Twenty-three. As I sit here writing this column in the last full week of July, that's the number of running backs I'd feel good about plugging into my starting fantasy football lineup. Just 23. And realistically, I'm only going to get two of them when I draft. You're only going to get two as well. And that's the main reason why, despite what you've heard, drafting running backs with your first two picks is not some anachronism, some antiquated notion of an age long ago when only birds tweeted and Marshall Faulk and Priest Holmes cut through defenses. It remains a winning strategy in 2013.
Let's start off with the number 23. For you, that figure might be a bit higher or a bit lower. You may have more confidence than I do that Steven Jackson can hold up and be an important part, from a fantasy perspective, of Atlanta's offense. You may not buy that Reggie Bush has landed in the perfect situation in Detroit. But your number isn't going to be that much different from my 23. It's a great sports number, but in this context it means you're going to have to be aggressive when addressing the running back position this year.
According to Mock Draft Central, 13 of the top 24 backs are coming off the board in the first two rounds of drafts in 12-team leagues. Five more go in the third round, and all are gone by the middle of the fourth round. If you want two backs in whom you have confidence, chances are you're going to have to grab them with two of your first three picks. If you're at the back end of your draft in the area where the A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall temptations start setting in, going RB/RB may seem boring, but it also might be your best bet for success.
This is where you're going to have to ignore your precious cheat sheet. Sure, it might rank Green or Marshall or Dez Bryant higher than Maurice Jones-Drew or LeSean McCoy. But good drafts are not built by blindly following the cheat sheet. They're executed by having a plan in mind and adjusting to the market set by the league. If you go into your draft determined to grab backs with your first two picks, you'll likely end up choosing from a pool that could include Alfred Morris, Ray Rice, MJD, McCoy and Matt Forte. Yes, you may take a pass on the big-name wide receivers, but you also lock down the shallowest position in fantasy football. Remember that for later.
The draft slowly but surely makes its way back to you. Enjoy a beverage. Have a few wings. Now take a look at the board. Lots of running backs up there, right? If you succumbed to the siren song of the wide receiver, you'd be talking yourself into David Wilson or Lamar Miller or Frank Gore right now. I grant, they're all solid options, but they all carry serious question marks, too. The receivers still available, though? Roddy White, Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Victor Cruz, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Hakeem Nicks and Percy Harvin could all be still there. And if you don't want to take two of them, Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan and Colin Kaepernick all have average draft positions between 32-45.
If you're at the front end of the draft, getting two backs in your first three picks is even more crucial. That's because by time the fourth round rolls over to you, not only are Wilson, Miller and Gore likely to be gone, guys like DeMarco Murray and Le'Veon Bell will probably be owned, too. That'll leave you starting Ryan Mathews or Rashard Mendenhall Week 1. I think both of those guys have their virtues, but if one of them is your RB2, you're going to be regretting taking Larry Fitzgerald and Demaryius Thomas in the second and third rounds.
The rise of the hurry-up offense, strict enforcement of safety rules for quarterbacks and defenseless receivers, pro-style offenses in college and the shotgun spread have all conspired to make the NFL a passing league. While that has pushed more receivers and quarterbacks into the upper echelons of the fantasy realm than ever before, it has also created deeper pools of second and third tiers at both positions, while draining talent from the top two tiers of running backs. That is why the RB/RB strategy is as strong as ever.