Four Simple Rules for Drafting Running Backs in a Best Ball League

Zero RB

leveon bell

The most important day of the football season is less than two weeks away… and I’m not talking about the Super Bowl. I’m talking about the day after the Super Bowl, when My Fantasy League officially launch their MFL10s and other best ball leagues for the 2015 season.

Not familiar with best ball leagues? They are a format where you draft a team… and then you’re done. Your optimal lineup gets set up every week after all the scores come in. No lineup setting, no trading, no waiver wire… nothing. For my thoughts on why you should be playing them, click here.

If that sounds like it’s all luck to you, I can pretty confidently say that’s not the case. In MFL10s, the buy-in is $10, the winner gets $100, and 2nd place gets a free buy-in for the next season. I played 39 last year. I won six. Using a binomial probability calculator, the odds of that happening randomly are 10.21 percent.1 Unlikely, but certainly not impossible that it’s just dumb luck. However, I also came in 2nd in 7 more leagues. The chances of coming in 1st or 2nd in 13 out of 39 leagues? It’s less than one percent. I am very confident that this is a format where there is, at least currently, a substantial edge to be had.

So how do we gain that edge? Let’s break it down position-by-position. Let’s start with running backs.At every position, the first question I ask myself is, “how many should I draft?” Using a Monte Carlo simulation and multiple years of ADP data, AJ Bessette and Greg Meade found the answer to be four.

The second question I ask myself is, “where should I draft them?” Their ideal lineup involved taking RBs in the 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 5th rounds. This is where I’ll say that I think it’s more important to view their ideal lineup conceptually, and not as a strict rule. So it’s probably more accurate to say it suggests taking four RBs within the first five rounds.

Again, I think it’s best to view things conceptually. So why is it that it suggests taking RBs early? The basis is simply that you need to be getting consistent points from your RBs. Late-round RBs, your Christine Michael types, tend to be completely boom-or-bust. They might take over a starting job and reel off great performance after great performance, or they may give you literally zero points over the course of the season. I saw a lot of teams stock up on a handful of these guys in the hopes that a few would pan out, but even in the best case scenario you’re going to end up with a few weekly zeros on your roster. It just makes more sense to use less picks that are of a higher value to make sure you’re getting those points.

Looking at the top 12 RBs that won 2014 MFL10s, you see three basic types. The first is the early round stud, which included Le’Veon Bell, DeMarco Murray, Matt Forte, Arian Foster, and Marshawn Lynch. The second group is comprised of RBs that had clear floors and job security that was undervalued. That group included Fred Jackson, Joique Bell, Ahmad Bradshaw, Jeremy Hill, Lamar Miller, and Mark Ingram. You only really see one of the late-round flier types, and that’s C.J. Anderson.

Now, C.J. Anderson is definitely a counterexample to my point on avoiding the late round flier RBs. But the thing is, he’s the only one who really panned out and became a difference maker. If you made a habit of drafting C.J. Anderson, there’s a good chance you also made a habit of drafting other RBs that really hurt your team. And on top of that, Anderson only became valuable once Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman both got injured. One thing I will concede though is that Anderson was likely the Broncos best back all along, which probably isn’t true for most of the other flier RBs.

I think you should always try to get at least three RBs early. On the other hand, it doesn’t make much sense to draft a RB early if they don’t actually have a high floor. To that point, Doug Martin, Zac Stacy, and Montee Ball were among the worst RBs you could draft in 2014. If you assumed they would have a workhorse role and that they would keep that role for all 16 weeks, then they were good picks. But making that assumption in the first place goes against the very safety you’re aiming for. I avoided Arian Foster like the plague because I was concerned about his injury risk, but I now think that injury risk is far less of a concern than the risk of a RB losing their job. If a RB loses their job, not only are they no longer contributing to your team, but they probably lost their job because they weren’t contributing in the first place. A simple rule of thumb might be to not draft a RB as the 1st RB from their team if they’re not actually the best RB on that team. If you can’t get enough safe RBs early, draft another position and then get a mid-to-late round RB with a clear role later.

I should also emphasize that the “winner takes all” element of these leagues doesn’t really change things for me. I agree with the idea that MFL10s are more about safety than risk. A decent analogy might be a poker tournament. Winning tournament poker players aren’t the ones who purposely take risks because of the format, they’re the ones who consistently make +EV decisions. I try to play a high volume of MFL10s and simply let that +EV do its job.

To be clear, this is a format where there is still a lot to be learned, and even though I had strong results in 2014 things could easily change. Even if my strategy is correct now, it may not be in the future. You may also have different proficiencies or deficiencies in evaluating players than I do, making another strategy better for you. But to summarize, here are my four general rules for drafting RBs in MFL10s:

  1. Draft four and only four RBs.
  2. Draft RBs early, but only if they are safe options.
  3. If you can’t get enough safe RBs early, target middle and late round RBs with clear roles and job security.
  4. Avoid late round fliers and handcuffs.

  1. Input entries as n, wins as k, probability of 1/12 as p, and look at the one-tail binomial calculation  (back)