The NFL has changed. Ten years ago successful fantasy players grabbed a feature back in the first round and, ideally, two of them in the first three rounds. Those 20- to 25-carry-per-game studs powered a steady lineup.
Then, new rules that were favorable to offenses, some of which were designed to protect the health of passers and catchers, made it an aerial league. From 1920 to 2010 only two quarterbacks threw for 5,000 yards in a season: Dan Marino (5,084 in 1984) and Drew Brees (5,069 in 2008). Last year alone there were three (Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford). Super Bowl champion Eli Manning fell just 67 yards short, and the MVP, Aaron Rodgers, missed by 357 yards.
Even teams that still place a premium on the running game do it differently. Short passes often take the place of handoffs, and the latest coaching philosophy calls for a corps of running backs that are employed much like pitchers in a bullpen: Each has a role and they all share the load. The traditional lead back is largely gone, with teams instead opting for a Belichickian approach of dividing touches to both reduce the reliance on one man—the loss of whom could prove devastating to a football team—while making it more difficult for opponents to game plan against them.
As a result, the early rounds of fantasy drafts have become positional free-for-alls. The usual mix of running backs and quarterbacks are spiced with the occasional wideout (Calvin Johnson, anyone?) or (gasp!) a tight end (Hello, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham). In this new fantasy reality, which backs should be on your team? Read on.