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2011 Draft Prep: Running back tiers and strategies

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Dave Richard's Strategies & Tiers: QB | WR | TE | K & DST

Before we get into the most popular position in Fantasy Football, it's worth your time to check out the history of running backs who finish in the Top 10 in Fantasy points.

That's an important read because last year we had six rushers finish in the Top 10 for the first time in their careers and nearly all of them will be picked before your league's commissioner can say "Round 2." Here's what's alarming: Running backs who finished in the Top 10 in total Fantasy points in standard scoring formats did not stay in the Top 10 the following year, and that percentage ratcheted up to 64 percent when looking only at the last five seasons.

That's not to say that running backs are inherently inconsistent, but it is to say that they are -- as a whole -- tough to rely on. They get banged up easily. They "run out of gas" sooner than other players. So, it's no surprise that consistency is key with drafting these guys -- the ones with the pedigrees are the ones Fantasy owners trust more.

Load up!

The best draft strategy we can give you for running backs this season is to draft as many as you can without neglecting good talent at other positions. (Note: This does not mean you should wait on running backs. Don't do that.) We can say this because of two factors: The amount of great-to-decent running backs available in the early-middle rounds and the dearth of talent at wide receiver.

Why this year? The trend where teams use multiple running backs to share the workload has exploded and nearly every team is doing it to some capacity. That opens the door for a lot of backs to see a decent amount of touches every week -- even notorious part-time players like Willis McGahee and Darren Sproles are worth drafting, assuming it's at the right point in the draft. Furthermore, because there are as many as 16 or more "good enough to start" quarterbacks and tight ends for Fantasy owners to check out, there's not as much pressure to draft backups at those positions.

In a 15-round draft where owners start nine players, it wouldn't be crazy to spend all but one or two bench spots on running backs. You'll protect yourself from running out of potential starters at a position where there are breakdowns, shortcomings and inconsistent play, and you'll have more potential players at a key position to trade away for roster help during the year.

But whether everyone follows this advice or not, you can be sure that running backs will fly off draft boards, so not only should you load up, but be prepared to load up through the first eight or nine rounds.

A note on Chris Johnson

Should Fantasy owners pass on Chris Johnson so long as he's holding out? In the very, very early stages in Round 1, the answer is yes. He simply represents too much risk, but for each pick he slides, the risk goes down a bit. If he falls to eighth overall or so, he's worth a look since owners who take him in snake formats will quickly get a shot at another stud player in Round 2.

Johnson has been a consistent stat producer and should continue to be; the upside is just too strong to ignore. If you take Johnson with a first-round pick, make sure you get his primary backup, Javon Ringer (who is not a bad rusher) with a pick as soon as Round 10.

Top-pick plan

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If you're picking within the first five picks in any sized league, you've got a rock-solid No. 1 running back waiting for you. There's a consensus Top 5 in standard and PPR formats that you can feel good about. There's no need to go into them; you should know plenty about them already.

But what if you don't pick until the end of the first round? Crying isn't recommended, but you will still come away with at the very least one quality rusher and at the most two elite players at other positions. This is where league scoring and size comes into play for your first pick:

Standard-scoring leagues (starting with the 6th overall pick)
10 teams or less: Best running back
12 teams: Best running back or elite quarterback
14 teams or more: Best player available

PPR leagues (starting with the 6th overall pick)
10 teams or less: Best wide receiver
12 teams or more: Best wide receiver or running back
Note: Under no circumstances should a quarterback go in Round 1 of a PPR league unless scoring dictates quarterbacks are favored.

Note: This advice takes Chris Johnson's holdout into consideration. When Johnson rejoins the Titans, he'll resume his spot as a reliable running back worth taking before sixth overall. For ideas on who to take, consult our Top 200 lists for standard and PPR formats

Enough to go around

So while there's a clear-cut group of five running backs every draft should start with followed by another nine backs or so who are expected to be next in line, the reality is that the running back talent pool runs pretty deep this year, certainly deeper than wide receivers.

With that in mind, treat Rounds 2 through 4 as if you are bargain shopping. Wide receivers are expected to dominate the second and third rounds in all formats, pushing running backs further down the draft. Don't expect more than 12 running backs to go within the first 20 picks or so. Even though it's advised to spend many picks on running backs, the rule to follow here is not to reach for a rusher within the first four rounds; in fact it's completely fine to pass on running backs with two of your first three picks just so long as you're not missing out on a good player at a great spot (examples: Frank Gore in the middle of Round 2 or Ahmad Bradshaw in the middle of Round 3 are great pickups). But you might regret it if you don't take one with your first three picks, or take three with your first three picks. Simply put, the talent at running back is good but the talent at other valuable positions can't be ignored.

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Value city

If you are in Round 4 and you have but one rusher, don't panic. There are still valuable names left -- so many that you could and probably should double-dip on running backs with your next two picks. The running backs available in Tier 4 carry solid value at this point and have potential to finish anywhere from 10-20 overall by season's end.

By the end of Round 5, aim to have at least two running backs. Assuming you're happy with the ones you have, you can kick back in Round 6 and look for a steal at another position. If you're not happy you probably should shore up your corps with the best available back before moving on to another area of your team in Round 7.

The rookies

There's nothing quite like a rookie running back, and this year there are plenty to sort through. Mark Ingram is the most appealing of the bunch, taken late in Round 1 of the NFL Draft after the Saints made a trade to get him. Daniel Thomas and Shane Vereen were among those who followed in Round 2, and Round 3 produced DeMarco Murray and Stevan Ridley.

The key to remember with rookie rushers is that they have all sorts of potential, but only a couple make an impact in Fantasy. Last year's top rookie rusher was LeGarrette Blount, who wasn't drafted in Fantasy play or even in the NFL Draft! Ryan Mathews was everyone's darling last season (some people took him in Round 1!) and he nearly finished behind the Saints' Chris Ivory, another undrafted rookie who found playing time.

Point is, do yourself a favor and limit yourself to one rookie running back on Draft Day. Ingram is the most appealing from where I sit; he's going to be a featured part of the Saints offense and he's got a pretty good schedule. Plus he'll never see eight-in-the-box with Drew Brees under center. He'll also end up going first among all rookies in drafts (Round 4 or 5), but he's got the chance to deliver on that investment.

Mid-round handcuff plan

When you think of handcuffing (drafting the primary backup) a running back, you probably think about spending a pick in Round 10 or later on a guy no one is thinking about. An idea for 2011: Lock up a tandem with upside using two middle-round picks.

Once Round 5 comes around, the running back position is going to start to get thin. Some Fantasy owners might be fine with getting the likes of Joseph Addai or Beanie Wells then, but they'd feel a lot better if they also drafted the back they'll split reps with. There's no guarantee the likes of Addai and Wells will stay productive for 16 weeks, much less hold up for 16 weeks, so getting the guy who would replace him on the field instead of praying for help off waivers seems smart.

Here are the tandems worth considering with picks starting in Round 5:

Green Bay Dallas
Ryan Grant - James Starks Felix Jones - DeMarco Murray
Round 6-Round 10 Round 5-Round 10
Indianapolis Miami
Joseph Addai - Donald Brown Daniel Thomas - Reggie Bush
Round 6-Round 11 Round 6-Round 9
New Orleans Washington
Mark Ingram - Pierre Thomas Tim Hightower - Ryan Torain
Round 5-Round 9 Round 7-Round 9

The negative to such a strategy is that you're picking two running backs on one team for one spot. It'll pay off if one back struggles or gets hurt and the other shines, but it would backfire if both backs not only stayed healthy but split reps each week and were inconsistent with their production. You might bench the guy who scores two touchdowns for the guy who gets 16 carries for 65 yards. It's possible. But hey, that's why the running backs who don't share reps go first in drafts.

Behold! The tiers!

A key to knowing when it's the right time to draft a certain running back is by "tiering" them into groups based on expected production. By separating them, your goal is to get at least one back from every two tiers (or as many backs from as many high tiers as possible). If you see one of your tiers dwindling and it's your pick, you know to go get a running back from that tier before it disappears.

This is the tier chart I'm bringing to my draft, as of August 16.

Elite Tier Near-Elite Tier Excellent Tier Very Good Tier
220+ FPTS 200+ FPTS 175+ FPTS 165+ FPTS
Round 1 Rounds 1-2 Rounds 3-4 Rounds 4-6
Adrian Peterson Michael Turner Knowshon Moreno DeAngelo Williams
Arian Foster Maurice Jones-Drew LeGarrette Blount Peyton Hillis
Ray Rice Chris Johnson* Cedric Benson Mark Ingram
Jamaal Charles Darren McFadden BenJarvus Green-Ellis Fred Jackson
LeSean McCoy Steven Jackson Jahvid Best Ryan Mathews
Matt Forte Shonn Greene Felix Jones
  Frank Gore   Ryan Grant
  Rashard Mendenhall   Beanie Wells
  Ahmad Bradshaw    
Good Tier High-end backups Low-end backups Late-round sleepers
135+ FPTS 105+ FPTS 85+ FPTS
Round 6-7 Rounds 7-9 Rounds 10+ Rounds 10+
Tim Hightower Jonathan Stewart Maurice Morris DeMarco Murray
Daniel Thomas Michael Bush Thomas Jones Isaac Redman
Marshawn Lynch Darren Sproles LaDainian Tomlinson Montario Hardesty
Joseph Addai Willis McGahee Danny Woodhead Stevan Ridley
Mike Tolbert C.J. Spiller Ryan Torain Roy Helu
Brandon Jacobs Reggie Bush James Starks Brandon Jackson
Pierre Thomas Ricky Williams Kendall Hunter
Rashad Jennings Javon Ringer  
   
     

Bye-week cheat sheet

Want to know where to look for running back help for the bye weeks? Start with this chart. Remember, as long as you don't take a bunch of rushers with early bye weeks, you're not hurting yourself. It's OK to draft running backs with late bye weeks because you'll have plenty of time to make trades and get ready for when you need some help replacing guys who are off.

Bye Teams on bye Teams with projected favorable running matchups
5 Ravens, Browns, Cowboys, Dolphins, Rams, Redskins Bengals (at JAC), Chargers (at DEN), Chiefs (at IND), Giants (vs. SEA), Jaguars (vs. CIN), Saints (at CAR)
6 Cardinals, Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers, Seahawks, Titans Browns (at OAK), Colts (at CIN), Falcons (vs. CAR), Giants (vs. BUF), Raiders (vs. CLE), Saints (at TB)
7 Bills, Bengals, Patriots, Giants, Eagles, 49ers Browns (vs. SEA), Chiefs (at OAK), Redskins (at CAR), Saints (vs. IND), Seahawks (at CLE)
8 Falcons, Bears, Packers, Jets, Raiders, Buccaneers Bills (vs. WAS), Lions (at DEN), Redskins (at BUF), Seahawks (vs. CIN)
9 Panthers, Lions, Jaguars, Vikings Broncos (at OAK), Cowboys (vs. SEA), Jets (at BUF), Saints (vs. TB)
11 Texans, Colts, Saints, Steelers Browns (vs. JAC), Dolphins (vs. BUF), Lions (vs. CAR), Packers (vs. TB)

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB . You can also follow Dave at @daverichard and on Facebook .

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Player News
All-Pro Gerald McCoy says Buccaneers defense has been 'soft'
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(2:05 pm ET) Buccaneers All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy did not hold back Thursday when talking about the team's defensive struggles. He said the defense has been "soft" through six games, per ESPN.

"Yeah. I mean if you look out there on tape and you see a bunch of guys sitting on blocks, are you not earning the title of being soft?'' McCoy said. "I mean, guys get so sensitive around the league, but we have to be men. This is a man's league. This is a man's league and we're professionals. Guys have issues with criticism. I've been getting criticized since I've been in the NFL, and I don't even feel it anymore. It is what it is.''

The Buccaneers rank last in total defense (422.8 yards per game) and last in scoring defense (34 points per game).

"I think we're making too many excuses,'' McCoy said. "There's always a reason why this is happening or why that's happening. It has to stop. We just have to say, 'OK, I did wrong, I didn't win that one, I have to win the next one and the one after that.' If you win 70 percent of your battles, you have a shot to win, simple as that."


Might be time to sit Matt Ryan
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:59 pm ET) After he lost his fourth starting offensive lineman for the season in what his third straight game with just one touchdown pass, I suggested Fantasy owners might consider sitting Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan for Week 8 against the Lions in London. Turns out Jamey Eisenberg and Dave Richard are completely on board with that, ranking him only 20th among quarterbacks.

Granted, the Saints' Drew Brees managed to find a way against them last week, but it doesn't change the fact that the Lions have allowed the fewest Fantasy points per game to quarterbacks by far. And most of the ones they've faced still had their offensive lines intact.

Part of Ryan's problem is that he just doesn't have time to throw the ball downfield, and that's not going to improve with his starting center now gone. The Lions, as you might expect from their ranking, have a terrific pass rush. They're tied for third with 21 sacks. They're also one of three teams that have recorded more interceptions than they've allowed touchdown passes.

Even if everything was hunky-dory for Ryan and he was coming off a stretch where he looked like Peyton Manning, he'd be a candidate to sit with such a tough matchup. As things currently stand for him and the Falcons, it's a no-brainer move.


Ravens TE Owen Daniels a no-go for Thursday practice
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(1:58 pm ET) A knee issue has Ravens tight end Owen Daniels out of his second straight practice Thursday. He missed the Wednesday session, but that had been thought of as a veteran's day off.

The continued absence could be a red flag in regard to his status for Sunday at Cincinnati. Daniels has been coming on of late with 13 catches for 162 yards and a touchdown in the last three games combined.


Panthers ready for challenge of facing Seahawks' Richard Sherman
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1:56 pm ET) Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said he won't be afraid to throw against Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman in Week 8. However, he knows he has to be careful when he challenges one of the league's best cornerbacks.

"If the play is called for me to read it to Richard’s side, by all means I’m going to do it," Newton said, per ESPN. "And I’m going to give each and every receiver an opportunity to make plays.  I’m not going to force it. I’m not going to be an idiot. I’m going to do a great job of protecting the football and be aggressively patient in taking what the defense gives me."

Sherman will likely draw rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin for most of the afternoon Sunday. Benjamin is ready for the challenge.

"You can tell he loves the game," Benjamin said. "He brings the passion to it. He has fun. He talks a lot of smack out there, but this is football. I’m just going to come out there and match his intensity; play fast and be sound in all my assignments."


Texans' Jadeveon Clowney would be 'surprised' if he doesn't play
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1:46 pm ET) Texans rookie linebacker Jadeveon Clowney said Thursday he is ready to return to action Week 8 against the Titans after missing the last six games due to knee surgery.

"I’m as healthy as I’m going to be this season," he said, per the Houston Chronicle. "I’m ready to play football. I’ll be surprised if I don’t play, but it’s up to the coaches.

"My knee’s going to bother me a little. There’s a little discomfort, but it’s something you have to push through. I’ve been working on my craft and trying to get in football shape. It’s one thing to run, but another to be back on the field. I’m looking forward to helping my team and getting back and having fun. I’ve been missing being with my team."


Packers RB James Starks able to practice Thursday
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1:43 pm ET) Packers running back James Starks was back on the practice field Thursday after sitting out Wednesday due to an ankle injury he suffered Week 7. The Packers are preparing to face the Saints in Week 8.

Packers DL Datone Jones back at practice Thursday
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1:40 pm ET) Packers defensive end Datone Jones returned to practice Thursday after missing the last two games due to an ankle injury. The Packers are preparing to play the Saints in Week 8.

Jaguars CB Alan Ball doesn't believe injury is season-ending
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1:37 pm ET) Jaguars cornerback Alan Ball echoed his coach's sentiments about him being doubtful to play Week 8 against the Dolphins due to a biceps injury. However, Ball doesn't believe the injury is season-ending.

"My thoughts are that it isn’t season-ending," he said, per The Florida Times-Union. "In the next week, week-and-a-half, I’m be trying to get my body back to the best it can possibly be and then go from there."


Report: Bengals stud WR A.J. Green still sidelined Thursday
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(1:12 pm ET) A nagging toe injury again prevented Bengals star wide receiver A.J. Green from practicing Thursday, at least during the media availability portion of the session, the team website is reporting.

Green, who was overheard telling a teammate after the shutout loss to Indianapolis in Week 7 that he will play Sunday against AFC North rival Baltimore, has not participated in game action since Oct. 5.


Bengals CB Leon Hall back in action Thursday
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(1:07 pm ET) Bengals cornerback Leon Hall returned to practice Thursday after missing time with a lower back strain sustained in the Week 7 loss to Indianapolis.

Hall has started every game this season. He has contributed to 27 tackles and has one interception.


 
 
 
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