For years, fantasy football was all about the running back. Just take a journey back to 2002 when Ricky Williams had his career year with over 1,800 rushing yards. He was first overall in fantasy rankings with 319 fantasy points. LaDainian Tomlinson was the top guy the next year, too (343 points), and we saw a running back in the top spot in 2005, 2006 and 2010, as well. Every other season between 2002 and now, though, has been someone other than a running back.
The days of absolutely having to draft the top stud rusher are gone. It’s more of a passing league and even with teams like the Saints and Broncos supposedly scaling things back, the quarterback position is so unbelievably deep (16 passers with at least 250 fantasy points) that you can get by with someone at the lower end of the top-15 as long as you build out a competent roster elsewhere. But can you get by without top level talent at running back?
Well, that all depends. My constant theory in fantasy football has always been go get the best available running backs, and do so early and often. Of course, like anything in fantasy football, even my personal favorite draft strategy isn’t always a guarantee. Last year we saw quite a few guys burn us in a severe way. Montee Ball was a bust for the second year in a row, Lamar Miller wasn’t, C.J. Spiller and Doug Martin were, Arian Foster wasn’t and Adrian Peterson was and it had nothing to do with injury or poor play.
If you trusted in the wrong guys I just mentioned, you may have suffered through a brutal 2014 season. Then again, if you picked up the right scraps in the middle and late rounds (Mark Ingram, Jeremy Hill, etc) you may have made it out just fine. What if you just go into your fantasy draft with the plan of avoiding that early round pain, altogether? It’s an interesting idea, to be sure. I definitely support value-based drafting in any regard, provided in the end you’re left with a balanced and deep squad.
Still, each year brings the chance for things to change dramatically. Player value, roles, injury and specifics situations always have to come into play, as does risk vs. reward. But which path, at least at first glance, is the better route? Ultimately that’s up to you to decide, but to help better gauge both strategies, I conducted two mocks via FantasyPros.com’s sweet Draft Simulator. For the first mock draft I avoided drafted a single running back until round five at the earliest. Following Shawn Siegele‘s strategy and my own belief in the insane depth/value at quarterback, I didn’t draft anything but wide receivers and a tight end to get my draft rolling. You may want to shake things up if the right guys don’t fall to you, but by rolling this way you can come to the following team:
Note: Both drafts were conducted via the Draft Simulator using a composite ADP and FantasyPros rankings. Both teams use 1QB, 2RB, 2WR, 1TE, 1Flex, 1K, 1Def and 6 Bench spots on the roster with standard settings in a 12-team league. Both drafts started with me picking from the 6th overall pick.
QB: Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler
RB: T.J. Yeldon, Tevin Coleman, Joseph Randle, Shane Vereen, Duke Johnson
WR: Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, Percy Harvin, Kenny Stills
TE: Jimmy Graham
Flex: Brandin Cooks
K: Matt Prater
Def: Carolina Panthers
A lot of people are down on Stafford and I’m fine with taking him as my QB1 later in drafts. I’m also high on Yeldon, so I love that he’s my first running back in round five. I also got the necessary depth and balance I chase in drafts, as well as a potential elite option everywhere – save for possibly running back.
While I don’t hate the running backs I’m left with, this strategy begs for you to chase upside in rookies. I have three here and probably only one (Yeldon) is a lock to start right away. All three could end up being great picks, but it could take a while to see a full return on my investment. The good thing is the investment is small, as the first back I took was Yeldon (5th round). I’m not huge on Vereen or Randle, but both are obvious value picks with Randle having a shot as the main back in Dallas and Vereen having some of the best versatility and explosiveness in the league.
This strategy also forces you to take guys you otherwise might not be fully into. For instance, Rob Gronkowski at the 6th pick is probably a reach (I took Antonio Brown) and he’s gone by the time I pick in round two. So you’d need to pick between one of the two (or another stud WR like ODB, etc). That left me with Graham, who in my opinion is still going to be very good but is no longer going to have the volume or upside that demands a round two pick. Unfortunately, rankings and ADP make that the case still, and I took him here just to show you how it maps out. If you want Graham, you still have to reach for him. With question marks elsewhere at tight end, I’d rather wait and take someone with upside like Jordan Reed or bank on someone like Jason Witten or Vernon Davis bouncing back. Even if they don’t, TE is a great position to stream and you’re spending a late round pick on them, so it should work out just fine.
The second strategy is playing it safe and grabbing the best two running backs possible right away with your first two picks. I’ve stood by this strategy for years and while it rarely completely fails me, the times are changing enough that it’s not nearly as safe as it used to be. It’s not even necessarily always the smartest strategy, either. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it, but it does mean you need to put a little more time in considering your strategy going into your draft. It also means you need to be able to adapt on the fly, as even the most concrete strategy has the potential to blow up in your face depending on what other fantasy owners do ahead of you in the draft.
Overall, I’m largely fine with how the team turned out, but the longer you wait on running backs, the more it forces you into players you don’t covet and limits you from the middle round on. One could also argue that I just didn’t draft the right players, and I’m not immune to mistakes, but the player pool things out rapidly, so you’d be surprised how ugly it gets – and fast.
Still, with what you know you can control, using the RB/RB strategy to start your draft can net you a roster like this:
QB: Matthew Stafford, RG3
RB: Marshawn Lynch, Jeremy Hill, Doug Martin, David Cobb
WR: Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Kevin White, Percy Harvin
TE: Zach Ertz
Flex: Todd Gurley
K: Matt Bryant
Def: Baltimore Ravens
Hill shares the rock but the Bengals run so much it won’t matter. He’s a fine RB2 and Lynch is a stud RB1, so taking two running backs early certainly has me feeling good about that position. I was able to grab a high upside Flex play in Todd Gurley, too, who operates as a fun RB3. Doug Martin is low risk, high reward later in the draft and if he doesn’t work out, Cobb is an interesting rookie who could take over in Tennessee. Despite going RB/RB, I still was able to land a stud WR1 in Evans, while D-Jax and Maclin both are rock solid WR2s with borderline WR1 upside. White could be a stud as a rook and Harvin is just a versatile weapon that is a fun flier due to his low ADP this year. Ertz is a high upside TE and Stafford is a solid value pick who could easily revert to elite QB1 status. Even if he doesn’t, he’s still a fairly stable QB1.
RG3 could be a total spare that gets benched right away, Stafford could be stuck in mud and be no better than he was last year (14th overall), Gurley’s knee injury could be a problem, Ertz could fail to overtake Phill’s TE gig and Doug Martin could easily once again be a bust.
There are risks everywhere you look, but overall, I’m still liking the RB/RB strategy a lot better than waiting until even round four for my first running back. Why? If you don’t land Rob Gronkowski I’m not sure TE is worth reaching for, RB is thin and both QB and WR are super deep. Stafford still gives me a guy that was a top-15 fantasy passer in a down year, while my top three WRs were all top-15 guys a year ago. My running backs are both top-10 guys who could vie for spots in the top-5, too.
I was starting to warm up to the Zero Running Back Theory last year and if your draft went perfectly, it may have worked out. It required some luck, though, and in a lot of cases it didn’t go completely smoothly. The problem is, if you just look at last year, 32 running backs topped 100 fantasy points, but only 8 topped 200. Three of the top-10 backs of 2014 were far from first round picks, so it’s quite clear you can find major success in the middle to late rounds. However, the risk appears to be greater that you might not. If you’re confident you can stack up your receivers, grab the tight end you want and still get 3-4 RBs you absolutely love, then the first strategy might be for you. I don’t need to handcuff myself to the RB/RB strategy (RB/TE or RB/WR works out great, too), but it’s been helping me build out rosters for years and I am leaning that way in drafts for 2015.