Elite Fantasy Football Running Backs: Time To Buy Or Sell?

  • Brandon C. Williams & Chris Mitchell, RotoExperts.com

Five weeks are in the Fantasy football books, and for owners that drafted running backs early and often it’s reading like a Stephen King horror story.  Meanwhile, for those who drafted elite QBs or Jimmy Graham early, it’s reading like a Tom Clancy action thriller where the good guys win and you are the hero who saved the world. We don’t make Twilight references here folks.  Depending on your fiction of choice you either need to be prepping for the playoffs or scrambling to save your season. The waiver wire has provided you with booms or busts and now it’s time to supplement your roster through trades, with the most volatile of positions to fill being running backs. This week we debate whether to buy or sell those elite but disappointing running backs. Are they buy-low steals, or is it time to sell off those busts?

POINT – Brandon C. Williams

My, what a slag heap we have…..

This was supposed to be the season where normalcy returned to Fantasy Football. After the hard lessons learned by those who drafted quarterbacks early in 2012, and the seasons of Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster and Alfred Morris among others, this year’s drafts felt nostalgic, as it was the running backs that were plucked off most boards before the 15th overall pick.

Entering Week 6, only Jamaal Charles (120.70 Fantasy Points), Matt Forte (102.5) and LeSean McCoy (101) rank among the top 25 Fantasy players. Making matters more disjointed is that the so-called second-tier RBs are generally outperforming the “elite” backs. Look at the production of DeMarco Murray (88.20), Fred Jackson (87.20) and Knowshon Moreno (82.80), each exceeding the production of all running backs except Charles, Forte, McCoy and Peterson (90.30). So, while most of us went the lemmings’ route and have paid dearly for following the first round pack, those who patiently waited ended up getting QBs like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. Surely, there was someone in your draft who “reached” for Saints TE Jimmy Graham while everyone snickered.

Well, like my late grandmother once said, “laughing is catching.”

Yet, for all the doom and gloom that’s been projected for the top-tier backs, there is hope, especially if you’re a smooth operator with the cold-blooded style of a high stakes poker player who knows when to throw caution in the wind. Yes, there’s gold in these backs.

As Jack Nicholson told Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men,” roll the dice and take your chances. Find someone disenchanted with Foster, throw them a Murray/Eric Decker-type deal and there’s a good possibility that deal is done within hours. Woo someone by offering the sweet nothings of Danny Woodhead in exchange for someone like Martin or Morris, who both — on the surface — appear headed for a continued freefall from their rookie campaigns.

I executed a trade in an ESPN league in which I moved Charles and Richardson in exchange for Foster and Murray. This is a classic move in which each of us traded a frustrating pick (Richardson/Foster) along with a back (Charles/Murray) that has played to reasonable expectations. Taking on Foster now comes at a great time, especially since the Texans have buckled under the weight of QB Matt Schaub’s struggles. Coach Gary Kubiak trying to simplify things for Schaub should translate into more touches for Foster, whose value will rise in PPR leagues.

The numbers are in your favor; past history indicates that Foster and Rice will rebound with strong second halves. As Robert Griffin III continues to approach 100 percent, Morris (though currently nursing a rib injury) is a solid bet to recover, especially playing in the defensively deficient NFC East. Richardson should also thrive, having come from the brutal AFC North to an AFC South that lacks a dominant run defense. Among the top-tier backs, these four have the greatest potential to reward an owner willing to take the risk.

Of course, all of this becomes more tedious in keeper/dynasty leagues. Would I have made that trade in a keeper league? Hmmm…maybe. Backs like Martin, Richardson and Spiller would come at a higher cost if we were playing the keeper/dynasty card, while Foster, Lynch and Rice may come at a less than expected price, especially if the owner of one of those three is getting concerned that the workload each has carried since 2010 is starting to take its toll.

Remember, it’s not how they start, but how they finish. Sometimes, in the words of a Sheryl Crow song, a change will do you (and your Fantasy team) good.

COUNTERPOINT – Chris Mitchell

Let’s start with some facts and see if they scare you enough to close the book and start dumping running backs like it was bad sushi. In standard scoring leagues there are only two running backs among the Top 15 Fantasy scorers – Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy. The Chiefs defense is only one Fantasy point behind the Chiefs star running back in ESPN standard leagues and Jamaal Charles is the best RB in Fantasy sports right now. Charles and McCoy are also the only running backs drafted among the first 15 picks that are currently scoring in the Top 15, and McCoy comes in just under the wire at 14th overall.

Adrian Peterson ranks 17th, while Matt Forte ranks 20th in standard scoring. Knowshon Moreno, Fred Jackson, Joique Bell and Bilal Powell have all outscored pre-season Top 20 RBs Ray Rice, CJ Spiller, Doug Martin, Arian Foster, Reggie Bush, Frank Gore, Trent Richardson, Alfred Morris, Chris Johnson and Stevan Ridley. What is most telling is the length of that list of disappointing RBs. Charles and McCoy are the only running backs that have not disappointed, while Adrian Peterson has been merely acceptable. Matt Forte is probably the only top-tier running back that has outperformed expectations. Going running back early and often is killing Fantasy owners this season. I can see QB “early and often” blowback coming in next year’s drafts, and justifiably so. I know I am scared to death to draft RBs next season, and it’s only five weeks into this season.

Another reason you should be selling your disappointing RBs, especially in PPR leagues, is the quality of the second and third tier backs. When I make trades I almost always trade two for two, or three for two. An elite RB and a lesser wide receiver in exchange for an elite WR and lesser RB is a structure I see a lot. It’s the best way to construct a trade because it doesn’t make sense to get better at one position while blowing a massive hole in another. The lesser RBs are the better RBs and best values in Fantasy this season. For example, RBs that are important in the passing game like Danny Woodhead, or handcuffs/by committee RBs with flex value like Knowshon Moreno, and inexperienced or limited backs with opportunities like Eddie Lacy are all good values. If you can get an elite WR and a lesser, undervalued RB then you get your production along with good buy-low value, which is always a crucial part of getting better through the trade market.

A third reason to sell now is that the elite running backs are not going to regain their expected form. This shows in the lack of overall yards from scrimmage. You don’t chase Wins in Fantasy baseball and you shouldn’t chase TDs from your elite RBs in Fantasy football.  If your backs aren’t combining for large chunks of yardage from scrimmage, then they aren’t the first round studs you thought you were getting in August. Only three running backs have over 400 yards rushing, six with 390 yards or more. Only six running backs have over 200 yards receiving, and only two of them (Charles and Forte) have both 390-plus yards rushing and 200-plus yards receiving. Running backs aren’t getting big bulk yardage and they aren’t playing a big enough role in the passing game to pick up the slack. Finally, let’s touch on touchdowns before I go home as the winner of our weekly Point/Counterpoint argument. Adrian Peterson leads all running backs with five rushing touchdowns. There are five RBs with three touchdowns each. Charles is the only elite running back with more than one receiving touchdown.

If your elite running backs aren’t rushing for huge chunks of yardage, getting huge total yards from scrimmage or loading up their resumes with touchdowns, then what are they doing to help you dominate your league and win? There are enough second and third tier running backs out there that it’s time to downsize at RB and upsize at wide receiver and quarterback. Week 6 is upon us; work the phones, pump those email boxes with offers, hold out a sign – ELITE RBs FOR SALE, before it’s too late and your Fantasy season gets foreclosed on. Time is running out.

Photo via ICON SMI