In this article I am going to attempt to break down why I think the value of the running back position in real football as well as fantasy football is going to evolve. There is a common misconception among the fantasy football community and even NFL front offices that the running back position is becoming a devalued. Some even say the that the “bell cow” running back is like an endangered species. More and more teams have embraced the running back by committee approach. A lot of franchises look at running backs more like a luxury for what they can do rather than a commodity for the offense. I think that this general belief is because we have seen somewhat of a talent deficiency at running back. No, I’m not saying there aren’t any talented running backs. There are a lot of good backs in the league, but there isn’t as many guys who can carry the ball 20+ times a game and pass protect and catch the ball out of the backfield, teams will rotate guys to a specific role who do one thing particularly well. Part of the problem is the spread style systems and unique run-option offenses that are used widely across the nation in college football have bred these quick style scat backs who get their 20 touches a game through the passing game and running game, or the use a few different backs for different situations, and a good portion of NFL teams have adopted what they have seen in the college game.
For the better part of the 2000s, the 1st round of fantasy football drafts saw running backs being selected for basically the entire first round. Guys like LaDanian Tomlinson, Shawn Alexander, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Jamal Lewis and most recently Jamaal Charles and Eddie Lacy have rounded out the top 10 picks. All of them have one thing in common, they’re all considered 3 down backs or the typical moniker of “bell cow”, but less of those guys are around in today’s NFL and that’s partially due to teams adapting to the offensive style that is seen a lot in college, especially those teams with an option style quarterback, and in fantasy football the PPR format is becoming a universal thing for leagues everywhere so wide receivers have seen a huge uptick in value, and that has dramatically changed the dynamic of fantasy football drafts. An example would the Antonio brown, Julio jones, and Odell Beckham Jr, are basically locks for top 5 picks in drafts next year and “change of pace” backs (e.g Gio Bernard, Dion Lewis) get a boost in value over the classic 2 down plodder (e.g Legarratte Blount, Jeremy Hill) because of their value of catching passes. Although you could make the argument that those elite wide receivers don’t hold the same value as running backs do in real life. The top 5 statistical wideouts from last season were Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, Odell Beckham Jr, and Brandon Marshall, and only 1 of those players teams made the post season.
However the NFL is a copy cat league, so with teams running those college style offenses over the past few years, teams are vamping up their defenses and adding phenomenal athletes which are key pieces to enable them to defend these offenses. Players like Von Miller, Lavonte David, Ziggy Ansah, and Justin Houston to name a few. So ive noticed a trend of teams wanting to get more athletic guards/tackles to match what were seeing on the defensive side of the ball and be able to still dominate at the line of scrimmage. Were even starting to see it down in the college ranks more and more teams have been catering their offense to a pro style offense, usually predicated on a solid running game. The NFL employs some of the best athletes in the world at all positions, so if a running back is the best athlete on your team why not cater to his skillset? Within the next few years, I believe there will be somewhat of a renaissance of the “bell cow” back. I think we have already started to see the beginning of that with guys like Todd Gurley, LeVeon Bell, Thomas Rawls, and David Johnson to name a few (the jury is still out on Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah). This draft class alone has 2 potential franchise backs in Ezekiel Elliot and Derek Henry, not to mention a few other guys who garner the potential 3 down back tag like Kenneth Dixon, Jordan Howard, Devontae Booker, Jonathan Williams, CJ Prosise, and Keith Marshall. I think all of these backs have the ability to carry the load for an offense. Running back could one of the most important factors to combat a defense filled with world class athletes, you’re going to have match the athleticism and ware them down and beat them with constant physicality. Best way to do that is pound the rock.
Now I’m not saying every NFL team is going to be able have that coveted type of running back, some teams really do operate best with a rotational running back system, such as the New England Patriots, but we see all to often in the post season that some teams Achilles heal is not being able to produce an effective running game because they lack someone who can run betwixt the tackles, catch the ball effectively ,pass protect, and they require someone who doesn’t have to come of the field often. I want the guy who can be the lightning and bring the thunder. The upcoming NFL draft could be a good indication of how teams view the value of the position for the foreseeable future, and they’re are players on NFL rosters now who could probably carry the mail for an offense if given the opportunity. But as it pertains to fantasy football, especially for those who play in dynasty leagues like myself, you’re going to want to load up on your shares of young backs because I sense there is a “changing of the guard” and I don’t want to be the one left in the dark.