by Russ Bliss (6/10/11)

While we still have plenty of time before the NFL season gets started (and how much time depends on whether owners and players can get their ridiculous issues settled), it's time to start looking at who will grace the top 10 fantasy football rankings at RB for 2011.

Every year there is a lot of love given to guys based on what they did the prior year, and while I am not going to discount unexpected big seasons by players, I also do not go overboard in proclaiming them to be as great as the popular media hype tends to make them out to be. When I make my fantasy football cheat sheets, I try to not fall into the trap of chasing the big year. I prefer to be looking for the player who is primed to have the next big year instead.  

To the point, last year everyone was fawning over Tennessee Titans RB Chris Johnson after his outstanding 2009 season. Popular media penciled in Johnson as the #1 fantasy RB all over the place as they bought into his off-season hype about setting a new NFL rushing record in 2010. Johnson proclaimed he was going to rush for 2,500 yards in 2010 and many blindly bought into it and ranked him as the clear #1 RB in fantasy football accordingly.

I don't get caught up in that type of hysteria. Instead, I'll take the preseason criticism from readers who question my sanity and abilities as a fantasy football analyst for not blindly following the pack mentality of producing fantasy football rankings that appease the majority. Just like the flack I took last year when I proclaimed that while Johnson was still a fantasy RB1, he wasn't deserving of the deified status many had lumped on him.

Or how in June, July, and August last year I was proclaiming Arian Foster was someone to watch out for if Ben Tate got injured and that he should be considered a fantasy football sleeper and someone you grab late in fantasy drafts just in case. Until about the second week of August, this fantasy football advice was met with apathy and indifference. It changed real quick soon after and the popular media jumped on board proclaiming Foster a fantasy football sleeper RB and he started shooting up fantasy rankings. 

But that's last year, and you're only as good as the present. With that in mind, I try to be forward thinking again instead of only looking backwards and offer up my 2011 top 10 fantasy football RB rankings.

1) Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings. I may be the only one who still ranks AP 1st overall for RB's, but I don't see a better RB who has consistently proved what he has. The Vikings say they are going to build their offense around him and rely more on him in 2011 than they have the last 2 seasons. That bodes well for AP as the last time the Vikings made him the focal point of the offense was in 2008, when he ran for a career high 1,760 yards. In 2009 he scored a career high 18 rushing TD's. His 4 year career averages are 300 rush attempts, 1,446 rush yards, 30 receptions, 293 receiving yards, and 14 total TD's. And that includes a rookie season in which he only started 9 games. Considering his receptions and receiving totals have gone up the last 2 seasons, and his TD's are averaging about 16, I'll bank on AP, and bank on his numbers being better than his 4 year average by quite a margin. I know he's not a one year wonder and is fully capable of producing at a high level. Throw in that they're going to give him the ball more in 2011, it's just gravy and more reason I have him #1 overall.

2) Arian Foster, Houston Texans. As previously stated, I was on Foster's bandwagon last year, but I have to admit I didn't see just how great his season would turn out to be. While I don't think Foster is a one year wonder, I am also leery of buying fully into all the hype Foster is getting this year based off one season. The Texans say they are not going to go with a RBBC with Foster and Ben Tate, but instead will ride Foster and bring Tate along slowly to gauge how well he's recovering from the leg and ankle injuries that cost him to miss all of 2010. Tate will vie with Derrick Ward for the top backup spot to Foster, but all reports say Foster will be the workhorse again after he showed fully capable of handling it in 2010. Maybe I'm slow to recognize that Foster should be the top ranked fantasy RB, but hey, I have him at #2 and that means I like him better than all but one other guy.

3) Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans. Everyone seems down on Johnson in 2011 after he failed to produce his promised 2,500 rushing yards in 2010, but I think Johnson had a much more realistic 2010 and it wasn't that bad. Over 1,600 combined yards and 12 TD's isn't something to dismiss so easily. He ran for over 100 yards in 8 games last season. The let-down for fantasy owners was that he didn't meet the ridiculous expectations lumped on him after he ran for over 2,000 yards, and produced over 2,500 combined yards in 2009. The Titans may or may not start a rookie at QB, but even if they bring in a veteran, they will still be a run first team. A veteran QB may even help Johnson as it will keep opponents honest. But considering that opponents were geared up to stop Johnson last season and he still managed his totals, I think any threat of improved performance at the QB position means Johnson has better numbers in 2011 than he had last season. They won't be like his 2009 numbers, but they'll still be good. Very good.

4) Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh Steelers. I am predicting a true breakout season from Mendenhall in 2011. In reality, I wouldn't be surprised if Mendenhall finished as fantasy's second highest scoring RB at all this season. Mike Tomlin has a history of riding his bell cow RB's and after Mendenhall had 324 carries in 2010, Tomlin didn't shy away from stating he will continue to give Mendenhall the ball and that he expects him to get better in coming seasons.  If improving on 1,273 rushing yards, 13 TD's, and getting him more opportunities in the passing game is one of Tomlin's expectations, I will buy into it and say Mendenhall will finish top 4, and possibly higher in fantasy scoring at the RB position in 2011.

5) Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs. Todd Haley recently promised to increase Charles's role in the offense in 2011 and that could translate into Charles joining the elite RB's this season. Charles averaged less than 15 carries per game in 2010 and if he goes to carrying the ball 16.5 (264 rushing attempts) at his career average of 6.0 yards per attempt, that would translate into nearly 1,600 rushing yards. Charles is already an accomplished receiver out of the backfield, catching 85 passes the last 2 seasons combined, making him even more valuable in the ppr format. His TD totals of 8 combined each of the last 2 seasons is respectable. The biggest question is whether at 5'11", 199 lbs, Charles can stand up to handling a bigger offensive role without breaking down. He isn't built to be an inside runner or handle goal line duty, so expecting a big increase in TD's is unrealistic. Charles has proven to be an explosive playmaker who can produce big numbers consistently, and if he can stay healthy, he is likely being undervalued here on these rankings.

6) LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles. McCoy would rank higher on this list of not for the fact the combination of his lack of size to be a goal line runner, and the offensive system itself around him doesn't allow him many opportunities to score a lot of TD's. Sure, McCoy had 9 total in 2010 (7 rushing, 2 receiving), but 4 of those 7 rushing TD's came in the first 2 weeks of the season. In the remaining games, he only scored 3 more on the ground, and 5 more total. However, McCoy is a yardage fiend both rushing and receiving. He led all RB's in receptions in 2010 with 78 and there's no reason to think he won't continue to be utilized as a big part of the passing game again in 2011. There's also a good chance his rushing attempts will come up to in 2011. McCoy only had 207 rushing attempts in 2010 (which when divided by the 15 games he played in comes to an average of less than 14 carries per game). At about 5 yards per attempt, any increase in carries is likely to lead to an increase in yardage. Combined with the expected receiving numbers, McCoy is safe as a RB1 in 2011. But between his lack of size, and Michael Vick's own scoring ability in goal line situations, it's unlikely McCoy tops 10 TD's.

7) Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons. This isn't a trendy pick this year. I read plenty about how this is the season Turner falls from fantasy greatness, but I don't see how. Everyone wants to point at his carries and age, but while he is 29 years old, he's only been a feature RB in the league for 3 seasons. And while his 20.65 carries per game average over those 3 years is a heavy load, it's not like Turner is a small RB who is brittle, or is heavily involved in his teams passing game (Turner has 23 receptions in the last 3 seasons). He's a workhorse RB who may have his carries cut down to around 300 this season, but should still produce big numbers. He still managed 7 games with over 100 rushing yards last year and while his yards per carry number was down the last few games of the season, he still finished at over 4 yards per attempt for the season. While many are proclaiming Turner to be wearing down, I am thinking he is set up to be a great fantasy football draft value if he slides into the second round. He has 39 TD's in the last 3 seasons and has not had fewer than 10 TD's in any of the last 3 seasons. If it's a sign of decline when a player rushes for 1,371 yards, scores 12 TD's, and is healthy for all 16 games, I think we need to reevaluate what the word "decline" means. The only way Turner shouldn't be in the top 10 fantasy RB's is if it is a ppr league. Otherwise, he is still in the top 10.

8) Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens. Rice is a bit of an anomaly figuring out. After a stellar 2009 season, the Ravens promised to increase his role in 2010, and while they did, it didn't translate into greater success. Rice had 54 more rushing attempts in 2010 than in 2009, but gained 119 fewer yards, and scored 2 fewer rushing TD's. He also caught 15 fewer passes in 2010 than in 2009 for 146 fewer receiving yards. So despite an increase in playing time, and rushing attempts, Rice's yardage and TD numbers came down. While that gives me cause for concern that maybe Rice is better suited being a primary RB in a RBBC rather than relied on as a true feature style RB, I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt for one more season. Despite the decrease in receptions, Rice is still one of the most dangerous pass catching RB's in the league and his production there increases his value, especially in the ppr format. It's hoped that as Joe Flacco gets more weapons at the WR position, things will open up more for Rice rushing the football. I'll give it one more season before I drop Rice out of my top 10 RB in non-ppr formats, but he's hanging by a thread there.

9) Matt Forte, Chicago Bears. Many are going to point at the 8 games of 50 rushing yards or fewer for Forte in 2010 as to why he shouldn't be on the top 10, but consider that 7 came in the first 8 games of the season, and once the Bears had finally convinced Mike Martz to start running the ball more often, Forte really started to produce. In the second half of 2010, Forte averaged nearly 17 carries per game, and over 5 yards per rush attempt. Take his stats from the last 8 games of 2010 and double it for a full 16 and you get 266 rush attempts for 1,336 yards. The one area where Forte still is having problems is in goal line situations where he has trouble punching the ball in. His 6 rushing TD's in 2010 were up from the year before, but still down from his rookie season in 2008. He catches the ball well and fits Martz's system, even if Martz is willing to run the ball more. After Chester Taylor totally flopped in 2010 with 112 carries for only 267 yards and 3 TD's, it is a good bet Forte will dominate playing time at RB in 2011 and get about 300 carries while still getting his average of 57 receptions. Just increasing his 3 year rushing averages by 10% you'd get 297 rush attempts, 1186 rush yards, and 7 TD's to go along with 57 receptions for 498 yards and 2 receiving TD's. And I think that may be low-balling what Forte can be expected to do in 2011.

10) Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders. McFadden finally started living up to expectations in 2010 running with greater authority and purpose than he had his previous 2 NFL seasons. Although he did miss 3 games with a hamstring and ankle injury, McFadden ran for 1,157 yards and 7 TD's on 223 carries and also was dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield catching 47 passes for 507 yards and another 3 receiving TD's. He combined for over 100 rush/receive yards in 10 of 13 games played and avoided major injuries. His emergence means it's likely the Raiders will let Michael Bush go in free agency and turn the feature RB duties over to McFadden. While it is a concern that he put up nearly 25% of his rushing yards and 3 of his TD's in two games against division rival (and the league's worst fantasy run defense) Denver, he still was impressive in 7 other games rushing for 89 yards or more (4 over 100 yards). McFadden is still an injury concern, but his per game production was outstanding and he is an explosive runner coming into his own.

I'm sure some will take umbrage with my leaving Frank Gore, Maurice Jones-Drew, Peyton Hillis, Steven Jackson, and Jonathan Stewart, or fantasy football sleeper potential top 10 RB's LeGarrette Blount and Shonn Greene off the list, but the fact remains there are only 10 RB's who can go into the top 10, and while I like these other RB's, it's just not as much as those I did list. Besides, we still need to see how things shake out in training camps and free agency (assuming we have any of either) and things can change.

check out Russ's 2011 top 10 fantasy Quarterbacks rankings