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2013 Draft Prep: Running back tiers and strategies

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Tiers by position: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | K/DSTs

The good news: Because of the improved depth at running back around the league entering 2013, pretty much any owner who wants a high-touch and versatile running back will get one with their first pick in drafts this summer. Some will be lucky enough to get two.

The bad news: The position is deceptively thin. Once you get past the first 20 or so in your draft it gets a little ugly. Once you get past the first 30 or so it gets a little scary. And once you get past that, bring a barf bag.

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No, really, you will get sick if you look for a running back in Round 8 and beyond. You'll need medication and shots and stuff.

So the first big piece of advice is to get a lot of them early because you do not want to be the owner picking from Jets and Steelers running backs for your No. 2 RB or Flex spot.

The problem is that as soon as Round 2 comes around you'll see players at other positions you'd otherwise want on your roster. You'll be tempted to take a top-rate quarterback, receiver or tight end instead of a second-tier running back. The decision to do so should solely depend on if you're comfortable with the caliber of running backs left when you pick in Rounds 3 and 4.

Example 1: You pick 11th of 12. Alfred Morris is one of four running backs you've highlighted as guys you'd love to have on your roster. He's available and you draft him in Round 1 and another of those four backs in Round 2. Say it's Chris Johnson. You can go RB-RB with your first two picks and still pick up a couple of great receivers in Rounds 3 and 4. Life is good.

Example 2: You pick 3rd of 10. Doug Martin was your first-round pick (fist-pump!). But in Round 2 the best running backs left are DeMarco Murray, Maurice Jones-Drew and David Wilson. You're also staring at Drew Brees and maybe four top-flight Fantasy receivers. You could wait just a few picks until Round 3 to take one of those running backs, assuming they're there when you're on the clock (it might be just Wilson, which is fine). Or you could conceivably land two from the non-running backs with your next two picks but be hurting at running back when you're up in Round 4. Your own preferences and tolerance for risk at a very important position should dictate how you maneuver in the early going.

But if it's me, I gravitate toward the running backs because I know what it's like to be grasping at straws later in the draft and it's as fun as getting five cavities filled at the same time (I used to have a sugar problem). You'll like your picks in the back-half of the draft better if you solve your starting running back problem early on.

What to look for after the stud backs

Two running backs had over 300 carries in 2011, five had as many in 2012. They're rare. A dozen had 250-plus carries in 2011, 14 had as many in 2012. They're also rare. Nineteen rushers had 200-plus carries in 2011, 23 had as many in 2012. That's not so rare. An infusion of fresh talent (Morris, Martin, Trent Richardson) and some young players got a chance to play (C.J. Spiller, Stevan Ridley) and it really helped reverse the running back trend.

In 2011, 15 of the 19 running backs (79 pct.) who had 200-plus carries had at least 1,000 rush yards. In 2012 the overall 1,000-plus-yard rushers rose to 16 but a slightly lower percentage of 200-plus-carry backs got there (69.6 pct.). Here's what I am getting at: Find the 200-plus-carry backs, and you'll have a good shot at 1,000-plus yards from them. This is where you start when evaluating a running back who isn't a slam-dunk for the first two rounds.

That logic alone makes David Wilson, Lamar Miller, Frank Gore and Eddie Lacy targets for Rounds 3 and 4. Darren Sproles won't get anywhere near 200 carries but is part of that group because of his receiving prowess. Giovani Bernard, Ryan Mathews and Darren McFadden have their postives and negatives but they're the kinds of running backs coming off the board next. Ahmad Bradshaw, Montee Ball and Daryl Richardson headline the group of guys who might find 200 carries, littered with players who probably need a big break in order to be legitimate Fantasy talents.

From this group, look for the unique players. Multi-talented backs who can cover more than one role and especially work as a dual-threat back. These are the players that coaches will eventually lean toward because it opens up the playbook and keep defenses off balance. That's why those last three names are moderately interesting -- they can do more than just plow into the A-gap.

Fantasy insurance

Starting in Round 7 and especially in Rounds 8 and 9, expect to see the real-life backups of early-round stud rushers get snapped up. In Fantasy the process is called "handcuffing" and those who have been around the game are either firm believers in it or mild detractors of it.

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Running backs get hurt frequently. By handcuffing your most valuable running back you have a player ready to slide into lineups in the event of an injury to your stud. It's never a great thing to dedicate two roster spots to one specific part of the field for one team like this but it has come in handy in the past when big-ticket players tear or break things.

The shining (and also frustrating) example this year is in Houston, where Ben Tate looms behind Arian Foster. Foster is coming off a 405-carry season, including two playoff games, and dealt with a lower back injury that kept him out of all of training camp and all four preseason games. That's a lot to think about; as such, many onlookers are pegging Foster as a candidate for a breakdown. He's tumbled off the Top-3 perch in drafts and into the back half of Round 1. That makes it almost vital for his Fantasy owners to reach for Tate in -- are you sitting down? -- Round 6 (Round 7 or 8 if you're in smaller leagues or if you're a gambler). Remember, if Foster is your late-first-round pick in a snake draft then you'll have to hope no one in your league takes Tate with their picks in Round 6 or 7. With the word out on Foster being an injury risk and the Texans easing his workload in comparison to previous years, and with Tate clearly being a decent sleeper, owners will grab Tate if he's there just on the hunch that he'll have some good opportunities to play. This is an extreme case but owners would save a lot of time and headache, not to mention their seasons, by carrying Tate with Foster all year.

Here's a look at all the relevant backup running backs worth handcuffing this summer, listed in order of importance.

Handcuff Playing behind Round? Handcuff Playing behind Round?
Ben Tate Arian Foster 6th Lance Dunbar DeMarco Murray 11th
Ronnie Hillman Montee Ball 7th Kendall Hunter Frank Gore 11th
Bryce Brown LeSean McCoy 8th Knile Davis Jamaal Charles 11th
Bilal Powell Chris Ivory 8th Shonn Greene Chris Johnson 11th
Bernard Pierce Ray Rice 8th Alfonso Smith Rashard Mendenhall 12th
Andre Brown David Wilson 8th Joique Bell Reggie Bush 12th
BenJarvus Green-Ellis Giovani Bernard 9th Rashad Jennings Darren McFadden 12th
Vick Ballard Ahmad Bradshaw 10th Michael Bush Matt Forte 13th
Fred Jackson C.J. Spiller 10th Toby Gerhart Adrian Peterson 13th
Danny Woodhead Ryan Mathews 10th Mike James Doug Martin 13th

Any starting running back whose handcuff did not make the list either has one you can take with one of your last three picks or simply isn't valuable enough to carry as a handcuff.

The alternative to handcuffing is to simply load up on running backs and use a starter on someone else's team as roster insurance. A few owners in leagues that start two running backs will spend three of their first four choices on backs just to have an early jump on talent. In drafts where quarterbacks and receivers go early, the trio of backs will look golden.

You don't even have to do that, though. Take two backs early, add three other starters at other positions and run roughshod through running backs with all but one of your next five picks. They're like lottery tickets -- the more running backs you have, the more chances you have to cash in on a productive one. Remember, aim for the unique backs and not necessarily the "names."

The rookie class

We got treated well last year. Three great rookie rushers in Alfred Morris, Doug Martin and Trent Richardson along with other promising youngsters like David Wilson and Lamar Miller flashed and are in the mix to be great young contributors for Fantasy owners for a while.

The 2013 rookie class isn't quite as talented. The NFL can back me up on that one -- April's draft was the first since 1963 where a running back wasn't taken in Round 1. Of course, these guys can still prove the scouts wrong #ALF-style, but high expectations just aren't in order like they were last year. Here's my look at the class of 2013.

Blood, sweat and tiers

Keeping up with the running back rankings is non-stop work. Expect changes from these tiers based on news and injuries out of camps (I'll be updating all of my tiers in August), but for now they're good. Always consult our three-headed rankings during your drafts. Hopefully future changes will clear up some of the white space in this chart -- for now the blanks are proof of the potential steep drop in running back talent come Draft Day.

But the point of tiers in general is to sort running backs by expectations, then select from each group of backs based in part by value in relation to your draft. That sounded kind of nerdy. Let me try again. Just draft really awesome running backs and beat everyone in your Fantasy league! Yep, much better.

Elite Near-Elite Excellent Very Good
1500+ total yards, 11+ TDs 1300+ total yards, 8+ TDs 1100+ total yards, 7+ TDs 1000+ total yards, 7+ TDs
Adrian Peterson Matt Forte Reggie Bush Darren Sproles
Doug Martin Chris Johnson DeMarco Murray Lamar Miller
Trent Richardson Stevan Ridley David Wilson Frank Gore
C.J. Spiller Steven Jackson Maurice Jones-Drew Eddie Lacy
Jamaal Charles      
Marshawn Lynch      
Alfred Morris      
Ray Rice      
Arian Foster      
LeSean McCoy      
Good Good enough High-end backups Low-end backups
1000+ total yards, 6+ TDs 900+ total yards, 5+ TDs    
Giovani Bernard Rashard Mendenhall Bilal Powell/Chris Ivory Pierre Thomas
Ryan Mathews Shane Vereen BenJarvus Green-Ellis Shonn Greene
Darren McFadden Ahmad Bradshaw Bernard Pierce Kendall Hunter
  Montee Ball Bryce Brown Ronnie Hillman
  Daryl Richardson Vick Ballard Joique Bell
  Mark Ingram Danny Woodhead Fred Jackson
  Ben Tate   Isaiah Pead
  DeAngelo Williams   Knowshon Moreno

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 .

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