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Using The Draft Optimizer To Get Comfortable With Zero RB

Personally, I have no doubt that the Zero RB strategy is the dominant approach in your typical PPR league. But I understand not everyone feels that way. Even our own Ben Gretch, a Zero RB believer who has tried to remove people’s doubts, has described the strategy as “uncomfortable.”

I wanted to join Ben and the strategy’s originator, Shawn Siegele, in the effort to make the strategy more comfortable and palatable for those who still have doubts. To do that, let’s turn to the Draft Optimizer, an app that gives you an optimal draft lineup based on league settings and our composite scoring projections.

To start, I told the Optimizer to draft the following distribution of players:

  • Two QBs
  • Two RBs
  • Three WRs
  • Two TEs
  • Nine additional combined RB/WR/TEs, which gives the app the discretion to choose between those positions.
  • One QB/RB/WR/TE, so that the app has the option to draft three QBs, but no more than that.

That gives us a roster 19 players deep. We can then run through different scenarios based on where your first round pick is. For instance, here’s what the Optimizer gives you if you start with the fifth overall pick:

Screen shot 2016-08-06 at 11.22.07 AM

Not only does this result in a Zero RB draft, but it results in a fairly extreme variation. The first eight picks are all WRs. It only gives us two RBs, Shane Vereen in the 10th round and C.J. Spiller in the 17th.

What if we were to try this from all 12 draft spots? How many RBs would it give us? I ran the app for all 12 spots and the table below shows the results. RBs are listed by name, round, and how many times the Optimizer selected them.

Duke Johnson43
Shane Vereen107
Giovani Bernard51
C.J. Spiller172
Matt Forte34
Jamaal Charles21
Shaun Draughn153
Branden Oliver194

You may notice that most of these drafts are not technically Zero RB drafts. Eight of them take a RB in the first four rounds, with a ninth taking Giovani Bernard in the fifth round. However, if you look at the N column you’ll see that the Optimizer only selected RBs 25 times out of an overall total of 228 picks. That means that it only took two RBs in 11 of the 12 drafts, with the one exception being from the 10 spot, where it selected three. So even if not all of the drafts are Zero RB, all of them are extremely averse to investing much in the RB position.

This made me wonder: What if I didn’t require it to draft RBs at all? Would it? So I changed the settings to where it didn’t have to draft any RBs but had to draft 11 total RB/WR/TEs. Below you’ll see a table formatted similarly to the one above:

Branden Oliver194
Matt Forte33
Shaun Draugn151

A few observations:

  • Nine of the drafts become Zero RB drafts
  • When picking from the first eight slots, the Optimizer literally selects zero RBs.
  • The ten spot once again selects three RBs.
  • The Optimizer selects only eight RBs out of 228 total picks. That’s approximately 3.50 percent of the total picks.

To make sure I wasn’t biasing the results, I also set the the Optimizer to where it didn’t have to draft any WRs, but had to draft 14 total RB/WR/TEs. The RB distribution was exactly the same.

Now, I don’t think the takeaway from these exercises is that you should almost entirely fade RBs. The Optimizer is working off our composite projections, which should really be more of an average projection. That’s extremely unfavorable to players like backup RBs who don’t necessarily project for many points but could be highly valuable under the right circumstances. Alex Smith’s value as a QB3 is pretty negligible when compared to the potential upside of Javorius “Buck” Allen becoming the Ravens feature back, or even just one of the more prolific receiving backs in the league. Albert Wilson’s upside is a lot more limited than Alfred Morris.

I do think the takeaway is that you generally shouldn’t be drafting RBs in rounds where you can still project players relatively comfortably and have your choice of WRs, QBs, and TEs with high upside. This is backed up by past work on winning the flex. It’s also supported by data showing that you may want to use two of your first nine picks on TEs, which limits your ability to use early picks on RBs. Keep in mind that the Optimizer is this averse to RBs even in a season with elevated WR ADP. The one exception seemingly is when you can get a prolific receiving RB at the right price. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the only RBs it ever recommends taking early are Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, Giovani Bernard, and Duke Johnson. All are among the most prolific receiving backs currently in the NFL. What this tells me is that you shouldn’t be uncomfortable when you do a Zero RB draft, but rather that you should be uncomfortable when you do draft RBs.

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