Field Guide for a New Breed of Fantasy Football Running Back

Checked out your fantasy draft board lately? You have the usual suspects at quarterback, the treasure trove of uber-athletic wideouts and the get-'em-before-they're-gone top-tier tight ends. And then there's the running backs. But, look closely: These aren't your father's fantasy backs.

No, these aren't even the fantasy backs of your slightly older uncle Herman, the one who's discussed in hushed tones at family reunions -- you know, the guy who spends his weekends dancing with the painting company sign down at the intersection. Used to be -- back in Herman's day -- that you sat down for your fantasy draft, selected stud RBs with your top two picks and then went about the actual business of putting your draft plan, preparation and strategy to work. No longer is that draft-day SOP.

Welcome to the new age of fantasy running backs. It's actually been with us for quite a while, but many fantasy GMs are just now coming to terms with what this era entails. In short, no position comes with more risk, uncertainty or boom-or-bust potential. And in case you're a little late to the party or are simply in need of a quick refresher course, here's a primer on how to decipher, draft and deal with this new breed of fantasy ballcarriers:

Value other skills

Looking for the RB you can plug into your lineup and count on for 30 carries, 150 yards and two TDs most every week? Hint: You're not going to find him. Today's backs truly are different, and often, the most successful are the ones who bring other skills to the field.

Take Darren Sproles for example. The Saints' scatback finished 10th among all backs last season with 185 fantasy points (Huddle Performance scoring). But how he arrived there is the truly unconventional part, finishing with only one fewer reception (86) than rushing attempt (87). In the end, that broke down to 710 yards and seven touchdowns through the air and 603 and two TDs on the ground.

Then you have another top-15 back, the Bears' Matt Forte, who's accumulated 13 rushing touchdowns -- but it's taken him the past three seasons to do so. To put that figure in perspective, that's one fewer rushing TD than rookie quarterback Cam Newton had all of last season.

There's also another species of new-breed back: Just call them the big-play speed merchants. Take the Titans' Chris Johnson. In 2009, he ran away with the fantasy rushing title, piling up an NFL single-season record 2,509 yards from scrimmage, including 2,006 on the ground, and finishing with 347 points. Johnson scored 16 TDs that season, and nearly half (seven) came on scoring plays of 50-or-more yards. A year later, the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles tied the Vikings' Adrian Peterson for third overall among RBs with 242 fantasy points. Charles gained 169 more rushing yards (1,467 to 1,298) than the more conventional Peterson, but did it on 53 fewer carries. That's what happens when you average an almost-unheard-of 6.4 yards per rush. Essentially it's big play or bust for these guys. In other words, three yards and a cloud of dust, this isn't.

Allow for injuries

It's a fact of NFL life that running backs are going to suffer more bumps, bruises and injuries than their skill-position counterparts. On the majority of their carries, backs are charging full speed into oncoming defenders -- some outweighing them by 50 pounds or more -- whose sole mission is to stop that ballcarrier in his tracks. Defenseless-player penalties? They don't exist for those running the ball. Separated shoulders, twisted knees and wrenched ankles are all part of RB's job description, and while this has always been the NFL case, running backs are absorbing more punishment in today's game through a simple matter of physics. It doesn't take an Einsteinian analysis to see that NFL collisions are more violent in today's game. Players are bigger and faster than their pro predecessors, and the speed of the game is pushing the limits. In the meantime, NFL playing fields haven't gotten any wider or longer, meaning there are fewer places to run, hide and thus avoid the punishing collisions. An increase in injuries, of course, are the net result.

Take The Huddle's current top-20 ranked RBs. Eight of them, including six of the top 13, missed three or more games in 2011. That list includes Arian Foster (13 games in '11), Darren McFadden (7), Forte (12), Charles (2) and Peterson (12). Then there's the Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall, who would've been ranked in the top 20 if not for a late-season 2011 ACL tear that figures to keep him sidelined nearly the first half of 2012. Foster is ranked No. 1 overall and McFadden comes in fourth on the Huddle's list, but they've played in an average of only 12 and 11 games per season, respectively, during their pro careers.

The bottom line: Count on your top backs missing games and adjust accordingly by utilizing backup plans and handcuffing your studs. And when -- not if -- your No. 1 RB suffers that season-ending ACL tear, just pray it doesn't come early in a game during your league's championship game.

Accept timeshare reality

Timeshares are good if you happen to own one in Maui, but not so much if your top fantasy backs are riding an unpredictable weekly carousel of carries. Just ask any frustrated fantasy GM who has owned any part of the RB rotations with the Patriots, Redskins, Panthers, Saints and Packers in recent seasons. Those aren't the only running back-by-committee situations, just the more prominent ones, some involving three, four or more ballcarriers. And we say ballcarriers, because more and more run-happy QBs seem to be getting in on the act, vulturing carries and rushing TDs. For Exhibit A, we give you the Panthers' Cam Newton, who ran for no fewer than 14 scores as a rookie last season -- three more than tailbacks DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined.

Still, more timeshares seem to crop up each season. Try this stat on for size. In 2011, no fewer than 19 NFL squads finished the season with two or more ballcarriers with 100-plus carries. That's four more teams than in 2010 and seven more than in 2001 and 1991. And this is occurring in an aerial-centric era in which teams are rushing less and passing more, meaning more ballcarriers are divvying up fewer rushing attempts per team. To wit, only two backs, the Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew and Michael Turner finished this past season with more than 300 carries. Five years prior, in 2006, 10 RBs eclipsed the 300-carry mark. In 2003, 13 did. These days, though, the do-it-all, play-every-down back is a dying breed, and fantasy GMs must adjust accordingly.

Respect the elders

Ever hear the one about avoiding fantasy running backs age 30 or older? In this new age, pay little attention. Perhaps due to timeshares and the vanishing 300-carry back, more and more backs seemingly are viable fantasy options eight or more years into their pro careers.

Doubtful? Check this out. Over the past three seasons, five backs age 30 or older have finished among the top 20 in total fantasy points. That list is comprised of Thomas Jones, Ricky Williams and LaDainian Tomlinson in 2009, Tomlinson again in 2010 and Fred Jackson last season. During that same timeframe, only one rookie -- Knowshon Moreno in '09 -- has accomplished the same feat.

Then there's The Huddle's top-25 RB rankings for the upcoming season. On it are six backs either older than 30 or less than a year away from the three-decade milestone: Sproles (15th), Frank Gore (16th), Steven Jackson (17), Willis McGahee (18th), Fred Jackson (19th) and Turner (22nd). That's exactly double the number of backs in the preseason top 25 entering their first or second pro seasons: DeMarco Murray (8th), Trent Richardson (10th) and Doug Martin (20th).

Still want to dismiss the elders? Not so fast. In fantasy, the new reality just could be that 32, or maybe even 33, is the new 30 -- at least when it comes to running backs.

Be wary of too many carries

More specifically, we're talking about total touches here -- rushing attempts and receptions -- and the magic number seems to be 380. Cutting to the chase, 13 running backs have logged 380 or more touches in a season over the past six years. Twelve of those 13 backs saw a decline in their yards from scrimmage the following season -- and some of those drop-offs were significant.
Even excluding the Giants' Tiki Barber, who racked up 2,127 yards from scrimmage in 2006 only to retire the following offseason, the other 11 backs had an average decrease of 713.7 yards. Several dropoffs were even more dramatic, topped by Larry Johnson's 1,454-yard decline from '06 and '07 and Steven Jackson's 1,061 decrease over the same two seasons. Last year, Foster fell victim to the trend as he saw his total yardage drop to 1,841 following his 393-touch, 2,220-yard performance in 2010. This span's lone exception to the rule came in 2006 when Tomlinson followed up his 390-touch, 1,832-yard season in '05 with a 404-touch, 2,323-yard campaign a season later.

So who's the next in line for a decline? The only back to exceed 380 touches in 2011 was the Jags' Maurice Jones-Drew who had 386 for 1,980 total yards. Already, though, it looks as if the trend might hold. Entering the third week of the preseason, MJD isn't even in camp, holding out in hopes of landing a new contract. And if that holdout extends much in to the regular season, the curse of 380 will be well on its way to claiming another victim.