Running Back, probably more so then any other position in the NFL, routinely defies conventional wisdom. Don't believe me? I challenge you to think of the "ideal" NFL running back. What traits would you pick out? Size? Probably pretty tough to pin down since top fantasy backs range from Matt Forte (6-2, 220) to Maurice Jones-Drew (5-6, 208) to Steven Jackson (6-2, 240). What about speed? Well, that's tough too since you have Michael Turner and Mark Ingram (4.51 and 4.62 40 yard dash) on one hand and Chris Johnson (4.24) on the other.
If we try the same exercise for quarterbacks and wide receivers, the answers are much clearer right? For both positions we want someone who is tall, muscular and smart. Anyone without these three characteristics who succeeds is more than likely an outlier. (The top QBs, in no particular order, are Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Stafford, Newton and Manning x2.) Of this group, only Brees is under 6-2 and 220 pounds. The same goes for receivers. Looking at the best of the best (Megatron, Fitzgerald, White, Andre Johnson, Welker, Jennings and A.J. Green), only Welker and Jennings are under six feet tall, and only Welker is under 200 pounds.
So, while evaluating WRs and QBs is fairly granular, it is nearly impossible to rank Running Backs without stumbling into legitimate arguments against your picks every step of the way. But let's give it a shot (because somebody has to).
1. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles
321 total touches, 1,624 yards from scrimmage and 20 total TDs (17 rushing, 3 receiving)
2. Arian Foster, Houston Texans
331 total touches, 1,841 yards from scrimmage and 12 total TDs (10 rushing, 2 receiving)
3. Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans
319 total touches, 1,465 yards from scrimmage and 4 total TDs (4 rushing)
4. Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens
367 total touches, 2,068 yards from scrimmage and 15 total TDs (12 rushing, 3 receiving)
These four guys are the only "elite" fantasy backs given how much of their team's offense they're responsible for. All touched the ball over 300 times and were largely considered the focal point of their respective offenses. Of this group, McCoy ranks the highest from a fantasy perspective because of both the incredible amount of skill around him (Vick, Maclin, DeSean Jackson, etc.) as well as his young age (24). Foster is the best runner, but the decline of Andre Johnson as well as his odd off-season decision to go vegan knock him down slightly. Johnson is coming off a lengthy holdout and a season in which he woefully underperformed; he was far and away the top fantasy RB in 2010. If he gets back on track, he'll likely challenge McCoy for the top spot. Ray Rice is the forgotten man. Everyone recognizes his productivity, but no one trusts anyone around him (including his quarterback, Joe Flacco). His supporting cast is the weakest of the top four backs and pushes him down the rankings slightly.
5. Matt Forté, Chicago Bears
255 total touches, 1,487 yards from scrimmage and 4 total TDs (3 rushing, 1 receiving)
6. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
226 total touches, 1,109 yards from scrimmage and 13 total TDs (12 rushing and 1 receiving)
7. Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams
302 total touches, 1,478 yards from scrimmage and 6 total TDs (5 rushing, 1 receiving)
8. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars
386 total touches, 1,980 yards from scrimmage and 11 total TDs (8 rushing and 3 receiving)
9. Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
132 total touches, 768 yards from scrimmage and 5 total TDs (4 rushing and 1 receiving)
10. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
12 total touches, 92 yards from scrimmage and 1 total TD (1 receiving)
The remaining six backs rounding out the top ten have some fairly big drawbacks. For MJD, it's his holdout (which we saw last season, really affects a back even after he reports to camp.) For Darren McFadden it's the inability to stay healthy. For Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson and Matt Forté, it's the questions surrounding their return from serious knee injuries. For Steven Jackson it's a lack of upside. The Rams don't have much else going on.
Each back in this group can legitimately stake a claim as the "most-talented" back in the NFL. However, of these six, I like Matt Forté (knee) and Adrian Peterson (ACL). But that's assuming they come back fully recovered from their injuries, which is never a complete guarantee. Once they get back onto the field, they will immediately assume their traditional "workhorse" role. A guy like Jamaal Charles isn't ranked higher because he relies almost purely on speed to be productive. He's never been a high TD guy, scoring on the ground only 12 times total in the last three seasons. So before drafting him, you have to ask yourself if you're really sure that he's going to return to his pre-injury form.
Bottom line here? No matter how much I like anyone from spots 5-10, draft them with caution (and with a capable handcuff).