RBs on the decline, values might not be

There's been a lot of talk about running backs around the NFL lately. Over the past few seasons, the number of 300-carry backs has dropped precipitously as more teams have gone to a committee system. Then this offseason as wide receivers and quarterbacks were flooded with free agent offers, the bulk of the available running backs sat idly by waiting for deals to come their way.

All of which has led to a new narrative -- the devaluing of the NFL running back. Whether it was Ben Tate Facebooking or our friends at Around The League analyzing, it's a trend that hasn't gone unnoticed.

However, the realities of real football don't always match up with the realities of fantasy football. Troy Aikman, quite famously, wasn't a fantasy Hall of Famer. But the Cowboys quarterback has a bust in Canton ... deservedly so. There isn't a team in the league that wouldn't love to have Anquan Boldin on its roster. Fantasy owners, on the other hand, can take him or leave him. Conversely, Andy Dalton was the fifth-best quarterback in fantasy football in 2013. I'm pretty certain most football fans can come up with five QBs they'd rather have leading their teams on the field.

So that got us to thinking here at Going Deep -- does the RB devaluation extend to fantasy? After all, the rule of thumb has been to draft running backs early and often. Is it time to start waiting on running backs and loading up somewhere else?

Well, no ... and maybe.

If you're sitting at the top of your draft, there's still no doubt that a top-tier running back is the way to go. The value you get from players like Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy still tops anything you'd get from Calvin Johnson or A.J. Green. And because fewer quarterbacks will be drafted, the rush to select that position will be diminished in the first couple of rounds.

After that, things start to get a little cloudy. Looking back over the past three seasons, we tried to divine the relative values of running backs and wide receivers with similar positional rankings. For instance, how do the running backs that finsihed in spots 11-20 compare to the receivers who finished in a likewise spot?

Thank goodness for tables. It's always nice to examine the average points per game from a particular position group. But that can be a little deceiving.

Go back to our Andy Dalton example. The Red Rocket finished 2013 in the top five at his position, averaging 17.9 points per game. But he also had a standard deviation of 9.0 last season, which means that average number could have been anywhere from nearly 27 PPG to just under nine. Anyone who started Dalton last year can attest to the frustration of watching the Bengals quarterback go from a 30-point outing one week, then following it up with a low double-digit effort the next.

Meanwhile, Russell Wilson averaged fewer points per game last year (17.3) but had a smaller standard deviation (5.6), which meant he offered more consistent production from week-to-week.

But back to the topic at hand. Judging from the numbers above, the second tier of running backs still has an advantage over their pass-catching counterparts. That makes sense -- in 2013, Le'Veon Bell was more of a commodity than Vincent Jackson.

Yet a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Or something like that. So I dug a little further to see what life was like much further down the fantasy food chain. Namely, what about numbers 41-50. In the average 10-team league, that's about the limit of what you'll find on most rosters.

Well, now. Seems the tables have turned. Even if only slightly.

Once you get toward the bottom of the roll call, the receivers have started to get their revenge. Then again, this is pretty logical as well. While plenty of NFL teams are big on running back rotations, there aren't many second running backs that are seeing enough production to make a consistent fantasy impact.

Meanwhile in the increasingly passing-friendly league, it's not a terrible thing to be a second (or even third) wide receiver. In other words, fantasy enthusiasts would much rather roll with Michael Floyd than BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

Chalk up another one for wide receivers, in a way. Where once it was prudent to grab an extra running back to plug into a flex spot, it's not nearly such a sure thing. Teams are throwing the football more (duh!), which means more opportunities for pass-catchers to make plays. And opportunity is the stuff on which fantasy value is based.

But does that really mean fantasy backs should be devalued? Not really. In the days when 300-carry running backs were all the rage, it didn't leave a lot of opportunity for depth at the position. Zack Crockett might have been a touchdown vult...I mean, goal-line back, but players like that weren't in abundance.

Nowadays, there are plenty of runners who will get opportunity. Bell-cow runners like Adrian Peterson are a vanishing breed. Thirty-five players recorded 150 or more rushing attempts last season, which doesn't take into account the number of pass targets those same players saw. That's a lot of opportunity for a lot of players.

It changes what the conventional wisdom behind drafting running backs. You still want to snag them early, but they might not be the slot fillers they once were. It's a top-heavy position to say the least, but that top end has gotten a little bit larger than it once was.

Marcas Grant is a fantasy editor for NFL.com and a guy who enjoys a good narrative. Follow him on Twitter.

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