I have a mantra of sorts in fantasy football: "You can never have too many running backs."
As trends have come and gone (taking a quarterback early, drafting wide receivers in the first two rounds, etc.) I have stayed the course, taking ball-carriers with my first two (and sometimes even three) draft picks.
That "old school" fantasy strategy is back in vogue in 2013, due to a combination of the dwindling number of true "featured" backs and the relative depth at other positions. The early rounds of most fantasy football drafts this year have been dominated by the running back spot.
Depending on where your draft slot is and whether you choose to grab an elite wideout or tight end early, this could leave fantasy owners in 2013 considering whether or not to roll the dice on a risk/reward play, and there are a number of such options available at running back in 2013.
These backs aren't for the faint of heart, as each has significant question marks swirling around them. However, those questions have also caused their asking prices to drop, which in turn raises an interesting question.
At their current ADP, are these running backs worthy of a look on draft day?
Let's take a look, by buying or selling three of the riskiest fantasy plays in the backfield for 2013.
Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars
In 2011, Maurice-Jones Drew was the NFL's leading rusher and a top-five fantasy option. The eighth-year veteran topped 1,600 yards on the ground, very nearly posted 2,000 total yards and scored 11 touchdowns.
At the time, it was nothing new for Jones-Drew. As the above table shows, three times in five years from 2007 to 2011 Jones-Drew finished well inside the top 10 at his position in fantasy points. In fact, in leagues that award a point for receptions, Jones-Drew was a top-five fantasy option in those three seasons, and in the two years he finished outside the top 10 Jones-Drew barely missed.
In other words, for five straight years Jones-Drew was a viable fantasy RB1.
Last year, however, was an absolute disaster. A contract impasse dragged on until just before the start of the regular season. Jones-Drew finally caved in and reported, only to suffer a season-ending foot injury and finish with the worst numbers of his career.
That bad flipper, Jones-Drew's 1,570 career carries and the putrid state of the Jacksonville offense have conspired this year to drop the 28-year-old's average draft position well into the third round at My Fantasy League. In many leagues, he's falling even farther than that.
However, recent news lends a measure of optimism to Jones-Drew's fantasy prospects for 2013. As Marc Sessler of NFL.com reports, Jones-Drew has received medical clearance to practice fully with the team.
Head coach Gus Bradley has made it clear that his workload will be limited in camp and the preseason, but an upbeat Jones-Drew told reporters, "Now it's back to football. It's a long time coming."
If he's healthy, Jones-Drew is an unquestioned lead back who has shown the ability to produce even against stacked defensive fronts. Fantasy owners who go wide receiver early don't often get a chance to draft a proven ball-carrier with top-10 fantasy upside.
Jones-Drew affords them that chance in 2013.
Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
There are entire fantasy football support groups dedicated to people whose seasons have been ruined by Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden.
Ever since McFadden's top-10 fantasy performance in 2010, fantasy owners have been talking themselves into drafting the sixth-year pro, despite that fact that McFadden has missed at least three games in each of his five NFL seasons.
In 2011, it got them less than half a season before a foot injury ended his year. In 2012 it got them four games missed, 707 rushing yards, and an anemic 3.3 yards per carry.
Granted, part of the problem last year was a zone-blocking scheme that the Raiders have since abandoned, and even McFadden admitted to the Bay Area News Group (via Sessler) that last year's performance was infuriating:
There's always going to be things that gets your blood boiling. But last year was last year. It's something I put behind me. We're moving forward, and I'm looking forward to a new season.
In 2013, McFadden will be playing for a new contract. The 25-year-old has talked up the new offense in Oakland according to Kareem Copeland of NFL.com, and Steve Corkran of the Contra Costa Times liked what he saw of McFadden in OTAs.
Has to be encouraging for coach Dennis Allen to see RB Darren McFadden looking so energized, explosive.— Steve Corkran (@CorkOnTheNFL) May 20, 2013
Add those factors to McFadden's asking price of a mid-range fantasy RB2, and many owners are trying to talk themselves into one last ride on the merry-go-round.
McFadden's missed 23 games in five years. You'll get thrown off and hit your head.
DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys
In Week 7 of his rookie season, Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray went ballistic against the St. Louis Rams. Murray topped 250 rushing yards in that game, and fantasy owners everywhere rejoiced that the age of a new fantasy superstar had begun.
We're still waiting for that promise to be realized.
After topping 100 yards in two of his first three starts as a rookie, Murray has eclipsed that mark only once since, in Week 1 of the 2012 season. The 25-year-old's yards per carry dropped precipitously last year, from a robust 5.5 in 2011 to a so-so 4.1 a year ago.
Then there's the injuries. Murray has been sidelined for nine of a possible 32 games over his brief career, including losing six games last year to a sprained foot.
Murray, for his part, has pledged that this year will be different. Earlier in the offseason Murray told ESPN's Colin Cowherd (via Jon Machota of The Dallas Morning News) that he believes he's capable of a 2,000-yard season, and Murray recently told Calvin Watkins of ESPN Dallas that, "This year will be a great year for me."
Which risk/reward RB will have the best fantasy season in 2013?
It's not a matter of talent. Murray has plenty. It's also not just about the injuries, although those are cause for concern. There's also the matter of the offensive line shakeup in Dallas, and the fact that Murray will play without a fullback this year for the first time in his NFL career.
Add it all together and you get an average draft position that's nearly identical to McFadden's. Murray is a risk/reward play in the truest sense, with top-10 upside and substantial bust potential.
There is one thing working in Murray's favor from a fantasy perspective, however. The Cowboys drafted Joseph Randle to serve as Murray's backup in 2013, and with an average draft position of the 14th round at My Fantasy League, Randle is an inexpensive insurance policy against another Murray injury.
Verdict: Buy, but be sure to handcuff Randle