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Running back preview: Build a portfolio of running backs

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John Juhasz

John is a fantasy editor for FOXSports.com.
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The quality of play from your running backs will go a long way towards determining how successful your fantasy season will be.

A lot of fantasy owners have gotten cute and drafted a high-profile quarterback or wide receiver with their first overall pick, and that might actually be the right move to make in certain situations. However, in the majority of league formats out there, you're going to need to draft a running back with one of your first two picks if you plan on having any kind of success at the end. You just are. Take a look at who won your league the last few seasons and find out how their running back stats compared to those of everyone else in the league. Or if you claimed your title, pat yourself on the back. You couldn’t have done it without scouting the all-important running back position properly.

This year, there are two top-tier running backs, then everyone else. You might even be tempted to take a player who isn’t a running back at No. 3. Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson are the only two guys whose trade value would require an armored truck to bring back the compensation I'd ask. But if some Tennessee/Minnesota-lover in my league were to dangle something absurd like Ray Rice and Drew Brees in return, I'd send Johnson or Peterson packing without thinking twice. In other words, your franchise guys are hardly untouchable. Don't ever label any of your players like that, because you might be able to rake someone else over the coals to get a player they want.

POLL

  • Who is the top fantasy running back?
    • Frank Gore, San Francisco
    • Chris Johnson, Tennessee
    • Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville
    • Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
    • Ray Rice, Baltimore
    • Other

Sleepers

This is one of the most difficult positions to unearth hidden gems. More often than not, you’re not going to see any top-tier running backs still on the board after Round 2 of your draft, and guys who come out of nowhere to have a huge game will be snapped up in your league in short order. Who are some guys you should look to snag before your leaguemates have a chance to do the same?

Jerome Harrison rushed for 661 yards in the last three games of 2009, so it’s easy to assume he’s going to claim the starting role and that will be that. But James Davis is a forgotten man – he was drafted very late by Cleveland in ’09 and showed some flashes of explosiveness before his season came to a very premature end. How he’s going to fit into the picture with Harrison and bruising rookie Montario Hardesty remains to be seen. However, most of your leaguemates aren’t going to remember Davis, and he could prove to be a late steal. Keep a close eye on him during preseason.

Justin Forsett is another late-round gem to keep an eye on. He failed to score in the final five games of 2009, but he did display some impressive outings as a rookie - notably the 130-yard, two-touchdown effort against the Rams in late November. OK, so doing that against St. Louis doesn't wow anyone, but with Seattle having passed on C.J. Spiller in the draft, I don't think it'll take Pete Carroll very long to realize Forsett should be his go-to guy in this offense.

Value Buys

A sleeper is a player who either went undrafted or was taken in the later rounds with little or no expectations of producing. Value buys are players who will certainly get drafted, but will outperform their average draft position by a fair amount. In other words, if you could re-do your draft at the end of the season, there are certain guys who would go much higher than they did. Jamaal Charles and Miles Austin could be labeled sleepers going into last season while guys like Matt Schaub and Rice would have gone much higher than the mid-rounds where they were chosen in 2009. You get the idea.

One value buy who stands out to me in particular is Joseph Addai. Granted, he's not exactly a yardage machine - he didn't reach 100 on the ground in any game last year - but he makes up for it by scoring touchdowns at a consistent pace and adding a fair amount of receiving yards on certain weeks. He'll be playing for a new contract (assuming a new labor agreement is reached) and has no real competition for a large amount of his carries since Donald Brown isn't an every-down back. You could do a lot worse than Addai for your second running back.

Another running back who gets drafted a lot later than he should is Jonathan Stewart, although that may very well change this year. But Stewart ran absolutely wild in the last month of 2009, topping 100 yards and scoring a touchdown in four of his last five regular season games. He and DeAngelo Williams are good enough to be featured backs. I have to wonder how much longer the split duties can possibly continue.

Buyer Beware

You may have been dazzled by the play of Spiller in college, but he’s not going to be able to bring that to the NFL. Not this year, anyway. Buffalo has no quarterback, and its offensive line is one of the worst in the league, so the simple solution is to run the ball more, which means good things are in store for Spiller. Right?

Wrong. Why doesn't the skinny wimp in school go punch the bully in the grill? Why doesn't a golfer who is trailing by three strokes at the final hole simply sink a hole-in-one on a par-four to get back into the game? Simple - because they can't.

So many pundits love to talk about how teams should use the run to set up the pass, but the reverse is also absolutely true. If the Bills can't throw the ball, then why bother dropping a defense into the secondary? Opponents will simply crash the box and stuff Spiller, Fred Jackson and whoever else all day long until a Bills quarterback proves he can beat them in the air (I'm not holding my breath). Make sure your top running backs play for a team which can actually pass the ball. A balanced attack is the recipe for success, and the threat of an attack through the air AND ground needs to be present. Otherwise, you're playing with one hand tied behind your back, which is a no-no in such a parity-filled league.

Final Thoughts

If you're on the fence about a running back and a player at another position in your draft, it's not even a bad idea to stock up on running back talent you don't necessarily need. It’s one of the more difficult positions to find production from the waiver wire, and having good depth at such an important position is never a bad idea. Worst-case scenario, you can always trade one of them later as a selective buyer rather than a desperate seller in your fantasy market.

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