Passing Judgment: The Fantasy Football Running Back Dilemma

Adrian PetersonSucceeding at fantasy football requires all of the stars to align for you over the course of a season.  Not only must you thoroughly prepare for your draft, but you must also accumulate depth, analyze bye weeks, avoid injuries, manage the waiver wire, be creative and intelligent with trades, and have a little Lady Luck (not necessarily Andrew) on your side.    You can study all of the statistics you want, but that does not guarantee any future success.  That is why fantasy football is an art, not a science.

When preparing for your draft, you have likely been told hundreds of times by hundreds of experts that you need at least one stud running back in the first two rounds.  Regardless of the format of your league or what the scoring system is, it is common knowledge that you should take at least one running back with your first two picks.  While I understand and respect that mantra (and I usually do abide by that strategy), it seems increasingly clear that we need to consider abandoning such a theory.

On average, most leagues have 12 teams with at least two running back slots in a starting lineup.  That means there will be 24 runnings backs being played, at a minimum, on any given week.  Of those 24 running backs, how many can you say with any confidence are a sure thing to produce consistently for your fantasy team?  Of course there are studs like Adrian Peterson who have produced for a long time (besides his injury-shortened 2011 season).  But generally speaking, the list of “stud” running backs changes every year and they all come with serious question marks.

I was an exhibitor at the 2012 Fantasy Football Fest in Atlantic City, NJ where I also participated in the SiriusXM Expert fantasy football league.  The overall consensus amongst ALL of the experts at the show was that the top three picks were Arian Foster, Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy not in any particular order.  I had the first overall pick in that draft and took Foster without hesitation.  Sure enough, he was banged up several times during the season and did not come close to producing the type of numbers that the first overall pick should.  Additionally, both Rice and McCoy had sub-par years which also saw the emergence of their respective handcuffs.

One year later, Foster, McCoy and Rice were not even in the conversation for the top three potential picks.  Granted, things happen unexpectedly which changes the prognosis for the following season such as Peterson’s incredible return from injury and the emergence of Doug Martin.  But the point is that in one year, the consensus top three were no longer even in the conversation.

For 2013, the top running backs were projected to be Peterson, Martin, Jamaal Charles and C.J. Spiller.  Other projected first round running backs were also Foster, McCoy and Rice along with Marshawn Lynch, Trent Richardson, Chris Johnson, and Alfred Morris as long shots.  The next tier of backs included Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden, DeMarco Murray, Steven Jackson, Frank Gore, David Wilson, Ryan Mathews, Reggie Bush, and Matt Forte.  When you look at this comprehensive list, you wouldn’t mind having one or two of these players on your team.

But what have we learned about several of these players thus far in 2013?  Some are injury-prone or already injured, some have little to no experience as a featured back, some are past their prime, and some just cannot be trusted anymore.

The NFL in 2013 is geared towards a pass-heavy offense.  The rules in place have limited a defense’s ability to hit the quarterback or touch wide receivers off the line of scrimmage.  This has led to many crooked numbers by quarterbacks and wide receivers over the past few years.  True, Adrian Peterson had an historic season in 2012, but he was an anomaly.  And you can easily catch lightning in a bottle with any of the running backs listed above having an epic season because they are all talented enough to do it.  But chances are, they won’t.  What has Chris Johnson done since his historic 2,000 yard season  few years ago?

We value and draft running backs at such a premium because we feel obligated to.  Before you start yelling and screaming at me, I do recognize that there is a much deeper pool of wide receivers to select from and that most leagues do not put an emphasis on quarterbacks’ points.  So by default, it makes sense to take the running backs early on to ensure you fill those positions.  I get that.  But aren’t there other ways to construct your team without sacrificing your first one or two picks on a running back?  I would argue that there is.

It will be quite interesting to see if Doug Martin, Jamaal Charles and C.J. Spiller are in the conversation for potential top 5 picks in 2014.  Martin had an incredible rookie season so it is understandable why he was held in such high regard entering this season.  But things change so drastically in the NFL from year to year that it is impossible to predict with any certainty that Martin’s career trajectory will continue the path layed out in 2012.  Charles is in his second year back from a major knee surgery.  Spiller is in his first season as the Bills’ featured back, and he is already injured with Fred Jackson hovering right over his shoulder.

My point about all of this is to be open-minded with respect to your strategies and evaluations of players, especially at the running back position.  We are all guilty of buying into the notion that we need a running back in the first or second round.  I am not saying that is the wrong strategy, but it is only one strategy that happens to have some misgivings.  Obviously we cannot predict with any type of assurance what will happen.  Yes, any football player is one play away from a career-ending injury.  But there is a reason why running backs have such a short career lifespan, especially playing at an elite or close to elite level.  So just keep an open mind about running backs and be prepared to deal with the inevitable heartache that comes along with relying on them.

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