Running backs lose value in fantasy football as committees rule

Where have you gone Marshall Faulk, Terrell Davis and Priest Holmes?

The featured running back used to be the single-most important position in fantasy football. The first two to three rounds of drafts were littered with backs who saw the lion's share of his team's carries, and it was simple to prognosticate the numbers.

You knew Faulk would be a statistical monster. You also knew that no one was going to take goal-line carries from Davis, and that Holmes was the clear centerpiece of the Chiefs offensive attack.

Top seven running backs (2010)

  1. M. Jones-Drew, JAC
  1. Ray Rice, BAL
  1. Michael Turner, ATL

Well, finding a true featured back in 2009 was like finding a Dallas Cowboys fan in Philadelphia.

With the rise of backfield committees, even a superstar like DeAngelo Williams didn't see most of his team's carries. In fact, his "backup," Jonathan Stewart, posted more fantasy points this season. While shared backfields have become more of the norm across the league, there are still a few featured backs around.

The best of this dying breed was Chris Johnson.

The talented runner out of East Carolina posted more fantasy points on NFL.com than any other player, scoring 329 points on the strength of an NFL-record 2,509 scrimmage yards and 16 total touchdowns. Though he did post single-digit fantasy points in four of his first five games, Johnson averaged close to 21 points a week overall.

He also scored 20 or more points eight different times. Based on his immense statistical success, Johnson will be the consensus No. 1 overall pick in most 2010 drafts.

Adrian Peterson also had a solid season, putting up career-bests in touchdowns, receptions and receiving yards. However, he finished 64 points behind Johnson. Still, the Vikings featured back will be a top-three pick in 2010. The same can be said of Maurice Jones-Drew, who had career bests in rushing yards and touchdowns in his first season as the top runner in Jacksonville.

It was also a big year for NFL.com preseason sleeper Ray Rice.

Rice emerged past Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain on the Ravens depth chart and thrived as a prominent offensive weapon for coach John Harbaugh. He finished with career bests across the board and was an MVP for countless fantasy owners. But despite his success, you can't call Rice a true featured back. After all, McGahee posted 544 yards on the ground and a solid 14 total touchdowns. Still, Rice will be considered a top-five pick in 2010.

Once you get past the quartet of Johnson, Peterson, Jones-Drew and Rice, there were few consistently good running backs.

Thomas Jones (230 points), Frank Gore (214 points) and Ryan Grant (197 points) had strong statistical seasons, but none of this trio put up what you would define as monster numbers. Gore might have been the closest to reaching an elite level, but he missed two games due to injuries and had decreased totals as a result.

Speaking of injuries, a number of past superstars saw more time in the trainer's room than on the gridiron.

Ronnie Brown, Clinton Portis, Steve Slaton, Michael Turner, Brian Westbrook and DeAngelo Williams all saw their stock tumble due to different ailments. Turner, who seemed to succumb to the "Curse of 370," should bounce back and remains a first-round option in 2010.

Williams also still has value as a No. 1 fantasy back, but losing more carries to Stewart in 2010 appears to be imminent. As for Brown, Portis, Slaton and Westbrook, well, it's hard to trust any one of them going forward.

Instead, owners will have to choose between a number of upstarts who saw their value rise across the board.

NFL.com preseason super sleeper Jamaal Charles was a fantasy star in the second half of the season. With a lot of the same skill sets as Chris Johnson, Charles will be worth a first-round pick in 2010. Cedric Benson also had a breakout season and is now a viable No. 1 fantasy back. The value of other runners such as Fred Jackson, Jerome Harrison, Rashard Mendenhall and Beanie Wells also experienced an upward tick.

The same can't be said of Matt Forte, who endured a sophomore slump of epic proportions. His numbers decreased in every statistical category compared to his rookie season, even with Jay Cutler at the helm. He also fumbled more and scored less, putting up just four touchdowns for the poor souls who took him in Round 1.

Former fantasy superstar LaDainian Tomlinson also saw his numbers drop in most fantasy categories. While he did score 12 touchdowns, L.T. also failed to rush for even 750 yards and posted the worst total yardage totals of his career. Overall, he finished 21st in fantasy points among running backs on NFL.com.

Heading into 2010, fantasy owners should expect running backs to continue to dominate the first round. In fact, I think at least eight of the first 12 picks of a 12-team league will be runners. With that said, you're also going to see more quarterbacks come off the board in the earlier rounds.

The NFL has become a passing league. An NFL-single season record 10 signal-callers threw for at least 4,000 yards in 2009, and 12 quarterbacks passed for at least 25 touchdowns. That also set a new league record.

With a rising number of confusing backfield committees that are close to impossible to decipher, it's time to avoid the headaches and simply focus on the players who will score the most points.

After all, that's what success in fantasy football is all about.

Here are my 2009 Guru Award winners for the running back position.

MVP

Chris Johnson, Titans: Talk about the ultimate no brainer. Johnson was the overall MVP in fantasy football this season, inching out Aaron Rodgers for the honor. I don't know if he can duplicate his monster numbers in 2010, but Johnson will be very hard to pass on if you have the first overall pick in your fantasy draft.

Breakout player of the year

Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars: Jones-Drew's fantasy stock rose immediately when Fred Taylor was released in the 2009 offseason. He made good on the heightened expectations with an impressive 1,391 rushing yards and 16 total touchdowns. Those numbers were good for third-best in fantasy points among running backs.

Sleeper of the year

Ray Rice, Ravens: Rice still put up tremendous numbers for fantasy owners even with losing goal-line work to McGahee. The Rutgers product took over the top spot on the Ravens depth chart and finished as the fourth-best running back on NFL.com. Rice was even better in leagues that rewarded points for receptions.

Bust of the year

Matt Forte, Bears: Forte, whose average draft position on NFL.com was fifth overall, finished with decreased numbers across the board compared to his impressive rookie season. It looks like the Bears offense has moved to a more pass-laden attack with Jay Cutler at the helm, so Forte's future value is questionable at best.

Draft value of the year

Ricky Williams, Dolphins: Williams took over as the Dolphins featured back and thrived in the spot after Ronnie Brown was lost for the season. The veteran ended the season with the eighth-most fantasy points among running backs and was a steal for fantasy owners. Williams' ADP (average draft position) on NFL.com was 145.21.

Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com. Have a burning question for Michael on anything fantasy football related? Leave it in our comments section or send it to AskFabiano@nfl.com!

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