The days of taking 2 RBs in the first couple rounds, with QBs and WRs scoring major points, times have changed.
A New Way Of Thinking About Running Backs:
How 2007 changed everything we knew about fantasy football drafting.
Fantasy football managers have always had to strike a balance between their brains and their hearts whenever preparing for a draft. Their hearts love the idea of league leading production from a player while their brains are comfortable with a player giving them years of consistent stats …and back in the early 2000’s, running backs had that consistency.
It was a golden era for running backs. Well-known, well-regarded names like Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson, Priest Holmes, Shaun Alexander, Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Brian Westbrook, Tiki Barber, Larry Johnson, Rudi Johnson, and Deuce McAllister….I could go on and on! They were the linchpins of fantasy lineups, guaranteed to provide you as an owner restful nights because you knew they’d get their yards, and most importantly, those touchdowns.
The tried and true approach to fantasy drafting during that period was to draft RB/RB in the first 2 rounds. You’d have a solid foundation for your squad and those players would get you tons of production by season’s end. 1000+ yards rushing on the season, possibly 50+ catches and 500-750 yards receiving, 12+ total touchdowns with relative ease.
What could other positions offer that?
The quarterback position? You had a few QBs, who led the league consistently in passing stats (Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, etc...) but their touchdown production wasn’t high enough to consider picking so high. Outside of Manning’s 49 touchdown 2004 season, quarterbacks couldn’t be relied on to win leagues like 2 good running backs could. Running backs were scoring as much, if not MORE than QBs at the time! Why waste a second round pick on subpar production when I could have a pair of beasts in the backfield?
What about the receivers? Once again, you had popular names giving you big numbers (Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, etc…) but they had their drawbacks as well. Touchdown totals weren’t as spectacular as we remember them being and with running backs chipping in 50+ catches a season, why reach for a top tier WR? LaDainian Tomlinson had 100 catches in 2003. Only 3 receivers had more! Why draft Randy or Marvin in the 2nd round when they couldn’t give you 2000 yards from scrimmage like a Priest Holmes could?
Were tight ends an option? Hardly. Even though the big names at the time like Tony Gonzalez or Shannon Sharpe piled up the catches and receiving yards like receivers, they left you without that scoring punch necessary to make a consistent difference on a year to year basis. As valuable as they were, they’d NEVER be drafted in the first 2 rounds!
The RB/RB drafting model stayed in place for most of the 2000s because of this consistency from the RB position. It was the tried and true way to beat your opponents. At the start of the 2007 season, fantasy ADP had 15 running backs located in the top 20 picks.
Everything changed from that season on. 2007 forever changed the way we looked at draft strategy and that’s due to the following two factors:
THE RULES CHANGED
During the inaugural game of the New England Patriots season in 2008, Bernard Pollard dove toward Tom Brady’s planted left leg in an effort to sack the QB in the 1st quarter and ended up tearing his ACL and MCL in the process. He was done for the year. Losing such a marquee name and the subsequent media attention of said play didn’t sit well with the powers that be so the following season, the league’s Competition Committee put the “Tom Brady” rule into effect. The rules on the books already prohibited players from hitting QBs below the knees unless they were blocked there, but the new rules didn’t want any players going for the legs at all or there’d be a penalty and/or a fine.
Also, bad press from two notable collisions forced the NFL to expand its protection of defenseless receivers by barring helmet to helmet contact as well as shoulders, forearms, etc. One was an absolute torpedo shot by Ryan Clark that knocked Willis McGahee unconscious in the 2008 Conference Championship game and the hellacious 2010 hit Dunta Robinson laid on DeSean Jackson crossing the middle that got him concussed. These two well publicized plays had people calling for rule changes and player safety.
Combine those rules changes together with the quick whistles of the referees and the NFL made sure the passing game received the freedom necessary to operate within the structure of the game. If a defender did even the slightest thing wrong, out popped a yellow flag and the offense got a fresh set of downs! The element of fear that big hitters roaming the secondary once had was gone. The threat of a 15 yard penalty for barely bumping the QB prevented any defense from rushing the passer instinctually. The threat of fines, suspensions and potentially lost game checks also weighed heavy on the minds of defensive players as well.
THE OFFENSES CHANGED
Josh McDaniels and the Patriots on offense revolutionized the way things were done throughout the league in 2007. Instead of putting a large burden on the shoulders of the running back, who could be lost to injury during the course of 300-400 carries, put the responsibility on the shoulders of the QB, who could then distribute the ball to everyone. That style of offense created different uses for the running backs by setting them up with specialized roles.
And the Patriots went 16-0 that season. WITHOUT one solitary thousand yard rushing, 10+ TD running back. The Pats used their backs as specialists. Kevin Faulk was the receiving threat and 3rd down back, Sammy Morris and Heath Evans were the short distance runners and Laurence Maroney was the early down back.
Why slam a running back into a defensive line for 25-30 carries in a game when all you have to do is drop back and pass the ball? A better question: Why use only one member of the backfield when you can use ALL of them?
Brady was the orchestrator of that high-powered offense and he lit up the league in record-setting fashion. His main receiver, Randy Moss, caught a record 23 touchdowns in that season. Brady also turned Wes Welker, who was considered third on the depth chart, into a league leading receptions leader for years to come.
The Patriots went on to lose the Super Bowl that year but the entire league took notice of their offensive style. How it caused so many mismatches, the innovation of the play calls, the way their playbook stretched the field and put the pressure on defenses, the way they were able to shuttle in different personnel packages…. the other 31 offensive coordinators had a field day implementing those concepts into their own offensive strategies.
The NFL is a copycat league and once the teams realized you could use running backs in a committee and get all the way to the Super Bowl, everybody decided they wanted in on that. It was cheap AND effective! In the four years since that 18-1 season, only ONE team has gone on to the Super Bowl and had a 1000 yard back (Rashard Mendenhall with the 2010 Steelers.)
A NEW WAY OF THINKING
Now in 2012, with the offensive identity of most NFL teams geared toward putting the ball in the air, the rules HEAVILY favoring the QB completing passes and proof that a team can be successful without putting a huge workload on one guy, the idea of an RB/RB draft strategy seems less a foregone conclusion and more of a risk now than ever before. It’s quite possible that a running back may not even be one of the first two picks in your draft this season! A strategy like that would be considered sacrilege and heresy five years ago but today it’s a sign of how things have changed
Back in 2007, only a handful of teams were considered passing teams. In 2012, teams that were primarily known to run the rock (Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Atlanta), are now installing no-huddle offenses and changing their offensive identities just to keep up with the times. Detroit, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Green Bay, Dallas, the New York Giants, San Diego, Buffalo, Oakland, Tennessee, Indianapolis, New England and Denver have heavy amounts of passing plays already in their offense. Chicago, San Francisco, Carolina, Washington, Jacksonville, Arizona and Tampa Bay all improved the receiving talent to be able to compete. 24 out of 32 teams in this league ready to sling the pigskin all over the lot this year.
Don’t get me wrong,….there still are multi-faceted, do-it-all backs in the league who warrant your consideration as 1st or 2nd round picks. Arian Foster, Ray Rice, Darren McFadden and LeSean McCoy are a few that come to mind. However, there aren’t too many at the position that are consistent enough to consider them as consecutive picks anymore. Running backs aren’t putting up stat lines like quarterbacks and receivers because they’re in committees, sharing the workload amongst 2, 3 or in San Francisco’s case this season, FIVE different players! Coaches want to keep players fresher longer so the idea of committees works for them.
Fantasy managers can now get the league leading production and the consistency RBs once offered from the pass game now. The gap they used to have over all other position players in yards from scrimmage has shrunken considerably as has their ability to cross the goal line. Brady, Rodgers, Welker, Fitzgerald and Megatron, to name a few, have been doing it for multiple years now and you’re going to need a passing threat in order to win your league this season. If Rob Gronkowski , a tight end – a supremely talented, athletic, freak-of-nature – but still a tight end, can score more touchdowns than all of the running backs in the league except one last year, the balance of production has shifted JUST a LITTLE, don’t you think?
So I implore all the team owners out there to considering loosening up that tight grasp you have on the old ways of drafting. Stocking up on RBs and relying on a game managing quarterback is an antiquated way of thinking that will get you beat.
Switch up the offensive game plan, draft a game changing quarterback on offense, nab a good haul of top notch receivers/tight ends and ride that passing game to the playoffs!