In the topsy-turvy world of fantasy football, one must search for constants that provide steady, consistent statistical results. If you play in a PPR (points-per-reception) league, then the best way to ensure that your running backs don’t provide you with crumbs on gameday is to target players who are an integral part of their team’s receiving game. After all, a three-yard rush provides minimal production for your team, but a three-yard catch is often the equivalent of a 13-23-yard rush, depending on your league’s scoring.
Even if your RB tanks on a given Sunday with, say, 17 rushes for a measly 46 yards, the four catches for 31 yards he also accrued is what would make this performance a somewhat respectable fantasy day.
Think of a PPR stud like a wife, husband, or mother who knows how to cook. Your relationship might have your ups and downs (or, in terms of fantasy football, good games mixed with bad games), but through thick and thin, you can get a solid meal out of her/him.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with someone who can’t cook, this basic inability to prepare food for a loved one is akin to a RB who can’t scrape together a handful of points on his worst fantasy day. No tailback in the NFL is going to rush for 100 yards with a TD every single week, but it doesn’t mean that you need to be left high and dry on the days your RB1 or RB2 faces a stout defensive front.
I will start my comparison of PPR deities with one of the more exquisite delicacies, and work my way down the quality of food chain to mere sustenance:
Editor’s Note: These PPR rankings do not necessarily correspond with typical RB rankings, so don’t freak out that names like Michael Turner or Thomas Jones are omitted. While talented, these aforementioned RBs haven’t proven to be pass catching RBs throughout their career (although the Falcons are claiming they’ll get Turner more involved, I’ll believe it when I see it).
Tier 1, aka Beef Wellington (55-80 catches): This group of RBs is good for 50-80 catches per year (3-5 receptions a game), which is the statistical equivalent of 8-12 TDs, depending on your league’s scoring system. If you play in a PPR league, these guys should already be highlighted on your cheat sheet.
Ray Rice - Even with Willis McGahee vulturing touchdowns, Rice is the PPR gold standard. Reminiscent of the glory days of Marshall Faulk, owning Ray Rice is like having a RB1 and a WR3 in one player. Baltimore’s offense has only improved in the offseason with the acquisition of WR Anquan Boldin and the continued maturation of QB Joe Flacco. Rice is young, very fast, blessed with a plus-offensive line, and looks likely to repeat last year’s numbers.
Frank Gore – An explosive back with little competition for carries in San Francisco, Gore has always demonstrated an ability not only to catch the ball, but to get his YAC (yards after catch) on as well. Factor in checkdown specialist QB Alex Smith, and Gore is primed for close to 50 catches this year. The one caveat about Gore is that he has yet to put in a complete 16-game season thus far in his three-year career, but don’t let that deter you from using your mid-first round pick on him in your PPR league.
Chris Johnson – Johnson has been so good during his first two years, it’s hard to fathom that he has still yet to hit his prime as a PPR RB. Rotoworld projects Johnson to catch 50 passes in addition to another monstrous season carrying the rock. But you shouldn’t need any additional reasons to use a top-three pick on the titanic Titan. One disclaimer: as much as we love us some CJ2K, his prediction of 2500 rushing yards seems a little optimistic.
Maurice Jones-Drew – As a goal-line featured back with soft hands, Jones-Drew provides all-around greatness, regardless of what kind of fantasy football you play. His YPC average may have dwindled down the stretch in 2009, but the workhorse back did everything fantasy owners could have hoped for. Owners can expect 50+ catches in 2010, but since the Jaguars don’t have many other offensive weapons, MJD could acquire an acute case of eight-in-the-box-itis early and often this season.
Steven Jackson – Having amassed 375 total touches in 2009, Jackson’s body was badly beaten by season’s end. The latest word from Rams’ training camp is that Jackson is 100% after offseason back surgery. While St. Louis ushers in a new era with Sam Bradford, their $78-million rookie quarterback, Jackson should remain the focal point of the Ram offense in 2010 as the Rams help Bradford acclimate to the speed of the NFL. S-Jax’s reception totals have increased each of his three years in the league from 38 in 2007 to 51 in 2009. The Rams may not be the prettiest team to watch, but Jackson is an inspiring workhorse with the heart of a warrior.
Adrian Peterson - A.P. is Rotoworld’s consensus #1 overall pick, and his expected involvement in the receiving game in lieu of departed RB Chester Taylor is a big reason for this. Not only will he accrue monster rushing totals and TDs (barring injury), but we are also projecting 57 catches for Purple Jesus as well. However, the uncertainty surrounding Bret Favre’s return/retirement, in addition to the health of wideouts Sidney Rice and Percy casts a bit of a cloud over the Viking offense. While some feel Favre’s retirement makes Peterson the undisputed #1 overall pick, my feeling is that Peterson would be better served not facing eight (or nine) in the box while defenses dare Tarvaris Jackson to beat them.
Tier 2: Rib Eye (41-54 receptions):
Pierre Thomas – As the starting halfback on the most explosive offense in the league, PT Cruiser looks like one of the best value picks as we head into 2010 draft season. Thomas not only figures to get gobs of goal-line opportunities now that TD vulture Mike Bell is on the Eagles, but Thomas should also help the Saints to run down the clock in the second half of games of which they are leading. Finally, he pulled down 39 receptions in spite of missing two games last season. Considering his catch totals have trended upwards each of his first three seasons as a pro, Thomas is a nice RB1 with considerable upside, or a dynamite RB2 if you use one of your earlier picks on a RB1.
Jamaal Charles - No RB burst on the scene from relative obscurity to fantasy stud status in 2009 quite like Charles. Asked to take over featured back duties from the always-classy Larry Johnson after LJ “tweeted” his way out of Kansas City, Charles logged 1120 rush yards and 40 catches in spite of only starting eight games. Thomas Jones was brought in from the Jets during the offseason to keep the smallish-for-a-featured-back Charles healthy through December, but the latter is expected to handle the passing down work. Charles is a multi-faceted threat who will be the centerpiece of the Chiefs’ offense. An effective Dwayne Bowe should help to keep defenses somewhat honest downfield, but since QB Matt Cassel hearts checking down to his backs, Charles is a very good PPR pick.
DeAngelo Williams - DeAngelo is involved in a productive timeshare in Carolina, but he has proven to be a superior pass-catcher to Jonathan Stewart. Even though both backs are healthy as training camp gets underway, there should be enough production for both Stewart to flourish in the ground game, as well as Williams’ ability to catch balls out of the backfield. DeAngelo only finished with 29 catches in 2009, but given that he missed three games and Jake Delhomme has left Carolina for Browner pastures, the Panther offense looks much more promising in 2010 than it did a year ago.
LeSean McCoy – Even with Donovan McNabb gone to Washington, the Eagles will remain a pass-first offense with first-year starter Kevin Kolb now under center. Although this doesn’t appear to bode well for their running backs, Brian Westbrook proved during his career that RBs can flourish in Philly. McCoy took over for Westbrook midway through the ’09 season, and demonstrated his PPR prowess since he caught three or more passes in eight games he played (a minimum of three catches is considered a solid PPR day for RBs). Mind you, McCoy doesn’t get pounded (only 20 carries twice all season), and still has to improve his pass-blocking. But given his steady hands, which only produced one lost fumble in his rookie season, there is upside here. If you believe Kolb will pick up where McNabb left off, then McCoy should be in a productive situation in Philly. Just don’t be shocked if FB Leonard Weaver and/or newly-acquired Mike Bell vulture the occasional goal-line TD.
Jahvid Best – Each fantasy football preseason, there seems to be one rookie whose potential we so-called industry experts like to drool over. This year, Best is the player who earns that honor. Blessed with sub-4.3 speed, elite pass-catching skills, and an immediate grasp of the Lions’ offense, Lions coach Jim Schwartz has already used the elusive F-word when referring to Best’s role in the offense (feature back…which F-word did you think I meant?). The Lions’ offense, led by a seasoned Matthew Stafford in his sophomore campaign, should be vastly improved in 2010. Although the Lions’ are fortified with depth at halfback, Best could be a fourth-round pick that makes his owners smile all season long if he stays healthy.
Tier 3: Salisbury Steak (26-40 receptions)
Joseph Addai - Addai has proven adept at catching the ball out of the backfield throughout his four-year career, and enters a contract year in 2010. However, reports early in training camp suggest that second-year halfback Donald Brown is a superior talent to Addai, and should cut into his featured back role as the season progresses. As Indy’s rushing attack ranked dead last in the NFL last season, make no mistake that this offense begins and ends with quarterback Peyton Manning. That said, the Colts’ injury-riddled offensive line and the emergence of Brown are two reasons Addai may not register another 40-catch campaign in his walk year in spite of Manning’s comfort level with him.
Ricky Williams / Ronnie Brown - Both of the Dolphins’ top RBs are skilled at catching the ball out of the backfield, but their expected timeshare will prevent each other from becoming standout PPR assets unless one of them misses significant time. Not unlike the aforementioned Panthers, Miami features a young quarterback and an effective, two-pronged rushing attack. When Ronnie and Ricky are both healthy, they complement each other well, but neither is going to top 25 touches per game as long as they’re spelling each other.
Knowshon Moreno – The Bronco offense is in a transitional phase right now given the shift from their traditional zone-blocking scheme to conventional power blocking that will accompany the new-look offense. Although the short passing strategy remains unclear without some game film, Kyle Orton makes a living on dinking and dunking while Moreno is a capable receiver with only veteran backup Correll Buckhalter competing for playing time. Denver has experienced some turnover, as well as key injuries that plagued them before training camp, and Moreno is no exception as he deals with a bum hamstring. However, the former Bulldog should be ready for Week 1, even if he does miss the preseason.
Darren Sproles / Ryan Mathews - Sproles is expected to operate primarily on third-downs and in the Chargers’ two-minute offense, but his overall value is affected by his inability to run between the tackles, as well as rookie Ryan Mathews’ presence in short-yardage situations. While the departed LaDainian Tomlinson also factored into the Charger passing game, Mathews is expected to pick up where LT left off. Charger head coach Norv Turner predicted 40 receptions for Mathews, but the rookie didn’t factor much in the receiving game during his days at Fresno State. The San Diego backfield is a bit up in the air until we get some game film on Mathews as a pro, but Sproles is an explosive receiver in the prime of his career, and could be leaned on a bit more if Mathews struggles, or the Charger passing game misfires due to the holdout/suspension of Vincent Jackson.
Matt Forte / Chester Taylor - Forte was a top-tier PPR machine as recently as last preseason after averaging 60 catches his first two years as a pro, but now will split duties with free agent acquisition Chester Taylor. Although Forte is slated to start, Taylor will likely cut into his receptions as well as his carries. Although Forte was first-round material before 2009, his poor performance (due partly to an early-season knee injury, as well as awful run-blocking) will knock him down at least a couple rounds for this year’s draft. Anyone who owned him last year has likely sworn off the unofficial fantasy bust of 2009, but Forte, now 100% healthy and “severely” outplaying Taylor in camp, could provide good PPR value in Mike Martz’s frenetic offensive schemes if you take a chance on him as a RB3.
Darren McFadden – Although the fourth overall pick of the 2008 draft has only excelled at underachieving thus far in his two-year NFL career, McFadden has a couple factors working in his favor as the ’10 season approaches. First, 2009 Oakland starter Justin Fargas was released in the offseason, leaving “Run DMC” and Michael Bush as the only experienced halfbacks on the roster. McFadden is the more gifted pass-catcher of the pair. Second, beleaguered quarterback project JaMarcus Russell was replaced by checkdown specialist Jason Campbell, who should establish a fine rapport dumping the pigskin to McFadden throughout the season. Finally, the Raiders improved their offensive line during in April’s draft, which should help the offense to move the chains more effectively in a weak division like the AFC West. If McFadden’s gimpy hamstring is healthy in time for Week 1, he has the upside to make a fine RB2.
Jerome Harrison – If he hadn’t spent half the season in coach Eric Mangini’s doghouse, Harrison may very well be a tier higher due to his penchant for catching passes out of the backfield. Harrison won the 2009 Billy Volek award (aka fantasy playoff MVP) for those who were ballsy enough to pick him up and start him Week 15 (I was not, and could have used him when Steven Jackson was declared a Week 16 inactive an hour before 4pm kickoff). Cleveland traded up to draft RB Montario Hardesty in the second-round in April, and Hardesty is expected to eventually battle Harrison in training camp for the starting job. However, Harrison remains the better PPR back of the two. With Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace sharing checkdown-er, quarterback duties in Cleveland all season, I can see Harrison getting 40-50 catches, even in a timeshare with Hardesty.
Clinton Portis – The former Bronco reunites with his former coach, Mike Shanahan. In 2002-03, Portis had his two most productive seasons in Denver. In spite of injuries and a lot of mileage since his days in the Mile High city, Portis has proven to be a capable asset both as a receiver, and is still one of the best backs in the league at pass blocking and picking up blitzers. The 2010 Washington backfield appears crowded what with veterans Larry Johnson, Willie Parker and Ryan Torain also battling for potential carries. Regardless, Portis is the starter. If Shanahan mixes his backs in judiciously, then Portis should remain effective as long as he doesn’t get mercilessly pounded, and could make a decent RB3.
Chris Wells / Tim Hightower – While it seems odd that a player who caught 97 passes over the last two seasons in a high-powered Cardinal offense would fall to the third tier of PPR ratings, Hightower gradually relinquished playing time to Beanie Wells in 2009, and that trend figures to continue in 2010. While Hightower is expected to handle the majority of passing downs due to his intrepid pass blocking abilities, Wells stands to eventually take over early down work, as well as short yardage/goal-line situations. Unfortunately for Hightower, Kurt Warner’s retirement means coach Ken Whisenhunt will likely reel in the offense for incumbent starter Matt Leinart, creating more of a balanced offensive attack. Although Hightower is still practicing with the first team, he shouldn’t be viewed as more than a late-round RB3 for the long term.
Reggie Bush – The Saints have proven over the last few years that their offensive production is robust enough to bear two startable running backs in PPR leagues. While Pierre Thomas is the starting tailback, Bush provides more than simply third-down/scatback work, as he occasionally lines up in the slot. Bush seems like an intriguing pick this year because he claims to be 100% healthy for the first time since his rookie season. However, he is only projected to get approximately ten touches per game in addition to his punt and/or kick return duties. Chances are that someone will overpay for those ten touches and start him as an RB2. Don’t be that guy (or girl).
Shonn Greene / LaDainian Tomlinson / Joe McKnight – The Jets’ running backs underwent a major overhaul during the 2009-’10 offseason with the departure of Thomas Jones and Leon Washington coupled with the arrivals of LT and McKnight. As the Jets employ a run-first offense, there should be enough carries to distribute to each of the three RBs to maintain a somewhat steady rotation. Green figures to get the early down work while McKnight will handle mostly passing situations and two-minute offenses. Tomlinson, no longer equipped with the burst that made him a PPR force during his prime, will instead serve as a short-yardage specialist, and will likely spell Green on the occasional series. Although Greene has been referred to as the “bell cow” by coach Rex Ryan, don’t expect the early-down back to get as many receptions as McKnight.
Carnell Williams / Derrick Ward – Williams shocked the football world by playing a full season in 2009, and figures to serve as the Bucs’ starting halfback with Ward as a clear backup. However, Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris has said that he will go with the “hot hand” in the running game, which opens things up for Ward a bit. While both RBs are decent pass catchers, the division of snaps is what will differentiate their value in PPR leagues. As the situation currently stands, Cadillac has more value as a RB3 while Ward is more RB4/flex material at this point in the preseason, but stay tuned to this situation in case Cadillac gets in a fender-bender.
Felix Jones – In the crowded Dallas backfield, Jones is the RB to target. As he offers more durability than Marion Barber and more playmaking upside than Tashard Choice, Jones is also becoming more of a factor in the Cowboy passing game, having attained three or more catches in three of the last five weeks of 2009. While rookie WR Dez Bryant recovers from a high ankle sprain, Jones is handling kickoff return duties. However, this arrangement on special teams shouldn’t last once Bryant returns to action.
Fred Jackson / C.J. Spiller – A quandary in the Buffalo running game surfaces as head coach Chan Gailey has had a history of using a feature back in his offenses over his career. Jackson is currently running with the first team in training camp while backup Marshawn Lynch has said all the right things to the media despite currently serving as a backup. Enter first-round pick C.J. Spiller, and this situation gets even messier, given that all three backs can be talented PPR assets. Each player is healthy, and has the ability to catch at least 40 balls this season, but Spiller could serve more of a Reggie Bush/Percy Harvin-type role and line up in the slot on many occasions. I would avoid Jackson and Spiller until the mid-to-later rounds as a speculative RB3. Spiller has nice upside who may run with the ones sooner than later, but if he is limited to only occasional reps and mostly special teams, then he could be overvalued by the preseason hype train.
Tier 4: Mac n’ Cheese (16-25 receptions)
Justin Forsett / Leon Washington – The crowded backfield in Seattle features two similar RBs in Washington and Forsett who must vie for playing time along with Julius Jones (currently on Seattle’s RB “back burner”, not a PPR option), and don’t figure to spend much time together on the field. In spite of their presence, Seahawk head coach Pete Carroll is reportedly shopping for a bruiser-type back who can run between the tackles and move the chains in short-yardage situations. Although both Forsett and Washington are talented and healthy, I’d avoid using a roster spot on either until injuries or great play thrusts one of the two into the spotlight. Otherwise, Seattle’s offense isn’t explosive enough to warrant two rosterable, pass-catching RBs.
Marion Barber – Although Marion the Barbarian has displayed impressive pass-catching skills for a so-called “bruiser” throughout his career, a committee timeshare with Felix Jones and Tashard Choice will limit his touches in the Cowboy backfield. Barber has proven to be the superior PPR back to Jones. However, as his dwindling YPC in the final weeks of 2009 will attest, Barber’s body tends to break down towards the latter stages of the season. Owner Jerry Jones has said that Barber will likely be used in a “closer” role, but teams rarely pass when they’re running out the clock in the second half. Hence, Barber is not the tasty RB2 he was a couple preseasons ago, so stay away unless you want a RB3 who only gets 10-12 touches a game (hint: you don’t).
Rashard Mendenhall – Steeler head coach Mike Tomlin will have Mendenhall continue serving as Pittsburgh’s goal-line back, but he has been more of an afterthought in their passing attack. Despite the fact that QB Ben Roethlisberger completed 56 more passes in 2009 than any other season during his up-and-down career, Mendenhall only caught 25 balls. The Steelers figure to run more in 2010, so Mendenhall will be more valuable for his goal line work than his receiving skills. Fortunately for Mendenhall’s owners, rookie RB Jonathan Dwyer and veteran Mewelde Moore have been less-than-impressive in camp thus far, so job security doesn’t figure to be an issue at the moment. In most leagues, Mendenhall should be a late first-round pick.
Ryan Grant – Grant is the perfect example of a RB1 in non-PPR leagues who may get drafted a little earlier than he should in PPR leagues. Having only mustered 25 catches in spite of a full season in Green Bay’s backfield, Grant hasn’t taken the necessary steps forward to prove his mettle in the Packers’ prolific passing attack. In spite of his relatively meager reception totals, Grant would be a solid RB2 if you can grab him in the fourth round. Taking Grant any earlier in a PPR draft would be reaching, as Brandon Jackson handles most of Green Bay’s third-down work.
Brandon Jacobs / Ahmad Bradshaw – Although Jacobs has reportedly looked “fast and lean” thus far in training camp, he is expected to share snaps 50/50 with Ahmad Bradshaw. Jacobs frustrated his owners who spent a second-round pick for his lackluster production in 2009, and has served as more of a traditional goal-line back as opposed to a standout pass-catcher. Still, if he can approach the 15 TDs he piled up in 2008, Jacobs’ owners won’t be to upset about the shortage of receptions, even if his playing time is split with Bradshaw. Jacobs would be better served as a RB3 in PPR leagues. Bradshaw is a safer bet for more catches and a better PPR value pick, but won’t provide as many trips to the end zone as Jacobs.
Cedric Benson – Sometimes, you should just ignore your instincts and blindly trust fantasy football experts. I wasn’t going to touch the underachieving Benson with a ten-foot pole in last years’ draft, in spite of rampant preseason hype surrounding him. Fast forward to the end of the season, and the Bengal RB1 turned out to be one of the best value picks of the year. In spite of his impressive season as Cincy’s workhorse, Benson is only good for one catch or so per game. As he provides an example of a better non-PPR RB, don’t take the (alleged) bar brawler until the third or fourth round as your RB2, even if he isn’t facing a suspension from the league for repeated off-field antics.
Hot Pockets (Bye-week PPR Fill-ins): Bye-week PPR replacements who can get you a handful of catches, but not much more:
Kevin Faulk – Marshall’s younger cousin is considered the Peter Pan of running backs given that he still averaged 5.4 YPC at 33 years young in 2009. Faulk is someone playing for a high-powered offense who you can pick up off the waiver wire to get a few receptions and carries if your team is beset by byes or injuries, but don’t expect a touchdown. If New England’s offense returns to form, you could do worse than pick up and start Faulk as your bye-week flex/RB3.
Mewelde Moore – Unless Steeler starter Rashard Mendenhall gets hurt or misses game time, Moore isn’t a rosterable option in most fantasy leagues. However, if Moore finds himself starting in Mendenhall’s absence, then the Steeler offense will likely revert to its pass-first identity from 2009. While Moore is far from a sure bet for goal-line work, 40-50 catches isn’t out of the question if he gets extended playing time.
Kevin Smith – Smith was drafted in 2008 to serve as Detroit’s feature back, but now will serve as little more than a handcuff for Jahvid Best owners. Regardless, Jones is just about fully recovered from ACL surgery, and his limited reps should keep him healthy. Before his injury, however, Smith proved to be more than capable in the receiving game by averaging 40 receptions each of his first two seasons. If Best gets hurt or proves ineffective at the professional level, Smith will at least provide RB3 value in PPR leagues if the Lions offense is as fluid in 2010 as experts are predicting.
Steve Slaton - As the man who gave Matt Forte a run for 2009 Fantasy Bust of the Year, Slaton has been relegated to kickoff return duties as well as third down work thus far in training camp. He is fully recovered from offseason surgery that repaired nerve damage in his neck, but the Texans drafted bruising back Ben Tate to offset the team’s reliance on the passing game. As the situation currently stands, Tate and holdover Arian Foster are battling for the starting RB job while Slaton will likely be behind to work on passing downs. He might put up some points if you need a bye-week replacement, but Slaton’s stock has plummeted as much as any active player’s has between last year and this year…he’s the anti-Jamaal Charles. Stay away on draft day.
Tashard Choice – If he’s available on your waiver wire during a bye week or injury crunch, then Choice is a candidate with high upside in case Marion Barber or Felix Jones misses playing time. Although he possesses little value as the Cowboys’ third RB, Choice proved to be a capable PPR back when he was called to extensive action last season against Carolina and Denver in Weeks 3 and 4. If you’re thin at RB, Choice makes a good roster stash given the historically fleeting health of both Barber and Jones.