For years the signs of decline at running back were obvious. Increases in platoons, catastrophic injuries and air-happy offensive trends all played a significant role in the position's deterioration. As a result, owners often accrued massive post-draft debt, sometimes defaulting on their championship dreams.
Within the 'expert' community, the downturn created a schism. Running theorists continued to stick to their guns by imploring the masses to follow the traditional RB-RB-RB method. Conversely, mixologists preached diversification, a must when constructing a competitive team. After all, the failure rate at RB – defined as rushers drafted in the top 12 that didn't finish inside the top 15 – was significantly higher than other positions. Over the past five years, 46.7 percent of RB1s have bombed compared to 26.3 percent of WR1s and 38.3 percent for QBs (Note: Only five percent for top 4 QBs drafted).
It appears the Sir Mix-a-Lots were mostly right.
In a shocking move earlier this month, the S&P downgraded the running back draft rating from AAA to AA-plus, leaving prospective buyers asking plenty of rhetorical questions: Are first-round RBs still trustworthy investments? Should more money be allocated for drafting QBs/WRs? Are people completely nuts for abandoning the running theory altogether? Is now the appropriate time to stockpile canned goods and weapons for the impending zombie apocalypse?
Fear over the position's immediate future is completely understandable. The rapidly shrinking population of 300-carry backs has not only enhanced the value of workhorses, but also created considerable instability. Peruse the chart below:
300C = Number of backs with 300-plus carries
250C = Number of backs with 250-plus carries
RBBCs = Number of running back by committees in given year
13.0 FPPG = Number of RBs that averaged 13.0-plus fantasy points per game
TDiff = PPG difference from the No. 1 to No. 24 rated back
*Based on standard yardage scoring (6 pts/rush TD, 1 pt/10 rushing/receiving yds, 0 points per reception)
As you can see, the extinction of 300-carry backs, despite a small uptick last year, directly correlates with the position's decrease in overall production. Yes, the tier-to-tier difference appears to have rebounded over the past couple seasons, but Chris Johnson's '09 and Arian Foster's(notes) '10 were extraordinary campaigns. Actually if you subtract the per game output from the No. 2 overall RB from the No. 24 RB in each of those seasons, the gap has tightened more (-8.3 in '09, -7.1 in '10).
Essentially, the two "expert" perspectives discussed earlier are both semi-correct.
Elite level rushers (e.g. Foster, Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice(notes) and Rashard Mendenhall) are worth every penny because there are no questions about workload. In other words, sinking an early first-round pick in one of the endangered beasts is a sound investment, a school of thought that appeals to running theorists.
However, RBs drafted after the top-flight group are riskier due to several variables, the most worrisome being inconsistent touches and undefined goal-line roles (e.g. Ahmad Bradshaw(notes), DeAngelo Williams(notes), Knowshown Moreno, Jahvid Best(notes) and Ryan Mathews(notes)). This is why, as mixologists would say, variety is the spice of life.
Bottom line: Draft position and, to a similar extent, scoring system should dictate what strategy to implement.
What are other ways to tackle running back on draft day this year? Here are five additional rules to live by:
Value city – Every year there are draft day bargains galore, but, this season, it seems fantasy shoppers can buy a top-level backfield for a price equal to one 4-0 of Olde English. Proven commodities are obviously going for a premium, but several quality backs are finding their way to the discount bin. Alleged one-hit wonders Peyton Hillis(notes) (28.3 Y! ADP), LeGarrette Blount(notes) (48.7) and Ahmad Bradshaw (39.4) have slipped into the late-second or even late-third in competitive 12-team drafts. Meanwhile, former chart-toppers, DeAngelo Williams (63.9), Ryan Grant(notes) (90.7) and Marshawn Lynch(notes) (92.7) are often sliding into the early-middle rounds. Even much-publicized upside guys like Shonn Greene(notes) (31.1), Felix Jones(notes) (97.0) and Tim Hightower(notes) (118.9) are going crazy late. In year's past, waiting until Round 3 to draft a RB was suicidal. Now, it might actually extend your fantasy life well into the second season.
Believe what you read … well sometimes – This time every summer, coaches and players constantly pump owner ears with exaggerations. Everyone is bigger, faster and stronger and primed for a monster campaign. Most of the shoveled hyperbole should be taken with a grain of salt, but, when backed by visual, on-field evidence, claims oftentimes are accurate.
For example, Norv Turner, historically a one-RB supporter, has designs of implementing a two-back rotation, deploying Ryan Mathews between the 20s and Mike Tolbert(notes) on third-downs and near the goal-line. Some owners interested in Mathews have heeded the warning. Others, as his current 65.7 Y! ADP indicates (Tolbert: 108.6), haven't. After ceding red-zone touches to Tolbert in the Chargers' first preseason game, it appears The Tank is actually the more attractive player and better value.
Don't reach too early for rookies – As previous handlers of Jahvid Best and Mathews can attest, buying into the preseason hype on rookie RBs can be bad for one's fantasy health. That is, if you're willing to pay a hefty price-tag. After Chris Johnson, Matt Forte(notes) and Steve Slaton(notes) lit the world on fire in '08, no first-year rusher has finished inside the top-20 in points per game since.
The position is again swelling with talent, but several question marks exist. Mark Ingram(notes) (77.6 Y! ADP) possesses a tremendous skill set, but Sean Payton's shifty, Shanahan-like mentality clouds his potential value. To a certain extent, the same could be said for Daniel Thomas(notes) (85.1) and Delone Carter(notes) (130-plus). Their muddy situations combined with the bitterness many owners still house over last year's cream-less crop, has slashed rookie ADPs greatly. Collectively, they're good values, but, as history teaches us, non-dynasty leaguers shouldn't snap tendons.
Be a hoarder – Like sports cards, Trekkie memorabilia or bellybutton lint, RBs are highly collectible. Because of injuries and coach-forced movement, backfields are carousels in constant motion. In a standard 16-man roster, it's wise to carry at least 2-3 bench backs just in case a domino falls. When searching for late-round Rip Van Winkles aim for players in dynamic offenses who are one wrenched ankle away from an opportunity (e.g. Jason Snelling(notes), Ronnie Brown(notes) and Ricky Williams(notes)).
Carry a pair of handcuffs, preferably fuzzy – Every year a high-profile back is victimized by the injury imp. After all, it's a physically demanding position in an ultra-violent game. To protect your investment, it's important to take out an insurance policy on elite RB1s. For instance, prospective Maurice Jones-Drew(notes) investors better sacrifice appendages/blood/wallets to acquire the services of Rashad Jennings(notes) (125.8 Y! ADP), even it means overreaching, in the late-middle rounds. Having a crutch to lean on is critical to maintaining stability in times of crisis. Be smart.
| High Fives |
|Which RB, given his draft cost, looks like the best bang for the buck? |
1. Felix Jones: The expert community has fallen hard for Jones of late, but the public sector has been slower to embrace him, as his 96.7 ADP in Yahoo! drafts would indicate. Sure, Jones is an injury risk, but so are Frank Gore, Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden, to name a few much higher priced dynamic talents. With Dallas intent on making Jones the clear leader in the backfield, 1,500-1,600 yards from scrimmage and a half dozen touchdowns are easy to fathom given his blazing speed and development in the passing game. Can you honestly tell me that Jahvid Best really deserves to go six running backs ahead of Jones?
|Who are the top five running back handcuffs? |
1. Michael Bush: Bush is something better than a handcuff, so it can be reasonably argued that he's actually tested out of this category. I'd just like to remind you that he still occupies the No. 2 spot on the depth chart in Oakland's backfield, he broke the plane eight times last year, and he's averaging 4.4 yards per carry over his career. Oh, and the Raiders starting running back, Darren McFadden, has never actually played more than 13 games in any season. Bush figures to get a non-trivial workload even when McFadden is healthy, and he has the potential to post high-end numbers when Darren can't go.
|Which RB, given his draft cost, carries the most risk? |
1. Maurice Jones-Drew: MJD might look pretty appetizing at the front of the second round but I'm still concerned here: he's coming off a knee surgery; his receiving stats have dropped the last two years; Rashad Jennings is going to steal touches; and his offense might spend part of the year tied to a rookie quarterback. I'm generally looking more at floor in the early rounds, and I can guarantee you I won't consider MJD with any of my first-round selections – in large part because I hate the supporting cast around him.