The Most Important Fantasy Football Development of the NFL's Offseason
Just as with the NFL, there really is no offseason in fantasy football. What transpires throughout the winter and spring can have a huge impact on not only how fantasy drafts unfold over the summer, but also on how fantasy squads perform in the upcoming season.
This season, there seems to be one development that has more significance than any other; and for fantasy owners prescient enough to take advantage of that situation, the road to fantasy glory may have just gotten significantly easier.
That development is the "running back bargain bin."
With committee situations becoming as much rule as exception and passing numbers exploding across the National Football League, one would think that bellcow running backs would grow in fantasy value.
However, for a number of backs, the reverse seems to be the case; and while the reasons for their falling draft stock may differ, the fact remains that at their present average draft positions, these players are very attractive fantasy draft targets.
The torn ACLs suffered during the 2011 campaign of Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings and Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs have apparently given fantasy owners the proverbial willies in early drafts, with both players often falling from the first round.
With that said, both Charles and Peterson are expected to be fine for the beginning of the regular season. In fact, Peterson—who injured his knee much later in the season than Charles—recently told The Waterloo Falls Citizen-Courier that he's already “pretty much wide open” so far as full participation in drills, running and cutting.
Granted, there's always some risk involved with drafting a player the year after a serious injury. However, both Peterson and Charles both have clear-cut "handcuff" backups in Toby Gerhart and Peyton Hillis, respectively. So, fantasy owners can mitigate that risk considerably by investing in an insurance policy of sorts later in their drafts.
Both of these backs are also young and immensely talented, and as recently as 2010, both were top-five fantasy performers. Given that sort of upside, both Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson present excellent value as an RB2 (or RB1 for owners that pass on the position in the first round) as things stand today.
For a couple of other running backs, it appears that many fantasy enthusiasts are predicting a Mayan apocalypse of sorts, even though neither back has necessarily given any indication that the wheels are set to fall off.
Frank Gore of the San Francisco 49ers topped 1,200 rushing yards in 2011 and posted his sixth straight top 20 fantasy finish at his position; but according to MyFantasyLeague.com, the 29-year-old's current average draft position is in the middle of the fifth round.
This is more than two rounds later than running back Trent Richardson of the Cleveland Browns—who has yet to carry the ball once in the NFL and who will be mired on one of the league's worst offenses.
Detractors will no doubt point to Gore's nearly 2,000 career touches and age as proof that the end is nigh, or proclaim that the arrival of running backs Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James and improvements to the 49ers' passing game will mean a significantly reduced role for Gore in 2012.
Let them. Gore has played in less than 14 games only once in his entire career, and regardless of who San Francisco adds on offense, the fact remains that head coach Jim Harbaugh likes to run the ball.
Gore remains his best option in the backfield, and being able to wait until the fifth round to select a player that has an excellent shot at solid fantasy RB2 production will allow you to secure an elite quarterback or build a strong corps of pass-catchers.
Frank Gore isn't the only veteran back whose draft value has dipped to the point where he now has the potential to be a fantastic value. Steven Jackson of the St. Louis Rams is going at just about the same spot in many drafts as Gore, despite the fact that the ninth-year veteran has topped 1,400 total yards in four consecutive seasons, finishing as a top-15 fantasy back each of those years.
Granted, Jackson is the only NFL running back currently on a roster with more than 2,000 career carries, and second-round pick Isaiah Pead will undoubtedly eat into Jackson's touches somewhat.
With that said though, Jackson is still the unquestioned lead back on a team that will rely heavily on the run to offset a shaky group of wide receivers. Even if Jackson's fantasy production tails off a bit from his RB10 finish a year ago, he's still an excellent bet to finish among the top 20 at his position.
Any fantasy owner worth his salt will take that from a fourth or fifth-round running back all day, every day.
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