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Fantasy sports: 2013 Fantasy Football primer -- NFC North running backs

Fantasy sports: 2013 Fantasy Football primer -- NFC North running backs
Adrian Peterson is such an exceptional athlete, he might be the No. 1 overall pick in your Fantasy Futbol draft too. (Associated Press photo, Carroll County Times)

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.

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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 North.

Chicago Bears --

I play mainly in PPR (points per reception) leagues and because of that, Matt Forte has long been a favorite of mine. Forte is one of the best backs in the league at finding space under the defense and using his 6-foot-2 frame to bail out his QB when other receivers don't get open downfield. However, that's changed the past few years with Jay Cutler at the helm. As much as I love Forte, I have nothing but disdain for Cutler. Nothing against him personally, I just don't think he's very good and has been overhyped for years. And his penchant to make errant throws down the field when under pressure rather than check down to Forte like Kyle Orton used to do hurt the running back's value in recent years - not to mention the Bears playoff chances.

Forte blamed his career lows in receiving last year on offensive coordinator Mike Tice. I still say it's Cutler, but the bottom line is,

of Marc Trestman's offense, which has featured running backs often as pass catchers. Because of this -

- I'm absolutely bullish on Matt Forte this year as an RB1 in PPR leagues and a low-end RB1 to high-end RB2 in standard leagues.

The only thing keeping Forte from being an elite back is his inability to punch it in at the goal line behind the Bears' abysmal offensive line, although he still managed to score 5 times on the ground and once through the air in 2012.

Last year, the Bears brought in Michael Bush to handle goal line work, but he finished with the same number of rushing TDs as Forte in 15 games before going on injured reserve. However four of those came in two games and unless you were Nostradamus, there was no one of knowing which weeks he was going to splash across the goal line. Apparently

, so he could be more effective this year.

I do like Bush as a late-round handcuff for Forte owners. He has good hands for a big back (he notched 37 catches with the Raiders in 2011) so if Forte were to get hurt, I think he could step into Trestman's offense and not miss a beat.

Detroit Lions -

Reggie Bush has never exactly lived up to the hype he received when he entered the NFL from the league's 33rd franchise, USC, back in 2006; but he has become a pretty solid player in the NFL despite becoming a bit of a journeyman by joining his third franchise in eight seasons, and someone I'll be targeting on draft day. Bush should be drafted as a late RB2, but with upside to put up top 10 numbers in a PPR league.

The Lions have been searching for an elite running back for years to take some of the pressure off QB Matthew Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson, but injuries have derailed their efforts through the draft, which is why they signed Bush this offseason.

and the

to create match-up problems for opponents.

Bush proved his mettle as a durable rusher the past two seasons in Miami, where he became a 1,000 yard runner for the first time in 2011 and missed just one game. He continued to put up solid reception numbers too, although nowhere near what he did with the Saints his first two seasons. Johnson is a much better receiver than anyone he has played with previously, which should really open up running lanes and room underneath for Bush to make plays.

Stafford isn't as good as Drew Brees - yet - but he'll throw the ball just as much if not more often than the Saints passer. It's not out of the question to expect Bush to collect 1,700 total yards running and receiving in the Lions high-flying offense.

Behind Bush are Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell. Leshoure is a completely different player from Bush, and

, has been an effective goal line runner and TD vulture, splashing paydirt 9 times last season. Bell, meanwhile, is a poor man's Bush, racking up a combined 899 yards in limited opportunities last year. If Reggie can't stay on the field, he'll be the guy to own in a PPR and the man to handcuff if you draft Bush.

, but all three guys will be used at times throughout the year and are draftable in nearly all formats.

Green Bay Packers -

The Packers found out the hard way that just because you have Aaron Rodgers at the helm of one of the league's most prolific aerial assaults, you need to be able to run the ball effectively to win in the NFL. So the Cheesehead's brass went out and selected not one, but two running backs in April's Draft -

.

For fantasy purposes, the biggest impact these two will actually have is on Aaron Rodgers, because defenders will have to respect the run game a bit more and that will open things up downfield (as if Rodgers needed the help, right?). Either way,

. Blah.

Lacy, the Pack's second-round pick,

. He's not an especially exciting runner, but his bruising style means teams that bring extra defensive backs onto the field to defend against Rodgers' arm risk having them run him over. (Skip to the five minute mark in the video below.) He will also likely score more than a half-dozen touchdowns getting goal line opportunities this year. I'd also downgrade him big time in a PPR.

But Franklin will get his opportunities too. When scouting rookie backs in fantasy football, the first thing I look for is how they are doing in pass protection, even though that isn't a statistic that will earn you any points in any fantasy league I'm aware of. But pass pro at the NFL level is what keeps even the most dynamic rushers on the pine and gives others their golden ticket to playing time.

and that will go a long way toward him getting snaps in pass-heavy Green Bay, especially on third downs.

Lacy has an injury history, so there is a good chance he'll miss time this year, opening the door for Franklin to become an every down back. That alone makes him worth a late-round flier and obviously move him up if he starts getting reps with the first team once training camp opens and preseason begins.

Ideal scenario: The two rookie runners become a Thunder and Lighting duo, and are nicknamed Franklin and Bash after the underrated TNT lawyer comedy. In fantasyland, though, neither will probably be more than an RB3 this year.

Minnesota Vikings -

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What really needs to be said about Adrian Peterson after his remarkable season in 2012 coming off ACL surgery? Draft him if you can. If you don't have the first overall pick in your draft, better luck next year. If you do have first overall pick in the draft and you don't pick him, the rest of your league should boo you every time you make another pick in your draft.

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Toby Gerhart, who was serviceable when All Day was injured two years ago, isn't even a handcuff consideration. He'll collect dust on your bench most of the year. However, if AP does suffer a significant injury, he's obviously the back to add.

In the meantime, enjoy this video of AP, who was named 2012's best player in the NFL Top 100 countdown this year.

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