Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Running back was once the top position of fantasy football, the alpha and omega. They scored all the touchdowns, they got all the important touches. Occasionally there was an otherworldly quarterback or wide receiver who sneaked into the first-round conversation, but for the most part you drafted a running back and that was that. Often you would draft two in a row. Running back used to be a big deal, is what I’m saying.
But in 2016? The pendulum has completely shifted toward wide receivers. The NFL’s evolution toward the passing game has finally trickled down into fantasy football, to the point where the first-round running back is starting to be a thing of the past.
In addition to the receivers breaking out, the three-down running back is in further decline these days. Only a handful of backs in the league can be truly described as a "workhorse" anymore, and nearly all of them come with question marks for the 2016 season. Let’s go over the six players currently going in the first round in standard leagues, per Fantasy Football Calculator.
— Todd Gurley. On paper, probably the most talented RB in football already, but he has an injury history and plays in an anemic Rams offense. Still, he has the fewest red flags among the elite tier.
— Adrian Peterson. 30 years old. We know Peterson isn’t actually human, but are you comfortable investing a top-five pick into a 30-year-old running back?
— David Johnson. Was a phenomenal playmaker in limited action last year, but Chris Johnson still lurks as a potential threat to early-down touches.
— Ezekiel Elliott. Everybody’s favorite rookie this year, but let’s pump the brakes on this hype train — you really shouldn’t be spending a first-round pick on a running back who has as many NFL carries as you do. Also he’s been dealing with hamstring problems in camp.
— Lamar Miller. Criminally underutilized in Miami, Miller should finally be unleashed in the Texans’ ball-control offense. "Should" is the operative word here, but I’m far more comfortable drafting Miller over Elliott.
— Le’Veon Bell. Suspended for the first four games. Knee ligament injuries continue to pile up.
When you get to the second round, you see names like Devonta Freeman, Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy, Doug Martin and LeSean McCoy, all of whom are far more reasonable investments at that round. It’s easy to see why receivers are getting all the first-round love this year.
This is not to say that running back is a worthless position now — you still have to start two every week in most formats, and they’re still an important part of fantasy teams. In fact, the sheer depth of this position means you can find starting-quality backs anywhere in the middle rounds. But gone are the days when you had to draft one first or you’re doomed.