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1. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars
I already laid out my argument for Jones-Drew over Adrian Peterson HERE, so I don't need to bore you with the details. Just know this: MJD had nearly 1,400 yards from scrimmage and 14 TDs as a part-time player in a struggling offense last season. With Fred Taylor gone, Jones-Drew will get a bigger workload. And a bigger workload means a whole lot of fantasy points. He's the most complete back in the NFL today.
2. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings
Don't get me wrong, I love me some Stinky Pete. Peterson is the best pure runner in the NFL. But I can't get over the fact that he sits out on passing downs, and therefore rarely gets receiving yards (a mere 125 last season, compared to 565 for Jones-Drew). It makes it nearly impossible for Peterson to top 2,000 yards from scrimmage, which is a mark Jones-Drew could easily reach.
3. Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams
Any time you talk about Jackson, you have to mention the sentence "if he stays healthy..." Jackson will be the top runner and likely the top receiver on a Rams team that doesn't have much depth at either position. He had 1,421 yards from scrimmage and eight TDs despite missing four games last season. If he's healthy, Jackson could have 2,000 yards and 10 TDs even if the Rams offense struggles.
4. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears
The addition of Jay Cutler will only help Forte. Because of the threat Cutler and the passing game now pose, teams won't be able to focus in on stopping Forte. He's a solid runner and strong pass-catcher who should still be the focal point of Chicago's offense.
5. Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons
Turner is coming off a huge breakout season (1,699 rushing yards, 17 TDs), but like Peterson, he's a non-factor in the passing game (a mere six catches for 41 yards!). Considering the Falcons face a much tougher schedule of run defenses this season, "The Burner" could have a tough time matching last year's production.
6. DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers
Williams was the best running back in fantasy football last season, racking up 1,636 yards from scrimmage and an NFL-best 20 TDs. He's too good not to have another strong season, but another 20 TDs is a lot to ask for. Williams often leaves the game in favor of Jonathan Stewart near the goal line.
7. LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers
My head tells me that LT's performance will keep getting worse. After all, he's 30 years old and coming off one of his worst seasons. Most running backs fall off sharply once they turn 30. But my heart tells me that Tomlinson has something left. He was hampered by a toe injury for all of last season, but still had more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 12 TDs. The Chargers face a lot of weak run defenses this season, and if LT's toe is okay, he could re-emerge as fantasy's best running back.
8. Brian Westbrook, Philadelphia Eagles
Can this dude ever stay healthy? Westbrook, who is infamous for being questionable on the injury report pretty much every game, had offseason ankle surgery. While he's a superstar as a runner and receiver when healthy, there's no telling when Westbrook will break down next.
9. Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans
Johnson could be the most explosive running back in the NFL, and the Titans have made it a priority to get him the ball even more often in 2009. He may not score another 10 touchdowns because Tennessee gives LenDale White the ball on the goal line, but Johnson could rack up 2,000 yards for scrimmage because of his increased workload.
10. Steve Slaton, Houston Texans
I've always been a huge fan of Slaton's. I thought he was the most underrated rookie back in the 2008 Draft (and he was also one of my favorite interviews when I wrote a piece on him at West Virginia for the December 2007 issue of SI KIDS). While I think he'll make a run at 2,000 yards from scrimmage this season (he had 1,659 as a rookie), I'm not sure he has the size to punch it in for TDs in the red zone.
11. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers
The Niners offense aired it out last season, but this year their game plan is to run, run, run. Gore will have a chance to put up huge numbers. The questions are whether (a) he can stay healthy, and (b) the Niners offense is good enough to put him in position to score double-digit TDs.
12. Brandon Jacobs, New York Giants
With Derrick Ward gone as a free agent, Jacobs will get an even bigger workload this year. He doesn't catch passes (just six receptions last season), but he makes up for it by being a beast in the red zone (15 rushing TDs). Just be wary of injuries. Jacobs is big, but with his upright running style (and tendency to seek out contact) he takes a lot of monster hits.
13. Knowshon Moreno, Denver Broncos
To quote Professor Ulane: It takes Juan to Knowsh-juan. I have no idea what that means, since his name is pronounced "NO-shon." But I do know that Moreno is an amazing runner, a short, compact back who always keeps his legs moving and is very difficult to bring down. I expect him to be the top offensive rookie in the NFL and carry a big workload for the Broncos.
14. Clinton Portis, Washington Redskins
I don't think there's a tougher running back in the NFL than Portis. But at some point, his humungous workload will catch up with him. Portis has touched the ball more than 360 times in each of the past two seasons. That means he has taken a ton of hits. He looked terrible at the end of last season (an embarrassing 2.9 yards per carry over the final five games), and I think all the hits are starting to catch up with him.
15. Ronnie Brown,
Miami's famous Wildcat formation (in which Brown lines up as the quarterback in shotgun) helped make him a beast last year, but the Dolphins have always used him as more of a part-time player. However, Brown's knee wasn't quite fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered back in 2007. It should be 100 percent healthy now. If he looks even better than last season, the Dolphins might not keep him on the sideline so often.
16. Marion Barber, Dallas Cowboys
I think Barber will end up losing playing time to explosive second-year speedster Felix Jones. While he's a good pass-catcher and solid in short-yardage, I think Barber might have taken too much of a pounding over the past few seasons.
17. Derrick Ward, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs spent big money to bring in Ward as a free agent, and he's a perfect fit in the team's new zone blocking scheme. If Ward isn't taking most of the playing time in Tampa over Earnest Graham to start the season, he will be soon enough.
18. Kevin Smith, Detroit Lions
With a rookie quarterback coming in, expect the Lions to do a whole lot of running. Smith showed flashes as a rookie last year, and he should be even better in Year 2.
19. Thomas Jones, New York Jets
Quick: Who has the most rushing yards in the NFL over the past four seasons? If you said Thomas Jones, you'd be... wrong. But you'd be very close. Only the great LaDainian Tomlinson has more rushing yards than Jones over the past four years combined. He's not the most exciting pick, and Jones might lose some playing time to the speedy Leon Washington and bruising rookie Shonn Greene. But Jones should produce solid numbers yet again.
20. Ryan Grant, Green Bay Packers
Simply put: Grant was a gigantic disappointment last year. He had fumbling problems and rarely made big plays. He'll get a chance to redeem himself this season, and the Packers face a weaker schedule when it comes to opposing run defenses.
21. Larry Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs
Johnson is the ultimate boom-or-bust pick. He was a superstar three seasons ago before injuries and some attitude problems derailed his career. He's reportedly happy and in great shape this summer, but it's tough to trust LJ after two terrible seasons.
22. Reggie Bush, New Orleans Saints
Will he ever get it right? Bush shows some flashes of amazing ability as a return man, but he's been a total bust as a runner. If he feels he has something to prove, Bush might finally turn it around in the running game and become the Top 10 back he can be. But in my opinion, I think Bush runs far too tentatively to be more than a part-time running back. He's also coming off major knee surgery, which makes matters even worse.
23. Joseph Addai, Indianapolis Colts
The Colts didn't draft Donald Brown in the first round for nothing. Addai had a nightmarish season in 2008, especially struggling in short-yardage situations. Don't be surprised if he ends up backing up the talented young Brown by the end of the season.
24. Chris Wells, Arizona Cardinals
He'll battle Tim Hightower for playing time, but I expect the rookie from Ohio State to claim the starting job. The Cardinals throw a lot, but they score a lot too. Even if "Beanie" doesn't rush for a ton of yardage, he could rack up touchdowns in this high-powered offense.
25. Pierre Thomas,
New Orleans Saints
Thomas has become the runner that Reggie Bush isn't, grounding out tough yards between the tackles. At the very least, Thomas will take goal line carries for the Saints. That means the potential for a lot of TDs in one of the NFL's highest-scoring offenses.
26. Marshawn Lynch,
Lynch will be forced to sit out the first three games of 2009 because of a disciplinary suspension. But he could be a beast when he comes back. Lynch runs very hard and has good hands out of the backfield. With Terrell Owens making the Buffalo passing game more dangerous, it could open things up for Lynch and the running game.
27. Willie Parker, Pittsburgh Steelers
Fast Willie hasn't run nearly as well since the Steelers scrapped their two-back base offense (meaning they use a fullback to lead block much less often). On top of that, he was banged up all last season and became invisible in the passing game (three catches all season!) with top receiving back Mewelde Moore coming in. Parker still has that breakaway speed, but he could lose playing time to 2008 first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall, who is healthy again.
28. Felix Jones, Dallas Cowboys
Big D's super-speedy back is one of my favorite sleepers this season. He has the talent to match top 10 backs like Chris Johnson and Steve Slaton, but just needs a chance. If the Cowboys are serious about getting him the ball more often, his fantasy value will skyrocket.
29. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers
Stewart shares time with DeAngelo Williams, an elite running back. While Stewart will take the goal line carries and score some touchdowns, he's merely a part-time player, limiting his potential for yardage.
30. Cedric Benson, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals will use Benson as a workhorse back, as they did last season. He's lacking in talent, but if Carson Palmer returns healthy and improves the passing game, Benson could find more room to run, and Cincy's potent offense could put him in position to score a fair amount of TDs.
31. Julius Jones, Seattle Seahawks
Jones was solid as a part-time back last season, and should get a little more playing time with Maurice Morris leaving Seattle. Still, it will be T.J. Duckett who gets the majority of the Seahawks' TD runs.
32. Le'Ron McClain, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens will use McClain at fullback much more often this season as they give more carries to Ray Rice. But it will be McClain getting the ball on the goal line, and he has good hands for a "big back."
33. Jamal Lewis, Cleveland Browns
Lewis looks like he's running out of gas after all these years. And the fact that Cleveland's offense is shaping up to be a mess won't help him find more running room.
34. Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
It's tough to figure out what the Raiders plan on doing with McFadden. They drafted him fourth overall in 2008, but barely played him last season. He has big-time ability, but D-Mac could be hampered by Oakland's awful offense again.
35. Donald Brown, Indianapolis Colts
Brown could end up overtaking Joseph Addai for the starting job in Indy. He's not a burner and isn't an super-sized bruiser, but he has the qualities that Peyton Manning and the Colts love: Brown is smart, he has great vision, and he can catch passes and block blitzers.
36. Leon Washington, New York Jets
They have an awfully crowded backfield between Thomas Jones, Washington, and rookie Shonn Greene, but few backs have the big-play ability than Leon brings to the field. He could rack up fantasy points as a part-time player.
37. Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills
Jackson is set to start the first three games of the season as regular starter Marshawn Lynch serves a suspension. Even when Lynch comes back, Jackson could play a bigger role in Buffalo's offense. Like Lynch, he's a tough runner who has the ability to catch passes.
38. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
Charles's value depends on what happens with Larry Johnson this offseason. The second-year speedster has a lot of potential, but will be stuck in a part-time role if LJ proves that he's back.
39. LenDale White,
There's no doubt that he's a beast to drag down, but White is going to be stuck as the back-up to Chris Johnson. His size makes him a great option as a short-yardage back, but White is too big to contribute in the passing game.
40. Earnest Graham,
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Graham will compete with Derrick Ward for the starting job, but he's going to have a tough time retaining his spot in the Bucs' lineup.
41. Sammy Morris,
New England Patriots
The Patriots use a committee style backfield, and there's a good chance Morris will be the most valuable Pats back for fantasy leagues. He'll likely get the ball when New England is near the goal line.
42. Darren Sproles, San Diego Chargers
Sproles has the big-play ability to contribute in fantasy leagues despite playing behind LaDainian Tomlinson. He's just not going to take too much playing time from LT.
43. Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh Steelers
Mendenhall has a ton of talent, which is why the Steelers drafted him in the first round of the 2008 Draft. A shoulder injury cost him most of last year, but Mendenhall could end up splitting time with Willie Parker this season.
44. Brandon Jackson, Green Bay Packers
If starter Ryan Grant continues to disappoint, Jackson could end up overtaking him. He's a very good fit in Green Bay's zone blocking scheme, and Jackson is a versatile back who can contribute as a pass-catcher.
45. Justin Fargas, Oakland Raiders
Raiders head coach Tom Cable seems to love Fargas, who could end up starting again. He's a speedy back who does a very good job in the passing game.
46. Laurence Maroney, New England Patriots
There was a time when Maroney was a rising star for the Pats. But he's been a big disappointment in each of the past two seasons. If he can stay healthy, he might emerge as a very good option for New England.
47. Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have a bigger role planned for Rice, who has good vision and very good hands for the passing game. Unfortunately, he's unlikely to get goal line carries over Le'Ron McClain, and he might get beat out by Willis McGahee.
48. Bernard Scott, Cincinnati Bengals
Cedric Benson might be the worst starting running back in the NFL. The Bengals looked past Scott's off-the-field problems in college, and he could emerge as their best running back this season.
49. Michael Bush, Oakland Raiders
Could Bush be the best running back in Oakland? He was a beat late last season, but might be behind both Darren McFadden and Justin Fargas on the depth chart.
50. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles
McCoy will have a big adjustment to make in the NFL, as the Eagles run a complicated offense. But if Brian Westbrook is injured, the rookie could get a big workload for Philly.
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