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What Did We Learn - Preseason: Running Backs

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So we’ve covered quarterbacks. Now we move on to the running backs. The role of the tailback has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. It used to be that fantasy owners couldn’t even compete without a guy like Emmitt Smith or Marshall Faulk. Nowadays, depending on draft slot, you could conceivably pass on a running back until the third or fourth rounds. But, as I found out recently, passing on running backs early can be deadly for your fantasy team.

I recently participated in a Fantasy Sharks Writers' mock draft. Much to my dismay, I wound up with the 12th pick (out of 12), and in looking at this year’s draft, I wasn’t all that happy with it. This is not to say you can’t win from that draft slot, but I found that I was either on the tail end of runs and wound up reaching for guys way more often than I normally would. I went with Cam Newton and Wes Welker, as this scoring system seemed to play to their strengths. But my third- and fourth-round picks wound up being Fred Jackson and Jordy Nelson. I like Fred Jackson, but I’m not sure I’m winning a title with him as my RB1. And as I made those two picks, I thought, “Ugh. This is going in the running back preview … ”

Stud backs are extremely scarce. This is nothing new. The first three picks in drafts this year should be Ray Rice, Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy in some order. If you’re picking after that and wind up with one of them, do a dance. Running backs will most likely come off the board with 10 of the first 15 picks, or so. There will end up being a few quarterbacks, a couple of receivers, and maybe even a tight end or two depending on your scoring format and other owners. Those guys may even be the right choice, but we’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again: if you can grab two of the top 12 backs, you have given yourself an incredible advantage. And getting through the first two rounds without a bell cow RB1 is a serious no-no, as I found out recently, and you’ll wind up playing catch-up the rest of the draft, and maybe the season.

Running Back Injury Risk/Reward

Leagues will be won and lost this year based on the drafting of Jamaal Charles, Darren McFadden and DeMarco Murray. When healthy, all three are game-changing backs. Charles is 10 months removed from a torn ACL, but appears to be on track for the start of training camp. My concern with him is that a running back often takes a while to trust that knee and be able to perform like he once did. Murray is a Top 5 back if he gets the workload in Dallas like he did last season, but his ankle had to be surgically repaired this offseason, and he was no bastion of health before that. Add to it the fact that he only scored twice last season in 163 rushes. McFadden’s only obstacle has always been his health, or lack thereof. In 2010, he played in 13 games, and put up first-round numbers, but a Lisfranc injury in 2011 cut his season short. He’s now rested, but chances are he’ll break down again. The question will be: are these guys healthy as training camps move forward, and how long will they stay that way? They’re all gifted ball carriers, but have significant risk. I will be tracking their progress very closely leading up to my drafts, and you should do the same.

Ryan Mathews is all hype … for now. The guys who are drafting Ryan Mathews as the fifth back off the board certainly have an interesting take on reality. I think Mathews is talented, and I like the San Diego offense, but I have serious questions about taking a virtually unproven back in my Top 5. If I’m picking in the first round, and Rice, McCoy, Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew and Aaron Rodgers are off the board, I’m thinking about Calvin Johnson. I might take Chris Johnson. But I doubt I’m taking Ryan Mathews. He might be the guy this year that makes the leap to stardom. Or he can once again be the guy that disappoints us. He hasn’t lived up to preseason hype, yet. He’s had nice individual games before, but he hasn’t put it all together for a full season, and he can’t stay healthy. Let him be someone else’s problem. I’d rather not take the risk that early in Round 1.

Can Darren Sproles repeat his stellar 2011? I’m thinking yes. Mark Ingram is OK, but he has a lengthy injury history, and he doesn’t fit what the New Orleans Saints do offensively. The Saints offense is all about Drew Brees, and while I think Brees may have a tough time given all the nonsense going on in New Orleans, I think Sproles will be fine. He runs hard, he catches the ball well out of the backfield, and he’s a monster after the catch and after first contact. In a points per reception league, he’s an easy second rounder, and you can make a case for him going higher. In standard formats, he’s easily the most dependable Saint not named Brees, and probably a Top 20 running back.

Trent Richardson is being overvalued. I was a fan of Richardson at Alabama. His running style and versatility are awesome to watch. Despite playing in the SEC, which is basically the NFL's developmental league, he will receive more punishment in the NFL game. Is he tough enough to handle it? Absolutely. But he wound up in a terrible offense. Teams will load up the box, whether it’s Colt McCoy or rookie Brandon Weeden under center. The Browns have no outside threat to speak of, so opposing corners will be licking their chops waiting for Richardson to get the ball. It also doesn’t help that he’ll face the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers twice each, and he’ll face the NFC East teams that will tee off on him. I’m really rooting for him, though, and I think Richardson can be a stud, but I’m just not so sure he’ll be a stud right away, simply because I see him getting smothered behind the line of scrimmage. In any case, he's going way too early for my liking, and I doubt he'll be on any of my teams this season.

Drew Magyar is a FantasySharks.com staff writer and can be reached at drewmagyar@gmail.com. The “What Did We Learn?” column will be posted on Tuesday mornings throughout the regular season.