2011 RB review, plus early 2012 rankings

In a season in which quite a few running backs angered fantasy owners, be it by season-ending injury (Jamaal Charles, Fred Jackson), alarming inconsistency (Chris Johnson) or sheer video game cover status (Peyton Hillis), there were plenty of good things, as well. Half of the top 10 running backs from draft day managed to finish the season among the top 10 scorers at the position. A pass-catching saint -- or is that Saint? -- started fast and kept on going. A veteran Seahawk flew to his greatest heights. A pair of Bushes powered their way to successful campaigns.

Of course, owners who didn't win their fantasy leagues will point to the negative, but overall it was pretty much status quo at running back. They fill the first round of drafts every season; we preach adding depth and, when applicable, handcuffing backups; and the wise owner who watches the waiver wire and reacts is often the one smiling in the end. Stuff happens, and, now that we're deep into January, it's time to keep wrapping it all up and look ahead. Last week, quarterbacks were covered. Next week, it's wide receivers. Today, it's the position we love and hate, running backs.

Running back MVP: Ray Rice finished with the most fantasy points at this position and sixth overall behind the top quarterbacks, but LeSean McCoy is the pick. Although Rice posted five games with 26 or more fantasy points, McCoy was the more consistent player, scoring a league-high 20 touchdowns and spreading them out. Heading into Week 16, McCoy scored a touchdown every week except Week 11, when he rushed for more than 100 yards. (An injury kept him out of the end zone in Week 16, and he sat out Week 17 altogether.) McCoy was in double digits for fantasy every week until Week 16. Rice gets the nod in point-per-reception formats, and I wouldn't argue if you chose him for standard ones, but don't let Week 17 sway you; McCoy was awesome this season.

Running back LVP: Well, based on where guys went in the draft, nobody hurt fantasy owners as much as Charles. He was the third pick in ESPN live drafts, and he contributed a grand total of 11 fantasy points over two weeks before wrecking his knee. Also, it's not as if another member of the Kansas City Chiefs really stepped up as a fantasy find for more than a few weeks. Don't wanna blame an injured guy? That's fair, but there are no asterisks on your last-place finish. Others would point to No. 2 pick Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans. The summer/fall holdout eventually got his money, but, for whatever reason, performed terribly for the first half of the season, and, even though he did step up with huge rushing totals in three of the four games in Weeks 10-13, he delivered nothing in the fantasy playoffs. The guy did rush for 1,047 yards, however, and finish tied with Matt Forte, who missed half the season, for 16th among running backs. Johnson, who finished third among all running backs in receptions, was useful at times. Was Peyton Hillis? A third-rounder on draft day and the Madden cover boy -- we should have known! -- Hillis totaled 53 fantasy points in the seven games he managed to play in leading to Week 15. In other words, other than a 21-point outing in Week 2, he wasn't usable until the fantasy playoffs -- if your Hillis team made it that far. I just can't choose Chris Johnson here; he outscored Hillis by 75 fantasy points!

Biggest surprises: Some would call Marshawn Lynch the game's most valuable running back, given that his draft-day cost was so much cheaper than it did for first-rounders Rice and McCoy. Again, I'll buy that. Lynch was an eighth-round pick -- 30 running backs, including Knowshon Moreno, went earlier! -- who finished tied for fifth among running backs in season scoring, 80 points behind Rice, 67 points behind McCoy. Of course, Lynch wasn't Mr. Popular early on, totaling 12 fantasy points in the first three weeks, then sitting out Week 7 in a tasty matchup at Cleveland with injury. From Week 9 on, though, he was unstoppable. Some fantasy owners didn't react quickly and use him until Thanksgiving, but come playoff time, Lynch kept delivering. He even scored on the stingy San Francisco 49ers! Looking at Lynch's previous seasons, even the good ones, he was quite the surprise.

Biggest misconception: Darren Sproles ranked tied for 54th among running backs in rushing attempts at 87, with Cadillac Williams and Stevan Ridley. Think about that for a minute. However, Sproles was so prolific catching the football that he finished eighth at the position in standard scoring, and obviously much better in PPR formats. Only six players, regardless of position, hauled in more than his 86 receptions. The theory for at least half the season was that Sproles couldn't possibly keep scoring for fantasy owners at this rate, but he did. And surely he will come at a greater discount next draft day, given that others aren't convinced. Even I have him barely in the top 20, as I expect touted Mark Ingram to step up. Regardless, fantasy points are fantasy points, no matter how they are accrued. Reggie Bush, himself a pleasant surprise who was able to poke holes in his durability questions, hadn't had a year like Sproles' since he was a rookie. Fantasy owners need to look past rushing attempts and instead look at total value because Sproles overcame his reputation -- as did Bush, really.