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

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 AFC North.

Baltimore Ravens -

Despite slipping to the back half of the first round in many drafts, Ray Rice of the Super Bowl Champion Ravens is still very much an elite fantasy football running back, and don't let anyone tell you differently.

What if I were to tell you there was an NFL running back on a team who is only 26 years old, has never missed a game in his four years as a starter, has never had fewer than 1,600 total yards in each of those four seasons, has caught at least 60 balls in every one of those seasons and has scored double digit touchdowns in each of the last two? That is great season over season consistency.

The numbers are good, but Rice's clean bill of health is what really sells it for me. Take a look at the other running backs at the top of your draft board. Nearly all of them have had significant injuries at some point in their career. Not Rice. Of course, injuries are a freak thing, and could happen at any time, but a previous injury typically means you are susceptible to another.

Besides Rice getting older, the chief concern in fantasy circles is that

because of some flashes Pierce showed at the end of last year. But the only games in which Pierce got significant (ie: double digit) touches were blowouts against the Raiders and Giants in the regular season and the Colts in the playoffs -- in which Rice already got his -- and a meaningless season finale against the Bengals.

Because Rice is an effective goal line runner, receiver out of the backfield and pass blocker, you can't even hope for a situational role for Pierce as a third-down back or TD vulture. At best, the Ravens will use Pierce to spell Rice a bit more and perhaps as a closer late in games because of his downhill running style, and in blowouts. But that might actually make Rice a more effective player, especially later in the season when Baltimore is pushing for a playoff spot and you're in the fantasy playoffs.

Pierce is a nice player, but when the chips are down, Rice is the man for the Ravens. And despite winning the Super Bowl a year ago, the Ravens defense and passing attack are in a transition stage with several new players being pushed to the forefront.

That's not to say Pierce isn't worth drafting. He is. But if you draft him hoping for an injury to Rice, history just isn't in your favor.

One more positive for Rice: Although his 61 catches for 478 yards were his fewest since becoming a starter, with the departure of Anquan Boldin, it's certainly possible Joe Flacco will look Rice's way more on passing downs this year.

, I'd be trying to get the ball to Rice as often as possible.

Cincinnati Bengals -

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I'm not nearly as down on BenJarvus Green-Ellis as other fantasy players seem to be, but it's hard not to think that the Bengals want to replace him with the more explosive Giovani Bernard, a rookie from the University of North Carolina, as soon as possible to give their offense a little more pop.

Bernard is an exciting player with a lot of upside. And after the success of all the rookie running backs a year ago, it's hard not to be champing at the bit to add Bernard to your fantasy squad. And I think he will be worth it.

about his abilities to be more than just a home run hitter and that he has good pass-blocking skills, which I mentioned earlier in this series, is something to listen out for when considering how much playing time a rookie might receive.

Between pass protection, his ability to catch that ball and make things happen, and the Law Firm's

(although 22 of those came last year) mean that Bernard will at least get the opportunity to contribute immediately as a third-down back. As the season progresses, I would expect to see him begin to creep closer to being in the latter part of a 55-45 timeshare with Green-Ellis.

However, in mock drafts,

(both around the sixth to seventh rounds).

. While I expect the Law Firm to finish the year with more touches, Bernard's big-play ability and third-down work means he's a better candidate for more total yards. Green-Ellis will likely finish with more touchdowns, as he fits the mold of a goal line runner better than the 5-foot-9 200 pound rookie.

So what does it all mean? In a standard 12-team redraft league, I wouldn't want either as more than an RB3. Green-Ellis will probably give you RB2 numbers through the first half of the year (meaning a saavy owner may be able to parlay him into a more valuable commodity in the second half via trade) but could be maddening to start each week in the second half of the year as the coaching staff transitions to the talented youngster. You should draft with the fantasy playoffs in mind, and Bernard should be the guy to own at that point.

Cleveland Browns -

Trent Richardson will not only be the key player in the success or failure of the Browns in 2013, but he will also likely be the most significant cog in the success or failure of whichever fantasy team drafts him in the first round.

In the long-time keeper league of which I'm the commissioner, T-Rich will be my first-round keeper at the No. 6 spot. That's not only in the interest of full disclosure; it's a testament to how much I believe in the former Alabama bruiser. Quite frankly, I love what he has the potential to do this year, if he can stay healthy.

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What I love about Richardson is his all-around game and the fact that new offensive coordinator Norv Turner - for all his shortcomings as a head coach - isn't afraid to give his bell cow running back the ball over and over again. And Richardson has the skills and desire to not come off the field. I mean, seriously, the dude played with broken ribs most of last season and still put up remarkable numbers in a shaky offense. Turner recognizes that too, and would like to give him 300 carries and

There's nothing not to like here. In fact, there are only four running backs I like better than Richardson in 2013. There are also no eminent threats to T-Rich's carries, however, I do think it would behoove Richardson owners to handcuff Montario Hardesty with the last pick in their draft.

, however, so keep an eye on what's happening there to determine the definite backup. If Hardesty does get cut, former Eagle Dion Lewis is probably the guy.

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Pittsburgh Steelers -

It's gonna be rookie Le'Veon Bell on all three downs right? I'm not so sure.

. Steelers rookie running backs traditionally aren't very productive. Franco Harris is the last one to rush for 1,000 yards as a rookie. He was a Hall of Famer. The most recent was Byron "Bam" Morris (or as I liked to call him, "Bong" Morris), who had a couple productive years with the Steelers in '94 and '95 before he was arrested on marijuana charges.

Meanwhile, last year's leading rusher, Jonathan Dwyer, is an angry and determined man heading into a contract year.


And here is where my Steeler fan bias comes in. I like Dwyer. I think he took a lot of unfair criticism for the team's shortcomings in the running game a year ago. In fact, when you look at his numbers, he had two big games in October, then was injured and when he returned, the Steelers weren't quite the same. Ben Roethlisberger was injured in a game against Kansas City that the entire team didn't seem to take seriously. Then Dwyer was put in a timeshare with Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman while Charlie Batch ran the show.

So here's what I'm saying: Don't go blindly drafting Le'Veon Bell an expect him to immediately be the bell cow because of all the pre-preseason hype. He's going to get every chance to win the job, just temper expectations. Not every rookie is Doug Martin, Alfred Morris or even Richardson.
And here is where my Steeler fan bias comes in. I like Dwyer. I think he took a lot of unfair criticism for the team's shortcomings in the running game a year ago. In fact, when you look at his numbers, he had two big games in October, then was injured and when he returned, the Steelers weren't quite the same. Ben Roethlisberger was injured in a game against Kansas City that the entire team didn't seem to take seriously. Then Dwyer was put in a timeshare with Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman while Charlie Batch ran the show.
So here's what I'm saying: Don't go blindly drafting Le'Veon Bell an expect him to immediately be the bell cow because of all the pre-preseason hype. He's definitely the Steelers back of the future. But in 2013, it seems just as likely that Dwyer could be the leading rusher again and approach a 1,000-yard year with disrespect as his motivation. Expect this to be a lot closer to a time share in year one.
One back I won't be drafting is Redman. He burned me last year in a couple of drafts when it looked like he was going to be the clear starter until Mendenhall returned. Whoops. He's best suited as a complimentary and situational back in the NFL. And assuming Dwyer makes the team, it's possible Redman could be cut.

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