With the ongoing safety concern in the NFL it is not surprising that fewer and fewer running backs these days are seeing 20+ touches a game. As it stands now, only two backs in 2011 touched the ball over 300 times. Rewind a few years, and you will see a stark comparison from days when studs like Eddie George and Terrell Davis would flirt with, and occasionally eclipse the 400 touch mark. This is not terribly shocking, however, as with the recent emergence of the west-coast style offense, teams are looking to the air more than ever. Combine this with the ongoing player safety mantra being adopted by the NFL in the wake of their looming 2,000+ player lawsuit, as well as the fact the running backs have the shortest life expectancy out of any position on the field (average of 2.6 year career), and one thing is for sure – if you want a running back who is going to consistently put up numbers for your fantasy team, you’re going to have to pay a premium for him; a strategy that could very well pay off.
As it stands right now, owners are looking at a pool of around 10 backs who could earn the term, “workhorse”. This is in large part, due to the injury doubts surrounding many of the players who were expected to be valuable contributors from the position this year.
The reason why the runningback is so valuable this year, is due to the tremendous lack of depth in the position. Take theses scenarios for example. Both use ESPN’s 2012 projections as a base, as ESPN generally makes good, albeit very safe projections.
- Scenario A: You draft Aaron Rodgers in Round 1. He is projected to score 381 points. You wait on runningback, and draft the highest available runningback in round 5, who is Willis McGahee, projected to score 139 points.
- Scenario B: You draft Arian Foster in Round 1. He is projected to score 296 points. You then wait on your QB, and pick up the highest available one in round 5, Eli Manning, who is projected to score 279 points.
If you total up these two, you find that you are essentially losing 31.4 fantasy points for every round you wait to draft a runningback, while only 20.4 points per round you wait to draft a quarterback.
Check out the chart below, and you can see that at least eight teams have running backs going into the season with a preexisting injury. Their respective handcuff option is listed in the column to the right. This is ignoring several backs like Darren McFadden, Fred Jackson, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Jamaal Charles who are similarly coming off of injuries from last season, but highly expected to be present for week 1.
Runningback Draft Strategy
So with all that being said what does that leave owners to work with? There are a few strategies you should follow to ensure that you don’t end up with an injury ridden, or goal line deprived backfield
- Don’t Overspend - In many mock drafts, the trend has been drafting Foster-Rice-McCoy as the 1st-2nd-3rd picks, respectively, so it is far from safe to count on landing one of them, even if you happen to find yourself drafting in the middle of the pack. A trap that many owners find themselves locked into, is being committed to an “I’m drafting a RB in round 1, regardless” strategy. For example, you may want to take a RB, but if you find yourself drafting 4th, and Rice, McCoy and Foster are off the board, take Aaron Rodgers and stay away from paying too high of a premium for players like MJD, Chris Johnson or Marshawn Lynch.
- If you play PPR, adjust accordingly – PPR is a spawn of the recent trend for pass-heavy offenses, as Runningbacks, as a whole, struggle to keep up with wide receiver production. PPR makes the pool of “quality backs” dramatically increase, by turning players like Matt Forte, Darren Sproles, and Reggie Bush into production machines. While they may not post 12 rushing TD’s, their deceiving stat lines can put them up there with the best due to the PPR format. Remember, receiving backs are huge here, as 6 receptions, regardless of yardage, equals one touchdown.
- Avoid loading up on injury prone RB’s – It inevitably happens every year. Sometimes you can see it coming, and other times you can’t. What you can do, is decrease the chances it happens to you. Sure, not many saw the Adrian Peterson or Jamaal Charles injuries coming, but do your best to make sure you don’t have two of these guys lined up to start. For Example, if you find yourself with a backfield consisting of two injury report mainstays like Darren McFadden and Ahmad Bradshaw, you might have some problems.
- Find RB’s that are injury prone, and draft their handcuff – Just as we saw with DeMarco Murray last season, stud runningbacks can come out of no where. Look around the league and identify those “injury report mainstays” like McFadden and Bradshaw, and look to pick up their backups. Did you know that Michael Bush was hitting 10+ fantasy points at almost a 50% rate last year in standard scoring formats? This is a favorite strategy of mine, because even if your RB’s don’t go down, when your 15th round RB handcuff draft pick suddenly finds himself starting, you’ll be sitting in prime position. Even if your starting backs are still healthy, you’re looking at some very appealing trade bait to strengthen your other positions.