The Weekly Gut Check No. 189 - The 20/24: The Top 24 Fantasy RBs from 1990-2010 and Implications Of RB Turnover
By Matt Waldman
May 24th, 2010

The Weekly Gut Check examines the players, strategies and guidelines fantasy football owners use to make personnel decisions.

Last week's column had a table displaying the turnover for fantasy starters at RB. It became inspiration for this week's column, the top 24 fantasy RBs for the past 20 years. Ranking these players was probably one the most fun columns I have done in years, despite its high potential to become chum for the Shark Pool. Fortunately, I'm on vacation this week, so I won't see the carnage until I return.

One note before I lay out the criteria. If you email me or post in the Shark Pool that I'm nuts for ranking Player B over Player X because Player X was 100 times more talented, I give the Shark Pool permission to break out the shovels. This is a list based strictly production, not talent.

The rankings are based on a 12-team, 2-RB lineup with Footballguys scoring:

  • Consecutive Years RB1/RB2: What makes a good fantasy runner is his reliability for starter production. Standard projection models rely on RBs that aren't one-year wonders. For an RB to qualify for this list, he needs to have at least two straight years of starter (top 24) production at the position. I then broke down this info into these tiers:
    • Top 24
    • Top 12
    • Top 6
    • Top 3
    • Top (Overall No. 1)
  • Peak Fantasy Production: During these consecutive years of top-24 production I measured each player's total points and his average fantasy points per season. This data is like the lovely assistant on a game show, it's probably more useful than it's portrayed. However, it's used mostly decoration except with a few decisions I had to make along the way. The consecutive seasons of starter production that I used to calculated Peak Fantast Production point totals and averages. If the player had down year due to injury and bounced back the following year with starter production, I included the years prior to the down season into the peak productivity. I believe the post-event productivity demonstrates that a runner was still at his peak despite a single season obstacle. This only affected one player on the list.
  • Cumulative Seasons in Top Tiers: Measuring the consecutive seasons an RB was a starter is the baseline standard that makes the runner eligible for this list. However, the gap in fantasy points between a season's No. 1 overall RB and the No. 24 RB is significant.
Diff
90s
FPs/G
00s
FPs/G
1st & T3
29.39
1.84
32.78
2.05
1st & T6
57.49
3.59
62.35
3.9
1st & T12
89.33
5.58
98.19
6.14
1st & T24
126.02
7.88
138.02
8.63
T3 & T6
28.1
1.76
29.57
1.85
T3 & T12
59.94
3.75
65.41
4.09
T3 & T24
96.62
6.04
105.23
6.58
T6 & T12
31.84
1.99
35.84
2.24
T6 & T24
68.53
4.28
75.67
4.73
T12 & T24
36.69
2.29
39.83
2.49

As you can see, the gap between the No. 1 overall RB and a top-3 RB isn't as great as say the No. 1 overall and a top-6 or top-12. Part of my ranking process included breaking down the RB1 tier into smaller tiers and giving more weight to backs with seasons of No. 1 and/or top-3 production.

Lesson 1: Fantasy Starter Tenure at RB

How long can you realistically expect an RB to be a fantasy starter? This list has 24 players from a span of 20 years. All of these players had least two straight years of RB1 or RB2 production. A total of 92 RBs over a 20-year period had that baseline level of longevity. For all 92 backs, the average peak period (the time they were fantasy starters for consecutive years) was 3.7 years.

However, the 3.7-year average includes the top 24 players at the position. Calculated separately, the top 24 players have an average peak period of 6.2 years. And based on the current players on the list, it is likely to increase. Since the average peak period for the backs outside of the top 24 is 2.7 years, you can see why these excellent producers increase the overall average.

Even if you believe a back will be considered one of the best fantasy runners for the next 20 years, betting he'll achieve 6.2 consecutive years of fantasy starter productivity is setting yourself up for failure. Just ask owners of Jamal Anderson, Shaun Alexander, Terrell Davis, Larry Johnson, Priest Holmes, and countless other runners

I think the safest expectation for a runner to be a fantasy starter is 2-3 consecutive seasons. That is the amount of time most of these backs experienced peak production. Anything else should be considered gravy, but nothing to build a roster round.

This knowledge has two major fantasy implications for draft strategy. First, I suggest you look at how many years an RB has been a fantasy starter heading into the season regardless of league type. Although some players have as many as 8-11 seasons as fantasy-caliber starters, these aren't your average backs.

No matter how good they looked last year, the safe expectation is to presume a runner only has 2-3 seasons worth of starter production in the tank. The data already shows that the turnover for fantasy starters at RB is high. Considering WRs in the early rounds of a re-draft becomes a more appealing idea when you're drafting with a mid-to-late, first-round pick.

Dynasty owners should also view fantasy RB production with a 2-3 year window. It's important to consistently reload at the RB position. Believing that Ryan Mathews or C.J. Spiller will have a fantasy peak of five consecutive RB1 seasons is betting that he will equal a feat only eight others achieved in 20 years! It might happen, and I'm going to do my best to analyze the players that fit this profile to help us recognize these exceptions, but don't count on it.

In many respects we inherently understand this about runners. In most leagues, we value rookie RBs higher than any first-year player and, right or wrong, we often prefer picking top rookie than a fifth-year starter who is projected as an RB2. It is why I only value longevity when that player's performances are consistently RB1 material within one of the higher RB1 tiers (top 3 or top 6).

Keep this lesson in mind when you look at my rankings. There will be choices that spark debate about longevity vs. shorter, but dominant peak production. In most cases I opted for better production over a shorter period. If a back played only 3-4 seasons but he was dominant, then he already exceeded what I view as a reasonable career span for a fantasy starting RB. Only in certain cases did I opt for consistent, but less spectacular production over a longer period.

Lesson 2: Draft History

Half of the backs on this list were first-round picks, 25 percent were drafted in the second round, and 12.5 percent went in the third round. The remaining 12.5 percent was a fourth-round pick, a sixth-round pick (one of the most famous in NFL history), and an undrafted free agent.

The conference with the greatest representation on this list is the Big 12 with six players. Oklahoma State and Texas have two players each and both sets of backs from each school were teammates. The ACC was a slight surprise as the second most with five backs. Three of them were Miami Hurricanes and two were Virginia Cavaliers. Maybe there's hope for Cedric Peerman after all (I couldn't help myself).

The SEC had four, and another three from the conference just missed the cut. Surprisingly, the Big Ten only had one player on the list, equaling the Atlantic 10 and USA South. It's no wonder why NFL GMs like to play the odds with runners from big-time programs that successfully carry the football (Big 12, ACC, and SEC) against high-end defensive athletes.

However, if you're looking for the most talented runners, may I suggest the Mountain West conference?

When you see the list, you'll understand why I'm not kidding.

Physical Dimensions

There are seven backs over six-feet tall on this list and nearly half are listed between 5'10"-5'11". However, I have doubts that at least five of the backs listed at 5'10" are actually that tall. They shouldn't be ashamed in retrospect, the top eight players on the list are mostly 5'10" or shorter.

However, we never want to mistake "short" with "small." The average weight of the backs on this list with a height of 5'8" or less is 205 pounds. Add an inch, and the backs at 5'9" are 214 pounds. Most of these backs have a well-muscle core (thighs, hips, back, and stomach) that gives them a low center of gravity and makes them difficult to tackle without a full commitment from the defender.

Because these backs are so explosive, a defender often has to make a commitment on an angle the back can avoid. The result is that these runners don't take the same kind of punishment. Don't get me wrong, if you carry the football multiple times per game you're going to get punished, but they have an easier time getting their pads under defenders or defeating angles to avoid the full impact of hits that cause injury.

It's actually the big backs that are the rarity on this list. There are only three backs on this list that are either taller than 6'1", or ever had a playing weight over 230 lbs. It's more difficult to run with a compact style and get lower than defenders on a consistent basis with 4-6 inches more height than the average back. Backs with greater weight than the norm tend to put more stress on their own bodies or lack the quickness to avoid the full impact of hits.

Although I wouldn't shy away from any runner because of his height or weight if I believe has the talent to produce, what I have seen indicates that backs of a height range of 5'8"-5'11" and weight between 205-220 lbs. have an easier time adopting a compact style, which increases the chances high productivity as an interior runner while enhancing career longevity.

The 20/24 List

Player
Consecutive Yrs RB1/RB2
Peak Fntsy Production
Cumulative Seasons In Top Tiers
Top
Top 3
Top 6
Top 12
Top 24
Avg
Total
Top
Top 3
Top 6
Top 12
Emmitt Smith
4
5
6
7
11
248.5
2733.3
4
5
8
9
LaDainian Tomlinson
2
6
6
8
9
284.7
2562.5
2
5
6
8
Marshall Faulk
2
4
4
5
10
253.5
2534.7
2
4
6
7
Barry Sanders
2
2
4
5
9
247.3
2473
3
5
6
8
Thurman Thomas
0
4
4
5
7
217.3
1955.8
0
4
4
6
Priest Holmes
2
3
3
4
4
305.1
1220.5
2
3
3
4
Shaun Alexander
2
2
5
5
5
294.6
1473
2
2
5
5
Terrell Davis
0
3
3
4
4
281.4
1125.4
1
3
3
4
Edgerrin James
0
2
2
3
6
238.9
1911.2
1
1
4
6
Ricky Watters
0
0
4
9
9
220.7
1986.6
0
1
4
9
Curtis Martin
0
0
2
4
10
222.8
2227.7
0
1
4
7
Adrian Peterson
0
3
3
3
3
259.1
777.3
0
3
3
3
Eddie George
0
2
2
5
8
207.4
1659.3
0
2
2
6
Tiki Barber
0
2
2
3
7
241.7
1962
0
2
2
4
Clinton Portis
0
0
2
4
4
242.6
1455.5
0
0
4
6
Ahman Green
0
0
2
2
5
253.9
1269.6
0
2
3
3
Brian Westbrook
0
0
2
3
6
214.9
1289.1
0
1
2
4
Jerome Bettis
0
0
0
2
6
181.7
1453.3
0
1
2
3
Chris Warren
0
0
2
2
6
179.6
1077.5
0
1
2
2
Thomas Jones
0
0
2
2
6
195.2
1171.2
0
0
2
3
Ricky Williams
0
0
0
3
4
242.1
968.4
0
1
1
4
Maurice Jones Drew
0
0
0
2
4
223.7
894.6
0
1
1
3
Frank Gore
0
0
0
2
4
220.3
881.3
0
0
2
3
Rodney Hampton
0
0
2
2
5
183.7
918.7
0
0
2
2

Players Just Missing the Cut

The players listed below came very close to making the list.

(Pac 10) Corey Dillon, Bengals/Patriots: Dillon had six straight fantasy starter seasons to begin his career, but he was an RB1 every other year during that span and his highest ranking was 6th among RBs in 2001. Dillon was a great talent, but I think he exemplifies the difference between a back like Walter Payton, who transcended his meager supporting case and one that everyone knows could be more dangerous with great players around him (Dillon's first year in New England).

(ACC) Edgar Bennett, Packers/Bears: Dorsey Levens and Ahman Green tend to get the glory as the best backs during the Favre era. Levens was part of the Packers' Super Bowl teams and Green was a big-play weapon. However, Bennett had three straight seasons as an RB1 and four straight as an RB2. Injury cut short the possibility of Bennett becoming a more renowned player, but the Packers' current RB coach had the toughness between the tackles and the third down skills that deserves your respect.

(SEC) Rudi Johnson, Bengals/Lions: At first, I thought this was a surprising cut. The Bengals runner was a paragon of consistency with three consecutive seasons with 12 rushing scores and at least 1300 yards rushing. However, the players ahead of Johnson had more long-term success and frequently greater fantasy production short-term. Johnson was an above average fantasy runner within the context of the past 20 years and a nice player to have for a few seasons. Yet, 1300 yards has been the new 1000 yards for some time now, and Johnson's end came quickly, which I think indicates he lacked the extra set of skills that help other backs maintain some longevity as their physical skills decline.

(SEC) Charlie Garner, Eagles/49ers/Raiders: Garner had three top-10 finishes at the height of his run as a fantasy RB1. A smaller runner with a great burst, Garner played with a ferocity that made him a dangerous big-play weapon and reliable interior runner. A reckless playing style got the more diminutive Garner nicked early in his career. However during his four-year peak with the 49ers and Raiders, he didn't miss a game and he was a strong PPR option during that span. His best season was a 1903-yard effort (962 rush/941 receiving) with 11 scores.

Garner was probably one of my favorite players that didn't make the cut, because he was so exciting to watch. I believe if Garner had Westbrook's situation and surrounding talent in Philadelphia, he would have had a better career than Westbrook. In terms of between the tackle skills, Westbrook's were good for a shorter-smaller runner. Garner's were good, period.

(SEC) Herschel Walker, Cowboys/Vikings/Eagles: Surprised? So was I. When I think of Walker, I think of the 1980s: his dominance at Georgia; leaving early for the USFL; setting a single season rushing record for professional football with the New Jersey Generals; and then arriving in Dallas and producing as a top-five fantasy RB during his first three years.

Then the Vikings acquired Walker from the Cowboys in exchange for enough picks to help Dallas start the foundation for a 90s dynasty. What many of us forgot as the Cowboys ran roughshod over the NFL was that Walker still produced as an RB1 in four of his next five seasons, and he was a quality starter in the six seasons following the trade. All of these seasons occurred in the 90s.

It's amazing how the media can shape our perception. All I ever remember hearing is how the Vikings got ripped off. This might be the case overall, but Walker was still a good player. Maybe this was a lesson Mike Ditka and the Saints should have heeded when they gave up their draft for Ricky Williams.

I think Walker represents a school of powerful, versatile, slashers that account for a decent contingent of the Top 24. All of them are in the 5'10"-6'1" range, weigh 225-230 lbs., and possess game-breaking speed. They are that rare blend of speed, agility, and brute force fantasy owners salivate at the prospect of acquiring but aren't as common on this list.

Jamal Anderson, Michael Turner, Deuce McAllister, Fred Taylor, Jamal Lewis, Bo Jackson, Larry Johnson, and Corey Dillon are several examples of these players that had great production, but their careers were more sporadic when measuring consistently strong seasons back to back. Note that five of the seven I mentioned dealt with injuries. I don't think this is a coincidence. I think their freakish physical skills probably stretched the limits of human physiology.

Walker was one of those rare physical specimens that escaped this harsh fate and produced extremely well – even if our expectations for him were higher because of his rampage through the SEC and USFL. Now that I think backs of his physical dimensions have a lower chance of attaining productive longevity, I believe in hindsight that Walker actually exceeded expectations. If I could have included his early years as a Cowboy, Walker would have made this list.

(Pac-10) Steven Jackson, Rams: Jackson just missed the cut. On the surface, his ranking might seem a little low because his five years of at least RB2 production and two years of RB1 output, including a Top 3 season, are as good or better than two current backs I ranked ahead of him. The reason I have Jackson this low is because of the games he's missed in his career – more than the other runners presently in the league with similar criteria.

We all love huge production from our RBs but in a 13-week, head-to-head, regular season fantasy schedule, not having that stud RB for 2-4 games can really bite you. The fact that Jackson has been this good as the Rams meal ticket is a feat in itself. If he can continue to stay relatively healthy and only miss a few games this year, Jackson still has an opportunity to move up this list.

However, only 13 backs in the past 20 years have produced more than five straight seasons as a fantasy starter. The only two that did some of that work in less than stellar offenses were Marshall Faulk and Thomas Jones. Both are smaller backs and didn't have a chronic back problem.

If I were ranking runners based on skills and talent, Jackson would be much higher on the list. In fact, he was my No. 24 back until my final review of the article.

The Top 24

24. (SEC) Rodney Hampton, Giants: A big back with a slashing style, Hampton was an underrated workhorse in New York. For most of his career, he was an RB1 or a borderline RB1, compiling two top-six seasons and five consecutive years as a fantasy starter.

He's a forgotten player outside of the New York/New Jersey area, and rarely mentioned with the admiration of a back like Joe Morris. As a Georgia alum, Herschel Walker, Terrell Davis, and Garrison Hearst get more props, but when it comes to fantasy football, he's the second-best Georgia alum for the RB spot on a fantasy roster in the past 20 years.

Hampton's injury history wasn't much better than Steven Jackson's, but his consecutive seasons of higher production gives him the slightest edge. Catch me at a particular hour, and I'll probably have a different opinion about who should be No. 24.

What we can learn from Hampton? Yards per carry might be an important stat, but not enough to keep Hampton from being a strong RB2 for three straight seasons with a sub-4.0 YPC. This will be a recurring theme among backs on this list. Like all stats, they need a strong context to effectively tell the story. 2009 rookie RB Knowshon Moreno is getting downgraded for his sub-4.0 ypc. in Denver, but I think like Tomlinson's rookie 3.9 ypc. year, it would be a mistake to write Moreno off.

23. (ACC) Frank Gore, 49ers: Gore makes the list because he has one more top-six season, a better history of games played, and he averages five more points per year than Jackson. A compact, agile runner with excellent balance, Gore has the type of dimensions and running style of the backs most prevalent on this list, which is a height-weight range of 5'8"-5'11", 210-220 lbs.

There are arguably seven backs on this list within this range and its Gore's dimensions that lead me to believe he has a good opportunity to continue climbing this list. With the 49ers addressing their offensive line and attempting to stockpile depth at the RB position, the timing might be right for him to have at least another top-six year and the surrounding talent to experience longevity.

What can we learn from Gore? Players often need two seasons to recover from ACL tears. Like his fellow Hurricane alum Edgerrin James, Gore was a dominant athlete who lost enough of his physical edge due to injury. However, he proves that great vision and technique coupled with a minimum level of athleticism can still yield a terrific player with longevity.

22. (Pac-10) Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars: Jones-Drew has been dynamic and durable during his first four NFL seasons. He has been a starter-quality RB for his entire career and an RB1 in all but one season. Jones-Drew's lack of height works in his favor because he has the frame of a 220-pound back where it counts – his core.

Barry Sanders, Jones-Drew, Brian Westbrook, and (arguably) Emmitt Smith fit into the same category of short (below 5'9") runners with a low center of gravity and great change of direction. I believe Jones-Drew has the greatest potential to continue climbing this list if I do this again five years from now.

What we can learn from Jones-Drew? Height doesn't matter, but muscle mass and explosiveness does. A back with excellent change of direction, burst, and a low center of gravity can make up for woes along the offensive line. Walter Payton was a 5'9" wunderkind with a bad o-line for many years.

21. (Big 12) Ricky Williams, Saints/Dolphins: What separates Williams from the rest of the players ranked lower than him is that he had more seasons as an RB1 and three of them were consecutive. He also averaged more points per season than any of those candidates. Only nine players on this list actually averaged more during their peak production.

Like Steven Jackson, Williams can do it all. He was the first back to have significant starter production after what was essentially a six-year drought. It's an unusual testament to how talented this unusual man is. Just imagine what Williams might have done if he didn't have the personal obstacles that he dealt with during his career.

What we can learn from Williams? Age is a number if you take care of your body and avoid major injury. When coaches describe a player as highly football-intelligent (Norv Turner said Williams was one of the most football savvy he's been around in his career), pay attention. Chiefs' rookie RB/WR Dexter McCluster is characterized as a very football-intelligent player.

20. (ACC) Thomas Jones, Cardinals/Buccaneers/Bears/Jets/Chiefs: Jones has never had an elite season (Top 3), but his last two years were his best two. The fact that Jones has been his most productive after the age of 30 is nearly as uncommon as what we saw with Williams' career.

Most backs either start strong or begin to produce at a peak level 3-4 years into their careers. The decline usually comes soon after. Jones didn't produce as a starter until his fifth season and his third team. Now Jones has six consecutive years of fantasy starter production.

Although not a flashy back, Jones is compact and rugged. He runs with patience and he has good agility and change of direction. When he came out of Virginia, he was a highly rated back listed at 5'9" and 205 pounds. Now he's listed at 5'10" and 220 pounds. I'm inclined to doubt the height, but the weight gain became obvious once Jones hit the weight room with Michael Pittman in Arizona and then Tampa.

What can we learn from Jones? The best backs are the exception to the rule in some way because excellence deviates from the norm. In Jones' case, we learned that although rare, a back could develop into a strong player even after five years of less than impressive production.

Jones is also an example of what we'll see with several backs on this list: young players gain muscle, add weight, increase explosiveness, and develop more stamina as professionals in year-round training programs. This means we shouldn't be too quick to write off backs that enter the league weighing between 185-205 pounds.

19. (Small School) Chris Warren, Seahawks/Eagles/Cowboys: This was a surprise addition. At first, I had Warren outside the list, but as I broke down his performance among his peers, his six consecutive years as a fantasy starter and two straight as a top-six, RB1 elevated his stock. What bumped him over Jones was his season as a top-three fantasy RB.

At 6'2", 228 lbs., Warren was an enticing combination of power and speed with an upright style, but an understanding of how to use his pads. Athletically, he was a speedier version of Eddie George but not the all-world athlete for his size like Eric Dickerson.

Because of his small school background (Ferrum College) and gig with a small market NFL team, Warren was a nice value for much of his fantasy career. Sadly, it took a while for the public (and many fantasy owners) to recognize how good he was, and by the time they caught on he was nothing more than a nice role player with third down skills (a common theme for RBs).

18. (Independent) Jerome Bettis, Rams/Steelers: Bettis gets the nod for the 19th spot because during his eight years of starter production, Bettis only missed nine games, and five of them were during the 2001 season. For a 250-lbs., punisher like "The Bus," it's quite a feat that he was a starting caliber RB for six consecutive years.

Bettis was a productive fantasy starter for five of his final eight years. He did this after two consecutive seasons in 1995-1996 where he had a combined 696 carries, a total that would have worn out most backs. In fact, Bettis had an impressive five seasons with more than 300 carries.

Although Bettis had enough of a burst to break runs of 40-plus yards in six of his 13 years in the NFL, he was a grinder that averaged 3.9 yards per carry. Bettis' combo of a huge frame with nimble feet made him a special player. Certainly there were others like Bettis – Bam Morris and Craig Heyward come to mind – but they lacked Bettis' longevity to be effective as the punishment took its cumulative toll.

What can we learn from Bettis? Power is great, quickness is a must, and a warrior mentality to cope with pain is the difference between a talented player and a productive NFL veteran. When you lose or lack that first step or the agility to make the initial cut, your days are numbered in the NFL.

17. (Small School) Brian Westbrook, Eagles/TBD: Like Frank Gore, Westbrook suffered an ACL tear in college. In fact, Westbrook suffered two knee injuries, but neither of them occurred on a football field. Both Gore and Westbrook managed to recover and became strong fantasy producers.

Westbrook's injury history knocked him out of at least one game every year of his peak production, which prevented him from attaining a higher spot on this list. However, it's difficult to argue with six consecutive years of RB2 production and three straight as an RB1, including one top-three and two top-six seasons.

Westbrook is another vertically-but-not-horizontally small back with excellent receiving skills. His versatility was a guarantee to fantasy owners that he would get points one way or another. Outside of the short-lived, T.O. era, Westbrook was Donovan McNabb's best receiver.

What we can learn? Prototypes like height, weight, perfect health history, and a big-time school background are nice guides, but all of these factors aren't a must. One shouldn't write off a player due to an injury in college. Westbrook, Jamal Lewis, Willis McGahee, and Frank Gore are all prime examples. Montario Hardesty could be next. Maybe even a long shot like Broncos UFA Toney Baker is worth keeping an eye on.

16. (Big 12) Ahman Green, Seahawks/Packers/Texans: Only five backs averaged more points per season during their peak periods than Green. The Packers' lead back had five consecutive seasons as at least an RB2, three total seasons with top-six production, and two of those as a top-three back. Perhaps the perfect combination of power and speed, Green got the tough yards, but he made defenses pay if they didn't stay disciplined.

Green was an integral part of the Packers west coast scheme. An excellent receiver that was deadly on screens and dump offs in the final two minutes of each half, Green had a combined 1,153 yards and 5 scores as a pass catcher from 2000-2001. Only once during his five-year peak did he have less than 300 yards receiving in a season. His greatest weakness? Fumbling the football.

If not for a ruptured quadriceps tendon, Green might have had another year of peak production. Even as recently as last year, Green showed echoes of why he was a fine player, pre-injury.

What can we learn from Green? RBs moving to new teams do best when unproven or young. Fantasy owners frequently write off backs sitting behind an established starter because they haven't climbed the depth chart immediately. Big mistake, considering that half the backs on this list weren't first-round picks handed extensive playing time with a year or two to prove the teams made an error in judgment.

15. (ACC) Clinton Portis, Broncos/Redskins: I initially ranked Portis higher because of his six seasons as an RB1. It's impressive, but there is a significant points difference among tiers within the RB1 designation. The backs ranked ahead of Portis had the same or more top-six seasons and Portis never reached the upper echelon (Top 3) of RB1s.

Nevertheless, Portis' six total years with RB1 production is two more than any back ranked lower than him on this list. If he didn't miss most of one year due to injury, he could have made it seven straight years, which only two players on this list would best him. Even so, his lack of upper echelon, RB1 production limits his ranking potential.

It is conceivable that Portis could have another starter-worthy season in 2010, but he will have to return to a dominant physical condition. For Mike Shanahan to not give Larry Johnson, Willie Parker, or possibly two younger backs opportunities, Portis will have to turn back the clock, and I don't think his entertaining press conference characters and costumes include Doc Brown.

What can fantasy owners can learn from Portis? Portis played on teams that weren't very good, he took a beating, and he still produced. One of the reasons is that he added 20 pounds to his frame within a couple of years of entering the league without sacrificing his burst. As much as his bonds with teammates or Redskins brass might have worn thin, I think he could have had a Marshall Faulk-like career with the right talent surrounding him.

14. (ACC) Tiki Barber, Giants: Barber's placement sparks the longevity vs. elite productivity debate. Although the former Giant was an RB1 as many times as a back like Adrian Peterson, Peterson and other backs ranked ahead of Barber have more top-three and top-six fantasy productivity.

Barber's seven straight years as at least an RB2 is rare. There are only seven backs on this list with a longer consecutive streak of seasons with fantasy starter production. For three of those seven years, Barber was an RB1 and like Thomas Jones, they occurred at the end of his career. Two of those final years were top-three production.

This is where the longevity folks will disagree with me, but if I had to make a choice as a fantasy owner I would rather have 3-4 consecutive years of fantastic production than 6-7 years of good, but not great output.

Ask yourself this question, which player was in more demand at the top of his game, Terrell Davis or Tiki Barber? Priest Holmes or Tiki Barber? Personally, I couldn't bring myself to say Barber in either case.

Nevertheless, I believe when you compare Barber's production to backs from the last 20 years he looks really good. However, for my sensibilities Barber remains in the conversation of runners who sportswriters will ultimately induct into the "Hall of Very Good," but they won't enshrine in Canton.

13. (Big 10) Eddie George, Titans/Cowboys: Another surprise, but the stats tell the story. George had eight straight years as a fantasy starter and five of those were consecutive years as an RB1. Impressive. The five consecutive RB1 seasons and six total for his career adds to the compelling longevity argument. So does his eight straight years as a fantasy starter.

George and his male model physique might make him look like the anti-Bettis, but they were stylistically very similar: physical, battering rams with good footwork and enough stamina to make game-changing runs in the fourth quarter.

Having Eddie George on my roster was one of the most sadistically entertaining things in my fantasy football leagues. He was what I would call my garbage truck. He was big and nasty and when the Titans meal tick was the central part of those long drives, you could tell your opponent that it was as inevitable as trash collection on Monday morning that he was going to lose. When facing a good fantasy team with Eddie George in his prime as one of the RBs, you might as well have been verbally tossed into a pit where the walls slowly closed in.

What can we learn from Eddie George? Upright runners are fine if they know how to use their pads to finish. This is the difference between a back like Eddie George and Chris Brown, who was just as big as George and had better speed, but lacked the skills to keep an offense on schedule and stay healthy. If a back is described as an upright runner, make sure you check to see if he has facility at lowering his pads to finish runs. If not, a 2-3 year peak of fantasy starter production is unlikely.

12. (Big 12) Adrian Peterson, Vikings: Peterson has three RB1 seasons in this first three years and they are all top-three. The backs below Peterson never had a season of top-three production in their entire careers. If Peterson didn't reach these heights again, he still established himself as one of the better fantasy backs in the last two decades.

At 6'2", 217-225 lbs., Peterson's physical dimensions are a lot like Chris Warren's. The difference is Peterson's agility, balance, and arguably the Vikings offensive line. Two more seasons similar to his last could vault Peterson another 4-6 spots up this list, but its rare for a big, punishing runner with this much agility to have great longevity at the position.

What we can learn from Peterson? Adrian Peterson is a rare back due to his height, agility, and speed. I believe his longevity potential is high because he understands how to attack a defense before they attack him. This is what makes him more Eric Dickerson-like than Chris Brown-like. Dickerson had seven straight RB1 seasons to begin his career before he dropped out of the fantasy spotlight for his final four years that began the 90s. I think Peterson has a chance to earn another 2-3 seasons of strong production.

11. (Big East) Curtis Martin – Patriots/Jets: Martin continues the longevity vs. production debate. It's fair to argue that Peterson deserves more love than Martin on this list. However, I'm choosing the longevity in this case.

I tend to believe that the higher a back produces within the RB1 tiers the greater a difference maker he is for that season, but there are exceptions. One is if the back (Peterson) with high production in RB1 tiers has never been the top back overall in a season, but the player ahead of him (Martin) has more longevity either within the same tier or the next tier down. Within the RB1 tier there wasn't as great of fantasy points gap between a back ranked 2nd or 3rd overall for a season and 4th or 5th during the past 20 years. Therefore, I'm giving the edge to Martin.

Martin was only a top-three, fantasy RB once in his career, but he was a top-six RB six times, and a fantasy RB1 seven times. Only five other backs on this list were RB1s seven times in their career. Martin also produced as a fantasy starter for 10 consecutive seasons and only three Hall of Fame locks on this list achieved that feat.

I think Martin is one of two backs where his longevity helps a "very good" player transcend to a "great" player. I bet the press will also make an exception for when he's eligible for enshrinement.

It is probably a backwards compliment, but I think Curtis Martin might be the most overrated, underrated runner in the past 20 years. He might not have been the fastest, the most agile, or the most powerful, but he was one of the smartest, grittiest backs to lace 'em up. H

What we can learn from Curtis Martin? His longevity makes it impossible not to include him as one of the best 15 RBs in two decades. What he teaches us as fantasy owners is that backs only need a base level of speed an strength when vision, pad level and toughness are present in abundance. I think Emmitt Smith was a back that fit this description and I believe Knowshon Moreno will fit it as well.

However if Peterson can stay healthy, I think it just takes one more top-3 season for him to pass Martin. As powerful of an argument that 10 consecutive seasons as a fantasy starter can have to propel Martin to 11th on this list, there are five runners I opted to place ahead of him with fewer peaks years, but greater concentration of high production in consecutive seasons. Peterson is on the periphery of joining those players.

10. (Independent) Ricky Watters 49ers/Eagles/Seahawks: Watters is my pick as the most underrated back on this list. A wide receiver at Notre Dame that Lou Holtz converted to running back midway through in his college career, Watters developed into a terrific pro. At 6'1, 217 lbs., Watters had the strength to bang inside, but the quickness and hands to be a threat in the open field.

Watters had two seasons with over 600 yards receiving during his career and he never had fewer than 300 yards as a pass catcher during the nine seasons he completed. Like Curtis Martin, Watters had a long consecutive seasons streak of fantasy starter production (nine). However, Martin had seven years of RB1 production and only four of those years were consecutive. Watters produced as an RB1 for his first nine seasons and he retired five games into his 10th year during the 2001 season; no longer feeling comfortable with air travel after the events of 9-11.

No other back on this list has as many consecutive years as an RB1 and only three backs had more consecutive top-six seasons than Watters. Despite the fact that he had a bit of a prima donna reputation, lacked game breaking speed, and had five seasons with less than four yards per carry, the five-time Pro Bowler was one of the best interior runners I ever watched. On team with solid to good offensive lines he had four seasons with over 4.4 yards per carry and he was an incredibly patient runner that could put on a clinic on how to pick and slide to an opening at the line of scrimmage when the defense filled the intended gap.

Watters is another back Peterson could easily surpass with another strong season, but at this point Watters incredible longevity as an RB1 combined with four consecutive top-six seasons puts him in my top 10 fantasy runners of the last 20 years.

What can we learn from Watters? He's another example of a player with sub-4.0 YPC production for multiple seasons who was still a strong starting fantasy RB.

9. (ACC) Edgerrin James Colts/Cardinals: There could be some contentious debate about James' placement, but for me his seasons as a top-three producer combined with decent longevity is too compelling to ignore.

James, like Westbrook, Bettis, and Jones had six consecutive seasons producing as at least an RB2 and like Westbrook and Bettis, one top-three year as an RB1. However, James has the longevity edge over these three backs with six total RB1 seasons and twice as many top-six seasons. He is one of only eight backs on this list with a season as the top overall fantasy back. This, and a second, top-three season distance him from Watters, Martin, Peterson, George, and Barber.

You might look at James' (and Watters and Martin) average fantasy points per season during his peak production and argue that his – along with four others ahead of him on this list – average is too low to be placed so high. My counter argument is that the Peak Fantasy Production is a nice stat and worth incorporating on some level of the decision-making process, but the end of year rankings provide a better context for how a runner performed versus other backs in the same defensive climate of a season.

James is also disparaged because he performed with one of the great QB-WR tandems ever, which some believe helped prevent teams from stacking the line of scrimmage against the RB. Another common argument is that James is known as a move the chains runner rather than a big-play artist.

The reason James' Peak Fantasy Production is in bold in the table is that I made an exception for him in my calculations. I included his first two seasons as part of his peak production average despite the fact his missed much of his third year, which technically means those first two shouldn't be included as consecutive seasons with the other six.

For other backs like Portis, Green, and Bettis, who also had the beginning of a peak run that interrupted due to injury and then resumed the near year-I wasn't as inclusive with the calculation. The reason I artificially inflated James' states is I want to show one additional point about James that doesn't apply to Portis, Green, or Bettis.

James suffered a severe knee injury that significantly changed his style as a runner in the third year of his career. It took him two years to recover sufficiently and he had to change his style to become a solid RB1. He still managed to produce as a fantasy starting RB1 for another three years out of the six.

Portis' injury required rest and some minor surgery. Green's quad injury was severe but it occurred at the end of his peak. Although he bounced back to produce one more year at the same level as he did the year before the injury, he didn't have the lengthy production James did post-injury. Bettis's gap was due to poor play and the Rams falling out of favor with him.

Before James tore his ACL, he was a dominant back. Peyton Manning was still developing into an elite player and not the giant we see before us today. Yes, Manning was very good for a rookie (remember Marshall Faulk had 900 yards receiving that year as Manning's safety blanket) and he was excellent in years two and three of his career. But James first two seasons was a big reason behind Manning's accelerated development.

During James' first two seasons, he was not only the shifty, powerful back with third-down skills that we came to respect over the years; he had game-breaking speed and explosive cutting ability that rivaled Fred Taylor in his youth. The stat lines for his first two years tell the story well. James was the top overall back in fantasy football as a rookie and the second overall in year two – Barry Sanders was the only player that could top him.

Edgerrin James First Two Seasons

Year
Gm
Rushes
Rush Yds
Rush TDs
Rec Yds
Rec TDs
FFPts
1999
16
369
1553
13
586
4
315.9
2000
16
387
1709
13
594
5
338.3

Look at the carry-counts. Even after the ACL tear, James had five more seasons with well over 300 carries. From 2003-2007 his carries each year were 310, 334, 360, 337, and 324. His 2002 return from surgery less than a year before still resulted in 277 carries. James averaged more than 2100 yards from scrimmage and 18 TDs when Manning was still developing into the great QB he is today. Just imagine how unstoppable James might have been if he didn't lose a step.

What we can learn from James? Gale Sayers was lauded for coming back after a devastating knee injury and changing his running style to gain 1,000 yards two years later. I contend James basically did the same thing, but played another six years with better production. This is not something that is mentioned when reviewing James' career, but I think it's an incredibly important point.

I believe – whether you agree or not – that if James didn't lose that extra gear after the injury in his third season that he had a great chance of putting up stats that would have rivaled the all-time best. It's probably the most bittersweet situation of all the players on this list, because would have been a lock for the Hall of Fame. Now, he's a "Hall of Very Good" player with detractors who will say Manning carried him for much of his career.

8. (SEC) Terrell Davis, Broncos: There are only three backs on this list that averaged more points per season during their peak than Davis. The Broncos runner had four consecutive years as an RB1 and three of them were as a top-three fantasy back. That is what I call a dominant peak. This is strikingly similar to Adrian Peterson's career thus far, but Davis also had a season as the No. 1 overall fantasy back that Peterson has not attained.

Like Clinton Portis, Davis came into the league at 195 lbs., but built himself into a featured back at 5'10" and 220 lbs. Davis wasn't required to be the versatile producer that Westbrook, Williams, Green, and Barber were, but with the weapons Denver (Rod Smith, Ed McCaffery, Shannon Sharpe, and John Elway) had during Davis' peak, it wasn't as necessary for him to be used heavily as a receiver.

I remember watching Davis after his microfracture surgery and he still had that burst, vision, and toughness. The knee just couldn't hold up. It was the end of a remarkable run as short-lived as it seemed. However, four consecutive years as an RB1 really isn't as short-lived as it appears, which is why he's the No. 13 RB on this list.

Davis is the second (the first is James) of three backs that I think had the talent and situation to be among the best of all time if they could have stayed healthy.

What we can learn from Davis? A back with great instincts matched perfectly with his offense can be an elite player, especially with the work ethic to improve his physical skills with good training. Davis, a 190-pound, sixth-round pick, exemplifies this point.

7. (SEC) Shaun Alexander –Seahawks/Redskins: I'll be honest. I hate putting Alexander this high because I believe a few runners behind him were better players, and they displayed the warrior characteristics I am a fan of. However, Just as Priest Holmes and Terrell Davis were dominant long enough to value them up the list despite backs below them with equal or greater starter longevity, Alexander deserves that bump, too.

The Seahawks starter had five straight years as an RB1 and two of those years as a top three back. You could argue the merits of James and Martin each having just one less top-three season and more consecutive years as fantasy starters, but three-straight years as a top-two runner – two years in a row as the No. 1 overall – propels Alexander in front of longevity guys.

What can we learn from Alexander? Although labeled a soft player, you don't compile five years of this type of productivity without talent and toughness. I think he lost the fire to extend his career to the range of Hall of Fame-worthy. However, he's still better than most RBs to get a chance to play in the NFL and his career is still considered great by fantasy standards.

I think Alexander's career highlights the small difference between players on and off this list. I believe if Alexander and Corey Dillon were placed in each other's shoes, I would be talking about Dillon here and Alexander would have missed the cut. I think a healthy Ronnie Brown or a more mature Cedric Benson in the right situation could have done similar things.

6. (Big 12) Priest Holmes, Ravens/Chiefs: Here's what separates Priest Holmes from every back on this list: His 372.7 and 373 fantasy points in 2002-2003 are the best, back-to-back seasons of any runner in the last 20 years. These two years fueled what is the highest per season average of any player's Peak Fantasy Production on this list. It's almost poetic that Holmes, an undrafted free agent that backed up Ricky Williams at Texas, was this good. So good, that he was the 11th ranked fantasy RB in 2004, despite playing just 8 games!

Holmes had at least 2000 yards from scrimmage from 2001-2003, never dipping below 1,400 yards on the ground or 600 yards through the air. With the bruising Larry Johnson and Tony Richardson on the roster, Holmes still managed to earn the red zone looks and score 67 touchdowns during his 3.5-year peak.

Although one could argue that Larry Johnson had a great year and a half after Holmes got hurt and that the Chiefs line was a dominant group, I don't think it detracts from Holmes skill despite being a factor in elevating his numbers to greatness. I think Holmes is the missing link that separates Emmitt Smith's game from Marshall Faulk's. At his best, I can only think of another back I'd rather have on a fantasy roster.

What we can learn from Holmes? Holmes breaks nearly every rule we have for backs. He was too short, lost out to a more heralded back in his college career, wasn't drafted, and didn't become a true starter until his fifth NFL season with his second team. Nonetheless, he became a dominant player. Greatness is sometimes too hard to see coming.

5. (Big 12) Thurman Thomas, Bills/Dolphins: An incredibly productive back, Thomas had four consecutive years as a top-three producer. Only three backs on this list matched or exceeded that feat. Although never a No. 1-fantasy back overall, Thomas was the No. 2 overall fantasy runner for three years straight. Considering the players overshadowing him were Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, its nothing to be ashamed of. Would you feel ashamed to bat fifth with Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth ahead of you?

As a fantasy runner, Thomas deserves to be mentioned in the same class as the four backs ahead of him despite always being the bridesmaid and never the bride in the rankings. It could be argued that the Bills were such a dynamic passing offense that Thomas didn't get the carries of his more famous peers. He only had two, 300-carry seasons during his career. Sanders only had two seasons with less than 300 carries. Emmitt Smith only had four during his 12-year peak.

Thomas was money in PPR leagues. Smith and Sanders each had a season with 400 receiving yards, but Thomas had four seasons with at least 530 yards. In many respects, I think Priest Holmes and Thurman Thomas were very similar players. Holmes had the top billing Thomas wanted, but the Bills runner had greater longevity, which gives him the edge in my rankings.

4. (Big 12) Barry Sanders, Lions: It's fitting that Sanders and Thomas, teammates at Oklahoma State (bask in it, Drinen) are two of the top five fantasy RBs in the last 20 years. We know how incredible Sanders was, but to begin a career with two straight years as the most productive back in the NFL is astounding. Long-term, the only RB on this list that was No. 1 more times during his career was Emmitt Smith.

Like Jim Brown, Sanders retired early in 1999, and conceivably had enough left in the tank for another RB1 fantasy season. He was the No. 1 overall back just two years before in 1997, finishing a four-year streak as a top-six runner with a 2053-yard season. Two more seasons of what fans believe Sanders was capable of doing, and he might have made a run at the top two spots.

What I we can learn from Sanders? Smaller backs with the right build (see Maurice Jones Drew) can be durable and prolific even if their versatility is limited. Sanders never had more than 48 receptions in his career, he was not a great goal line back, and had as much of a fumbling problem as Ahman Green. If evaluating Sanders as a running back, he was the greatest "incomplete" player at the position. Based on breathtaking plays, he's incomparable. However, I couldn't possibly judge Sanders as a top five RB in the history of the game with the other flaws he possessed.

3. (Mountain West) Marshall Faulk Colts/Rams: Faulk is the only back I would rather have then Priest Holmes if I could have a runner from this list at his best. From 1998-2001, Faulk never dipped below 2,100 total yards from scrimmage and compiled 69 total touchdowns. Certainly, Faulk, the surrounding offensive talent in St. Louis, and Mike Martz was a perfect marriage. But you don't have a season with 1,381 rushing yards and 1,048 receiving without unbelievable talent.

Just look at his prior season of 1,319/908 with rookie Peyton Manning, or Faulk's own 2004 rookie season of 1,700 total yards. Faulk might be the best receiving RB in the history of the game – and that's saying a lot when you consider players like Watters, Thomas, Tomlinson, Westbrook, and Williams are also here.

Then there's Faulk's longevity that matches Curtis Martin's 10 consecutive years as a starting fantasy RB, but he also has four straight years as a top-three RB and two straight as the overall No. 1. Versatility, dominant productivity, and longevity – you can't ask for much more.

What can we learn from Faulk? Great passing offenses can support great fantasy RB production.

2. (Mountain West) Ladainian Tomlinson, Chargers/Jets: Tomlinson is a fantastic player whose peak was on a team that leaned on him like a crutch and he didn't let them down. Just look at the carry count by year for his first seven seasons: 339, 372, 313, 339, 339, 348, and 315.

The RB-equivalent of Superman had six consecutive years as at least a top-3 RB1 – more than anyone on this list. Tomlinson also had eight straight years as an RB1 – only Watters was better. And he had a 284.7 peak fantasy average, the highest average productivity for a back with a peak lasting at least six years, and third highest overall.

Tomlinson's pre-snap vision might be the best of any player on this list and his skill at sharp lateral cuts in either direction rivals Faulk and Sanders. Although his receiving stats aren't on the level of Faulk, he's had six seasons with at least 400 yards and even a 700-yard, 2003. I might prefer Faulk, but I have to admit over the span of their careers-Tomlinson was clearly the better fantasy performer. He was like a Swiss Army knife.

What we can learn from Tomlinson? LaDainian Tomlinson had a 3.6 ypc with 339 carries as a rookie and still managed a career that puts him as the No. 2 fantasy RB of the past 20 years. I have a feeling we may learn more about Tomlinson at age 31, and after two "sub-par" years now that he's behind a good offensive line in New York.

1. (SEC) Emmitt Smith, Cowboys/Cardinals: He ruled the 1990s with four straight years as the No. 1 fantasy RB and 11 straight as a fantasy starter. Only twice during that period did Smith even see the outside of the Top 10 as a fantasy producer. If you add Peterson, Gore, and Jones-Drew's peak fantasy production together they still can't surpass Smith. Heck, Priest Holmes and Terrell Davis combined or Holmes and Alexander combined can't even match him.

The Cowboys might have been a great team with a great line, but Smith had special skills. The one that people talk about the most is his vision, which I think was as good or better than any back on this list. However, what isn't lauded is his stamina. Like Tomlinson, Smith had seven 300-carry seasons and four of them were tallies over 360. He also had a 267-carry, 937-yard, 9-TD season to end his career at age 35.

What we can learn from Smith? Speed isn't as critical as vision and stamina. Team continuity also makes a big difference: seven of the top 10 players of the past 20 years had at least five seasons with the same team.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to waldman@footballguys.com.

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