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One Place Running Backs Still Rule: Fantasy Football

Running backs once dominated the N.F.L. From Jim Brown to Walter Payton to Marcus Allen to Barry Sanders, star backs racked up the yards and got the headlines. But recently the contractual value of even elite players at the position — think about the standoff between the Dallas Cowboys and Ezekiel Elliott or Le’Veon Bell’s holdout with the Pittsburgh Steelers last year — has been much debated. The modern game is clearly a passing game.

But there is one place where running backs are still king: fantasy football.

Over the last five years, only five running backs have been selected in the top 10 of the N.F.L. draft. And while N.F.L. teams are hesitant to break the bank for a top runner, especially given the hindsight view of the four-year, $60 million contract extension the Los Angeles Rams gave Todd Gurley last season, fantasy players still start their draft research at this time of year by poring over articles on the “10 best running backs,” before casting a glance at other positions.

In a typical draft, perhaps eight of the top 10 picks will be running backs, fantasy experts said. The best quarterbacks, like Patrick Mahomes, won’t even be chosen until later rounds.

“Running backs are very important, especially at the top of your draft,” said Mike Tagliere, the lead N.F.L. writer for FantasyPros, an advice site. “Four running backs are going to go before any wide receivers.”

Those four running backs — just about everyone agrees they are Saquon Barkley of the Giants, Christian McCaffrey of the Panthers, Alvin Kamara of the Saints and Elliott of the Cowboys, even though he is holding out — are the absolute keys to success in fantasy football, in part because each is clearly the No. 1 option on his team.

“Guys like those are unicorns in today’s N.F.L.,” said Mike Wright, the co-host of the Fantasy Footballers podcast. “Most N.F.L. teams have a two- or three-back system. It’s rare that they have just one key running back.”

The disconnect between running backs’ dominance in fantasy and their value in the real game is one reason the PPR scoring system, which awards points for receptions, was developed 15 years ago in a bid to revalue wide receivers.

But the thing is, running backs catch passes, too. And PPR scoring, which has fast become the industry standard, has put even more emphasis on the handful of backs who both catch and run.

“Saquon and McCaffrey will have 200 runs and 60 catches,” Wright said. “When you can find these running backs who carry and catch the ball a ton, it’s almost like having two players in one spot.”

Chris Carson of the Seahawks and Derrick Henry of the Titans are examples of top running backs who are less valuable in fantasy because they don’t catch many passes.

Fantasy football is sometimes a game not of individual brilliance but of volume. And running backs provide that volume with much more consistency.

“With wide receivers, it’s harder to project their touches,” Tagliere said. “A lot of offenses have three or four wide receiver sets. Running backs are going to get their touches. Saquon is game-script-proof.”

On the flip side, quarterbacks, vital to any modern N.F.L. offense, have a diminished role in fantasy.

“What’s crazy about fantasy is that if you play in a standard league, one of the easiest positions to replace is quarterback,” Wright said. “That is the opposite of the N.F.L., where you have to have a franchise quarterback. But any quarterback is going to throw the ball 25 times a game.”

Most fantasy experts advise not taking the very best quarterback, Mahomes, until the fourth or even fifth round, and instead using those top slots to grab multiple running backs and wide receivers.

“For those who are scared about waiting, remember that the top three quarterbacks last year, Patrick Mahomes, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan, were all drafted outside the top 10 quarterbacks in fantasy leagues,” Tagliere said. Any number of quarterbacks might jump up and have a great season. But running backs are likely to jump up only if someone is injured.

ImageCreditPhilip G. Pavely/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Some hard-core fantasy football aficionados are aware of the gap between their game and the N.F.L., and have looked for ways to close it. Two-quarterback leagues are still at the niche level, but growing in popularity. In this setup, players must start two quarterbacks in every game, creating increased value on the position relative to availability, and making quarterbacks nearly as important as they are to the game in real life.

In all likelihood, your fantasy draft this year will begin with a mad rush for running backs. But there are a few players out there in traditional leagues who are trying to think differently with a strategy called “zero running back.” These players let others scramble for backs, while they grab starters at different positions and rely on lower ranked running backs and the waiver wire as injuries occur later in the season.

But many experts counsel against the strategy. “That’s a risky way of relying on injuries,” Tagliere said. “And anyone can grab off the waiver wire.”

Eleven of the last 12 league most valuable players have been quarterbacks. And a quarterback like Mahomes, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers is very likely to grab the prize again this season. But in fantasy, the best play is still to pencil in Barkley and rest easy.

More on Saquon Barkley and Fantasy FootballSaquon Barkley’s Rare Talent and Seriously Rare NameDec. 20, 2018Saquon Barkley Tries to Bring Running Backs Into the Draft SpotlightApril 25, 2018A Beginner’s Guide to Playing Fantasy FootballAug. 24, 2017


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