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The Future of Fantasy Football

We’ve reached the halfway point of the fantasy football season and it’s time to take stock of the present state of fantasy football. How has fantasy football changed in the last couple months? What implications do those changes have for the rest of the season? Finally, with the revolutionary changes going on in fantasy football, what implications does it have for next year’s drafts?

Before we can answer those questions about the future, we must first take a look back to the recent past. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and see what we knew for sure, many years ago, last August.

Top 5 Overall Draft Picks are Running Backs

Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Chris Johnson (maybe the draft’s biggest value, if you can get him a few picks later because of his never-ending holdout), Ray Rice and Jamaal Charles. The biggest tradition in fantasy football drafts continues to be that running backs dominate the first round and 2011 held true to that principle.

The Scarcity of Elite Quarterbacks

In the first five rounds of most standard 12-team leagues, only six quarterbacks were drafted. Aaron Rodgers and Michael Vick were both mostly drafted in the mid-to-late section of the first round. Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers were taken in the second and third rounds in various orders. Peyton Manning, because of offseason surgery, was drafted in the fourth to ffith rounds at a great value provided he was able to start the season. Tony Romo, the last of the elite quarterbacks, was usually drafted somewhere in the fourth round.

The main point to take from this is that in standard 12-team leagues, out of the first 60 picks of the draft, only six of them were quarterbacks. There were 25 running backs, 25 receivers and four tight ends taken in the first five rounds according to a leading ADP (average draft position) website. The vast majority of owners decided to wait on drafting a quarterback since after you get through the Elite 6, there’s not too much of a value difference between most fantasy quarterbacks. Instead, most owners decided to spend their early picks stocking up on running backs and receivers.

The Era of the Elite Receiver

After all of the elite running backs were off the board, receivers dominated the second to fourth rounds with 16 wide receivers drafted. With the eternal fragility of running backs an ever-present reality, an elite receiver has become a much safer option. The prevailing sentiment is that if you’re going to draft an early pick on a mid-tier player, a receiver gives you a lot more reliable bang for your buck than running backs and quarterbacks, who become interchangeable around the fourth round.

Reality Check

Now that we have a good grasp of where we’ve been, let’s take a look at where we’re at. I’m going to attempt to rank the top scoring players in most leagues. This is for standard scoring systems, but I’ve also tried to throw in a little bit of love for my points per reception (PPR) brothers and sisters by adding a couple studs like Steve Smith and Mike Wallace. The rankings are certainly not definitive and are meant to be looked at as a simple “best guess” of who the Top 20 scorers in fantasy football are at the halfway point of the season.

1) Aaron Rodgers

2) Tom Brady

3) Cam Newton

4) Drew Brees

5) Wes Welker

6) Fred Jackson

7) Matthew Stafford

8) LeSean McCoy

9) Calvin Johnson

10) Michael Vick

11) Matt Forte

12) Eli Manning

13) Darren McFadden

14) Adrian Peterson

15) Steve Smith

16) Ryan Fitzpatrick

17) Ray Rice

18) Matt Schaub

19) Mike Wallace

20) Michael Turner

You don’t have to agree with the rankings. You might have a gripe about one person being ranked too high or low, but that’s not important right now. What is important is simply agreeing that plus or minus a player or two, these are the Top 20 scorers in fantasy football, regardless of what order they could be put in.

The first thing that jumps out at me is the number of quarterbacks in the Top 20. Let’s break it down. Four-out-of-the-top-five scorers are quarterbacks. Six of the Top 10 are quarterbacks and, finally, there are a whopping nine quarterbacks in the Top 20, nearly half the list. And what’s Eli Manning doing ranked that high? What has this world come to?

The next crucial thing about the Top 10 is the paucity of running backs. Only one running back in the Top 10. Overall, only six of the Top 20 scorers in fantasy football are running backs. And the final thing of note is the lack of receivers in the Top 20, only five. Just two in the Top 10. If the NFL has become such a passing league, why aren’t there more receivers in the Top 20?

The New Narrative: It’s a Quarterback’s League

The NFL has turned into a passing league. It’s been building for years, aided heavily by rule changes which almost always help offenses. The 400-yard passing game, once a rarity, has become routine. The number of quarterbacks having excellent fantasy seasons is even larger than the nine quarterbacks ranked in the Top 20. Mark Sanchez, Matt Hasselback, Tony Romo and even Josh Freeman (lately) are all having solid campaigns.

If you add it all up, 13 quarterbacks are having very good seasons. Most standard leagues have 12 owners, so one could make the conclusion that every single team in most leagues has a good quarterback. So if there are tons of good quarterbacks and nearly every owner has one … where’s the real value in having an “elite” fantasy football quarterback?

I’ll grant you that Aaron Rodgers is in a class by himself. He is the hands down, no doubt about it, the best player in fantasy football this season. In a second tier, I’ll put Brady, Brees and Newton. After those four, though, the difference in value for the rest of the Top 20 is negligible. The fact that the NFL has become a passing league hasn’t helped the overall value of fantasy quarterbacks. It’s actually hurt them.

The New Narrative: The End of the Running Back Era

Recent archeological findings show that even in the first years of fantasy football, cavemen spent their early picks on running backs. As I mentioned earlier, the longest held and most sacred tradition of fantasy drafts is for running backs to be king and drafted early and often. Even as receivers have become more important in recent years, owners have continued to value running backs as the premier fantasy football position.

And yet, only two running backs are Top 10 scorers this season. The era of the running back appears to be at an end. No position in fantasy football has been more negatively affected by the NFL turning into a passing fiesta than running backs. It makes logical sense, of course. If teams are passing more, that means they’re going to be running less. Cause and effect, old friends.

So is it over? After all these years, is the era of the running back finally done? No chance, Lance. I’m going to make the argument that running backs have never been more important than they are right now. Since there are so few game-changing running backs left, less so than ever before, their value has skyrocketed. This isn’t the end of the running back era, this is the beginning of a new running back era. We’ll call this one: “Running Back Era 2: Endangered Species.”

There are seven awesome running backs left. Just seven. I’m talking about Fred Jackson, Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Darren McFadden and Arian Foster. I’m including Foster in the Top 7 because he’s looked good since he’s come back. If he can somehow stay healthy, Foster deserves to be a part of the Elite 7. All of the guys on this list are consistent, game-changing performers who can blow up at any time and lead owners to victory.

All of those guys are going in the first round next year. They deserve to be drafted in the first round because for every team that has them they will have a distinct advantage, week to week, against their opponent’s backfield. The vast majority of running backs are either mired in a running back by committee or are on a passing team where the running game is an afterthought. For most running backs in fantasy football these days, 60-70 rushing yards and a touchdown is considered a very good day.

And I left some big names off that Top 7 list. Chris Johnson, still unable to recall his past greatness, and Maurice Jones-Drew, saddled with a putrid offense, could both easily be drafted in the first round, just on their name value alone. Then we’re talking about nine running backs drafted in the first round. This would leave us with 75 percent of the first round being running backs.

Going forward, for the rest of the 2011 fantasy football season, if you have depth at the receiver position, I would seriously considering trading a “stud” like Roddy White, Larry Fitzgerald or Vincent Jackson for any of the running backs on that Top 7 list. This brings us to a nice little segue for next week’s article, as we talk about the end of the stud receiver era. I’ll point an accusatory finger at the “snake in the grass” tight end position.

Good Hunting!

Ed Bonfanti

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