For years, as the NFL became increasingly pass-oriented, fantasy football owners stuck to the traditional draft strategy of taking running backs early and often. Then last year, the game’s top quarterbacks finally got their due and were drafted accordingly (although I could have told you not to draft Matthew Stafford that high). Fantasy had caught up to reality, and those of us who had been advocating a different approach felt vindicated.
Then Robert Griffin III happened. And Andrew Luck. And Russell Wilson. And Colin Kaepernick. That quartet, which entered the 2012 season with a combined five passes and two rushes of NFL experience, took the league by storm. The aftermath, in the context of fantasy football, is that everyone is back to undervaluing quarterbacks (assuming that playing the position can’t be that hard if all these young guys made it look so easy, so why bother drafting a QB early) and blindly chasing after running backs early and often.
I happen to think that’s a mistake. I happen to think the NFL’s elite QBs (Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning) are still worthy of first-round picks because if you miss on your QB later, you’re in trouble. But when a game evolves (or, in this case, devolves), you’re generally forced to adapt if you want to stay competitive. So I can spend this column railing about how ridiculous it is that 10-12 RBs are flying off the board before Rodgers or Brees are getting drafted (and 15 or more before Manning’s name is usually called), or I can jump on the bandwagon with everyone else and avoid getting left behind.
In the course of roughly 2001 mock drafts over the past month (yeah, I know), a clear pattern has emerged. The top nine players in ESPN’s overall rankings are RBs: Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch, Ray Rice, Doug Martin, Jamaal Charles, C.J. Spiller, Trent Richardson and Alfred Morris. LeSean McCoy (11), Steven Jackson (15), Matt Forte (17) and Stevan Ridley (18) are in the top 20 overall. Those 13 RBs have gone in the top 20 picks of roughly 195 of those 200 mock drafts. And unless you’re in a league that really favors QBs, that’s what you can expect in your real-life drafts.
I’ve gone through every possible scenario multiple times to fill out a standard starting lineup — 1 QB, 2 RBs, 2 WRs, 1 Flex (I’m not counting TE and I’ll get to why later) — and here’s my analysis of each:
RB-RB: This is the optimal approach because once you get to the third round, the RB position is a total crapshoot. Of course, how easy it is to stick to this strategy depends on where you are in the draft order.
If you’re selecting early in the first round, pickings will be slim by the time your second pick rolls around. If Jackson, Forte or Ridley fall to you, that’s good value and you’re set at RB. Frank Gore (21) and/or Chris Johnson (23) are likely to be available at that point. I think Johnson is the better value, but both are solid No. 2 guys relative to what’s left, which I’ll come back to shortly.
If you’re selecting in the middle of the first round, you will be able to select a good No. 2 RB with your second pick if you so choose. This is the optimal spot to be.
If you’re selecting late in the first round, then it gets interesting. I have no problem with the first seven picks being RBs. After that, however, there are decisions to make. Top-rated players at other positions start looking good at this point. You can get a RB with either of your first two picks and pair that player with a Rodgers, Brees, Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, etc. Doing so means you don’t have to reach for a No. 2 RB, but it leaves little room for error in filling that spot later.
RB-QB/QB-RB: The good part of this approach is that you get an elite QB. I assume if you employ this strategy you’d limit it to Rodgers, Brees or Manning. Tom Brady is dropping in most drafts. With all the questions surrounding him, even if you still like him there’s no reason to consider taking him until at least the third round; he’ll be available. The bad part, as it is with any approach that is not RB-RB, is that your options are increasingly limited at RB as the draft moves on, and the odds get exponentially greater that any RB you select will be a disappointment.
RB-WR/WR-RB: As I mentioned earlier, WR is very, very deep. The late second round is the earliest I would consider selecting one, but Johnson (10), Green (13), Dez Bryant (16), Brandon Marshall (20) and even Julio Jones (22) all are tempting at various points between the late first round and the middle of the second if you don’t like any of the RBs available to you. Again, though, I’d rather get two RBs as early as possible when I know I can still put together a starting WR corps in rounds 3-7 from the following group of proven players (listed in descending order by rank): Demaryius Thomas, Percy Harvin, Roddy White, Vincent Jackson, Andre Johnson, Randall Cobb, Larry Fitzgerald, Wes Welker, Victor Cruz, Marques Colston, Reggie Wayne, Jordy Nelson, Mike Wallace, Danny Amendola, Hakeem Nicks, Steve Smith, Eric Decker, Dwayne Bowe and Antonio Brown. And if you want to wait even longer, guys like Greg Jennings and Steve Johnson are likely to be available. Like I said, deep.
WR-WR: This approach is fantasy suicide. Even I’m not good enough to pull it off.2 (Well, I probably could.) I just participated in a mock in which a team’s first two picks were Calvin Johnson and Green. Sounds great, right? Well, the starting RBs, which were drafted according to projections (no wild reaches), turned out to be Darren McFadden and Demarco Murray. There’s a decent chance both will be on the IR by the time you finish reading this sentence. There’s way too much risk involved in counting on guys like that. But if you ignore RB completely in the first two r