Everyone knows it's a "passing league." No point in arguing that. I was going to bore you with a long list of statistics showing the decrease in running and increase in passing, but is that really necessary? You've already heard the most important stat: 3 guys threw for 5,000 yards last year, and prior to 2009 that had only been done once, ever.
When I first started playing fantasy football, back in 2002, it was all about running backs. Grab two in the first two rounds, almost always. Now, it's completely different. This year more than ever before, it's about quarterbacks and receivers.
However, because of my history, I find it helpful to begin the long and tiresome fantasy-football-research-process by ranking the running backs and then deciding where to place the QBs and WRs later. So let's start with a top tier of running backs.
On most sites, you'll see the same trio of RBs ranked 1, 2 and 3 in some order - Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy and Ray Rice. What I'm noticing about this year's crop of runners is a consistency of concerns that apply to pretty much everybody. There are three primary areas of worry:
1- Contract. Either a guy just got paid big and now becomes a risk that he'll either get hurt or play less motivated, or a guy wants to get paid and might hold out. As we saw with Chris Johnson last year, skipping training camp can be a good way to suck.
2- RBBC. It used to be just Mike Shanahan and Bill Belichick who haunted us with the dreaded running-back-by-committee. Now it's pretty much every team. Whether it's third-down backs, goal-line backs, change-of-pace backs, or QBs who steal carries like Vick, Newton and Tebow, there are precious few running backs who stay on the field for all 3 downs and see 300 carries in a season (2 guys did that last year, 8 in 2002).
3- Injuries. Last year, an astounding number of elite running backs were hit by major injuries. Jamaal Charles, Fred Jackson, Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson, Rashard Mendenhall, Darren McFadden, and on and on. Then there are guys who seem to get hurt every year like Frank Gore and Steven Jackson. Who can you really trust to stay healthy? I'll tell you who. Quarterbacks.
There is one other category that applies to a few runners, in particular our top 3. That is:
4- Changes in offensive line. Foster lost his starting RT and RG, McCoy lost his All Pro LT for the year, and Rice lost a Pro Bowl guard.
So with those things in mind, let's break down the top 3 running backs, and others who belong in the 1st round:
Arian Foster. He'll go first in most drafts, but I have three major concerns. One is the losses of Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel from the offensive line. Second is the big payday he just got; will he still be motivated? And third is the presence of Ben Tate, a terrific talent looming in the wings. Houston has to give Tate at least 20-30% of the workload; he's too good to sit on the bench. All that said, I wouldn't hesitate to grab Foster early. He's awesome.
LeSean McCoy. I'm selling McCoy stock, and all other Eagles. The loss of Jason Peters is going to severely cripple their offense. Vick won't be able to stay healthy. Also, McCoy just signed for 5 years, $45 million, so will he stay motivated? I loved owning McCoy last year, but this year I wouldn't touch him inside the top 5. On the positive side, RBs in Andy Reid's offenses are usually good for 70+ passes. He'll dominate PPR leagues.
Ray Rice. Probably the safest RB in my mind, barring a holdout. Losing left guard Ben Grubbs is a blow, but Baltimore still has an elite O-line and still employs the best blocking fullback in football. A training camp holdout would drop his stock significantly, but I expect he'll be at training camp, even without a long term deal. If he is, he's the #1 RB to me; he IS the Ravens offense, he'll catch 70 passes, and he'll operate on the goal-line.
After those 3, the most common names are:
Maurice Jones-Drew. Last year's yardage leader is a very likely holdout candidate, and thus drops into the middle of the first round with an average draft position (ADP) of around 7. It doesn't look like he's getting a new deal anytime soon, so he might be a major risk. Also, everyone seems to be convinced that this is the year he'll break down physically.
Chris Johnson. Sonic the Hedgehog is becoming a very trendy 'sleeper' pick, flying up draft boards in the past few weeks. He is well-paid, happy, healthy, and still the fastest RB in the league. Also got Steve Hutchinson added to his line. Makes plenty of sense in the first round, despite the fact that he was abysmal last season.
This is where it gets tricky. After those five, you've got ...
Matt Forte. Coming off an MCL injury, potentially holding out, and has Michael Bush to vulture the TDs.
Darren McFadden. Coming off a foot injury, and with history of toe, knee and hamstring problems as well. Also, terrible team.
Ryan Matthews. Two years in the pros, two years of injuries. But now Tolbert is gone. Maybe he'll have a breakout year.
Marshawn Lynch. A lot of people love Lynch this year, but I am not one of them. He just got paid big money, and I fully expect him to turn into a sloth. Plus, Seattle sucks.
DeMarco Murray. ESPN ranks him as the #10 running back. I don't see why he isn't much higher; he is healthy, phenomenally talented, and too young to be whining about money. Also, he's on a great offense with a coach committed to running the ball. Comes with much less risk than the names above him.
After these 10, you're looking at familiar names like Michael Turner, Frank Gore, Steven Jackson ... guys you're just hoping will stay healthy through 5 or 6 weeks until their inevitable injuries. It's more important than ever to have 'handcuffs.' I'm assuming you know what that means. Also, you've got the "returning-from-major-injury" troop, which includes Adrian Peterson (going anywhere from 2nd round to 5th round), Jamaal Charles, Fred Jackson ... guys who have performed at an elite fantasy level before, but now present a major risk.
Then, there are the RBBC phantoms ... the Carolina trio (Steward, Williams, Tolbert), the Saints' mess (Sproles, Ingram, Thomas), the always enigmatic Patriots and Redskins, and of course the Lions (Best and LeShoure).
But sneakily hiding in that mess are a few potential gems. Let's take a look:
-Ahmad Bradshaw. Jacobs is gone, Bradshaw is paid (which could be a bad thing, but maybe not), and he seems like a bargain in the 4th round.
-BenJarvus Green Ellis. His name is synonymous with RBBC, but he's moved on to Cincy where he has the backfield all to himself.
-Isaac Redman. With Mendenhall expected to miss at least the first 6 games, Redman has the job for a while. Steelers fans love him. He's sneaky good.
-Trent Richardson. He'll go much higher in keeper leagues. He's actually moving up about 1 round per week. Everybody seems to be forgetting how bad the Browns are. Still, he's a rare 3-down back who gets the red zone carries too.
There are lots of other intriguing options ...
-Beanie Wells, who now shares the backfield with Ryan Williams
-LeGarrette Blount, who shares with Doug Martin
-Reggie Bush, the PPR wonder
-Shonn Greene, the annual disappointment
-Willis McGahee, who might be worthless now that Peyton's there
-CJ Spiller, another PPR guy
-Ben Tate, best backup in the league
-Toby Gerhard, the Vikings RB until AP is ready
-James Starks, if the Packers ever run the ball
-Donald Brown, if the Colts don't suck
-David Wilson, Giants' rookie
-Daniel Thomas, Dolphins' power back
And of course, a myriad of sleepers, which consists mostly of useful handcuffs and speedy rookies and explosive third-down backs. My favorites:
-Taiwan Jones. Cool name, former sprinter, backs up the oft-injured McFadden.
-Isaiah Pead. Great out of backfield, speedy and downhill, the heir apparent to Steven Jackson.
-Jacquizz Rodgers. Super cool name, extremely fast, Falcons' third-down back.
-Peyton Hillis. Could actually see 10+ TDs on the revamped Chiefs.
-Rashard Mendenhall. Stash him and hope he comes back earlier than expected.
As always, stay away from Patriots and Redskins. Don't believe what you read about Roy Helu; it's not happening.
So to summarize, pretty much every running back comes with plenty of risk. If you're picking #1 overall, like I was last night in my first of what will be way too many leagues, take Aaron Rodgers. If you're picking #2 and Rodgers is gone, take Tom Brady. At 3, I'd probably go Rice, then Brees at 4. The fourth QB is a toss-up between Stafford, Newton, Romo, Eli, Peyton, Rivers ... so I'd wait a while after Brees. To round out my top 10, I'd go Foster at 5, Sonic at 6, Murray at 7, then MJD at 8, Forte at 9 and McCoy at 10. Don't pick Megatron in the 1st round unless you want to deal with the Curse.
More rankings to come later. Go Lions!
More rankings to come later. Go Lions!