We hear it every year repeatedly in August. Running backs rule the fantasy kingdom, and therefore they must be highly coveted, even if it means sacrificing your first born.
But through half a season the first two rounds of drafts this past August are littered with loathing and self hatred because of an explosive cocktail of competing factors. The whirling spiral has been part injury, part under-performance, and a third damning trend: an utter lack of running league-wide. Currently, games are averaging only 214.6 rushing yards, the third lowest average in league history. Yet overall scoring is still humming along at a record-setting pace (the 5,544 points scored through eight weeks are the most in NFL history).
So that leads us to a difficult and complex question…
Did we all draft running backs too early?
Every fantasy draft varies, a standard disclaimer that I feel obligated to note in a discussion of this nature, though I’m not quite sure why. To guard against the mischief of that wild variance I usually turn to the ADP data at FantasyPros when looking back on the depressing mistakes we made in August, because that wonderful webspace provides the largest sample size through its composite ADP of six major fantasy sites (including ESPN, CBS, and My Fantasy League).
So when we turn there this is what we see: over the first two rounds of a standard 12-team draft, 14 running backs were selected on average. Consequently, my arithmetic indicates only 10 non-running backs were usually picked (six wide receivers, one tight end, and three quarterbacks).
What do we see in those 14 running backs? Well, let’s deal with the good news first, because I’m generally a cheery person. But Sadly, there’s no avoiding a sprinkling of awful, because even when we focus on the good there’s still disappointment.
Adrian Peterson was nearly the universal first overall pick this year, and when you make a player the first overall fantasy pick, here’s what you’re effectively saying (maybe you actually said this aloud to yourself at the time): “this player is the best player in all the land, and although he won’t lead the league in fantasy points because he’s a running back, he’ll easily lead his position” Hmmm, about that.
Peterson has had a fine season thus far with 695 total yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 4.5 yards per carry, all feats made even more remarkable by the fiery mess that is Minnesota’s quarterback situation. Clearly, expecting him to duplicate his near record-setting 2012 season wasn’t remotely realistic, but yeah, you’re quite pleased with those numbers which add up to 103 fantasy points. Just maybe not first overall pleased.
Those points put Peterson sixth at his position in fantasy scoring, and well behind first-place Jamaal Charles’ 139 points. Worse, overall Peterson is currently 27th, behind such notables as Sam Bradford and Alex Smith. None of this means you’re enraged as a Peterson owner. What it does mean, though, is that you’re getting the downside of the moderate risk you purchased with Peterson. A running back who’s the sole driver of his offense and has little support otherwise is coming short of gargantuan expectations that weren’t realistic to begin with. No drastic future action is needed.
Ahead of and around Peterson are some expected names that were also highly drafted in the first two rounds. Like Charles and LeSean McCoy (110.5 fantasy points), who is thriving in a new system as he currently leads the league in rushing with 733 yards, while also adding 284 receiving yards. The same system-change push applies to Reggie Bush (102 points), and Matt Forte (110.5 points), while Marshawn Lynch has still been beast moding with the exception of his stink bomb Monday night (27 total yards, but on just nine touches).
None of that is surprising, but here comes the suck. Of those 14 running backs drafted in the first two rounds, seven of them have been dramatically disappointing. Injuries have played a role, but generally they’ve just been terrible. Here’s the story of the seven doomed souls.
- Doug Martin (ADP: 2nd overall): Martin is now out indefinitely with a shoulder injury, which speaks to the fragile nature of the running back position. However, even before his thump Martin was averaging only 3.6 yards per carry, and he had scored just once. Of the six games he completed, Martin had single-digit fantasy points in three of them.
- C.J. Spiller (ADP: 5th): An ankle injury has held Spiller back lately (again, running backs break often). Overall, though, 117 of his 398 total yards came in one game, and last year despite also suffering an injury and missing time, Spiller still logged 696 total yards over his first seven games. His decline in receiving yards is the most jarring, as Spiller is currently on pace for just 82 yards through the air after 459 last year. That downward spike should correct itself quickly once he’s healthy, but still, the fact that it exists at all is…wow.
- Ray Rice (ADP: 7th): I’ll direct you to my rant this morning in which I claimed Rice may soon make you quit fantasy football forever.
- Trent Richardson (ADP: 9): In both of his football locations this season Richardson has flat out missed running lanes, yet he’s still flashed some of the effective Richardson by flattening well, anyone. He’s averaging only 3.1 yards per carry, though, and his single-game rushing high is just 60 yards.
- Steven Jackson (ADP: 17): He’s hurt, and he has been all year. Even when he returned last week after missing four games, Jackson had all of six yards on 11 carries and was clearly only healthy enough to play, and not to be effective. But really, what did you expect when you spent a second-round pick on a 30-year-old running back entering his 10th season?
- Chris Johnson (ADP: 18): Like Rice, my deep-rooted and festering ire was aimed at CJ?K recently. So I’ll direct you there and won’t repeat much of those hateful words. I will, however, remind you that Johnson is likely about to lose carries to Shonn Greene. Seriously, Shonn Greene.
- Stevan Ridley (ADP:22): Business has picked up of late with Ridley’s four touchdowns over his last three games. But he’s still averaging only 57 rushing yards per game, and there’s an element of randomness to even his recent scoring since his plodding and fumbling to begin the year resulted in the trademarked Belichick time share emerging. After averaging 18.1 carries per game last year, that number is now down to 13.1.
Of those seven names, the highest fantasy scorer is Johnson, with his 62 fantasy points ranking him 19th among running backs. That fall isn’t so bad from his original draft position of 13th among his peers, but Rice’s fall from 7th in drafts to 35th now is rather painful, as is Spiller’s from fifth to 38th, Richardson’s from 9th to 33rd, Martin’s from 2nd to 29th and whoa boy, Jackson’s from 17th to 66th. Above them all are names like Danny Woodhead and Giovanni Bernard who could be drafted much, much later, or in the case of Andre Ellington — who’s also ahead and the 14th best running back with 65.5 points — be fished off the waiver wire.
What we can take from this is, firstly, that life isn’t fair. Secondly, that although the urge to fight a default habit of pursuing running backs early seems right and just, the change you’re making next August if current trends continue is only a minor one. That’s because the glut of numbers and early-round running back daggers I just trudged through doesn’t change the intense premium on running backs. Instead, it’s stronger now.
Lunging for the truly reliable running backs like Charles, Forte, and Peterson is the right play, because the demand for their scarce services is so high. But the problem is that there are now time bombs like Spiller, Richardson, and Rice among those elites, and there’s no amount of in-depth analysis or fancy stats that can help you avoid them. What’s truly terrifying is that those land mines may grow in number with the extreme shift towards a passing league. Currently, only 10 running backs are on pace to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards, after there were 16 last year, 14 in 2012, and 17 in 2011.
More uncertainty is forthcoming, but sometimes all we can do is draft the best running back available while crossing every finger and shrugging. It may come to that next summer.