rodgers smiling2

Damn you and your irresistible smile, Aaron Rodgers.

With all due apologies to Santa and the residents on the Island of Misfit toys, right now it is in many ways the most wonderful time of the year. The sun is getting sunnier, which means beaches get beachier, and patio lanterns are more than just the hook for a bad song. And the sooner we can get summer over with and dispense with the brews and holiday time and such, we can return to football, and drafting fake teams.

Oh, it’s coming after one more stretch of darkness. With minicamps running this week for most teams and therefore ending this week, the NFL will soon begin its six weeks of darkness prior to training camp. And when that darkness descends, fantasy drafting season begins.

So welcome one and all to a post (likely a weekly post, or maybe twice weekly…who said anything about planning around here?) in which we’ll look back on the trends and tendencies of last year and see if we can learn something together in hindsight. To start, let’s emphasis the importance of a simple approach, and one that had become common until the explosion of passing numbers in recent years.

Draft a running back early, and then draft another running back early.

Looking back on last year, you’re forgiven if you reached for a player in the first round who didn’t play running back, and you’re especially forgiven if he plays quarterback. Based on ESPN’s 2012 ADPs (which are used in all examples below), in a 10-team league using standard scoring, three quarterbacks were drafted in the top 10. Their names are rather predicable: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers. Two of them — Brady and Rodgers — were selected in the top five.

Obviously, the dynamics change drastically in leagues which start two quarterbacks. But single-QB leagues are far more common, as are leagues which start two running backs. That fact alone combined with the sheer scarcity of running backs which fit the classic definition of a featured back — or “bellcow,” as the trendy tag goes — increases the demand for RBs, but quickly depletes the supply.

We know this, yet every summer the temptation to reach for that sexy quarterback (figuratively…no disrespect, Tom) is difficult to avoid. Value is judged by the production you receive in relation to the draft payment you made, and when we look at what transpired a summer ago, there’s little reason to not select a running back with each of your first two picks in the opening rounds.

I know, that may feel like it’s kickin’ it old school a bit, and the generally exception is a beastly wide receiver who will get buckets of targets. Think Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, and A.J. Green. That especially applies to Johnson and Marshall, who each finished with over 190 targets, and all three were on the field for over 900 snaps. Megatron was particularly robotic as he ran 770 routes, according to Pro Football Focus.

That high-volume usage leads to equally high production opportunities, which puts those three in amongst the running backs to be targeted in the first two rounds (if you want to make an argument for Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas too, you won’t get much opposition here). But aside from those names, stick with dem backs that run.

Of the top 10 fantasy scorers last year, nine of them played quarterback (Adrian Peterson was the only exception). No, that’s not helping me here, but this is: only four of them (Brady, Rodgers, Brees, and Cam Newton) were drafted on average in the first two rounds. Matt Ryan came off the board at about 51st overall, 43 spots after Brees, the highest producing fantasy player. Yet the gap of 46 points between them isn’t nearly as significant as the divide in draft position.

We see something similar between Tony Romo and Brady, with the former available at 48th overall, 45 spots after the Patriots quarterback. Meanwhile, despite Brady’s lofty draft status and 329 fantasy points, Romo finished only 58 points behind.

Now, those guys who drafted Rodgers and Brady at third and fourth respectively, let’s see the list of running backs they missed out on while waiting for their late second-round pick to come up (again, using a 10-team league, and obviously this gets worse in a deeper league). Yeah, it’s sort of long: Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson, and Matt Forte. Keep in mind too that since we’re using last year’s ADPs, it was a time of extreme caution with Peterson (shredded knee) and MJD (contract kerfuffle), and yet they were still both selected in the first two rounds.

Those fine folks then were forced to roll with the brittle and busted bodies of DeMarco Murray and Darren McFadden as their top running back, unless they were lucky enough to have Jamaal Charles fall in their lap. And lady luck isn’t a woman you want to mess with at running back, a hauntingly shallow position.

The tale of the overly ambitious QB drafter often ends in one of woe and sadness, and thankfully it’s a brief trend which seems to be dying. Now, if only stickers on hats could do the same.

Over at Fantasy Pros and their ADP compilation, Rodgers is the first quarterback selected at 13th overall, followed by Brees at 18th, both towards the end of the second round in 10-team leagues. Then Peyton Manning follows at 28th.