Draft prep: Backs more plentiful than ever

The good ol' days of Fantasy Football were great. Back then, most every NFL team had one running back that would take on the bulk of the workload. Only occasionally would a team use more than one running back to split carries roughly in half. In those days, you hoarded as many full-time rushers as you could, drafting the backups with late-round picks just in case a starter got hurt.

The NFL has evolved, and in turn has made the prospect of drafting Fantasy running backs harder. That's running backs -- plural.

Take a gander at the NFL's depth charts and you'll see that you can count the number of teams that truly use a "full time" running back on one hand. Because clubs don't want to lose running backs to injury, many have gone to a committee backfield in an attempt to keep all rushers on the roster fresh.

To fully understand how the landscape has changed, you need to become familiar with the varieties of running backs out there.

• Full-time running backs regularly get over 20 touches per game including work at the goal line and on most third downs.

• Primary running backs near 20 touches per game with goal-line work but are pulled for most third downs and other occasional situations.

• Running down backs work in tandem with a passing down back and line up exclusively in running formations. Most, but not all, of these players are goal-line backs.

• Passing down backs work in tandem with a running down back and work mostly in passing situations and formations. Not many are goal-line backs.

• Utility running backs are running backs who can line up all over the field and be effective. Usually, these runners have excellent receiving skills.

• Short-yardage/goal-line backs (also known as Fantasy vultures) are expected to be in when an offense either needs a few yards for a first down or a touchdown.

Even with these classifications, not every running back is covered. Adrian Peterson starts and gets goal-line carries for the Vikings, but even he splits carries with Chester Taylor. The Steelers have yet to define roles for Willie Parker and rookie Rashard Mendenhall, and they might not until a few weeks into the regular season. The same goes for the Panthers, Broncos, Bears, Texans and Dolphins.

But with all these spin-off varieties of running backs, there's one huge positive for Fantasy owners. This year, more than any other year, the player pool at running back is as deep as the Grand Canyon. True, not many running backs will start the season as "megabacks," but there are so many players who should average 15 touches per game and have a shot at 100 total yards each week (assuming the matchup is at least decent).

Draft strategy

There's not many draft strategies when it comes to running backs. Most Fantasy owners want to gobble up as many as they can, along with one "insurance policy" to cover their best running back in case he gets hurt.

If anything, your running back draft strategy will coincide with how you view players at other positions. For instance, if your heart is set on getting Tom Brady, you are effectively passing on any top-10 Fantasy running back. If you want to pick up two wide receivers after you go running back in Round 1, then your second running back will be good but not great. For those of you who insist on spending your first three picks on running backs, be aware that the advantages you would have had in previous years aren't going to be there in 2008 because of the multitude of rushers with similar expectations available. That said, if you do go with the three-running back strategy, make sure you get three really stellar running backs.

Tier it up

The best way to break down running backs is to sort them by tiers, or levels of expected production. It goes without saying that you should pick from the highest tier available whenever you're picking a running back.

Perhaps the most significant pre-draft exercise you should do is set your running back tiers. As a result, your drafting will go much smoother and without many conundrums. If you're in a pinch, you can use the one below (essentially our running back rank list with minor tweaks). We'd recommend this list for those owners in standard-scoring leagues.

Plan for byes

One running back rule that hasn't changed is to be aware of the bye weeks for your ballcarriers. Drafting a bunch of running backs only to see them share the same bye week is a tactical nightmare that can be easily avoided.

The best plan of attack is to plot your running backs around the bye weeks of the top rushers you get. Keep in mind that if you draft two great rushers and a third comes available and has the same bye week as one of your first two, you should still draft him and deal with the bye week problems later.

Running Back Bye-Week Cheat Sheet
Bye Week Teams on bye Teams with projected favorable running matchups
Week 4 Colts, Dolphins, Giants, Lions, Patriots, Seahawks 49ers (at NO); Bills (at STL); Browns (at CIN); Chargers (at OAK);
Chiefs (vs. DEN); Jets (vs. ARI); Panthers (at ATL);
Week 5 Browns, Jets, Raiders, Rams Chargers (at MIA); Cowboys (vs. CIN); Packers (at ATL); Vikings (at NO)
Week 6 Bills, Chiefs, Steelers, Titans Bears (at ATL); Jets (vs. CIN); Raiders (at NO); Redskins (vs. STL);
Saints (vs. OAK); Texans (vs. MIA);
Week 7 Cardinals, Eagles, Falcons, Jaguars Cowboys (at STL); Giants (vs. SF); Jets (at OAK);
Panthers (vs. NO); Texans (vs. DET)
Week 8 Bears, Bengals, Broncos, Packers, Texans, Vikings Chargers (at NO); Eagles (vs. ATL); Jets (vs. KC);
Panthers (vs. ARI); Patriots (vs. STL); Ravens (vs. OAK)
Week 9 49ers, Chargers, Panthers, Saints Bears (vs. DET); Broncos (vs. MIA); Cardinals (at STL);
Falcons (at OAK); Jaguars (at CIN); Raiders (vs. ATL); Vikings (vs. HOU)
Week 10 Buccaneers, Cowboys, Ravens, Redskins Falcons (vs. NO); Jaguars (at DET); Jets (vs. STL); Panthers (at OAK);
Saints (at ATL); Seahawks (at MIA); Texans (vs. CIN)

For extensive information about any NFL running back, check out that player's profile page. For our running back rankings, click here.

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