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Zero WR and the Robust Lineup

gio bernard

There’s never a good time to think you’ve got it all figured out. If Zero RB was actually last year’s approach, how do we win in 2014?1 Perhaps the answer lies in a mirror strategy.

Last year I wrote that you should employ a RB-RB start or even RBx3 in most fantasy leagues. I suggested you emphasize running backs early because the RB position was deeper than it had ever been. I still believe that was the case. We like to remember 2013 as the year high profile disasters by Doug Martin, Trent Richardson, C.J. Spiller, and others led to The Season RB-RB Died.

This feels necessarily revisionist. I still like those individual runners and still believe history and logic pointed to those players as strong selections. The RB position is both simultaneously deeper than ever and always a minefield. Your draft strategy shouldn’t be predicated on the idea that a certain approach will eliminate mistakes. Busts are going to happen. And some of them will be on your team.

RBx5 or Zero WR

Yesterday I began playing with the Snake Draft Planner after the Fantasy Douche mentioned on Twitter that you could program it to try different strategies. Obviously that was an offer too good to refuse. In fiddling with the dials and blacklisting certain players, it quickly became evident that this might be the season for RBx5 or Zero WR.

In writing about Zero RB last fall, I presented the following theoretical categories.

Fragile Robust/Resilient Antifragile
Fantasy Approach Value-Based Drafting RB-RB-RB or RBx5 Zero RB

In my mind, Zero RB is the dominant strategy in fantasy football, but it doesn’t come without risks. The most obvious one is this: You’re going to start the season without a good RB. Recently Davis Mattek penned an excellent article on Toby Gerhart as the Zero RB savior, and then he immediately screamed up draft boards. Justin Winn followed up with Is Toby Gerhart still a Zero RB candidate? The answer is no. And he won’t be the only back to see his Zero RB bubble burst by draft day.

I’ve previously submitted a blueprint for finding Zero RB guys like clockwork, but that could end up being a mirage. I’m often asked who the guys are for this season–and we have several excellent message board threads dedicated to the topic–but as depth charts shake out during the preseason many of the ADP inefficiencies will correct.

If you don’t want to deal with this uncertainty or you don’t want to risk starting 0-3 in your home league and facing an uphill battle all year, there’s another rare strategy that could also pay tremendous dividends.

Zero WR Formats and the Snake Draft Planner

Any format where you have an equal number of RB and wide receiver starters or where you have half-ppr or standard scoring is at least a candidate for Zero WR. I’m sometimes asked how I would approach the FFPC’s high stakes format. Their leagues use 2-RB, 2-WR, 2-Flex starting lineups with 4-point passing touchdowns and 1.5 ppr for tight ends. I set the Snake Draft Planner to these settings and played with a variety of strategies. Easily the best was Zero WR.

RotoViz

Picking from the nine spot in a 12-team league:

Optimized Team – via the Snake Draft Planner

Round Overall Conf. Based ADP Player POS Proj. Pts
1.00 9.00 15.00 DeMarco Murray RB 276.28
2.00 16.00 18.00 Giovani Bernard RB 267.01
3.00 33.00 34.00 Shane Vereen RB 230.04
4.00 40.00 41.00 Bishop Sankey RB 233.99
5.00 57.00 58.00 Trent Richardson RB 203.21
6.00 64.00 68.00 Kendall Wright WR 216.75
7.00 81.00 86.00 Eric Decker WR 188.19
8.00 88.00 94.00 Riley Cooper WR 169.09
9.00 105.00 107.00 Dwayne Bowe WR 178.39
10.00 112.00 126.00 Martellus Bennett TE 196.64
11.00 129.00 152.00 Heath Miller TE 190.75
12.00 136.00 153.00 Brian Hartline WR 181.75
13.00 153.00 158.00 Carson Palmer QB 244.77
14.00 160.00 200.00 Alex Smith QB 257.67
15.00 177.00 200.00 Allen Robinson WR 140.20
16.00 184.00 200.00 Doug Baldwin WR 146.54

Examining this lineup, we can immediately see three reasons why Zero WR might be a dominant strategy:

1. It’s incredibly robust.

2. It allows you to fully take advantage of the ability to outpick your opponents at WR.

3. It will cause panic and confusion in many of your leaguemates.

Robustness

When you start with five runners, you should expect to stockpile quite a bit of talent at the position and that’s exactly what we’ve done. DeMarco Murray might even be a reach in Round 1, but my favorite RB Stealth Star from 2013 finished as RB6 and hasn’t come close to his theoretical ceiling. He’s immediately augmented with Giovani Bernard and Shane Vereen. In Round 4, we select Bishop Sankey, a guy who could be one of the best prospects in recent memory, and Trent Richardson. The two-time first round pick is a guy I’ve been wrong about before, as have two NFL franchises. Or were we really just a year early?  Max Mulitz has argued that his low 2013 efficiency levels are unlikely to represent his true talent level and the Fantasy Douche suggests he could be a bargain at 2014 price levels.

On paper this looks like a ton of RB talent. It is a ton of talent. Will we see a few of those guys fall by the wayside? It’s impossible to know. The key to winning fantasy football leagues is to build in so much redundancy that you don’t have to be right. With the double flex, the FFPC allows a 4-RB starting lineup. If you hit on all of these runners, you can start them comfortably and dominate the bye season. But if you hit one of the first round landmines that we saw last season, you’ll barely notice with this team.

RotoViz and the Mid-Round WR

I’ve written about my 10 favorite RotoViz articles from 2013, but the best recommendations during our debut season clearly focused around Josh Gordon and Alshon Jeffery. The Fantasy Douche has consistently pointed to his confidence in finding midround receiving options as the foundation for his own RB-centric approach.

Unlike the RB position where unearthing bargains often requires an injury or some luck in projecting the depth chart, we’ve got a pretty good idea who will see snaps at WR. Fortunately, this clarity is often not reflected in ADP. That’s the genius of the WR Arbitrage App where you can find virtually identical receivers at steep discounts. Why pay full price when you can get a similar player for far less? If you can find the next Gordon or Jeffery, why chase the 2013 points of players like Keenan Allen or DeSean Jackson?

For this particular squad, we end up with Kendall Wright, Eric Decker, Riley Cooper, Dwayne Bowe, Brian Hartline, Allen Robinson, and Doug Baldwin. RotoViz has already promoted Decker and Hartline as two of the four undervalued receivers for 2014.

Justin Winn has explained why Wright could be perfectly equivalent to Antonio Brown once you take TD regression into account. He’s also demonstrated why Baldwin was the best Seattle WR in 2013, a claim I heartily second. Matthew A. Berry looked at Cooper versus Jeremy Maclin and came away believing the gap in their respective ADPs was exploitable.

Robinson was the top receiving prospect for RotoViz WR guru Jon Moore. We’ve started to see significant contributions from rookie WRs, and he’s not exactly blocked in Jacksonville. Bowe didn’t feature on my list of 10 post-hype super sleepers, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to see him bounce back in Kansas City’s pass-heavy system.

Do you still want to employ a WR-heavy start if you can put together this lineup with RBx5?

Panic

With soccer fever engulfing the nation, @Pat_Thorman invited guys like Evan Silva, Mike Clay, Sigmund Bloom, Denny Carter, J.J. Zachariason, and Ryan Forbes to play in an MFL10 of Death.2 If you’ve been reading the excellent MFL10 content by Matt Rittle, Aaron Messing, and Kevin Cole, you’re familiar with this best ball format that starts 2-RB, 3-WR, 1-Flex. In many ways it’s set up for Zero RB, but I found myself staring at Jamaal Charles with the No. 2 overall pick and ended up playing Zero WR instead.

 


This refers to my current roster of Charles (1.02), Marshawn Lynch (2.11), Zac Stacy (3.02), Ryan Mathews (4.11), and Bishop Sankey (5.02). I don’t believe Bloom is panicking. As the Stranger would say: Far from it. But I’m also not worried about two of my first five picks sitting every week, and I’m not sure there’s such a thing as the “expected value” of those picks. If all five of those players score well enough that I’m consistently seeing big scores on the bench, it’s a pretty good sign my team’s in contention for the title.

I decided to try RBx5 in this particular league because I think it’s paramount to practice and experiment in competitive, high-profile environments. It’s a good idea to participate in a bunch of mock drafts, but, unless you go back and grade your mocks after the season, the most valuable lessons are usually lost.3 Will RBx5 create an early run on RBs in the MFL10 of Death?

It probably won’t–at least in part because all 12 of us are probably overconfident in our abilities to pick players. However, the impact of pursuing an unconventional strategy can often be significant. Most drafters feel uncomfortable heading into Week 1 with uncertainty at any starting position. By making the conscious decision to employ an unbalanced approach, it’s often possible to push your leaguemates out of their comfort zones or off of their preferred plans. Whether you use Zero RB or Zero WR, the decision to load up at one of the two premium positions will often force a run and create values for you at the other.

A Final Note on Roster Construction

When using Zero RB, it’s possible to occasionally mix in an early round TE or early round quarterback. I’ll have a closer look at this approach in an upcoming article. RBx5 almost requires both a late round TE and late round QB, both of which are generally the dominant strategies anyway. Glancing back at the roster generated by the Snake Planner, we see Carson Palmer and Alex Smith at QB. Jacob Rickrode has promoted Palmer as the second coming of Kurt Warner. Smith looks like the most undervalued qb when you contrast his Sim Score projection with ADP. Meanwhile, Martellus Bennett and Heath Miller already look like the perfect TE tandem for those who wait at the position.

  1. I don’t think Zero RB was last year’s strategy. 2014 actually looks more favorable for the approach to me personally. But if you use Zero RB, it’s important you’re doing so because your goal is to “just score points,” not as a specific reaction to the early round RB busts of last year.  (back)
  2. It also includes fellow RotoViz contributors such as Rich Hribar, Sal Stefanile, and The Intersect.  (back)
  3. Zero RB is a niche strategy in part because so few drafted leagues are really played out competitively. Most drafters don’t really know if their strategies work.  (back)

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