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"You must unlearn what you have learned" -- Yoda, "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back."
Far be it from me to pass on the chance to drop a little knowledge from Yoda that pertains to fantasy football! The little green dude with the sick lightsaber skills makes a great point, and it's relevant for old-school owners who have been leaning on running backs for the better part of the last decade.
Times have changed in the NFL, friends. The age of the featured back is all but over, and I don't see it coming back anytime soon. Earl Campbell, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders and Marshall Faulk aren't walking through that door to save your season. Sure, we can still lean on the likes of Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew. But at a time when backfield committees are rampant -- and injuries are a bigger concern than ever at the position -- is there another runner out there you can take as a *guaranteed *fantasy first rounder?
I don't see one, at least not in a standard 10-team NFL.com league.
Instead, it's time to unlearn what you have learned. You now must look at the quarterback position as being just as valuable in the first few rounds as running backs have been in the past. If you look at the numbers among the elite players at each position over the last five, 10 and 15 years, there is a glaringly evident trend that can't be ignored -- quarterbacks are seeing more and more opportunities to produce between the white lines, and those opportunities are coming at the expense of our former fantasy heroes, the running backs.
Let's take a trip in the fantasy version of Doc Emmitt Brown's DeLorean from Back to the Future and dial up the 1997 NFL season. Dan Marino led all quarterbacks with 548 pass attempts and was one of eight field generals to record 500 or more that season. The top 10 players at the position (based on pass attempts) averaged 512.5 pass attempts and 24.5 touchdown passes. Jerome Bettis was the leader among running backs in rushing attempts with 375, and was one of six backs with 300 or more carries. The top 10 runners based on rushing attempts averaged 319.8 carries and 11.1 rushing touchdowns. Overall, NFL teams threw the football 55.5 percent of the time and ran it 44.5 percent that season.
Alright, let's jump back into the DeLorean and move ahead five years to 2001.
The league leader in pass attempts was, believe it or not, Jon Kitna with 581. He was one of 13 signal-callers to throw the football 500 or more times that season. The top 10 players (based on pass attempts) averaged 549.6 pass attempts and 26.8 touchdown passes. Let's move on to the running backs, where we saw Stephen Davis lead a group of 10 players to record 300 or more carries. Davis, who rushed for 1,432 yards, carried the ball 356 times. The top 10 runners based on rushing attempts averaged 324.9 carries and 10.5 rushing touchdowns. The NFL's run-to-pass ratio wasn't much different than in 1997, as teams threw it 56 percent of the time and ran it 44 percent. However, we still start to see a nice increase in pass attempts and passing touchdowns among quarterbacks.
Now we'll plug in the 2007 NFL season and fire up the old flux capacitor. That year, Drew Brees threw the football 652 times -- 74 times more than the next quarterback, Tom Brady. Brees led 10 players at his position with 500 or more pass attempts, and those players averaged 555.5 pass attempts and 31.5 touchdown passes. See a trend? Moving on to the running backs, Clinton Portis (325 carries) led a group of six runners with 300-plus carries -- that's four fewer than in 2001. The top 10 runners based on rushing attempts averaged 304.8 carries and 10.4 rushing touchdowns. While the increase in run-to-pass ratio was a mere 0.5 percent, teams were still throwing the football more.
Alright, now let's take the DeLorean to 88 miles an hour and come back to the here and now.
This past season, the difference between quarterbacks and running backs was greater than ever. A total of 16 quarterbacks, led by Matthew Stafford, threw the football 500 or more times. That's double the number that put up that total in 1997 and six more than in 2007. Furthermore, three signal-callers tossed it 600-plus times. If we look at the overall top 10 field generals (based on pass attempts), we see that those players averaged 587.3 pass attempts and 33.7 passing touchdowns. That's almost 75 more pass attempts and 10 more touchdowns per player than was recorded in 1997! Overall, NFL teams threw the ball 57.1 percent of the time and ran it just 42.9 percent. That upward trend of relying on the pass more than the run has also increased in four straight years.
As if that weren't enough to prove the utter dominance of the top quarterbacks last season, now we'll look at the running backs. Jones-Drew led the position with 343 carries. Just one more back, Michael Turner, hit the 300-carry mark. Compare that to 2001, when 10 runners had that number of rushing attempts, and it's clear to see how far the position has fallen. But wait, I'm not done -- the top 10 runners based on rushing attempts averaged just 284.8 carries in 2011. So let's do the math -- since 1997, the top 10 runners have seen an average of 35 fewer carries!
Put that into perspective, using Adrian Peterson's numbers from 2010. The veteran back rushed for 1,298 yards and 12 touchdowns on 283 carries, while averaging 4.6 yards and 0.042 touchdowns per carry. If we remove 35 carries from his totals, Peterson loses 161 rushing yards and over one rushing score. If that weren't bad enough, Peterson is also one of several backs coming back from major knee reconstruction, which just makes the position even more of a question mark.
The numbers don't lie -- we are entering a new era of quarterback dominance and the slow phasing out of the true featured back in the National Football League. So while I still have Foster as the top overall fantasy player and three running backs among the top four overall, I also have five signal-callers coming off the board in the first 10 picks. Based on the numbers, not to mention the current state of the position, you just can't afford to focus on runners alone in Round 1. For example, there's no chance I'll pass on Matthew Stafford to draft Matt Forte or Darren McFadden.
That's something I might have done in years past.
If the flow of draft dictates, however, I won't be afraid to go with a top running back (only Foster, Rice, McCoy, Jones-Drew) in Round 1 and wait on a quarterback until the middle rounds. Remember, you can still get a nice signal-caller like Matt Ryan or Ben Roethlisberger after Round 5. But I can tell you this -- I will no longer pass up an elite quarterback in the first stanza because of the high level of statistical success at the position. Of course, I have never utilized that sort of draft strategy in my 12 years in the business.
But like you, I have to unlearn what I have learned.