Don't ignore the evolution of the NFL and fantasy football

The landscape of fantasy football is changing before our very eyes.

I can remember a time when we could lean on running backs like LaDainian Tomlinson, Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson and Brian Westbrook to produce for our teams. Landing any one of them during their hay days was an absolute coup. After all, most franchises had one true featured runner that carried the load, rather than a backfield committee that saw multiple players splitting carries throughout the course of the season.

Ah, the good old days.

Heading into 2010, all four of the aforementioned former stars will find themselves in complementary roles or a shared backfield. The situation that most signifies a change to a new era of fantasy football is Tomlinson's move to New York. For the first time in what seems like forever, L.T. won't be worth a first-round pick in drafts.

Heck, he won't be worth a second-round pick. Or a third rounder. He's not even a fourth- or fifth-round pick. You get the picture.

Instead, one of the greatest fantasy players of our time will be second on the depth chart behind a legitimate breakout candidate in Shonn Greene. Watching L.T. come off the bench (and come off it in green and white, no less) will take some time to get used to, that's for sure. The days of him seeing 20-25 carries in those wonderful powder blue San Diego uniforms is over. Now Tomlinson will be an eight-to-12-touch running back.

In fantasy circles, the great L.T. is little more than a low-end flex starter or a handcuff for Greene.

In Washington, the Redskins have paired Portis and Johnson in what promises to be one major headache of a backfield. Portis will be 29 when the season starts, and he's coming off a 2009 campaign that saw him miss eight games due to a serious concussion. While he's had a very admirable career and helped countless owners win a fantasy championship or two over the years, Portis is breaking down right in front of us.

With the addition of Johnson, we could be looking at a shared workload in our nation's capitol. The 30-year-old veteran has broken down as well, averaging a mere 671 rushing yards with a combined nine total touchdowns since 2007. But despite the fact that his stats have fallen, Johnson is still in line to earn a prominent role.

New coach Mike Shanahan told the Washington Post that he feels "very good about Larry," and even hinted that Portis will have to compete to retain the top spot on the depth chart. So what used to be two first-round fantasy picks are now just a couple of older running backs with a lot of mileage on their tires, trying to prove that they can still be effective on the ground.

At the very least, Portis and Johnson still have a stage to perform on, good or bad. The same can't be said of Westbrook.

No team has yet to take a chance on the veteran back, who was also one of the elite fantasy players at his position not too long ago. He was a virtual lock to post 60-plus catches with a pile of scrimmage yards and double-digit visits to the end zone.

Now at the age of 30 and coming off a multiple concussions (not to mention ankle and knee issues), Westbrook is a major risk for NFL teams and fantasy leaguers alike.

The fall of these four once-elite backs is just part of the changing times in fantasy football.

Sure, a new list of runners that includes Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson and Maurice Jones-Drew have replaced the old guard and are now among the new top tier at the position. But featured backs have become the dinosaurs of the National Football League, as an increase in backfield committees has made it difficult to trust a large number of backs for consistent production.

The NFL is clearly now a passing league, where quarterbacks have seen their stock and level of statistical success rise at a lightning-fast rate.

In 2009, a league-record 10 quarterbacks threw for at least 4,000 yards, and 12 quarterbacks passed for at least 25 touchdowns. That also set a new record. Furthermore, a total of 17 different field generals threw for at least 3,500 yards. Since 2004, no more than 11 quarterbacks had reached that mark in the same season.

These new statistical heights have made for some serious fantasy production.

Eight of the top 10 fantasy-point producers on NFL.com were quarterbacks last season. In fact, Johnson and Peterson were the lone non-quarterbacks to break into the top 10. Field generals were also dominant in the top 20, as 14 of the top overall fantasy players played the position. That's based on the NFL's standard scoring system that rewards four points, not six, for passing touchdowns.

Last season also saw 16 quarterbacks score 200 or more fantasy points. That's the highest number to reach that mark since 2004. It also continued a steady rise in success at the quarterback position. In 2006, seven signal-callers scored 200 or more points. That number rose to nine in 2007 and to 10 in 2008. In that same time, an average of just seven running backs have hit the 200-point mark per season.

A mere six runners scored 200-plus points in 2009.

Yes, the times they are changing. The fall of Tomlinson, Portis, Johnson and Westbrook, coupled with an increase in backfield committees and the rise of quarterbacks, has clearly signaled a change in the strategies we'll use to dominate our drafts.

No longer is it worth the risk to gamble on a questionable back in the earlier rounds when a high-level quarterback or wide receiver is on the board. Unlike seasons past, there will be better running backs still available in the middle rounds.

The era of taking two runners in the first two rounds is clearly in the rearview mirror. It's now time to shake off those old habits and recognize the changes in the league that will affect how we value players and positions.

Welcome to the new world of fantasy football.

Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com. Have a burning question for Michael on anything fantasy football related? Leave it in our comments section or send it to AskFabiano@nfl.com!

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