Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Endangered Species List

Once upon a time, in a fantasy league far, far away, if you did not select two running backs in the first two rounds of your draft, your fantasy season was over before it started.

It's true.

This drafting method even had a name:  "The Stud Running Back Theory."  Anyone who has played fantasy football for fifteen or more seasons knows exactly what I'm talking about.

Man, have times changed.

Just for fun, let's go back to the year 2000.  I will show you what I mean.

This was the Golden Age of Fantasy Running Backs.  Every team had a bell cow.  A fantasy owner could take Corey Dillon in the first round and come back in the second round and pick up Charlie Garner without breaking a sweat.  Both would compile well over 1,400 rushing/receiving yards and seven touchdowns.

That year, an unbelievable 23 running backs rushed for at least 1,000 yards.  Fifteen of them had greater than 1,500 yards from scrimmage; 13 had double-digit touchdown totals.

There were enough #1 and #2 running backs for everyone in a 10 or 12 man league.  It was as if running backs grew on trees.

The truth is, the first two rounds of a draft were pretty boring because everyone knew everyone was taking running backs.

The mythical running back tree.  It started to die around 2007.

As recently as 2006, ten running backs attempted 300 or more rushes.

Then, in 2007, something disastrous started happening in fantasy football.

In Carolina, DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams starting splitting carries.  In Chicago, Cedric Benson and Adrian Peterson (the other one) were platooning.  It was Rudi Johnson and Kenny Watson in Cincinnati.  Marion Barber and Julius Jones in Dallas.  Selvin Young and Travis Henry in Denver.  Maurice Morris and Shaun Alexander in Seattle.  LaMont Jordan and Justin Fargas in Oakland... and the list goes on.

Fantasy owners quickly dubbed this horrifying system "running back by committee."  The term stuck.

By 2011, just two running backs attempted more than 300 rushes.  That number was repeated last season: a mere two running backs made more than 300 rushing attempts.

Man, have times changed.

You don't necessarily need empirical or statistical data to support the fact that the "stud running back theory" has become a thing of the past.  Over the last two decades the NFL has slowly evolved into a pass-happy league, while running backs continue to be platooned more and more frequently.

Today, running back by committee is becoming has become the standard.

In response to this change, many fantasy leagues now require just one starting running back.


Fantasy owners need to roll with the changes, although many have been slow to do so.  It's really quite simple: it's no longer imperative that you draft a stud running back in the first round unless you have a shot at a player on The Lone Pylon's Endangered Species List.

There are two requirements to gain entry on this very elite list:

1] It is anticipated that a player will carry the ball around 20 times a game.
2] Said player will have little competition for the ball in his own backfield.

I refer to these endangered species as "the big three" (LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles) and "the next three" (Marshawn Lynch, Eddie Lacy and Matt Forte).

Collectively, they are the Big Six.

And considering one of these players is entering his sophomore season, one was a brief hold out and one has been inconsistent during his career, the list is hardly fool-proof.

After the endangered species are removed from the equation, it is wise to start looking at wide receivers or (gasp!) even quarterbacks.  Despite the fact that most fantasy experts advocate waiting until the middle rounds to take a quarterback, I am happy to stick Drew Brees in my pocket early in the draft and enjoy 5,000 yards passing and 42 touchdowns over the course of a season.  In my draft, I either want to be one of the first to take a quarterback or one of the last.

But I digress....

If you determine you must take a running back early even after the Big Six are off the board, you need to do a little studying.

Which remaining running backs have the best shot at nearing 275-300 carries, making them worthy of an early round pick?

I've filtered it down to four names and the results might surprise you...

But first, a bit about the distilling process.


I had considered a number of popular running back choices: players going top 25 in mock drafts.  But I rejected most of them for various reasons...

A few examples:

Montee Ball might have a good shot at 275 carries, but he is, in effect, missing all of training camp and preseason due to his August 4th appendectomy.  For a second year player, this is hardly ideal and I think he will start very slowly.  News from Broncos camp (as of August 16th) is Ball is jogging, but that's a far cry from being in football shape.  Call me Negative Nellie, but I won't take him early.

How about Arian Foster?  How about Foster is already struggling with hamstring issues?  I don't trust him.

Giovani Bernard will see plenty of carries, but rookie Jeremy Hill and BenJarvus Green-Ellis will compete for touches, limiting his output.

There's always DeMarco Murray, right?  If he could ever stay healthy an entire season, yes.  Murray is the complete package, but he's missed 11 games in three seasons.  If you draft him, count on him to miss several games; he will never near 300 rushing attempts.

I've loved Alfred Morris in the past, but so many running backs have thrived in Mike Shanahan's system, only to struggle in a new system (check out the Broncos' "One Hit Backfield Wonders" [Various Artists] on sale now at a record store near you).  Perhaps I'm Cautious Calvin with Morris, but I'm taking a wait and see approach.

So this leaves us with a short list of four running backs.  Each of them has the potential to be a carry-the-load-on-his-back steal.

Because he plays in Jacksonville now, Toby Gerhart is not getting much attention, but he is going to be the Jaguars primary weapon on the ground.  This is his fifth year - he's what they call a "savvy veteran" - but he's carried the ball just 276 times with an impressive career 4.7 yards-per-carry average.  Gerhart is a bull; he'll see the ball early and often.

Zac Stacy is ranked far too low on many draft boards.  He rushed 250 times in limited action last season and he's going to be very difficult for Jeff Fisher to keep off the field.  Fisher has coached a couple of very successful fantasy running backs (Eddie George, Chris Johnson); he knows a good one when he sees one.  And Stacy is a good one.

Even though Le'Veon Bell played in just 13 games last season, he carried the ball 244 times.  Like Zac Stacy, once Bell got a feel for NFL speed, he started pounding defenses, especially later in the season.  He dropped 10 pounds in the off-season, down to a svelte 230 pounds, hoping his lighter frame makes him even quicker.  He doesn't wear #36, but he reminds me of a young battering ram named Jerome Bettis.

I've had a gut feeling about Andre Ellington all off-season, so why change now?  He not only runs well, he has excellent hands out of the backfield.  He may not rush 300 times this season, but he could end up with 225 carries and 60 receptions.  Ellington is explosive and he is going to make many fantasy owners' heads turn in 2014.  Those who draft him will be as giddy as a schoolgirl.

It's purely coincidental that three of these four running backs are entering their second year.  There's an excellent chance one of them hits the dreaded sophomore slump.  But there's an equal chance one will explode.

Now if I only wish I knew which one...

Good luck with your draft prep and strategy as the 2014 season approaches!

Coming next on The Lone Pylon: remaining "flex"-able could be your fantasy secret weapon.

That Damn Sam
"Fantasy Football for the Forsaken Few"