Draft strategy evolves from year to year, month to month, and even week to week. An injury can befall your squad and instantly you can go from contender to pretender. How do you circumvent the unpredictability of fantasy football? You must evolve your rationale. You must try to predict the trends before the trends break. You must prepare your squad for the worst possible scenario. Taking a page from Frank Dupont's (from Fantasydouche.com and author of Game Plan) philosophy, you must draft as if your first round selection will be unavailable.
I'm attempting to prepare drafters, come August, for the undeniably difficult dilemma of choosing running backs for your fantasy football team. The old philosophy used to be to take running backs early, but it appears to be shifting quite dramatically and quite quickly to the idea of drafting quarterbacks and wide receivers with first and even second round selections. It's very easy to see this philosophy at play, just browse early 2012 mock drafts and many fantasy gurus have QBs, WRs, and even TEs as VERY early picks. I'd suggest that if there was ever a time to stay entranced in yesteryear's RB philosophy, it's this year.
First off, the running back pool that should constitute bonafide RB1 or RB2 positions on your squad is at best 17 runners deep; this number is probably closer to 14 or 15 if you don't like drafting aged backs. The QB pool might be as deep as 13. This means that in a 10-team league, you are OK with waiting on QB selections until the mid rounds. As a consequence of an increased importance on the passing game, the WR position is looking 28-29 players deep for your WR1 and WR2 roster spots; this shows the extreme depth at this position. Although there are no guarantees at any round or at any selection, it does appear to be smarter to invest an early choice at the RB position just based purely on depth.
Furthermore, you can definitely alter your fellow fantasy managers' drafting scheme by stocking up on RBs early. Using this strategy, you will always match-up better with your opponents at the RB positions and thus have the stronger edge because RBs can get you yards on the ground and through the air. Not to mention, using this philosophy you will still be able to get a good QB (such as Tony Romo or Philip Rivers or, at worst, Ben Roethlisberger) that will be at least competitive against an opponent that might have invested a first rounder in Drew Brees. Additionally, I'd much rather be scrambling for WRs than RBs come round four or five. My rationale is that since the passing game appears to be more evident in the NFL than in years past, you can find quality WR potential not only at the WR1 position on below average teams but also at the WR2 and possibly WR3 position on good to great teams. This still leaves you with options such as Reggie Wayne, Eric Decker, Torrey Smith, Jeremy Maclin, and maybe Brandon Lloyd looking you in the face after you've secured 2-3 RBs and 1 WR with your first couple draft choices.
Additionally, since running back by committees (RBBCs) are diluting the league more and more with every passing year (due to the short shelf life of NFL RBs), it is more important than ever to get RBs early so that you don't have to deal with making decisions in regards to LaGarrette Blount, Donald Brown, Reggie Bush, and Beanie Wells. If you are debating these runners for your RB2, prepare to miss the playoffs in 2012. I alluded to Frank Dupont's philosophy earlier in regards to preparing for the loss of your first rounder; thus, to put this into action let's envision you go RB, WR, WR, QB, RB, TE. This strategy might be employed more often than not this upcoming season due to the big name WRs that will be present in round two (think Roddy White, A.J. Green, Greg Jennings, Hakeem Nicks, and Mike Wallace). Now let's say your RB1 goes down (reminisce to 2011 - Jamaal Charles , Darren McFadden, Adrian Peterson , and Peyton Hillis ). If you drafted your RBs in round 1 and 5 and your RB1 goes down, guess what? Your new RB1 is your 5th rounder. You'll probably be looking at guys named Shonn Greene and DeAngelo Williams at that point. Do not let that flashy WR in round two upset your draft and stay true to the RB, because if you drafted RB, RB, RB (depending on if your league starts 3 RBs or incorporates FLEX spots), WR, WR, QB then you would be sitting on the likes of two of the following guys: Jamaal Charles, Trent Richardson, DeMarco Murray , Adrian Peterson, or Matt Forte among several others to hold the fort.
In order to understand the odds of RB injury, I used ESPN's 2011 Mock Draft 2.0 (from August 10, 2011) to gauge the percentage of games the top 20 RBs taken in the first four rounds of last year play over the course of the entire season. At year's end, those top 20 RBs had played in 250 of a possible 320 NFL regular season games for an average of 78%. This means that (on average) your RB1 and RB2 will only compete in 12.5 games during the regular season; in other words, each of them will miss 3.5 games. If you have an additional RB that could be considered a RB2, then you have prepared for this inevitable statistic by building depth. If the fantasy gods look highly upon you and you incur no injuries then a championship push is within grasp. Alternatively, a trade of your third RB for a QB or WR upgrade right before the trade deadline seems to also be a logical fantasy squad decision too.
Many people will argue that too much uncertainty revolves around the RBs in round one and two because of previous injury or the dreaded RBBC. The RBBC argument IS the reason why you should draft RBs early and not the other way around; furthermore, I'd rather gamble on drafting RBs early than gamble on RBs late going into the 2012 season. The ultimate decision is up to you so utilize your ability to mock draft on fantasy websites, follow injury updates, and do your homework in order to shape your strategy – do you want to contend or pretend?