In my opinion, the standard lineup in future fantasy football leagues will no longer feature two running backs. Continuing on something I detailed a few weeks ago on the Seahawks blog Field Gulls, I think the way we view running backs will continue to change over the course of the next few years, and it will start to seem tiresome to the people that get stuck with the 24th-best running back in a 12-team league.
For comparison's sake, the player who had the 23rd-most carries in the NFL last season was Trent Richardson. And I think we can all agree on how awesome Richardson was last season.
Richardson had 188 carries for 563 yards and three touchdowns, with 316 yards and another touchdown in the air. Remember also that it's not just a matter of starting Richardson every week, but much like the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts found out last season, you're also going to spend a lot of time trying to find out how to replace Richardson. And in a bye week, you could find yourself reaching for Willis McGahee or Bernard Pierce and hope to get lucky. I realize that luck is always a factor in fantasy sports, but certainly if the game itself is changing, so too should our fantasy leagues.
And the game is leaving the "single workhorse running back" philosophy behind.
I think the future "standard" for a fantasy league (and sure, there is no real standard anymore) should be QB, WR, WR, WR, RB, W/R/T, TE on offense. In a 10-team league, I'd actually encourage a second QB before I'd encourage a second RB.
(In actuality I wouldn't encourage anything because I don't honestly care about your particular fantasy league.)
Last season, 13 players rushed for at least 1,000 yards, while 24 had over 1,000 yards receiving. That list of 1,000-yard rushers included one player who drew almost no interest on the free agent market (Knowshon Moreno) and another that was released (Chris Johnson.)
The truth is that right now receivers are more reliable sources of production than running backs are. Even though Wes Welker was 44th in receiving yards (778) he still had 73 catches and 10 touchdowns. Marvin Jones was 53rd in yards, but also scored 10 times. Even if I started looking at players that weren't in the top 70 in receiving yards, I could still find players of interest to me next season and worth looking at in the draft:
Plus injury cases like Reggie Wayne, Julio Jones, Rob Gronkowski, and Randall Cobb. Hell, I'd take a flier on Malcom Floyd (two games last season) before I would have interest in some running backs that are in competition to start on their own teams.
If Tre Mason or Bishop Sankey are already one of the top 24 fantasy running backs in the NFL for next season, doesn't that seem like sort of a problem? If Eddie Lacy is already one of the top 10, isn't that a little suspect? And how much faith do you have in Lacy for next season, considering what we just saw with Doug Martin and David Wilson?
The Seahawks drafted Christine Michael in the second round last year and he was active for a couple of games. Even if they already have Marshawn Lynch (who himself has only been a "sure thing" for really just the last two seasons) Michael really only got significant playing time once and couldn't eclipse Robert Turbin yet. So it's hard to rely on a rookie back as much as you might a rookie receiver.
Last season saw additions to the "good fantasy pile of receivers" like Keenan Allen, Josh Gordon, Alshon Jeffery, T.Y. Hilton, and Michael Floyd, plus 1,000+ yards from Kendall Wright, Julian Edelman, Harry Douglas, and Brian Hartline.
Even when we saw a number of elite receivers get injured or have down seasons, it was just a matter of someone else stepping up. Even though the Denver Broncos lost Eric Decker, few people expect much of a drop-off going to Emmanuel Sanders instead. Teams will continue to pass more, find new ways to get the receiver the ball, and even if a team still runs the ball "a lot," many of those runs will be transferred off to the backup, the quarterback, or even a receiver like Percy Harvin.
The idea of a "singular" running back is fading away. They take too many hits, don't have careers that last too long, and will see their "production ceiling" get closer to the ground as time goes on.
For the second year in a row, no running backs were drafted in the first round, with Sankey being the latest "first back taken" in NFL history, going 54th overall to the Titans. In Tennessee, the team felt comfortable replacing a player that has had six straight 1000-yard seasons with a second round pick. The Titans have also drafted an offensive lineman with their first round pick for the second year in a row, highlighting the fact that in recent seasons offensive linemen (even guards) are being valued higher than running backs.
A point of confusion that people seem to infer from my argument about "the death of the running back" is that they believe I am saying that teams won't run the football anymore. That isn't what I'm saying at all. In fact, the Bengals became the first team to draft a running back in 2013 (Giovani Bernard, 37th overall) and the second team to draft a back in 2014 (Jeremy Hill, 55th.) As you can see, Cincinnati wants to run the football effectively.
And the cost of doing that now is not a first round pick. The team that has invested the most in running backs in the draft over the last two years has done so in the second round, while picking from the top of the class. Three years ago, Richardson was the third overall pick (and traded a year later) while Doug Martin (31st) and David Wilson (32nd) were barely taken in the first round.
Only Mark Ingram went in the first round (28th) in 2011, meaning that Richardson is the only running back in the last four years to go in the top 27. And he has been the biggest disappointment of his class.
This does not mean that running backs won't be first round picks in the future. This does not mean that no team will feature a single back. However, I do think that you're going to see more quarterbacks running the football, more teams spelling the starter with young players, and more veterans getting released and replaced with cheaper players because teams would rather invest in the offensive line (and the passing game, offense and defense included) than use a high pick or give a large free agent contract, to a RB.