Fans lament that coaches don't change with the times. We complain that they get too conservative and are more concerned with losing their jobs than with taking the risks necessary to win.
Yet, most of us do the same thing in fantasy football. We remember the days when fantasy teams with the top running back tandems always won. First priority was get a No. 1 RB. Second priority was get a No. 2 RB. You could think about the rest of your roster once that was done.
I'm not sure too many people go to that extreme anymore, but I'm here to suggest the possibility of going to the other extreme -- or at least close to it, since I won't say that you should forget about running backs altogether. But I will say that for many draft positions, forgetting about at least your second running back until the middle rounds might be a pretty good strategy. The times have changed and the NFL is pass-happy. We ignore at our peril the fantasy implications of the sea change in how the game is played.
If you are familiar with the sabermetric concept of VORP, you know that it stands for "Value Over Replacement Player." In baseball, without going much deeper, it essentially means the value of one player over the next average guy up from the minors in that position. When I think about VORP in fantasy terms -- and that can mean football, baseball, etc. -- I change it slightly in my mind and it is the rule I live by in all drafts. Every decision you make in a fantasy draft should be thought of in terms of a single question: if I don't draft Player X now, how much worse will that position get by the time the draft gets back around to me? Let me repeat that. Every single decision.
What does that have to do with the pass-first mantra of today's NFL? It means that people who throw the ball (and, to a lesser extent, catch it) are now a lot more valuable than those who run the ball.
Second running backs don't mean much anymore, and because the ball gets spread around so much, what is said in this article goes for second and third wide receivers as well. The numbers are quickly and measurably trending so that almost all the top fantasy producers are quarterbacks. If you go back just six years and pretty much every year prior, the majority of top fantasy producers were always non-quarterbacks. In 2005, for instance, the top five fantasy players were all running backs. But in 2007, the year of Tom Brady's massive season, there was a move toward most of the top 10 being quarterbacks. Starting in 2009 and continuing into 2010 and 2011, at least 10 of the top 15 producers have been quarterbacks with the numbers trending drastically toward QBs at the very top, dwarfing the numbers of even the best running backs.
Now, wait a minute, Brad. Based on that VORP thing you said earlier, if all the teams are passing a bunch, and there are 32 NFL teams, doesn't that mean the fifth QB and the 12th QB should be almost interchangeable (or at least both give me solid production), so I should wait on quarterbacks? No, it doesn't.
The difference between QBs is much more drastic because of the sheer magnitude of the scores. While I wouldn't put Matthew Stafford up with the consensus top three quarterbacks, last year, if you were in a league where passing TDs counted as much as running and you had decent scoring for yards thrown, Stafford was not only No. 4, but he was over 80 points better than the next QB, Cam Newton. If passing TDs were less valuable and passing yardage wasn't given much credit, then Stafford and Newton, as Nos. 4 and 5, could be considered even, but both were a good 50 points better than No. 6 Eli Manning. Similarly, Manning was between 35-100 points better than No. 10 Mark Sanchez depending on your scoring (yeah, seeing that Sanchez was top-10 last year surprises me as well).
On the other hand, the average difference the past couple of years between RB13-RB24 or WR13-WR24 has been fewer than 30 points in standard leagues and about 30-40 in PPR leagues. I use Nos. 13 to 24 since most leagues have 12 teams, so they represent RB or WR No. 2. The average difference between WR25-36 is even less. In fact, this small difference between Player X RB or WR and the next guy usually starts after the first four or five players at those positions.
So, getting back to the VORP-like concept, why would you scramble to get a RB after a few have already been taken when it is sure to be a massive crapshoot? Unless you have a top 3 or 4 pick and can get the superstar RBs who truly do give you great value relative to the league, I'd advise you to rethink the RB strategy. If you are outside those top three picks of Rice, Foster, and McCoy, and you can get Rodgers, Brady, or Brees, I think you are fairly crazy not to do it. If those guys are taken by the time you pick and you can get one of the superstar WRs, fine, then you can wait until round 2 for your QB. Or, if you are at the end of the snake and everything drops so perfectly you can get two of the top WRs or a top WR and some high-ranked RB you never thought you could get, I suppose that's fine too. But keep in mind, every quarterback you drop translates to a much bigger scoring differential than dropping a few RB or WR slots after the top couple of studs, and, barring massive injury, quarterbacks are much more consistent and predictable than any other position.
In addition to having less injury time on average, top quarterbacks rarely lose their jobs or (besides the aforementioned Sanchez) get forced to play by committee, which is something that happens to RBs 13-24 all the time. So, even if you follow my strategy and feel unhappy with your second running back on draft day, if you stack your roster with backup and rookie running backs in rounds 7-10 and keep active on the waiver wires, chances are you'll find yourself with a solid No. 2 running back in no time.
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