Running backs, since the dawn of fantasy football, have always been the bread and butter of fantasy teams everywhere. Draft strategies dogmatically revolved around grabbing one or two studs off the board in the first and second round.
However, we look at this year's top 10 in backs, and beyond Ray Rice, Arian Foster, and LeSean McCoy, there are just so many concerns with the others. Can Maurice Jones-Drew not break down and continue to produce even with such a horrible offense around him? Is Matt Forte holding out? Can Ryan Mathews or Darren McFadden stay healthy for once in their careers? Will Chris Johnson be the 2011 CJ, or the CJ2K of old?
It's hard to win your league when your first-round pick doesn't perform. I had Chris Johnson last year and it held me back quite a bit. With so many questions with running backs, and the lack of need to pick a receiver first, you may find yourself with one of those backs on your squads whether you like it or not.
That's why you need to find good sleepers later on, so if your top pick doesn't perform, your season isn't doomed. Here are five guys who you need to keep your eyes on in the mid to late rounds!
Huge fan of Doug Martin out of Boise State. I believe head coach Greg Schiano drafted this guy because he reminds Schiano of the guy he used to coach at Rutgers. That guy would be Ray Rice. Am I ready to proclaim Doug Martin the new Ray Rice? That's a stretch. However, he does have a similar skill set.
Martin is an very good pass-catcher, perhaps the best in the 2012 NFL Draft. Most certainly better than LeGarrette Blount, whose problems included not being able to catch passes, but more importantly, he was awful at picking up blitzes. If Tampa Bay hopes to succeed, they need Josh Freeman to stay upright. And that can't happen when their division has defenses like the New Orleans Saints' and Atlanta Falcons'.
So it's fair to assume Martin will be on third downs and split some first and second down work. But it's too easy to say that Martin will be lightning and Blount will be the thunder. Blount was surprisingly inefficient in the red zone, scoring only five touchdowns last season.
Martin will run behind a great offensive line that just added the best guard in the game, Carl Nicks. With Jeremy Trueblood and Donald Penn both Pro Bowl level tackles, Freeman coming back to form, if Martin can take the majority of the snaps, I really like him to be a high-level No.2 back. ESPN's Christopher Harris and their ranking summit has Martin as the 39th ranked runner. He will be much better than that.
Reports are coming out of Chicago camp that Michael Bush looks great and has earned coach Lovie Smith's praise. When Bush gets carries, he is a top 10 back. In nine starts for Oakland last season, he totalled 977 rushing yards with seven touchdowns. He also added 418 yards receiving and caught a touchdown. That's in just nine games, kids.
I know they still have Matt Forte. But like I said, I had Chris Johnson last year. I believe holdouts are a bigger deal than they seem, especially for running backs. Forte is similar to CJ in that relies so much on explosiveness and making good cuts. He cannot afford to show up in less than perfect shape to camp. We saw what being out of shape did to CJ's production last season.
Anyone who wants to win a title cannot wait until Week 10 for his star back to start producing. If Forte produces like Johnson, he may end up in the coach's doghouse, or hurt himself going too hard.
Furthermore, Bush has value even if Forte is around. Forte can do it all; he can break a long one, he can catch passes, block well. The one ugly dent in his game? He's terrible in short-yardage or red-zone situations. Last year, Bush's red-zone efficiency was double that of Forte's.
Pickup Bush as either Forte's handcuff, or as a No. 3 in the late rounds, and he's a great steal according to ESPN, who has him going as the 68th overall player.
Donald Brown has certainly been a disappointment in his three years with the Colts. The former first round pick averaged a pedestrian 3.6 and 3.8 yards per carry in his first two seasons, despite being Peyton Manning's offense and running behind an offensive line that was good in the red zone.
However, Brown started to show us some of the speed, power, and burst that made him a first rounder. He averaged a very good 4.8 YPC, and half way through the season, once he got the starting job, produced 645 yards with five touchdowns.
Now, the Colts will be bad in 2012, despite having Andrew Luck. But they didn't draft another runner, and Delone Carter certainly hasn't proven to be an every down back or have pass-catching ability like Brown does. According to Rotoworld, the Colts have stated that Brown will have the job unless he loses it in training camp.
Is there anytime you can get a starting running back and he's ranked as the 38th at his position? Sign me up.
Most people know about the Law Firm. He's rising quick in draft boards, and he's ranked as the 67th overall player on ESPN. He could go as high as the fourth or fifth round, but I feel like including him here because he will be a top 15 level back no matter what.
This guy does nothing but score touchdowns. In two seasons starting for the Patriots, he has 24 touchdowns. Actually, he didn't even really start in 2011; he pretty much split backfield work between him, Danny Woodhead, and Stevan Ridley.
The Bengals had a lot of red-zone problems last year. Andy Dalton and his young receivers can move the ball well, but they don't have the veteran moxie it takes to finish the job when it counts. That's why they brought in Green-Ellis, and when they get to the goal line, they will use him all day, every day.
This guy will get at least 200 carries, push 900-1,000 yards, and have double-digit touchdowns. He should be higher than his preseason rank.
This has happened before. In 2006, Jerome Bettis was hurt and Willie Parker stepped in and became the back of the future. Rashard Mendenhall took over for a season, and now he's hurt. The next guy in line could be Isaac Redman.
Redman was great in Mendenhall's absence down the stretch last season. He had 121 yards on 17 carries in the Wild Card Game against Denver, and had 92 on 19 carries in Week 17. While Todd Haley is a pass-first offensive coordinator, it became painfully obvious that Big Ben needs a good run game to support him. That's why as Mendenhall's replacement, Redman will have 15-20 touches per game. And that's always fantasy currency you can bank on.
I'm starting to think the guys at ESPN aren't that smart; they have Redman at No.75. The starting running back for the tough-nosed, beat-you-to-the-ground-at-the-goal-line, Pittsburgh Steelers is not in the top 30.
Take advantage and get a top 10 back for virtually nothing.