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August 29, 2011
Late starts and lagging conditioning make this the year of the runner
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August 29, 2011


Late starts and lagging conditioning make this the year of the runner

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The noted philosopher Knute Rockne once said, "The qualifications for a lineman are to be big and dumb. To be a back, you only have to be dumb." That's not true in today's NFL, where being a back requires, among other things, intelligence, quickness and the conditioning to survive pile-ons by behemoth linemen and head-on collisions with wrecking-ball linebackers.

Despite the hazards of the job, running backs as a whole are surprisingly durable and productive, making them the most consistent source of fantasy points from week to week. With that in mind, SI is declaring this The Year of the Fantasy Running Back and suggesting every fantasy owner draft at least six ballcarriers in his first 10 picks.

Why? The lack of off-season work means that the critical timing between quarterbacks and receivers will be slower to jell. At the same time, offensive lines will need time to hone their coordination in picking up blitzes and stunts. That will be especially true where rookies and free agents are working their way into the lineup. In response, teams are likely to rely more on the running game. This should present more opportunities for backs, especially early in the season.

But there's another reason to stock up on running backs. The intense preparation and training that allows runners to survive weekly poundings was also disrupted by the lockout. Now come abbreviated camps. In order to make up for lost time, coaches are giving backs more reps in practice and preseason games, which increases the odds of a serious injury at worst and at the least will leave a lot of backs more dinged up than normal on opening day. Already team trainers are busy tending to a rash of strains, pulls and tears.

At the same time, those offensive lines that are struggling in pass protection most likely are not quite up to snuff with their running schemes either. More missed assignments along the line lead to more violent collisions between backs and onrushing defenders, both on carries and in pass protection.

All this intensive use and increased wear and tear on runners means that attrition rates will be high. Draft as many running backs as you can, and hedge top picks by selecting their backups or time-share mates whenever possible. If you draft LeSean McCoy, protect yourself by also targeting teammate Ronnie Brown. Can't choose between DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart? Take both. And don't be beaten to the punch in doing so.

Which brings us to the next question: Which backs should you draft? Most experts recommend the Vikings' Adrian Peterson, Titans' Chris Johnson and Texans' Arian Foster, but the right man is the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles. Both Peterson and Johnson begin the year behind injury-prone quarterbacks who are backed up by rookies, meaning that they're one unblocked linebacker from seeing a steady diet of eight--in-the-box defenses. Foster will most likely see fewer touches as the highly touted Ben Tate returns from injury.

Charles, on the other hand, was the NFL's second-leading rusher in 2010 and topped all backs with an average of 6.4 yards per attempt—while not even leading his team in carries. Despite the addition of receivers Steve Breaston and Jonathan Baldwin to supplement Dwayne Bowe, the Chiefs will remain a run-first team after topping the league in rushing yards and attempts last year, making the multidimensional Charles the No. 1 back.

Elsewhere, take a look at Jahvid Best. Although he played in all 16 games as a rookie, he was plagued by turf toe for most of the year. Now fully healed and backed up by the less than electric Jerome Harrison, Mike Bell and Aaron Brown, Best is set to take his place among the top backs. He should blow the doors off his 555-rushing- and 487-receiving-yard totals in 2010.

In the end, it may feel weird to draft six backs in the first 10 rounds, at the expense of wide receivers. But that position is easier to fill from a normally well-stocked waiver wire. Let's put it this way: Having an equal mix of receivers and backs will make you traditional and dumb; having a few extra backs will make you a winner.

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