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2011 Draft Prep: Running back tiers and strategies

Dave Richard's Strategies & Tiers: QB | WR | TE | K & DST

Before we get into the most popular position in Fantasy Football, it's worth your time to check out the history of running backs who finish in the Top 10 in Fantasy points.

That's an important read because last year we had six rushers finish in the Top 10 for the first time in their careers and nearly all of them will be picked before your league's commissioner can say "Round 2." Here's what's alarming: Running backs who finished in the Top 10 in total Fantasy points in standard scoring formats did not stay in the Top 10 the following year, and that percentage ratcheted up to 64 percent when looking only at the last five seasons.

That's not to say that running backs are inherently inconsistent, but it is to say that they are -- as a whole -- tough to rely on. They get banged up easily. They "run out of gas" sooner than other players. So, it's no surprise that consistency is key with drafting these guys -- the ones with the pedigrees are the ones Fantasy owners trust more.

Load up!

The best draft strategy we can give you for running backs this season is to draft as many as you can without neglecting good talent at other positions. (Note: This does not mean you should wait on running backs. Don't do that.) We can say this because of two factors: The amount of great-to-decent running backs available in the early-middle rounds and the dearth of talent at wide receiver.

Why this year? The trend where teams use multiple running backs to share the workload has exploded and nearly every team is doing it to some capacity. That opens the door for a lot of backs to see a decent amount of touches every week -- even notorious part-time players like Willis McGahee and Darren Sproles are worth drafting, assuming it's at the right point in the draft. Furthermore, because there are as many as 16 or more "good enough to start" quarterbacks and tight ends for Fantasy owners to check out, there's not as much pressure to draft backups at those positions.

In a 15-round draft where owners start nine players, it wouldn't be crazy to spend all but one or two bench spots on running backs. You'll protect yourself from running out of potential starters at a position where there are breakdowns, shortcomings and inconsistent play, and you'll have more potential players at a key position to trade away for roster help during the year.

But whether everyone follows this advice or not, you can be sure that running backs will fly off draft boards, so not only should you load up, but be prepared to load up through the first eight or nine rounds.

A note on Chris Johnson

Should Fantasy owners pass on Chris Johnson so long as he's holding out? In the very, very early stages in Round 1, the answer is yes. He simply represents too much risk, but for each pick he slides, the risk goes down a bit. If he falls to eighth overall or so, he's worth a look since owners who take him in snake formats will quickly get a shot at another stud player in Round 2.

Johnson has been a consistent stat producer and should continue to be; the upside is just too strong to ignore. If you take Johnson with a first-round pick, make sure you get his primary backup, Javon Ringer (who is not a bad rusher) with a pick as soon as Round 10.

Top-pick plan

If you're picking within the first five picks in any sized league, you've got a rock-solid No. 1 running back waiting for you. There's a consensus Top 5 in standard and PPR formats that you can feel good about. There's no need to go into them; you should know plenty about them already.

But what if you don't pick until the end of the first round? Crying isn't recommended, but you will still come away with at the very least one quality rusher and at the most two elite players at other positions. This is where league scoring and size comes into play for your first pick:

Standard-scoring leagues (starting with the 6th overall pick)
10 teams or less: Best running back
12 teams: Best running back or elite quarterback
14 teams or more: Best player available

PPR leagues (starting with the 6th overall pick)
10 teams or less: Best wide receiver
12 teams or more: Best wide receiver or running back
Note: Under no circumstances should a quarterback go in Round 1 of a PPR league unless scoring dictates quarterbacks are favored.

Note: This advice takes Chris Johnson holdout into consideration. When Johnson rejoins the Titans, he'll resume his spot as a reliable running back worth taking before sixth overall. For ideas on who to take, consult our Top 200 lists for standard and PPR formats

Enough to go around

So while there's a clear-cut group of five running backs every draft should start with followed by another nine backs or so who are expected to be next in line, the reality is that the running back talent pool runs pretty deep this year, certainly deeper than wide receivers.

With that in mind, treat Rounds 2 through 4 as if you are bargain shopping. Wide receivers are expected to dominate the second and third rounds in all formats, pushing running backs further down the draft. Don't expect more than 12 running backs to go within the first 20 picks or so. Even though it's advised to spend many picks on running backs, the rule to follow here is not to reach for a rusher within the first four rounds; in fact it's completely fine to pass on running backs with two of your first three picks just so long as you're not missing out on a good player at a great spot (examples: Frank Gore in the middle of Round 2 or Ahmad Bradshaw in the middle of Round 3 are great pickups). But you might regret it if you don't take one with your first three picks, or take three with your first three picks. Simply put, the talent at running back is good but the talent at other valuable positions can't be ignored.

Value city

If you are in Round 4 and you have but one rusher, don't panic. There are still valuable names left -- so many that you could and probably should double-dip on running backs with your next two picks. The running backs available in Tier 4 carry solid value at this point and have potential to finish anywhere from 10-20 overall by season's end.

By the end of Round 5, aim to have at least two running backs. Assuming you're happy with the ones you have, you can kick back in Round 6 and look for a steal at another position. If you're not happy you probably should shore up your corps with the best available back before moving on to another area of your team in Round 7.

The rookies

There's nothing quite like a rookie running back, and this year there are plenty to sort through. Mark Ingram is the most appealing of the bunch, taken late in Round 1 of the NFL Draft after the Saints made a trade to get him. Daniel Thomas and Shane Vereen were among those who followed in Round 2, and Round 3 produced DeMarco Murray and Stevan Ridley.

The key to remember with rookie rushers is that they have all sorts of potential, but only a couple make an impact in Fantasy. Last year's top rookie rusher was LeGarrette Blount, who wasn't drafted in Fantasy play or even in the NFL Draft! Ryan Mathews was everyone's darling last season (some people took him in Round 1!) and he nearly finished behind the Chris Ivory, another undrafted rookie who found playing time.

Point is, do yourself a favor and limit yourself to one rookie running back on Draft Day. Ingram is the most appealing from where I sit; he's going to be a featured part of the Saints offense and he's got a pretty good schedule. Plus he'll never see eight-in-the-box with Drew Brees under center. He'll also end up going first among all rookies in drafts (Round 4 or 5), but he's got the chance to deliver on that investment.

Mid-round handcuff plan

When you think of handcuffing (drafting the primary backup) a running back, you probably think about spending a pick in Round 10 or later on a guy no one is thinking about. An idea for 2011: Lock up a tandem with upside using two middle-round picks.

Once Round 5 comes around, the running back position is going to start to get thin. Some Fantasy owners might be fine with getting the likes of Joseph Addai or Beanie Wells then, but they'd feel a lot better if they also drafted the back they'll split reps with. There's no guarantee the likes of Addai and Wells will stay productive for 16 weeks, much less hold up for 16 weeks, so getting the guy who would replace him on the field instead of praying for help off waivers seems smart.

Here are the tandems worth considering with picks starting in Round 5:

Green Bay Dallas
Ryan Grant - James Starks Felix Jones - DeMarco Murray
Round 6-Round 10 Round 5-Round 10
Indianapolis Miami
Joseph Addai - Donald Brown Daniel Thomas - Reggie Bush
Round 6-Round 11 Round 6-Round 9
New Orleans Washington
Mark Ingram - Pierre Thomas Tim Hightower - Ryan Torain
Round 5-Round 9 Round 7-Round 9

The negative to such a strategy is that you're picking two running backs on one team for one spot. It'll pay off if one back struggles or gets hurt and the other shines, but it would backfire if both backs not only stayed healthy but split reps each week and were inconsistent with their production. You might bench the guy who scores two touchdowns for the guy who gets 16 carries for 65 yards. It's possible. But hey, that's why the running backs who don't share reps go first in drafts.

Behold! The tiers!

A key to knowing when it's the right time to draft a certain running back is by "tiering" them into groups based on expected production. By separating them, your goal is to get at least one back from every two tiers (or as many backs from as many high tiers as possible). If you see one of your tiers dwindling and it's your pick, you know to go get a running back from that tier before it disappears.

This is the tier chart I'm bringing to my draft, as of August 16.

Elite Tier Near-Elite Tier Excellent Tier Very Good Tier
220+ FPTS 200+ FPTS 175+ FPTS 165+ FPTS
Round 1 Rounds 1-2 Rounds 3-4 Rounds 4-6
Adrian Peterson Michael Turner Knowshon Moreno DeAngelo Williams
Arian Foster Maurice Jones-Drew LeGarrette Blount Peyton Hillis
Ray Rice Chris Johnson* Cedric Benson Mark Ingram
Jamaal Charles Darren McFadden BenJarvus Green-Ellis Fred Jackson
LeSean McCoy Steven Jackson Jahvid Best Ryan Mathews
Matt Forte Shonn Greene Felix Jones
  Frank Gore   Ryan Grant
  Rashard Mendenhall   Beanie Wells
  Ahmad Bradshaw    
Good Tier High-end backups Low-end backups Late-round sleepers
135+ FPTS 105+ FPTS 85+ FPTS
Round 6-7 Rounds 7-9 Rounds 10+ Rounds 10+
Tim Hightower Jonathan Stewart Maurice Morris DeMarco Murray
Daniel Thomas Michael Bush Thomas Jones Isaac Redman
Marshawn Lynch Darren Sproles LaDainian Tomlinson Montario Hardesty
Joseph Addai Willis McGahee Danny Woodhead Stevan Ridley
Mike Tolbert C.J. Spiller Ryan Torain Roy Helu
Brandon Jacobs Reggie Bush James Starks Brandon Jackson
Pierre Thomas Ricky Williams Kendall Hunter
Rashad Jennings Javon Ringer  

Bye-week cheat sheet

Want to know where to look for running back help for the bye weeks? Start with this chart. Remember, as long as you don't take a bunch of rushers with early bye weeks, you're not hurting yourself. It's OK to draft running backs with late bye weeks because you'll have plenty of time to make trades and get ready for when you need some help replacing guys who are off.

Bye Teams on bye Teams with projected favorable running matchups
5 Ravens, Browns, Cowboys, Dolphins, Rams, Redskins Bengals (at JAC), Chargers (at DEN), Chiefs (at IND), Giants (vs. SEA), Jaguars (vs. CIN), Saints (at CAR)
6 Cardinals, Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers, Seahawks, Titans Browns (at OAK), Colts (at CIN), Falcons (vs. CAR), Giants (vs. BUF), Raiders (vs. CLE), Saints (at TB)
7 Bills, Bengals, Patriots, Giants, Eagles, 49ers Browns (vs. SEA), Chiefs (at OAK), Redskins (at CAR), Saints (vs. IND), Seahawks (at CLE)
8 Falcons, Bears, Packers, Jets, Raiders, Buccaneers Bills (vs. WAS), Lions (at DEN), Redskins (at BUF), Seahawks (vs. CIN)
9 Panthers, Lions, Jaguars, Vikings Broncos (at OAK), Cowboys (vs. SEA), Jets (at BUF), Saints (vs. TB)
11 Texans, Colts, Saints, Steelers Browns (vs. JAC), Dolphins (vs. BUF), Lions (vs. CAR), Packers (vs. TB)

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