When it comes to fantasy football mock drafts and rankings, the one thing I’ve learned this off-season is that wide receiver is deep, especially when compared to running backs. Take a quick look at the ADP for running backs and receivers on MyFantasyLeague.com and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

Even though the running back position isn’t as deep as the wide receiver one, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of running backs worth drafting. There are. It all depends on where you take them though. That’s where ADP and tiered rankings have a large impact on your draft strategy.

This is how my running back tiers look like today:

Tier 1

Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin, CJ Spiller, Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch

Tier 2

Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Trent Richardson, Alfred Morris, Matt Forte, Steven Jackson

Tier 3

Stevan Ridley, DeMarco Murray, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden, Frank Gore, Darren Sproles, Reggie Bush, David Wilson

Tier 4

Lamar Miller, Vick Ballard, Jonathan Stewart, Shane Vereen, DuJuan Harris, Ryan Mathews

Tier 5

Andre Brown, Mike Goodson, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Fred Jackson, Isaiah Pead, Daryl Richardson

A popular draft method in some mocks I’ve seen this off-season has been taking a running back in the first three rounds. If you go that route, you’re going to come away with great depth at the position. Each draft is obviously different, but in 1-QB leagues, I plan to take that approach. At a minimum I’ll go RB-RB, unless I can get my hands on Calvin Johnson at the right spot.

It’s easy for me to draft a Tier 1 running back if they’re still on the board, but Foster is my cut-off point. With that in mind, I wanted to try out the opposite of an RB-RB approach in a recent SportsJerks.net mock draft put on by Denny (C.D.) Carter.

I decided I would either take a Tier 1 running back or experiment with no running back at all with my 6th overall draft position. In the first round and beyond, for as long as I could, I’d go without a back. Mock drafts are the perfect time to experiment when it comes to fantasy, right?

My worst fears came true when the first five picks in the draft were Peterson, Martin, Charles, Lynch and Spiller. Even if my trial was a foolish one, I stuck with my guns and drafted Calvin Johnson at the six spot. If you’ve read JJ’s piece about Johnson and drafting him in the first round he advocates doing it early so you can end up with respectable running back depth.

I continued with my no running back experiment into the second round. I could have easily chickened out with running backs like McFadden, Murray, Gore and Wilson still around, but I stuck with my non-running backs and drafted Jimmy Graham. In theory, a Calvin/Graham duo sounds amazing for fantasy football purposes, but in reality, it’s not so fantastic.

The top running backs left on the board in the third round included Sproles, Stewart, Miller and Ballard; each a solid RB2/Flex option. Sproles is an RB1 in PPR leagues, but this wasn’t a PPR league, so I felt more comfortable drafting Demaryius Thomas, who’s clearly the better player. Thomas’ ADP is higher than all the running backs I mentioned, though passing on him over a Sproles/Ballard is a hard pill to swallow, position scarcity or not.

When it was my time to pick in the fourth round, the pickings at running back were slim: Ahmad Bradshaw, Willis McGahee, Harris, Vereen, Mikel Leshoure, Pead, and Goodson were the top ones available. Safety played a factor again with my selection of Garcon, who I have as one of my top 2013 wide receivers. If you have to rely on Bradshaw, Harris, et al., as your RB1, it’s best to run away and hide.

The same running backs available to me in the fourth round were still there in the fifth, and with three wide receivers and a tight end on my roster, it was finally time to draft a running back. Bradshaw was my choice because, in the right system, he’ll be an RB2 with RB1 potential. That’s the best I could hope for with my draft experiment from hell.

If I had drafted a running back earlier instead of Thomas, there was still a bevy of wide receivers to choose from like Reggie Wayne, Antonio Brown, Torrey Smith and Cecil Shorts in the fifth. That’s how deep wide receiver is this year. A key lesson to take from this experiment is that there’s no magical, true RB1 waiting for you in the fifth – or even fourth – round.

Here’s how my roster looked after five rounds:

  • WR1: Calvin Johnson
  • TE1: Jimmy Graham
  • WR2: Demaryius Thomas
  • WR3: Pierre Garcon
  • RB1: Ahmad Bradshaw

With a running back finally drafted, now’s as good a time as any to see where things went wrong and what I could have done differently.

Firstly, Calvin Johnson would still have been my first round pick. I believe he’s a better option than any of my Tier 2 running backs.

However, Jimmy Graham would not have been the way to go in Round 2. Between my first and second round picks, 13 draft picks passed. My 13th ranked running back is Darren McFadden, and he along with Gore, Murray and Wilson were all options at pick 2.07.

If Run DMC/Gore/Murray were my RB1 I could live with that. No way they’d still be options in the third round, though. I’d prefer McFadden of the three as my RB1.

What about my third round Demaryius Thomas selection? That one’s tricky. I have Thomas as a top-10 wide receiver in 2013; almost a top-5 one. In my alternate universe mock draft, I now have Calvin and DMC. Drafting somebody like Sproles would be the prudent choice, because Sproles is a very appealing RB2. With the depth at wide receiver, even if I didn’t draft Thomas, a wide receiver like Garcon, Dwayne Bowe, Wes Welker, or Hakeem Nicks would be a legitimate possibility in the fourth round.

By not neglecting the running back position and going with my hunch regarding the wide receiver depth, Garcon was still available in the fourth round, and I couldn’t pass him up. The only other tiered running backs I would have considered in the fourth would have been Miller and Ballard, but they weren’t available.

Here’s my alternate universe mock draft roster:

  • WR1: Calvin Johnson
  • RB1: Darren McFadden
  • RB2: Darren Sproles
  • WR2: Pierre Garcon

My actual Calvin/Graham/Thomas/Garcon roster may look sexier, but my alternate reality roster is much more solid. Plus, I didn’t have to reach for Bradshaw, Harris, Pead or Woodhead, all of whom I drafted at least three rounds earlier than their ADPs. The Peads and Woodheads of this year’s fantasy drafts are guys you want as your RB3 or RB4, hoping they become viable RB2 or Flex options.

Finding a quality starting running back late in drafts, especially an RB1, will be near impossible in 2013. You pray a rookie like Eddie Lacy becomes the next Doug Martin, but relying on that type of a hope and prayer belongs in Bon Jovi songs, not fantasy football drafts.

In the end, a non-running back early approach to fantasy football drafting isn’t something I endorse, nor recommend, unless you really love your starting wide receiver/tight end depth.

The running backs I drafted are all serviceable, upside RB2/RB3 types but there’s a huge difference between that and reaching for Harris in the 7th round when he has an 11th round ADP. Reaches like that will hurt your roster, as you devalue the player when you reach. It’s fine to be a risk-taker in the latter stages of your draft, but the one draft area you want minimal risk is during the earlier portion.

Neglecting the running back position, like I did with my experiment, will likely send you with a bottom dwelling team rather than a team that’ll finish in the money.

Kyle Wachtel of ForensicFantasy.com said it best on Twitter about my team: “if running backs were a child, that much neglect would be illegal!”

Draft your running backs early and often.