2013 Fantasy Football Preview

In most fantasy football leagues, running backs dominate the first round of the draft. There are two good reasons for this:

1. The drop-off from the top RBs to the middle of the pack is extremely steep.

2. Most leagues require two starting RBs, so if you don't draft one early, you'll end up with a glaring hole in your roster.

For standard scoring leagues with 14 or fewer teams, I don't believe you should spend a first-round draft choice on any wide receiver except Calvin Johnson. There's not an obvious difference among A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall, Roddy White, etc., and the one you draft in the middle of the second round, or beginning of the third, is probably just as good as the guy you took 12th overall. Only Megatron is a good value early. Honestly, if you take the second WR in your draft, you're probably kind of a chump.

Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are proven fantasy performers, and there's every reason to expect big years from both. But Peyton Manning, Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick, and Matt Ryan all look poised for pretty great seasons, too. Manning and Newton will go in the third round of most drafts, with players like Ryan and Kaepernick slipping to the fourth round in many leagues. If you can draft a stud RB like Marshawn Lynch and still grab an elite QB like Ryan later on, that's a much better value than Aaron Rodgers paired with a fourth-round RB like Lamar Miller or Darren McFadden.

Even if you like the RBs who are slipping, like Reggie Bush or DeMarco Murray, you can play them as RB2. Don't pass on a top running back in the first round to choose a QB who's probably 10% better than the guy you can get two or three rounds later. There are a lot of quarterbacks you can count on to produce points, but that is not true for RBs.

Jimmy Graham is the consensus tight end in fantasy this year, and he's going in the first round of some drafts. That's not the craziest thing in the world, but I'd rather fill my RB1 spot and hope he's still there in the second round, or grab someone like Jason Witten in the fourth. In standard leagues, drafting defense or kicker in the early rounds is lunacy.

So you probably want a running back early. Your early picks are the most important selections, and you want to get them right. Which RBs look the best this season?

Top Tier

These players were top 10 RBs in 2012, and will go in the top 6-8 of most 2013 drafts.

Adrian Peterson should go first overall in almost every league. He's not going to repeat last year's success. No player in history has had two seasons like that back-to-back. But he was the best last year, and throughout his career, he's been a top-five RB in fantasy. Peterson got hurt two years ago, but it was the first major injury of his career, and he certainly looked healthy in 2012, so he doesn't seem like a risk, and the upside is always there.

It's not obvious who to select after Peterson. In PPR leagues, my choice is Doug Martin. As a rookie, he rushed for 1,454 yards, caught 49 passes for another 472 yards, and scored 12 TDs. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry and only fumbled once. And perhaps most important, he seems like less of an injury risk than Arian Foster. Foster is a touchdown machine, but he carries a heavy workload, he's had injuries each of the last two years, and last season he wasn't involved in the passing game. Even in non-PPR leagues, you miss those 400 receiving yards he gave you in 2010-11.

Because of his workload and injury risk, you have to handcuff with Ben Tate, and Tate will go in the middle rounds of many drafts. You may have to reach for Tate and wait a round to draft your WR2 or Team Defense, which is a heavy price to pay when you're already investing a high first-round pick. Foster is one of the most talented runners the NFL has seen in years, but I worry about the way the Texans use him, and I wouldn't use a top-five selection on him in 2013.

I prefer Marshawn Lynch and C.J. Spiller. I'd bet that 2012 will stand as the best season of Lynch's career. But I also think he's a safe, solid pick in the early-to-middle first round. He's the full-time starter for a good team, and he's going to score 12-15 points a game in standard formats. Spiller is kind of a wild card, but he's got huge upside, especially in PPR leagues. He spent the beginning of last season splitting time with Fred Jackson, and still ended up as a top-10 fantasy RB.

Jamaal Charles is going second or third in many mock drafts, which I think is too high. I love his talent, but he doesn't score touchdowns. That may change a little bit with Thomas Jones and Peyton Hillis out of the picture, but I just don't see Charles with double-digit TDs, and that's a problem if you're taking him early in the first round. I like him as a 7-12 overall pick, not a 2-6.

Top-Scoring Fantasy RBs, 2010-12
PPR score appears in parentheses

1. Arian Foster, 852 (1,011)
2. Adrian Peterson, 740 (834)
3. Ray Rice, 733 (933)
4. LeSean McCoy, 655 (835)
5. Marshawn Lynch, 594 (Chris Johnson, 724)

Second Tier

These players present risk, uncertainty, or just a low ceiling, and most will be drafted toward the end of the first round in 10-14 team leagues. They could slip to the early second round in leagues with 12 teams or less.

LeSean McCoy missed the end of last season with an injury, and Bryce Brown played well during his absence, so there's a danger that he could get hurt again, or end up splitting time with Brown. But he's a proven talent (see list above), he was playing well before the injury, he's money in PPR, and the Eagles can't possibly commit as many red zone turnovers as they did last season.

Trent Richardson is probably the safest bet of any second-tier RB. A rookie in 2012, he was a top-10 fantasy RB, a little higher in PPR (51 rec). He rushed for under 1,000 yards, 18th in the NFL, which is a huge red flag. But he caught a lot of passes and he scored 12 touchdowns. I like Richardson because he should be the clear starter all season, with none of his backups likely to steal carries. But I worry about a runner who averages under 3.6 ypc, and I don't think he'll see as many catches or touchdowns this season.

The Browns expect improved pass production this year, and that usually means more passes downfield, with fewer underneath to the RB. And last season, only five teams (Chiefs, Cardinals, Jags, Raiders, Eagles) scored fewer TDs than Cleveland. Richardson accounted for nearly half of the team's offensive scoring, and that's not likely to recur in 2013. I would be thrilled with Richardson as an RB2, but as RB1, he's probably just patching a hole. Depending on how your draft goes, maybe you need to take him just so you've got an RB1 who will give you points every week, but to win your league, you'll need to hit big in the rest of your draft.

I have always liked Ray Rice. He's a dynamic runner with fantastic agility and acceleration, and even in non-PPR leagues, his receiving gives him a numbers edge on almost any RB in fantasy. I don't like Rice this year, for two reasons:

1. The Ravens won't be as good this season. They've lost a lot of valuable players, and that means they'll score fewer touchdowns. It also tends to mean more passing and less running, but that's less of a worry for Rice than most RBs. The biggest losses have come on defense, but that affects field position.

2. Bernard Pierce. Toward the end of last season, it looked like the Ravens were using a committee with Rice and Pierce. Here are their rush attempts, broken into groups of four games:

Chart

Rice started the season getting 75-80% of the carries, which is normal for him. He's also split time with Willis McGahee and Ricky Williams, and he'll deliver a great fantasy line with that workload. But in the playoffs and the last month of the regular season, Pierce was taking about 1/3 of the workload, and that could be even higher this season.

2012 was a down year by Rice's standards, but he was still a top-10 fantasy RB — top-5 in PPR. For this year, I project him more as top-15 and top-10 PPR, so he's still a legit RB1, but probably not a gamebreaker. If you draft him 10th or 12th overall, you're not getting a bargain, you're drafting him right about where he should be.

Last season, Alfred Morris came out of nowhere to rush for 1,600 yards and 13 TDs. No one expects him to reproduce those numbers in 2013. Everything broke right for Washington's offense last year, and it will probably come back to earth a little bit. Mike Shanahan shuffles RBs like he can't help it, so there's actually a question whether Morris will be the starter all season. And he's not involved in the passing game at all (11 rec), which limits his value in all formats and probably pushes him out of the top 10 in PPR. Picking around 10-16 overall, I'd take Morris, but I wouldn't be excited about it; I'd be nervous.

Third Tier

These players will go in the second or third round of most drafts. They're consistent players with limited upside or talented players with huge question marks.

I don't endorse any of these guys as RB1. I've only named 10 running backs above, so in some leagues, you may get stuck and have to take what's available, but if you're building your team around these players, you could be in trouble. If you draft late in the first round, and you play in a large league or your opponents go really RB-heavy, you might want to reach for receivers early and go RB in the third and fourth rounds.

Safe and Boring: Steven Jackson, Frank Gore, and Stevan Ridley

Jackson and Gore are perennials. Every season, they're in the top 10, but not top five, RBs in fantasy. Last year Jackson got hurt and slipped to about 15th, but a lot of fans are excited about his move to the explosive Falcons offense, and he's going in the late first round of some drafts. Ridley, a rookie in 2012, rushed for 1,200 yards and 12 TDs. Many fans expect the Patriots to emphasize the run game even more this season, so forecasts are rosy. But Ridley subs out (usually for Shane Vereen) on passing downs. He only caught 6 passes last season. Barring injury, all of these guys are safe bets, but none of them will be top-five fantasy RBs.

Injury Risks: Matt Forte, Maurice Jones-Drew, DeMarco Murray, and Darren McFadden

I have no use for McFadden in fantasy. He can't stay healthy, and last season he averaged 3.3 yards a carry. I guess he might have some value in PPR, but in almost every league, he'll get drafted before he's worth the risk. Forte only missed one game last season, but he's just not a workhorse. Rush attempts, by season:

2008: 316
2009: 258
2010: 237
2011: 203
2012: 248

Maybe that will change with the new coaching regime in Chicago, but Forte's limited workload, especially near the goal line (he's never rushed for 10 TDs in a season) caps his value. He's one of those guys who seems to suffer a lot of little injuries, so he probably won't blow out his knee in Week 2 and wreck your season, but he might leave at halftime twice and cost you a couple games when you were counting on him. His value is highest in PPR, where he's good for about 50 catches per season.

Jones-Drew keeps slipping to me in mock drafts. I feel like he's always my second-round pick, and he could probably be yours if you want him. I would love to talk myself into MJD, that he's a great value in the early-to-middle second round, and last year's disappointment was just from the holdout and injury. Jones-Drew is 28, and that's a little old for a running back, but it's not a red flag; lots of RBs have had great years at that age. But how many RBs have a down season at age 27 and then return to elite status?

With ½-PPR scoring (reasonably accurate for both PPR and standard formats), MJD scored 69 fantasy points last season. Since the 16-game schedule, the only RB 27 or older who scored under 75 fantasy points (½-PPR) in a non-strike season and scored at least 220 fantasy points (13.75 per game, 10th in 2012) the next year was Dorsey Levens. He missed most of 1998 with an injury, and he was splitting time before that, starting only 4 of his 7 games. The next season, he started 14 games on a strong offense with Brett Favre, and most of his value comes from TDs and receiving. It's not really comparable to Jones-Drew, for several reasons:

* Levens was 29 that year, but younger in "football years" — he had 606 career rushing attempts before that season, compared to 1,570 for MJD.

* The '99 Packers had a great offense, so Levens got a lot of TD opportunities. The Jaguar offense has ranked in the bottom five two years in a row, and even if it improves, it won't be top-10.

* The '99 Packers passed a ton. Levens only averaged 3.7 ypc, but he caught 71 passes for 573 yards. MJD isn't used that way in the receiving game.

There are about a dozen RBs whose great seasons came more than one year later, or who rebounded to a lower level — say, 175 fantasy points (10.9 per game, 18th in 2012) — but most of them (from both groups) switched teams, usually to a high-scoring offense where most of their value came from touchdowns. That's just not going to happen with the 2013 Jaguars.

Jones-Drew is a full-time starter, not expected to lose playing time in a committee, and unless he gets injured he's guaranteed to produce some value. He was a top-5 RB in 2011, and his injury (missed 10 games) is fully sufficient to explain last year's disappointing stats. But there's no precedent for 28-year-old RBs to return to top-10 status so quickly, especially without switching to a better offense. My gut says that MJD should rush for 1,000 yards and score 5-8 TDs, with an upside that's more like 1,300 yards and 10 TDs. My head says that 27-year-old RBs who miss 2/3 of the season don't come back the next year and play well. Forget 1,300 yards and 10 TDs, even 1,000 yards and 8 scores isn't realistic. Guys who get hurt at that age don't come back and produce. Ahman Green (2005-06) looks like the best case scenario.

My favorite player in this group is DeMarco Murray. His average draft position (ADP) is around 55-60, depending on where you look. That's rounds 4-6 in most leagues. He missed half of last season with injuries, but when healthy, he's a full-time starter for a productive offense. He's always played well when he's on the field, and he has some additional upside in PPR. The injury risk is there, but he has tremendous upside and looks like an exceptional value in the late third or early fourth round. If he falls to you after that, awesome, but you can't count on it in a league with 12 or more teams.

Inconsistency Risks: Chris Johnson, Chris Johnson, Reggie Bush, and Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson was the 12th-highest-scoring RB in fantasy last year. He was about the same the year before, and even better his first three seasons, including no. 1 in 2009. But each of the last two seasons, CJ has gotten off to excruciatingly slow starts, and he's very up-and-down, totally unpredictable from one game to the next. In four of his first five games last season, Johnson rushed for under 25 yards and scored no TDs. Using a ½-PPR system, he scored under 10 points seven times, and under 8 in five of them. That's not worth a 2nd-round pick. Up-and-down players can help bad teams win an extra game or two, but on good teams you want consistency, and Johnson doesn't provide that.

In 2012, Reggie Bush rushed for just under 1,000 yards, gained just under 300 receiving yards, and scored 8 TDs. He ranked about 14th in fantasy, a little higher in PPR and a little lower in standard scoring. In 2013, he'll play for the Detroit Lions, where his rushing average should improve and his PPR value goes through the roof. Bush is 28, and his workload has always been sensible (967 career rush attempts). I think he's a great value in the late third or early fourth round. His ceiling is much lower than DeMarco Murray's, but the injury risk is less of a concern, too. I'd draft him as a high-quality RB2. If Bush is your RB1, you'd better have Calvin Johnson, Drew Brees, and Roddy White already.

No Track Record: Lamar Miller, Le'Veon Bell

Miller is expected to start for the Dolphins, and they should be a lot better this year. They lost Jake Long, but added a desperately needed deep-threat (Mike Wallace) and upgraded their defense. If Miller gets most of the playing time (as expected), he should rush for 1,100 yards and score 8 TDs, no problem. But Miller has only played 13 games in the NFL, and most of that was on special teams. He has four games with more than 5 carries, and none with more than 10. If you draft Miller, you're drafting a position (Dolphins RB) more than a specific player.

The same goes for Bell, a second-round pick out of Michigan State. He's a big back (6-1, 230) and he appears to have the inside track to start for the Steelers. If they can actually keep a starting RB healthy, he should gain 1,000 yards in his sleep, and 230-pound backs don't sub out on the goal line. But we haven't seen Bell in the NFL, and the team is being coy about its backfield situation. I'd draft Bell in the right situation, but there's a risk level here that makes me uncomfortable.

UPDATE: Bell was injured on Sunday.

Summary of Third-Tier RBs:

Steven Jackson, Frank Gore, and Stevan Ridley: Minimal risk, but no upside. Very low-quality RB1 or very high-quality RB2. Matt Forte is probably in this category, too, but there's greater concern about injury and more of his value is in PPR.

Chris Johnson: He'll go in the second round of most leagues. That's way too early for my taste. I'd only draft him as an RB2; you can't count on him as an RB1.

Maurice Jones-Drew: He'll go in the second round of most leagues. That seems like a good value, but I'm not sure it really is. He has to be considered a gamble and I'd draft him as an RB2, not an RB1.

DeMarco Murray and Reggie Bush: 55-60 ADP seems like a steal to me. If your league includes a flex option, you might try to take both of them. Murray has RB1 upside.

Lamar Miller and Le'Veon Bell: Unproven players expected to get most of the snaps on good teams. They're getting drafted around the same time as Murray and Bush, both of whom I prefer. Both have upside, but that's gravy. Assume RB2.

Darren McFadden and Ryan Mathews: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Other RBs of Interest

* Darren Sproles is a great mid-round pick in PPR leagues. He's an RB2 or flex option.

* David Wilson and Andre Brown play for the Giants. If one becomes a full-time starter, he should post low-end RB1 numbers. I worry about committee and injuries, and I'm looking in other directions. You could draft Wilson as an RB2 and cross your fingers, but Brown is probably just a lottery ticket.

* Ahmad Bradshaw switched from the Giants to the Colts. He's expected to see most of the work and he's a decent receiver, but I'd be shocked if he scores double-digit TDs. You could draft him as a backup with upside.

* Rookie Eddie Lacy is the top RB for the Packers. They've used RBBC the past few years, which kills fantasy value. If they return to the model that got Ryan Grant back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons (2008-09), Lacy could produce RB1 fantasy numbers.

* Rashard Mendenhall can't stay healthy and he plays for the Cardinals. Draft at your own risk.

* Shane Vereen is expected to assume the Kevin Faulk role for New England. He has value in PPR and if Stevan Ridley gets hurt.

* I've taken Giovani Bernard in a bunch of mock drafts. The Bengals traded up to draft him, the first RB chosen this year. He may split time with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but he's taking first-team reps, and if he becomes the established starter, he could rush for 1,200 yards and score 10 TDs. He'll also get more work than Law Firm in the passing game, so he has PPR value. He's a little risky as RB2, but he's undervalued in most leagues, and you can probably get him as a backup/flex play.

* DeAngelo Williams is another sleeper. He's been stuck in a committee the last few years, but it sounds like he might get more carries in 2013, and he's always shown explosive potential. Take him as your third or fourth RB, high-risk but high-reward.

* Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead are battling for carries with the Rams. If either one emerges as a clear leader, he's severely undervalued in fantasy drafts.

Backups Worth Drafting

We're talking here about insurance policies and lottery tickets. Many fantasy owners draft their RB1's backup in the late rounds, which we call handcuffing. But some backup RBs are so tempting that other owners will snipe them from you. The most notable names this year:

* Ben Tate, HOU: He's produced in the past, Arian Foster is an injury risk, and whoever plays RB for the Texans is going to score a ton of fantasy points. Part of the reason I'm hesitant to draft Foster is because Tate goes in the middle rounds of aggressive drafts, and it's tough to secure that handcuff.

* Bryce Brown, PHI: He played well last season after LeSean McCoy got hurt.

* Michael Bush, CHI: Matt Forte is an injury risk and Bush gets a lot of the goal-line work even when he's healthy.

* Bernard Pierce, BAL: Started stealing some carries from Ray Rice late last season.

* Jacquizz Rodgers, ATL: Steven Jackson is 30, and Rodgers has PPR value.

Quick Thoughts on...

Quarterbacks

In standard formats, I'm targeting one of the following seven players: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Colin Kaepernick, Peyton Manning, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan. I've been getting Ryan in most mock drafts, because he's usually available in the fourth round of 14-team drafts. I don't see a big difference among these guys, so getting any of them in the fourth round is a tremendous value.

I worry about Robert Griffin's knee (and future injuries) and I haven't seen enough from Russell Wilson to feel comfortable with him as my QB1. If I miss out on the top 7, I might just wait and draft Tony Romo or Eli Manning, then take a backup with upside, like Josh Freeman or Sam Bradford. Carson Palmer could be an interesting QB2 in deeper leagues.

Wide Receiver

Calvin Johnson is the clear standout. He's been the top WR (by a lot) for two seasons in a row, he's still young, and everyone agrees he'll score more touchdowns in 2013 than 2012. After Megatron, no one stands out to me. In most 12-to-14-team drafts, I'll go RB in round 1, and some combination of RB/WR in rounds 2 and 3, with a QB in 4 and hope a good TE lasts until round 5.

For that top WR in 2/3, I'm hoping to get one of the following: Dez Bryant, Victor Cruz, Larry Fitzgerald, A.J. Green, Andre Johnson, Julio Jones, Brandon Marshall, Demaryius Thomas, Reggie Wayne, Roddy White. Bryant probably has the most upside. Fitzgerald had a terrible 2012, but he's getting a real quarterback again, which should help. Jones is a human highlight reel, but he's shown fragility, and I prefer White's consistency to Julio's upside. I like Marshall a lot; I'd be surprised if he doesn't catch 100 passes, and shocked if he's below 80. I worry a little bit about Thomas losing targets to Eric Decker and Wes Welker.

Antonio Brown should be Pittsburgh's top WR, and I think he's undervalued, a bargain in the middle rounds. In mid-late rounds, I really like Miles Austin (injury-prone but big upside) and Anquan Boldin (played great last year and moved to a team that should score a lot of touchdowns). For deeper drafts, I see value in DeAndre Hopkins, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Julian Edelman. Hopkins has created some buzz in preseason, and Houston's offense is so strong that even a middling talent like Kevin Walter can produce good numbers if he becomes a clear no. 2 WR.

Patterson, a first-round draft choice, steps into the hole created by Percy Harvin's departure. The Vikings also added Greg Jennings, and with Adrian Peterson, they'll always field a run-first offense, but I bet Patterson will lead the team in receiving yardage, probably in the neighborhood of 900. Edelman was the Patriots' 6th-leading receiver last season (21 rec, 235 yds, 3 TD), but four of the five guys ahead of him are no longer on the team. He may see more playing time, and he's the backup to Danny Amendola, who gets injured once every 18 seconds. He's got some upside in the later rounds of large leagues.

Tight End

Rob Gronkowski is by far the best tight end in the NFL right now, but he's had trouble staying healthy and he won't be ready at the beginning of the season, leaving Jimmy Graham (who is basically just a really big wide receiver) as the clear top option at this position. Graham is far enough ahead that he'll go in the first or second round of many drafts, when you need to draft RB1 and WR1 before they're all gone.

I'd rather wait until the early-middle rounds and take Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Gronk, or Vernon Davis. If I don't get one of those four, I'll focus on other positions and take a couple TEs at the end of the draft. Jordan Cameron is undervalued in most drafts, and Ed Dickson probably won't even get drafted in most leagues. He's recovering from injury and might miss a week or two at the beginning of the season, but with Dennis Pitta out for the year, Dickson is the Ravens' top TE and should post decent numbers.

Team Defense

The least predictable position in fantasy, and the one most dictated by that week's opponent. I still remember the 2003 fantasy season, when one of the guys in my league used all his add/drops to get whoever was playing the Cardinals and got the best overall Defense score in our league. If you choose a three-team rotation that consistently plays some combination of the Cardinals, Chiefs, Jaguars, and Jets, you could probably do pretty well just with that.

Predicting which offenses will struggle is difficult — any one of the four I mentioned above could improve greatly this season — but if you don't land one of the top defenses (SEA, SF, CHI, HOU), you might consider trying to pair two weaker defenses whose schedules complement one another. The Bengals, for instance, have tough-looking matchups in Weeks 3, 5, 7, and 10. The Chargers, Titans, and Falcons all have friendly schedules in those weeks, so they pair well with Cincinnati. Defenses that strike me as undervalued include Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Miami.

Kicker

Just pick an above-average kicker on an above-average team. Don't draft this position before the second-to-last round of your league. It's often hard to predict, and there's seldom a significant difference in the scores of good kickers vs. average kickers.

Draft Strategy

I've had success in fantasy by choosing low-risk players in the early rounds and high-risk players later on. If your first or second pick gets injured, or just fails to produce, your season is probably over. Don't gamble on those picks, because you can't afford to lose. But once you've got your basic needs addressed, roll the dice. In most leagues, it's easy to find players who can score 5-8 points a week, so don't bother drafting someone at that level. At that point, you can afford to take some chances and go after potential gamebreakers: injury risks and the backups who could become major players if the guy ahead of them gets hurt.

In all rounds, make value picks; try to avoid drafting a position just to fill holes.

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