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Can’t Fully Commit to Zero RB? Here’s What I Did

“The Zero RB strategy makes a lot of sense, but I don’t think I can commit to it in all my drafts.”

It’s a common refrain we hear around here. You think the logic makes sense, but also think a hedge of some kind is in order before fully committing.

I did too. In 2014, I tried Zero RB in a handful or fewer leagues, and was smitten. By 2015 I was doing it nearly across the board.

But I still have discussions both online and in real life about how to commit fully. People plan to dabble in it in 2016. People want to try it, but are unsure about whether 2015 was a fluke.1

The truth is it’s just an uncomfortable draft strategy, made that much worse now that WRs are flying off the board in 2016. Even when you go into a draft knowing that could happen, the siren song of ADP value can pull your perfectly sailing ship right into the rocky RB shore.

But in truth, Zero RB is a strategy that has only gotten better with time, and the shifts we’ve seen in ADP hardly begin to cover the changing point-scoring structure. Let’s take a look at why, and then discuss the draft thought I’ve kept close at mind to help me stay on the Zero RB course.

The Farce of RB ADP Equity

To get at whether drafting early RBs at lower ADPs was truly a good value, I looked at point per game averages for each position for every year dating back to 2000, and removed any players who didn’t play at least eight games to avoid small sample size heroes skewing the results. Even if you could identify the right RBs to draft, what benefit do the top ones provide over the course of the year? These results are for PPR scoring systems taken from FF Today.2

RB PPR PPG Scoring By Year

While the RB1 used to approach and even exceed 30 PPG with regularity a little more than a decade ago, there’s been a steady decline in recent seasons. Though not as noticeable, the same trend holds true at each benchmark I looked at, until you get to low end of the spectrum. Interestingly, the RB40 in PPG has actually scored more points in recent seasons, which makes sense when considering the rise of the pass-catching back and the falling point totals of elite workhorse backs. As more teams have specialized roles, the gap between elite RBs and later RB picks is shrinking. Here are the averages for the first five and last five seasons on the above chart.

AVG ’00-’04 AVG ’11-’15
RB1 29.9 23.1
RB5 20.7 18.0
RB10 18.0 15.8
RB15 15.5 13.8
RB20 13.7 12.7
RB25 12.4 11.5
RB30 10.8 10.3
RB40 7.5 8.4

This table makes a very important point. Over the last five years, the average PPG RB5 scored exactly the same as the average RB10 did from 2000 to 2004. The phenomenon continues nearly all the way down the chart, with roughly the same PPG netting an RB finish five spots higher in the modern game than in RBs’ heyday.

So if shifting ADP trends hypothetically allowed you to get the RB5 in 2016 where you used to get the RB10, what benefit does that even give you?

Consider further that RB40-types are scoring a point per game more in recent seasons. Whereas the difference between RB1 and RB40 netted you more than 25 PPG in 2000, the same difference was worth about 15 PPG in 2014 and 12 PPG in 2015. It’s a different landscape, which I will continue to type until my fingers bleed.

Let’s look at receivers.

WR PPR PPG Scoring By Year

AVG ’00-’04 AVG ’11-’15
WR1 22.6 23.1
WR5 18.1 19.2
WR10 16.2 17.2
WR15 15.2 15.8
WR20 13.6 14.4
WR25 12.8 13.5
WR30 11.5 12.6
WR40 10.1 11.2

WRs continue to score more and more points from top to bottom.

The Position With The Upside

Shawn Siegele has noted that a goal of his is to nab six of the eventual top 15 WRs. While he notes this is not always achievable, the surest option is loading up on enough WRs in the early rounds to litter your roster with these top performers. You can’t hit on ’em all, but you can definitely cover your ass.

The reason to shoot for this is because WRs carry more upside than RBs in 2016. Over the last three years, again looking at PPG finishes excluding players who played in fewer than eight games, here are the averages of the top 15 finishing spots for both positions.

Pos Rank RB WR
1 23.4 23.7
2 20.3 22.9
3 19.7 20.9
4 18.7 20.4
5 17.9 19.9
6 16.8 19.7
7 16.5 18.9
8 16.0 18.4
9 15.6 17.7
10 15.5 17.6
11 15.1 17.5
12 14.5 17.1
13 14.0 16.6
14 13.8 16.5
15 13.5 16.2

Wide receivers just score more points. On average, the WR4 over the last three years has outscored the RB2. The WR8 has scored more than the RB5. WR15 beats RB8. In the tables at the top of this post, at each contrasted benchmark from RB10/WR10 on down you can expect to score about two PPG more on the WR side.

Taking the Zero Literally

Consider the Zero RB extreme. What if you didn’t draft a single RB until the double-digit rounds, and couldn’t find any breakout players in the early part of the season on the waiver wire? What if you were straight up punting RB; how bad would it get?

Not as bad as you think. Every year there are committee RBs that will see the field enough to post 5-10 PPG. Throughout the season, these guys sit on waiver wires due to their limited upside. I’m talking about no-namers, guys you wouldn’t even imagine helped fantasy teams. Off memory, three I wound up adding a lot last year were Dexter McCluster, Jonathan Grimes, and Joique Bell later in the year, long after he’d been sent to the waiver wire.

Sounds like a terrible stable of RBs, right? They all finished beyond RB50 in a year known as the RB apocalypse. Quick thought experiment though – if you had just these three no-upside backs and nothing else, what would you have scored at RB? Despite them missing a combined nine games and all scoring more than zero in only seven weeks, an amalgam of the top two of them would have provided you about 15 PPG on average.

Week J. Bell D. McCluster J. Grimes Top 2
1 6.1 0.8 4 10.1
2 3.8 16.4 10.7 27.1
3 7.4 5.2 7.8 15.2
5 DNP 2.8 DNP 2.8
6 DNP 13.2 0 13.2
7 5.5 12.8 0 18.3
8 5.6 7.8 3.2 13.4
9 BYE 4.7 BYE 4.7
10 5.5 13.2 5.5 18.7
11 5 3.8 9.5 14.5
12 16.2 DNP 4.3 20.5
13 5 DNP 8.3 13.3
14 9.5 11 8.2 20.5
15 18.1 0 0.1 18.2
16 10.2 DNP 2.5 12.7
17 7.8 DNP 21.4 29.2
Finish RB50 RB54 RB57 14.8

This is a worst-case scenario, with byes and DNPs taking the decision out of the owner’s hands more than half the weeks. All I’m trying to establish here is that averaging about 15 PPG for your two RB spots – while it might not seem like much – is very attainable if you’re willing to start guys who probably don’t have more upside than 12 or 15 points.

Filling Out a Winning Lineup

And here’s the thing – averaging about 7.5 points from a RB spot doesn’t kill your weekly score as much as you might think. The difference between that and a solid RB game is significantly less than the difference a high-upside score – say a 30-point PPR week – can provide your final tally.

To put numbers to what I’m saying there, assume you faced a team with two top 12 RBs, RB6 and RB12. That’s a very successful team from a RB standpoint. In 2015, per the chart above, they would average about 17 and 15 points. In other words, they would combine for about 32 PPG, and you’ve conceded about 17 total points in a worst-case scenario. If you’ve been pounding WR (and maybe TE as well), you’ll have plenty of players capable of giving you several points of advantage each. Making up the difference isn’t that hard. That’s the nature of picking at each of those spots before the average team has acted.

You can mess around with the players, but the point is the marginal loss at RB is never as glaring as it looks. Especially if you give the Zero RB team someone like Shane Vereen – who averaged 9.9 points over 16 games last year – at the end of the 11th round, in which case the “punt RB with low-upside backs with limited ceilings due to playing time” strategy gets stronger. Again, while we hate looking at 5s and 7s in our lineups, they simply don’t hurt our chances of big weeks in the current fantasy landscape when they come at the RB1 and RB2 spots as significantly as we are trained to think. And if you hit on even one late-round or waiver wire RB (think Dion Lewis or Devonta Freeman last year), you may not have a positional deficit to make up at all.

The question of whether the marginal advantage you can gain at WR/TE is enough to offset the deficit you build yourself at RB has never been clearer.

Just Punt It

One of the easiest ways to derail a Zero RB draft is to start stockpiling RB assets in about Round 5. It’s easy during a draft to look at what you’ve drafted and what you need, and be influenced to fill holes. I’m no Renee Miller, but there’s definitely some kind of cognitive pull there where drafting your third backup at one position is really hard to do when you need starters elsewhere.

But think about Zero RB as a punt strategy. This is where truly Zero RB drafters will differentiate themselves in 2016 despite the increase in WR ADP, as newly converted early-WR drafters still make a rush for RBs too early, even in this modified drafting landscape.

Drafters who fear starting players like Shane Vereen because he lacks upside put themselves in a logic circle that goes something like:

  • Can’t draft RBs like Vereen, they lack upside
  • Must get early RBs
  • Wind up with late WRs, who score more than late RBs
  • Lineup lacks upside, is balanced across the board, doesn’t get low weeks but also has less shot at highest upside weeks, because elite RBs score less than elite WRs
  • Due to fear of starting a Shane Vereen or Dexter McCluster because they lack upside and might only score five points some weeks, drafter ends up building an entire lineup that lacks upside

All of which doesn’t even consider the possibility of acquiring a certifiably good RB on the waiver wire, and building a superteam.

Don’t build a lineup that lacks upside because of your fear of drafting individual players who lack upside. Go Zero RB.

  1. Because, of course, 2015 played out great for Zero RB teams.  (back)
  2. Note: they don’t include lost fumbles in their numbers.  (back)

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