It's a bit early, and we don't know who will be where, but I'm going to rank running backs now. As I've said before, I want this to be set while 2008 is still fresh on my mind. Now that I have the schedule difficulties laid out, I can come up with preliminary rankings. Then I can adjust them as offseason developments occur.
FIRST TIER-8 RBS
I think these should be the first eight guys off the board. I would not draft another position until all of these first tier backs are gone. There is enough of a gap between them and the second tier that getting one of these guys is a must. Coupled with the facts that there are solid seven receivers without a clear favorite(future post) and my already revealed preference for a second tier qb, and the drafting strategy becomes clear. You need a first tier rb. Since someone will definitely take another position in the first round and most likely take a back I don't feel is worthy, you should be safe in getting one unless you are drafting near the end of a large league. (I assume in this strategy a standard 10 person league.) In the second round you should be looking at one of the seven receivers. Unless you are at the very end, one will be there. In the third, since the first tier of a qbs and wrs should have come off the board, you do well to select one of the remaining second tier backs. If you draft late in the third, it could be one of the last few, but some should most likely remain. That should leave you in perfect position to grab one of those 3 second tier qbs in the 4th. This builds a very solid team without assuming any truly clueless drafters. You have a few rounds in the middle to stock up on receivers and will feel comfortable enough with your roster to take fliers on high risk guys at the end.
1. Adrian Peterson-Vikings 2008: 4th
This is barely a decision. I think there is more difference between 1 and 2 than between 2 and 8 in 2009. Peterson played all year, putting to rest some of the concerns about his injury risk. He has a solid line in front of him and a very good schedule. There isn't too much to say here. High ceiling, high floor, anything you can want in a first round pick.
2. Matt Forte-Bears 2008: 5th
Forte may have the lowest floor west of Peyton Manning. He is the feature back in Chicago, running on a ball control, defense oriented team, gets the goal line carries, has a great schedule and has no history on injuries. This is a very safe pick. I don't see too much difference between 2 and 8, so you may want a lower pick this year, but if you have the second pick, I think Forte is the guy. You most likely will be able to get Forte with a lower first round pick anyways. It may turn some heads, but later in the season you could be sitting comfortably in the playoffs while Turner or DWilliams butts heads against a difficult string of opponents. And its not like Forte would have been available in the next round.
3. Chris Johnson-Titans 2008:12th
This is a big jump, but think on this, Johnson finished 12th his points his rookie year with Lendale White taking all the goal line carries. He finished 12th facing off against a more difficult schedule. What will he do against the most ideal schedules in the league? What will he do if White scores only 6 or 7 of those TDS? I think he'll finish in the top 5. He has a great line and is a big part of the passing game. Luckily he may slip to you at the bottom of the top 10. If it is possible for you to trade duringthe draft, I would trade down from picking 2, 3 or 4 and try to get Forte or Johnson on the slide.
4. Maurice Jones-Drew-Jaguars 2008: 8th
Speaking as a Jones-Drew owner, it feels like he had a bad year in 2008. It was frequently frustrating. His offensive line was injured in the preseason, and never played well all year. They were never ahead in games, always passing to catch up. And after that, he finished 8th in points. He tends to score in bunches but against next year's schedule you should feel comfortable playing him all the time. The oline should be healthier and the team should be better. All the points sign to finishing higher than 8th. Oh and, this is a truly fantastic schedule.
5. Michael Turner-Falcons 2008: 2nd
As much as I maligned Turner's schedule, he remains a very solid, low floor pick. He is a star running back on a good offense, he'll put up some numbers. I think he ends up 5th or 6th at the end of the season. There is a good chance he puts up a great season that doesn't look so good in conventional stats because of the defenses he faces. Against an average schedule, he gives Peterson a run for the number one pick. Against this schedule he falls to the middle of the first tier.
6. Brian Westbrook-Eagles 2008: 6th
I've said before, I expect a typical Brian Westbrook season. He missed a few games in 2008, faced a tough schedule and finished 6th. I have no doubt he'll miss a few games in 2009 against a similarly difficult schedule and still wind up around 6th. The Eagles still have another year or two in them, and their defense has never looked better than at the end of 2008.
7. Brandon Jacobs-Giants 2008: 9th
Like the pick above and the one below, this is a solid safe pick. There isn't tremendous upside here, he isn't likely to greatly improve on his 2008 statline, but he is a sure as it gets to come close. He is still in a quasi committee but he is the lead guy and the goal line guy. Coming into last year, his role was unclear after the playoff performances of Ward and Bradshaw. Now his position is clear.
8. Clinton Portis-Redskins 2008:10th
Has anyone been more dependable over the past 5 years than Clinton Portis? Fantasy owners should be able to continue to depend on him in 2009. He is only 27 and should have at least two more years as a first tier back. The ceiling isn't much higher than this, I don't expect a revelatory performance but I do expect what he has always given us: solid top ten numbers.
The Tweener-LaDainian Tomlinson
I can't tell you what to think of Tomlinson. It all depends on whether there is a fork in his back or not. When running backs go, they go. If you expect a bounce back year, he moves up to 5th or so. He finished 13th in what was widely considered a disaster of a year. It's possible he turns an improved team and a return from injury into a return to the top 3. Or you may think he's finished and delight in one of your opponents taking him early. What I can tell you is this, his schedule is slightly harder next year. Not much, not enough to effect his totals. Additionally, I don't take risks with first round picks. I'd hope someone takes him highly and saves me the decision in the end of the first round. It's not a place to gamble, and even if it stings you, you're better off letting someone else gamble here.