"Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."
I doubt that Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr ever played fantasy football.
But if the 19th century French journalist who gave us the old axiom that "The more things change, the more they stay the same" were around in 2013, and somehow actively interested in the National Football League, there's a decent chance he would see the same things I see when I look at a strategy for my fantasy football draft this season.
In last year's fantasy football preview, Tolkien's elf queen Galadriel helped us call to mind the subtle changes evident in draft strategy, as seen in the change in usage of the NFL's star players.
In short, before last year we used to draft running backs in the first round, no questions asked. But in 2012, the questions started to bubble to the surface.
"Will Arian Foster's health hold up?" we wondered.
"Is Adrian Peterson's knee completely healed?" we wanted to know.
"Is Matt Forte for real?" "Can the Jaguars sustain enough offense to give Maurice Jones-Drew a chance to score?" "Are smaller backs like Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy going to split carries?"
Like Jim Carrey's Riddler — I'm proud to admit that I own a VHS copy of that awful Batman movie — we were left in a stupor of information overload, semi-coherently babbling "There's too many questions!" to ourselves.
And what about grabbing an elite quarterback like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady in the first round? That suddenly became an option. Big receivers like Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald were flaunting their touchdown numbers in the late first round like a Krispy Kreme shop right next to your favorite gym. We even saw a pair of electric young tight ends make their appearance at the tail end of some first rounds, a selection unheard of in drafts as recent as three or four years ago.
Amid all the swirling questions, the tempting boom-or-bust picks and the anarchy that comes from the uncounted strategies battling for supremacy, one thing was clear — long gone were the days of can't-miss first-round running backs like LaDanian Tomlinson and Priest Holmes.
Or so we thought.
Looking at the pool of players this preseason, it seems we're back to the tried-and-true strategy of locking up your running back slots before even looking at anything else.
But what looks like a 2007 draft blueprint on the outside is actually much different on the inside.
While we used to grab running backs in the first two rounds simply because those were the workhorses of the NFL, the game has changed too much for us to think that any running back — Adrian Peterson and his android ACL notwithstanding — will see the ball in excess of 30 times a game anymore. No, I'm afraid the days of the platoon backfield and the goal-line specialist are here to stay, at least until the next genius coach comes along and revolutionizes the game by giving a single running back sufficient carries to get into rhythm and wear down the opposing defense. Whenever that happens, it will change the game forever, just like the Run-And-Shoot, the Wildcat and the Read Option already have.
The 2013 strategy of grabbing running backs like a hoarder squirreling away plastic bread bag ties (you never know when we'll need these!) comes down to simple economics — you need a good running back, and there aren't that many to go around.
Back when Tomlinson, Larry Johnson, Shaun Alexander, Clinton Portis and Edgerrin James were busy plowing over right guard for four yards and a cloud of dust, you knew you could find a decent running back in the middle rounds who had a chance at seeing at least 75 percent of his team's carries on a weekly basis. Do you remember Mike Anderson? Yes, that Mike Anderson, the one who finished the 2005 season with over 1,000 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns. Dudes like that existed in 2005.
In 2013, however, we don't often find clear-cut starters ranked in the 40s, much less the 20s. In that range, you're left asking questions like "Will
Rashard Mendenhall be able to stay healthy?" or "Can DeAngelo Williams get back to his 2010 form?" or "Who in the world is Giovani Bernard?"
So we're looking at a pretty nice-looking top ten group of running backs (I'm using the ESPN.com rankings here): Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch, Ray Rice, Doug Martin, Jamaal Charles, CJ Spiller, Trent Richardson, Alfred Morris and LeSean McCoy, plus a few guys with intriguing potential, like Steven Jackson, Matt Forte, Chris Johnson and Darren Sproles.
Beyond that, it's anybody's guess what will happen. Maurice Jones-Drew, once a no-doubt first-rounder, could either be outstanding or could once again choose to spend another autumn getting to know his physical therapist a little better. The Steelers might remember that they're the Steelers and that handing the ball off on occasion might have had something to do with all that success they had in the 1970s. Giovani Bernard might turn out to be a real person, not a fake player randomly generated by the Madden programming on the Xbox to fill the Cincinnati roster. Anything's possible!
But when it comes to fantasy football, and especially the draft, we can't afford to take too many chances. I'm a big believer in the Matthew Berry (of ESPN.com) formula, in which the name of the game is maximizing your chances at success and limiting your chances of spectacular failure.
So when you're getting ready for draft day, researching your potential picks, watching preseason football with a notepad (or, if you're especially tech-savvy, a smartphone) at your side, poring over your stat sheets and entering one more mock draft at 3:45 a.m., telling yourself it'll be the last one before you go to bed, really this time, remember this one piece of advice. Have fun.
Seriously, make this year's fantasy football experience a good time. I know I can get caught up in too much analysis sometimes, which is one aspect of the fun, but at the end of the day, we play fantasy football because it's fun.
I'm going to draft a running back with my first two picks because I think that gives me the best chance to win. I'm going to stock up on running backs and receivers in the middle rounds because I want to increase the odds that I'll draft the one random guy who ends up having a career year this year. You never know who it will be, but there's always somebody who comes out of nowhere, so having lots of playmakers on your bench means you'll have a chance of cashing in.
I'm probably going to wait on drafting a quarterback and a tight end because, unlike last season, there are a lot of quality guys to choose from at those positions. You could grab Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees in the first round, but if you wait until the sixth or seventh round and get a guy like Matthew Stafford or Eli Manning, you're still getting consistent, quality production from the QB spot and you've (hopefully) gotten some stud running backs early in the draft. Same goes for tight end; sure, you can snag Jimmy Graham in the third round, but if you use that pick for a top receiver and wind up with Antonio Gates or Dustin Keller in the eighth or tenth round, you'll probably be happy with that
But most of all, when it comes to the specific players, I'm going to grab the guys I like because I want to enjoy my team. Be sure to read about the players I like and the players I don't like for this season, located in this issue, and feel free to create your own lists to help you on draft day.
As my brother always used to say, you play to have fun, and winning is fun, so play to win and you'll have fun. Don't be afraid to put some time and effort into your picks, just make sure that you have a strategy and a reason for grabbing the guys you grab.
And it never hurts to see if LaDanian Tomlinson is making a comeback.