StrategyJuly 19, 2012

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Positional Plan: RB - 4 comments

By R.J. White

Earlier this week, we dissected the QB position with regards to 2012 fantasy football drafts. Now, it’s time to do the same with the position that receives the most attention in the game: running backs.

We discovered in the QB plan that, while grabbing a QB like Tom Brady or Drew Brees in the first round is a quality bet, the best move (in my opinion, at least) is to wait till the sixth, seventh or possibly even eighth round, depending on the ebb and flow of your draft, to snag a signal-caller in standard leagues. One reason is that there isn’t a ton of separation from the sub-elite (i.e., Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford) to the still-quality starters (i.e., Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers). Another is that no matter who you grab as a starter, they’ll have an incredibly high floor, as they face virtually no chance of doing anything other than play every offensive snap, healthy permitting.

Running backs can’t say the same. While healthy, quality starting quarterbacks make every passing attempt for their teams, save for the occasional trickeration, even the best RBs don’t get every crack at running the ball. Maurice Jones-Drew easily lead the league with 343 rush attempts last season while playing in every game, yet other Jaguars players managed 146 rushing attempts, over 40 percent of Jones-Drew’s total. Imagine if Chase Daniel and Brian Hoyer took 40 percent of their teams’ passing attempts while the superstar starters were perfectly healthy.

With the realization that even the best running backs don’t get anywhere near the totality of their teams’ rushing attempt comes a corresponding truism: more running backs score a significant amount of points than quarterbacks each season. In one of my leagues 107 running backs scored at least 10 points last year, while 55 quarterbacks reached the same level. More pertinent, the 12th best QB scored 255 points, while the 24th best RB scored 137 points. If you don’t spend that first round pick on one of the truly elite guys (Aaron Rodgers, Brees, Brady), it simply makes more sense to wait four or five rounds and fill up on receivers and running backs.

Tier 1: Draft a First-Round RB
While Rodgers is certainly a tempting pick at the top of the draft, I tend to bypass him for one of the elite RBs. Guys that can average 100 total yards and score a TD in most games are rare, and having one at a position that requires at least two starts (and more if you play in flex leagues) is an advantage I prefer to that of an elite QB.

Arian Foster has about 140 yards per game over the past two years, scoring 30 times in 29 games. LeSean McCoy has about 110 yards per game over the past two years, scoring 29 times in 30 games. Ray Rice has averaged about 120 yards per game over the past three years, scoring 29 times in 48 games (but 15 times last season alone). Maurice Jones-Drew has averaged about 117 yards per game over the last three years (including a career-best 123.8 yards per game last year with zero passing game), scoring 34 times in 46 games.

This foursome offers reliability, youth (Jones-Drew is the oldest at 27) and excellence. They represent the best cornerstone a fantasy team can hope for–a true workhorse running back, something most teams won’t be sure they have. They are the top four guys overall on my revised draft board for that reason.

Tier 2: Grab Two with Question Marks
For most, Tier 1 RBs are unattainable. After they, the top three QBs and Calvin Johnson come off the board, it’s time to turn to the Tier 2 running backs at the end of the first round. All the guys in Tier 2 have the potential to join the elite in Tier 1 by the end of the year, but each has at least one question mark attached to him. If you don’t think a question mark is concerning at all for a particular guy, he deserves to be in the mix for your mid-first round pick, especially if you’re comfortable passing on the QBs.

Ryan Mathews is probably the best candidate to finish as a Tier 1 guy with platoon-mate Mike Tolbert out of town. He topped 110 yards per game last season, one of a small group of backs to do so. The third-year player hasn’t proven he can be that workhorse guy over a full season yet, and he also carries higher injury concerns than a lot of RB1s. Both those problems seem conquerable this year.

Other concerns include Chris Johnson coming off a sub-standard season that coincided with a big payday, Darren McFadden’s continued struggle with staying healthy, Matt Forte’s lack of an end-zone presence (17 TDs in 44 games the last three years) combined with the presence of Michael Bush, the lack of an extensive track record for DeMarco Murray, the lack of a track record at all for Trent Richardson, a possible suspension for Marshawn Lynch (as well as a potential return to mediocrity after getting paid) and injury recoveries by Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles.

All nine guys have the potential to finish the year as top-five backs, if circumstances don’t stand in the way. I believe there is a severe dropoff at the position after this group, and when you factor in that dropoff at the other positions behind the top three QBs and Johnson at receiver, I’d likely take each of these guys before considering anyone at another position. As a bonus, if the owners with picks nine through 12 all agree with the strategy, you’ll be leaving the owners with Rodgers, Brady, Brees and Johnson far behind your two top backs.

Tier 3: Waiting for the Next Value Opportunity
Once those guys are off the board, I start building my WR corps with quality options, bypassing most of the RB2s left. I might select Darren Sproles with an early pick in the third to be my RB2 if one of the Tier 2 guys don’t fall to me in the second. Ditto with Doug Martin in the fourth. Otherwise, I suggest waiting until the fifth, sixth and/or seventh round for RB2s or potential RB3s, taking as many quality WRs as I can find.

Tier 4: RB2s Masquerading as RB3s
Once 20-25 running backs are off the board (likely around the fifth round in standard leagues), it’s time to start sizing up potential depth at the RB position. I certainly prefer Beanie Wells at his price to Michael Turner at his, considering they’re similarly skilled in the fantasy world and Wells is the guy on the rise. James Starks is expected to be a rare true high-volume RB drafted at a level where you generally find committee backs. Jahvid Best is ticketed for a Sproles-like role in Detroit this year, though he costs half as much to own. C.J. Spiller may wind up outscoring his 31-year-old backfield mate who’s coming off a season-ending broken leg. Guys like these hold just as much value in my eyes as most of the backs taken a few rounds ahead of them. Why not wait, grab a couple if possible, and play the odds that one becomes a quality RB2 for your team?

Tier 5: Finding Upside
Going by current ADP figures, every NFL team is likely to have one of their RBs selected by the time the first Panther running back comes off the board. The 2011 Panthers, by the way, were third in the league with 150.5 rushing yards per game and first in the league with 26 TDs, while tying for the league lead with three fumbles and zero lost fumbles. They also averaged a league-best 5.4 yards per carry. Something doesn’t add up, right? Well, it’s the Cam Newton factor. The rookie QB scored 14 times on the ground while rushing for 706 yards. Yet I’m skeptical he’ll repeat his record-breaking scoring season, and those rushing TDs are likely to fall to Jonathan Stewart or DeAngelo Williams. One of the two should have an unexpectedly good season, even if Newton manages 8-10 rushing TDs.

Tim Hightower could be the potential starter in Washington, yet he’s treated like a fantasy afterthought. Any running back with even a better-than-average shot of leading his team in touches should be long-gone by the 10th round, yet Hightower remains available in most drafts. Rashard Mendenhall will miss time rehabbing from ACL surgery, but he seems likely to be back on the field by the time fantasy playoffs start in December. Isn’t that the time you really need him? Take him as your RB4 or RB5, and you could easily have a fantasy starter join your team for the playoffs.

If you can’t get a lock on one or two of the upside guys above, look for other guys that you feel have potential upside at the RB position. Hitting on a late-round RB is a game-changer.

Tier 6: Why Draft Defenses and Kickers?
At the end of the draft, a lot of teams pick up a kicker and defense. It seems like an obvious move, considering you have to start one of each every week. However, if you’re allowed to make transactional moves after your draft but before your season starts, I’d say you’re wasting an opportunity at potentially valuable lottery picks.

Kickers are virtually interchangeable, because of their well-documented volatility. Any kicker can go from afterthought to elite to afterthought in any given season. Even more importantly, none are so valuable that you want to spend even one week with a backup kicker on your roster through the bye weeks. Save yourself the trouble and pick up any schlub, preferably one that kicks for a quality team and/or in favorable conditions, if possible.

Having an elite defense is great, but they also come with a certain amount of volatility. To me, I’d rather not be handcuffed by playing the same defense every week anyway. Give me the defense facing the Jaguars, Rams or any other low-scoring team. Later in the season (and in the fantasy playoffs), backup QBs are going to be thrust into starting roles thanks to injury and ineffectiveness. Would you rather have the Ravens defense in Week 16 (presumably your Super Bowl) when they face Eli Manning and the Giants, or would you prefer a Broncos defense up against Brandon Weeden or Colt McCoy, or the Buccaneers when they face the Rams?

Instead of taking a kicker or a defensive unit, think about spending those late picks on extra running backs, even if you already have five good ones on your roster. Target clear-cut No. 2 running backs like Rashad Jennings, Isaiah Pead, Delone Carter, Montario Hardesty and any others you can find. Injuries happen during the preseason, and you could find yourself with an excellent trading chip, one you could use to upgrade at another starting position in a 2-for-1 swap. If an injury to a starting back occurs, at least one owner will be shorthanded at the position at the same time you lucked into your new starter.

If you can find situations where your late-round RB could even be named to a significant role without injury, even better. Ronnie Hillman could wind up showing he’s a better fit than Willis McGahee in the new offense immediately. So could Knowshon Moreno. Cedric Benson could be a free agent one day and pushing someone to start tomorrow. Kevin Smith could install himself as an unbenchable option while Mikel LeShoure serves his suspension. Evan Royster could win the game of Shenanigans that we all know is coming. Brandon Jacobs or Kendall Hunter could wind up the lead back in a committee with Frank Gore. And those are just a few examples of perfectly reasonable things that could happen in August and early September.

Taking some of these guys in your draft before they experience a potential extreme swing in value during the pre-season gives you the ammo to make your starting unit better should you get lucky. When you draft a defense or kicker late in your draft, you deprive yourself of even having that chance. Above all my other advice, I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity should your league settings allow it.

R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe, writes for FanDuel and has previously written for FanHouse and Razzball. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
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4 Responses to “Positional Plan: RB”

  1. Scipio says:

    excellent work, very informative and helpful. Much appreciated.

  2. User avatar m16a says:

    Another dynamite article, RJ. Great read.

  3. Comes through as always. Great job.

  4. Mizou says:

    I thought I was nuts dropping my kicker (whom I admittedly drafted in the second-to-last round) for guys like Turbine and Hightower (who could have upside and become starters due to their situations). Thanks for re-affirming. Only really need to pick the guy back up before roster lock week 1.


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