Position Primer: Martin, others, proof running theory isn’t dead

Roto Arcade

Under almost every roof in America, Momisms are ever-present, entrenched sayings interwoven into the fabric of family. Growing up in the cornfields of Central Illinois, my mother was no different. Some of her favorite quips:

“Eat your vegetables. Children in China are starving.”

“Pick up your room. I’m your mother, not your maid.”

“Never date a girl named Destiny. She probably has daddy issues.”

Yep, no stone was left unturned in the Evans household.

This year, if my mom played fantasy football, chances are she would impart wisdom on anyone who asked. Her advice:

“Don’t draft a running back in Round 1, and you’ll sorely regret it.”

Listen to moms. She’s absolutely right. The running theory, clinging to life last year due to the rising popularity of backfield timeshares and spike in quarterback values, is again alive and very well. Overshadowed by the league's relentless vertical bombardment, workhorse running backs, though still on the endangered species list, are slowly making a comeback. Going RB-RB is trendy once again.

Giddy up.

Dictated by league rules and scoring systems, every drafter has their own personal preference when it comes to approaching running back. However, because the tier-to-tier drop-off remains the steepest in Fantasyland (-9.0 points per game from RB1 to RB24 last year) and due to the continued lack of 300-touch rushers (10 in 2012), it's imperative for prospective investors to pound the position early and often. With absurd six-point per passing touchdown leagues the lone exception, a rusher deserves to be drafted with 11 of the first 12 picks. In standard or PPR settings, only Calvin Johnson has a strong argument to buck the early run-heavy trend.

The pool of top-flight RBs is the deepest its been in years. In a spread-heavy age, multidimensional rushers have become all the rage. The reason is obvious. Swiss Army Knives like LeSean McCoy beat defenders in variable ways, a headache for opponents to prepare for. Several RBs possess that type of skill set. Whether you're talking McCoy, Doug Martin, Jamaal Charles, C.J. Spiller or Trent Richardson each has reasonable odds of accumulating 1,700-2,000 total yards with 10-15 TDs and 60-plus receptions, eye-popping numbers that, if tallied, would have either sitting atop the RB ranks come January. Others well-rounded contributors like Matt Forte, Lamar Miller and rookie Le'Veon Bell may not lag far behind.

Of course, given the physical nature of the position, risk is unavoidable. Since 2008, 41.3 percent of RBs drafted inside the position's top-12 didn't finish top-15, a staggering failure rate when compared to QBs and, to a lesser extent, WRs. In a violent game where vicious hits, awkward cuts and Ryan Mathews shattered collarbones are common, it's a gamble every fantasy manager must take. Still, the rewards can be grand. Among Yahoo!'s top-five MVPs last year, three where running backs.

Last season, fantasy pundits screamed 'diversity' in the early rounds. However, due to extreme depth at QB, WR (It's dwindling but remains deep) and TE after Jimmy Graham, it's smart to ground-and-pound out of the gate.

Everyone and their mother should know that.


Below are pressing questions about the risers, fallers and baby crawlers at the RB position this season:

Few would disagree, but Adrian Peterson, off one of the all-time great season, is the consensus No. 1 running back in average drafts. Get ballsy. What rusher currently ranked outside the RB top-15 according to average drafts is his biggest threat?

Andy – First of all, I'll just point out the real reason you should draft Peterson first overall. It's not because he happened to be the No. 1 fantasy back last year, but because he's ranked top-8 in every season of his career, with five top-3 finishes. He's never had a down year. His floor is still first-round value. That said, give me DeMARCO MURRAY and DARREN McFADDEN here. Either of those two, if by some miracle they play full 16-game seasons, would have a shot at the top spot.

Brad – LE'VEON BELL. If there's a Doug Martin in this year's draft class, it's the 'Big Rig.' He possesses the power, size, versatility, wiggle and hurdling ability to explode onto the fantasy scene. Pittsburgh's O-line must stay healthy, but without much competition for touches, a 1,300-1,500 total yards 12-15-TD campaign is no drug-induced hallucination.

Brandon – LAMAR MILLER. I've tossed out this stat before this summer, and it's worth mentioning again here: Miami finished No. 7 in RB fantasy production last season. And with Reggie Bush gone, I don't see any serious competition for Miller in the Fins' backfield - sorry, Daniel Thomas. With Miller's breakaway ability, a workload of 250-300 touches could go a long ways.

Maurice Jones-Drew had an interesting offseason clocking a nightclub bouncer, crushing Big Macs all the while resting his surgically repaired foot. Now leaner and reportedly healthy, the 28-year-old is hopeful he will regain his foothold among the elites in a contract year. OVER/UNDER 1,299.5 total yards

Brad – OVER. Don't tell me Blaine Gabbert's despicable play will greatly suppress MJD's contributions. Remember what he accomplished in an identical situation two years ago? That's right, top-three RB numbers. The retooled O-line must jell quickly, but ultra-confident – he picked himself No. 1 overall in Sirius/XM's fantasy celebrity draft – in line for 300-plus touches and motivated to silence critics, he easily overachieves. Last year's preempted season was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Brandon – OVER. I'm an unapologetic MoJo supporter. Before last season's derailment, he had topped this number in five of his first six season, including 1,600-plus total yards in each of the three seasons prior to '12. Healthy again, and still the straw that stirs the Jags' drink, I think MoJo easily tops this number.

Scott – OVER. The Pinball Machine was a bankable stud for our purposes over his first six years, and even last season looked good on a per-play basis. The offense hasn't been fixed, but that's never stopped MJD in the past. More importantly, the foot has been fixed. Good value here.

After he experienced a dramatic decline in yards per carry last season and shouldered a burdensome load, many associated with the fantasy industry have predicted a hard fall for Arian Foster in 2013. With the rusher battling a strained calf and now a sore back, confidence in him continues to wane. On the fear factor scale of 1-10 with one being death by Sharknado and 10 breathing fresh air, where does owning Foster rank?

Brandon – SEVEN. We've been down this injury-scare road before with Foster. But he's tough, and I expect he'll battle through once again. Houston is still a premium piece of rushing real estate and I'd have no issues taking Foster at No.2 in my draft. I'd just make sure to reach a round early for his backup, Ben Tate. Having controlling interest in the Texans backfield is worth it.

Scott – Call it a SEVEN - the Texans are whistling an optimistic tune and I'll take them at their word. Those double-digit touchdown lock players don't grow on trees. Foster knows how to prepare, how to take care of his body.

Dalton – I'll say a solid THREE-FOUR, especially since he was the consensus No. 2 pick entering summer. Foster has fallen out of my top-five, but that's also a reflection of numerous younger, exciting players in situations with a bunch of upside as viable alternatives, not just his injury concerns. Foster still deserves to be a first round pick, but it's hard to deny there's legitimate risk here.

As discussed above the failure rate among first-round RBs is rather significant. What high-profiled back taken on average inside the RB top-12 will have you consulting Jack Daniels come year's end?

Scott – JAMAAL CHARLES has never scored more than eight touchdowns in a season and his modest build makes you wonder how much of a workload he can absorb. I know, Andy Reid fixes everything, that's the party line. But I'm hoping to land a safer pick in the first round.

Dalton – I'm going to stick with ARIAN FOSTER. It's not just his career-low 4.1 YPC last season that's scary, but his his huge drop in production as a receiver (he had 400 more yards the prior year in three fewer games). He's still young, but Foster has accrued 1,061 carries over the last three seasons (while missing three games), and Houston's offensive line is trending in the wrong direction.

Andy – I'll go MATT FORTE here, although I expect to actually own him in a fair number of leagues. More than any of the other top-12 backs, he really needs a significant yardage total. He's had his struggles at the goal line, never rushing for more than eight TDs in any season.

PPR Pick 'em. Who finishes the season with more receptions: Matt Forte, Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles or dark-horse Shane Vereen?

Dalton – SPROLES. I would prefer Reggie Bush overall without question, but if we are predicting receptions alone, give me Sproles, who's totaled 161 catches over his two years since joining New Orleans. Ray Rice has the second most among RBs over this span with 137 receptions, and Sproles missed three games last season.

Andy – SPROLES, probably by a comfortable margin. He caught 75 balls in just 13 games last season and 86 the year before. His role is well-known; with these other three backs, we're just guessing.

Brad – BUSH. Matthew Stafford's exhausting 1,390 pass attempts the past two years greatly favors arguably the best receiving back in the game. Provided he avoids injury, it's entirely possible he goes all Charlie Garner 2002 on the competition. Sketchy defense will again have the Lions playing from behind often. Fearless forecast: 87 catches.

Several rushers in the middle rounds have 'Fragile, handle with care' labels slapped on their chests. Among brittle backs Darren McFadden, DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews, Rashard Mendenhall and Ahmad Bradshaw, who possesses the lowest risk?

Andy – MURRAY, even though he has the highest draft-day price. We're only two years into his career, so it seems a bit early to slap a label on him. It's not like he has any sort of chronic problem, or a severe injury in his recent past.

Brad – BRADSHAW. The ex-Giant, currently on the active/PUP list, has most feeling uneasy. However, he's vowed to return for Week 1 and is blessed with a fantastic opportunity. His jack-of-all-trades skill set will thrust him into a lead role, one he likely won't relinquish. His feet may be made of Jell-O, but it would be no surprise if he finishes well inside the RB top-24.

Brandon – BRADSHAW. This whole group is fraught with peril, frankly. But Bradshaw is the biggest warrior of this group, and once he's back on the field, I think he's going to be the hardest one to knock back out of action. But it's a crapshoot, no doubt.

Last year, Doug Martin, Alfred Morris and Trent Richardson experienced break out rookie seasons. From that same loaded draft class, what sophomore rusher makes the quantum leap this year: Lamar Miller or David Wilson?

Brad – MILLER. Botching his first touch of the preseason last Sunday night in Canton, Miller instantly became the focal point of owner overreaction. However, he eased concerns, ripping off consecutive runs of 10-plus yards, displaying explosion, sharp vision and shifty feet. Daniel Thomas, meanwhile, resembled a bag of cement on a flat-tired wheelbarrow. Believe the hype. By season's end his line will read 260-1,200-45-450-11.

Brandon – MILLER. There's no Andre Brown to contend with in Miami. Miller's path to the next level is a little less complicated than Wilson's.

Scott – WILSON hardly saw the football last year but he still scored three touchdowns from distance (outside the 40). The Giants know what's possible with this explosive playmaker. I don't dislike Miller at all - and I could see Miami sneaking into playoff contention - but Wilson would be my first pick in this bracket.

Le'Veon Bell is the unanimous choice to lead this year's rookie RB pack. Who is the 'Big Rig's' biggest challenger: Montee Ball, Giovani Bernard, Eddie Lacy or Wildcard?

Brandon – LACY. I have Lacy higher than Bell now. The Alabama product should be a big TD force given his power tools, and the likelihood that the Packers will once again visit the red one often. Lacy is having a strong summer and seems to be distancing himself from the competition.

Scott – I'll be surprised if BALL doesn't eventually shove the other Denver backs out of the way; the Broncos know there's no great upside to Ronnie Hillman or Knowshon Moreno. Ball didn't get many passing-game reps at the end of his Wisconsin career, but this isn't Differential Calculus - you can teach most players to adequately catch the ball and execute blitz pickups. The cloudy news cycle in camp this month isn't a bad thing - it's bringing Ball's price down for you.

Dalton – LACY. I keep changing my mind on this, and his recent photo was anything but flattering. I still wouldn't be shocked if Ball ultimately ends up as the leading RB scorer among rookies, but there's real worry Denver implements a full blown committee. Unlike Ball, Lacy's biggest competition is another rookie, and Lacy is at minimum the favorite for goal-line carries in Green Bay.

Avoiding overlap with question No. 1, what other running back in early drafts is the most underrated?

Scott – Marc Trestman turned Charlie Garner into a weapon back in the Oakland days; get ready for MATT FORTE to catch 80 or more passes. Some lucky owners might be able to steal Forte as their second back.

Dalton – SHANE VEREEN. I won't pretend Vereen doesn't come without hype, but he also enters 2013 as his team's clear No. 2 back, so he's not overly expensive at draft tables. He's going to be utilized in many ways for an explosive Patriots squad that needs someone to step up to fill some voids. I fully expect Vereen to be an RB2 regardless, but if Stevan Ridley were to get hurt, he'd possess top-five upside.

Andy – DeANGELO WILLIAMS. With Stewart broken, DeAngelo has a clear path to carries in what should be a very good run game. He's basically an afterthought in drafts.

Conversely, what running back in early drafts is the most overrated?

Dalton – STEVEN JACKSON. He looked good down the stretch last season and now enters a more favorable situation in Atlanta, but I just can't spend a top pick on a running back with a career 2,395 rushing attempts. Over the last four seasons, Jackson has averaged 337.0 touches per season and yet, he's also averaged just 5.0 touchdowns. More goal-line opportunities are likely to be in store with the Falcons, but it's not an area in which he's excelled throughout his career.

Andy – FRANK GORE. He's clearly a useful player, but I don't think his team intends to give him more than 245-265 carries. The Niners don't lean on him in the passing game these days, either.

Brad – CHRIS JOHNSON. Tennessee's rebuilt offensive line is promising, but last year's seesaw will again be a king of inconsistency. Lack of enthusiasm over Jake Locker and the pass game combined with Johnson's tap-dancing persona and Shonn Greene's presence at the goal-line don't lend much confidence. You can find better values/more reliable options well after where CJ2Lame is going in drafts (ADP: 17.8).

Play the Powerball. What rusher going after pick No. 100 has the best odds of striking it rich in 2013?

Andy – Guess I'll go DeANGELO again. He's clearly the No. 1 guy in Carolina, while Stewart recovers from his various procedures. He won't get the goal line action, but he'll dominate carries elsewhere.

Brad – PIERRE THOMAS. The PT Bruiser, criminally underused over the past couple seasons, could soon reappear on a virtual gridiron near you. Atop the Saints' initial RB depth-chart, he has the inside track on perennial abomination Mark Ingram for early-down/goal-line work. With Darren Sproles' role set, PT could garner 13-16 touches per game. That happens, and a return to 2009 (1,095 total yards, 8 touchdowns) is entirely reasonable.

Brandon – DEANGELO WLLIAMS. We're seriously overlooking the fact Jonathan Stewart isn't remotely healthy and Carolina is reverting to a more traditional ground-heavy approach. Late-round gold.

Scott – Everyone sees the obvious fleas with Steven Jackson at this stage of the game, and the Falcons were using JACQUIZZ RODGERS more extensively in last year's second half. Rodgers improved his YPC by a full yard in the second half, and he was useful in two playoff games. Even if he's capped around 175-200 touches, this is someone you want to target in the middle rounds.

Dalton – According to ADP in Yahoo! leagues, SHANE VEREEN is going on average at pick No. 108.9, behind the likes of Vick Ballard. Even Amanda Bynes thinks that's irrational.

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