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Reality Check: Not a passing fad

Senior Fantasy Writer
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You know my biggest regret so far this season? Drafting Chris Ivory in one of my leagues.

You know my second-biggest regret so far this season? Drafting Montee Ball in three of my leagues.

You know what position they play? Running back. (That was an easy one.)

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You know how much that means to me right now? Zilch.

Oh, but it meant something on Draft Day. "A third running back! I have to get a third running back!"

Did I? I mean, I understand I'll eventually need one for bye weeks and such, but did I have to prioritize one for my flex spot, especially if I had an inkling he wouldn't deliver starting-caliber numbers?

The NFL is a passing league. We've known it since about 2009, when the number of 4,000-yard passers jumped from six to 10. Then came the three 5,000-yard passers of 2011. Then came the 11 4,000-yard passers of last year.

Then came Week 1 of this year -- or what I'm calling our clearest indication yet that it's only getting worse.

Or better, depending on your perspective.

Of the little bit of data we have so far, what stands out to me most isn't the seven touchdown passes for Peyton Manning or the 208 receiving yards for Anquan Boldin. It's the fact that, of every running back who saw the field last weekend, between all 32 teams, only two ran for 100 yards.

Come again?

I don't know about you, but I still view the century mark as the standard for greatness. Touchdowns are obviously the game-changers in Fantasy, but they're so hard to predict from week to week that I try not to lose sleep over them. As long as I can trust my guy to drop triple digits more often than not, I know I'll feel good about his production in the end.

OK, so maybe more often than not is too much to ask, but half the time? Or even one-third?

Not if the new weekly standard is two. Between everybody. At that rate, I just hope mine gets a turn at some point.

I say that partly in jest, but even the two who achieved the feat in Week 1 aren't assured steady production going forward. Shane Vereen most definitely isn't. He's out until Week 11 with a broken wrist. LeSean McCoy at least has a chance, but I can't help but think his 184-yard outburst Monday night was at least partially a case of the up-tempo Chip Kelly offense taking the league by surprise. It might not be so easy once more game film becomes available.

And those who didn't reach 100 yards? Among them is Adrian Peterson, who nearly broke the single-season rushing record last year. He fell short even despite gaining 78 yards on his first carry. Arian Foster, the model of safe and steady production over the last three years, barely made it halfway to 100, and C.J. Spiller, everyone's favorite breakout candidate, didn't even lead his team in rushing.

I've done this Fantasy Football thing for a while now -- not as long as some of you, but long enough that ... well, let's just say I owned Chris Chandler once upon a time. I'm fully aware of the weirdness that ensues from week to week and understand that overreacting to it is irresponsible, in many ways.

But this particular weirdness was so widespread and so fitting with recent trends that I can't help but feel like it represents something bigger.

Just to use Week 1 of last year as an example -- when, remember, the NFL was still a passing league -- a good five running backs ran for 100 yards then.

Not impressed? OK, but what if I told you an additional four eclipsed 90 yards compared to only two this year? It's not like I picked some arbitrary cutoff to make my point. This year's crop wasn't coming close to 100.

Using the 90-yard threshold, the comparison is four running backs in Week 1 this year compared to nine in Week 1 last year. That's significant.

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Especially when you consider that effectiveness was as much this crop's issue as usage. I understand that the increasing number of split backfields will cut into rushing totals, but how do you explain Alfred Morris averaging 3.8 yards per carry? Or Trent Richardson averaging 3.6? Or Foster at 3.2, Maurice Jones-Drew at 3.0, Ray Rice at 3.0, Chris Johnson at 2.8, Matt Forte at 2.6, Marshawn Lynch at 2.5, Spiller at 2.4 and Frank Gore at 2.1? Those are just the high-end types.

I know. Weird.

If the NFL is a passing league and defenses are geared to stop the pass, why was every team's running game so ineffective? Have they all deteriorated from lack of use?

These are the questions that keep me up at night.

So now that I've thoroughly convinced you your team is doomed, the sky is falling and there's no hope for tomorrow, I give you the bright side: Those yards still have to go to someone. Teams are running less because they're passing more, which means whatever the running backs lose, the wide receivers and tight ends gain.

It's evident in the Week 1 results. Fifteen wide receivers eclipsed 100 yards compared to 10 last year. Three tight ends reached the century mark compared to zero last year. Using 90 yards as the basis for comparison, it's 20-to-11 for wide receivers and 4-to-0 for tight ends.

Fortunately, if you play with a flex spot in Fantasy, you can adapt to these developments. While conventional wisdom has always advised a third running back for that spot -- which is what compelled me to draft Ivory and Ball in the first place -- a third wide receiver or even second tight end could become standard fare.

Yes, tight end, that position so long begrudged by Fantasy owners for its uninspiring production, could suddenly be their saving grace. Because of who throws them the ball or who else could fill their role in the passing game, I don't so much trust Jerome Simpson, Brian Hartline, Rueben Randle, Harry Douglas or Kenny Stills just yet, but I didn't hesitate to put in a claim for Julius Thomas or Jordan Cameron this week.

In one league, I made a play for Thomas even though I had both Cameron and Martellus Bennett on my roster. And in an 18-team league where such a decision was viable, I prioritized Dallas Clark as a second tight end over Marlon Brown as a fifth wide receiver, remembering how much I liked Dennis Pitta to step up his production sans Anquan Boldin before breaking his hip July 27. Hey, 12 targets are hard to ignore, even for a 34-year-old has-been. Clark isn't a priority pickup in standard 12-team leagues just yet, but he gets consistent looks from Joe Flacco over the middle, he could get there.

Now, before you panic and offer up your Spiller or Lynch for Andre Johnson or Vincent Jackson, understand that I'm acting on this observation only with the fringes of my roster, with those peripheral pieces that probably weren't going to have a say in whether I won or lost anyway. I'm not dropping Ivory or Ball just yet, but I am dropping handcuffs like Bilal Powell and Ronnie Hillman.

Why them? Even if something happened to make them the lead rusher for their respective teams, I wouldn't trust them to put up relevant Fantasy numbers. I'm already wondering if I'll ever have reason to start Ivory or Ball. Based on what I saw in Week 1, I'm ditching any plans to use them in my flex spot and rostering them strictly for depth. Why back up the backups?

So why back up anyone? Well, look what else is out there. Plenty of interesting wide receivers and tight ends, but not so many running backs. As teams throw more and more, quality running backs become less and less, making the few who remain all the more valuable. Though I was discouraged by what I saw from Spiller and Lynch in terms of production, I still value them more than the top wide receivers and tight ends. Who on earth would I get to replace them?

To some degree, I believe these things are cyclical. If offenses continue to pile up yards like they did in Week 1, defenses will sell out even more for the pass, freeing up more running room and allowing for more 90- and 100-yard games. And of course, the average running back will always have a better opportunity for touchdowns than the average wide receiver or tight end just because of short-yardage situations. Chances are most of those Week 1 disappointments -- Spiller, Lynch, Richardson, Morris, Jones-Drew, etc. -- will still end up being huge assets for your Fantasy team.

But mostly because every team has to start two running backs, and I don't think there are enough to go around.

Good luck finding that third one.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB . You can also follow Scott via Twitter @CBSScottWhite .

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