Go Big or Go home
He wakes up in the morning
Does his teeth, bite to eat, and he's rolling
Never changes a thing
The week ends the week begins . . .
Take these chances
Place them in a box until a quieter time
Lights down, you go up, and die
- Dave Matthews Band, Ants Marching
If you're a poindexter who hates risk leave now. Don't ask me to convince you why this draft strategy is worthwhile. I don't have time for you here.
If you don't know how you feel about risk then keep reading. But if you begin to smell something faintly unpleasant, that's fear. It means you now know that you're a poindexter who hates risk. Hit the "back" button on your browser and retreat to safer ground.
If you're tired of spending your spring and summers pouring over rankings and tweaking your projections to the point of insanity only to have it dawn on you by the fifth round of your draft that your strategy is similar to 80 percent of your competition, then keeping reading.
If you're ready to try something more radical because you've realized that in most leagues the only difference between placing third and finishing last is that you can worry less about what people think of you as a fantasy owner - although most people who are enjoyable to be around spend way less time thinking about you in this way than you imagine - then you've come to the right place: the Upside Down Drafting Strategy.
Six to eight years ago, Upside Down used to be statistically safer than what was considered the safe path. For the past three to four years, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction.
I'll show you numbers and I'll give you player takes, but you have to bring something to the table to get the most from this article: An understanding that winning big - I'm talking a dominant season - may require you to risk losing big.
It is not the way that I draft in fantasy leagues, but one of many approaches that I have taken to build a foundation for a successful team. It's why I nearly wrote Joe, David and Sigmund and told them that I didn't think it was a good idea to write about the Upside Down Draft Strategy this year.
It is not a franchise. There are no pitchmen with snappy taglines. There are no Happy Meals.
However, even in a year where I see a great deal of promising runners worth taking with two of my first three picks, there will be drafts this summer where I see the merits of going a different route.
The Cliff's Notes to Upside Down Drafting
I have written about Upside Down Drafting every year at Footballguys for three reasons:
- It had past success.
- No one I knew was writing about this prevalent approach to counterpunch the conventional early-round thinking in many leagues.
- There were also variations worth exploring under the auspices of the strategy.
The core philosophy of going Upside Down is that once a concept or process becomes conventional, it is no longer a safe approach. When the majority of your competition is taking the same path, it's diluting your opportunity to land the best players at the same positions. It's also preventing you from capitalizing on the available top-talent sitting untouched on the board in the early rounds.
It's a compelling idea that not taking a risk is actually the riskiest strategy of all. I have received "thank you" emails from countless fantasy owners, including a counter-terrorism specialist in New York who uses the same philosophy to formulate successful strategies in his job (and now his fantasy leagues) and 2011 winner of the Footballguys Players Championship, Ronald Eltanal.
They understand that the draft is a foundation-setter. If you're in a position where 80 percent of your league is bent on drafting the same way then perhaps it's time to turn things upside down.
The approach is rooted in a simple idea: If your league goes RB-heavy early in the draft, it's riskier than you may realize to be one of the masses when you're giving up a chance to pick the best players at non-RB positions.
One of the primary reasons is that average draft position is based a lot on last year's production. I have found that between 40-70 percent of the runners drafted as an RB1 or RB2 will not meet ADP expectations. It means that 40-70 percent of the backs that do earn starter production by year's end are middle and late-round picks.
If that's the case, then why not zig when everyone else is zagging? The dynamics of quarterback, running back, and wide receiver rankings turnover indicates going "Upside Down" can set as strong foundation for your squad as the RB-heavy route. Because you get the pick of the litter at either QB, WR, and/or TE when most are considering that second back, this approach gives the owner a chance to build a dominant team if past history proves true in 2013 and he unearths 1-2 fantasy RB1s in the mid-to-late rounds.
Just last year, C.J. Spiller (9.03), Alfred Morris (13.01), and Stevan Ridley (5.08) were all mid-to-late round picks. These are ADPs from Fantasy Football Cacluator in September, so Morris and Spillers' values are probably a little higher than what they were in August. It's conceivable to have drafted all three of these backs and landed the likes of Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas.
I believe the strategy works best in non-PPR scoring formats where there isn't a third RB option allowed as a flex for starting lineups. If you play only in PPR leagues or RB-flex-friendly lineups, going "Upside Down" can help you win big, but the risks are higher because the turnover in wide receiver rankings is higher in this league type and the supply and demand dynamic is minimized.
Answers To Common Questions
The information I'm providing today is only for non-PPR formats only. I will not be writing a PPR or flex-RB strategy later this summer or in the near future. Going Upside Down works with any league size, but I think the sweet spot is a league with 10-14 teams. I prefer to use 12-team leagues when writing about examples.
You don't need to ask me for permission to opt for one running back in the early rounds and still follow the spirit of going Upside Down. The spirit of the approach is to take a path just different enough that you are maximizing the wealth of each position pool at times the rest of your league is focused elsewhere. You may choose to vary the approach to the point that I wouldn't call it Upside Down Drafting, but if this article was the jumping off point for you to take a calculated risk then you're welcome.
The Data That Turns Drafts Upside Down
Every year I write this column I keep a running tab of data that covers 5-6 seasons of player turnover at each position. I look at the turnover of players from one year to the next in the top-12, top-24, and top-36 at each position and compare the volatility of each within the scope of a 12-team league with a starting lineup of 1 QB, 2 RBs, 3 WRs, and 1 TE.
This year, I'm adding ADP and fantasy point averages to the mix and also examining turnover inside the top-12 at each position. I want to see if I can find an optimal point to draft various positions. This is something I'll save for the end.
First, here is the average rankings turnover for each skill position between 2007-2012. The horitzontal axis is the top 3, top 6, top 9, top 12, etc. The data is the percentage of players within that top 3, top 6, top 9, etc. who finished the previous year in that tier but did not repeat the following season. The higher the number, the bigger the change from year to year.
It's evident that the turnover at the RB and WR positions are roughly the same, but the QB and TE positions are significantly lower. The theory behind Upside Down Drafting is that in a traditional league with the starting lineup format where there are five non-RB positions to two RB positions, why invest top picks in RB when the turnover is this high at the top of the position and most owners base a high percentage of rankings on the previous year's production?
Average Turnover in Rankings By Position 2007-2012
Although three of those five non-RB positions are WRs and it's a position with even greater turnover within the top 3-24 than RBs, this traditional starting lineup format also means that the there's power in volume and a team with strength at the five starting sports will have an easier time to make up for any deficiencies at two RB spots than the other way around.
Because the RB position has so much turnover, I have found it is reliable to at least find one valuable starter at the position after the fourth round. If the weakest position is a team's second back, he's generally in great shape.
I also decided to break down the top 3, top 6, and top 9 as tiers because I think fantasy owners seek finer gradations within the QB1 and TE1 tier than they do the RB and WR tiers. The differential in fantasy points between these tiers is a good illustration why this is the case.
Average Fantasy Points Per Tier Spot 2007-2012
This table shows the average fantasy points scored between 2007-2012 for the No.3, No.6, No.9, etc player at each position. I did not include the No.1 and No.2 players at each position because I think that's a bull's eye shot that you hope to hit, but I'd rather rely on lower standard of expectation and let the achievement of picking the top player at his position be a bonus.
Call it a reverse-optimist fudge factor.
What stands out is the difference in fantasy points between the No.3 and No.9 QB, RB, and TE is greater than the separation at WR. One may look at this information and use VBD principles to determine that running back has the greatest value becuase it not only has a higher drop-off among the top players and the rest of the pack, but it also scores the most points of any position where a fantasy owner can start more than one of its type.
In other words, get two top-notch RBs and you'll rule your dynasty league. However, VBD doesn't tell you who those top RBs are. This data at least shows you that 75 percent of the top-6 RBs from previous years won't meet that standard the following season.
It means that up to 75 percent of the backs selected among the first six runners off the board have a strong likelihood (up to 63 percent) of not meeting expectation as RB1 and nearly a 50 percent chance (44%) of not even providing RB3 production. Unless you're at the very top of the draft order (which I'll address later), why fish from this pool and feel compelled to take what has a strong likelihood of being the wrong fish?
Like all other fantasy football strategies the ball bounces too funny to call it anything more tangible than a theory, but if you're looking for optimal moments to select quality players it's a good idea to consider focusing on non-RB prospects early if you know you're drafting with fantasy owners who are hot and heavy on ball carriers during the opening three rounds.
Viewing the average turnover rates, average ADP, and average fantasy points by various tiers of selection reveals some clear opportunities to go Upside Down and build a successful fantasy team.
Average Turnover, ADP, and Fantasy Points By Position 2007-2012 For Top 3, 6, 9, and 12
|Turnover (3)||ADP||Fpts||Turnover (6)||ADP||Fpts||Turnover (9)||ADP||Fpts||Turnover (12)||ADP||Fpts|
Right away, it's clear that you have a close to even chance of landing an elite QB and tight end if you draft one before rounds 3 and 5, respectively. In contrast, you have only a 22 percent chance of acquiring a top-three running back even when you select him at 1.03. To be fair, if you look at the Turnover Top 12 column, there's a 37 percent chance that any back you select who was a top-12 talent the previous year will repeat as a top-12 talent and at worst, his 193.2 fantasy point value will be better than many top-six wide receivers and all but possibly one tight end.
In other words, if you're picking a running back early and hoping the best-case scenario is that he repeats as a top-12 back - or the back you picked wasn't in the top-12 last year but has the talent and opportunity to join the ranks of fantasy RB1s then the odds are decent enough to take the chance. That said, taking a quarterback and/or tight end early who was a top-12 talent last year, gives you closer to a 60 percent chance that you'll land two top-12 talents this year.
While aiming high for an elite WR1 based on the previous year of production is even riskier than targeting one of last year's RB1s, the likelihood he remains a top-12 talent is close to even. Throw in the fact that in non-flex leagues there are usually more receivers in a starting lineup, and it becomes clear that placing a higher priority on receivers early can yield strong team if your competition is bent on taking running backs early.
Average Turnover, ADP, and Fantasy Points By Position 2007-2012 For Top 3, 12, 24, and 36
|Turnover (3)||ADP||Fpts||Turnover (12)||ADP||Fpts||Turnover (24)||ADP||Fpts||Turnover (36)||ADP||Fpts|
I created numerous examples of theoretical team builds in the first seven rounds that show how an Upside Down-built lineup can be competitive with an RB-heavy lineup according to the turnover rates, ADP, and fantasy point data from the past five years. The point isn't whether the Upside Down team scores higher - and there are numerous examples where it does - but that it's within the realm of providing fantasy owners a competitive foundation to build a contender with help from trades and free agency. Based on the examples below, I think there's a clear case that it can.
This initial comparison above has the Upside Down team outscoring the RB-Heavy team even if its first-round receiver fails to nab at worst the WR3 and the traditional draft style picks a top-3 runner. At the same time, I'm also presuming that the Upside Down team acquires a top-12 and top-24 based on the percentages working in his favor according to the theory of the approach.
What if the RB-Heavy team also hits on RB12 rather than RB24 and the Upside Down team fails to hit on anything different than? It's still very close and favoring the Upside Down lineup:
Once again, the assumption is that the Upside Down team can land the RB12 and RB24 after round four. C.J. Spiller and Alfred Morris fit the bill last year as two top-12 options. Add Stevan Ridley to the mix and there's the possibility of three top-12 backs this team could have aqcuired last year - and there are numerous examples from previous years indicating a similar dynamic at play.
Notice how the beginning of this article talks about high-risk, but midway through the discussion is veering into talk of the Upside Down Strategy providing a safe foundation to build from? I did this to weed out squeamish fantasy owners. I can show them the data, but once they see the names of the running backs they'll have to take with confidence, that's when they get weak. You'll see soon enough.
Here's a scenario where the Upside Down team manages to snag the RB12 but fails to capture anything better than RB36 in a start-two RB league. In contrast, the RB-Heavy team gets RB3 and RB24 and WR12 and WR24.
The real difference here is with the caliber of quarterback that the Upside Down squad acquires in the second round as opposed to the RB-Heavy team's sixth-round selection. This is based on the five-year average turnover. Certainly the RB-Heavy team can hit on two stud RBs and a top-three QB and whoop the Upside Down team, but the percentages once again show the Upside Down team isn't as risky as it appears.
What if the Upside Down team picks two, top-6 receivers, but fails to acquire a starting RB? Here's one scenario:
The difference is a 54-point swing in favor of the RB-Heavy team. However, if the Upside Down squad acquired the RB24 and RB36, that gap is only 20 points over the course of the season. Picking a strong defense and kicker can even the things. Again, the point isn't that Upside Down is the better strategy across the board; just capable of giving a fantasy owner a good foundation with similar upside to build a winning team.
First Round Exception
Because the Upside Down strategy is rooted in the idea of fishing in talent pools at the right time, I think the risk-reward scenario of taking a first-round running back is worthwhile in the bounds of this framework if you have one of the top 3-5 picks in a draft. The stats might say it's unlikely to pick one of last year's elite backs and count on a repeat performance, I believe the reason has a lot to do with injury and I don't like using injury as a variable.
If you have a shot at Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Arian Foster, Ray Rice, or LeSean McCoy, the smart play is to take them and hope they stay healthy enough to give you top-12 RB production. Health is the only reasonable question for these players because the track record of production and age are all pointing to them having strong seasons in 2013.
What this means for the Upside Down Strategy is to adjust your draft approach by opting for either a TE or QB in the top-six tier rather than the top-three tier. In a non-PPR league, I suggest you lower your standards on tight end.
Upside Down Running BAck Candidates
Here is the scariest part of the strategy for most fantasy owners new to going Upside Down. Foresaking name brand backs with clear starting roles in lieu murkier talents and/or situations presents a level of risk that seems higher even if the data supports enough scenarios otherwise. Let's look at the backs with ADPs in the range of rounds 5-10. If you opt for the Upside Down strategy, you're likely to pick 4-5 backs between rounds 5-10 and likely a third receiver or take a chance on a quarterback likely to produce in the lower third of QB1 in a 12-team league.
Here is the available pool of backs based on the ADP sorter at Footballguys.I'll give you my take of each back with an ADP between rounds 5-12. A runner with a "(+)" before his name is a back I like.
Possible Sliders Into Range
If the ADP holds steady for these three runners, there's a solid chance they slide to the fifth round. All three possess the talent to produce as no worse than RB2s in fantasy leagues.
Ryan Mathews, Chargers (ADP 52): If you've read my work for the past four years then you know I have always been high on Mathews' ability. His speed, balance, and vision are all RB1-quality. His ball security, maturity, and durability have held him back from maximizing his potential. Danny Woodhead's arrival from New England provides a third-down presence that could relegate Mathews to two-down duty. The biggest issue is the Chargers offensive line. If the unit can remain healthy and develop some cohesion this summer, there's a shot at significant improvement but I'm not counting on a huge turnaround.
Two years ago, Mathews as a top-12 fantasy runner with over 1500 total yards. Last year, he had only three games with more than 20 carries and none of them yielded a 100-yard day. Mathews also had three games with 10 or fewer carries and there is a track record of the young runner getting pulled from the field for his play.
Even if I find it hard to believe Ladainian Tomlinson's claim that the team asked him to come back this year and earn significant carries, I wouldn't be surprised if patience is wearing thin with Mathews in San Diego. The Chargers former first-round pick has a lot to prove this year and if he doesn't produce to his draft day expectations this could be the end of a short-lived era. If he falls to the fifth round, I wouldn't turn my nose up at a starter with RB1 ability. He has the most talent of the three backs in this tier. However, he's not my favorite choice at this point of the summer.
(+) Le'Veon Bell, Steelers (ADP 53): Bell reminds me stylistically of Eddie George. He's a little lighter than George, but possesses similar quickness and agility as the Titans bellcow in his prime. In fact, I think Bell is lighter on his feet and capable of moves that George could never execute.
The Steelers liked Bell enough to take him ahead of Eddie Lacy, but he's a polarizing player among writers and analysts. Some believe Bell lacks the burst and vision to make it as an NFL starter. They characterize him like he's Ron Dayne - a big back incapable of playing like a big back. I'm not one of them. I think all he lacks is the finer points of decision making that backs like LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, and C.J. Spiller had to learn when they entered the league. He's a good receiver and has potential to develop quickly as a pass protector.
I also think the Steelers offensive line should improve if last year's first-round pick David DeCastro returns from a torn ACL he sustained during the first month of the season. It's also clear that neither Jonathan Dwyer nor Isaac Redman make the cut as first-tier starters. I think Bell's rookie-year upside is RB1 territory because his burst is NFL quality and his
Vick Ballard, Colts (ADP 57): Ballard is a versatile back becuase he has the strength to work between the tackles and get the job done in short yardage if the Colts line improves, but he also has the skill as a receiver to make defenses pay on screen passes and flares. The former Mississippi State back surprised most fantasy owners by earning the starting job last year.
The problem with Ballard is that he lacks great speed and burst and he's not a tremendously strong runner. He's an average athlete with high effort, which makes him a low-risk pick at this spot. However, I don't see the possibility of a reward higher than top-20 production at his position.
I still see the Colts backfield as a depth chart in flux. Donald Brown isn't a great talent, but his speed and vision keep him a viable option to split time with Ballard. Delone Carter has the most talent as an interior runner, but he hasn't emerged from the doghouse of two coaching regimes. The back I think fantasy owners should monitor this summer is rookie Kerwynn Williams.
The rookie from Utah State is an excellent receiver with game-breaking speed. He also sports a decent stiff arm and enough size to make a run at earning a role in a backfield committee. Give me Bell's upside because I think a disappointing season for the Steelers rookie as the starter could exceed that totals Ballard posted as a rookie, which many considered a pleasant surprise. It's all a matter of perspective.
Now there's a strong possibility Ahmad Bradshaw will sign with the Colts, expect Ballard's stock to drop. Bradshaw is a more polished version of what Williams might someday become. I love Bradshaw's ability and he's the better value if his ADP doesn't skyrocket above the ninth round.
FIRST TIER (ROUNDS 5-7)
+Eddie Lacy, Packers (ADP 64): Lacy's toe injury and lack of conditioning were warning signals that the Broncos and Steelers heeded in April when they by-passed the Alabama star for the likes of Bell and Montee Ball. However, if Lacy plays at the level he did at Alabama last year Green Bay is going to be having the last laugh. The Packers offense is decidely pass-heavy, but the Patriots (Stevan Ridley), Saints (Deuce McCallister-Reggie Bush), and Colts (Joseph Addai and Edgerrin James) had prolific passing games and strong fantasy runners.
If Lacy stays healthy and earns red zone looks, it's conceivable that he posts 800 yards and 8-10 touchdowns. These totals might seem modest, but in the framework of 2012 still places him in top-15 territory at the position. These totals still allot room for fellow rookie Jonathan Franklin to post 500-700 yards and a half-dozen scores if the Packers offense reaches its upper limits of run/pass productivity.
What I love about Lacy is his brute strength paired with small-back feet. He's not Trent Richardson agility-wise, but think a more powerful Rashard Mendenhall with a greater range of agility and movement. Considering that Franklin is going off the board 55 picks later, I think it's a wise investment to take both Packers backs and hope one thrives.
+Chris Ivory, Jets (ADP 67): The former Saints runner is the hot mid-round pick in 2013 because of what he flashed in New Orleans. I think it's valid to compare Ivory stylistically to Marshawn Lynch because both run with good balance, strong lateral movement, and they like to initate the collision with a defender. If Ivory earns the starting job in New York, he takes a role that earned Shonn Greene top-15 production in non-PPR leagues last year.
Ivory is a better between the tackles runner than Greene and has breakaway skills that Greene might only have if they sent him back to Iowa. The concern is that Ivory doesn't earn the lion's share of the carries. Mike Goodson is even more explosive, a better receiver, and if he plays to his potential, could serve as a poor man's Reggie Bush.
Because Goodson is leaving boards nearly 100 picks later and there's still some legal wrangling that might happen due to a recent arrest, taking Ivory now and Goodson later is a decent path for an Upside Down drafter. I'd rather have the two rookies on the strong Packers offense, but it's far from a slam dunk because the Packers offense line wasn't playing much better than New York's last year.
I like Ivory's style of running more than Lacy's, but just enough to feel good about either path if Lacy is gone or you want to bump Ivory above the rookie.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Bengals (ADP 70): Green-Ellis had a career-year in terms of attempt and yards, but he only averaged 3.8 yards per carry and scored just 6 touchdowns - a disappointing season that prompted the Bengals to draft Giovani Bernard and Rex Burkhead. Even the most optmistic believer in Green-Ellis has to concede that the lead role is Bernard's to lose and Green-Ellis' best-case sceneario is to force an early-season backfield split a the early-down and short-yardage back.
This type of arrangement could be good enough for Green-Ellis to earn top-24 production, but keep in mind that he had 300 touches last year and was the No.19 fantasy runner in non-PPR leagues. Green-Ellis and Vick Ballard are similar style backs and are probably best-suited in a role that we have seen the Saints use with Pierre Thomas.
The difference is that Thomas' ADP makes him a value. Would you rather have Green-Ellis at the end of the fifth round or Bernard at the end of the sixth? If you don't know, you will after you read my section on the rookie.
Rashard Mendenhall, Cardinals (ADP 73): The former Steeler is a back I'm close to giving that (+) of approval. I believe Mendenhall is a value as an RB3 because of what Bruce Arians has done to change the personnel and scheme of the offense. Click this link if you want to see why Mendenhall's photo may removed from milk cartons this year.
I like his value because Ryan Williams can be taken 45 picks later and Williams is arguably the more versatile and talented runner. Fantasy owners will be reticent to invest in Cardinals runners because of the dearth of quality fantasy production from the position in Arizona, but that's history. Look at what Arians did with Vick Ballard as the Colts offensive mastermind in 2012 and ask yourself whether you think Ballard is a more talented back than either Mendenhall or Williams.
Andre Brown, Giants (ADP 79): Brown proved why he had his share of admirers banging the drum for him since he starred at N.C. State. Big, powerful, and quick enough to punish defenses, Brown looked poised to become the waiver wire pickup of the year in 2012 before yet another injury derailed his opportunity from seizing a signifcant role.
The common refrain I'm hearing this spring is that David Wilson might be a great talent, but look out for Brown. This might prove true, but am I going to spend a third-round pick on Wilson and a sixth-rounder on Brown, who will play red zone cleanup to Wilson's yardage? Not with the backs in this tier.
Jonathan Stewart, Panthers (ADP 80): I still love what Stewart brings to the table. I just happen to hate the table and the kitchen he has to use. Put Stewart in New York instead of Ivory, and I'd spend a second or third-round pick. Trade him to Atlanta instead of the Falcons picking Steven Jackson, and I'm over the moon.
In Carolina, it's a combo of Cam Newton, Mike Tolbert, and Deangelo Williams stealing touchdowns from the most underutilized megatalented back in the NFL. Perhaps the foot and ankle injuries Stewart deals with annually are so bad that no team feels comfortable with him as a full-time starter. The Panthers' big back only played nine games last year.
Then there's backfieldmate Williams, who I still think has top-12 production in him. I'd rather have the former Memphis star at pick 112. At least I have a shot of him being a pleasant surprise. He was the No.29 fantasy RB in 2012 despite not begining the season as a starter and battling Newton and Tolbert for touches.
Giovani Bernard, Bengals (ADP 83): If you like Ray Rice and Brian Westbrook, Bernard has the potential to become their running back love child. The rookie has good balance, burst, excellent agility, and terrific hands. If Bernard gets stronger, he could develop into a diminutive banger like Rice. If he remains in the range of 205-pounds, he has the versatility to break draws, screens, and swing passes for huge gains and drive opponents to distraction on wheel routes behind A.J. Green.
A good pass protector in terms of his conceptual understanding of angles, the only question will be maximizing his technique with his hands. The concern about taking Bernard in a non-PPR league is that he could begin his career as the third-down back and only earn fantasy owners flex-production. It's not an optimal choice this early for owners going Upside Down in two-RB formats.
Bernard's rookie year is unlikely to be Doug Martin-Part II if all parties on the depth chart remain healthy. If you get one of my preferred backs listed ahead of Bernard and then opt for that third wide receiver in rounds 7 or 8 then I can see taking Benard as the second back in the first tier. He and Mendenhall are the two backs I like most after Lacy and Ivory right now.
Montee Ball, Broncos (ADP 84): Ball is a nice gamble. In fact, all of the Broncos backs are nice gambles this year because one of them will earn the right to be in a Peyton Manning-led offense and face five and six-man defensive fronts. It might be as easy for Ball to run through this kind of opposition as it was for him to run behind Wisconsin's massive line as an underclassman.
Yes, that was hyperbole.
Ball is a sound football player capable of delivering RB1 production if everything falls into place this summer. He's Chester Taylor pre-Adrian Peterson in Minnesota (capable of 1300 yards rushing) with a better supporting cast: the Broncos line is excellent, Peyton Manning is one of the best quarterbacks to ever lace them up, and the receiving corps might force defensive backs to seek therapy.
If Ball earns the starting role, he's RB1 material. If he earns a split in a two-headed committee and gets the red zone looks, he's a decent prospect as an RB2. If this becomes a three-headed committee, think Pierre Thomas at best. Not that exciting. Stay tuned.
SECOND TIER (ROUNDS 7-9)
I think rounds seven and eight are the best place to consider that third receiver this year, because this tier of runners excites me more in the back half of the list.
Mark Ingram, Saints (ADP 88): Ingram claims he hasn't felt this good since he was at Alabama. If he displays the burst I saw at Alabama, he has the talent to become a good fantasy starter. There's only two problems with this statement: Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas. Until the Saints give Ingram enough touches, how he feels may be a moot point. Josh Gordon, DeSean Jackson, Miles Austin, and Kenny Britt all sound more intriguing to me in this range.
Mikel LeShoure, Lions (ADP 90): Reggie Bush is a more dynamic and versatile option both inside and outside. Joique Bell outplayed LeShoure last year and from what I've been reading, it sounds like the Lions are open to letting him have a fair shot to unseat LeShoure in training camp. Two years past a ruptured Achilles', LeShoure could return to his pre-NFL athletic form and force a committee with Bush rather than look like a more athletic, but less productive Shonn Greene. I'd rather have the upside of Gordon, Jackson, Austin, and Britt as my WR3.
Shane Vereen, Patriots (ADP 92): I like Vereen's skills. He's an excellent receiver and I have no doubt that the Patriots saw plays like these at Cal and were inspired to do similar work with him last year. I just don't see New England veering away from Stevan Ridley and if Ridley gets hurt they also have Brandon Bolden and (for now) LaGarrette Blount to pick up the slack. Bolden to me seems like a better late-round value than choosing Vereen over the receivers I just mentioned.
Daryl Richardson, Rams (ADP 94): Here's a funky situation for fantasy owners. Richards, Isaiah Pead, and Zac Stacy are all going off the board within three rounds of each other. It means you can try to take all three and create a dysfunctional depth chart, pick two and hope you picked the right two, or take your chances on just one.
Considering the five backs going off the board between Richardson and Pead, I'd much prefer those five or one of the receivers I just mentioned to a speed back unlikely to earn the full-time role without an injury. As much bad press as Pead is getting, I won't be surprised to see the second-year runner drop to a more reasonable range and as a prospect I actually like him more than Richardson despite the hyperanalysis that's damning him in June. More about this in the third tier below.
(+) Bryce Brown, Eagles (ADP 97): If the Eagles run the ball as much as Chip Kelly did at Oregon, there will be enough touches for two backs to earn at least 250 attempts and it could mean Brown has an outside shot at a 1000-yard season as LeSean McCoy's backup. A big, strong, swift back with excellent vision, Brown is every bit the talent as Trent Richardson.
What makes Richardson better is more experience, better ball security, and pass protection. These are all things Brown can address and close the gap quickly. Last year, I said that I thought the drafting of Brown and addition of Chris Polk could give the Eagles one of the best depth charts at the position in the NFL and Brown did little to change my mind in his short tenure as the starter last year.
If McCoy goes down, Brown could be an elite fantasy back this year. To get this kind of talent in the eighth round where the offensive game plan is to run the ball 500-600 times, I'm thinking Brown's floor is high-end RB3 production. I'll take a wide receiver in the seventh to get a shot at Brown in the eighth. Talent-wise, a combo of Jackson or Gordon plus Brown might be two of the better mid-round picks you'll ever have the chance to make in the next five years.
(+) Fred Jackson, Bills (ADP 101): Jackson is a nice selection because he still has the game to produce as a high-end RB2 if C.J. Spiller gets hurt. Bills head coach Doug Marrone did a nice job using Pierre Thomas when he coached the Saints offense and Jackson is a more talented version of Thomas in skill set. What this means to me is that Jackson may still have a low-end RB2 role for the Bills and fantasy owners could get him as a bargain.
Remember, the Bills will have to lean hard on the running game due to its change at quarterback and the offensive style will be an up-tempo pace that could mean a lot of touches for backs - even if the Bills are behind in games. Talent and situation make Jackson a fine pick as a third or fourth back for an Upside Down drafter.
(+) Ben Tate, Texans (ADP 103): The eight round offers a wealth of options and Tate is not the least of them. Although I'm not one to worry about Arian Foster's calf injury, the fact that the Texans offensive line is good and Tate has proven what he can do behind it is enough for me make him a priority pick. I wasn't always enamored with his choices as a college runner, but Tate's size and burst is RB1-quality.
If you're not playing the injury card, which I think is a tough one to rely on, then Brown and Jackson have more immediate upside even in a backup role, because a backup in their offenses may be more like a committee role. However, the Texans line and Tate's skills make him this era's Larry Johnson to ARian Foster's Priest Holmes.
Bernard Pierce, Ravens (ADP 107): Pierce proved his worth as an interior runner and he's a nice handcuff if you opt for that first-round exception and take Ray Rice. Otherwise, I don't believe there will be enough carries without a Rice injury to justify Pierce over the likes of Jonathan Franklin, Deangelo Williams, Ryan Williams, and Zach Stacy. All four backs I just mentioned have a "higher floor" of potential than Pierce.
Jonathan Franklin, Packers (ADP 109): Franklin is one of my favorite backs of this draft class. The only two runners I ranked ahead of of him in the pre-draft version of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio were Giovani Bernard and Eddie Lacy and I wouldn't have blamed anyone for putting Franklin No.2 ahead of Bernard. The reason is Franklin's vision.
I know that 'vision' is such a catch-all term. For me it covers at least three specific things that a running back must do on the field: anticipate, see, and decide.
A competent NFL runner makes the right decisions on a consistent basis. He follows the blocking assignments of the play and gains what his teammates create for him. A good NFL runner sees alternate options and makes wise decisions when to take a chance and veer away from the play design for bigger gains, but also knows when that situation calls for him to stick to the script and not risk losing yards when only a minimal amount are necessary. Think of a runner lowering his pads and plowing through or under a linebacker at the line of scrimmage on 3rd-and-two when there was a chance to bounce the play outside and try to outrun the defensive end and corner for a 20-yard gain, but the risk of losing three if caught in the backfield would result in a punt.
A runner with great vision not only sees multiple options and makes wise decisions with what's presented him, but he anticipates the development of the play before those holes come open. Ladainian Tomlinson was a great back because he did a great job of reading linebackers well before he came within range of them. Even in his twilight years as a Jet, I watched him set up and beat Ray Lewis well before he even reached the hole where he and Lewis would get within three yards of each other.
Franklin displays these great tendencies with vision because he routinely sees ways to reduce a defender's chance at a good angle to hit him. Not a big, strong, or electric runner, Franklin still runs through a lot of hits and exploits openings for big gains because of his vision. This doesn't make him a great runner right now, but it gives the rookie from UCLA a good chance to develop into a fine NFL starter.
The rookie fell to the fourth round in this draft because NFL teams are finally getting the memo that running back is a deep position. Franklin also lacks the elite physical dimensions that elevate runners beyond the fourth round such as 4.3-speed or weighing at least 220 pounds. However, the Packers' new runner is in that sweet spot for what I think is the optimal height weight of backs: between 5'9" and 6'0" and 210-220 pounds.
Franklin has a good chance to earn a committee role with Lacy in Green Bay and if Lacy exhibits any symptoms of being worn down from his Alabama career either physically or emotionally the way Mark Ingram and Glen Coffee did in recent years, Franklin is capable of becoming the uncontested starter. The fact that a fantasy owner can take him four rounds after Lacy makes it worth doubling up on the Packers rookies because one of them should provide no less than RB2 production for a fantasy team this year.
THIRD TIER (ROUNDS 9-12)
Isaiah Pead, Rams (ADP 111): Is it safe to say Pead is the most unpopular young running back among football writers at this point of the offseason. First, he told the media that he was miserable last season and couldn't wait to leave the St. Louis area after the season. Considering how many bloggers pander to the knee-jerk "rah-rah" mentality, it's no wonder that Pead is a marked man. Throw in the fact that last week it was announced that Pead will serve a one-game supension this year for substance abuse, and he's being written off as bust in the making.
A big reason the media is burying the Rams' 2012 second-round pick is the addition of Zac Stacy. The high-effort, underrated rookie from Vanderbilt has the SEC pedigree and the love of draft analysts. It makes Stacy the media's favorite "ego pick" as the guy to emerge from nowhere and start, which will in turn make them look smart.
While I'll argue that the "ego pick" is not a factor in my conscious agenda, I will agree that Stacy is underrated and physically the most sensible player to earn the job as a lead back in St. Louis. Considering he's the cheapest of the Rams backs in fantasy drafts makes him even more appealing. But let's stop the carnival for a moment to examine Pead a little more because I think he could be getting the short end of the stick.
Pead was miserable last year because the NFL does not permit college players to begin practicing with their teams until the school year is over. Cincinnati was on the quarter system and this meant that even though he graduated he had to sit around and wait. He had trouble with the playbook trying to learn it on his own and spent the summer lost.
Sure, many players have a similar lack of guidance and they arrive with a great grasp of the playbook. However, many do begin their careers like Pead and ultimately become good pros. Pead getting mentally lost as a rookie also brought out the worst in his game. When a runner has a tendency to bounce plays outside and rely too much on their speed, I say that they have a tendency to take it to the Corner Store. You'll notice that C.J. Spiller's image is headlining this article and for good reason: he was completely lost as rookie and played with a level of incompetence that rivaled Pead.
I'm sure Spiller was miserable as a rookie, he just didn't tell the media. Pead's a young guy who was being too candid and doesn't have a grasp of basic PR. That is what he's guilty of right now. Perhaps, in time we'll see that he does hate football and then we'll hear writers and fans crow that they knew better. But just because the outcome matches a person's expectation doesn't mean the person was right about the motivation.
Keep this in mind because as much as I like Stacy, Pead has enough skill to win the Rams job. He's a strong receiver with a lot of promise as a pass protector and he's quick and elusive back that isbig enough to do good work between the tackles in a spread offense where a lot of runs will come from the shotgun. Pead was excellent in Cincinnati in this offensive system that will be similar to what he's doing in St. Louis.
The suspension is something that the Rams knew about for months and it's a one-game punishment - nothing I'd consider as gasoline to the fire the blogging community is trying to light around the second-year runner. I expect Pead's ADP to drop below Stacy's by August and if it does, I might actually make him a preferred late-round pick. I know the ability is there for Pead to succeed. What fantasy owners have to monitor is whether he has improved his decision-making in the same way that Spiller, LeSean McCoy, and Jamaal Charles did after difficult rookie years.
(+) Deangelo Williams, Panthers (ADP 112):
Dear Carolina Panthers,
You have no idea how much I want to be a fan of your organization. My wife and daughter hail from your great state. I got married in Asheville. Outside of some recent events there, your people tend to be level-headed, hard-working, compassionate folks. Your team has Steve Smith, pound-for-pound one of the best football players in the NFL and still going strong. Cam Newton's play sometimes reminds me of Steve McNair and if McNair had a guy like Smith, the career script for the Titans great might have been different.
But what holds me back from becoming a fan is a part of your offense that should make you a dominant team, but instead has become a sign that there is something deeply flawed about your organization. I'm not a violent guy, but everytime I see these names, terms, and phrases (and variations on them) I want to hit something:
- Carolina running game
- Panthers running backs
- Panthers RB
- Jonathan Stewart
- Mike Tolbert
- Cam Newton at the goal line
- Carolina Panthers offense
- Deangelo Williams
The most frustrating of these is 'Deangelo Williams'. He was at one point the best young running back in the NFL. I state this obvious point because you seem to have forgotten it with the way you use him and Jonathan Stewart - who also has the ability to be a Pro Bowl runner. Somehow you have managed to cancel out the best of two great talents. If's criminal what you're doing with talent out there.
Congratulations, fantasy owners despise your organization for its complete incompetence.
I wish I had the money to buy this team from Jerry Richardson and show your fans how to get the most from a running back. Just to demonstrate how incompetent you are I'd probably cut off my nose to spite my face (especially if I had this kind of money to buy the Panthers as a pet project laced with spite), I'd probably trade Williams and Stewart to teams where they would play well enough to reunite in Honolulu at the end of the year and one of them would be backing up Mike Tolbert who I would keep just to show you how a running game is supposed to work.
Jacquizz Rodgers, Falcons (ADP 116): Rodgers is a "neat" player in the way that desk toys are "neat" time wasters. I'm only drafting Rodgers if I have Steven Jackson and I'm still not convinced this team would give Rodgers a big workload. If they had that kind of confidence in him, they wouldn't have added Jackson this off season.
(+) Ryan Williams, Cardinals (ADP 118): The most talented back on the Arizona roster is Williams. When healthy, he's as versatile and explosive as Deangelo Williams (excuse me for a moment, I need to hit something . . . ), but bigger and more physical. He flashed that ability for the first time in two years against the Eagles before yet another injury derailed his season.
The third-year back enters training camp as the No.2 runner on the Cardinals roster in a Bruce Arians offense that uses the power running game and has added two young guards with the promise to improve production. Having Carson Palmer will also create more situations where defenses have to use five and six-man fronts.
While Arians has a familiarity with Rashard Mendenhall and told the media that he does not believe in running back committees, he has publicly recognized Williams' talent and said the third-year back will challenge for playing time. Mendenhall may have a shaky reputation - especially among some disillusioned Steelers fans - but he is a talent on par with Williams.
The differencemaker in this training camp competition will be health. If one stays healthy and plays to his potential, the other will have to bide his time. As a back fantasy owners can get near the 10th round, Williams is worth the patience play because he was frankly a more refined back than David Wilson at Virginia Tech. He's a cheap handcuff with RB1 upside on a team many fantasy owners will write off because of the past few years of poor performances rather than recognizing the potential for a faster turnaround.
(+) Zach Stacy, Rams (ADP 123): The fifth-round rookie is a hard-running bowling ball with blades in the same way Travis Henry was with the Bills and Titans. Stacy operated from a shotgun offense at Vanderbilt and among the current players on Rams depth chart, is best-suited as a feature back. The biggest question is whether he picks up the offense fast enough to earn the trust of his new team and if Isaiah Pead improves to the point that he's displaying his second-round talent.
Don't be surprised if Stacy's ADP climbs steadily throughout the summer and becomes less of a bargain. If you're in leagues drafting in June and early July, make it a point to take Stacy this late. The rookie among the best low-risk, high-reward scenarios in fantasy football at this poitn of the year.
Ahmad Bradshaw, Free Agent (ADP 132): There's talk he could join the Steelers and I wouldn't be surprised if he finds his way onto a roster by the second or third week of training camp. We all know Bradshaw has high-end RB2 skills, but his chronic foot problem makes a multi-year contract too risky an offer for NFL teams. It all depends on the team, but Bradshaw's value ranges from bye-week gamble to RB2. Stay tuned, because there's talk that Bradshaw could wind up a Colt. If that's the case, he has a decent shot as a flex-play who could cut into Ballard's time, but don't expect the high-end production with Vick Ballard still around.
Knowshon Moreno, Broncos (ADP 133): Moreno got the memo last year and looked more like the runner he was at the University of Georgia. Then he injured his knee again. Some guys have all the luck. Look for Moreno to backup Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman. I actually think his ADP will continue to drop to the point that he'll make a reasonable flier as a swing for the fences pick at the end of your draft. I'll only find it appealing of one of Ball, Hillman, or McGahee struggle mightily or miss time due to injury.
Willis McGahee, Broncos (ADP 135): An older, but still serviceable power back on a team that provides optimal looks for any running back with an ounce of skill. See the scenario I laid out for Moreno and apply the same standard to McGahee.
(+) Shonn Greene, Titans (ADP 136): Footballguys subscriber Rex Jakobovits wrote me last fall and titled his email 'Why be a Greene hater?' He brought up good points that Greene was on track for a good fantasy season and the truth is, Jakobovits was right. Greene was a solid, albeit it uninspiring, RB2. Could the same be in store for Greene In Tennessee?
If Chris Johnson gets hurt, Greene could be a good enough situation do do the same he did in New York. The Titans paid good money for Greene, too. Now that I don't have to consider Green somewhere between rounds 5-7, I'll gladly take the big back this late and consider him a smart investment - even if I consider him an uninspiring, but effective fantasy option.
Ronnie Hillman, Broncos (ADP 138): Cecil Lammey is the unofficial, 24-hour news network on all things Ronnie Hillman so I'll let him keep you posted on who he is, why he has talent, and what he did at 2:07 pm at the facility in Englewood, Colorado. I will say that I still have Hillman in a dynasty league and I agree the big-play ability and vision are good enough that if he can maintain an NFL runner's weight he can become the lead back in an explosive Denver offense. Getting him between rounds 10-12 is a worthwhile investment that I find exciting, but I'm not buying him until I see what's happening in August.
FOURTH TIER (ROUNDS 12 AND LATER)
Pierre Thomas, Saints (ADP 148): Thomas seems to outperform his ADP every year. He's a better PPR option, but I always feel good about taking him late in drafts because of the offense, his talent, and the role they've given him in the draw and screen game. If Ingram or Sproles gets hurt, Thomas becomes a plug-and-play RB2.
(+) LaMichael James, 49ers (ADP 151): I think last year James flashed the skills I saw from him at Oregon. I wouldn't be surprised if he holds down the No.2 job behind Frank Gore and earns lead back duties if Gore gets hurt. I think he's a priority option this late because is explosiveness and receiving skill could make him a strong RB2 behind this 49ers offense line that is athletic enough to run plays that get James outside the tackles where he'll thrive.
(+) Michael Bush, Bears (ADP 153): Bush has shown in Oakland and Chicago that if he's called into action, he has fantasy starter skill. Always a sound investment this late.
(+) Mike Goodson, Jets (ADP 156): A great, low-risk bargain considering that Chris Ivory is almost an early-round pick right now. Goodson's speed, vision, and balance are all starter-caliber. He's the most explosive back the Jets have and as long as the recent arrest doesn't ruin his shot at playing time, he could have RB3 production even as the second banana to Ivory. If Ivory gets hurt, Goodson is good enough to be an RB1 on an offense hitting on all cylinders.
Don't count on the Jets turning things arond that fast - especially with a rookie quarterback vying for playing time. However, envisioning Goodson as a possible RB2 if the opportunity presents itself is reasonable.
(+) Robert Turbin, Seahawks (ADP 160): I think Christine Michael is a more talented runner than Turbin, but if the second-year back from Utah State holds off Michael's challenge this year, he's a great handcuff to Marshawn Lynch in an offense that relies on the running game more than most teams in the NFL.
Just because I think Michael is better doesn't mean that I don't think Turbin is good. He's a big runner with quick feet and demonstrated enough skill to get the job done in cameo moments last year. I think it's realistic to worry there will be a Turbin-Michael committee if Lynch gets hurt, but not enough to dissuade me from investing in Turbin after Round 12.
Jonathan Dwyer, Steelers (ADP 164): Dwyer was serviceable at best last year for fantasy owners. The fact that the team tried to trade Dwyer while drafting Le'Veon Bell isn't a resounding endorsement of what they think of the veteran running back. If push comes to shove, Dwyer still has the ability to provide low-end RB2 production, if not a little better behind a Steelers line that should be better with the return of second-year guard David DeCastro.
Marcel Reece, Raiders (ADP 168): With the Raiders returning to a power scheme to fit Darren McFadden's talents, I'm not expecting as much from Reece. He's a better late-round pick in PPR leagues, but watch out for Rashad Jennings who has more to offer if looking solely at talent.
Kendall Hunter, 49ers (ADP 177): Mikel Leshoure didn't do much to impress me after returning from an Achilles' injury last year, but he was a top-20 fantasy running back. Hunter could do the same if given the opportunity - especially behind the best run-blocking line in football. However, Hunter will contend with a talented LaMichael James and I think the 49ers would feel better about using a committee if Gore gets hurt. Hunter has upside, but monitor his camp before putting a "+" next to his name on your Upside Down draft list.
Dujuan Harris, Packers (ADP 184): Harris was effective when called upon. He has good balance, burst, and change of direction and reminds me stylistically of Maurice Jones-Drew, but lacking that caliber of talent. Expect a committee with Alex Green or James Starks if the rookie tandem in Green Bay can't stay on the field. Not a player I'm considering as it stands today.
Marcus Lattimore, 49ers (ADP 191): I was surprised that Lattimore even has an ADP this year, considering that the plan is to redshirt him for the 2013 season. I'm guessing some of these mock draft participants must be from Columbia, South Carolina. A terrific talent, but don't waste your time this year.
(+) Mike Gillislee, Dolphins (ADP 195):I'm a fan of Gillislee's game. He's an aggressive runner with high effort and enough athleticism to challenge for a role in a starting lineup. I think he'll push Daniel Thomas out the door and keep Lamar Miller working hard enough to maintain his staring role. If Miller gets hurt, Gillislee could be a late-round darling for fantasy owners. He's well worth taking this late.
(+) Rashad Jennings, Raiders (ADP 199): There's an undercurrent of love for rookie Latavius Murray and certainly the runner from Central Florida has enough skill to displace Jennings if the veteran from Jacksonville doesn't play to his potential. But if he does, Murray will the No.3 back. Jennings is an excellent receiver and has starter athleticism and skill between the tackles. Think of Jennings as the power back version of Mike Goodson and you'll understand the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The Graveyard Shift (Super Late, Super Deep)
(+) Christine Michael, Seahawks (ADP 238): I've said this numerous times in Twitter and in the RSP, Michael is the stylistic and talent equivalent of Ahmad Green in Green's prime. If he can display maturity and professionalism, he's best running back in the 2013 class. If there's a "Bryce Brown-like flyer" to take at the end of the draft, Michael comes close to that description even if I think Brown is a better talent.
(+) Joique Bell, Lions (ADP 246): Bell didn't out-produce Mikel Leshoure, but the Wayne State star sure out-played the bigger name from Illinois. Bell was more determined, decisive, and displayed more versatility than Leshoure. I won't be surprised if Bell and Leshoure continue along the same trajectories they displayed last year that Leshoure is pushed out the door and Bell serves as the complement to Reggie Bush. I'll bet on it this late.
(+) Brandon Bolden, Patriots (ADP 278): Bolden is a more talented player than Vick Ballard stuck on a better roster. I think LaGarrette Blount is a more talented runner, but not as versatile or as professional. If Blount matures in New England, he could bump Bolden from the roster. If not, Bolden might be that player who disappoints Shane Vereen owners if Stevan Ridley gets hurt.
Matt will update his views on the middle and late-round running backs within the scope of his strategy during training camp and provide a few mock draft examples of this strategy in action during 2013.
More from Matt Waldman:
Gut Check No.332: UDFAs to Monitor & Why You Should Care - May 29
Gut Checks: WR Duron Carter - May 20
Gut Checks: WR Cody Latimer - May 13
The Gut Check No.329: 2015 Free Agent 50 - December 16
Gut Check No.328: Anatomies and Autopsies, Part II - December 9
Gut Check No.327: Anatomies and Autopsies - Part I - December 2
Gut Check No.326: Stretch Run Sandmen - November 25
Gut Check No.325: Swinging the Mallett - November 18
Gut Check No.324: What to Expect From Josh Gordon - November 11
Gut Check No.323: QBs/TEs Moving the Needle - November 4