The first two rounds of most fantasy football drafts used to be dominated by running backs. Now, with more real-life teams going to a committee approach or employing third-down and short-yardage specialists, that's not necessarily the case.
But getting significant contributions from your RBs is still important for winning fantasy titles. Finding talented backs who get a lot of touches is key, but so is stockpiling depth throughout your draft or auction. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to build your RB corps. Here's a road map for navigating fantasy's most volatile position.
Go All-In Early
If you have one of the top three picks in standard leagues, resist the temptation to take Aaron Rodgers or Calvin Johnson and go with either Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy or Ray Rice. All three have established themselves as every-down backs and elite receiving options. With only five games missed between them over the past two seasons – two, if we don't count Week 17 games – they're also three of the most durable backs in the league.
Foster gets the slight edge because the Texans ran a higher percentage of running plays than any team except the Broncos last year. Even with valuable handcuff Ben Tate stealing touches, Foster is your best bet for all-around fantasy production.
After the top three, Chris Johnson is the last back “without question marks.” Anyone who owned Johnson last season will scoff at that statement, but he's another every-down back without an injury history. Even during a disappointing 2011 campaign, Johnson managed 1,465 total yards – ninth best among RBs. His four TDs were the real problem, but Johnson averaged 12.7 scores during his first three seasons. A bounce-back campaign seems likely.
Getting any of these four backs will put you ahead of the game, but you'll likely need a top-seven pick to land one of them. After that, you better be prepared to take some risks.
Draft Talent, Hope for Health
Would it surprise anyone if Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews or Trent Richardson finished the season as the top-rated fantasy back? Probably not, but each of these ultra-talented runners – who will all likely be gone by the end of the second round – comes with risks.
Jones-Drew, last year's leading rusher and the top-ranked back in Sporting News' RB Workhorse Index, is still holding out for a new contract and has reportedly asked to be traded; McFadden, whose 6.0 yards-per-touch leads all players with at least 250 touches over the past two seasons, has missed 19 games in his four-year career, including nine last season; Peterson, the only back with at least 10 rushing TDs in each of the past five seasons, won't play this preseason as he makes his way back from a torn left ACL suffered in Week 16 last year; Charles, who has averaged 6.1 yards-per-carry for his career, is also trying to come back from a torn ACL and will have to deal with Peyton Hillis stealing touches and goal-line carries; Forte, who was third in scrimmage yards-per-game (134.1) last year before a knee injury ended his season in Week 13, has to contend with short-yardage/goal-line specialist Michael Bush stealing carries; Murray, who outpaced every other back in the league by 184 yards during his seven-week stint as the Cowboys' starter, has injury problems dating back to college; and Mathews (collarbone) and Richardson (left knee) might not be ready for Week 1.
If you're counting on any of these guys as your RB1, you better plan on grabbing at least two more backs with your next six picks. Or, you can reach a round or two early to make sure you get their handcuffs. As it stands, each of the handcuffs for Jones-Drew (Rashad Jennings), McFadden (likely Taiwan Jones), Peterson (Toby Gerhart), Charles (Hillis), Murray (Felix Jones), Forte (Bush), Mathews (Ronnie Brown) and Richardson (Montario Hardesty) makes for a nice mid-to-late-round pick even if you don't own the starter in front of them. There's a good chance they'll get starter's touches at some point.
Be Bold or Be Boring
Whether you're looking for an RB1 or an RB2 in Rounds 3-7, you'll have several viable options, but you're likely going to be initially underwhelmed with your decision.
Steady veterans like Michael Turner, Frank Gore, Willis McGahee and
Two of last year's biggest breakout backs, Marshawn Lynch and Reggie Bush, are also decent picks, but Lynch is facing a possible suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy, and Bush missed 20 games due to injury from 2007-'11. Plus, both have underachieved in the past.
Established backs – and occasional big-time producers -- Darren Sproles, Ahmad Bradshaw, Shonn Greene, Fred Jackson, Beanie Wells and BenJarvus Green-Ellis either have injury, age or consistency issues, but all six should be solid RB2s when healthy.
For the owner who finds the above options boring, you can swing for the fences for Bucs' rookie Doug Martin, who's expected to get the majority of backfield touches over LeGarrette Blount, or third-year Bills' back C.J. Spiller, who shined in the final five weeks of last season, averaging 15.2 fantasy points per game. You can also try to guess which Carolina back (DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart) will recapture his former glory or which backs in Washington (Tim Hightower, Roy Helu, Even Royster or Alfred Morris) and New England (Shane Vereen or Stevan Ridley) will get more touches. You could also try your luck with four likely Week 1 starters, Indianapolis' Donald Brown, Detroit's Kevin Smith, Green Bay's Cedric Benson or Pittsburgh's Isaac Redman, and hope they can take their team's respective jobs and run with them. Redman will have the toughest time hanging onto his gig with Rashard Mendenhall expected back from a torn ACL by Week 4.
There's potential value with all of the backs in this group, but be realistic with your expectations. Any situation that requires “guessing,” like Washington or New England, shouldn't be counted on to produce an every-week fantasy starter. Any situation involving an unproven player like Martin or Redman is also risky.
GO FOR DEPTH, GO FOR UPSIDE
The final seven to eight rounds of any draft are all about depth. This means grabbing the handcuffs we discussed earlier or other talented first- or second-year guys who are one or two steps away from regular playing time. Every year, at least one RB emerges from nowhere, and if you can find him at the end of your draft, you'll be laughing at the end of the season.
This year, second-year backs Mark Ingram (Saints), Mikel LeShoure (Lions), Ryan Williams (Cardinals), Daniel Thomas (Dolphins), Jacquizz Rodgers (Falcons) and Kendall Hunter (49ers) are all in unique situations that could lead to fantasy success. LeShoure missed all of last season because of a torn Achilles' and will be suspended for the first two games this year. But with Jahvid Best expected to miss at least the first six games because of concussion-related problems and Kevin Smith always an injury risk, LeShoure could quickly emerge as the lead back in one of the NFL's most potent offenses.
Williams, who missed all of last season because of a knee injury, is a Beanie Wells injury away from starting for Arizona, and Ingram and Thomas are both an injury away from 15-plus carries a game for their respective teams. Rodgers is expected to play more in Atlanta's no-huddle offense, and he could be a major steal in PPR leagues. Hunter should spell Gore liberally throughout the year, especially with Brandon Jacobs suffering a left knee injury in the preseason.
Rookies Robert Turbin (Seahawks), David Wilson (Giants), Vick Ballard (Colts) and the previously alluded to Ronnie Hillman (Broncos), LaMichael James (49ers) and
Ultimately, there are plenty of solid RB options to be found throughout your draft, but you have to remember that this isn't the fantasy football of even a couple years ago. You're not going to get two 300-carry backs to anchor your team. Getting one 300-touch back will be tough enough. Your RB2 might be an “RB2” in real life, but that still might be good enough in your fantasy league. If you build depth, balance steady vets with high-upside youngsters, and stay active on the waiver wire throughout the year, you should be able to win out in the long run.
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.