Everyone knows that the NFL has become more of a passing league, but running backs are still the kings of fantasy leagues.
The reason is pretty simple: There are fewer reliable backs who stay on the field in third-down and goal-line situations, which places a premium on the ones that do exist. To put it another way, if you wait until the third round -- or possibly even the end of the second round -- to draft your first running back in a standard, 12-team league, you might be playing catch-up at that position all season long.
Fortunately, the top tier of the RB rankings looks remarkably strong this year, and there are plenty of high-upside sleeper candidates who can be found later in drafts. If you play your cards right -- and get lucky with injuries -- you can walk away with a strong group of RBs that will carry your team all season long. Let's break it down.
Adrian Peterson is the near-unanimous top-ranked RB (and top-ranked player) heading into the season, but you can make a case for virtually any of the next eight backs to be No. 2: Arian Foster, Doug Martin, Marshawn Lynch, Jamaal Charles, Ray Rice, C.J. Spiller, Trent Richardson and LeSean McCoy (my order). However you line them up, all should pay off as first-round picks. Foster might actually be the riskiest given his right calf strain and worrisome 1,105 total touches over the past three years, but his league-leading 47 touchdowns in that span is tough to ignore.
Charles, Spiller, Richardson and McCoy will all be playing in new systems, but that shouldn't slow any of them. Both Spiller and Richardson should get more touches, which is especially good news for the explosive Spiller, who tied with Peterson for the best yards-pery-carry average by a back last year (6.0). Charles will likely get fewer carries in Andy Reid's system, but he could double his receptions. Considering that Charles owns the NFL record for yards per carry by a back (5.8), he should still produce at a very high level. McCoy comes with the most skepticism, but Chip Kelly loved to run at Oregon, and McCoy should be the featured player in Philadelphia's offense.
Draft tip: Rice might seem like a “boring” pick, but he's about as safe as it gets at this notoriously unsafe position. He leads all players in scrimmage yards and ranks fourth in TDs over the past four seasons. The fact he hasn't missed a game in that span is a big reason for that. Backup Bernard Pierce might steal a few more carries, but with Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta missing from the Ravens' passing game, Rice will likely be leaned on more than ever.
THE ALMOST ELITE
The next eight backs off the board in most drafts will likely be Alfred Morris, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Matt Forte, Stevan Ridley, DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden and Steven Jackson (my order). Morris could easily qualify as an “Elite” back after finishing second in the league in rushing and scoring 13 TDs last year, but sophomore slumps aren't uncommon for RBs, especially ones who play in a unique offensive system. If the league “catches up” with the Redskins this year, Morris could take a step back.
With that said, he's still the best pick in this group, but he's not the only “safe” choice. Despite all the complaining about Johnson's slow start last year, he still finished as the No. 13 fantasy back. He might lose even more goal-line carries to Shonn Greene this season, but don't write him off just because he's not as good as he was in 2009. Likewise, don't write off Jones-Drew because of last year's injury-plagued season or Jackson because he's 30. As Rams' fans know, Jackson is still a beast, and he should see more TD chances in Atlanta's high-powered offense.
Draft tip: Many fantasy owners have been burned by Murray or McFadden, but both are still supremely talented and could put up top-five numbers if they can stay healthy. If you pass on an RB in Rounds 1 and 2, your best bet is to swing for the fences with Murray or McFadden and hope they stay in one piece. McFadden is more proven and should benefit from the Raiders moving away from a zone-blocking scheme, something he said he never felt comfortable with last year.
Bonus tip: Morris and Ridley take big hits in draft value if you're in a PPR league, and Jackson could see fewer receptions with the Falcons, too. Players like Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles jump into this category in PPR formats.
Things become a free-for-all with RBs once you hit the fourth or fifth round. You have the rookies (Le'Veon Bell, Montee Ball, Giovani Bernard, Eddie Lacy), the veterans (Bush, Sproles, Frank Gore, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, DeAngelo Williams), the injury-prone guys (Ryan Mathews, Ahmad Bradshaw, Rashard Mendenhall,
Wilson is getting the most buzz among these players, and even though he looked impressive at times last year, keep in mind that Andre Brown is back in New York and will almost certainly get the goal-line carries like he did before suffering a season-ending leg injury last year. Wilson still has to prove he can block and hang onto the ball, and even if he does, he could still be in a 50-50 timeshare with Brown. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Brown finish ahead of Wilson in the rankings. The same is true with Bernard and Green-Ellis in Cincinnati. Fantasy owners want Bernard to be the second coming of Chris Johnson, but Green-Ellis will still be in the mix, particularly around the goal line.
Bell looks like the best bet among the rookies, as he should get the most touches and will likely be a workhorse early and often. Ball could make noise, too, but Denver's coaches are being coy about whether Ball, Ronnie Hillman or Knowshon Moreno will be featured. Ball is a good stash, but don't expect him to excel right away.
Gore, Bush and Sproles lack “upside,” but all should be steady performers, at least in terms of yards. Bush will likely cede goal-line carries to Mikel Leshoure, but he should flirt with at least 100 total yards most games.
The injury-prone guys, particularly Mathews and Bradshaw, are actually providing good value in early mock drafts. You can't count on these guys for 16 games, but if you're drafting them as backups or even flexes, they're well worth the pick. Don't get discouraged because they seem boring.
Draft tip: Ivory, Miller and Daryl Richardson look like classic boom-or-bust fantasy options this year. There are reasons to be excited about all three -- Ivory averaged 5.1 yards per carry with the Saints, Miller averaged 4.9 yards per carry last year, and Richardson averaged 4.8 -- but Ivory has struggled to stay healthy, Miller will have competition from Daniel Thomas and rookie Mike Gillislee, and Richardson will have competition from
At this point, the names left on the draft board aren't going to look appealing, but there are still some potential every-week plays, particularly in PPR leagues. Ironically, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead might be the best options. Vereen is taking Woodhead's third-down/receiving-back role in New England, and you might be surprised to find out that Woodhead finished as the No. 24 RB in standard leagues last year. Vereen has even more upside. Woodhead's numbers shouldn't suffer too much in San Diego, where he'll be playing behind the injury-prone Mathews. Somehow, someway, he gets yards.
Vick Ballard, who finished last year as the No. 25 fantasy back, is slated to open the year as Bradshaw's backup in Indianapolis. With Bradshaw's checkered injury history, it wouldn't be a shock to see Ballard post RB2 numbers again. Similarly, Ben Tate (who had 942 yards just two years ago) is a Foster injury away from potentially being an RB1, and given how much Houston runs, he could be a flex even if Foster is healthy. Ditto for Pierce in Baltimore and Bryce Brown in Philadelphia.
Mark Ingram is a perennial breakout candidate, but here's a stat that doesn't bode well for him: The Saints called just one run play in 2nd-and-Goal situations last year (compared to 21 passes). They called zero run plays in 10 3rd-and-Goal situations. Ingram's touchdowns will be limited.
Draft tip: Once again, the value of players in this group changes considerably if you're in a PPR league vs. a standard league. Guys like Jacquizz Rodgers, LaMichael James and Marcel Reece suddenly become legit late-mid-round picks in PPR formats, but in standard leagues, they're little more than late-round fliers.
Handcuffing has become commonplace in fantasy leagues even though you're more likely to waste a roster spot on a handcuff than actually have him save your season. But the fact remains that running backs get hurt all the time, and you might as well protect your early-round investments. At the very least, grab the handcuffs of injury-prone guys like McFadden and Murray. The best bets to really pay off, aside from those mentioned above, are Rashad Jennings in Oakland, Joseph Randle in Dallas, Robert Turbin in Seattle, Fred Jackson in Buffalo, DuJuan Harris in Green Bay, Knile Davis in Kansas City and Ryan Williams/Stepfan Taylor in Arizona.
Draft tip: Even if you don't own the starters in front of them, it's not a bad idea to draft some of these players in the last couple rounds. It could pay off in a big way down the line, and even if it doesn't, you'll have potential trade chips.
Matt Lutovsky is a fantasy football writer for Sporting News' Fantasy Source. You can read more of his work on the Fantasy Source football homepage.