high-octane offense, and Bush is going to see his touches-per-game jump in a huge way. He'll be good for at least 250 carries next season, and you can also expect him to catch more than the 43 passes he caught this season. The five-year veteran is in a great spot for fantasy owners, because he's young and has been under-utilized, meaning he still has burst, but has also experienced the grind of a 16-game-and-beyond NFL schedule and is less likely to break down. Outside of the four first-round RBs (Arian Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy), this position is a crapshoot next season, so Bush will likely be off the boards by the end of Round 2. Be confident in snapping him up.

And finally...

0: The number of NFL touches Trent Richardson had this season, because he was still playing at Alabama. It's a bad draft for running backs in general, but someone's going to see stars in their eyes and draft Richardson early. Don't worry -- he's going to get the ball a ton wherever he goes, be it Cleveland or Tampa Bay, his two likely landing spots. He's who I think of when I hear the old John Facenda line about running backs, how the best "combine the buck of a billy goat with the sudden surge of a sprinter." Here's the thing; by the fourth or fifth round of your fantasy draft, owners will be scrambling, taking chances on plenty of RBs. "Do I take Willis McGahee? Can I rely on Roy Helu? I'm torn between DeAngelo Williams and Donald Brown." Go with Richardson instead. If you have any talent at all as a running back, you can come into the NFL and be great right away. Richardson has the talent.

Jason Smith 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.

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