It's always been in the best interests of Fantasy owners to draft as many running backs as possible. Now it's a necessity.
The position continues to be minimized and compartmentalized. As it stands now, only nine teams appear to be ready to lean on one back for most of their rushing work. Most others will use two in some capacity that will limit both statistically but help the team win, which is all they care about. That's too bad because it means these tandem situations will still wreak havoc on Fantasy owners: Last year there were only 32 instances where running backs on the same team in the same game each had double-digit Fantasy points. Only one team, the Saints, accomplished the feat more than three times.
Tandems are one issue, injuries are another. Three Fantasy running backs with first-round pedigrees tore their ACLs (two of them late in the year, jeopardizing their chances to start 2012 on time). A handful of other relevant backs were sidelined too.
And with tandems and injuries becoming factors, playing time and stats obviously become impacted. Only two running backs topped 300 carries in 2011, a dozen had 250-plus carries and 19 had 200-plus carries. That's it. And of the 34 running backs that had at least 100 Fantasy points in standard formats, a dozen played 16 games. Fifteen played in 14 or 15 games (which we as Fantasy owners can settle for). Seven, or roughly one fifth of the rushers we're talking about, played in 13 or fewer. Remember, these are the backs that actually did something! We're not talking about guys we lost for much of the year like Jamaal Charles and Jahvid Best.
What's more, passing numbers are up. The league set a season-high for passing yards with 117,601 and a second-best mark in touchdowns thrown with 745. Rushing attempts were up from the previous year by 51 carries, making the 13,971 attempts that running backs had in 2011 the second fewest since 2004. The 400 rushing touchdowns scored is a nice number, but it's flawed. Quarterbacks totaled 67 rushing touchdowns and receivers and tight ends ran for eight. So 325 touchdowns, or roughly 10 per team, were scored by running backs.
But this is Fantasy Football, and you cannot ignore running backs. The good news is that because so many teams use multiple running backs, there are plenty of players to choose from throughout your draft. The number of good backs capable of putting up 1,000-total-yard, seven-touchdown seasons has grown. According to early projections, there are 28 players with that kind of potential (including the elite backs), along with another nine or 10 guys that can get close. This does not include rookies like Trent Richardson, Lamar Miller and David Wilson, all of whom will be wildly popular in drafts this summer so long as they land with a team that isn't stocked at running back.
This is a good thing as it should afford owners the opportunity to at the very least build some quality depth and at the most land three or four quality rushers to begin the season. Tack on another couple of sleepers and you've got a running back corps you can feel good about. That's all you can ask for.
|Player|| No. of |
|Pct.||Player|| No. of |
|Ray Rice||13||81%||Michael Bush||7||44%|
|LeSean McCoy||11||73%||Kevin Smith||3||43%|
|Arian Foster||9||69%||Adrian Peterson||5||42%|
|Maurice Jones-Drew||11||69%||Matt Forte||5||42%|
|Marshawn Lynch||9||60%||Ahmad Bradshaw||5||42%|
|Fred Jackson||6||60%||Reggie Bush||6||40%|
|Darren McFadden||4||57%||Frank Gore||6||40%|
Plan to draft a lot of running backs. This goes without saying. The more running backs you draft, the more opportunities you'll have to trade for help (or have depth at a slippery position). So long as your league allows, aim to minimize your backup quarterback and receiver roster spots and dedicate yourself to drafting running backs unless you can steal someone at another position.
Handcuffing backs is more important than ever. As we said before, only 12 of the 34 running backs that had at least 100 Fantasy points played 16 games last year. Backing up at least one rusher with the guy taking some work off his plate is just plain smart. More importantly, knowing when to expect your handcuff(s) to be taken should be part of your plan. You should check in with our draft averages before you make your picks to get an idea of where all the backups are going, then be prepared to draft accordingly. Remember, not all backups are created equally: The backup for Maurice Jones-Drew (Rashad Jennings) won't be picked as soon as, say, the backup for Darren McFadden (Michael Bush, potentially a Top-60 pick). You can only blame yourself if you don't draft the backup to your stud.
Get familiar with who's rehabbing and who's ready. Last year was awful for Fantasy owners as several reliable running backs suffered major injuries that could impact their careers -- none bigger than perennial first-rounder Adrian Peterson. He might not be a first-rounder this year. Here are the names you need to keep an eye on, along with their key teammates.
|Player||Injury||Date||Recovery time||Key backup|
|Adrian Peterson||ACL||Dec. 24||9-12 months||Toby Gerhart|
|Jamaal Charles||ACL||Sept. 18||9-12 months||Dexter McCluster|
|Rashard Mendenhall||ACL||Jan. 1||9-12 months||Isaac Redman|
|Darren McFadden||Foot||Oct. 23||TBD||Michael Bush*|
|Fred Jackson||Leg||Nov. 20||2-4 months||C.J. Spiller|
|Jahvid Best||Head||Oct. 16||TBD||Mikel Leshoure|
|Mikel Leshoure||Achilles||Aug. 8||10-12 months||Jahvid Best|
|Ryan Williams||Patellar||Aug. 19||8-12 months||N/A|
|Tim Hightower||ACL||Oct. 23||9-12 months||TBD*|
|* - subject to free agency|
Waiting for running backs?
If you had asked me five years ago if I would endorse a draft strategy that didn't involve taking running backs early, I probably would have laughed at you. But if NFL teams aren't valuing running backs like they did five years ago, perhaps Fantasy owners shouldn't either.
We're already at the point where we can expect at least three quarterbacks to get picked within the first 12 picks on Draft Day. What if you're one of those owners? And what if you pick up a stud receiver in Round 2 and Round 3? Is your team toast?
Using our first 2012 mock draft as a guideline and picking out of the fourth overall spot, here's what a team might look like with that strategy:
|Round 1: Drew Brees||Round 2: Larry Fitzgerald||Round 3: Greg Jennings|
|Round 4: Willis McGahee||Round 5: Rashard Mendenhall||Round 6: C.J. Spiller|
|Round 7: Isaac Redman||Round 8: Mike Tolbert||Round 9: Mikel Leshoure|
|Round 10: Pierre Thomas||Round 11: Jabar Gaffney||Round 12: Dustin Keller|
|Round 13: Eric Decker||Round 14: Dolphins DST||Round 15: Robbie Gould|
Note the seven consecutive picks on running backs between Rounds 4 and 10. While the guys we picked aren't exactly studs, they're not horrendous, either. All have moderate expectations for 2012. We should be able to field a good lineup from these backs on a week-by-week basis while enjoying quality stats from Brees, Fitzgerald and Jennings.
In seasons past this strategy would not have worked as well because more running backs were taken in the first two rounds than what's expected in 2012.
Go early on running backs?
What about the exact opposite of waiting? Ditch quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends in favor of quality, capable running backs. After all, the quarterback crop is deeper than ever and tight ends seemingly grow on trees (well, at least those not named Gronkowski or Graham).
Here's a second mock team, again based on where players went in our initial mock draft:
|Round 1: LeSean McCoy||Round 2: Jamaal Charles||Round 3: Frank Gore|
|Round 4: Willis McGahee||Round 5: Jeremy Maclin||Round 6: Matt Schaub|
|Round 7: Mark Ingram||Round 8: Mike Williams||Round 9: Torrey Smith|
|Round 10: Titus Young||Round 11: Jermaine Gresham||Round 12: Andy Dalton|
|Round 13: Dexter McCluster||Round 14: Dolphins DST||Round 15: Robbie Gould|
Pretty easy to analyze this squad: The running backs are gorgeous while the rest of the team leaves a little bit to be desired. The receivers are young and in capable roles with their teams, which is always a plus. Ending up with Schaub at quarterback isn't exactly ideal, but it's not a disaster either. Heck, he's a phenomenal value in Round 6 -- you're just taking advantage of the deep talent pool at quarterback if you get him instead of a similar passer a round or two sooner. He's backed up properly with Dalton while Charles was handcuffed with McCluster. Again, the lineup should be solid with McCoy, Charles, Gore, Maclin and Schaub locked in from week to week.
Strategy dictated by draft slot?
One way to figure out your best plan of attack might be determined by where your first-round pick is.
If you're picking within the first five selections, you'll have a shot at picking a great running back. Thus, you could opt to go heavy on running backs with your first few picks or take a stud early then wait a few rounds before building up your depth at the position.
If you're picking toward the back of your draft, you'll need a miracle to land an elite rusher and might be in a better position to load up on quality talent at quarterback and wide receiver early, then load up on rushers a few rounds later.
Getting smart with sleepers
You might have felt like a genius for drafting DeMarco Murray last summer (owned in 41 pct. of leagues for Week 1), but you probably wound up looking like a fool for dropping him for someone who was actually putting up some numbers at the time (he was owned in 20 pct. of leagues for Week 6). The lesson here is simple: Don't draft sleepers unless you plan to commit to them for a while -- or unless you have a good reason for taking them.
Maybe your sleeper is a guy who can also be a handcuff for a stud you drafted. Someone like Kendall Hunter for Frank Gore or Jacquizz Rodgers for Michael Turner. That's cool. But maybe your sleeper happens to have a good early-season schedule, or is an injury away from not just seeing some playing time, but being a 15-to-20 touch rusher. Now we're talking -- it's not just about picking a sleeper on Draft Day, it's about picking a sleeper who has a chance to do something from the start of the season.
RBs that could start in place of stud RB to begin season: Toby Gerhart, Dexter McCluster, Isaac Redman
Free-agent-to-be RBs with goal-line potential: LeGarrette Blount, Peyton Hillis, Mike Tolbert
RBs playing behind injury-prone starters: Michael Bush (if he stays in OAK), Felix Jones, Daniel Thomas
RBs with goal-line potential: Mark Ingram, Stevan Ridley, Evan Royster
Deep sleepers: Alex Green, Taiwan Jones, Bilal Powell, Shane Vereen
I threw in the deep sleepers at the end to prove a point: Here are four young running backs with upside, but that's all we really know about them. They could end up riding the bench all season much less the first few games. It wouldn't pay to draft them if all you're going to do is drop them for whoever gets hot early in the season.
Let's get to the tiers
If you're looking for preparation beyond rankings, consider placing running backs into groups based on expected statistical production, or tiers. The idea is to get at least one back from every significant tier (or as many backs from as many high tiers as possible). During your draft, if you see a tier about to dry up and it's your turn to take someone, it's probably a good idea to pick the last remaining rusher from the tier.
This is the tier chart I'll use in my drafts, as of Feb. 1.