The 2011 running back draft class was viewed by many as mediocre but there are numerous first year RBs that could be relevant in their rookie season. The only first round selection was 2009 Heisman award winner Mark Ingram who went to New Orleans after they traded back into the first round acquiring the 28th pick from New England.
Last season’s draft class saw three backs selected in round 1 with CJ Spiller (Buffalo), Ryan Mathews (San Diego), and Javhid Best (Detroit) coming off the board. Mathews and Best battled injuries and Spiller was utilized more as a receiver as Fred Jackson dominated carries. Sixth rounder James Starks burst onto the scene during the Packers run to the Super Bowl proving that value can be had in later rounds.
This year’s stable of RBs won’t be as productive as the 2008 draft class which boasts arguably one of the most productive groups of the past decade with eight RBs enjoying NFL success (Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, Ray Rice, and Jamaal Charles).
The 2011 draft class lacks as many blue chip prospects as the 2008 crew but with numerous teams looking to inject new blood into their backfield. The list you see below is in order of dynasty potential in descending order.
1. Mark Ingram (New Orleans Saints)
Running back was not viewed by many draft experts as a great area of need for the Saints but their rushing attack floundered last season finishing 28th in the NFL (avg. 95 YPG).
Pierre Thomas was re-signed to a modest four-year, $12 million dollar (injury concerns limited his potential for a big payday). Undrafted rookie Chris Ivory averaged an impressive 5.2 YPC but questions remain after lisfranc surgery. Reggie Bush’s days in the big easy are over unless he agrees to a massive pay cut. The Saints sacrificed a 2011 2nd round pick and their 2012 first rounder to get Ingram so he will be given every chance to be the lead back in an offense that averaged 26 PPG. Ingram has a chance to become a legit top 10 fantasy RB and should be targeted between rounds 5-7. Ingram is an above average receiver and a strong between the tackles runner giving him a chance to dominate carries in his rookie season.
Arizona ranked dead last in rushing offense in 2010 averaged a pedestrian 87 YPG with only 9 TDs on the ground. Tim Hightower is a free agent and will likely take his pass receiving skills elsewhere. Williams was Mike Mayock’s #2 RB behind Ingram. At 5’9, 212 pounds he is slightly undersized to be a workhorse back and we foresee a RBBC with Beanie. Williams lacks top end speed but works hard to gain extra yards at the point of contact. His pass protection needs work making him an ideal candidate for a time share. He’s best drafted as an RB3 in 2011 with the potential to emerge as a solid RB2 for dynasty leaguers.
3. Mikel Leshoure (Detroit Lions)
Detroit is a team on the rise but needs to develop a solid running game to ensure that Matthew Stafford makes it through a season without another season ending injury.
In 2010, Javhid Best came out of the gates on firing scoring 5 TDs in his first two games. He then battled two turf toe injuries that sapped his production proving that the undersized Cal alum is best utilized in committee approach. In steps 2011 2nd round pick Mikel Leshoure, a bruiser that was considered by many as the most well rounded RB in the draft. The 20-year-old junior set the Illini’s single-season rushing record with 1,697 yards in 2010 and scored 20 all-purpose TDs. The 230-pound power back averaged an impressive 6.25 YPC in his final two years at Illinois and should dominate red zone carries in his rookie season making him an intriguing selection especially in leagues that emphasize TDs.
The run game lacked explosiveness as evidenced by only five plays of 20 yards or more. With Chad Henne under center again, the Dolphins needed to upgrade the run game if they plan to improve an offense that averaged only 17 PPG. Miami traded back into the bottom of the 2nd round to select their potential week 1 starter in Kansas State’s Daniel Thomas. The 6 ft, 228 pounder has an upright running style that will need to be adjusted but has the power to become a 20 carry RB1. In two seasons at K-state he amasses 30 rushing TDs while averaging over 5 YPC. He posted 8 100 yard games in 2010 including two 200+ yard performances. He has the potential to become a lower end RB2 in his rookie season depending on whether Miami adds a veteran RB via free agency.
5 . Alex Green (Green Bay Packers)
The late season surge from James Starks will likely lead to him getting first crack at the starting job. Grant is entering the final year of his contract – likely his last with Green Bay. Green Bay used a 3rd round pick (#96 overall) to land Hawaii product Alex Green, a 6 feet, 225 pounder that can fulfill the role of a third down specialist (Brandon Jackson is likely gone). Green will need to adjust to a pro style offense after playing in the spread formation in college but the explosive downhill runner (averaged an eye popping 8.2 YPC in 2010) has solid receiving skills giving him long term fantasy value in a Green Bay backfield that lacks a surefire starter.
6. Roy Helu (Washington Redskins)
However Torain’s injury history led head coach Mike Shanahan add a rookie RB to the Redskin stable. Helu (6 ft, 219) is on many sleeper lists as Washington is looking to improve a run game that ranked 30th in 2010 (paltry 91 YPG). Clinton Portis days as a lead back are long gone and Helu could emerge as the starting tailback in week 1 as we aren’t sold on the long term potential of Ryan Torain as a feature back. Washington O-line is one of the weaker in the NFL but Helu could be worthy of being selected as top 30 RB if he wins the starting job.
7 . Stevan Ridley (New England)
Although he was taken a round later Shane Vereen, we like the fantasy prospects more for LSU’s Stevan Ridley as he has the potential to emerge as a 20 carry power back that New England has been lacking.
At 5-11, 230 pounds he could become a red zone favorite. Ridley’s only season as the starter was 2010 when he finished with 249 carries for 1,147 yards (4.6 YPC) and 15 TDs. He’s not an option in PPR leagues as his receiving skills are lacking (only 11 catches in 2010) but he could be a sleeper on draft day with the potential to get short yardage TDs in an explosive offense.
8. DeMarco Murray (Dallas Cowboys)
The presence of Felix Jones and Tashard Choice limits Murray’s fantasy appeal in his rookie season but he’s worth considering with a late pick in dynasty drafts. Murray suffered through various injuries in college but his versatility (solid receiver and above average in pass protection) could make Tashard Choice or Felix Jones expendable in the coming years. Murray played all four seasons at OU but his senior year was the first time he cracked 180 carries. In 2010, Murray finished with 282 carries for 1,214 yards with 15 rushing TDs. He added 71 catches for 594 yards and 5 receiving TDs proving his dual threat ability. With the injury history and crowded backfield, Murray is a late round pick in dynasty leagues but one to keep an eye on if and when Felix Jones gets his annual injury.
9. Shane Vereen (New England)
In 2010, he replaced an injured Javhid Best at Cal and rushed for 952 yards with 12 touchdowns on a 5.2 YPC. He’s a very versatile back that could become the next Kevin Faulk. He’s not a 20 carry RB and will be sharing receptions out of the backfield with Danny Woodhead. It’s difficult to recommend any of the Pats backs now that it has become a 4 person committee (BJGE and Woodhead’s value takes a hit).
10. Kendall Hunter (San Francisco 49ers)
Hunter is undersized (5-7, 200 pounds) but could become the 3rd down back in his rookie season giving him modest value in PPR leagues. He enjoyed two very productive college seasons in 2008 and 2010 (2009 battled injuries). In 2008, he totaled 241 carries, for 1,555 yards (6.5 YPC) and 16 TDs with 22 receptions. His 2010 production mirrored 2008 as Hunter totaled 271 carries for 1,548 yards (5.7 YPC) and 16 TDs with 20 receptions.
He struggled with ball security issues at Oklahoma state but has the skill set to take over the role played by Brian Westbrook in 2010. Frank Gore will remain a top 5 workhorse but Anthony Dixon’s role as the Gore handcuff takes a hit with the addition of Hunter.
11. Delone Carter (Indianapolis Colts)
Joseph Addai is a free agent and has seen has production decline. Donald Brown (2009 first round pick) has failed to reach his potential and has battled injuries.
The Colts run game ranked 29th last season and the addition of Syracuse’ Delone Carter should serve as a wakeup call for Donald Brown. Carter is not a very instinctive runner and lacks receiving skills but he’ll provide the Colts a physical between the tackles back that they have lacked. Carter could emerge as a goal line back but his upside is limited due to his lack of breakaway speed. The 5’9, 222 pounder could be worth a late round flier if he grabs the short yardage role (from Jarvarris James) in training camp giving the rookie a chance at double digit TDs with Peyton Manning under center (Colts averaged 27 PPG in 2010).
12. Bilal Powell (NY Jets)
Joe McKnight should be on watch after a less than impressive rookie season in 2010. LT is probably entering his last season and Shonn Greene owners should monitor Powell’s training camp performance as he has the hard running style that Rex Ryan covets giving the rookie a chance to become Greene’s fantasy handcuff. The Jets will remain a run first offense (ranked 4th in 2010) making Powell a worthy target late in dynasty leagues.
13. Taiwan Jones (Oakland)
Jones ran a forty time in the 4.32-4.35 range at his April 14 Pro Day. Jones’ injury history is extensive (offseason foot surgery) and ball security is also a major issue after he fumbled 17 times in his final two seasons at Eastern Washington. At 6’1/196, he’ll likely be a return specialist in his rookie season but could develop as a 3rd down option based on his above average receiving skills. Michael Bush is a free agent and D-Mac enjoyed a breakout 2010 but is an injury risk giving Taiwan limited potential as a handcuff. We caution that he doesn’t have the frame to handle more than 10 carries a game.