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Trent Richardson, Chris Johnson, and Why RB-RB is Back


As many of you know, I write a column called The Contrarian for Pro Football Focus. This is the first in a series I’m calling The Conventionalist where I look at my own biases and try to find where I make mistakes simply in the name of contrariness.

The RB-RB strategy has been the default approach by many players throughout fantasy football history, but, with apologies to some of its very talented practitioners, the strategy has been sub-optimal for the last several years. There are two main reasons not to start RB-RB.

1) RB is a top-heavy position. If you’ve got a pick outside the top five and go RB, then you’re basically just capitulating. Sure, if you calculate VORP and take a VBD approach, it may still appear that the RB is the most valuable, but do you really want to start Week 1 knowing the owner of Arian Foster already has you beat? If you selected Calvin Johnson or Aaron Rodgers, at least you could look at your roster and know you had a dominant player as well.

2) The proliferation of formats with PPR and Flex positions dramatically changed the scoring landscape. Depending on how you factored replacement baselines, you might believe the VBD approach favored an early WR in some formats even if you discount Issue #1.

Back to the Future

Now that I’ve made my stripped down argument in favor of upside-down drafting – there’s a lot more to it, but that’s for another time – let me explain why 2013 is not the time to jump on board the Megatron bandwagon.

While we may never see another LaDainian Tomlinson or Priest Holmes from a fantasy perspective, RB depth will reach unprecedented levels this season. Usually when depth increases – and scarcity decreases – the argument to forego the position strengthens, but that isn’t the case here. If you held the 8th pick in 2011 or 2012, you needed to either employ a contrarian strategy or completely dominate the rest of your draft. Otherwise, the expected value of your picks was so much less than your competitors that you might as well not bother. In 2013, the calculation changes dramatically. With the No. 8 pick this season, you’ll potentially be looking at guys like Trent Richardson, C.J. Spiller, LeSean McCoy, and Alfred Morris. The RotoViz RB Similarity App absolutely loves those players. As opposed to throwing in the towel, you might be selecting the player who finishes No. 1 overall.

Round 2

While many have been unwilling to abandon the first round RB, going WR in Round 2 has become de rigueur. 2013 should see a shift back to RB. Those drafting at the turn in 2013 may have a no-brainer on their hands. In a recent Pro Football Focus draft the participant picking No. 11 was able to pair Alfred Morris with Matt Forte. Drafting at the turn, head honcho Mike Clay put together the elite 1-2 punch of Marshawn Lynch and Maurice Jones-Drew.

Later in the second round, you will be able to select players like Steven Jackson, Chris Johnson, Stevan Ridley, DeMarco Murray, and Darren McFadden. Whereas the last two years saw massive reaches in Round 2 for RB-RB advocates, the thesis behind each of these players is very strong. (The app loves Murray, for example.) And once they are gone, that’s where the value craters. Immediately following these players we move into the range where ultra-risky players like Montee Ball, Le’Veon Bell, Lamar Miller, and Chris Ivory are being drafted. Shortly after, guys with no upside like Vick Ballard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis are coming off the board.

A Few More Quick Thoughts

* Megatron may end up overvalued in 2013. Those prone to going WR in the first will probably regress his TD rate in a positive fashion but fail to factor in the logical size of the decline in his yardage and catch totals.

* Quarterback is so deep this year that QB ADPs are plummeting. In fact, they’ve fallen so far that selecting Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees early may become the contrarian play. That said, QB certainly won’t be an option in the first or second round.

* Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham are still head-and-shoulders above the tight end field, but injuries to Gronkowski have probably eliminated him from the Round 2 conversation (at least in early redraft leagues). Graham struggled through injuries of his own in 2012 and somewhat predictably failed to maintain the ridiculous pace of the year before. I talk more about their prospects in the TE Feature for the PFF Draft Guide, but they’re not the no-brainer second round picks that they were a year ago.

The Conclusion

The key to dominating your fantasy league is to be a year ahead of the curve, not a year behind. Last season many pundits ignored both regression and positional value and recommended anchoring your team with an elite QB. On the opposite side of the spectrum, many other writers suggested an overly rigid VBD strategy that pushed middling RBs ahead of elite receivers. Both memes led to an exploitable inefficiency for upside-down drafters.

The latter group may have been correct, just a year early. Degenerate upside-down drafters may still employ the strategy in 2013, but those wanting to get a jump on the competition would probably be wise to return to where it all started and take runners with their first two picks.

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