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Running back strategy reflects shift in on-field use

"You've gotta draft a running back in the first round." For years that was the mantra among savvy fantasy owners. The NFL was still a run-first league. There were plenty of running backs who earned 300-plus carries over the course of a season ... the elite backs might even approach 400 rushing attempts. A good running back was a good thing to have and there were more than enough for everybody to get one.

WelcomeTo2014. Things are different now. These are dark times for running backs. The game has slanted toward quarterbacks and their receivers. Rushers have had to become more well-rounded to stay on the field for all three downs, something that increasingly fewer have been able to accomplish in recent years.

As the role of the NFL running back continues to evolve, it is creating a natural selection amongst fantasy football enthusiasts. In other words, you adapt your draft strategy to the conditions around you or face the consequences. The idea of a mandatory first-round running back is going the way of the 350-carry running back. You wanna survive? Move to where the fantasy food is.

Like with any rule, there are expections. Because there is such a shortage of bona fide "bell cow" running backs, it's hard to pass up on one of them if you have one of the first four (or possibly five ... more on that in a bit) selections in your draft. Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles and Matt Forte will be the first four off the board in some particular order in most leagues.

Then things get hazy. Do you go with Marshawn Lynch in the fifth slot? Beast Mode has been, well, beastly over the past few seasons. But he's also had more carries than anyone else in the western world during that stretch. Historically that portends a decline in the season or two to follow, something that looks even more ominous with Robert Turbin and Christine Michael hanging around waiting for carries.

Or maybe you'd consider Eddie Lacy in the fifth slot. The Packers rusher broke out during his rookie season and carried a big workload after Aaron Rodgers went down with an injury. This season he could have an even bigger role in Green Bay's passing game and isn't likely to see nearly as many stacked fronts with Rodgers and his pass-catchers healthy.

WelcomeTo2014, Part Deux. We've reached a stage where talking about drafting a quarterback like Peyton Manning, a receiver like Calvin Johnson or even a tight end like Jimmy Graham isn't seen as completely insane. Why reach for a running back that you're not sure about in favor of a player that can consistently post 13-15 fantasy points per week?

It gets even messier the further down the list you go. Le'Veon Bell has openly talked about giving away goal-line carries to LeGarrette Blount. Jason Garrett keeps saying DeMarco Murray will be in a committee ... though Garrett gives the distinct impression that his definition of committee differs from the rest of us. Giovani Bernard is going to be the man for the Bengals, except possibly at the goal line when Jeremy Hill will put on his touchdown-scoring pants. Reggie Bush and Joique Bell could end up in a virtual fist fight to see who gets the most snaps in Detroit.

It's enough to make a fantasy owners head spin. You can probably come up with reasons to avoid nearly every running back on the board. But where would that leave you? Sad, lonely and starting Darren McFadden as your RB1. That's no way to live. Instead, go into your draft with a solid plan on how to attack the running back quandary.

Make sure you've drafted your RB1 before the end of the second round. Try to snag a second back before the fourth round is finished. And handcuff, handcuff, handcuff. Injuries are going to be a given in a position that takes as much of a physical beating as any other spot on the field. The chances that your starting running back makes it through 16 games will be slim. Make sure you have insurance.

More importantly, don't reach. If you're in the later rounds of your draft and agonizing over Mike James or Ronnie Hillman, the correct answer might actually be Andre Roberts. Orange is the new black and wide receivers are the new running backs. The times are changing folks. Don't be afraid to change with 'em. Cue Ferris.

Marcas Grant is a fantasy editor for Follow him on Twitter @MarcasG.

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