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The all-important running back rankings

Ladainian Tomlinson had an "off" year in 2007 and still combined for 1,949 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - With the initial pick of the first round you select Ladainian Tomlinson. It's not a hard decision. You could think for a second or two about taking Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook (in a "points-per-reception" league) or Tom Brady, but then you come to your senses and choose "LT" first overall.

Tomlinson had an "off" year in 2007 and still combined for 1,949 from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns. He also was 1-for-1 passing with a TD - 158.3 QB rating. But after a record-setting 2006 (28 rushing TDs, three receiving TDs, two passing TDs, 2,323 yards from scrimmage) it seemed as if "LT" had an off year. And it was true he started slowly. He had just 130 yards and one TD in the first three games. He also injured his knee in the playoffs.

But in between Tomlinson did what Tomlinson does best - he ran the football. At 29-years-old he is still the measuring stick for running backs.

Not that Peterson would be a bad selection. No, the rookie had an outstanding first year. His 1,341 rushing yards and 12 rushing TDs led the "inept" Vikings' offense to respectability (13th in total yards). Now if only they could get a passing game to take some of the pressure off him. Peterson is likely to see a lot of seven and eight-man fronts. Fortunately his schedule is one of the easier ones and it should help him grab the No.2 position behind Tomlinson. He will be a top-three pick so if you choose at the end of the first round you will have to trade up to get him.

Westbrook scored more points than either Tomlinson or Peterson in "points-per- reception" leagues because of his amazing 90-catch performance in 2007. His total yards from scrimmage (2,104) were the most in the NFL and coach Andy Reid is likely to continue to use him in the same way this season.

But Westbrook doesn't get into the endzone as often as the first two players which puts him third on the list and likely third in your draft.

Steven Jackson is fourth on my list, but only if he gets into camp soon (contract dispute). Running backs who sit out training camp and preseason games seemed to get injured more often...see Larry Johnson's 2007 season. Jackson and his offensive line were injured throughout all last year, but he was a fantasy "stud" in 2006. Remember how he led you or your competition to the 2006 title with 1,528 yards rushing, 806 yards receiving on 90 catches and 16 touchdowns?

Jackson could do that again if he and the line can avoid the injury bug. He has been going fifth in most drafts, just behind Joseph Addai, but I rate him ahead of the Indianapolis running back.

Addai and Marion Barber III can do everything Jackson does, they just haven't done enough of it. Addai had 1,072 yards rushing and another 364 receiving, but in the multi-faceted Indianapolis offense he only gets to run the ball about 17 times a game. Because of the high-powered Colt offense, Addai gets additional chances to put touchdowns on the board and he has averaged 11.5 TDs a year.

I love the way Barber plays the game. He gives 100-percent on every play and this year he will get a chance to start. Julius Jones left Dallas for Seattle and his replacement is a rookie from Arkansas - Felix Jones. Last year, Barber had 204 rushing attempts and 44 receptions. As the starting running back with a rookie backup, he figures to drastically increase his work load.

The question is whether Barber's physical style will be able to hold up for 16 games as the feature back?

I believe, at least for 2008, that Barber will thrive and put up huge numbers.

Most likely, all six running backs mentioned will be gone by the end of the first round. But fear not, there are still solid backs available as the snake draft reverses direction.

The third tier of running backs consists of Ryan Grant, Larry Johnson, Marshawn Lynch, Clinton Portis and Maurice Jones-Drew. Any of the five could step up and lead the group although I think Lynch is my favorite. He seems to have avoided any league suspension for his vehicular problems and should be ready to play on opening day. He had 1,113 yards and seven touchdowns in just 13 games last season.

I am concerned with Grant because of the absence of Favre and what will likely be a weakening of the passing game. Johnson is playing without much of a passing game to divert the defense's attention too while Jones-Drew still has to share time with the "ageless wonder" Fred Taylor. Portis had a much better second half than first half last year, but 325-350 carries, what he has done in three of the last four seasons (he was injured in the fourth), takes a toll on a running back.

Willis McGahee was the No.12 back on the list, but his arthroscopic surgery will knock him down a few pegs and it also opens up an opportunity for Ray Rice to steal some carries from him.

In keeper leagues, where Oakland's Darren McFadden (weak offensive line), Detroit's Kevin Smith (470 touches last year) and Carolina's Jonathan Stewart (sharing time with DeAngelo Williams and off-season toe surgery) will get most of the rookie attention, my favorite is Tennessee's Chris Johnson. Easily the fastest running back in the draft, Johnson's 4.2-second, 40-yard time has already translated into preseason highlight-film material. I think he is a star in the making.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Steve Schwarz at sschwarz@sportsnetwork.com.

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