Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
How many running backs would you have felt comfortable drafting in the first two rounds five months ago? Three? Four?
For me, Arian Foster, Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy were the only safe picks. The other 10 guys who went in the first three rounds had more question marks attached to them than the Riddler's green and purple suit.
However, over the past 17 weeks, running back has been re-established as a fantasy power position.
Obviously, the RB renaissance starts with 2,000-yard rusher Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, but it doesn't end there. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch proved to be one of the most consistent forces in the virtual game, rushing for 85 or more yards in 14 of 16 games to end up with a career-high 1,590 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Like Peterson, Kansas City's Jamaal Charles set a career high in rushing yards (1,509) even though he was coming off a torn ACL.
Rookies Alfred Morris of Washington, Doug Martin of Tampa Bay and Trent Richardson of Cleveland were sensational for fantasy owners all season. Morris' 200-yard, three-touchdown game in Week 17 was hardly his first major contribution of the season. He had 13 touchdowns with seven 100-yard games and trailed only Peterson in rushing yards with 1,613.
Martin turned in 1,926 yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns, including one of the best fantasy performances of the past 10 years in Week 9 -- 251 yards, four touchdowns against the Raiders.
And while Richardson dealt with injuries -- he had two knee scopes prior to playing an NFL game, missed Week 17 with an ankle injury and revealed Monday that he played half the season with broken ribs -- and didn't have the yardage impact of Morris and Martin, he still found the end zone 12 times and established himself as the centerpiece of Cleveland's offense for the next five years.
Fantasy drafts in 2012 saw quarterbacks and tight ends selected higher than ever before. That had a lot to do with several players at those positions having prolific 2011 seasons but also spoke of the lack of impact rushers available.
I found it difficult to trust Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson after he burned so many owners in 2011. After holding out in the preseason, Johnson was barely CJ1K last year, finishing with 1,047 yards and four touchdowns.
When Jaguars rusher Maurice Jones-Drew held out this preseason after leading the NFL in rushing yards in 2011, owners used the Johnson situation as a learning tool and stayed away from Jones-Drew in fantasy drafts.
Oakland's Darren McFadden and San Diego's Ryan Mathews had proven in their careers that they have major league talent with minor league bodies, and Dallas' DeMarco Murray, Chicago's Matt Forte and Buffalo's Fred Jackson were coming off season-ending injuries that stopped short tremendous 2011 campaigns. Plus, the Bears went out and inked Michael Bush to a contract and Buffalo got electric play out of C.J. Spiller down the stretch, further damaging the fantasy value of Forte and Jackson.
Richardson was certain to see most of the backfield touches with the Browns this season if he could stay healthy, but there were varying reports about the severity of his knee injury after he missed the entire preseason.
Veterans Frank Gore of San Francisco and Michael Turner of Atlanta were certain to see less carries in 2012 so they weren't good choices early in drafts. And Peterson and Charles were coming off catastrophic knee injuries.
In 2013, everything will be different. Foster, Rice and McCoy will all still be high picks alongside with Peterson, Charles, Lynch, Martin, Morris and Richardson. New England's Stevan Ridley (1,263 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Spiller (1,244, 6 TDs) will join Johnson, Forte, Gore and Jones-Drew to form an extremely reliable second tier of guys that will be more likely to make the jump to RB1 than fall off the map.
Unlike 2012, the question marks don't start until the third tier, with McFadden, Mathews and Murray providing owners with high-risk, high-reward options.
For the first time in quite awhile, the difficulty won't be sifting through the red flags before settling on the least-risky decision, it will be determining which of these magnificent rushers you want to build your team around, and it doesn't seem like there will be many incorrect choices.
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