Posted: Thursday September 1, 2011 3:44PM ; Updated: Thursday September 1, 2011 4:23PM
Eric Mack
Eric Mack>INSIDE FANTASY FOOTBALL

The importance of RB combos

Story Highlights

If drafting Arian Foster, also take Ben Tate. Same for Ray Rice & Ricky Williams

Avoid drafting RBs from Carolina, Kansas City, Buffalo, Washington and Cincinnati

Adrian Peterson & Ray Rice are runners who don't require you to draft the backup

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Steven Jackson is one of the NFL's top running backs, but if you draft him it is imperative that you also take his backup, Cadillac Williams, later in the draft.
Steven Jackson is one of the NFL's top running backs, but if you draft him it is imperative that you also take his backup, Cadillac Williams, later in the draft.
Simon Bruty/SI

Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock sang it takes two to make a thing go right. This does not apply to running backs and fantasy football.

Love or hate that song, we wish we could shoot them for bringing that mantra to minds of NFL decision-makers and offenses. We want to shop at Home Depot and find the Do-It-Yourselfers at this pivotal position.

There is really no such thing in this modern NFL, so it makes mining the running back position all that more important before draft day. We conveniently waited until after preseason Week 3 to give you an analysis of all the running back combos going into the season, so hopefully this weekend doesn't give us serious injuries and shuffle the deck all over again.

We care so much about this position in fantasy football because it is where commodities are the most crucial. There are just only so many good, healthy and productive fantasy backs out there. If you don't get your hands on some, you're going to be left spending a lot of your free time planning your family's holiday get-together ... or Thanksgiving dinner ... or Halloween party.

You see what we are getting at? You could be out of contention by mid-October without having solved the puzzle that is the running back position in the NFL.

Top five must-have handcuffs

If you draft the first guy, you better make sure to get his backup in the later rounds. We see these as the most-important handcuffs to lock up on draft day.

1. Arian Foster and Ben Tate, Texans
2. Steven Jackson and Cadillac Williams, St. Louis
3. Ryan Grant and James Starks, Packers
4. Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas, Dolphins
5. Shonn Green and LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets

Tate could be this year's Foster story, flipping the script from last year's preseason. You know the story about Foster now, but did you know Tate was potentially the Texans' leading back in 2010 before going down with injury?

Foster's story -- the rise to last year's most-productive fantasy running back -- is a case study in why backing up your backs is so paramount to success. Jackson is aging and Cadillac has looked good this preseason. Grant has looked bad and Starks could steal his job. Bush has never held his own as the go-to man and Thomas was originally drafted to start.

Last but not least, Green will finally -- hopefully -- put L.T. to fantasy pasture, but the future Hall of Famer could be right back into fantasy prominence with one Green fumble followed by a Rex Ryan scowl.

Top five combos to avoid

 
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These backs are so closely related it makes it tough to choose between the two. In fact, you are best off avoiding these situations because you likely cannot get both backs and you will probably get the wrong one by some evil twist of fate.

Even if you do get both, you might never know which way the wind is blowing with them. And taking both will likely require premium mid-round picks, which will leave you thin elsewhere and suck up roster flexibility.

1. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, Panthers|
2. Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, Chiefs
3. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, Bills
4. Tim Hightower, Roy Helu and Ryan Torain, Redskins
5. Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott, Bengals

We have already learned plenty from the Panthers' and Bills' situations. If they were elite teams, both back combos could be productive. On the stinker squads that they are -- the Panthers with no viable starting quarterback -- the backs will likely be just as disappointing as they were a year ago.

Charles and Jones are on a potentially good team again, but the Chiefs are playing a far tougher first-place schedule now and that could make their running game a lot less useful. Head coach Todd Haley already is stingy with the touches for Charles, and Jones is technically still the starter and goal-line back. It's too bad, too, because Charles could be one of the elite backs in this league, like he was a year ago.

Hightower has been a quick riser this preseason, but there isn't much to really like about that Redskins' offense. It might be as bad as the Bengals' offense under rookie Andy Dalton, which makes Benson (he is in jail as we type this!) pretty underwhelming.

Top five one-man shows

Now here is where this exercise can really help us. These are the top backs who have backups, sure -- everyone does -- but their backups are so seldom used or unimpressive that the lion's share of touches, and most important, touchdowns, go to them.

1. Adrian Peterson (Toby Gerhart), Vikings
2. Rashard Mendenhall (Isaac Redman/Mewelde Moore), Steelers
3. Ray Rice (Ricky Williams), Ravens
4. LeGarrette Blount (Earnest Graham), Buccaneers
5. Beanie Wells (La'Rod Stephens-Howling), Cardinals
6. Honorable mention: Jahvid Best (Maurice Morris/Jerome Harrison), Lions

The first three are obvious here. A.P. should clearly be the No. 1 back picked on draft day for this reason. Mendenhall is on one of the best running teams in football and has a couple of ho-hum backups. Rice was going to finally break out of Willis McGahee's TD-vulture shadow with McGahee now in Denver. The Williams offseason signing could be problematic, but the Ravens vow to make the in-his-prime Rice their do-it-all back.

The second three in this group are the great sleepers, and two of them (Wells and Best) rose in prominence this training camp with the injuries to the rookies drafted to back them up (Ryan Williams and Mikel LeShoure). The third, Blount, should go higher than he is, because Graham is old and unimpressive. Blount could be the most featured back in all of the NFL, seriously.

The handcuffs of this group might be underwhelming, but they still could be pretty useful and pretty easy to get late.

Running back depth charts

This will be one of your most essentials guides for draft day. No one wants to get left out of running backs. Even in the late rounds, you might get some value by attacking those down the depth chart.

Team Rank Running back Tier
Patriots 17 BenJarvus Green-Ellis 4
  45 Danny Woodhead 7
  66 Shane Vereen 7
  76 Stevan Ridley 8
Jets 16 Shonn Green 4
  37 LaDainian Tomlinson 6
  63 Joe McKnight 7
  NR Bilal Powell --
Dolphins 29 Reggie Bush 5
  34 Daniel Thomas 5
  NR Larry Johnson --
Bills 32 Fred Jackson 5
  47 C.J. Spiller 7
Steelers 7 Rashard Mendenhall 2
  73 Isaac Redman 8
Ravens 4 Ray Rice 2
  49 Ricky Williams 7
  65 Jalen Parmele 7
Browns 14 Peyton Hillis 3
  51 Montario Hardesty 7
  64 Brandon Jackson 7
Bengals 28 Cedric Benson 4
  55 Bernard Scott 7
Colts 26 Joseph Addai 4
  54 Delone Carter 7
  58 Donald Brown 7
Texans 3 Arian Foster 1
  42 Ben Tate 7
Jaguars 9 Maurice Jones-Drew 3
  56 Rashad Jennings 7
Titans 2 Chris Johnson 1
  48 Javon Ringer 7
  75 Jamie Harper 8
Chargers 18 Ryan Mathews 4
  40 Mike Tolbert 6
  74 Jordan Todman 8
Chiefs 5 Jamaal Charles 2
  41 Thomas Jones 7
Raiders 8 Darren McFadden 2
  50 Michael Bush 7
  72 Taiwan Jones 8
Broncos 23 Knowshon Moreno 4
  46 Willis McGahee 7
Eagles 6 LeSean McCoy 2
  38 Ronnie Brown 6
  77 Dion Lewis 8
Giants 15 Ahmad Bradshaw 4
  35 Brandon Jacobs 6
  NR Danny Ware --
Cowboys 21 Felix Jones 4
  53 Demarco Murray 7
  60 Tashard Choice 7
Redskins 33 Tim Hightower 5
  43 Roy Helu 7
  57 Ryan Torain 7
  79 Keiland Williams 8
Packers 25 Ryan Grant 4
  39 James Starks 6
  NR Alex Green --
Vikings 1 Adrian Peterson 1
  62 Toby Gerhart 7
Bears 13 Matt Forte 3
  61 Marion Barber 7
Lions 22 Jahvid Best 4
  78 Maurice Morris 8
  NR Jerome Harrison --
Saints 30 Mark Ingram 5
  36 Pierre Thomas 6
  52 Darren Sproles 7
Falcons 12 Michael Turner 3
  69 Jacquizz Rodgers 8
  71 Jason Snelling 8
Buccaneers 19 LeGarrette Blount 4
  NR Earnest Graham --
Panthers 20 DeAngelo Williams 4
  24 Jonathan Stewart 4
  67 Mike Goodson 8
Rams 11 Steven Jackson 3
  44 Cadillac Williams 7
Cardinals 27 Beanie Wells 4
  80 La'Rod Stephens-Howling 8
Seahawks 31 Marshawn Lynch 5
  59 Justin Forsett 7
49ers 10 Frank Gore 3
  68 Kendall Hunter 8
  70 Anthony Dixon 8

Running back rankings/tiers

And because no thorough discussion of a position could be complete without a full set of rankings, here are the backs ranked and tiered one through 80.

Rank Running back Team Tier Division
1 Adrian Peterson MIN 1 NFC North
2 Chris Johnson TEN 1 AFC South
3 Arian Foster HOU 1 AFC South
4 Ray Rice BAL 2 AFC North
5 Jamaal Charles KC 2 AFC West
6 LeSean McCoy PHI 2 NFC East
7 Rashard Mendenhall PIT 2 AFC North
8 Darren McFadden OAK 2 AFC West
9 Maurice Jones-Drew JAC 3 AFC South
10 Frank Gore SF 3 NFC West
11 Steven Jackson STL 3 NFC West
12 Michael Turner ATL 3 NFC South
13 Matt Forte CHI 3 NFC North
14 Peyton Hillis CLE 3 AFC North
15 Ahmad Bradshaw NYG 4 NFC East
16 Shonn Green NYJ 4 AFC East
17 BenJarvus Green-Ellis NE 4 AFC East
18 Ryan Mathews SD 4 AFC West
19 LeGarrette Blount TB 4 NFC South
20 DeAngelo Williams CAR 4 NFC South
21 Felix Jones DAL 4 NFC East
22 Jahvid Best DET 4 NFC North
23 Knowshon Moreno DEN 4 AFC West
24 Jonathan Stewart CAR 4 NFC South
25 Ryan Grant GB 4 NFC North
26 Joseph Addai IND 4 AFC South
27 Beanie Wells ARI 4 NFC West
28 Cedric Benson CIN 4 AFC North
29 Reggie Bush MIA 5 AFC East
30 Mark Ingram NO 5 NFC South
31 Marshawn Lynch SEA 5 NFC West
32 Fred Jackson BUF 5 AFC East
33 Tim Hightower WAS 5 NFC East
34 Daniel Thomas MIA 5 AFC East
35 Brandon Jacobs NYG 6 NFC East
36 Pierre Thomas NO 6 NFC South
37 LaDainian Tomlinson NYJ 6 AFC East
38 Ronnie Brown PHI 6 NFC East
39 James Starks GB 6 NFC North
40 Mike Tolbert SD 6 AFC West
41 Thomas Jones KC 7 AFC West
42 Ben Tate HOU 7 AFC South
43 Roy Helu WAS 7 NFC East
44 Cadillac Williams STL 7 NFC West
45 Danny Woodhead NE 7 AFC East
46 Willis McGahee DEN 7 AFC West
47 C.J. Spiller BUF 7 AFC East
48 Javon Ringer TEN 7 AFC South
49 Ricky Williams BAL 7 AFC North
50 Michael Bush OAK 7 AFC West
51 Montario Hardesty CLE 7 AFC North
52 Darren Sproles NO 7 NFC South
53 Demarco Murray DAL 7 NFC East
54 Delone Carter IND 7 AFC South
55 Bernard Scott CIN 7 AFC North
56 Rashad Jennings JAC 7 AFC South
57 Ryan Torain WAS 7 NFC East
58 Donald Brown IND 7 AFC South
59 Justin Forsett SEA 7 NFC West
60 Tashard Choice DAL 7 NFC East
61 Marion Barber CHI 7 NFC North
62 Toby Gerhart MIN 7 NFC North
63 Joe McKnight NYJ 7 AFC East
64 Brandon Jackson CLE 7 AFC North
65 Jalen Parmele BAL 7 AFC North
66 Shane Vereen NE 7 AFC East
67 Mike Goodson CAR 8 NFC South
68 Kendall Hunter SF 8 NFC West
69 Jacquizz Rodgers ATL 8 NFC South
70 Anthony Dixon SF 8 NFC West
71 Jason Snelling ATL 8 NFC South
72 Taiwan Jones OAK 8 AFC West
73 Isaac Redman PIT 8 AFC North
74 Jordan Todman SD 8 AFC West
75 Jamie Harper TEN 8 AFC South
76 Stevan Ridley NE 8 AFC East
77 Dion Lewis PHI 8 NFC East
78 Maurice Morris DET 8 NFC North
79 Keiland Williams WAS 8 NFC East
80 La'Rod Stephens-Howling ARI 8 NFC West

Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com and will outline all the news and nuggets game-by-game every week of the NFL season in his Fantasy Football Fast Forward. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy.

ON SALE: Sports Illustrated's Fantasy Football 2011 issue tells you where all the free agents landed and what their fantasy impact will be, along with the critical draft strategy and stats analysis you need to win your league. Order one now.

 
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