2011 NFL Position Review - Running Back

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The 2011-12 NFL fantasy season is complete and finally in the books. For those of you who play fantasy basketball, hockey, baseball, golf or NASCAR, your attention is likely already on those sports, but for many fantasy players, it's just the NFL and the off-season.

For them, we will continue our review of this past season in hopes that a look backward will help to improve our performance as we head into next fall.

The next position on the agenda is another glamour position - running backs.

Before rules changes made the NFL the "ultimate passing league," the running back was the cornerstone of any owner's fantasy team. Most strategies had owners picking a back in the first two rounds. Nowadays, the quarterback and wide receivers have gained importance at the expense of the running back, but you still need two or three quality ball carriers if you expect to compete for your league's trophy.

The race for "Most Valuable" at the running back position went down to the wire as three players vied for the title. In a 17-week fantasy season, Ray Rice won easily as his competition took the final week off. For the majority of us, however, the 16-week season is the norm and Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy took home the top prize with his league-leading 20 touchdowns.

MoCoy scored touchdowns in 14 of 16 weeks while rushing for 1,309 yards and catching 48 balls for 315 yards. His only stumble was in Week 16 - championship week - when the Eagles' back posted single-digit fantasy points for the only time in 2011. As the last of the three running backs selections on Draft Day, McCoy paid the best dividends.

The 2011 Best Bargain Award for running backs goes to 14th-round selection Darren Sproles of the New Orleans Saints. Sproles did it in atypical fashion, posting more yards via pass receiving (710) than on the ground (603). In leagues which also awarded points for return yards, Sproles garnered 1,383 yards in punt and kickoff returns. Finishing just behind Sproles in the voting was Buffalo's Fred Jackson. Despite playing just 10 games, the Bills' back finished eighth among all fantasy running backs.

Finally there is the award that no player wants: Most Disappointing. Excusing Jamaal Charles' bad numbers because of injury, our "winner" is Denver running back Knowshon Moreno. As a pre-season fourth-round selection, Moreno failed to crack double digits in any of his eight games. He finished the season with 179 yards rushing, making him the fourth-best runner on the Broncos behind Willis McGahee, Lance Ball and quarterback Tim Tebow.

Top-10 Fantasy Running Backs

1) LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia (fantasyfootballnerd.com rank 6) - McCoy easily had the best fantasy season of his career with personal highs in attempts (273) rushing yards (1,309) and touchdowns (20). He should be a top-three selection in the 2012 draft.

2) Ray Rice, Baltimore (4) - Rice began the season slowly with just two 100- yard rushing days in the first nine weeks. In the final four weeks of the fantasy regular season, he exploded for 470 yards and four touchdowns. Unfortunately, his best game of the year took place in Week 17 after most fantasy leagues had already determined their champion.

3) Arian Foster, Houston (2) - A preseason hamstring injury forced Foster to miss two of the Texans' first three games, but once healthy he was the best fantasy running back in the league. Foster posted six 100-yard rushing games between Week 7 and Week 16, including 158 yards and a score during Championship Week.

4) Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville (10) - Jones-Drew led the NFL in rushing attempts (343), rushing yards (1,606) and rushing yards per game (100.4). As the only viable option in the Jaguars' offense, MJD again played against stacked defensive lines, which is the reason he has only rushed for 13 touchdowns in the last two years after collecting 27 rushing TDs in the previous two seasons. It's unlikely to get much better until Jacksonville finds a passing game.

5) Darren Sproles, New Orleans (158) - Coming over from San Diego in the off-season, Sproles was the perfect back for Drew Brees and the Saints' passing offense. Sproles hauled in 77.5 percent of the 111 times he was targeted (86 receptions) for 710 yards and seven touchdowns. Including his punt and kickoff returns, Sproles accounted for a league-leading 2,696 yards and became an integral part of the New Orleans offensive machine. The best receiving back in the game, Sproles is a must start for 2012. His draft position is greatly effected by the point system of each league, with his value skyrocketing in PPR and return leagues.

6) Marshawn Lynch, Seattle (68) - Lynch went from the scrap heap in Buffalo to "king of the mountain" in Seattle. The Seahawks running back became a top-five fantasy back over the second half of the 2011 season. From Week 9 through Week 16, Lynch rushed for 855 yards and scored 10 times.

7) Michael Turner, Atlanta (15) - In contrast to Lynch, Turner was a ghost of himself down the stretch with just 476 yards and two scores from Week 9 through Week 16. Because Turner does not play a significant role in the passing game, he earns most of his yards/fantasy points in Falcons wins (98.5 ypg in Atlanta wins, 59.2 ypg in losses), which makes it easy to forecast his production.

8) Fred Jackson, Buffalo (70) - Before his injury, Jackson was on his way to a career year and had emerged as a top-five fantasy running back. In 10 games, he accumulated 934 yards rushing and 442 yards receiving. His 137.6 ypg from scrimmage was better than Rice, Jones-Drew or McCoy. Only Foster posted more yards per game from scrimmage (141.6). It will be interesting to see how Jackson and C.J. Spiller, who finished the year well in Jackson's absence, share the Bills' 2012 workload.

9) Reggie Bush, Miami (81) - Bush was one of the league's big surprises and not just because he stayed healthy enough to play in the Dolphins' first 15 games. Bush became a "traditional" running back, doing it primarily on the ground. The former receiving back with New Orleans, became the No. 1 running option for Miami and posted a career-best 1,086 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. He was particularly good at fantasy crunch time, with four consecutive 100-yard rushing days from Week 13 through Week 16.

10) Adrian Peterson, Minnesota (1) - Injuries and a rookie quarterback left Peterson with the worst numbers of his NFL and fantasy career. Playing just 12 games and some of them at much less than 100 percent, Peterson rushed for a career-low 973 yards. His only saving grace was scoring 13 touchdowns, but even that wasn't enough to make those who drafted him No. 1 overall happy.

Just missed: Matt Forte, Chicago; Ryan Mathews, San Diego.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Steve Schwarz at sschwarz@sportsnetwork.com.