Unless you play in one of *those* leagues that start two quarterbacks (or a league that only requires one starting running back and an absurd number of flex players) then drafting several running backs early and often is the most important thing you can do to help win your fantasy football league.
Fortunately, if you play in a standard re-draft league, the depth at running back seems greater than it has been in years, thanks mainly to the emergence of rookies Doug Martin, Trent Richardson and Alfred Morris a year ago, all of whom should go in the first round of a standard 10- or 12-team league.
Over the next few days, we'll have a division-by-division breakdown of the running back situations, followed by a cheat sheet of the top players at the position, five potential sleeper picks and five must-have handcuffs.
Today, we will focus on the NFC South.
Atlanta Falcons -
For the past five seasons, the Dirty Birds ground attack began and ended with Michael Turner. But last year, Turner essentially fell off a cliff, rushing for the fewest yards and touchdowns since he became a starter with the Falcons, and he currently remains unemployed by any NFL team.
Enter Steven Jackson. Like Turner in Atlanta, Jackson was the be-all end-all to the St. Louis Rams running game since 2004. Since becoming the full-time starter in his second year, Jackson has never ran for less than 1,000 yards in a season, nor failed to grab at least 38 passes. The difference is that Jackson played on some pretty wretched teams and still turned in remarkable numbers. He's a dynamic athlete and, in my opinion, one of the best running backs to play the game in the past decade.
. Atlanta has been a fountain of youth for Gonzales because he was no longer the focal point of opposing defenses, and that could very well be the case for Jackson too.
, which is usually the line of demarcation with running backs and when their skills begin to deteriorate (of note, Turner's 30th birthday was in February 2012, so yeah, case in point) so there is a chance he'll begin to decline. However, as I mentioned earlier, Jackson is an elite athlete who takes care of his body and he won't be the centerpiece of the offense in Atlanta. Jackson is also a terrific receiver out of the backfield - something Turner never was - and in pass-happy Atlanta, getting him the ball in space means he won't have to take the pounding he does running up the middle.
One question mark compared to Turner, however, is touchdowns. Turner never scored fewer than 10 rushing TDs in his five seasons in Atlanta. Despite Jackson's great yardage numbers, he's only run for
. Again, part of that goes to the talent around him, but he also hasn't been an especially good goal line runner. Still, opportunity is everything, and he should get more opportunities to run the ball into the endzone this year. Eight to 10 touchdowns is a reasonable expectation. With that in mind, draft Steven Jackson with confidence as a RB2 and, barring injury, cheer gleefully as he turns in an RB1 performance week after week.
Backups Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling, again barring injury, should be afterthoughts and probably don't need to be drafted. Rodgers, speedy but small at 5-foot-6, has been used by the Falcons quite a bit in the passing game the last few years.
Carolina Panthers -
The rusher you want to own on this Carolina squad doesn't play running back, he lines up at quarterback.
There was a point when owning either DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart was fine, and you could expect solid RB2 production from both. That time was called 2009.
, so you shouldn't have expectations of him doing much to help your fantasy team, let alone the Panthers this season.
Meanwhile, Williams has become that nugget that you just can't flush. Each year, we expect him to fall off the map and each year, he shows up and flashes the brilliance that made him the best back in fantasy football in 2008.
If Stewart is healthy, you can't draft Williams at this point and expect him to be anything more than a bench player you plug in week to week based on whether your top backs are injured or on the bye. However, if Stewart remains sidelined, then Williams becomes an incredible value pick. He's the 44th RB off the board, according to
in the early 10th round. That's nine RBs and two rounds later than Stewart, which is absurd.
If you take a chance on a Panthers back, do so on Williams and hope he gets more opportunities.
Also lurking is Carroll County Times' feature writer Brandon Oland favorite Mike Tolbert, who might vulture some touchdowns, but doesn't get consistent enough carries around the goal line (Newton gets those) to be anything more than an absolute desperation play.
, and there is a chance he could make the Cats backfield situation even murkier, but more than likely, he'll be used as a kick returner.
New Orleans Saints -
Darren Sproles. Mark Ingram. Pierre Thomas. The New Orleans Saints are the epitome of the phrase running back by committee. All three of those players are draftable in all formats and Sproles is a bona fide RB2 with RB1 upside in a PPR league. For his diminutive size, Sproles has been remarkably durable when it comes to injuries, having not missed a game since his second season in San Diego.
The rest of the Saints backfield? Lots of question marks. Mark Ingram was supposed to be the Deuce McAllister to Sproles' Reggie Bush, but it hasn't exactly panned out that way. Still, Ingram has a ton of talent and
Yet there are still others who think Pierre Thomas should be the man for the Saints,
Chris Ivory moving on to the Jets creates more opportunities for both Ingram and Thomas, and both will end up with touches in a high powered offense, making both worth taking fliers on as RB3s. Which one finishes ahead of the other is anyone's guess.
Ingram will likely be drafted a few rounds earlier, because he's still young and has upside. With Thomas, you know the ceiling. I look for value, and I think Thomas' lower average draft position (
) and the likelihood he ends up with similar numbers to Ingram make him a better pick.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -
Like Adrian Peterson, there isn't much else to write here except that if you get the chance to draft Doug Martin, you should and not think twice.
I'm not among them, but there are certainly more than a few people who think Martin should not only be the first running back drafted in fantasy leagues,
I'm not ready to crown the Muscle Hamster just yet, but there is no denying that his tremendous rookie season and his ability to do it all makes him someone you should be salivating over to get on your fantasy team this year.
With LeGarrette Blount out of town, it's not obvious who the backup would should Martin miss any time. The team drafted University of Miami rookie Mike James (not to be confused for the former
Carroll County Times
copy editor), and
. I don't know if he's handcuff worthy, but keep an eye on James if you draft Martin.
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Former Bengal Brian Leonard is also on the roster, but he's not even remotely close to being fantasy relevant.