If you have a top-three pick, your game plan is easy. Simply take an elite running back and pray he doesn't get hurt.
Unfortunately, there are only so many top-three picks to go around. Well, three, to be exact. And the later you pick in the first round, the more you need to consider zigging where others zag. By which we mean -- gasp! -- not taking a running back with your first pick.
Yes, you're allowed to do that. In fact, you are hereby advised to do that. It could save your season.
Wait. Time out. Before we go any farther, allow us to introduce Nifty Chart I. The gist: We looked at the past seven drafts and broke down the average fantasy production of each position by rank. So if you want to know how many points you can expect from a top-five running back (242!) or a wide receiver ranked 16 to 20 (144!), this chart is your hookup:
Average fantasy production
Early-round running backs are definitely top scorers, but the dropoff is faster among receivers.
Because of the increased specialization of running-game roles, there are fewer elite running backs than ever before, but also more depth. In 2008, 45 backs totaled at least 100 fantasy points, while zero amassed more than 284 points. In 2005, only 33 backs reached the 100-point plateau, but four eclipsed 300.
Need a specific example? Look no further than last season's New England Patriots squad. In terms of fantasy production, their running back corps finished as the sixth-highest squad in fantasy point production, yet none of their backs cracked 140 fantasy points, and their leading fantasy runner, Sammy Morris, failed to eclipse 10 fantasy points in half the games he played.
Because of this trend, if you take a running back with a late-first-rounder, you'll already be drawing from the non-elite pool at the position, and that will leave you chasing points. From 2002-08, the top-ranked running back averaged 347 compared to 225 points for the No. 8 back and 205 for the No. 10 back. You don't really help your cause by doubling down on a running back in the second round, either. For example, if every owner goes RB-RB with the first two picks, the top spot would hold an advantage of 107 points over the 10th spot. Good luck making that up, especially when you consider the owner selecting first overall will also lock in the top-ranked wide receiver in the third round in this scenario.
I'd even take it one step further and say that, despite what most people claim, taking a running back in the first round isn't safe by any means. During the past four drafts, there have been 22 running backs whose average draft position (ADP) placed them somewhere between the third and 10th overall draft spots, and of these 22 players, 10 of them failed to score at least 160 fantasy points. Put another way, that's a 45 percent chance of your first-round pick not even scoring well enough to fit in to your top two running back slots.
So if RB-RB is out for owners with late-first-round picks, then what's in? Well, let's rule out the QB-WR option right here. Anybody who owned Drew Brees for his near-record-setting campaign last season knows how much fun it was to view Saints box scores. However, in most years -- including this one, according to our projections -- there isn't enough drop-off from the top quarterback to the fifth-best QB to justify blowing a pick on one. And while we recognize that our projections don't come from an infallible crystal ball, the only way selecting a quarterback in the first round returns the full value of that pick is if you walk away with Tom Brady circa 2007.
That brings us to WR-WR. Granted, if you take Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson with your first two picks, you'll most likely draw sarcastic praise from your league mates as they load up on running backs. But fear not. You'll totally be outsmarting them.
Time for Nifty Chart II. To the right, we've constructed four teams built on different opening-round scenarios, starting with a late-first-round pick:
Projected point totals, four draft scenarios
Based on the numbers in Nifty Chart I, the team that opens WR-WR then goes QB-RB-RB can expect the most points. The team that opens RB-RB then goes WR-WR-QB can expect the fewest.
Shocked to find there's so much value in fourth- and fifth-round running backs? You shouldn't be. In 2008 alone, seven backs who had ADPs of 39 or lower scored more than 200 fantasy points: Brandon Jacobs (ADP: 39), Michael Turner (44), Thomas Jones (50), Matt Forte (76), DeAngelo Williams (96), Steve Slaton (100-plus) and Chris Johnson (100-plus). This is not a fluke: The early-middle rounds of a fantasy draft are usually teeming with sleeper running backs.
The phenomenon of elite backs being available later in the draft isn't limited to 2008. In 2007, Adrian Peterson and Jamal Lewis could be had respectively with the 48th and 64th selections. In 2006, Frank Gore came off the board around pick 62, and Maurice Jones-Drew wasn't even among the top 100 choices.
By drafting receivers early, you'll be in the best situation to capitalize on this trend. Even if you don't find the winning lottery ticket, you'll still have a better start than your opponents.
And isn't that the exact position you want to be in?
Ken Daube is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. His ESPN.com fan profile is available at: http://myespn.go.com/KenD17.