Rice should return to elite fantasy status this season

With the expected release of Willis McGahee, where would you put Ray Rice in your running back rankings? His value has to go through the roof! -- TyInStL (via Twitter)

Michael Fabiano: Rice comes in at No. 5 at his position on NFL.com, which is due in part to the fact that he won't have to contend with McGahee for carries -- especially near the goal line. Of course, whether Rice remains in that spot depends on what the Ravens do (or don't do) in the free-agent market. If Rice is the true featured back with Jalen Parmele behind him on the depth chart, he'll warrant a prominent spot in Round 1. But in the event that the team adds another impact runner between now and the start of the regular season, Rice's value would clearly be altered.

Why is Miles Austin ranked so highly? He didn't have a great season in 2010, and Dez Bryant looked really good. -- Chartay101 (via Twitter)

M.F.: Depending on what happens in the weeks to come, I might rank Austin even higher than his current No. 14 spot among wideouts. Keep this in mind -- in the five full starts Tony Romo made last season, Austin was on pace to record 105 receptions and 1,555 yards. When Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee were under center, Austin's numbers went down while Jason Witten's went up. That's due to the fact that Romo took more chances downfield -- he also had a better rapport with Austin. With Romo back, I'm expecting Austin to have a solid season. Bryant might have more long-term upside, but I don't see him putting up better numbers than his veteran teammate in 2011.

I need to retain either Chris Johnson or Arian Foster. Thoughts? -- D. Pineda, Mexico

M.F.: When you're talking about two players with similar value, I tend to select the one with a longer track record. In this case, that player is Johnson. He's been one of the most consistent running backs in fantasy football based on points over the last three years, finishing in the top five at his position in 2009 and 2010. Sure, Foster was the top dog in fantasy land last season, and I don't think he's a one-hit wonder, but he'll be hard pressed to duplicate his 2010 success ever again.

Who is most likely to be the biggest one-hit wonder from last season: Peyton Hillis, Darren McFadden or Brandon Lloyd? -- YodH_613 (via Twitter)

M.F.: I'd have to go with Lloyd. Did you know that he recorded 32 percent of his career catches, 38 percent of his career yards and 42 percent of his career touchdowns in 2010? That is ridiculous. Also, a huge part of his production came from two factors. First, the Broncos threw the football more than most teams under former coach Josh McDaniels. Second, Lloyd was the fourth-most targeted wideout in the entire league. With John Fox now at the helm, the team's reliance on the run will rise -- the opposite is likely for Lloyd's numbers and value.

Which running back is most likely to step up for fantasy owners this season: Fred Jackson, Marshawn Lynch, Ryan Mathews or C.J. Spiller? -- TheJohnyRingo (via Twitter)

M.F.: Despite his lack of success as a rookie, I like Mathews the most of the running backs you listed. He clearly has statistical upside in Norv Turner's offense, not to mention a schedule that ranks as one of the easiest in the league among runners based on our FPA ratings. A viable sleeper, Mathews will come off the board in the early- to middle-rounds in drafts. I also think Jackson could be a decent draft bargain as well. He's the clear-cut starter for coach Chan Gailey, and Spiller has some work to do before he'll put a major dent into Jackson's carries.

Where would you rank Tim Tebow once Kyle Orton is traded? Is he a viable No. 1 fantasy quarterback or more of a matchup-based starter? -- M. Herrera (via Facebook)

M.F.: I've moved Tebow up to No. 17 among quarterbacks on NFL.com, making him a No. 2 fantasy option. With so much talent around the league, however, it's hard to see Tebow as a No. 1 in most formats. I do see him as a potential sleeper who can be a nice asset because of his skills as a runner, but I'd be cautious in moving him into the top 10 at his position. I see him coming off the board in the middle to late rounds on draft day.

Who is the highest-rated, third-year wide receiver? -- 1raymo (via Twitter)

M.F.: Hakeem Nicks comes in as the top third-year wideout on NFL.com, with Mike Wallace also in the top 10. Other players who could have breakout or sleeper seasons in 2010 include Kenny Britt, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, Michael Crabtree, Mike Thomas and Austin Collie. I'd pay close attention to what happens with Britt, who has the tools to put up big numbers for the Titans and now has Matt Hasselbeck throwing him the football. If he doesn't face a significant suspension, he'll be a major breakout candidate.

Looking at the top 20 players on NFL.com, 11 of them are running backs and only four are wide receivers. Is it a good idea to use a first-round pick on a receiver like Andre Johnson, when great feature backs like Frank Gore and Michael Turner will be on the board in Round 2? -- B. Leong, Springfield, Va.

M.F.: The reason for the glut of running backs near the top of the board is a simple case a of supply and demand. If you don't get one of the top runners in the first or second round, chances are you're going to be taking a lot of Excedrin from the headaches your backfield will cause. My draft strategy is based on waiting to take a quarterback, but it also takes into consideration draft position and flow. In most cases, I'll take an elite runner in Round 1 and follow with a star wideout. But unless I had a late pick in a PPR format, I wouldn't take Johnson (or any wideout) in Round 1. Also, unless you're in a league with 10 or fewer teams, I don't see Gore or Turner being on the board in Round 2. 

If you had the top overall pick in a PPR league, who would you draft? -- cameo5144 (via Twitter)

M.F.: This season is very odd, in that there is no clear-cut No. 1 overall pick. I've seen mock drafts where Adrian Peterson has gone first, others where Chris Johnson or Arian Foster is the top pick, and still others where Michael Vick is the main man. I've even some seen mocks where Jamaal Charles was the top choice. If I had to draft right now, I'd go with Peterson. He's been the most consistent and productive runner over the last four years, and A.D. is also in a contract year. I also like the fact that Donovan McNabb, not Christian Ponder, will be under center for the Vikings.

Will Mikel Leshoure see his share of the carries in Detroit, or will it be a Jahvid Best and Maurice Morris committee? -- highlifeman1 (via Twitter)

M.F.: I don't think Morris is even in the mix for a significant role in this backfield. Instead, I see Best continuing to start with Leshoure seeing carries in a sort of "Thunder-and-Lightning" backfield. Think about the carries distribution between CJ2K and LenDale White with the Titans in 2008 -- and remember that, at the time, Lions coach Jim Schwartz was the defensive coordinator in Tennessee so he's familiar with the scenario. Best is the fantasy back of this duo to target, both in standard and PPR formats, but Leshoure has middle- to late-round appeal.

Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com. Have a burning question for Michael on anything fantasy football related? Send it to AskFabiano@nfl.com or tweet it at Michael_Fabiano!

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