Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, I can’t seem to shake the belief that running back is the most important position in fantasy football – and I don’t think I’m alone. This past season only 12 RB’s finished among the top 50 scorers in standard leagues, but fantasy owners picked 21 ball carriers inside the top 50 during the preseason (per Fantasy Pros). Even worse, zero RB’s finished inside the top 6 scorers. The consensus top 3 picks heading into the season? Arian Foster, Ray Rice, and LeSean McCoy – all running backs.
If so many running backs are failing to live up to expectations, why do they still receive so much love from fantasy owners on draft day? You can certainly make the case for position scarcity. With the number of committee attacks in the NFL at an all time high, 20 plus carry bell cows have gone the way of the Aurochs (the original bell cow – see what I did there?). It stands to reason that there’s a clear benefit to grabbing one of the few remaining feature backs early on. For my own part however, I must admit that my affinity for running backs is equal parts nostalgia and stubbornness.
If we rewind 10 years to the 2002 season when I was still making my fantasy bones, the road to a championship was paved with running backs. That year 20 rushers finished inside the top 50, while the top 5 fantasy scorers all played RB. In those days Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, LaDanian Tomlinson, Shaun Alexander, and Clinton Portis were the cream of the crop. If you missed out on those guys, no worries. You’d be fine with Ahman Green, Jamal Lewis, Corey Dillon, Curtis Martin, Stephen Davis, Ricky Williams, Eddie George, Tiki Barber, Deuce McCallister or even Fred Taylor.
I’m not breaking any news by telling you those days are long gone. The heyday of the running back in fantasy football has been in the rear view for years now. High powered passing attacks have become a requirement for success in the NFL, and even the most hard-headed among us has been forced to adjust our draft strategy as a result.
Case in point, I can’t ignore the fact that my only 2012 championship came in a (Non-PPR) league where I drafted Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones, and Brandon Marshall with three of my first four picks (Ryan Mathews was my third rounder – his invitation to the banner raising ceremony strangely got lost in the mail). That squad triumphed in the championship game with the unholy alliance of Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Vick Ballard at RB – proof that you need not invest early picks in the RB position to field a winner.
So why am I still refusing to permanently change my stripes? Probably because I have a lot in common with most fantasy owners (and the rest of humanity). I deal with change poorly. Stud running backs had been the staple of my fantasy success for years. You expect me to just renounce everything I learned over a decade of playing fantasy football? Sorry, but placing a premium on the running back position has become embedded in the very fabric of my being. I will continue to overvalue them until, like the once mighty Aurochs, I become a museum exhibit.
That’s why when my Twitter feed started filling up with blurbs like these, my interest was immediately piqued:
Just like that the fantasy community had roped me in on Eddie Lacy, running back du jour. I’m not all together unfamiliar with Lacy. Like most red blooded Americans, I watched him dismember the Fighting Irish in the BCS championship game, on his way to winning offensive MVP honors (140 yards and a TD on 20 carries, 2 receptions for 17 yards and another score through the air). I know what I saw that night – a back with decent size (6′/220 lbs.) who exploded through the hole, finished runs with power, and probably broke the unofficial record for nasty spin moves in a game.
There’s no doubt Lacy passed my eyeball test in the title game, but I can’t in good conscience masquerade as a college scout. My only opinions on NCAA football that you should take seriously involve handicapping trends, and the steadfast belief that marching bands who play after every touchdown make the product infinitely more fun. Scouting Eddie Lacy is not in my wheelhouse – it’s a job best left to the pros. So here’s a collection of the most pertinent Lacy nuggets from around the web (credit: Scott Payne – www.milehighreport.com, Darren Page – www.detroitlionsdraft.com).
First, since this is a fantasy football column, let’s satisfy the stat heads. Lacy first emerged as the backup to Trent Richardson in 2011 when he rushed for 674 yards (staggering 7.1 YPA) and 7 TD’s. Last year in his first season as a starter for the Tide, Lacy put up 1,322 yards on 204 carries (6.5 YPA) to go with 17 TD’s, earning first team all SEC honors. While there’s no doubt Alabama’s consistently terrific o-line and run-heavy system deserve some of the credit, it’s worth mentioning that Lacy’s career 6.8 YPA avg. is substantially higher than those of recent Alabama RB alums Richardson (5.8) and former Heisman winner Mark Ingram (5.7).
Here are the tangibles Lacy put on film that have sent his NFL draft stock soaring to late first round territory:
If that’s not enough to get you drooling, check out the definitive YouTube highlight reel (great background music on that YouTube clip by the way – by the end I wasn’t sure if Lacy was running for TD’s or returning to Gondor to reclaim his rightful throne).
Before we anoint Lacy the second coming of Jim Brown however, some questions and concerns do exist:
There are also some legitimate health questions surrounding Lacy, as he played through ankle sprains, knee pain, and the residual effects of off-season turf toe surgery more or less the entire year. The fact that the toe was still hampering him 9 months post-op could be of particular concern. If we’re looking at the glass half full however, Lacy actually got more effective as the season wore on, finishing the year on fire in spite of the mounting nicks and bruises. Over the Tide’s final six games, he ran for 726 yards and 10 TD’s. Another positive on the health front - with only one year as a lead back under his belt, there’s not a whole lot of mileage on Lacy’s tires. He had only 355 collegiate carries while the average career carries of his draft contemporaries Le’Veon Bell, Montee Ball, Giovani Bernard, Andre Ellington, Stepfan Taylor, Joseph Randle, and Kenjon Barner works out to 661.
By all accounts Lacy’s positives far outweigh the negatives. Most draftniks are placing him in the late first round or early second in their initial mocks. For fantasy purposes, mid-February is obviously too early to make any sort of informed statement regarding his precise ADP. We’re going to need to wait and see how the NFL draft and free agency play out. But if Lacy should end up on a team without another running back on the roster to cut into his carries? Let this be a friendly reminder that we’re only 3 years removed from Ryan Mathews being picked in the back end of round one coming into his rookie campaign.
To that end, most mocks I’ve seen (including Mel Kiper’s latest) have him going either at pick 26 to Green Bay or 4 picks later to the Atlanta Falcons who would tab him as Michael Turner’s replacement. Those are two dream scenarios for Lacy’s fantasy value that would surely propel him into the second tier of fantasy running backs. Rotoworld’s Evan Silva also lists the Steelers, Rams, Dolphins, Colts, and Chargers as sensible destinations. Depending upon how final rosters shake out, each of those landing spots are potentially appealing.
No matter where he ends up, or what Lacey’s skill set actually translates to in the NFL, one prediction I can make with absolute certainty is that fantasy owners are going to be falling over themselves trying to get him on their teams next season. We saw it with Trent Richardson and Doug Martin last year, Mark Ingram in 2011, CJ Spiller and Mathews in 2010, Knowshon Moreno in 2009, and with every other first round RB drafted since fantasy football became a thing. Lacy is destined to wind up an early fantasy pick despite the fact that the running back position is less important in our fake game than it’s ever been. The fact that 4 out of the 6 guys I just named were regarded as busts in their rookie seasons should probably also be considered when valuing Lacy – but it won’t be. You can add selective memory to the list of fantasy owners’ mental deficiencies when it comes to running backs.
I’d like to tell you I’m going to heed my own advice and temper expectations for Lacy next year, but that would fly in the face of my nature as a fantasy owner. Like I said before, I’m both painfully slow to adapt and too stubborn to ever fully change my ways. I’ve been conditioned to love running backs, and guys like Eddie Lacy are the most irresistible breed. The shiny new toy factor combined with the lure of the unknown is certain to cause me to reach for his services a round or two early. At least if history tells us anything, I won’t be alone. Admit it – you’ll be glad to join me 6 months from now in raising Eddie Lacy’s ADP to a nonsensical level.