The Weekly Gut Check No. 198 - The Upside Down Strategy
By Matt Waldman
July 28th, 2010

The Weekly Gut Check examines the players, strategies and guidelines fantasy football owners use to make personnel decisions.

The Upside Down Strategy

Turn your strategy upside down and work your opponents' strategies against them.

WARNING: I like looking for different ways to get an edge on my competition. Last year, I did a series on incorporating risk into your draft. This article is a review of the most successful of these strategies, Maximizing Sleeper RBs. At first glance (and maybe a second or third…), it may seem like a high-risk approach, but based on the data (and the results) I believe it might be one of the more logical and safe ways to approach a draft - it just doesn't feel that way because it involves turning one of our basic assumptions about drafts on its head.

I recommend you read this article with an open mind. If you think you know the running back position, this approach is one of the best ways of putting it to the test. If you succeed, you will have a much greater chance to build a strong roster without trades or free agency. However, it is the less-traveled path so you could lose big if you fail. If you're looking for a foolproof draft strategy to keep you from fielding an embarrassing team, I think David Dodds color-coded scheme from his Eliminate the Suck article is a good one.

When it comes down to it we all have the potential to look like a genius one day and an idiot the next. When it comes to competing - especially in the game of fantasy football - I'd rather try to win big at the risk of losing big. I'd argue following convention is not only boring it's also dangerous against experienced competition.

"In a world of constant change, risk is actually a form of safety, because it accepts that world for what it is. Conventional safety is where the danger really lies, because it denies and resists that world."

-Charles Sanford on "Life Values and the Paradoxes of Risk"

Fantasy football has developed conventions most people follow when it comes to draft preparation. The first is projecting player performance. Whether you create these projections yourself or you use rankings based on someone else's projections, a majority of the information out there is fundamentally based on what each player did last year. There are always exceptions, but those reasons have logic.

A good example is Thomas Jones, who finished the year as the 6th-ranked, fantasy RB, but most people project him to finish much lower. They anticipate incumbent Chiefs starter Jamaal Charles performing well enough that Thomas' attempts are more limited than they were as a Jet. These concepts are also in play with average draft position (ADP) and built into more advanced concepts like Value Based Drafting, Quality Game Theory and Crank Scores.

Even with less savvy fantasy owners who take the beer and a two-month old cheat sheet approach, they are still picking specific positions at certain times. It means there are very clear conventions: We all know you can land a quality starting QB after round 5 or use a committee approach with picks after the 10th round. If you want an elite TE, the first one usually doesn't last past early round 4.

And if you want to be strong at running back, you better pick three within the first five rounds.

But is this really true?

In a draft where you pick the same positions in a similar range as most of your competition, it is the mid-to-late rounds where the differences in knowledge and experience separate a good team from an also-ran. It takes place later in most drafts because few teams deviate from the norm in the early rounds. Most fantasy owners have been indoctrinated into using a conventional approach. The players picked might vary, but the positions tend pick tend to be similar.

Convention can limit stupid mistakes, but it also limits owners from creating opportunities to build an excellent squad. A team that builds a roster with a conventional draft is really capitalizing on its opponents' mistakes and scooping up valuable players that either drop further than convention dictates, or they were valued too low to begin with. A fantasy owner can build an excellent team this way, but he has to depend on his competition to provide him the opportunities to pick valuable players.

However, you can increase your opportunities to pick valuable players by picking the right positions at the right time - when no one else is - which also provides you a larger pool of valuable players to choose from. The risk in my approach is that the average person will perceive the choices at running back as having a greater boom-bust factor. Just remember that there is substance behind the cliché, "dare to be great." As I have been saying all preseason, "Excellence deviates from the norm," and it involves greater risk to stand out from the pack.

But as Charles Sanford said above, the paradox of risk is it is not as risky as you think.

The strategy I'm going to lay out is something I called, "Maximizing Sleeper RBs." It could also be called the "Stud WR Strategy," or the "Upside Down Draft." The basic method is to draft receivers, quarterbacks, and a tight end in the first 4-5 rounds and then draft at least four running backs in rounds 5-9 or 6-10. The reason this strategy can be hugely successful is that while most teams are picking the position with the highest fantasy starter turnover from one year to the next (RB) in the early rounds, you are picking the most stable positions that make up the majority of your starting lineup. Because most teams are choosing runners, your team will have a greater range of choices at the other positions, which increases your likelihood of landing the best players.

The greatest perceived risk to this strategy is also its greatest benefit: how long you have to wait to choose an RB. Runners have a higher annual turnover as fantasy starters than other positions. It means the majority of starter-quality runners coming to the forefront each year are more likely to get drafted in the mid-to-late rounds. This is because most fantasy owners are drafting with a conventional method that bases future fantasy performance on the previous year's stats. The problem is a majority of these players don't repeat this starter-quality production the following year. If you remember this point and base your draft on it, you will create more opportunities to pick more difference makers than your competition.

When it comes to RBs, don't bet on last year.

Although many consider RB the most valuable positions in a draft, and it is the most frequent position taken in the first 15-20 picks, there is more annual turnover with RB rankings than any position in fantasy football.

The chart below profiles the dynamics of fantasy starters at the RB position from 2004-2009:

Six-year Avg
Avg Pct
Avg # Plrs
Top 12 Turnover
62%
7.4
Top 24 Turnover
47%
11.3
Rookies In Top 12
16%
1.9
Rookies In Top 24
12%
2.9
Three Years In Top 12
13%
1.6
Three Years In Top 24
25%
5.9

RB might be the most valuable position in fantasy leagues, but the chart shows it is an unstable position when projecting year-to-year consistency of performance. An approach rooted in Value Based Drafting correctly identifies that the total points a top RB generates is very similar from one year to the next, and having two players with elite production will give an owner a significant advantage, but knowing who these players will be is the trick. Odds are that you can't count on the same backs producing those numbers year after year.

There are seven backs that have been top-24 producers at their position from 2007-2009: LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Thomas Jones, Frank Gore, Maurice Jones Drew, Steven Jackson, and Marion Barber. This is about one more than the average in a six-year span and only one of them (Peterson) has been a top-12 fantasy back three years in a row. In fact, 62 percent of the backs that finished as a top-12 performer did not repeat that feat the following year. Only a third of the top-12 backs in 2008 repeated in 2009 and just 54 percent of the top-24 backs in 2008 finished there in 2009.

If the numbers continue to trend in this direction, the best place to grab an RB will continue to be after most of your opponents pick their first 2-3 backs - after round four. If it has been ingrained in you that the key to victory is finding stud RBs then the initial reaction to what I just said is probably causing some door inside of you to slam shut. But before you bolt that door remember that most of your opponents will base the majority of their RB rankings on players who produced well the year before.

Based on the information I just supplied, it means that your opposition is fishing for RBs in the wrong pond! They are going to take most of the backs that will not repeat that same high rate of production in the first 2-4 rounds (the range of rounds being that pond) and then focus more of their attention on receivers, tight ends, and quarterbacks after round four.

While they are fishing in the wrong pond, you can have your pick of QBs, WRs and TEs. By the time most of the league is ready to take these positions, you are moving onto RB - and your competition has effectively taken many of the backs that will NOT be fantasy starters this year. Look back some of your drafts and you will see that many of the best backs weren't the first two backs teams picked.

Taking receivers early is the safer bet. An average of 19 receivers remained in the Top 36 at their position for consecutive seasons from 2006 to 2009, and 53% of those WRs had two-year runs in the Top 24 and Top 12. Twice as many receivers (14.67) remain fantasy starters compared to RBs when measuring the same period of turnover. The information is just begging you to take advantage of your opponents' preoccupation with the wrong runners.

Since tight ends have similar consistency and we know that Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, and Antonio Gates have been three of the top six TEs from 2004-2009 and at least one of them has been a top-three player in each of those years, pick a top TE early. Quarterbacks have a similar consistency at the top end of the position. Peyton Manning has been a top tier performer for six straight years. Drew Brees has been there four times. Suddenly it shouldn't seem so risky to take three strong receivers, a top tight end, and a big-time quarterback in the first five rounds when you know that recent trends reveal that most of the top runners will still be on the board.

These valuable backs are still here year after year because our hobby continues to use a projection model that bases this year's projections on last year's performance. However, we know that the RB position is too changeable to keep up. Injuries, backs emerging from a supporting role, and rookies are all reasons for this turnover.

Where this strategy is effective?

Everywhere.

Seriously. We're going to look back at the three mock drafts I used in last year's columns to demonstrate my point. However, if I were to pinpoint the areas where I think this approach is most effective, I believe the turn (either spots 9-12 or 1-3) is the best. However, I wouldn't skip a chance to pick an RB with one of the top three spots. You have the opportunity to pick one of the few elite backs with a good chance to repeat his previous performance and even with an RB as your first pick, you'll see this strategy works well.

2009 In Review

Last year was my first article on this topic and after I studied the ADP of RBs, I recommended 10 backs available between rounds 6-10. I then created three 12-team mock drafts with the ADP data for 11 teams versus my team (using my cheat sheet).

The 10 backs I touted in this order of how much I liked them:

  • Ray Rice

  • Rashard Mendenhall

  • Fred Taylor

  • Felix Jones

  • Donald Brown

  • Cedric Benson

  • LenDale White

  • Julius Jones

  • Willis McGahee

  • Laurence Maroney

  • Rice (4th), Mendenhall (13th), and Benson (15th) were strong fantasy starters. McGahee (25th) started strong and Maroney (29th) finished strong. Based on their ADPs, it was easy to get both Rice and Mendenhall, and relatively easy to have Benson as a reserve with this strategy. Even if you missed them, Ricky Williams (7th) and Jamaal Charles (12th) were available as mid-to-late round pick I didn't even mention.

    I have to admit that the only back I was completely sold on last year was Ray Rice. I liked Mendenhall a lot, but I was losing faith in late July-early August that he was going to get a chance early enough to make a difference. However, I did believe in the data and my research helped me feel confident that as the summer progressed, the situations for these players would become more attractive as drafts drew close.

    I chose runners with ADP ranges between 6-12 because you need some room for inflation to occur with each of these candidates. Although Ray Rice was available after round five in several drafts I saw in August, there were some that he was picked in rounds 2-4 and owners need to feel comfortable with making a slight strategy deviation to attain a key player. Although this will increase the risk/reward quotient of your strategy I thought Rice was that exceptional case in favor of doing so. If there is a player I believe meets that criteria this year, you'll see it below.

    I did three mocks and used the first 12 rounds of an 18-round draft. I picked from spots 11, 1, and 7 using my 2009 preseason rankings. I added the final 2009 rankings of the prominent picks in parenthesis.

    Drafting From the End

    Team 1
    Team 2
    Team 3
    Team 4
    Team 5
    Team 6
    A. Peterson
    M. Turner
    MJD
    M. Forte
    Ch. Johnson
    D. Williams
    R. White
    S. Smith
    T. Brady
    G. Jennings
    R. Wayne
    C. Portis
    P. Manning
    A. Boldin
    M. Colston
    K. Smith
    R. Brown
    D. Bowe
    K. Moreno
    D. McFadden
    R. Bush
    V. Jackson
    K. Warner
    B. Edwards
    A. Gates
    T. Gonzalez
    A. Bryant
    P. Rivers
    S. Holmes
    J. Stewart
    C. Wells
    L. Coles
    W. Parker
    A. Gonzalez
    L. White
    J. Cotchery
    D. Avery
    T. Romo
    K. Winslow
    C. Cooley
    M. Crabtree
    D. McNabb
    D. Mason
    E. Graham
    K. Walter
    W. McGahee
    D. Hester
    D. Driver
    C. Taylor
    S. Breaston
    T. Ginn
    C. Chambers
    Steelers D
    J. Carlson
    Ravens D
    M. Bush
    J. Norwood
    T. Hightower
    M. Schaub
    Giants D
    J. Maclin
    M. Clayton
    K. Curtis
    Vikings D
    Ri. Williams
    J. Charles
    K. Orton
    T. Edwards
    E. Manning
    P. Crayton
    Ha. Nicks
    E. Bennett
    Team 7
    Team 8
    Team 9
    Team 10
    Team 11
    Team 12
    S. Jackson
    L. Fitzgerald
    F. Gore
    B. Westbrook
    A. Johnson (1st)
    LT
    B. Jacobs
    M. Barber
    D. Brees
    R. Moss
    Ca. Johnson (23rd)
    S. Slaton
    B. Marshall
    R. Grant
    M. Lynch
    T. Owens
    C. Ochocinco (14th)
    T.J. Housh
    J. Witten
    T. Jones
    R. Williams
    P. Thomas
    A. Rodgers (1st)
    W. Welker
    D. Jackson
    E. Royal
    J. Addai
    L. Johnson
    D. Clark (1st)
    S. Holmes
    H. Ward
    B. Berrian
    L. Moore
    S. Moss
    C. Benson (15th)
    D. Ward
    J. Lewis
    F. Jones
    D. Brown
    L. McCoy
    J. Jones
    D. Sproles
    J. Cutler
    K. Walter
    T. Holt
    O. Daniels
    R. Mendenhall (13th)
    G. Olsen
    P. Harvin
    L. Washington
    F. Jackson
    D. McNabb
    R. Rice (4th)
    C. Palmer
    A. Bradshaw
    J. Gage
    D. Keller
    D. Hixon
    F. Taylor
    D. Branch
    Eagles D
    D. Garrard
    M. Muham.
    Titans D
    L. Maroney
    B. Roeth
    M. Hasselbeck
    T. Scheffler
    Z. Miller
    S. Greene
    M. Walker (22nd) 
    S. Smith NYG

    What I love about looking back at this draft is that I still managed to land the top QB, TE, and WR of the year when the ADP dictated my opposition to pick WR and QB early. I still got 6 of the 10 backs on my list after getting a fantasy No. 1 and two, fantasy No. 2 receivers. Note that Ray Rice's ADP was low enough at the time of this mock that he was a steal in the 9th round. I readers last year that if I'm right about Mendenhall or Rice becoming the clear-cut starter on teams that like to run and play tough defense, I could have an elite RB paired with what I thought were three top-12 receivers and it would make me a strong contender. It doesn't take much to look at my lineup and see I had the odds-on favorite if this league were played out.

    The next mock featured my team with the first draft spot. As promised, I drafted an RB first as a slight deviation from my strategy. Here is how it worked out.

    Drafting From the Top

    Team 1
    Team 2
    Team 3
    Team 4
    Team 5
    Team 6
    A. Peterson (2nd)
    M. Turner
    MJD
    M. Forte
    Ch. Johnson
    D. Williams
    R. White (6th)
    S. Smith
    T. Brady
    A. Johnson
    R. Wayne
    A. Johnson
    A. Boldin (21st)
    P. Manning
    M. Colston
    K. Smith
    R. Brown
    R. Grant
    A Bryant (49th)
    K. Moreno
    R. Bush
    C. Ochocinco
    V. Jackson
    K. Warner
    A. Gates (3rd) 
    T. Gonzalez
    S. Holmes
    T. Romo
    D. Jackson
    J. Stewart
    D. McNabb (11th)
    T. Holt
    L. Coles
    A. Gonzalez
    L. White
    J. Cotchery
    C. Benson (15th)
    D. McFadden
    K. Winslow
    C. Cooley
    M. Crabtree
    D. Driver
    R. Mendenhall (13th) 
    T. Ginn
    J. Jones
    W. McGahee
    D. Sproles
    D. Avery
    R. Rice (4th) 
    C. Chambers
    P. Harvin
    Steelers D
    J. Carlson
    S.Breaston
    F. Taylor
    M. Bush
    J. Norwood
    M. Clayton
    B. Roeth
    T. Scheffler
    Vikings D
    Eagles D
    K. Curtis
    J. Charles
    RI Williams
    Titans D
    M. Walker (22nd)
    K. Orton
    Chargers D
    N. Burleson
    Pats D
    E. Manning
    Team 7
    Team 8
    Team 9
    Team 10
    Team 11
    Team 12
    S. Jackson
    L. Fitzgerald
    F. Gore
    B. Westbrook
    LT
    S. Slaton
    C. Portis
    B. Jacobs
    M. Barber
    D. Brees
    R. Moss
    Ca. Johnson
    D. Bowe
    B. Marshall
    T. Owens
    T.J. Housh
    A. Rodgers
    W. Welker
    P. Rivers
    P. Thomas
    B. Edwards
    J. Witten
    M. Lynch
    R. Williams
    E. Royal
    S. Moss
    L. Moore
    L. Johnson
    J. Addai
    D. Ward
    D. Clark
    C. Wells
    F. Jones
    H. Ward
    B. Berrian
    L. Evans
    J. Lewis
    J. Cutler
    G. Olsen
    L. McCoy
    K. Walter
    W. Parker
    D. Hester
    O. Daniels
    C. Palmer
    D. Mason
    D. Brown
    M. Ryan
    D. Branch
    L. Washington
    D. Hixon
    J. Gage
    F. Jackson
    D.Keller
    J. Maclin
    T. Hightower
    Ravens D
    A. Bradshaw
    Z. Miller
    Giants D
    S. Greene
    D. Garrard
    S. Smith NYG
    Jets D
    L. Maroney
    E. Bennett
    Bears D
    T. Scheffler
    M. Muhammad
    P. Crayton
    H. Nicks
    S. Morris

    I used Adrian Peterson as my top back in this draft despite having Maurice Jones-Drew as the No. 1 RB on my personal cheat sheet. Most had Peterson as their top back, so I wanted to have this pick reflect that preference. In retrospect, my thoughts last year were pretty on point:

    "Notice that the receivers are good, but I think only Boldin and White have what it takes to be top-12 players, and I don't think they stand out among the competitions' depth charts enough to have a great advantage. However, the team still has the appearance of a contender and if one of the backs drafted between 8-10 performs at least like a No. 2 RB, it could be a favorite."

    I managed to nab two of the top-five backs in 2009 on this roster and the receivers were good enough to make this a strong team. The late-round addition of Mike Sims-Walker makes up for the disappointment of Antonio Bryant, but I would probably need to trade one of my backs to land a better QB to put me over the top. In a real draft, I had a team go 16-0 in 2009 because I used a variation of this approach to nab Peterson, Rice, and Mendenhall with the addition of strong picks at QB and WR.

    Drafting From the Middle

    Team 1
    Team 2
    Team 3
    Team 4
    Team 5
    Team 6
    A. Peterson
    M. Turner
    MJD
    M. Forte
    Ch. Johnson
    D. Williams
    R. White
    S. Smith
    T. Brady
    R. Wayne
    G. Jennings
    D. Brees
    P. Manning
    A. Boldin
    M. Colston
    D. Bowe
    K. Smith
    R. Brown
    T. Jones
    M. Lynch
    R. Bush
    K. Moreno
    T. Gonzalez
    V. Jackson
    A. Bryant
    D. McFadden
    Ochocinco
    P. Thomas
    D. Jackson
    J. Stewart
    M. Ryan
    L. Coles
    H. Ward
    B. Berrian
    L. White
    L. Evans
    K. Winslow
    J. Cutler
    C. Cooley
    M. Schaub
    J. Cotchery
    D. Driver
    R. Rice
    M. Crabtree
    J. Jones
    W. McGahee
    M. Cassel
    B. Roeth.
    P. Harvin
    T. Ginn
    Steelers D
    O. Daniels
    J. Carlson
    C. Chambers
    C. Taylor
    M. Bush
    J. Norwood
    M. Clayton
    M. Crabtree
    J. Shockey
    Vikings D
    F. Jackson
    K. Curtis
    J. Charles
    S. Smith NYG
    Eagles D
    S. Greene
    J. Morgan
    M. Walker
    T. Edwards
    K. Orton
    N. Burleson
    Team 7
    Team 8
    Team 9
    Team 10
    Team 11
    Team 12
    L. Fitzgerald (2nd)
    S. Jackson
    F. Gore
    Westbrook
    LT
    S. Slaton
    R. Moss (4th) 
    Ca. Johnson
    C. Portis
    B. Jacobs
    M. Barber
    A. Johnson
    T. Owens (25th)
    B. Marshall
    W. Welker
    T.J. Housh
    A. Rodgers
    R. Grant
    K. Warner (12th)
    P. Rivers
    A. Gates
    J. Witten
    B. Edwards
    R. Williams
    L. Johnson
    S. Holmes
    L. Moore
    T. Romo
    J. Addai
    D. Ward
    C. Benson (15th)
    C. Wells
    D. McNabb
    S. Moss
    D. Clark
    E. Royal
    D. Brown 
    G. Olsen
    T. Holt
    L. McCoy
    K. Walter
    W. Parker
    Mendenhall (13th) 
    D. Avery
    J. Lewis
    D. Mason
    F. Jones
    C. Palmer
    F. Taylor
    L. Washington
    S. Breaston
    J. Gage
    Giants D
    D.Keller
    T. Scheffler  (23rd)
    D. Hixon
    J. Maclin
    A. Bradshaw
    Z. Miller
    Ravens D
    E. Bennett
    Titans D
    L. Maroney
    D. Garrard
    H. Nicks
    S. Morris
    Bears D
    E. Manning
    Pats D
    Jets D
    E. Manning
    M. Muhammad

    This was probably my worst draft of the three, but I still fielded a good team. With a few adjustments, it could have been very strong. I could have gone with Drew Brees in round two, but I saw the possibility of landing three receivers with elite potential and still land a QB like Kurt Warner. I did get two elite receivers, but I would have done better with Romo or Schaub over Warner. I also began drafting my block of mid-round backs a round too early, and should have spent my fifth-round pick on TE Dallas Clark who went a round later. This was a decent team, but if I avoided those two clear mistakes, it would have been much better, especially when Benson got hot.

    2010 Sleeper RBs

    The players below are ranked according to their potential to produce as fantasy starters in two-RB leagues (as of press time). Their ADPs in parentheses are from FantasyFootballCalculator.com. It is compiled from mock drafts that took place before training camp and the ADPs for these players may change significantly during the preseason.

  • Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants (7.10): Bradshaw may seem like one of the more unlikely candidates, but he averaged 4.7 yards on 163 carries despite playing with an ankle injury after week four and a cracked bone in his foot after week eight. His 778 yards nearly matched Jacobs' total of 835 - and Jacobs had 79 more carries. Bradshaw possesses great burst and good downfield speed, excellent vision, and a slippery running style that makes him more effective between the tackles than people think. Last year, Jacobs only averaged five more carries per game than a dinged Bradshaw. More offensive opportunities should come with the emergence of the Giants' passing game. If Bradshaw earns just five more carries per game than last year and stays healthy, he has a decent chance to produce as a fantasy starter. If there is a back I'm willing to reach a bit for, Bradshaw is that guy this year.

  • Ricky Williams, Dolphins (6.12): The 7th overall fantasy RB in 2009, Williams gets no respect in 2010 because of his age and the likelihood that Ronnie Brown will return from a broken foot and regain the starting job. However, Williams has had little wear and tear for the past six years and the Dolphins have a good offensive line. WR Brandon Marshall will create more opportunities for the ground game because he will extend drives and help the backs get more carries. He's also a more physical blocker at the receiver position than any receiver the Dolphins have. Williams was a top-10 back last year despite averaging just 15 carries per game, and I believe the Dolphins are one of the few teams in the NFL where there is a higher than normal possibility for two, 1000-yard rushers in the same season. At worst, I think Williams will remain a decent fantasy RB2. This is in contrast to Thomas Jones, who is also a good pick at 8.01 but the Chiefs have stated the offensive centerpiece will be Jamaal Charles. His upside might not be as high this year, but Williams will continue to be relied upon as a significant co-starter in the Dolphins backfield.

  • Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, Buccaneers (8.03): I'm encouraged about Williams' prospects because he's had a full season to shake the rust, he's still young enough to perform at a high level and the Buccaneers didn't add a runner in free agency or the draft - an vote of confidence in Williams. I think he makes a fantastic RB3 in this draft strategy with potential to be an RB2 if the Bucs offense makes enough improvements in the passing game to move the chains consistently. Try to remind yourself that 9 of the top 15 fantasy RBs in 2009 didn't have a QB perform among the top-12 fantasy passers and it won't discourage you from taking a back like Williams. If anything, it should embolden you.

  • Marion Barber, Cowboys (6.10): Felix Jones might get his first chance to start this year, but that just means Barber returns to his role as the Cowboy's finisher -a role where thrived enough to become a fantasy favorite as a strong RB2-low RB1 option. Last year Barber played much of the season with a torn quadriceps muscle. I merely bruised my quadriceps once and I was on crutches for a couple of days and limping for a couple of weeks. The fact that Barber played an entire season with a torn muscle in his thigh is pretty amazing. By all accounts, Barber is once again healthy. If the Cowboys offense play as well as it looks on paper, Barber will have a lot of time as "the finisher." In fact, this might be the one offense where I might prefer to have the finisher to the starter. Barber is also the favorite to get goal line carries. At worst, this makes him a more consistent Willis McGahee from 2009 (the No. 25 fantasy RB who performed like a top-12 RB early). If you can get two of Bradshaw, and either one of the Williamses or Barber I think you're off to a good start with your block of backs.

  • Clinton Portis, Redskins (9.07): Despite his quirky press conference personality, (rumored) disruptive locker room demeanor and a poor season that ended with injury last year, he has been of the best backs in the game since he entered the league. With the addition of Jamaal Brown, Donovan McNabb, and a healthy Chris Cooley, I think the ground game improves dramatically this year. Brown and Cooley will help clear holes and McNabb will do a better job of recognizing situations to check down or change the play at the line of scrimmage than Jason Campbell. Portis has lost a lot of weight this offseason - supposedly playing at 230 pounds last year when he entered the league at 195 lbs - and he should have more speed and stamina, because a man his size shouldn't weigh that much. As a player you can get after the eighth round his reward is too great to pass him up. If you can get Portis and Maroney at the turn or with consecutive picks somewhere between rounds 8-11in addition to the backs I listed above, you'll have a successful draft. The fact that you can get Larry Johnson (ADP 13.05) in rounds 10-12 also makes Portis a worthwhile option.

  • Laurence Maroney, Patriots (10.03): Maroney has struggled in the NFL because he hasn't stayed healthy and he also hasn't run with consistent patience and decisiveness between the tackles. Maroney improved last year, and he reeled off eight double-digit fantasy performances in the final eight weeks of 2009. The fact the Patriots did not draft another running back also indicates they will give Maroney one more year to show he can completely turn the corner. If he can, he has elite physical talent. This is also his contract year and he has admitted that he needs to improve in the areas mentioned above. As we've seen with Vince Young, when a player with great physical talent focuses on his deficiencies the improvement occurs quicker than you think.

    It's also very telling that the Patriots brought in two very good blockers at tight end during the offseason. Former Falcon and Titan Alge Crumpler's game has evolved to that of a glorified offensive lineman as he has aged and first-day pick Rob Gronkowski might be the best run-blocking tight end in the 2009 Draft. Despite the Patriots' improved ground game last year, I reviewed three games during the offseason that illustrated real issues with their plays off tackle or to the outside with pulling guards. These were plays where the Patriots linemen could not get to the second level or Ben Watson struggled to engage a defender on the corner, limiting a potential 20- or 30-yard gain to one of a 4- or 6-yard variety. I wouldn't be surprised if Maroney plays more like the RB11 rather than the 11.02 RB.


  • LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets (9.02): Head coach Rex Ryan has stated that they would like to give Tomlinson the ball 15 times per game and that it is possible there will be games where the veteran will handle the ball more often than Shonn Greene. The Jets offensive line is good enough to back up this kind of talk from its unusually blunt head coach. The fact that Greene did not see more than 15 carries in all but two regular season games and Leon Washington is now a Seahawk means that Tomlinson will be expected to make a significant contribution. Even if Greene stays healthy during his first full season as the starter, Tomlinson was still an effective goal line option (12 TDs last year) and he could get those opportunities as Green's backup because he is a better receiver and he will make the red zone offense less predictable.

  • Donald Brown, Colts (9.07): While everyone is chasing Chester Taylor as the chic preseason "sneaky pick," let's remember that the Bears offensive line hasn't been very good and Matt Forte played hurt. Donald Brown is like Chester Taylor but younger and with more speed. He has already shown enough in mini camp that the Colts staff believes he'll have no problem contributing in the starting lineup whenever they want to use him. Joseph Addai is a fine player that I believe fantasy owners disrespect on the same level as Forte. However, Addai has a more extensive injury history and Brown's addition last year signals more of an impending changing of the guard while Taylor's addition is more likely insurance. I was really impressed with what I saw from Brown in limited duty as a rookie. If you adopt this strategy, picking Brown might feel like you're picking a reserve too early in your slotted times for backs. Just remember that it may feel unnatural, but it will work out for you because you're not necessarily getting your starters in the order you pick them - see Cedric Benson in my mocks from last year.

  • Willis McGahee, Ravens (11.11): If Ray Rice goes down, McGahee can produce like a fantasy starter behind this strong Baltimore unit. He makes a fine pick as your No. 4-No. 5 RB - especially if you have an early pick and decide to use the variation with Rice the way I showed with Peterson last year. McGahee still might be the red zone back in this Ravens offense. If that's the case he may have good flex value unto himself.

  • Michael Bush, Raiders (8.11): I doubt Oakland has the offensive cohesiveness to produce a No. 1 fantasy runner, but a decent RB2 is not out of the question. Neither are polished, all-around runners but they both possess a lot of athletic talent. Bush actually has better between the tackles vision and fundamentals than McFadden, which is why I think he'll at least 15 touches per game. I would rather have the backs I mentioned ahead of him within 10-12 picks of his ADP range, but he's worth a shot if they aren't available.

  • Others that could earn consideration this summer as injuries occur:

  • Thomas Jones (8.01): Coming off a great season, Jones is now the handcuff to Jamaal Charles in Kansas City. Charles has been tabbed the centerpiece of the Chiefs offense so Jones is a nice handcuff, but not someone to target as a starter with this strategy unless Charles gets hurt.

  • Reggie Bush (7.07): Aside from him losing his Heisman in a hyper-hypocritical environment called college sports, we haven't heard much about Bush the NFL player. He had a scintillating postseason in spurts and when he has been healthy his production was on track to equate to fantasy starter production for much of all but one of his first four seasons. I expect Pierre Thomas to remain the best option on the ground and if he gets hurt, Lynell Hamilton should see a lot of time. However, I still like the idea of taking a chance on Bush this year if you feel comfortable with a greater level of risk and the players I have touted get hurt.

  • Bills backfield: C.J. Spiller has an ADP higher than Reggie Bush, but I'd prefer the Saint to the Bill at this point. Spiller is getting drafted above Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch and both backs present far better value at this point. Jackson at 8.04 isn't bad, but I'd prefer Cadillac Williams unless Lynch and Spiller are out of the picture. Lynch has RB1skill, but he needs a lot to happen right for him to get that chance again in Buffalo. I like him as your shot at greatness after you pick 4-5 runners.

  • Texans backfield: Like Spiller, Tate is vastly overvalued and isn't even slated to start. Steve Slaton at 8.11 isn't a bad value if you think he's going to overcome his neck injury, but I think he's never really been more than a change of pace runner that overachieved his rookie year. Arian Foster at 12.12 is the best bargain. He runs a lot like Eddie George and as long as he continues to show he's dedicated to the game, he could easily win the starting job. However, this backfield is too crowded to get too invested in anyone player. As with the Bills, I'd rather take a chance on the least valued player with the most feature-back potential - funny how it worked out that way with both backfields.

  • Darren Sproles (10.06): Whom else do the Chargers have if Mathews gets hurt? Shawnbrey McNeal is a player I really like as a rookie with potential, but Sproles knows the offense best and could play a Brian Westbrook-like role if needed.

  • Leon Washington (12.10): If healthy, Washington is at least Justin Forsett's equal. At the same time, the Seahawks offensive line needs to show it can produce. With Julius Jones still in the picture, I think Washington remains the best value along the lines of Lynch and Foster with their respective teams.

  • Mike Bell (13.09): LeSean McCoy could mature like Jamaal Charles and Ray Rice did in their second years, but Bell is a runner that you know is going to keep the chains moving in case McCoy continues to believe he can get by on his athleticism alone. If the Eagles offense clicks, Bell could turn into a nice red zone option, which alone will make him a nice pick at the end of the 13th round.

  • Larry Johnson (13.05): Johnson fits well in a zone-blocking scheme and he physically still has the skills for at least another year or two as long as his mind is right. That to me is the big question. If Johnson continues to look as good in training camp as he did sans pads this spring, then he's a nice bargain after round 10.

  • Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to waldman@footballguys.com.

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