The NFL has changed. Ten years ago successful fantasy players grabbed a feature back in the first round and, ideally, two of them in the first three rounds. Those 20- to 25-carry-per-game studs powered a steady lineup.
Then, new rules that were favorable to offenses, some of which were designed to protect the health of passers and catchers, made it an aerial league. From 1920 to 2010 only two quarterbacks threw for 5,000 yards in a season: Dan Marino (5,084 in 1984) and Drew Brees (5,069 in 2008). Last year alone there were three (Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford). Super Bowl champion Eli Manning fell just 67 yards short, and the MVP, Aaron Rodgers, missed by 357 yards.
Even teams that still place a premium on the running game do it differently. Short passes often take the place of handoffs, and the latest coaching philosophy calls for a corps of running backs that are employed much like pitchers in a bullpen: Each has a role and they all share the load. The traditional lead back is largely gone, with teams instead opting for a Belichickian approach of dividing touches to both reduce the reliance on one man—the loss of whom could prove devastating to a football team—while making it more difficult for opponents to game plan against them.
As a result, the early rounds of fantasy drafts have become positional free-for-alls. The usual mix of running backs and quarterbacks are spiced with the occasional wideout (Calvin Johnson, anyone?) or (gasp!) a tight end (Hello, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham). In this new fantasy reality, which backs should be on your team? Read on.
Having top-tier wide receivers such as Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson is great, but thrifty owners know that if they wait a couple of rounds they'll be able to snare plenty of point-producing wideouts like these
Demaryius Thomas is getting a lot of attention, but don't ignore Decker. Despite entering 2012 with only 50 career grabs, Decker is in prime position to become one of Peyton Manning's favorite targets and just the fifth Bronco with a 100-catch season.
Most fantasy owners view him as someone who'll be handicapped by inconsistent fourth-year QB Josh Freeman, but those in the know see Jackson as Freeman's savior, providing veteran leadership and a deep target (career 17.5 yards per catch).
Although New England is his sixth NFL stop, he has quickly become fluent with the playbook. A disciple of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels from their time together in Denver, Lloyd looks as if he's been playing with Tom Brady forever.
Smith was one of the league's most dangerous downfield threats as a rookie. Only Victor Cruz (four), Steve Smith (three) and Wes Welker (three) had more games with 150 receiving yards last year.
One of the prime breakout candidates of 2012, he ended the '11 season on a four-game touchdown streak. Jones closed out his rookie year with 959 yards and eight TDs despite missing three full games and parts of three others with a hamstring pull.
Touchdowns are important but unpredictable, so to justify a top pick, a back should rush for 1,200 yards, a quarterback should throw for 4,000 and a wideout should have 1,200 receiving. Over the last decade fewer backs have reached that milestone, while QBs and receivers have flourished
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THE SURE THINGS
There are only two clear-cut, no-brainer first-rounders. Both are elite, every-down runners, with excellent pass-catching skills and durable track records. They're perfect fits for their respective offenses and they don't share time with short-yardage touchdown vultures. They are the Ravens' Ray Rice and the Eagles' LeSean McCoy (top, far right).
The bubble pick in this category is Arian Foster of the Texans, who's widely regarded as the league's best runner, playing in the league's best rushing offense. Unfortunately, Foster has a history of recurring hamstring injuries, and he plays with the league's most promising backup, Ben Tate, whose 5.4 yards per rush last year ranked fourth in the NFL among those with at least 150 carries. Tate's presence makes it easy for coach Gary Kubiak to let Foster rest at the first signs of trouble. That said, Foster should be a top five pick in every draft.
Those runners who share carries can still be elite fantasy performers. One such situation is shaping up in Kansas City, where newcomer Peyton Hillis has been literally bowling over his teammates. In practice Hillis has displayed the punishing running style that made him the waiver-wire pickup of 2010, when he totaled 1,177 yards and 13 total touchdowns while playing in Cleveland for Kansas City's new offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll. Hillis is paired with the speedy Jamaal Charles, who averaged 6.1 yards per carry through his first four seasons and appears to be fully recovered from the torn ACL that sidelined him for the final 14 games of 2011. They'll be playing in perhaps the league's most-run heavy offense, so touches won't be an issue for either. It's possible that both will end up in the top 20 of all fantasy scorers this season.
Other potential high-production tandems include the Giants' Ahmad Bradshaw and rookie David Wilson; the Saints' Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram; and the Bears' Matt Forte and Michael Bush.
Running backs take a pounding, which is why it's a young man's position. More often than not, running backs in their early 30s are considered past their prime. That makes it wise to target the backups of top runners who are approaching their expiration dates.
In Atlanta, Michael Turner has been a paragon of consistency since coming to the Falcons in 2008, placing third in rushing yards per game (89.5) and second in rushing touchdowns (50) during that span. But he has also led the league in rushes since 2008, with 1,189. Turner's now 30, and his coaches are rightfully determined to lighten his load.
That opens the door for Jacquizz Rodgers, who can better keep up with the potentially explosive attack of new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Small but powerful, Rodgers is reminiscent of Maurice Jones-Drew, and while he likely won't produce like MJD this year, he will be involved enough that he should be owned in all leagues.
Teams with similar situations include St. Louis, where Isaiah Pead is ready to sub in for Steven Jackson, 29; San Francisco, which has Kendall Hunter backing up Frank Gore, 29; and Denver, where Lance Ball and Ronnie Hillman each await their chances behind Willis McGahee, 30.
While the new pass-happy NFL has devalued running backs, fantasy success still requires a few good ones. It may no longer be wise to automatically grab a back in the first round, or even the second, but every fantasy player needs at least four on the roster.
DISPENSING YET MORE WISDOM
In the late rounds of the draft, it's often better to take a flier on a fourth or fifth option from a fantasy-friendly, high-powered offensive team than a second option playing with a bunch of plodders. Here are teams popping out fantasy possibilities (including defense) like candy from a Pez dispenser
Every draft is full of question marks, so this grid maps the risk-reward of some of this year's greatest unknowns. The guys in the lower right quadrant offer the best payoff with the least downside
Top draft choices get the pub, but that doesn't always equal production. Here are less heralded rookies who should make a fantasy splash before the season is over
DWAYNE ALLEN, TE,COLTS (64TH PICK)
Being taken 30 spots after fellow tight end Coby Fleener won't hinder the 2011 John Mackey Award winner from Clemson, who will catch his share of balls in Bruce Arians's two-tight-end offense.
RONNIE HILLMAN, RB,BRONCOS (67TH PICK)
Peyton Manning has never had a weapon as quick and elusive in his backfield as the 5'10", 190-pound San Diego State rookie, who draws favorable comparisons to prototype receiving back Darren Sproles.
LAMAR MILLER, RB,DOLPHINS (97TH PICK)
The former Hurricane has been stellar thus far in camp and has his new coaching staff looking for ways to get him involved in the offense, including snaps at wide receiver.
ROBERT TURBIN, RB,SEAHAWKS (106TH PICK)
With Marshawn Lynch facing potential league discipline following a July DUI (he pleaded not guilty; his next hearing is scheduled for Sept. 27), the similarly built Turbin, who scored 23 TDs as a Utah State junior, has a chance to open the season as Seattle's lead back.
KESHAWN MARTIN, WR,TEXANS (121ST PICK)
One of a trio of candidates to replace Jacoby Jones in the slot, the 5'11" 194-pounder from Michigan State has turned heads with his hands and feet while impressing coaches with his attention to detail.
Photograph by DAVID BERGMAN
BIG-TIME RUSHER Rice is one of the few runners left who dominates playing time at his position and receives the majority of the backfield touches.
AL TIELEMANS (MCCOY)
MADE IN THE SHADY Like Rice, McCoy remains a major cog in his team's offense because of his skill as both a runner and a receiver.
FIVE PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SI IMAGING
MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY (HELMETS); CHAD MATTHEW CARLSON (PEZ DISPENSER, CANDY)
JOE NICHOLSON/US PRESSWIRE (TURBIN)