If my mother put on a helmet and shoulder pads and a uniform that wasn't the same as the one I was wearing, I'd run over her if she was in my way. And I love my mother.- – Bo Jackson
Death. Taxes. And a plethora of running backs selected in the first two rounds of your fantasy football draft. These are three of life's guarantees.
Running backs are the tequila of the margarita, the gin in the martini and the mysterious elixir that spikes a boring holiday punch. Without them, unattractive people would never get lucky, rock stars wouldn't have Behind the Music stories and your fantasy team would reek of elephant dung year after year. The life of the fantasy party, they are the key position in determining whether you hoist a trophy or hug a toilet.
But are they really?
My argument has always been the same: In non-points-per-reception (PPR) formats you must have a RB-first mentality in the early rounds. On the contrary, over the past few weeks I have received numerous emails from non-believers, fantasy pagans if you will. These drafting hedonists have won leagues using an altered formula that strays away from the preconceived running back heavy notion. Their approach: Take a running back in Round 1 then subsequently avoid the position for two-to-four picks in favor of wide-receivers and/or quarterbacks. With my interest piqued, I decided to investigate the RB-RB strategy further. Why were these guys still winning leagues? Were they playing with a bunch of village idiots? Is the running theory hogwash?
This is what I discovered …
Below is a chart depicting underdog running backs that finished in the top 20 at their position from 2001-2005 despite being selected after the 60th overall pick in fantasy drafts:
CADP = Combined ADP, or the average draft pick of players listed for a given year
Here is what the chart tells us:
1. About four running backs selected after Round 5 finished in the top 20 at their position in an average year.
2. Only three undrafted players became RB top 20 material by year's end – Rhodes in '01, Davis in '03 and Droughns in '04.
3. Based on CADP results, the average round you could potentially find a diamond in the rough is Round 10, or pick 121.
4. Only eight players selected after pick 120 – Antowain Smith, Anthony Thomas, Jamel White, Domanick Davis, Jerome Bettis, Reuben Droughns in '04, Michael Pittman and Willie Parker – finished in the RB top 20.
5. Since 2001, 1.6 players/year taken between Rounds 5-8 ended the season in the RB top 20.
What does this all mean?
You're playing Russian roulette if you don't select two backs early. It's conceivable – although an enhanced risk – to avoid the running theory and win your fantasy Super Bowl in a non-PPR performance league that starts two RBs and three WRs. For example, if you were to take Chad Johnson in Round 2 instead of Domanick Davis and go Randy Moss in Round 3 over Corey Dillon, you would have to roll craps on a marginal back in Round 4 or later to be a significant force. And if 2006 is anything like 2003, your team will make you feel like you're trapped at Bed, Bath and Beyond towel shopping with your wife on a fall Sunday. Of course, you could be a waiver hawk and find short-term solutions like Samkon Gado, Greg Jones and Marion Barber, all of whom filled in brilliantly in small dosages last year, but you can't count on that being a consistent option. As the evidence confirms, there are few guarantees after the top 20 backs come off the board.
Those in denial ask: "You call yourself a fantasy expert? What about the guys who won their leagues avoiding your asinine nonsense?"
Chalk it up to luck, genius fortitude, whatever, the nonconformists won only because they were able to hit the bull's-eye in the dark or pull off a lopsided trade. Typically, a 12-team draft will go 50 backs deep. After the top 20 are gone, you have roughly a 14 percent chance of finding a football Jesus out of the remaining pool of uncertainty. If that isn't stabbing in the dark with a Swiss army knife, what is?
The bottom line: If you want to build a championship caliber squad, take two dependable backs in the infant stages of your draft. Yes, there will be busts every season as Ahman Green and Jamal Lewis painfully reminded us of last year, but if you bank on a potential mid-round gem as a No. 2 or No. 3 and he turns into a lump of coal, you will be strung out on Zoloft by December.
Ideally, a RB-WR-RB strategy is highly effective in 12-team and shallower leagues that start three receivers. For those in deeper formats, stick with the typical RB-RB-WR thinking due to the enormous tier-to-tier decline at running back. Why the difference? As noted in last week's Noise, the slide from the first to tenth running back has averaged an eye-popping difference of 26.2 percent since 2001. Regardless of what routes you choose, remember that depth at RB is a necessity for injury replacements and trading purposes. For me, I'm sticking with the status quo: No less than two running backs in the first three rounds and a minimum of five on my total roster.
Who are this year's most desirable mid-round backs? What workhorse will make you holla for little dollas? Here are my top RB sleepers of 2006:
Reuben Droughns, Cle
2005 Stats: 309 ATT, 1,232 YDs, 4.0 YPC, 39 REC, 369 YDs, 2 TDs
Y! ADP: 59.9
Lowdown: Droughns is the hot librarian that just needs a little bubbly and a 313-pound lineman to unwind. Despite accumulating the quietest 1,200-yard rushing season in recent memory, he found the end-zone fewer times than Jaguars back-up quarterback David Garrard. Very consistent in yardage leagues, Droughns had 10 games of 70-plus yards and finished in the top 10 in receiving yards among running backs. The additions of center LeCharles Bentley – nicknamed "The Maneater" – and tackle Kevin Shaffer will certainly spike his goal-line touches on a rising Browns team. He is without question a topflight No. 3 back that will likely total 1,500 yards and 6-8 TDs.
Deuce McAllister, NO
2005 Stats: 93 ATT, 335 YDs, 3.6 YPC, 17 REC, 117 YDs, 3 TDs
Y! ADP: 84.2
Lowdown: For Reggie Bush owners, McAllister will be an annoying Bill Lumbergh – TPS reports included. The reason why you avoid the overly-hyped Bush in yearly leagues: Deuce will use his 232-pound frame to plow over goal-line defenders. Confident he will be 100 percent for the beginning of the regular season, he should thrive in a revamped Saints offense led by Drew Brees. Once considered a fantasy golden child in 2003, totaling 2,157 yards and eight scores, McAllister is an all-around punisher that can drive opponents for extra yards. Expect him to be a lower level No. 2 capable of 1,100 total yards and 8-10 TDs as long as he can prove healthy in exhibition play. With Bush going some four rounds higher than Deuce in early Yahoo! drafts, getting him after Round 4 is piracy.
Joseph Addai, Ind
2005 Stats: N/A
Y! ADP: 90.6
Lowdown: Currently second on the Colts' depth chart, Addai has gone nearly 20 picks higher than Dominic Rhodes in early drafts. Indy's first-round selection out of LSU, Addai is a versatile back with above average vision, a strong initial burst and soft, sticky hands whose skills are tailor-made for Tony Dungy's air-it-out system. He is a dangerous open-field receiver that could easily rack 40 catches with regular playing time. Despite his oozing upside, some scouts dispute his ability to handle the rigors of 25-carries per game and have labeled him a glorified third-down back. But don't be swayed. Due to Rhodes' history of knee and shoulder injuries along with a reoccurring case of fumblitis, Addai will be the starter in Indy no later than Week 10. If he's sitting there in Round 5, pull out the lasso.
Thomas Jones, Chi
2005 Stats: 314 ATT, 1,335 YDs, 4.3 YPC, 26 REC, 143 YDs, 9 TDs
Y! ADP: 91.0
Lowdown: Call me a cynic, but Cedric Benson isn't ready for the big time. Jones has been fuming this offseason in the hopes of getting a one-way ticket out of Chicago, but Lovie Smith continues to leave the door open for a reason. Why? Because he knows Jones is a better fit for the Chicago offense. Last year, Jones clawed his way into the RB top 10, totaling nine scores, while compiling at least 60 yards rushing in 13 games. Incredibly versatile and a force in the passing attack, he is the ideal safety valve for a developing quarterback like Rex Grossman to have. Going around pick 70 in many experts drafts, he is undoubtedly the most skilled sixth round pick you could run across. Benson will take away carries, that is irrefutable, but Jones will look spectacular in camp and establish a loose grip on the starting job come Week 1. Highlight his name on your cheat sheet.
Chris Brown, Ten
2005 Stats: 224 ATT, 851 YDs, 3.8 YPC, 25 REC, 327 YDs, 7 TDs
Y! ADP: 100.0
Lowdown: Missing six games over the past two years, Brown's health is more unstable than Tom Cruise on a talk show couch. A strong, upright runner that can push piles with his large 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame, Brown is someone that has always had the potential to be great, but injuries and fumbles – he has seven fumbles lost since 2004 – have plagued his short career. Unnoticed by many last season, he vastly improved as a receiver, catching a career-high 25 passes. Given a vote of confidence by Titans running backs coach Sherman Smith as the team's primary carrier in June mini-camp; he could match his 2004 totals of 1,067 yards and six TDs playing in a contract year. The presence of rookie bruiser LenDale White should not be viewed as a deterrent. If anything, the former Trojans presence will keep Brown fresh and hinder possible IR time. Ranked just outside my RB top 30, he is a reasonable choice in Round 6, capable of yielding a mid-tier three return.
DeAngelo Williams, Car
2005 Stats: N/A
Y! ADP: 92.0
Lowdown: Williams is going to need a restraining order against me by year's end. The fourth-leading rusher in NCAA history, the 5-foot-9, 214-pound rookie is a relentless slasher who has the strength, quickness, vision and power to be a yards after contact (YAC) monster. The one knock against him is the collegiate wear on his tires. At Memphis he carried the pigskin over 310 times in '05 and was sidelined for extensive time after an MCL tear in '03 and a broken leg in '04. But have no fear, the brittleness of DeShaun Foster – he has missed 15 games in three years – will likely vault Williams into an 8-12 carry temporary time-share out of camp. By mid-season, the man I call "Napoleon" will be the hottest thing in fantasy since the invention of broadband. A tireless worker and born leader, D-Will has the pedigree to be a tier-one starter within three years. There's a reason why I kiss his framed picture before going to sleep every night.
Samkon Gado, GB
2005 Stats: 143 ATT, 582 YDs, 4.1 YPC, 10 REC, 77 YDs, 7 TDs
Y! ADP: N/A
Lowdown: Reminiscent at times of the original "Nigerian Nightmare," Christian Okoye, Gado was an undrafted fantasy darling that resuscitated many backfields fighting for a playoff spot last season. In just eight games, Gado logged three 100-yard games and seven touchdowns running behind a Packers offensive line in shambles. With Green questionable for training camp coming off knee surgery, Gado has a shot to open the year on top of the depth chart if he can fend of bowling ball Najeh Davenport. A 10th Round selection in the recent Y! Friends and Family draft, he is a potential late-round difference maker. Now if he could only rack 300-yard rushing games like Okoye in Tecmo Super Bowl …
Marion Barber, Dal
2005 Stats: 138 ATT, 538 YDs, 3.9 YPC, 18 REC, 115 YDs, 5 TDs
Y! ADP: N/A
Lowdown: Barber was a dagger in the kidney of Julius Jones owners last season. Rushing for 222 yards and two scores in two starts, the always fishy Big Tuna quickly became enamored with the youngster's abilities, utilizing him in goal-line sets even when Jones returned. A dump-off receiver with adequate open-field speed, look for Barber to again wrestle away 8-10 carries per game and three-to-five scores from Julius. With questions surrounding Jones' work ethic and durability – he has missed 11 games in two years – the former Golden Gopher could again reap fantasy riches at some point this season as a starter. Any Jones owner that doesn't handcuff Barber should have their intelligence openly ridiculed by everyone in your league.
Laurence Maroney, NE
2005 Stats: N/A
Y! ADP: N/A
Lowdown: My colleague Brandon Funston's pick to surprise, Maroney is the reason why Corey Dillon is entering camp with a chip on his shoulder. Averaging a stout 5.9 YPC career mark in Golden Gopher maroon, he compiled an impressive 1,464 yards and 11 scores last season. With excellent 4.45-40 speed, crisp vision, and steel hands, Maroney is the Patriots back of the future. Although brimming with potential, Maroney still needs considerable work on his pass blocking and receiving skills this summer. If he can conquer his inadequacies, it's not unreasonable to think he could be worked in slowly for 8-12 carries per game, largely to keep Dillon healthy. A great pick in keeper leagues, he will be a future fantasy star in a Bill Belichick offense that employs a smash-mouth style inside the five. Take him as your fourth or fifth back, but consider him a year away.
Brian Calhoun, Det
2005 Stats: N/A
Y! ADP: N/A
Lowdown: Pint-sized, strong and versatile, Calhoun is a carbon copy of Scrappy from Scooby-Doo. With Cheeseheads in Badger-land still crying over his early departure, the 5-foot-9, 202-pound scatback is an ideal fit for Mike Martz's vertical system. Elusive and quick, he caught an amazing 93 percent of passes thrown his way at Wisconsin and can juke defenders effectively between the hashes. Although his durability, size and aggressiveness have been questioned, he reminds me of an unrefined version of Marshall Faulk. For now, look for Calhoun to impress in camp and be a dependable third-down back in D-Town. If Kevin Jones were to prove ineffective or was limited by injuries – he missed three games in '05 – the rookie could be a solid No. 3 fantasy back. For those in points-per-reception (PPR) leagues, keep his name in the back of your mind in the late rounds while everyone else is thinking kicker/defense.
Jerious Norwood, Atl
2005 Stats: N/A
Y! ADP: N/A
Lowdown: Likely to be a Mr. Irrelevant in your draft, don't underestimate Norwood's potential. A third-round pick out of Mississippi State, Norwood is a hard, determined runner with 4.3-40 speed. Many scouts rave about his strong character, work ethic and all-around toughness and the Falcons apparently like what they've seen in mini-camp, expressing interest in trading beefcake T.J. Duckett. Raw as a receiver, Norwood has a shot at being a sound option in deep TD-only leagues if Duckett is dealt. If that does occur, 350 rushing yards and 4-6 scores is a possibility. Owners in deep leagues should take a chance in the midnight hour.
Scanning media reports with a fine-toothed comb, the Noise puts his fantasy spin on various tasty tidbits.
Mike Shanahan is at it again. Former Arkansas standout Cedric Cobbs – who joined the Broncos in May after being released by New England – enters training camp later this month healthy for the first time in his young NFL career. "I always knew for a fact that I had the talent to come out and be a star in the NFL," said Cobbs, 6-foot, 235 pounds. "But like they say, talent isn't everything. So, I want to put everything mentally together and do everything." Shanahan has lofty intentions for Cobb, stating, "Cedric is a guy that we felt very highly of coming out of Arkansas. We liked his running style. We felt very fortunate to get him on our football team when he was released. Now, he's competing for the starting job."
Spin: Welcome to the kingdom of second chances, Mr. Cobbs. In similar fashion as Samkon Gado last year and Nick Goings in '04, Cobbs could be the virtual unknown that reaps fantasy fruit in a city that has churned out five different 1,000-yard rushers under Shanahan's watch. In a system that made Olandis Gary, Reuben Droughns and Mike Anderson stars despite their suspect talents, it's not unfathomable for Cobbs to launch his career in the Rockies. Totaling a meager 50 yards on 22 carries for the Patriots in '04, the 25-year-old has been plagued by injuries in his short career. A chiseled physical specimen and workout freak, Cobbs is a strong inside runner with a good outside burst who could be a better fit for the Denver zone-blocking scheme than either Tatum Bell or Ron Dayne. If his injury and personality demons are dead and buried, he will shock the world this season as long as his durability isn't questioned in exhibition play. Take him as a late-round flier in your draft.
UNLEASH THE BEAST
Upset you don't have a forum to express your disdain for drafting Willis McGahee? Do you question why on earth you're not a fantasy expert? This is the place for you to vent your thoughts, tirades and frustrations. Can you bring the noise?
Subject: Peyton Manning, Kevin Jones and the Rev
I take exception to your answer to the reverend and wholly agree with him that research on FA's during the season is more important than your draft. Last year I drafted P. Manning first and K. Jones second and still came in second in my league. It absolutely made my year more challenging, but obviously didn't kill it. It's just a shame you didn't put more thought into your No. 1 draft day tip, because I guarantee that at least one of your 'D' drafts finish in the top 3 when all is said and done.
Chris Lovegrove Hartford, CT
Noise: This is exactly why I decided to touch on the perception that running back values grow on trees. Look, I agree, if you work the free-agent pool like a crazed madman you can plug the necessary holes on your roster. However, for leagues that utilize a waiver system or have owners with equally quick mouse hands, it can be difficult to address needs unless you are consistently the first in line or have uneducated buffoons to trade with. The psychology of each league is different.
Inevitably luck plays a role for draftees that take the quarterback plunge in the first three rounds. In order for your team to stay competitive, you would have to pin the tail on a mid-round RB donkey and hope he turns into a thoroughbred horse. On average, 4.2 running backs shock the living daylights out of us, while the remaining 30 or so backs after the big boys typically flounder. Sure a 'D' draft could finish in the upper-echelon, but it's about as much of a guarantee as Ricky Williams refusing a toke at a Snoop Dogg concert. Avoid quarterbacks until at least Round 7 and stick with the running regime. You might have struck free agent gold once, but don't be foolish to depend on it again.