Editor’s note: Welcome to Fantasy Plays. It’s written from the perspective of a fantasy football player who isn’t an expert, rather someone who enjoys the game and is sorting through the same decisions and challenges facing everyday players. Remember: it’s supposed to be fun, so learn from what worked and what didn’t — and don’t stress too much.
Your fantasy football draft draws near, and you’re stoked because you’ve got the top overall pick. Visions of grabbing the hands-down best player and watching him carry you to a title has you giddy.
Then you take a closer look at the candidates, and reality sets in: there just isn’t a clear-cut No. 1 this year.
No LaDainian Tomlinson coming off a 31-touchdown season in 2006. No returning 2,000-yard rusher or 20-touchdown back. Instead, there are five top-flight running backs set to go off the board early, all with championship-winning upside but none evoking the reassuring, “guaranteed best player” feeling.
No matter, that feeling’s a myth anyway. None of the players picked first on average in fantasy drafts each of the past six seasons ended up as the top-scoring back in standard leagues when the year ended, according to draft data from FantasyFootballCalculator.com.
The good news? You’ll end up with a great running back to build around, even if it isn’t a no-brainer selection. And if you don’t have first pick but are in the top half of your draft, you have a shot to grab a back who could make his own legitimate case to be No. 1, too.
The top candidates:
The focus of the Pittsburgh Steelers offense should’ve been the perfect choice for No. 1 after running for 1,361 yards and eight touchdowns to go with 83 catches for 854 yards and three scores. But Bell faces a two-game suspension. Throw in his Week 11 bye, and Bell drafters in 14-week leagues won’t have him for 21 percent of the regular season — and that’s assuming he stays healthy.
Charles has long been one of fantasy’s safest bets. Aside from his injury-shortened 2011 season, the Kansas City back routinely racks up at least 1,300 yards of offense and grabs around 40 catches. He’s also scored 33 touchdowns over the past two seasons. But his workload has fallen for three straight seasons, down to 206 carries last year. And he had 15 or fewer touches in each of his last five games last season. That downward trend might keep Charles healthy, but it also caps his upside.
The Green Bay Packers runner shook off a slow start last year to run for 1,100 yards for the second straight season. He’s run for 20 touchdowns over the past two seasons with 77 catches to stay on the field in passing situations. With Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, Green Bay will never struggle to move the ball, meaning a lot of touches for Lacy. And after the season-ending knee injury to top wideout Jordy Nelson, will Lacy get even more chances in a reshaped attack?
Like Charles, “Beast Mode” is a lineup rock. Lynch has run for at least 1,200 yards with double-digit touchdowns in each of his four seasons in Seattle. But he’s had 1,060 carries in the regular season and playoffs over the past three seasons, so there’s always the risk that the 29-year-old Lynch will begin to slow or wear down. And new superstar tight end Jimmy Graham could cut into Lynch’s goal-line carries by giving quarterback Russell Wilson a big end-zone target.
Minnesota’s star is perhaps the biggest wild card. Before the suspension-shortened 2014 season, Peterson had run for double-digit touchdowns every year and his 2,097-yard season in 2012 after a serious knee injury ranks as the No. 2 single-season rushing total in NFL history. But Peterson turned 30 in March, the age at which many running backs fade. And he hasn’t taken a carry since last year’s opener.
ONE OPINION: Really, you’re splitting hairs a bit to choose between these elite guys at No. 1. Still, your first-round pick is as much about minimizing risk as finding the top-scoring player.
Bell is a game-changer, especially in points-per-reception leagues. But drafting him will probably force you to draft another running back early to navigate his suspension, and that could cost you a shot at an upper-tier receiver. And without your best player, you could start in an 0-2 hole. If you can stomach all that, maybe he’s your guy.
Otherwise, why not pick the proven performer with the heavy workload in the best offense? That’s Lacy.
No matter who you choose, trust your gut. Your decision might not go as well as you hoped, but it’s better than watching someone else win with a player you talked yourself out of picking. Take it from a guy who trusted Montee Ball over DeMarco Murray in one league last year. Oops.
Aaron Beard is an Associated Press sports writer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. He’s entering his 14th season of obsessing over lineup decisions in fantasy football. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap