For several years now in fantasy, it has been de rigueur to fill the first round almost entirely with running backs. Sure, maybe the occasional dominant Calvin Johnson or Peyton Manning would sneak into the first round, but by and large, we've spent a long time drafting running backs first, and then moved on from there.
There's been a reason for that, of course. More than any other position in recent years, running backs have followed a hierarchy, with fairly clear tiers. Get the 30th wide receiver and you had a shot; get the 30th running back and you're having a sad season.
It's happened enough years in a row now that I worry we've entered a rut — when we rank players and strategize our draft, we fill almost the entire first round with running backs because heck, it's how we've drafted since LaDainian Tomlinson was a thing.
This year, though? This year I might (and do) dispute that strategy. Running backs are great. But running backs aren't the whole first round this year.
Remember what I said? About the tiers, the hierarchy? The top tier or two filled the first round in the past because they were (relatively) sure things, and because the position fell off a cliff after that group. Well this year, we can't remotely say that.
For one thing, the top group this year runs no more than three, four running backs deep. And for another, bigger thing, running back this year might be as deep as it's been in half a decade. Think back just a year, when Doug Martin was drafted in the top 10 at the position, and by the 20th pick we were diving on Toby dang Gerhart. This year, you might be able to get someone like Joseph Randle, running behind an elite Dallas offensive line, or Jonathan Stewart, now clear of his positionmates in Carolina, or Latavius Murray, who flashed some incredible moments, in the 20s among running backs. The position this year is as deep as it has been in years.
Back to that first point, though. We want to fill a 10-person first round with, what, eight, nine running backs? Who? The only sure things in the league right now, to me, are (in some order) Eddie Lacy, Jamaal Charles and Le'Veon Bell — and Bell's only around for 14 games. Don't believe me? Here, I'll hit on some weaknesses of the rest of the top group (not that I necessarily buy into all these, but they do exist, and flaws matter):
Adrian Peterson: Look, I know I'm lower than everyone on him. But this is a 30-year-old running back who has played 16 games in a season once since 2009. His last full season was his worst for touchdowns as a pro, and his second-worst in yards per carry. His team showed it can manage successful running backs in his absence, and Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata will still be involved this year. There are too many black marks for me.
Marshawn Lynch: Well, 29 isn't exactly the prime of a running back's aging arc. Do yourself a favor sometime and look at the Seahawks' yards per carry with and without Max Unger on the field of late. There's one hell of a difference. And Unger? Well, he's in New Orleans now.
Arian Foster: Sad face.
C.J. Anderson: That is exactly two games of more than 90 yards rushing in his career. That is at most eight games of being relevant in fantasy at all. That is a team that still has Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman, for better or worse. That is a quarterback that, if he's back at full strength, might not give Anderson 20-plus carries every game again.
DeMarco Murray: Well, last year was his first of a full 16 games, after years of injury issues. And while the Philadelphia offensive line is stout like Dallas', it's not like Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles aren't going to be contributors. Also, dude touched the ball 497 times last year. Four. Hundred. Ninety. Seven.
Matt Forte: Marc Trestman's gone. That could mean Forte's targets — he had 130 last year, 25 more than Bell and 40 more than third-place Fred Jackson — go way down. He's 29 as well, and turns 30 in December, and this Bears team might not be special at all this year.
LeSean McCoy: He was good-not-great in Philadelphia last year, and now moves to a Buffalo team that doesn't appear to have any kind of quarterback or offensive line. I could go on, but that's about it.
I could continue. Jeremy Hill. Justin Forsett. Mark Ingram. These are all decent running backs — the list of decent-to-better running backs goes almost 30 deep — but there isn't anyone you'll look at there to be exciting, to be a sure thing.
Below, you'll find our consensus rankings of running backs across our seven rankers. The mishmash of rankings — no player was ranked in the same spot by more than four people, and that was only one guy — shows the varying levels of confidence in the running backs this season. Heck, we had a tie at the top of the rankings for the position, which is rare enough in its own right. No one really knows what to expect.
All the more reason to consider more creativity in the first round.
(DK: Daniel Kelley; DC: Dan Ciarrocchi; AW: Alex Welch; JD: John Daigle; KA: Kenneth Arthur; SK: Scott Kaliska; MG: Michael Gallagher)
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