The running back position may have lost some of its luster in the eyes of NFL teams over the past few seasons, with many clubs reluctant to spend an early pick on a ball-carrier, but the same certainly can't be said in fantasy football, where running backs remain the king of the mountain.
The first rookie selected in the overwhelming majority of fantasy football drafts this summer will be a running back. The general consensus is that there are two leading contenders for this distinction, Eddie Lacy of Alabama and North Carolina's Giovani Bernard.
Here's a look at what each of these young backs brings to the table and how their respective skill sets translate to the potential for fantasy production.
As things stand today, it appears to be a pretty safe bet that Alabama's Lacy will be the first running back selected in the 2013 NFL draft, which would mark the second consecutive season that a Crimson Tide ball-carrier was the first player at his position off the board.
There would seem to be a compelling case for Lacy to follow former teammate Trent Richardson as the first rookie running back off fantasy draft boards this summer as well. The 5'11", 231-pounder is a punishing downhill runner who tallied over 1,300 yards on the ground in 2012. NFL.com calls Lacy a "powerful, workhorse type back" in a scouting report that compares Lacy to Frank Gore of the San Francisco 49ers.
However, while Lacy may be the safest fantasy bet among this year's backs, he isn't the slam-dunk top choice that Richardson was considered a year ago. (Never mind that it was Tampa Bay's Doug Martin, and not Richardson, who ended the 2012 season as the NFL's top rookie running back.)
While Lacy had a phenomenal junior season, he didn't display fantastic speed in the backfield, wasn't utilized a great deal in the passing game and his blocking was inconsistent at times. The combination of those factors could limit Lacy's role on passing downs in the NFL, especially early in his career, which in turn could limit Lacy's fantasy upside.
For his part, Lacy isn't hearing any of that, as he told Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that he views himself as "the complete package" in the backfield.
I don't want to say it's rare, but those only come around every once in a while. You have guys who are fast and can get around the outside but they can't really get the tough yards. Then you have the bigger backs who can get those tough yards, but they're not agile enough to make a defender miss. I'm pretty much as complete as it gets.
Lacy's performances against Georgia in the 2012 SEC Championship game and Notre Dame in the 2013 BCS Championship game showed his ability to wear down defenses. If Lacy lands in a spot like Green Bay, where he would have an excellent shot at an every-down role, then it would be hard to argue that he's the top rookie in fantasy football in 2013.
That hasn't happened yet, though, and that's where Giovani Bernard of North Carolina comes in.
The 202-pound Bernard made the leap to the NFL after a redshirt sophomore season in which he racked up over 1,700 total yards. What makes him appealing to fantasy owners is a word that's as tantalizing as it can be maddening in fantasy football.
Simply put, Bernard is likely the most well-rounded back in this year's class. He's more than capable of hurting opponents between the tackles and around the edge. After making nearly 50 catches in 2012, he's also shown himself to be an excellent receiver out of the backfield, a trait that will appeal a great deal to fantasy owners in PPR leagues.
However, there are more than a few question marks surrounding Bernard. At only 5'8", Bernard is a bit on the smallish side, and that combined with a 2010 ACL tear raises questions about his ability to take the pounding of a featured back workload.
Also, while Bernard may be a well-rounded back, there's really not a facet of the game in which he's truly exceptional. He's not blazingly fast or amazingly agile, and he doesn't have the power to wear down defenses in the same way that Lacy can.
As Bleacher Report's own Sigmund Bloom put it in his scouting report on Bernard "In short, as a runner Bernard is good at everything, great at nothing."
One thing that Bernard does have more of than Lacy is humility. According to Eric Edholm of CBS Sports, Bernard was quick to shoot down comparisons between himself and running back Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens, which is the sort of comparison that's sure to get the attention of many fantasy owners.
I am just trying to be me and bring who I am to the field. A lot of people try to compare players. But for me, the only player I can be is myself. You try to see what those guys do well and match it. Ray Rice, the way he catches the ball -- I just try to add that to my game. Guys like MJD and AP and how hard they run -- those are things I've tried to add. I am a versatile runner, and I've just tried to take pieces from each of the successful runners and bring them to my game.
At the end of the day, the argument as to who's the top rookie pick in fantasy drafts this year has as much to do with the format you're playing in and your personal draft philosophy as it does with Eddie Lacy or Giovani Bernard.
If you're in a redraft fantasy football league, or you prefer a more conservative drafting approach, then Lacy is probably your man. Lacy would appear to be the better bet of the two to see a significant workload during his rookie season, and the bruiser appears to have all the qualities needed to be a rock-solid fantasy RB2 for many years to come.
The thing is, while Lacy would seem to have a much higher floor where fantasy value in concerned, it's Bernard who possesses the higher ceiling, at least in the opinion of this writer.
The comparisons to Ray Rice aren't that far off, and Bernard's ability to catch the ball out of the backfield is reminiscent of former Philadelphia Eagles tailback Brian Westbrook.
Granted, those are lofty comparisons, but if Bernard lives up to them then we're not talking about a fantasy RB2. We're talking about a top-10 back that could flirt with the top five.
That may be the best-case scenario where Bernard is concerned, and the scales could easily tip one way or the other depending on which team drafts these players, but when all is said and done which running back is the top rookie in 2013 really depends on your tolerance for risk.
It's a matter of the surer bet in Lacy versus the possibility of elite fantasy production with Bernard.
So, as you pony up to your computer on draft day, there's really only one thing you have to ask yourself.
Do you feel lucky?
Well, do you?
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