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Running backs to target, 2011 fantasy football

August 16, 2011

There are a lot of yummy running backs whom you can make the anchor of your teams this year. But if you don’t want to spend a high pick on those top RBs – no, not the RBs that have really annoying commercials – you can wait a while and grab a handful of backs in the middle rounds while everyone else is taking fliers on sleeper wide receivers, overpriced tight ends  and reaching for defenses already. The RBs you’ll take in these middle rounds should provide good value, and as long as you’ve got elite playmakers at other positions (like LeBron James and Albert Pujols) you’ll be alright with lower-tier backs taking up most of your RB spots.

We’ll start with a guy going a little bit earlier than most of the backs I’ll talk about, and that’s Matt Forte. Forte finished 11th in fantasy scoring among running backs last year, according to ESPN. This year he’s going on average 14th among running backs, on both fantasy football calculator and ESPN. There are several reasons I like Forte. In each of his three seasons in the NFL he’s caught no fewer than 51 passes or gained fewer than 471 receiving yards. So even if he has a bad game rushing, he’s still a threat to put up serious points, whether your league is PPR or not. Forte had 10 games, including playoffs, last year in which he tallied 30 or more receiving yards. He had multiple catches in every game except two. Forte bounced back from a rough sophomore season to post career-bests in yards per carry and receiving yards per game. In games against the NFC North last year Forte averaged 112 yards from scrimmage. Forte’s going on average at the beginning to middle of the third round this year. Whether you go RB/RB or RB/WR with your first two picks Forte is a great addition to your squad because of his rushing and receiving ability.

One back who should benefit from a coaching change is Knowshon Moreno in Denver. John Fox led an aggressive rushing attack in Carolina recently, and he should do the same thing in Denver. Moreno improved in his second year, averaging more yards per carry, rushing yards per game, receptions, receiving yards and yards per catch. Moreno really kicked it in last year in the second half of the season. He averaged over 65 yards rushing per game, five yards per carry, three catches per game and 30 receiving yards per game. Moreno has the talent, and now he’ll have the chance to showcase it in Fox’s offense. I’m not ready to take him in the fourth round, which is his current ADP, because there are other guys I want in that round, but if he would fall to the fifth I’d jump on him in the virtual draft room.

One of my favorite breakout candidates is Felix Jones, who is going 52nd on average so far. Hopefully by the fifth round I’ll have one top running back and three wide receivers, and can take Jones as my second RB. Jones’ career yards per carry is a ridiculous 5.3. He averaged 50 yards a game last year rushing, and that number went up to 62 in the second half of the season when he began handling a larger workload. The Cowboys’ offense figures to be a top offense this year and Jones should contribute on the ground and through the air. He had eight games of 25 or more receiving yards last year, and nine games of three or more catches. He finally completed a full season last year, his third in the NFL, and should be able to handle lead-back duties this year after Marion Barber went to Chicago.

One back who is seemingly always undervalued is Fred Jackson. He’s got three straight years of 4+ yards per carry. He’s an adequate receiving running back. In the second half last year Jackson averaged 99 yards from scrimmage, and averaged 4.4 yards per rush. Those numbers are very similar to the numbers he put up in the 2009 second half. Jackson’s fought off Marshawn Lynch and C.J. Spiller over the years, and it’s clear that right now he’s the better running back than Spiller. While the Bills will try to involve Spiller in the offense Jackson should remain the top rusher on the team and provide stats similar to last year’s second half, and 2009’s total stats.

Jonathan Stewart stands out as a guy who could easily out-produce those drafted around him (Wells, Addai, Tomlinson…Really people?). The dude has 22 career touchdowns in 46 career games, including back-to-back years of 10 a piece in his rookie and sophomore seasons. Stewart has two problems this year: his quarterback and DeAngelo Williams. But we know he can produce with a crappy quarterback, and we know he can produce sharing carries with Williams. Whether the Panthers go with Clausen or Newton this year really won’t matter, because J-Stew and D-Will will be toting the rock a lot. Stewart doesn’t catch the ball, but his proficiency on the ground makes him a high-reward, low-risk pick late in the seventh round.

A running back who has put up two solid years in a row who should be used heavily this year if things go right is Tim Hightower. Now in Washington, Hightower is listed as RB 1 on the Redskins’ depth chart. As long as Mike Shanahan doesn’t go crazy this year (Those odds aren’t very good, however) Hightower would be a great 10th-round pick in any format. He runs the ball well (~4.6 ypc last two seasons), has a knack for finding the end zone (23 TDs in 48 career games), and can catch the ball (118 catches in 48 games). We’ve seen Hightower, 25, put up good stats in a time-share before, and so far he has the top spot in the Washington backfield to himself this year. Take a chance on him in the 10th round over aging veterans in crowded backfields.

My last guy is more valuable in PPR leagues than standard formats, and that is Darren Sproles. The mini lightning bolt has a new home in New Orleans, and I can only imagine how creative Sean Payton will get with the little man. Spr – Wait, that last statement sounded kind of dirty, but I swear I didn’t mean for it to. By my count Sproles had 10 good games fantasy-wise last year in an offense similar to that of the Saints’. Even though he only had one 50-yard rushing game, Sproles was a PPR dynamo, with eight games of eight or more points on receiving alone. Sproles will probably be the third-down back in New Orleans and will be used similarly to Reggie Bush in the Saints’ offense. He belongs on your bench and could easily fill in your flex slot in a deep league.

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