Drafting a running back in the first round is the most common strategy for people who play fantasy football. In a nutshell, the theory is that there are usually only a handful of reliable running backs who can consistently put up big numbers week to week, so it's best to grab one early. The drop off in production for the fourth best running back to the tenth is usually much greater than the drop off in fantasy points for quarterbacks or wide receivers at similar rankings.
Prior to 2008, in practically all of the fantasy drafts over the previous five years (in standard scoring, 12-team leagues), the first round consisted of at least ten running backs. The only exceptions being players like Peyton Manning, Daunte Culpepper, Randy Moss, Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, & even Kurt Warner when he was leading "The Greatest Show on Turf" in St. Louis.
We saw a shift in 2008, where several first round picks were not running backs. This decision was based largely on the fact that 2007 saw a decline in running back production. We saw players like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Drew Brees, and Tony Romo frequently among the top 12 picks this past year. On occasion I even saw a Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, or Braylon Edwards get picked up in round one. Many have been saying this is going to be a new trend going forward in fantasy football.
I do not believe this is a new trend. Drafting a running back is almost always the best decision with a first round pick (especially in the top half of a draft). In my opinion, 2008 was a correction year. Every few years, there is a new crop of stud running backs to take over as an older crop of running backs begin to decline in production. Usually, the transition is relatively straight forward in that all the "experts" can predict the potential of new studs based on circumstances & a player's past production. For example, as Priest Holmes began to break down, it was not difficult to predict Larry Johnson was going to be a stud.
From 2003 through 2006 the following running backs were frequent, it not perennial, first round picks: LaDanian Tomlinson, Duece McCallister, Shawn Alexander, Edgerrin James, Ahman Green, Jamal Lewis, Clinton Portis, and Rudi Johnson. During their prime, this was a very impressive list of top talent, but now it clearly represents a list of players on the decline (although Portis proved to be a great fourth round value in '07).
In 2007, choosing a top running back seemed to be a crapshoot as fantasy drafters chose players like Joseph Addai, Steven Jackson, Frank Gore, Larry Johnson, Reggie Bush, Lawrence Maroney, Willie Parker, Willis Mcgahee, and Travis Henry in the first round. Several of these players were complete busts (Maroney, Henry, L.J.), while the rest did not live up to expectations of a high draft pick (unless you drafted Addai late in the first round). Despite the disappointing 2007 and 2008 results of first round running backs, I believe there is optimism for 2009 and beyond.
The following is a list of running backs which I believe will dominate the first round of fantasy drafts for the next several years: Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, Michael Turner, DeAngelo Williams, Chris Johnson, and Pierre Thomas.
Please note, I did not order the list from best to worst. I simply listed the players I believe will produce top fantasy points on a consistent basis for years to come. It is also worth noting, my analysis assumes point per reception scoring formats. In part two I will breakdown each player listed, and why I believe they are part of the next class of first round running backs.