Why the Biggest Proponent of Robust RB is Now Changing His Tune

I’ve spent a lot of time this season writing about Robust Running Back. In a fantasy landscape that has grown to favor the wide receiver more and more, I was sure that this would be your league-winning strategy for 2016. However, after a couple of months of investigation and research, I no longer feel as strongly about it as I did in June. Here’s my mea culpa.

Your Optimal Roster is WR-Heavy

One of the most interesting experiments done this summer was when Justin Winn ran a bunch of different scenarios through our Draft Optimizer. My favorite of the exercises involved running the Optimizer for all 12 draft positions without requiring it to select a RB. Here were his notes on the results.

  • Nine of the drafts become Zero RB drafts
  • When picking from the first eight slots, the Optimizer literally selects zero RBs.
  • The ten spot selects three RBs.
  • The Optimizer selects only eight RBs out of 228 total picks. That’s approximately 3.5 percent of the total picks.

Mr. Winn then goes on to say that the results were the exact same when he didn’t require any WRs to be drafted either. The only RB selected in the first 14 rounds in this exercise was Matt Forte, and only when selecting at the back end of the draft. All of this is to say that if you are trying to maximize your points scored in the early and mid rounds, it seems like that is going to happen through drafting a LOT of WRs, and only taking a RB if the value becomes too much like in the case of Forte.1

Anecdotal Evidence

Furthermore, my Robust RB strategy was inherently based on the premise of “value”, which made it fragile overall. Sometimes I would end up with RB groupings I absolutely loved.

That was basically my ideal Robust RB start, acquiring my top target for each round based on ADP. Ending up with five of my top 15 RBs felt amazing, but often times I was finding myself “running out” of desirable RB options in drafts, which caused me to have to force RBs that I didn’t love onto my roster.

In particular there were a lot of situations where Jamaal Charles would be gone in the second round, so I’d end up taking Eddie Lacy…but that meant I had to take Dion Lewis in the third, and Duke Johnson in the fourth. By the fifth round I was taking a player that wasn’t a value for me, maybe even a reach. That ended up being contradictory to why I emphasized the strategy in the first place!

Another really eye-opening experience for me was tracking this Apex League draft with a variety of experts throughout the industry. This draft was extremely WR heavy, with 32 WRs and just 13 RBs going off the board through four rounds. Mike Clay of ESPN started in a Robust RB fashion, locking up David Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Le’Veon Bell, and Lacy through four rounds, an absolute who’s who of RB talent.2 I was sure that this would be the shining moment for Robust RB.

It ended up being quite the opposite in fact. While Clay’s RBs were fantastic, the WR-heavy teams still managed to acquire strong RB talent. In particular, our own Shawn Siegele started with six straight pass-catchers, but still wound up with Carlos Hyde (seventh round) and Jeremy Hill (ninth round) as his first two RBs. In fact, the teams that went heavy on pass-catchers didn’t seem to be lacking RBs at all.

DraftExpertPCs in 9First RBRB1RB2
1Siegele77Carlos HydeJeremy Hill
2Gresham42LeSean McCoyC.J. Anderson
3Silva62Devonta FreemanThomas Rawls
4Harmon62Jamaal CharlesRyan Matthews
5Zachariason62Lamar MillerDoug Martin
6Kelley57Charles SimsJonathan Stewart
7Barfield66Duke JohnsonJeremy Langford
8Clay21David JohnsonAdrian Peterson
9Braude66Matt ForteArian Foster
10Carter65Latavius MurrayGio Bernard
11Bloom51Todd GurleyMark Ingram
12Hribar61Ezekiel ElliottMelvin Gordon

In this way, it became obvious to me that the WR-heavy trend of drafters actually improved Zero RB, not hurt it. Of course, Clay’s RBs were the best of the bunch, but not by as much as you’d think due to the position being pushed down in the draft overall. Furthermore, he was way behind in the WR department, starting with Tavon Austin, Vincent Jackson, and Laquon Treadwell. Even if his RBs manage to stay healthy, it is very likely that he’ll lose a ton of points every single week at the WR spots. And, as it turns out, the odds of them staying healthy actually isn’t that great.

Injury Risk

Another major, and more commonly held, objection to drafting RBs early is their injury rates. Josh Hermsmeyer did some excellent research on RB and WR injury rates since 2000. Here were a couple of his finer points.

  • Fantasy relevant (top 70 positional ADP) running backs are anywhere from 24-31 percent more likely to incur serious injury than fantasy relevant wide receivers (top 80 positional ADP).
  • RBs drafted in the first five rounds are 200-360 percent more likely to suffer a serious injury than WRs. This is a large reason why Zero RB works as well as it does. When running backs go down, and you’ve invested high draft capital in them, you stand a strong chance of losing four or more weeks of production.

The difference in serious injury rate3 is remarkably high, and the data set is over a much larger period of time than just 2015, something I had originally felt the public was over-correcting to in ADP. Given the injury rates and Optimizer outputs (which assume health), I think it is fair to say that ADP hasn’t been corrected enough.

There Are Still WR Values Early

Even in this WR-heavy draft economy, there are still WR values that have been tickling my fancy this summer. I have been extremely bullish on both Sammy Watkins and Jordan Matthews, and passing on them for RBs seems foolish at this point in the summer. In fact, in the first five rounds of drafts (33 WRs total), there are seven WRs I have projected to beat their positional ADP in the Best Ball App by at least five spots.

That isn’t to say that all of those predictions will come true, just that there are some players that I still believe are undervalued at the position. And unlike RB, I won’t feel naked and exposed to injury if I do end up taking a player at his ADP. In fact, I can just draft more WRs and take advantage of the anti-fragility of Zero RB.

Conclusion

The best way to summarize my findings is this.

  • WRs generally score more points than RBs in PPR leagues.
  • The best way to maximize point scoring is through drafting WRs.
  • Even in the best case scenarios for Robust RB, other teams manage to keep it close at RB, while dominating the pass-catcher slots.
  • RBs get injured more frequently and for longer periods of time than WRs.
  • Robust RB at it’s core is a value-based drafting strategy, which is inherently fragile.
  • I can still find WRs that I like at current ADP.

Overall, it would seem to me that Robust RB is NOT going to be your league-winning strategy this season. Even in a scenario where my RBs somehow stay healthy all season, and are as dominant as I think, that certainly doesn’t stop other RBs from getting hurt, which would still boost the Zero RB and other WR-heavy rosters in my league. In this way, it would seem that Zero RB is truly the optimal strategy, even with the change in ADP.

I’m sure that a line probably does exist for when ADP has shifted enough to warrant going RB-heavy again, but it is probably so heavily slanted towards WRs that I’m not sure if we could ever realistically get there. Considering that it took a total RB-pocalypse to get ADP to move this much, I would imagine that even some success from the top RBs this year reverse the ADP shift a little bit.

Or not. I mean I could be wrong. That’s how we ended up here in the first place right? But that acknowledgement is probably the best lesson of all.

  1. Though as you’ll see, you can sometimes pass on that value to get even greater value later, and build an even stronger receiving corps.  (back)
  2. I have written about not loving Peterson in the past, but Clay could have just as easily had Lamar Miller in that spot. For me, that would have meant owning four of my top eight RBs!  (back)
  3. A “serious” injury was defined as causing a player to miss four or more games.  (back)

Anthony Amico

Anthony is a football coach who possesses two different mathematics degrees. He uses his combined knowledge in those two fields to attack the fantasy landscape across a variety of formats, including daily fantasy, dynasty, and 2QB. He lives to be contrarian. In addition to RotoViz, Anthony is currently a contributor for Fantasy Insiders, TwoQBs, and numberFire.
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