Just a few short seasons ago, the fantasy community housed special feelings for the running back position. Scoring machines LaDainian Tomlinson, Priest Holmes, Shaun Alexander and whatever previously unforeseen starter Lucifer Shanahan was peddling were kings of consistency, indispensible cornerstones on millions of championship rosters. It's no small wonder why the running theory (Going RB-RB-RB in Rounds 1-3) was a strategy many owners adhered to. Sure, there were always risks involved, but the payoff potential was enormous. Saddle up multiple Clydesdales, and a champagne shower was practically a foregone conclusion.
Then the football gods peed in our nachos.
Now here we stand. Several unsuccessful playoff appearances, broken hearts and bitter beers later, RB is largely a hard-to-decipher position. Save for the workhorse oligarchy — Arian Foster, Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy — uncertainties are inescapable. In this pass-happy age, ground roles are more specialized, leading many clubs to install frustrating timeshares. Worst yet, this year, unlike no other, several player-specific issues have complicated matters, causing draft day fits. A taste:
Maurice Jones-Drew — Still locked in a contract dispute with Jags management. The most recent indications suggest the holdout could drag into the regular season.
Ryan Mathews — Broken clavicle. Bolt could miss the first 2-3 games of the regular season.
Trent Richardson — Hyped rookie underwent a second knee scope last week. Browns head coach Pat Shurmur is optimistic he will return for Week 1, but that's far from a guarantee.
Adrian Peterson — Despite a royal rumble with off-duty police officers and a bout of food-poisoning, his recovery from last Christmas Eve's knee-mangling has come along smoothly. He was officially activated off the PUP Sunday. However, it's likely he'll be eased in slowly over first three weeks or so of the regular season.
Darren McFadden —He would break a bone running through a cloud. His No. 1 potential is real, but he hasn't played in more than 13 games in a season yet.
Matt Forte — Signed on the dotted line in July after threatening a lengthy holdout. Knees appear to be in good shape, for now, but Michael Bush could vulture goal-line carries.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Beyond the suspect profiles listed above, other evidence suggests why overspending on high-profiled RBs is a risky business. Since 2007, 33.3 percent or 4.6 rushers per year drafted as RB1s failed to meet expectations, finishing outside the top-15 in per game average. Last year, five bombed. Because of the numerous afflictions currently impacting the position, it would be no surprise if that number doubled in 2012, a very ominous outlook.
So, what's the best way to approach the position this year? Who will surprise? Who will stink? What late-rounders have Shocker Special qualities? Here are eight pressing questions:
Andy — Well, it's not as if the uncertainty is limited to the mid-rounds. As soon as the top-three backs are off the board (Foster, Rice and McCoy), drafters are forced to deal with holdouts (MJD), injury-risks (McFadden) and bounce-back candidates (CJ2K). It's not at all unreasonable to veer away from the position in the first round, if you can snag Megatron or one of the 5,000-yard QBs. To me, the backs available in Round 2 look just as good as those who are typically taken in the late-first.
Scott — I still feel very good about the backfield trinity. After they're off the board, you have my permission to turn RB into a "quantity" position - spending premium picks on other spots.
Dalton — It's a mistake to avoid them in the early part of round 1, when workhorse options who are more valuable than ever like Foster, McCoy, Rice (and maybe even Chris Johnson) are available. After that, it's a huge crap shoot, so I can't blame anyone for going another route.
Arian Foster is the unquestioned top dog of the RB class, but what other back could actually pack more bite?
Scott — If you want to pick Ray Rice before Arian Foster, I'm not going to arm wrestle with you. In one league where I had first choice of draft slots, I opted for the No. 2 pick - then selected Rice.
Dalton — I wouldn't take a Foster vs. the field bet, but I'd take a Foster vs. any other back wager, so my answer is "no one." But if I had to choose, I'd go with LeSean McCoy. Yes, it's safe to expect last year's TD production to regress, but he just scored 20 touchdowns in 15 games as a 23-year-old. His receiving numbers should bounce back this year too.
Brad — Darren McFadden could seize the pole position this year. Obviously health is a concern, but by some act of God he plays 16 games, he's capable of 2,000 total yards and 15 TDs. Oakland should be relatively conservative again this year. It's O-line is also one of the AFC's best. Absurd? Fine, but It's not unfathomable.
What question mark will answer the call: Ryan Mathews, Trent Richardson, Maurice Jones-Drew or Adrian Peterson?
Dalton — What a tough question. A week ago I was willing to take Mathews and Richardson both as top-six picks overall, but now, I guess I'd probably take Peterson first among this group. I'm taking Julio Jones above all of them at this point.
Brad — Call me crazy, but I still have the utmost confidence in Mathews. It's an environment ripe for fantasy success. Even if he misses the full six weeks, his 13 games could be spectacular. Bargain shoppers who acquire his services in Round 2 or beyond are picking pockets.
Brandon — I can't shake this voice in the back of my head telling me that everything is gonna be alright for MoJo. This is a no-win situation for both sides and I'm betting that there's a resolution by Labor Day.
Brad — Isaac Redman continues to grow on me. Though Chris Rainey and Jonathan Dwyer will carve out minor roles, the former backup should dominate touches with Rashard Mendenhall out. Last year, he ranked fifth among RBs in yards after contact per attempt. That break tackle ability combined with his versatility could lead to mid-range RB2 numbers in 12-team leagues.
Brandon — So many to choose from … but my favorite is Jonathan Stewart. He's the team's best all-around back in a run-heavy system. It'll be criminal if he doesn't get 200-plus carries this season.
Andy — Willis McGahee is going outside the top-50 overall picks, but he's coming of a terrific season, his team's offensive outlook has improved greatly, and he has a firm grip on the starter's role.
Pick a platooner: Peyton Hillis, C.J. Spiller, Ryan Williams, David Wilson or Roy Helu.
Brandon — I'll take Ram-Man because KC is likely to run the ball as much as anyone this year and Hillis will get a heavy share of that, including goal line work. And, of course, there's Jamaal Charles' knee …
Andy — Hillis, please. The Chiefs are going to run all day, enough to support two starting-quality fantasy backs. Hillis has been reunited with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, the guy who choreographed the Browns' offense in 2010. You might recall that Hillis was plenty useful that year.
Scott — Like many other pundits, I'm picking Ryan Williams to win the starting gig in Arizona. Maybe it's because we're all allergic to Beanie Wells.
What highly-touted rusher are you giving the stiff-arm this year?
Andy — Doug Martin has been waaaay oversold as a Ray Rice clone. That's just a recklessly unrealistic comparison. He was a good-not-great back at Boise State, and he could very well share the rushing workload in his rookie season.
Scott — The Ryan Mathews hype started early and it's continued through his much-discussed injury. Mathews thinks he's returning quickly? Every athlete says that. This guy was probably hurt in Kindergarten, where he ran with scissors and then fumbled them.
Dalton — I don't have a controversial answer here I don't think, but I'll say I'd be surprised if Michael Turner, Marshawn Lynch, Steven Jackson or Frank Gore end up on any of my teams this year.
What overlooked backs are worth their weight in gold in PPR leagues?
Scott — I know the Packers haven't thrown to their backs much in recent years, but I'm still curious to see how Joe Philbin utilizes Reggie Bush in Miami. The best coaches work talent-to-scheme, not the other way around. And Bush has finally figured out how to run in the NFL.
Dalton — Not sure how overlooked they are but I'll go with Kevin Smith, Pierre Thomas and Rashad Jennings.
Brad — Pierre Thomas might be the second-best PPR option on his own team, but he's hardly a slouch. His 50 receptions a year ago ranked eighth among RBs. Unless an injury fells Sproles or Mark Ingram, he'll likely rack roughly 10-12 touches per game, but nearly half should come through the air. Rookie Ronnie Hillman is another great late-round target capable of 50-plus catches.
Play the Powerball, what late-round lottery ticket could make owners zillions?
Andy — Giants rookie David Wilson is just one injury away from a starring role in a high-yield offense, and he's running behind an injury-prone back
Brad — With no resolution in sight between Maurice Jones-Drew and Jags' management, Rashad Jennings is fascinating. He's a bulky back with a legit three-down skill set who's averaged 5.3 yards per carry in his two-year career. His strong preseason effort versus New York might just be the beginning. Roughly 2-4 starts could be in his near future.
Brandon — I love Jacquizz Rodgers but he's crept up out of the late rounds in drafts of late, so give me Isaiah Pead, a rookie that Jeff Fisher likens to Chris Johnson. And he's backing up the most high-mileage back in the league
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