After a record-setting year of passing in 2011, the running backs regained the fantasy limelight last season. Much of the credit goes to Adrian Peterson, who set the world on fire less than nine months removed from major knee reconstruction, but the performances of so many other players truly made the feature back awesome again.
Let's put things in comparison. In each of the three previous seasons, only one running back has surpassed 1,500 yards: Maurice Jones-Drew (1,606 in 2011), Arian Foster (1,616 in 2010) and Chris Johnson (2,006 yards in 2009). But in 2012, four running backs broke the 1,500-yard plateau: Jamaal Charles (1,509), Marshawn Lynch (1,590), rookie Alfred Morris (1,610) and the irrepressible Peterson (2,097 yards, nearly breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards, which has stood for nearly three decades).
Running back is the most important position in fantasy, because supply is low and demand is high; but last season's production finally made those premium picks worth it again. It's possible that fantasy drafts might see nothing but running backs selected in Round 1, since a new wave of talented quarterbacks is adding depth to that position. Even in points-per-reception formats (PPR), you might consider only Calvin Johnson as the other player amid a group of 10-12 running backs in the first round.
It will take more than one year of this to consider fantasy going retro, but backs are at as much of a premium as ever.
Let's take a closer look at the best running back draft strategies, notables at the position and the complete rankings and projections for the 2013 starters.
Running back draft strategies
1. Lock up one of the top 10 backs. There is only one Peterson, but most of the top 10 running backs below can close the gap on him this season. In fact, Morris went for 1,610 yards and 13 TDs and he ranks just 10th on our board. In many years, those numbers would have been good enough to be in the position's elite tier. If an owner is stuck with the 11th or 12th overall pick in a draft, hope that someone jumps in on Megatron or a quarterback with an earlier pick.
2. Try to get two of the top 15. Drafting two of the top 15 fantasy running backs is feasible, unless an owner has one of hte top five picks. Doing so would mean sacrificing Megatron or one of the top few quarterbacks, but an owner will be able to find productive options at receiver and quarterback in the five rounds thereafter, while others pick among the scraps for a starting running back.
3. Draft backs early and often. Fantasy owners are better off locking up one or two backup rushers before picking your full set of receivers, a starting quarterback or a tight end, except in the PPR format or a two-quarterback league. Through six rounds of picks, owners should aim to have at least three running backs, even in leagues without a flex. Yes, a backup fantasy back (or two) is more important to a team's success than a starter at the other positions. If a league has a cap on the number of players picked at a position, make sure to max out at the pivotal running back spot, regardless of who it is.
4. Draft your No. 1 running back's handcuff. This is an age-old strategy in fantasy, but it's tricky. Don't reach too early for a player an owner hopes never sees the light of your starting lineup. Most of the elite backs have low-valued backups, like Fred Jackson, Robert Turbin and Toby Gerhart. The best handcuffs among the top 10 backs are: Bryce Brown, Bernard Pierce and Ben Tate. It will be tough to get those guys on a roster if LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice or Arian Foster, are already on your roster.
5. Draft backs 27 years old and younger. Quick, how old was the Vikings' Peterson last year? 27. That age is the physical peak for men and anyone older is at risk of disappointing in fantasy -- particularly those aged 30-plus. Steven Jackson is the caveat emptor this year. The quick running and physical pounding required at the position is best-suited for the young-ins that can take it over and over.
6. Take some fliers on rookies. Despite the recent succes of rookies quarterbacks, owners should still draft rookie running backs. It is a position of instinct more than experience -- even if some young backs are held back (David Wilson) because of trouble pass protecting. Owners might even want to take some late-round fliers on any rookies near the top of their team's depth charts; they could provide huge late-round returns over fliers at other positions.
Running back notables
Most drafts are unique, but we take a shot at predicting some of the likely trends at the position:
• Reach: Bernard Pierce, Baltimore Ravens. There was minimal love for the Raven's Ray Rice in the first round during early fantasy football mock drafts this summer, and there is also a bit too much excitement over his backup, Pierce, a second-year player out of Temple. The two trends go hand in hand, but his postseason peformance shouldn't be overrated -- Pierce is still merely the backup for one of the best backs in football. Rice remains the feature back in an offense that relies heavily on the running game. Pierce is an ideal handcuff option, but some early drafts have slotted him as a fantasy starter. Seriously? That won't happen unless something happens to Rice, and don't bank on the 26-year-old durable back getting injured. Resist the urge to get sucked in by the Pierce postseason hype.
• Steal: Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints. After Pierre Thomas spent OTAs working with the starters, the luster on the former Heisman Trophy winner has been lost. Heck, Ingram might not even be the first or second pick at his position, because the Saints haven't made the running game a priority yet. Darren Sproles will go off the board as a starter and the plodding Thomas might even go before Ingram, who hasn't made good on his promise coming out of Alabama. This is a make-or-break third year, and I bet Ingram is up for the challenge, particularly if offensive guru Sean Payton finally starts using the running game in New Orleans like he did with Tiki Barber in his days as Giants offensive coordinator.
• Injury-risk: Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders. This is obvious -- of course Run D-Mc is an injury risk. He hasn't played more than 13 games in any of his five lackluster seasons in the NFL. But seriously, there are several running backs who could fill this spot. In our mind, Demarco Murray deserves a pass for his 2012, and Maurice Jones-Drew was durable at least once before. Ryan Matthews is in the McFadden boat of bad fantasy mojo, but his two shoulder breaks were freak things. McFadden's injury woes are varied and chronic. All of these backs are the Glass Joes of fantasy football, though, so if you like to minimize risk, you shouldn't pick any of them as a starter for your team.
• Top rookie: Montee Ball, Denver Broncos. Despite a running back not being drafted in the first round of the NFL draft for the first time since 1963 , there are a number of potential fantasy starters in this rookie class. Ball leads the way, because he is expected to be the feature back of an elite offense. He should be a candidate for 10-plus touchdowns because Peyton Manning will move the ball inside the five quite a bit. Also, coach John Fox is a grinder who likes to play physical. Ball was a touchdown machine at Wisconsin, so he deserves the edge here over the likes of Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell, the Packers' Eddie Lacy, the Rams' Zac Stacy and the Bengals' Giovani Bernard, who was actually the first running back picked this April. This isn't the year for an elite fantasy rookie running back to break through, particularly on the heels of what Doug Martin and Alfred Morris did a year ago, but what this class lacks on the high end, it makes up for it with quality depth.
Running back tier explanations
1. Megastars. While Peterson really should be in a class all his own after what he did a year ago, he may regresses down to a mere mortal level. There are only three backs with the true potential to reach the fantasy holy grail of running backs: 1,500 yards and 15 TDs.
2. Bell-cows. This solid second tier makes up all of the first-round-worthy picks. Only very small aspects keep them from pushing into that select trio above.
3. Fringe No. 1s. These players can prove to be No. 1 fantasy backs at times this season but they are less likely to be immune to really tough matchups like the top 10 are. You still won't sit them, but their production won't be elite every week.
4. The what-if starters. These running backs have the potential to be elite, but values are dragged down by injury questions or inexperience. Still, owners should feel confident in drafting them as No. 2 fantasy backs, if only because of their upside.
5. Flex options. This group describes potential fantasy starters in deeper leagues, especially those that use the flex position. Save for a couple of the rookies here, they don't have the upside of those in the top four tiers, so consider them shaky picks to slot as starters initially.
6. Handcuffs. These are the best of the true backup running backs. If they earn a starting job through a promotion up the depth chart or an injury in front of them, they are going to emerge as valuable fantasy commodities.
7. Waiver-wire fodder. Most of these backs are not draftable in standard fantasy leagues, but they could wind up getting a significant amount of playing time or touches as the season unfolds.
8. Organizational depth. These backs need a lot to go right for them to emerge as viable fantasy picks. They are on the radar only because they might have a spot on the depth chart. That could change for them in training camp.
Running back rankings and projections
|Fantasy football running back rankings and projections for 2013|
Check back for updates throughout the preseason