"Running backs are the lifeblood of fantasy football."
That's a phrase I have used countless times in my almost 15 years in the fantasy sports business. It dates back to the days of Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson - if you land a star running back(s) in your fantasy draft, well, you're going to be ahead of the curve in that never ending quest to win your league's championship. The phrase did lose some of it's luster as we look back to the 2012 preseason, though, as injuries and backfield committees made it tough to overlook the new dominant position - the quarterbacks.
Even an old running backs apologist like me had to at least consider taking a signal-caller in the first few rounds last season, and that's a thought I never would have had in years prior. But something strange and wonderful happened during the course of the 2012 campaign. Quarterbacks did in fact dominate the stat sheets, but it wasn't limited to the elite players like Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. Peyton Manning came back from multiple neck surgeries to finish sixth in fantasy points. Cam Newton had another stellar season, while three rookies (Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson) finished with impressive totals. Matt Ryan took the next step to fantasy stardom too, putting up career numbers across the board.
Yes, the quarterback position became deep - very deep. At the same time, we also started to see some new superstars emerge at the running back spot. While the likes of Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster and Ray Rice continued to dominate, younger backs like Doug Martin, Alfred Morris, C.J. Spiller, Trent Richardson and Stevan Ridley were putting up tremendous totals as well. Veterans such as Marshawn Lynch and Jamaal Charles were also stellar from a fantasy perspective. And while there are still a fair share of backfield committees around the league, fantasy owners have a much clearer look at which runners were the lead options for their respective offenses. Offseason movement has helped cement the position even further, as veterans Steven Jackson (Falcons), Reggie Bush (Lions), Chris Ivory (Jets), Ahmad Bradshaw (Colts) and Rashard Mendenhall (Cardinals) all appear set to take on lead-back duties with their new squads.
Overall, I would argue that the running back position hasn't been this easy to determine in awhile.
It's this combination of quarterback depth and the resurrection of the running back position that is the basis for building what should be your fantasy draft strategy for 2013 - load up on runners early, and wait to take your starting signal-caller. I know, a lot of fantasy fans out there will think it's insane to take someone like Lamar Miller (a favorite sleeper of mine) over a proven star like Rodgers. But you can't look at it based purely on the numbers. If that were the case, then Peterson would be the lone running back to be worth a first-round pick this season based on 2012 totals.
Quarterbacks are going to score the most points because of the nature of the position. Did you know that Carson Palmer, an average fantasy quarterback during his time with the Oakland Raiders, scored more points than all but five running backs last season? Does that make Palmer more attractive than Peterson, Morris, Foster, Lynch and Morris? Of course not. If you think so, then please send me an invite to your league!
No, it's all about relative value, my friends.
A player's fantasy value isn't solely based on the total number of fantasy points he records. If that were the case, then you would draft Palmer over all but five running backs this season. Instead, his stock should be based on the extent he outscores other players at his position. In 2012, the difference between the top quarterback (Brees) and the 10th quarterback (Wilson) was just under 70 fantasy points. At running back, Peterson (1st) outscored Frank Gore (10th) by close to 105 fantasy points. So would you rather have had Brees and Gore or Wilson and Peterson? Based on where Wilson was drafted (or not drafted), the second combination is more attractive.
Again, it's all about value. That's why I would argue that despite the fact that Rodgers is a lock to score a lot more points, Miller is still a better selection.
Let me take that point one step further.
In the first NFL Fantasy LIVE mock draft, which you can find in our 2013 Draft Kit, I landed Ryan as my starting quarterback - in the ninth round. That is the same Ryan who scored the eighth-most fantasy points in 2012. That's not just at the quarterback position - it's overall. The best running backs on the board when I made the Ryan selection were Fred Jackson, Shane Vereen, Mikel Leshoure, Bryce Brown and Jacquizz Rodgers.
What do all of those players have in common? Well, they're all backups.
So let's recap - based on what we're seeing around the National Football League, your draft strategy should be heavy on running backs in the first five rounds (I like my first five picks to consist of two running backs, two wide receivers and the best available player at those two positions). So while your friends are drafting signal-callers and laughing at you for not following suit, you should be loading up on runners and wideouts and sitting back patiently for a quarterback.
I can promise you this - following this sort of strategy is going to give you the most well-balanced roster, not to mention the best chance at achieving fantasy greatness.
Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com and NFL Network and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Have a burning question on anything fantasy related? Tweet it to @Michael_Fabiano or send a question via Facebook!