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For the last week or so, I've been getting multiple daily reminders in my e-mail inbox from Yahoo!, ESPN and Bleacher Report that fantasy football time is here again. It somehow seems earlier every year, like Christmas shopping season or the point at which Derrick Rose gets injured and declared out for the year.
Even though it's early, I can still see a storyline developing pretty clearly, and the storyline is this: The decline in the fantasy value of running backs is really happening.
In last year's draft guide, my overall top 10 consisted entirely of RBs, and I doubted the then-popular prediction that RB value would fizzle. But after big bets on C.J. Spiller, Alfred Morris, Trent Richardson (!) and Ray Rice failed to pay off last year, I'm joining the club.
That doesn't mean my Top 20 this year isn't front-loaded with RBs. There are at least five RBs that still should have more fantasy value this year than anyone else. The other thing you might notice: there are three Bears players in my top 20, proving finally that anything can happen once.
1. Jamaal Charles, RB, KC: Probably impossible to top last season's 1,287 rushing yards, 693 receiving yards, and 19 TDs, but the Chiefs moved very quickly to get him a new contract to avoid a holdout, meaning he will continue to be the most important player they have.
2. LeSean McCoy, RB, PHI: Had a comeback campaign and then some last season, and with Nick Foles settling in as QB behind the Philly scoring machine, he should have another year of 1,500+ rushing yards and 500+ receiving yards.
3. Adrian Peterson, RB, MIN: I've seen him ranked No. 1 overall elsewhere, and planning him at No. 3 is more a tribute to the two guys ahead of him than a slight. A 14-game season left his numbers a little low last year, but the Vikings should get back to feeding him the ball this year.
4. Matt Forte, RB, CHI: He was second overall in rushing yards last season, with 1,339, and fourth among RBs in receiving yards with 594. He also was a pass target more often than any other RB except Charles. Maybe it's the Blue and Orange Kool-Aid talking, but he's going to lead his position in at least one of those categories this year.
5. Eddie Lacy, RB, GB: Fantastic rookie campaign, running the ball for more than 1,100 yards, and despite being on a pass-happy team, a lot of those yards came in key situations. He looks like a workhorse in the old mold, and can really earn this ranking if he catches a few more passes.
6. Calvin Johnson, WR, DET: Where the RBs fall, the WRs rise, and Megatron remains the best on the board (although, this might be Josh Gordon's spot were Gordon not a fool). Johnson's 106 receiving yards per game average last season was second best to Gordon. After an embarrassing late-season fizzle, the Lions are likely to lean on their best, most consistent player all season.
7. Peyton Manning, QB, DEN: Didn't sweat much on the way to 5,477 passing yards and 55 TDs. I wouldn't blame you of you took him No. 1 overall, and if you're in a league with a lot of passing bonus points, seriously consider it. Doubtful he can do better, and age and injury risk are equally high, but while you can debate about the best RB or WR, his superiority at QB can't be argued.
8. Jimmy Graham, TE, NO: Who's superior at TE also isn't up for debate. The story for this year is that his 1,215 receiving yards and 16 TDs last season were just a warm-up. Has the realistic potential to lead all players, all positions in TD catches.
9. Zac Stacy, RB, STL: Nothing against Stacy, but he's proof of the RB value dip. He didn't get going last season until Week 5, when STL basically had to use him, and 585 of his 1,187 yards was amassed in five of his 12 games - the other seven were less impressive. Still, he's the clear No. 1 back for a team that will definitely run, managed eight TDs overall in 12 games, and has been compared to a young Frank Gore or Steven Jackson, collectively enough to make him top 10.
10. Aaron Rodgers, QB, GB: A nine-game season, courtesy of the Bears, destroyed his fantasy value last season, but the Packers offense is again stacked with talent, so a 4,500-yard, 40 TD year is not a bad bet.
11. Montee Ball, RB, DEN: Another RB with a somewhat uneven 2013 season. However, this year he'll be the clear No. 1 RB on the best offense in the NFL - the garbage time carries alone should pay the bills.
12. Demaryius Thomas, WR, DEN: The No. 1 WR on the top offense is probably a bargain this low after leading WRs in TDs last season with 14. Yet, Ball and other Denver receivers could eat into his workload on occasion.
13. Marshawn Lynch, RB, SEA: Lynch was locked in around No. 5 or No. 6 overall on most draft boards until he decided to hold out. There's a lot of finger-pointing going on in Seattle, and it's being widely predicted that neither party may budge before the season starts. Lynch has enough value that even if you only get him for 12 games, he's still a top 10 RB, but we'll need to see what happens before we consider moving him back up.
14. Arian Foster, RB, HOU: Year after year, injury mars his value. Still, with long-time back-up Ben Tate elsewhere this season, he's going to get most of the carries, and with a new QB and coach, Houston is likely to lean heavily on him.
15. Dez Bryant, WR, DAL: Several huge games last year and a couple of real duds for the mercurial personality; 1,327 receiving yards and 13 TDs shouldn't have been a letdown, but felt like one when you look at his potential. A new offensive coordinator should help.
16. Le'Veon Bell, RB, PIT: Missed the first four games last year, and proved a consistent contributor, if not a breakout star after that, with 20+ carries in each of the last three games for a total of 271 yards rushing and three TDs. Also an increasingly frequent pass target, and yards-after-catch of 10.4 is very promising for a young RB.
17. Drew Brees, QB, NO: After Manning, the only other QB with more than 5,000 passing yards last year. His 39 TDs also were second to Manning. Continues to turn in lofty fantasy stats year-in and year-out, though this year he will be missing frequent target Darren Sproles.
18. Brandon Marshall, WR, CHI: Another 100-catch season in 2013, and though his receiving yardage was down a couple hundred yards from 2012, no one fights harder for catches and yardage. His 12 TDs last year ranked third among WRs, and even with another budding WR star in Chicago (see No. 20), he could have a chance for 14 or 15 this year.
19. A.J. Green, WR, CIN: Possibly the biggest deep threat in the NFL, he can deliver a fantasy points payday on a single catch. Also, clearly the No. 1 receiver for a pass-happy team.
20. Alshon Jeffery, WR, CHI: Surpassed Marshall in receiving yards at 1,427, with 467 of it coming in two spectacular games. Made the most of the opportunity afforded him by defenses paying so much attention to Marshall, but he also showed a glimpse of deep-ball talent that makes him look like another A.J. Green or Demaryius Thomas.
Dan O'Shea is our man in fantasyland. He welcomes your comments.
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