Houston Texans breakout running back Arian Foster was fantasy football's scoring leader for the 2010 season, topping Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson, Michael Vick and Aaron Rodgers, and everyone else in the game. He was also one of fantasy's top draft-day bargains, having been selected in the fifth round of ESPN average live drafts, after 22 others at his position, including Beanie Wells, Ronnie Brown and a pair of disappointing Carolina Panthers.
Still, I can't name Foster my No. 1 running back for the upcoming 2011 season -- hey, we're still in the 2010 playoffs, but 2011 is upcoming -- based solely on what he accomplished this past season. Put me on the spot in an actual draft today, I'll still take Peterson first. I'll take Chris Johnson second and Maurice Jones-Drew third. Let's congratulate Foster for his terrific season, and the fact that after Vick, no player was a member of more ESPN standard league postseason squads, but I look at the near 400 touches, the likely presence of Ben Tate (who missed all of this season with a foot injury) and the fact I expect more from Matt Schaub/Andre Johnson next season as reasons for some apprehension. But ranking fourth overall isn't such a bad place to be.
Every year, we find surprising performances from fantasy running backs, the first-round choices that didn't pan out, the mid-round selections that turned into Foster types, and of course there are the unranked folks that became the Week 1 pickups of the year. Who would have guessed that for much of the season, the most valuable Peyton wasn't the quarterback. Surprising, indeed.
Last week, we discussed the quarterback position, looking back and ahead, and now we'll do the same at running back. Next week, it's the wide receivers.
What went right: As disappointing as you think Johnson and Peterson were, they finished the season ranked second and fifth in standard scoring. Your whining will thus not be heard. They were drafted first and second overall, respectively, but overall I'd say the first round of running backs performed at a generally high level, unlike recent seasons. Jones-Drew only missed the final top 10 because he missed the final two games of the season with a knee injury. Ray Rice didn't score many touchdowns but still finished in the top 10 among running backs. Steven Jackson didn't miss by much and Frank Gore was well on his way before fracturing his right hip.
While most would agree Foster was the running back -- and perhaps overall -- MVP for fantasy, the free agent pick-up of the year was Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis. I thought Jerome Harrison, a hero from the 2009 fantasy playoffs, was being overdrafted a tad, but I never thought he'd lose the job in September and get traded for another backup. The muscular Hillis, built like a linebacker and bred to run over them, scored touchdowns each of the first four weeks, and would have easily finished as fantasy's No. 2 running back had he delivered anything over the final five weeks. Hillis averaged more than 17 fantasy points in his first 11 games, an astounding rate right there with Foster. Whether he tired or good defenses realized the Browns had no passing game, he averaged five points the final five games and did not score. Like Foster, certainly the threat of a touted, athletic rookie returning from injury (Montario Hardesty) must factor into Hillis' 2011 value.
Other surprises for the 2010 season were the Oakland Raiders' Darren McFadden, the New England Patriots' BenJarvus Green-Ellis (tied with Rashard Mendenhall for second-most rushing TDs behind Foster) and rookie LeGarrette Blount of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Blount did not finish the season as fantasy's top rookie -- teammate Mike Williams, quarterback Sam Bradford and even Jahvid Best scored more -- but considering Blount had averaged two carries per game entering Week 7 and still rushed for 1,007 yards is quite the accomplishment.
What went wrong: Fantasy owners relying on seemingly reliable Green Bay Packers running back Ryan Grant were dealt a harsh blow in the opening game, as he wrecked his ankle badly, ending his season after eight carries. The Packers never truly replaced him -- don't call James Starks safe yet -- but fantasy owners probably were able to, especially if they took a shot on Hillis or McFadden early on. The situation was similar at quarterback; those dealing with injury or disappointment were the most likely to sign Vick. Peyton Manning owners were not, for the most part.
It was also a disappointing season for the rookie running backs, sans Blount. San Diego Chargers speedster Ryan Mathews seemed to be a can't-miss option, but he sure did until a three-touchdown, 31-point finale. Mathews was a third-round pick in average live drafts, but entered Week 17 with fewer fantasy points than Jason Snelling, Mike Goodson and Cadillac Williams. Jahvid Best astounded fantasy owners with a 40-point fantasy explosion in Week 2, and it only served to overrate him the rest of the campaign. Best didn't even score a touchdown again until Week 16. And the third member of the preseason touted crew was C.J. Spiller of the Buffalo Bills, the No. 25 running back in drafts. He finished 62nd in running back scoring, with one game of more than four fantasy points.