Athlon Sports takes a look at which running backs have touched the ball the most per game over the last three years and over the last two years. This gives you an idea of both which backs have been given the most opportunities, while at the same time lets you know which backs might be wearing down.
It's interesting to note that Arian Foster, having played just one full season, already ranks eighth in touches per game in both charts.
If you are in a keeper or dynasty league, we believe the following players will begin their descent down the rankings after this season.
Steven Jackson, RB – STL Athlon Top 280 Rank: 14
Jackson, one of the league’s last true workhorses, turned 28 in July. Even at such a young age, he’s already cracked the NFL’s top 40 in career carries with 1,878. He’s bounced back from missing a combined eight games in 2007 and ’08, but the Rams still probably won't be involving Cadillac Williams or Jerious Norwood in the game plan enough to releive pressure from Jackson.
Michael Turner, RB – ATL Athlon Top 280 Rank: 16
Turner’s YPC average dropped to a career-low 4.1 last season, and that was with a cohesive offensive line. The Falcons’ front wall could have three starters leave via free agency, and several untested youngsters would fill the holes. Add the potential deep threat of Julio Jones, and Turner may not be needed or able to roll the kinds of numbers we’re used to seeing.
Reggie Wayne, WR – IND Athlon Top 280 Rank: 27
In single-season leagues, Wayne is still elite. If you have to plan for next year, though, free agency could rear its ugly head. Wayne still produces like a top-10 receiver, but at the age of 32, will the Colts be willing to pay him like one until he’s 37 or 38?
Anquan Boldin, WR – BAL Athlon Top 280 Rank: 51
Boldin’s chemistry with QB Joe Flacco was slow to develop last season, so the two worked together as much as possible during the lockout. Even so, the Ravens will also look to get rookies Torrey Smith and Tandon Doss up to speed with Flacco. Boldin absorbs a lot of shots and will be 31 in October, so tailor your expectations when deciding what receivers to keep.
Cedric Benson, RB – CIN Athlon Top 280 Rank: 60
There's a lot of wear on these tires. Benson ranks fourth amongst running backs in touches per game over the last three seasons at 22 TPG (901 overall over 41 games). There aren't a lot of options in Cincy with rookie Andy Dalton quarterbacking the team, so the ball will find itself in Benson's hands a lot this season as well. So add another 300 touches and that's 1,200 touches on a player that will be 30 near the end of next season.
Tony Gonzalez, TE – ATL Athlon Top 280 Rank: 123
It’s not breaking news that Gonzalez is getting old (35 this season). The developing news is how the Falcons’ offense will integrate rookie Julio Jones and to what extent the deep ball will be emphasized. If Jones’ speed becomes a focal point quickly, there will be much less need for Matt Ryan to target his tight end 100-plus times.
LaDainian Tomlinson, RB – NYJ Athlon Top 280 Rank: 97
L.T. leaped off the line like a classic muscle car in 2010, averaging 106 yards from scrimmage in the first five games. From Week 6 on, the car had a flat. In the season’s last 11 games, he averaged 3.3 yards per carry. In the last five, he caught only nine passes for 53 yards. Whether he even stays in the game could be riding on how he produces this season.
Steve Smith, WR – CAR Athlon Top 280 Rank: 108
His flagging production can be blamed on bad quarterback play even more than the aging process. Still, Smith Version 1.0 has dealt with nagging injuries for years (2004 was his last 16-game season) and a nagging one already sidelined him this training camp (a finger injury).
Charles Woodson, DB – GB Athlon Top 100 IDP Rank: 31
Soon to be 35, Woodson carries the perpetual threat of retirement. Even this year’s production may be restricted by his increased use as a slot corner. He can attack running backs and force fumbles like no other CB in the game, but don’t plan on a huge interception total.
Ray Lewis, LB – BAL Athlon Top 100 IDP Rank: 34
Lewis’ continuing production is impressive. Still, his coverage ability is beginning to suffer thanks to Father Time, and it’s possible that he may continue to soldier on when his tackling begins to do the same. He remains a leader on the field, but there are better (read: younger) options for your fantasy squad.
Brian Urlacher, LB – CHI Athlon Top 100 IDP Rank: 45
Dhani Jones didn’t rate him as one of the league’s top 10 linebackers, and many might agree. Like Lewis and London Fletcher, he’s still productive despite his creeping age, and younger players are racking up comparable numbers. Draft them first.
London Fletcher, LB – WAS Athlon Top 100 IDP Rank: 99
A linebacker playing in 208 straight games is an incredible feat. Fletcher is 36 years old and still producing, but the linebacker position has a fresh jolt of talent on the rise. Even if London keeps calling on opposing ballcarriers, it’s hard to draft him over guys like Lawrence Timmons or A.J. Hawk.
An in-depth look at the Bengals' offense, defense and special teams this year.
Marvin Lewis is seeking a fresh start for 2011, and in an offseason filled with labor strife and uncertainty, the Bengals faced their biggest upheaval of personnel since their head coach’s first season of 2003.
• Inside the Locker Room
With Kevin Goheen, Freelance Writer
What does the new offensive system do to Cedric Benson’s value? Does Bernard Scott have a bigger role under coach Jay Gruden?
With the expected inexperience at quarterback, the Bengals will be relying on their run game more than one might think with a West Coast offense. Benson has been a workhorse since being signed midway through the 2008 season and could again be a 300-carry back. More important, without Carson Palmer, Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens on the roster, the Bengals will be looking for a veteran presence to get the ball in the end zone. For Scott to become more of a presence in the offense, he’s going to have to earn his playing time as the third down back. That’s got to include improving in pass protection. He’s a good change-of-pace back, but if he can’t block, he won’t be out on the field with any increased regularity.
Which young pass-catcher will have a breakout season in 2011 — Jordan Shipley, A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham or Jerome Simpson?
Who’s a quarterback’s best friend? The tight end, of course. Gresham got better as last season progressed, and his meager 9.1 yards-per-catch average should take a big jump. So should the four touchdown catches he had as a rookie. He’s an every-down player; he blocks in the run game and is capable of splitting out wide in the pass game. He is multi-dimensional and should cause plenty of matchup problems for opposing defensive coordinators. If he stays healthy — he did miss the final game of 2010 with a knee strain — expect big things from Gresham.
Will Andy Dalton be a viable fantasy option by the end of the season?
By the end of the season, Dalton could provide some surprise points but as far as being a viable option, that’s a wait-and-see. He’ll certainly have plenty of weapons at his disposal but rookie QBs are rookie QBs; they are apt to make mistakes, and coaches are apt to pull in the reins on them.
• Fantasy Playoff Run — Weeks 14-16: HOU, @STL, ARI
Even if a small child is under center for the Bengals for the three fantasy playoff weeks, they should have success. Cincinnati draws the Texans (13th vs. the run, 32nd vs the pass in 2010), St. Louis (17th vs. the run, 19th vs. the pass) and Arizona (30th vs. the run and 23rd vs. the pass).
• Athlon Best Bets Sleeper: Jermaine Gresham, TE Deep-Sleeper: Bruce Gradkowski, QB Overvalued: Cedric Benson, RB Top Rookie: A.J. Green, WR Bounce-Back: Bernard Scott, RB Top IDP: Carlos Dunlap, DL
• Try to Avoid BENGALS DEFENSE/ST
Cincinnati went from the 12th-rated fantasy defense to the 27th in one year. The Bengals registered zero kick return TDs, tied for 27th in sacks and then used their top two picks at WR and QB. WAIT UNTIL: Never
• Draft Class Fantasy Impact
Dalton could be thrown into the fire right away (Bruce Gradkowski is in camp on a two-year deal as well), but he is a good fit for Cincinnati’s new offense. Dalton is not worth owning in redraft leagues but deserves consideration in keeper formats. Green should emerge as Cincinnati’s new go-to option, but the lockout hurts his value for 2011.