There's good and bad news at running back this year.
The good: There appears to be significantly more top options in 2013 than we thought there'd be in 2012. A few crucial young players busted into the elite RB ranks last year, which should guarantee that every fantasy squad in your league can have a strong No. 1 RB if they so desire.
The bad: There's an almost incredible amount of uncertainty after the first, say, dozen running backs. Look at our ESPN group ranks and you'll see a murderer's row of injury risks, potential platoon mates and mediocre talents who will conspire to comprise your No. 2 RB candidates. I'm not saying you won't unearth some gems after the first dozen consensus RBs. I'm just saying it's going to mighty difficult to project who those gems might be.
What does this imply for your draft strategy? Obviously, you should think seriously about using your first-round pick on a running back. But when do you grab your second rusher? Let's examine specific players heading into '13, then reconvene for some strategy talk.
On a Minnesota Vikings team with precious little passing game, with defenses stacked against him, Adrian Peterson was fantasy's clear MVP for '12. It's fair to worry that a 388-touch, 2,214-scrimmage-yards season could set him up for a slight letdown this season, but not enough to bump him from every draft's top overall spot. … Arian Foster has seen his per-carry average decline from 4.9 to 4.4 to 4.1 over the past three seasons, but he's a touchdown machine. He's rushed for 47 scores in that span, eight more than any other player, and he's the NFL's best goal-line runner. He's No. 2. … Marshawn Lynch has finally proved he belongs in the upper echelon. All he's done over the past two seasons is finish second in the NFL in total rushing yards and third in rushing TDs. His back can sometimes be balky, but that's not enough in our book to drop him. The only thing that could hurt his fantasy value this summer is a possible suspension stemming from a DUI. If that happens, Lynch would likely tumble from our overall top five. … All Ray Rice does is produce 1,600-plus yards from scrimmage and double-digit TDs every year with one of the NFL's best combinations of speed, power and elusiveness. I'm slightly concerned that Rice's workload could diminish as Bernard Pierce proves himself worthy of added playing time, but I can't see Pierce stealing many more than 100 carries. … Doug Martin is an ankle-breaker in the open field, a home run threat on every carry and an accomplished pass-blocker. In my book he's a top-five overall fantasy pick for '13. Why isn't he higher on my personal RB list? Well, he did accumulate one-third of his fantasy points in two games last year, with some fallow periods thereafter. That said, his skill set still grades out as elite.
TD-challenged home run hitters
The gold standard of ultradangerous speedsters is Jamaal Charles. The Kansas City Chiefs won't give him many close-in carries -- because he's not a banger and because the team's offense isn't likely to generate a ton of totes inside the 5 -- so it's unlikely that J-Mail will run for more than, say, five TDs. But he produced 1,745 yards from scrimmage in '12 coming off a torn ACL. The yardage will be there for Charles. … C.J. Spiller looks a lot like Charles to me: Ultraquick, burning fast and absolutely deadly in space. In fact, I think Spiller is currently the most elusive runner in the NFL, though he probably cedes a tiny bit of sprinter's speed to Charles. Fred Jackson will probably handle short-yardage duty, so Spiller may not come close to double-digit TDs. But he's a first-round pick regardless. The Buffalo Bills will lean heavily on him in '13. … A season after producing an amazing 20 TDs, LeSean McCoy got sane, dropping to a mere five scores in '12. The emergence of Bryce Brown as a valuable handcuff will probably hurt Shady's TD upside this year, but this won't be a platoon. McCoy is a great fit for Chip Kelly's offense; the Philadelphia Eagles figure to spread out defenses and try and get Shady the ball in space. If he stays healthy, McCoy could eclipse his career-best single-season yardage mark of 1,624. … Raise your hand if you have no doubts about Chris Johnson. Yeah, I didn't think so. The Tennessee Titans appear to have upgraded the interior of their offensive line (then again, weren't we saying that last year too?) and are banking on a more consistent CJ1K in '13. But Shonn Greene is on hand, meaning Johnson could be on the bench in short-yardage situations, as he was in his first couple of seasons when LenDale White was around. … David Wilson will get a bunch of hype as a breakout candidate, and rightly so. For a guy with his speed, Wilson will stick his nose in there when he needs to. But how often will he need to? Andre Brown is healthy again, and the New York Giants will use Brown in short yardage for as long as he lasts. I absolutely view Wilson as an every-week fantasy starter, but more for his yardage than his TDs.
Not sexy, but they get the job done
It's probably unfair to refer to Trent Richardson as "unsexy," because although his per-carry average in his rookie year was only 3.6 yards, he was banged-up throughout. But the Cleveland Browns possess a middling offensive line and a below-average starting QB, and that puts big-time pressure on T-Rich. He'll have a big workload in '13 and will handle all in-close carries, meaning he's a clear No. 1 fantasy back. But we may have to wait at least another year before we start viewing him as a true game-breaker. … Alfred Morris' limitation is that he's a two-down player. He's not a pass-catcher, so he's not going to play much on third down. But he certainly was a revelation in exactly that role last season, scoring 13 rushing TDs and finishing as fantasy's No. 5 RB. Morris doesn't have elite talent, but he's a patient runner who's a great fit for a zone scheme and who will run over defenders. Another clear No. 1 RB with a dominant weekly workload, Morris will depend on TDs to be a truly elite fantasy player. … What's the world coming to when we're expecting both Mike Shanahan and Bill Belichick to produce reliable fantasy RBs? Stevan Ridley became the latest New England Patriots goal-line monster last year, and he has legit between-the-tackles explosiveness. You always have to worry that Tom Brady will go up-tempo, because Ridley doesn't play on passing downs. But another double-digit TD season is in the offing for Ridley. … As a road-grading group, this San Francisco 49ers offensive line is unmatched. Frank Gore averaged more than 3 yards before contact per carry, a number that put him among the NFL's elite speed RBs last year, and he's no speed merchant. He's just got room to run. Gore won't get near 300 touches in '13, but he doesn't need to. If he stays healthy, even at age 30, another solid season awaits.
Everyone loves Darren McFadden's talent, but as the years go by, he has fewer and fewer fantasy fans. He's just too injury-prone. He's never played more than 13 games in a season and missed nine contests in '11 and '12 combined. New Oakland Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson will change back to a power scheme that's served McFadden well in the past, so there's hope. But you can't rely on Run-DMC to be your No. 1 back. … DeMarco Murray has missed nine of 32 NFL games with leg injuries, which is a shame because he's a banger who has good receiving skills and tantalizing open-field burst. But as with McFadden, Murray no longer gets the benefit of the doubt. If Murray gets through the full 16, he'll be an amazing draft-day value. But the odds of that happening seem pretty slim. … If McFadden and Murray are brittle, what does that make Ryan Mathews? In '12, he had more broken collarbones (two) than touchdowns (one), and he has missed 10 games in his first three NFL seasons. The San Diego Chargers preferred Ronnie Brown to Mathews on third down last year, and added Danny Woodhead this winter. That likely means Mathews will be a two-down player only, which seals the deal: He's no longer a top-20 fantasy RB. … BenJarvus Green-Ellis eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing in his first season with the Cincinnati Bengals and showed some unexpected burst, but he's simply miscast as an every-down NFL back. Cincy drafted Giovani Bernard in the second round of April's draft, and we're looking at a platoon in '13. BJGE won't repeat his '12 stats under such an arrangement. … There's still a chance that the Carolina Panthers will ditch DeAngelo Williams this summer, in which case Jonathan Stewart could go back to being vaguely fantasy relevant. But until that happens, you can't even consider Stew Beef as a starter. Cam Newton and Mike Tolbert will be the team's first two goal-line options. … Mikel Leshoure scored nine rushing TDs last year, but all of them were in goal-to-go situations. In other words, he's a banger, not a dynamic runner. With Reggie Bush now earning big money with the Detroit Lions, Leshoure figures to be a complementary player. He won't finish in the top 20 in RB fantasy points again this season.
Steven Jackson joins an Atlanta Falcons offense that generated 102 carries inside an opponent's 10 for Michael Turner over the past three years. In the same span with the St. Louis Rams, Jackson had only 43. While the presence of Jacquizz Rodgers means Jackson won't get 300 touches in '13, the high-value carries will increase, and Jackson's ability in the passing game will shine. I'm bullish on this particular age-30 RB for '13. … Reggie Bush hasn't eclipsed 50 receptions in a season since '08, but that should change this season. Of Matthew Stafford's NFL-record 727 pass attempts last year, 144 were aimed at RBs with significantly less receiving talent than Bush. While the TDs probably won't be there because of Mikel Leshoure's presence, Bush is the odds-on favorite to lead the NFL in receptions by a RB. … Going into '12, the Indianapolis Colts figured to let Donald Brown take over their backfield work. Instead, Brown played his way out of the job and rookie Vick Ballard took over. An unspectacular talent who'll get what's blocked, this '11 fifth-rounder won't produce big numbers, but he has enough moxie to hang on to the job all year. That makes him a decent flex candidate. … Lamar Miller has the inside track on the Miami Dolphins' starting job, which is exciting because of his speed; as a 4.40 runner at 212 pounds, there's breakaway ability here. But while it wouldn't be a shock to see Miller finish inside the top-20 fantasy RBs this year, it also wouldn't be a shock to see him outside the top 50. He's an injury risk and has never done it in the NFL. … The Rams will seek to replace Steven Jackson with a combination of young RBs, including second-year players Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson. We won't have a firm handle on how this backfield will shake out until training camp, but my early favorite is Pead. Richardson had a much bigger workload last season, but mostly as a third-down perimeter-type player. I can see the Rams keeping Richardson in that role and trying Pead as their between-the-tackles plugger.
NFL scouts are concerned that Montee Ball could have a short NFL shelf life because of some massive collegiate workloads, but in '12 there's no other first-year RB I'd rather draft. Assuming Willis McGahee is released this summer, Ball should have little competition for early-down work, and he's already known as a heady pass-blocker. Most important, the Denver Broncos should produce a whole bunch of short-yardage TD chances. … The Green Bay Packers drafted two of my favorite RBs, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, potentially muting each man's rookie upside. Lacy is 231 pounds of nasty and the clear leader for early-down touches, provided concerns about his surgically repaired toe prove without merit. Franklin is a powerful, low-to-the-ground runner who figures to begin the year as a candidate for third-down work, but who could jump into the early-down mix should Lacy falter. Each is draftable in all leagues. … Le'Veon Bell landed in a good spot for fantasy value, as the Pittsburgh Steelers have seen about enough of Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer as featured runners. Will Bell take advantage? It's definitely possible, though at times at Michigan State I thought he ran smaller than his 244 pounds and wasn't agile getting to the hole. Still, we know the Steelers like to pound it when they're at an opponent's goal line, so an elite TD season is possible. … Giovani Bernard is a jitterbugging nightmare to tackle in the open field, a terrific pass-catcher and a sick return man. He didn't produce a whole lot of physical runs at North Carolina, preferring to make defenders miss in the hole, and that caused some NFL teams to worry he's not a three-down player. BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be the feature back to begin '13, but there's no question Bernard has more raw talent. He'll be inconsistent as a rookie, but his upside is high. … Joseph Randle is a thin, upright runner who was hugely productive at Oklahoma State, but in the wide-open Big 12, that hasn't always been a harbinger of NFL stardom. Working in Randle's favor is that the veteran ahead of him on the depth chart, DeMarco Murray, is injury-prone. It won't be a shock to see Randle start games as a rookie. … I've already mentioned that the Rams will likely look to a platoon as they try to replace Steven Jackson, and Zac Stacy may be part of that effort as a rookie. He's powerful and has good balance, and he has about 20 pounds on Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson. … Even though Lamar Miller is almost certainly the Week 1 starter in Miami and Daniel Thomas is still on the Dolphins' roster, Mike Gillislee could make an impact as a rookie. I loved the guy in '12 at Florida, and his blitz pickup skills are ready for prime time.
As usual, the New Orleans Saints figure to have a backfield mishmash. Darren Sproles is the most attractive fantasy commodity because of his receptions, and Mark Ingram showed some thump toward the end of '12. But Pierre Thomas is a good player too, and he's still around. It'll be tough to count on either Ingram or Thomas as a fantasy starter unless the Saints change their usage pattern in '13. … The Arizona Cardinals have a mess of potential at RB on their roster. Ryan Williams has suffered serious injuries in each of his two pro seasons but has every-down upside. Rookies Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor have differing skills -- Ellington is a quick-twitch player, Taylor is more of a plow horse -- and could contribute. And Rashard Mendenhall is a player with whom new Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is comfortable from their days together in Pittsburgh. I'd probably draft Mendy before the other three, because I'm guessing he gets first crack at the starting job, but his talent doesn't excite me. Williams is the guy I'd get jazzed about if he found himself atop the depth chart. … As of this writing, Ahmad Bradshaw and Michael Turner were both still free agents, and each plans to play in '13. Bradshaw is still just 27 years old and is a starting-caliber player when he's healthy, but of course he's had so many foot and ankle surgeries that NFL squads are leery of him. Turner scored 22 TDs combined over the past two years, even when it was obvious he was cooked, and his 247 pounds can still pound a ball into the end zone. Either one of these guys could easily mess up a clean-looking fantasy RB situation.
Obviously all sleepers aren't created equal, and some would say it's difficult to call a 28-year-old player with 74 career TDs a sleeper at all. So let's just say Maurice Jones-Drew could represent excellent value in '13. Coming off foot surgery and entering a new zone-blocking offensive scheme, MJD has enough doubt to drop him out of the top 10 RBs, but he's in a contract year and is one heck of a tough dude. He should fall out of the first round of all drafts, but picking him up late in the second or early in the third could pay off. … Chris Ivory is a 220-pound power runner who has 33 carries of 10-plus yards on his 256 career attempts, which is indicative of his surprising elusiveness and speed. He leaves the Saints' cluttered depth chart for the New York Jets, and for as long as he's healthy looks like a strong favorite to start. Unfortunately, Ivory has battled knee, hamstring, foot and concussion problems in his brief pro career, so a full season of health seems unlikely. … The Patriots let Danny Woodhead walk, secure in the belief that Shane Vereen can handle the workload when the high-octane New England offense goes spread. He proved a natural as a no-huddle back in January, when Woodhead missed time, and scored three TDs in a game against the Houston Texans; his quickness and pass-catching chops are legit. He could wind up being much more than just Stevan Ridley's handcuff.
Boy, the second and third tiers of RBs are frightening. That's not to say some of them won't work out swimmingly. After all, RBs get hurt all the time, and this week's frustrating platoon can turn into next week's wide-open depth chart. However, by the principles of Value-Based Drafting, a strong-looking group of No. 1 RBs backed up by a shaky-looking group of No. 2s and 3s implies scarcity. The fantasy point spread between the elites and the also-rans looks huge, unlike, for example, the spread between the elites and almost-elites at QB. In the simplest terms possible: Unless you're in a two-QB league, there's almost no excuse for not taking a RB in the first round of your fantasy draft. (The exception to this rule might be Calvin Johnson, but even then, I'd rather let someone else have Megatron.) In fact, because I see about a dozen RBs that I really like, I'd almost rather draft ninth or 10th in a standard 10-team league, because then I could get two of the elite RBs, while my league mates scuffle to find acceptable No. 2s.
But let's say you're not able to grab two of the elites. What then? Should you reach for the Darren McFaddens and DeMarco Murrays of the world at your No. 2 RB spot and hope they finally stay healthy? Or should you leave that No. 2 spot empty for a few rounds, then load up on no-doubt fantasy starters at other positions? I don't have a catch-all answer for you. Much depends on the strategies your league mates employ. For instance, if everyone grabs a second RB very early, including some of the shakier options, I might be tempted to take two safe WRs. Because frankly, it's just very difficult to project some of these non-elite RBs. One or two of the injury-prone players will stay healthy and give you great value. One or two of the unproven RBs will break out. But many more guys who fit in either (or both) of these categories will probably flame out, and it's just tough to know who's who. I feel relatively secure in saying that Alfred Morris will get 250-plus carries in '13. Lamar Miller? It's so hard to know. That said, what about the fantasy drafter who takes the right chance and winds up with, say, Ryan Mathews in the sixth round, then watches Mathews unexpectedly stay healthy and realize all his potential? That fantasy drafter will have a huge leg up.
So my strategy tends to be this: I'll take as many lottery-ticket, high-upside RBs as I can, all throughout my draft. I'll wait on a QB and a TE as long as possible, unless the value is too good to pass up. I'll eschew backups at QB, TE, K and D/ST altogether. In most leagues, my final roster will contain six to eight RBs, often young ones. That doesn't mean I'll automatically take a RB in the second round. Not at all. I'll play the draft board and look for value. But other things being equal, in an uncertain RB year beyond the top dozen, I want as many chances to strike it rich with a later-round steal as possible.
Each fantasy auction is its own animal, so it's tough to give absolutes about how much you should spend on running backs. In a league that gives you $200 to spend on your players, a decent rule of thumb is that in an average draft, if you budget about $100 for rushers, even in today's wacky RB world, you'll probably be OK. Your starters will eat up the vast majority of that budget, clearly, while your reserves and sleepers will come on the relative cheap. Now, this "median" budget doesn't account for the variations in strategy that occur in every fantasy football auction. If you've decided you're going to pay for two elite rushers, for instance, you're probably going to have to spend upward of 75 percent of your money on two players (i.e., the "Studs and Duds" strategy). No matter what, make sure you've got a nice long list of potential $1 or $2 rushers for your auction's endgame. As in snake drafts, I like to wind up with a bunch of lottery-ticket running backs in an auction, because rushers who come out of left field to be significant contributors are sweet.