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2012 Draft Prep: RB tiers & strategies

Senior Fantasy Writer
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• Dave Richard's tiers and strategies: Quarterback | Wide receiver | Tight end | Kicker and DST

There's no such thing as too many running backs.

That's a mantra not just for Draft Day. It's a mantra that applies to real NFL football just as much as it applies to Fantasy.

NFL teams have discovered that going with multiple backs as part of a rushing scheme carries positive results. No one player gets relied upon too often and in some cases players stay fresher. And backs with different skill sets can be used in different ways.

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As it stands now only 12 running backs have a legitimate chance to get close to 20 touches (carries plus catches) on a weekly basis, and that includes Houston's Arian Foster, who will probably share work to some degree with backup Ben Tate.

Twenty touches is a dwindling benchmark, but it's not dying as quickly as the 300-carry barometer. Shoot, it's not dying even as quickly as the number of players getting 250 carries per season. Only two running backs topped 300 carries in 2011, a dozen had 250-plus carries and 19 had 200-plus carries. Those who got to 200 carries were obviously productive -- 15 had at least 1,000 rush yards -- but we're not talking about a lot of running backs here.

Playing time isn't the only issue; staying healthy is an obvious factor. Of the 34 running backs that had at least 100 Fantasy points in standard formats last year, a dozen played 16 games. Fifteen played in 14 or 15 games (which Fantasy owners should be willing to accept with glee). 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.

Meanwhile, quarterbacks are throwing it more than ever. Last year's 117,601 pass attempts were an NFL record. The 745 passing touchdowns were second-best. Carries by running backs in 2011 effectively were flat year over year with 13,971 (51 more than in 2010), and while the 400 rushing touchdowns scored last season sounds nice, quarterbacks made up 67 of them and receivers and tight ends tallied eight ground scores. That means running backs totaled 325 rushing touchdowns -- roughly 10 per team!

And if that's not enough to make you ill, we have the special treat of several highly productive running backs coming back from major injuries in 2012 and a couple of rushers already hurt this summer. Guys we've been counting on like Charles, Ryan Mathews, Trent Richardson, Adrian Peterson and Darren McFadden (we won't even count Tim Hightower, Rashard Mendenhall and Knowshon Moreno) aren't "sure things" because of the injury risk involved. In the case of Peterson, he might not even be ready for Week 1; Charles and McFadden should be.

Consistency Counts
The average Fantasy point total per game among Top 12 RBs in 2011 was 12.9 (standard scoring). Here are the players who had at least 13 Fantasy points in 40 pct. or more of games played.
Player No. of 13+ FPTS Pct. Player No. of 13+ FPTS Pct.
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%
Ryan Mathews 7 50%      

Despite these headaches, no one will punt on taking running backs. They're still a huge part of Fantasy rosters, partially because the productive ones are so coveted and everyone grabs for potential studs.

And that's the basis of Rule 1 for running backs this season: Make like a warehouse store and get them in bulk. Say you're in a 12-team, 14-round draft. You'll need a quarterback and you might take a backup. You'll need two starting receivers and probably two more for depth. You'll need a tight end, kicker and DST and don't have to take backups at those positions. Add that up and you'll be able to slot five roster spots for running backs -- six if you don't take a backup quarterback.

By bulking up, you're essentially creating an exclusive pool of talent to pick from all season. Naturally, one or two backs will stand out from the rest, but at the very least you're giving yourself a chance to develop some trade bait while also setting as strong a lineup as possible from week to week. There could be some close-call roster decisions along the way but also some pretty good depth, which is what this is all about. Trust me on this one -- in your darkest hour you don't want to hit waivers on a Wednesday night and settle for a John Kuhn or Delone Carter to start for you because you only drafted three or four backs and byes/injuries/rotten play have crushed you. Now more than ever, success in Fantasy begins with having lots of running backs at your disposal.

As for when to get them, here's a good, general attack plan: Have at least one after three picks, two after five picks and four after eight picks. There are other ways to go about getting them (see below), but this basic guideline should help.

Handcuffs -- not just for cops

If you're drafting a lot of running backs, one of them might be an insurance policy. As we said, roughly 20 percent of the running backs with at least 100 Fantasy points played in 13 or fewer games last year. Especially if you go with a back with a significant injury history, drafting his real-life backup is critical.

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 equal: The backup for Chris Johnson (Javon Ringer) won't be picked as soon as, say, the backup for Adrian Peterson (Toby Gerhart). Keep in mind that the top backup running backs are also expected to be productive enough to use in a pinch as a flex, so other owners could be on the lookout for the same back(s).

Last point: Think about how important handcuffing your running backs is to you before taking a rusher with one of those desirable backups. Are you willing to spend a pick in Round 8 or 9 on such a player? It might be a deal-breaker to take a back that requires such an investment just a handful of picks later. It varies from person to person; I don't mind spending a relevant pick on a backup if I really want to protect my top rusher (getting Taiwan Jones for Darren McFadden in Round 11, for instance) but I wouldn't want to draft several top backs with injury concerns. One is enough for the first few rounds.

Ready or not?

Injuries made Fantasy running backs tough to love last year, but it's also making them tough to trust this summer. As of early August, here are the players you need to keep tabs on, along with their key teammates.

Player Injury Injury
Date
Ready for the season? Key backup
Ryan Mathews Shoulder Aug. 9, 2012 Questionable Ronnie Brown
Trent Richardson Knee Aug. 6, 2012 Questionable Montario Hardesty
Adrian Peterson ACL Dec. 24, 2011 Questionable Toby Gerhart
DeMarco Murray Ankle Dec. 11, 2011 Probable Felix Jones
Darren McFadden Foot Oct. 23, 2011 Probable Mike Goodson
Fred Jackson Leg Nov. 20, 2011 Probable C.J. Spiller
Jamaal Charles ACL Sept. 18, 2011 Probable Peyton Hillis
Beanie Wells Knee Unknown Probable Ryan Williams
Ryan Williams Patella Aug. 19, 2011 Probable Beanie Wells
Mikel Leshoure Achilles, hamstring Aug. 2011 & 2012 Probable Kevin Smith
Jahvid Best Head Oct. 16, 2011 Out (PUP list) Kevin Smith,
Mikel Leshoure
Rashard Mendenhall ACL Jan. 1, 2011 Doubtful Isaac Redman
Tim Hightower ACL Oct. 23, 2011 Questionable Roy Helu, Evan Royster

The injuries that jarred Fantasy owners the most this August happened to Ryan Mathews and Trent Richardson. On Mathews' first preseason carry he broke his clavicle and now questions about when he'll be ready and what kind of shape he'll be in when he is ready kill his Fantasy value. But Mathews, who has missed six games in two seasons, didn't suffer an injury that will cost him the year and might not even take away any games. The bigger issue is whether or not his own coaches who talked him up before the season can still rely on him for 20 touches per week. That seems highly unlikely since he couldn't last two carries in his first preseason game, but he'll have some big games when he is on the field. He can't be ignored and is worth taking as a second running back if you take one in Round 1 or a first running back if you go with a quarterback or Calvin Johnson with your top pick. He should get taken in Round 2.

Richardson falls into the same boat. The Browns have made it clear that the arthroscopic surgery he had in early August was minor and that the recovery will be a snap. Richardson has the same "trust" issue as Mathews: Will the coaches let him have 20 touches every week when he's got a knee that's been repaired twice in six months (he had another arthroscopic surgery in February). But like Mathews, Richardson's upside can't be ignored in that he's in an offense without a reliable backup rusher and he could get fed plenty of carries when the matchup dictates. And like Mathews, Richardson's a good second-round pick.

If I had to pick one, I'd go with the younger back who didn't get hurt playing preseason football.

Extreme strategies

Maybe you've gotten this far and you're thinking "Omigosh I have to hoard running backs as soon as possible in my draft!" Maybe you also feared the Y2K bug back in the day. While I'll tell you that there's no need to panic for running backs as many good ones will last into Round 6, I won't rule out a strategy where you gun for running backs with all of your first five picks and six of your first nine picks. Here's a mock team in a 12-team league picking fifth overall:

Round 1: Chris Johnson Round 2: Fred Jackson Round 3: Adrian Peterson
Round 4: Doug Martin Round 5: BenJarvus Green-Ellis Round 6: Torrey Smith
Round 7: Reggie Wayne Round 8: Ben Roethlisberger Round 9: Toby Gerhart
Round 10: Tony Gonzalez Round 11: Laurent Robinson Round 12: Jon Baldwin
Round 13: Ravens DST Round 14: Robbie Gould  

You might find yourself drooling after checking out these running backs. That's some immense talent. Of course, there aren't any elite receivers (every team should have a crack at two much less one). The quarterback and tight end choices are satisfactory thanks to the deep talent pools at each position, but neither one is considered great. With this gameplan an owner would basically be willing to go cheap on quarterback and tight end and hope to catch a lucky break at receiver all in exchange for a stellar running back corps. This strategy probably would play better in smaller leagues and certainly in standard-scoring formats.

But maybe you've made it this far and you're thinking "Running backs are overrated. It's a passing league! I'm going to wait on them." Maybe you're still waiting for Apple stock to get to a dirt cheap price. With receiving talent being what it is and quarterbacks putting up more points than ever before, maybe your best move is to chill out and wait at least four rounds before collecting running backs. Here's a mock team in a 12-team league picking eighth overall:

Round 1: Drew Brees Round 2: Larry Fitzgerald Round 3: Victor Cruz
Round 4: Aaron Hernandez Round 5: Reggie Bush Round 6: Stevan Ridley
Round 7: Beanie Wells Round 8: Jonathan Stewart Round 9: Ronnie Hillman
Round 10: Alfred Morris Round 11: Brandon LaFell Round 12: Mario Manningham
Round 13: Packers DST Round 14: Jason Hanson  

Strategy dictated by draft slot?

Where you pick in Round 1 might determine what your best running back draft strategy is. If you're picking in the first three then you have a pretty clear path to an ultra-capable rusher with ridiculous potential. Following that up with more stud running backs or quality talents at other positions is up to you -- probably a bit more freedom if you're in that range.

If you're picking elsewhere in Round 1, a quarterback might be your safest choice. Then you can draft running backs accordingly, perhaps waiting a couple of rounds for one while picking up studs at other positions.

If either extreme strategy piqued your interest, consider where you draft as a guide in figuring out which one is right for you.

Going wild for rookies

Every year rookie running backs get Fantasy owners' juices flowing. They all have potential and are drafted because of it. Last season I was gung-ho on Mark Ingram, but a tough start to his season and foot injuries cost him the chance to put up sizable numbers. Other Fantasy pundits have fallen in love with first-year running backs year after year, but no rookie rusher has truly lived up to preseason expectations since Adrian Peterson back in 2007.

This year, the most talented rookie running back since Peterson joins the NFL: Trent Richardson. Picked third overall by the Browns, Richardson was expected to be a major workhorse until he had another knee procedure before the preseason games kicked in. That makes him risky, but a guy blessed with his skill set and potential to score every week can't be ignored. Richardson has the makings of being everyone's dream running back, but the track record of first-round backs in their rookie seasons haven't been great lately. Nonetheless, someone in every league will get enamored with Richardson and take him with a Top 15 pick. It's up to you if you're a believer or not.

Here's a look at this year's draft-worthy rookie running backs, listed in order of how they're ranked (as of late August).

Player Team Projection Battle for snaps Drafted?
Trent Richardson CLE 1,300 total yards, 7 TDs Montario Hardesty Top 25
Doug Martin TB 1,200 total yards, 5 TDs LeGarrette Blount Top 60
David Wilson NYG 650 total yards, 4 TDs Ahmad Bradshaw Round 9-10
Ronnie Hillman DEN 750 total yards, 4 TDs Willis McGahee Round 10-11
Alfred Morris WAS 650 total yards, 4 TDs Depends on Mike Shanahan Round 10-11
Robert Turbin SEA 500 total yards, 2 TDs Marshawn Lynch Round 11-12
Isaiah Pead STL 550 total yards, 1 TD Steven Jackson Late pick
Lamar Miller MIA 400 total yards, 1 TD Reggie Bush Late pick

Running to tiers

If you're looking for preparation beyond rankings, consider placing running backs into groups based on expected statistical production. These groups are thus called tiers. Assuming you're not trying an extreme strategy, 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 late August.

Elite tier Near-Elite Tier Excellent Tier Near-Excellent Tier
1500+ total yards, 10+ TDs 1300+ total yards, 8+ TDs 1100+ total yards, 7+ TDs 1000+ total yards, 7+ TDs
Arian Foster Chris Johnson Maurice Jones-Drew Adrian Peterson
LeSean McCoy Darren McFadden Michael Turner Darren Sproles
Ray Rice Marshawn Lynch Ahmad Bradshaw Doug Martin
  DeMarco Murray Matt Forte BenJarvus Green-Ellis
  Trent Richardson Jamaal Charles
  Fred Jackson   Stevan Ridley
  Ryan Mathews   Frank Gore
  Steven Jackson    
Very Good Tier Good Tier High-end backups More backups
1000+ total yards, 6+ TDs 900+ total yards, 5+ TDs    
Shonn Greene DeAngelo Williams Toby Gerhart Pierre Thomas
Donald Brown Cedric Benson Jonathan Stewart Ronnie Hillman
Willis McGahee Mikel Leshoure Mark Ingram Alfred Morris
Reggie Bush Ryan Williams Michael Bush LeGarrette Blount
Kevin Smith Isaac Redman Ben Tate Evan Royster
Peyton Hillis Beanie Wells C.J. Spiller Daniel Thomas
    Rashad Jennings Taiwan Jones
Jonathan Stewart   David Wilson Robert Turbin
    Jacquizz Rodgers
      Vick Ballard

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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