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The Wrong Read – Episode 17: Rookies are the Key to Zero RB

Welcome to the 17th installment of the “The Wrong Read,” an article series that reflects on recent podcast episodes, pushing the ideas discussed on the podcasts to their logical conclusions and offering some further thoughts on the topics broached by the guests and hosts. By now you probably know whether you won a fantasy championship or not. In either case, you might want to read this piece on learning from your mistakes and your successes.

I know, the NFL season isn’t technically over yet. But the fantasy season is, so now is the time we get to start talking about two things: 2018 draft prospects and best-ball strategy. This article does a little of both. But first it would be helpful to review the 2017 season to see just what worked and what didn’t.

On a recent episode of the Highlight Reel, Anthony Amico discussed some research he did at the beginning of the season about where high-scoring weeks come from. His findings, based on the last five years, showed that most high-scoring weeks have come from the wide receiver position. Not only that, but early-round WRs have accounted for far more high-scoring weeks than early-round RBs. What this means is that Zero RB ought to be a winning strategy in best ball leagues, even in DRAFT leagues where the default scoring is only half-PPR.

Did Zero RB Work in 2017?

Did 2017 work out that way? I haven’t been able to dig into those numbers quite yet, but when you recall the players taken in the first round at each position, it starts to look bleak for Zero-RB squads. If you went with an early RB, David Johnson was the only really bad pick. Ezekiel Elliott missed some games, but he also had enough big weeks to make up for it. However, if you went with an early WR, only Antonio Brown truly returned the value you expected. Odell Beckham, Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Mike Evans, and Jordy Nelson were all first-round WRs who disappointed. So does that mean Zero RB was a bad strategy in 2017?

I’m not ready to go that far. For one thing, you can also recall a lot of late-round RBs who were league winners, between Kareem Hunt (who was available late for part of the offseason), Alvin Kamara, and Chris Thompson (who had multiple week-winning performances early in the season). We also saw top-scoring weeks from Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, Giovani Bernard, and Kenyan Drake. The number of late-round RBs who turned in top-scoring weeks means Zero RB could have worked out well. Whether you should use Zero RB in best ball leagues next year depends on a lot of factors. But if you are going to go Zero RB, perhaps there are some initial takeaways from 2017 that should influence exactly how you do it.

Rookie RBs Dominated 2017

One thing you can’t help but notice when going through the RBs who turned in week-winning scores in 2017 is the number of rookie RBs who make appearances. I went through the top-300 player games in the NFL this year across all offensive positions, looking specifically at the number of years each player has been in the league.1 The chart below shows the occurrence of a top game at each position, broken out by years in the NFL.

There are a lot colors there, but let me simplify it: Rookie RBs had more top-scoring games than any other cohort in 2017. True, many of these performances were by early-round picks such as Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey. But many were also by late-round rookies such as the aforementioned Williams and Jones, or players like Corey Clement, Austin Ekeler, D’Onta Foreman, and Tarik Cohen, most of whom were probably not even drafted in your best-ball leagues. The point of all this is to say, if you are going Zero RB (and I think you should), you should focus your late-round RB picks on high-upside rookies.

But Is This an Actionable Trend or an Aberration?

Of course, it’s certainly possible that 2017 was an outlier year for rookie RBs. Based on some of the performances we’ve seen this year, it’s possible the 2017 RB class was unusually good. On the other hand, teams who spend draft capital on a RB usually intend to use their rookie RBs at some point. Given RB injury rates, there is a good chance these rookies will get an opportunity to contribute at some point in their rookie seasons.

Zero RB drafters can capitalize on these facts by being overweight on rookie RBs in their best-ball drafts. It’s true that you likely won’t get the benefit of a full season worth of predictable production that you might from a veteran. But in best-ball leagues, predictable production is overrated. The boom-bust nature of rookie RBs is something you can take advantage of by getting the benefit of the boom weeks without having to time them.

Even though a simplistic analysis of 2017 might reveal that an RB-early strategy was successful, Zero-RB squads that also featured a lot of rookie RBs probably did well in 2017. This strategy could lead to big profits in 2018 too, especially considering we are likely to see a lot of RBs replacing WRs in the first round. So my (way too early) advice for 2018 best-ball leagues: go with a rookie-RB-heavy Zero-RB strategy.

  1. 300 sounds like a lot, but in a 16-week season, across four positions, that equates to roughly a top-five weekly positional finish.  (back)

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