You hear it said all the time: It's a quarterback's game.
So how about a little love for the running backs? After all, it has been a difficult time for running backs, whose fantasy production has been in perpetual decline as NFL teams shift their strategies more and more to the air.
Consider the facts:
" The top 10 running backs selected on average have averaged 12.0 fantasy points per game, with Ray Rice the only one to miss a game.
" The 10 most productive running backs in fantasy who were not selected among the first 10 have averaged 12.2 fantasy points per game. Six of these players were selected outside the top 25.
" There has been a 5.6 percent decline in fantasy production among the top 10 running backs -- that's the leaders to date -- comparative to Weeks 1-3 of 2012, and 15.8 percent comparative to Weeks 1-3 of 2011.
" The running back position as a whole has suffered a 4.5 percent decline in fantasy production through the first three weeks of this season comparative to the first three weeks of 2012, and a 7.5 percent decline comparative to Weeks 1-3 of 2011.
And that's merely an overall position breakdown. Going individually, half of the top 20-selected running backs from the preseason have dealt with some sort of difficulty -- injury or effectiveness -- through three weeks:
No. 2 Arian Foster, who battled calf and back problems during the preseason, has 28 fantasy points through three games, his worst three-game, single-season point total since taking over as a starter at the end of 2009.
No. 4 Ray Rice missed Week 3 with a hip injury, though he seems fairly likely to return to action in Week 4.
No. 7 C.J. Spiller has 14 fantasy points through three games and left Week 3 early with a thigh injury, though he, too, is expected to play in Week 4.
No. 8 Trent Richardson might now be in prime position to thrive following his trade to the Indianapolis Colts, but he's still in the process of adapting to his new surroundings, evidenced by his playing 28 of 67 offensive snaps, that and his 41.8 percent of team snaps played his fewest (by far) since Week 7 of 2012.
No. 10 LeSean McCoy injured his ankle during the Week 3 Thursday game, though he's expected to play in Week 4.
No. 14 Stevan Ridley has nine fantasy points. Total.
If you think that's bad, No. 17 David Wilson has one fantasy point in three games.
No. 19 Reggie Bush missed Week 3 with a knee injury he suffered the week before, and is no guarantee to suit up for Week 4.
No. 20 Eddie Lacy suffered a concussion during Week 2, sat out Week 3 and by all indications has yet to receive medical clearance to return.
Now, this isn't either to say that all 10 players mentioned warrant long-term concern from their fantasy owners -- Rice, Richardson and McCoy, for instance, should -- or that the running back landscape is substantially more barren than in seasons past. Running back has always been a difficult position to navigate, but the needle appears to be pointing ever more toward a demand of careful, week-over-week analysis of your fantasy backfield.
At casual glance, the Consistency Ratings below might hint that running back has been a more productive position than quarterback to date; there have been more 3-for-3 "Start" running backs (10) than quarterbacks (2). But remember that these statistics are calculated comparative to replacement levels in ESPN fantasy leagues: Those two quarterbacks have averaged 24.7 fantasy points per game, those 10 running backs 13.0, thus far. The least productive of those 3-for-3 quarterbacks, Matthew Stafford, has averaged 18.0 fantasy points per game, while the least productive of the running backs, Chris Johnson, has averaged 8.3.
The point is to utilize this tool to extract value, much in the same fashion that you would use VBD (value based drafting) analysis. It is another way of illustrating players' values comparative to their brethren.
As fantasy owners are surely seeking help at running back, let's use these metrics to identify four value picks, either players you might consider targeting via trade ... or whom you should not deal if you already own them.
CONSISTENCY RATINGS BENCHMARKS
Using 2012 statistics, and fantasy points determined by ESPN's standard scoring, the charts contained in this column rate players based upon how consistently reliable they are. To familiarize you with some of the terminology:
Start: The number of times that the player's point total in a given week was worthy of having had him active in an ESPN standard league.
Stud: The number of times the player's point total ranked among the top at his position.
Stiff: The number of times the player's point total ranked among the worst at his position, making almost any waiver-wire option a smarter choice.
These are the benchmarks for what constitutes a "Start," "Stud" or "Stiff" performance, numbers identifying the player's rank at his position:
Sat: The number of times the player missed a game. Players are not charged "Stiff" points for sitting out, but it hurts their overall Consistency Rating.
%: The player's overall Consistency Rating, calculated as number of "Start" performances divided by scheduled team games.
Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, Detroit Lions: Bell seems like an easy inclusion, after posting the fourth-best fantasy point total among running backs in Week 4 (18), to earn the No. 4 spot for the season thus far (45). But the fact he is traditionally a backup -- or at least the man listed second on the depth chart -- when Bush is healthy casts some doubt on his, and Bush's, value.
First, let's address Bush, as he's probably going to recapture the No. 1 back job once healthy. Bush's consistency numbers have suffered historically, a product of both lackluster rushing performances early in his career as well as his stature as a running back for a pass-happy New Orleans Saints offense through 2010. From 2010 to 2013, 16 running backs were worth a fantasy "Start" more often than him, 13 a fantasy "Stud" more often. He has warranted being in your lineup less than half the time, as his 43.1 percent Consistency Rating will attest.
That said, Bush, as skilled a pass-catcher as any running back, is now on a team as apt to throw the ball as anyone. Consider that much of his sketchy consistency history is the product of missed games -- his 10 absences since the beginning of 2010 are more than any of the prominent fantasy backs except Darren McFadden (16), Jamaal Charles (14) and Maurice Jones-Drew (12) -- and when he has played, 53.7 percent of the time he was worth the start, 63.4 in PPR formats.
Bell, meanwhile, has had remarkably good consistency numbers in his brief career. He has a 31.6 percent Consistency Rating since the beginning of last season, 52.6 percent in PPR formats, and he has been a "Stiff" in a standard league just three times ... remarkable for a player who has averaged just 9.6 touches per game during that time.
Owning these players in tandem is probably your smartest move, but so long as the division of labor remains clear entering any Lions game, either one will be well worth your while in any format.
Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals: A three-game sample is hardly a proper amount from which to make judgments, but in Bernard's case, his represents the seeds of an intriguing, up-and-coming superstar. Twice in three weeks he was a fantasy "Start" and once a "Stud" -- that's a top-five player at the position -- and he did it despite totaling 20 fewer touches than BenJarvus Green-Ellis in those three games.
But this pick is as much about what Green-Ellis can't do as much as it is what Bernard can. Green-Ellis' consistency numbers might paint the picture of a surefire NFL starter, as he has a 64.7 percent Consistency Rating since the beginning of 2010 that ranks him 11th, but it's a distinct lack of weekly upside that makes this an easy decision. Green-Ellis has five "Stud" games during that span, a number exceeded by 14 other running backs -- keeping in mind that many of the elite backs in fantasy haven't even played as many as four seasons -- and even that number has been padded by the fact that, during that same time, he has the second most carries in the league within the opponent's 3-yard line (43, successful conversion on 19).
If you're wondering whether that'll continue, keep this in mind: As a member of the Cincinnati Bengals, Green-Ellis is only 6-for-15 on touchdowns in those situations, his 40.0 percent conversion rate beneath the league average of 48.3.
Trent Richardson, Indianapolis Colts: I remain of the mind that he won't hit his full stride for a good three to five games into his Colts career, and that too much is being made of his potential for his new team, which really doesn't possess a good offensive line. The seasonal result might be a player who struggles to finish with a top-10 running back fantasy point total.
That said, Richardson's second-half appeal is monstrous. He's a member of a much more loaded offense now, with a quarterback sure to keep defenses honest, and by mid-October he should be fully acclimated to his new team. Besides, his Consistency Rating -- 68.4 percent thus far in his career, eighth best at his position -- shows how reliable he had been, even on a bad team.
Here's another consistency-related nugget that supports the buy-low claim on Richardson: Former Colts starter Vick Ballard, whom no one would put close to on equal par to Richardson skills-wise, had a 56.3 percent Consistency Rating in 2012. It might be that the best time to target him in trade is in a few weeks -- perhaps coming off the tough Week 7 matchup and headed into the bye is ideal -- but he'll certainly warrant buy-low status if you can get him soon.
Consistency Ratings chart
Players are initially ranked in order of their Consistency Rating, calculated as the percentage of the player's scheduled games -- not games played, scheduled games -- in which his fantasy point total registered a "Start" score. All categories are sortable both ascending and descending; just click on the headers to sort. Players must have met at least one of the following minimums for inclusion in the chart: 20.0 percent Consistency Rating in standard scoring leagues, 20.0 percent Consistency Rating in PPR formats. All defense/special teams are included, regardless of whether they met those minimums.
These statistics are for 2013 only. Statistics for games since 2010 can be found here.