I'm a running backs kind of dude. There, I admit it.
From the times of Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Terrell Davis (to name a few), I used to draft three running backs in the first three rounds in the 1990s-2000s because the position was so important to finding fantasy success. Of course, things have changed in the last decade. And if you're a fan of the running back, it hasn't changed for the better.
The NFL is now a passing league, as numerous quarterbacks are putting up ridiculous numbers while wide receivers have risen up the ranks in fantasy circles. That rise has become more evident than ever before, as five and sometimes six wideouts are now coming off the board in the first round of 10- and 12-team standard mock drafts. In fact, some fantasy analysts are now advising fans to utilize what has become known as the Zero RB strategy. This philosophy implores owners to focus on wide receivers in the earlier rounds and wait until the middle stanzas to go after the "far riskier" running back position.
While this strategy is more highly lauded for it's success in PPR leagues (though I still wouldn't wait as long on running backs), I now see fans in standard scoring formats adopting this sort of mindset. I can see the initial appeal, because it's true that wideouts have gained more value in recent seasons. I myself have five wide receivers (Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, Dez Bryant) among the top 12 players in my Top 200.
Still, I contend that the fantasy world has overreacted (in a big way) to the troubles of the running back position a year ago.
I'll admit it, last season was the perfect storm for the demise of the running back position. Superstars went down like flies, including Le'Veon Bell, Marshawn Lynch, Jamaal Charles and Arian Foster. Other runners like Mark Ingram, Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis, Justin Forsett and Carlos Hyde (to name a few) also missed more than a few contests due to various bumps and bruises. If that wasn't enough to hurt the position, there were also a number of other running backs who disappointed in the stat sheets. C.J. Anderson, Jeremy Hill, Ameer Abdullah, Melvin Gordon and T.J. Yeldon failed to meet expectations, DeMarco Murray faltered in Philadelphia, "Fat" Eddie Lacy went to the Golden Corral buffet too often, and Alfred Morris was lost in Washington's backfield committee.
Yes, it was bad. Very bad.
Let's not kid ourselves, though, because the wide receiver position wasn't without its faults.
Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, T.Y. Hilton, Mike Evans, Randall Cobb and Martavis Bryant were just a few of the receivers who turned in disappointing campaigns, while potential sleepers like Nelson Agholor and Davante Adams (among others) turned out to be waiver-wire fodder. You'd also be dead wrong if you were to contend that big-name wideouts score far more fantasy points than superstar runners in standard scoring leagues.
Antonio Brown, fantasy's top-scoring wideout last season, scored 2.8 more points than the top-scoring running back, Devonta Freeman. However, Freeman had a better point-per-game average because he played in one fewer game. The WR5, Odell Beckham Jr., scored 35.9 more points than the RB5, Todd Gurley. Of course, Gurley didn't start a game until Week 4 and was just as good a point-per-game performer. The WR10, Larry Fitzgerald, scored 7.7 more points than the 10th-best runner, Latavius Murray.
And keep in mind, this was considered an awful season (the worst I can remember) for running backs.
Want more proof that the top wideouts aren't running away from the top backs in the stat sheets? All right, let's look back to 2014.
During the course of that season, one that didn't include Adrian Peterson due to a suspension, the combined averages of the top-10 running backs was 234.02 fantasy points. Eight of the top 10 runners recorded over 200 points. The top 10 wideouts averaged 231.6 fantasy points that year, and seven of the top 10 scored 200-plus points. So over the last two seasons, including a train wreck of a 2015 campaign for runners, there's been a minuscule statistical difference between the best players at each position in standard scoring leagues.
Aside from the misnomer that receivers score far more points than runners, fans should also remember that plenty of wideouts get hurt too.
Jordy Nelson missed all of last season after blowing out his knee. So did Kelvin Benjamin. Rookies Kevin White and Breshad Perriman were also shelved for the duration of the campaign due to injuries. Dez Bryant, Alshon Jeffery, Keenan Allen, Julian Edelman, Steve Smith Sr., DeSean Jackson and DeVante Parker also missed significant time due to ailments of their own. These aren't the dumpster divers either, these are (or had the potential to be) fantasy superstars. So while backs might have a better chance of suffering injuries due to the nature of the position, wideouts aren't devoid of potentially long visits to the trainer's room.
Fantasy fans should also realize that the running back position is getting younger, and more talented.
Gurley (age 22) finished in the top five in fantasy points among backs last season, and he didn't start a game until Week 4. David Johnson (age 24) averaged three carries in his first 11 games behind Chris Johnson and still ranked in the top 10 at season's end after a torrid second half. Lamar Miller (age 25) saw fewer than 200 carries and still ranked sixth. Rookie Ezekiel Elliott (age 21) is a consensus first-round pick among fantasy analysts. What's scary about Gurley, Johnson and Miller is that none of them have hit their statistical ceiling ... and Elliott's ceiling is heaven-high behind the Cowboys' offensive line.
That's not all there is to like about the runners, either. Not even close.
Peterson might be 31, but the dude's a cyborg. Bell is the closest thing in the NFL we have to Tomlinson, and he's still coming off the board in Round 2 despite a three-game ban. Mark Ingram and Freeman both showed a versatile skill set that vaulted their values last season. Charles averaged 16 fantasy points in five 2015 games and the expectation is that he will be fine for Week 1 following his second ACL tear. Doug Martin rushed for 1,400-plus yards last season. Lacy has lost weight and is getting rave reviews in camp. LeSean McCoy remains a centerpiece runner in Buffalo's run-based offense. Latavius Murray (age 26) was a top-10 fantasy back last season and figures to be better in 2016. Anderson, Hyde and Rawls all have massive potential as the projected featured runners for their respective teams.
Will all these dudes pan out? Of course not. But lest I remind you that the same holds true of wideouts too. Remember Cordarrelle Patterson? (Yeah, I'm trying to forget about him too). And what if you went with Bryant, Jeffery and Evans with your first three picks last season (standard or PPR)? You were likely a cellar dweller all year long.
With that said, I'm not recommending you focus only on running backs and pass on wideouts in the earlier rounds. That would be nuts, because receivers have gained immense value due to the league's reliance on the pass attack. But to ignore backs altogether in the first five to six rounds is ridiculous to me. You want to build the most well-balanced team possible, not one that has the potential to be loaded at one position and is clearly weak at another.
I mean, you're starting two running backs, right? And in some cases, you're starting three!
Let's be honest. No matter how good your top three wide receivers might look on paper, do you really want to go into the regular season with a backfield that features Jonathan Stewart and Melvin Gordon as your two best options? And if those are your two best options, who's on your bench ... Yeldon? Well, that's what you're looking at if you don't pick your first running back until the fifth or sixth round. With that said, I also believe it's unwise to go into a season with a weak position and force yourself to lean on the waiver wire to bolster it. While we did see a number of runners come off the wire and produce at a high rate, that had much to do with the abnormally high number of injured starters in 2015.
In order to depend on waivers to unearth a legitimate starter (not every waiver claim is a winner) you'd either have to play in a league where no one but you puts in waiver claims, flat out cheat ... or be Frane Selak. I can promise you that in most competitive leagues, every single owner is going to put in a claim for the backup of an injured runner the second he goes down. So, you'll have to have a great waiver spot at the start of each week in order to land all the best waiver targets.
And if you have a great waiver position each week, it likely means your team stinks.
Do yourself a favor and don't put yourself in that spot. Remember the running backs in the earlier portion of your fantasy draft, even more so in standard scoring leagues. If you don't, I promise you'll fulfill the Zero RB strategy ... because you'll have zero running backs to lean on all season long.