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Fantasy Focus: Running Backs

Photo by Robert Deutsch, USA Today Sports

Written by: Jason Feiner

If you’ve played fantasy football before, it is no secret that running backs matter. In most cases, they are the backbone and heel of any roster, and winners of the heralded fantasy trophy generally have the best RB corps in the league. As PPR (point per reception) league formats have become more prevalent, receivers have begun to creep into the first round. However, the lack of quality starting backs in the league have kept the RB position at the forefront of fantasy drafts, and in most cases, the best options are all selected at the top of round one. It is important to start your draft off right and with a top five draft pick, and AB now in Oakland, the first five picks should be used on running back. The position is thin this year with relatively little wiggle room to get a weekly starter in rounds five and beyond. It is extremely critical to attack the running back position in the first four rounds of the draft in order to secure two top players in the position group.

The upper tier options include Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara and Melvin Gordon. If one of these six special talents falls in round one, snatch em’ up and don’t look back. A high draft pick is needed to land one of these players, but there is a little caveat here. If you don’t pick a back who finished top five last year, choose a player who has the best chance to finish there in 2019. Although drafting in fantasy is firmly based on draft value, potential in the first round should be considered. Don’t be afraid to get your guy in round one and stick with the plan at hand. Selecting a top-5 back early brings positional advantage, as the RB1 finished with 90 additional fantasy points when compared to the RB6. That’s 5 points per game and a weekly built-in advantage.

You might anticipate a problem with this. When a draft selection falls at the end of round one and the top choices are gone, it can be a challenge to uncover the next set of backs that have the potential to leap into the top 5. This strategy comes down to who has the best chance to re-enter the fold. At picks ten through twelve in round one, Le’veon Bell and David Johnson are likely to still be on the board. Both backs have been a fantasy MVP before and both could reclaim the title in 2019. Their upside is warranted late in round one. To make matters a bit better, there is a light at the end of the tunnel when drafting from this position. Players bust more often than not — over the past 10 seasons, only one to two players per year have repeated their season’s output to claim a spot among their position’s top five, and Todd Gurley is the only back to finish as the RB1 two years in a row. This leaves room for other backs to enter the fray.

When thinking strategically, 12 to 15 RBs will be taken in the first two rounds in twelve team leagues. In the mid-rounds, the players selected have low ceilings, less talent and higher bust potential. By selecting an RB in the first round and another in rounds two through four, there is a high probability two of the top 24 backs at the position will fall.

One particular strategy that is largely regulated includes doubling up in rounds one and two. This gives players a chance to secure two RB1’s early, leaving the rest of their roster to even itself out. The idea here is that two running backs will be taken in the first two rounds, giving the owner a strong chance to begin the draft with two top 15 backs. This mitigates positional scarcity but places a prescribed feel on the rest of the draft, which could force you to give up on a player you really like. For example, forcing yourself to take two running backs with the first two picks makes you to put a premium on receiver — but what if there’s a running back that you love in round 3? This is why I look for both my RBs in rounds one through four rather than confining myself to just one and two. Value will almost always outweigh the doubling up tactic when drafting, which is why overall rankings are important to win a fantasy draft.

Price Tag: Who to Avoid

There are two players at the top of round one that continue to concern me. Although their talent and value has consistently been proven, Todd Gurley's knee and Zeke Elliott’s recent concert dispute have put a warning label on the superstars. These two have extraordinarily high ceilings, but one could be out for an extended period of time and the other facing suspension. However, they both still have top-5 ADPs and the risk outweighs their reward. Other options, including Barkley, C-MAC, Kamara and Gordon could all make for safer plays in round one, but it would be hard to cast blame if an owner decided to take the risk with Gurley or Zeke. If you do take Gurley, make sure to reach for Darrell Henderson around Round 10 to secure the top handcuff in the league. Zeke has no current ruling on his recent altercation.

A backfield with too much talent can sometimes be a headache in terms of fantasy output, and for once the Patriots aren't the only team with this problem. The Browns have the most talented backfield in the league and Nick Chubb is sure to be a high commodity pick in the 2019 fantasy draft. All fantasy owners should beware of this pick. He is certain to be the bell cow for the first 8 weeks of the year, but a mid-season trade may be required as Kareem Hunt gets back on the field. This is cause for concern, as their touches will drastically decrease in a crowded backfield.

Early top-10 rankings:

Saquon Barkley

Christian McCaffrey

Todd Gurley

Ezekiel Elliott

Melvin Gordon

Alvin Kamara

Le’Veon Bell

David Johnson

Joe Mixon

James Conner

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