Fantasy Football 2012: Decline of the Running Back

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The days of the fantasy workhorse back are coming to an end

<p> Fantasy Football 2012: Decline of the Running Back</p>

RBBC is the acronym du jour in the world of fantasy football. It stands for “running back by committee,” and it means the days of the workhorse back, the bell cow back — whatever term you have for the back who totes the ball a clear majority of the game — are coming to an end.

The true feature backs who are also adept at catching passes are the players who can survive, or even thrive, in this new RBBC world. But those backs, as we will see, are few and far between.

Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Steven Jackson are versatile workhorses. Each had at least 260 carries and 40 catches in 2012.

There are three others who have the potential to be complete workhorse backs — Matt Forté, Ryan Mathews and Trent Richardson.

Forté had 203 carries and 52 catches in 12 games last season. But there are some red flags. Forté is not happy with his contract situation in Chicago, and the Bears added Michael Bush — a noted touchdown thief — in free agency. Also, don’t be surprised if Khalil Bell, who played well when Forté was hurt last season, steals some carries. Forté has carried the ball 260-plus times only once (316 as a rookie in 2008) in his career.

Mathews, who had 222 carries and 50 catches in his second season as a pro, is another potential workhorse — especially with Mike Tolbert now in Carolina. Richardson, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, will be asked to take on a huge role in Cleveland right away, both as a ball-carrier and pass-catcher.

Then there are the one-trick ponies — players who are still top fantasy producers but don’t bring the total package of a Foster, Rice or McCoy.

Marshawn Lynch and Michael Turner are bulk-carriers who caught under 30 passes last season yet still finished as top-seven fantasy backs. We are all waiting for the bulk-carriers who just run the ball to either break down or have their workload cut by more dynamic, change-of-pace running backs.

It has not happened to Turner yet, but many other No. 1 backs are having their production cut, and it is changing the landscape of fantasy football.

We’ve just discussed 11 players who are — or have the ability to be — workhorse running backs, which is essentially one-third of the league’s 32 starting running backs. That leaves 21 teams in a RBBC situation.

The combination of the RBBC and NFL rules that encourage more downfield passing has helped make quarterbacks, receivers and even tight ends more attractive fantasy options in recent years.

LOOK AT THE DATA
The number of receivers taken in the first three rounds has increased over the last three years, while the number of running backs taken in the same rounds has decreased.

That’s three years. What about the last decade?

Look at some historical data, according to Athlon Sports’ mock drafts (see chart, right), and you will see that 22 running backs were taken in the first three rounds (36 picks) in 2006 compared to 17 this season. There were 18 backs selected in the first two rounds (24 picks) in 2006, and that number has dropped to 13 this season.

No quarterback was taken in the first round in 2006. Nowadays, two quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton) are consensus first-round picks, and several others (Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford) can be expected to go by the end of the third round.

Rodgers was the only quarterback selected in the first round (eighth overall) in last season’s Athlon Sports mock draft. Next up was Brady at No. 20, and that kicked off a run in which four quarterbacks were selected in the next eight picks.

Rodgers was taken fifth overall in this year’s Athlon mock, followed by Newton at No. 9. Next up were Brees, Brady and Stafford, who were picked from 22-26.

Meanwhile, the number of receivers selected among the first two rounds in 2006 was three. This year, it was six; last year, it was up to eight wideouts taken in the first 24 picks.

There were no tight ends in the first two rounds in four of the six mock drafts from 2006-11. Now, we have two — Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham — in the top 24.

Even Athlon’s rankings over the last two seasons show the change. Last year, we had nine running backs in the top 12 and one quarterback. This season, we have only six running backs and four quarterbacks.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
There are a couple of ways to look at the data.

You should still try to get one of the top-five running backs as soon as you can. That will always be the case as long as there are still guaranteed workhorses out there.

But if you miss out, or elect to take the top quarterback or wide receivers — or Gronkowski or Graham — don’t just take the next-best back the next time around because you feel you need a player at that position. Instead, draft a top-flight player at the receiver position.

There were eight running backs last year who had at least six 100-yard rushing games. Six of them are ranked in Athlon’s top 15 — Foster, Jones-Drew, Rice, McCoy, Turner and Lynch. The other two — Willis McGahee and Fred Jackson — can be had outside the top 20.

The emergence of the RBBC has enabled owners to piece together the running back position and keep loading up elsewhere.

Good receivers are going to continue to get plenty of touches — just take a look at what happened in the league last season.

The NFL had its highest scoring average in 46 seasons (44.4 ppg), and 2011 marked the first season in NFL history in which three different teams scored at least 500 points (Green Bay, New Orleans and New England).

The league-wide passer rating (84.3) and TD:INT ratio (1.472:1) were both record-setting numbers. Games averaged an all-time high of 693.7 total yards, surpassing the record from a year earlier (672.0). The all-time passing yards per game mark was set in 2010 (443.1 ypg) and then broken in 2012 (459.4 ypg). There were 121 individual 300-yard passing games, the most in NFL history by 17. There were also 18 400-yard passing games, besting the old mark of 13.

STRATEGY
If you miss out on Rodgers, Brees, Brady, Newton or Stafford, go find a receiver (or two) who is responsible for some of these record-setting offensive numbers.

While you will find that the ADP data says there have been 33 to 36 receivers taken in the top 100 for the last decade — and 34 for the last five years, according to MyFantasyLeague.com — the number of those taken in the first four rounds (48 picks) has increased over the last four years. It was 15 in 2009, 15 in ’10, 16 in ‘11 and 19 this season (through late May).

For example, with the first pick in a 12-team league, you could grab Arian Foster, follow up with receivers Greg Jennings and A.J. Green in the second and third rounds, respectively, and still have a chance at another top-flight receiver or a tight end with your next two picks. Only then would you need to start thinking about a quarterback.

Here’s another scenario. Say you start with the sixth pick in the first round. You can grab Calvin Johnson, come back and still get a Gronkowski or Graham in the second round, followed by a top-tier receiver in the third and fourth and then grab one of the 300-yard passing quarterbacks in the fifth.

Once again: Don’t worry if you miss one of the elite quarterbacks in the early rounds. You can still get high-quality signal-callers in the middle rounds.

Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and Matt Ryan each had at least six games with 300 yards passing in 2011. Tony Romo had five such games. Oh, and Peyton Manning is back in action this season. All of these quarterbacks can be had in the fifth-to-seventh rounds.

Then there’s Ben Roethlisberger, who had five 300-yard games and three others with at least 250 yards. His ADP is in the 90-to-100 range (around the eighth round).

We won’t deny that running backs still rule the fantasy game at the very front end of any draft, but the committee approach has reduced the number of elite backs who are available. You need to be prepared on draft day. If you miss out on a player like Foster or Rice (or you simply choose not to use a top pick on a running back), you need a sound game-plan for the top few rounds. And that game-plan should include taking several top-flight receivers and perhaps one of the top tight ends and a quarterback before you load up on running backs.

The fantasy game is changing — so change your strategy.

— By Corby Yarbrough, originally published in the 2012 Athlon Sports NFL Fantasy Football preview magazine

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