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Zero RB Quietly Posted a 14% Win Rate In 2018 and All of the Conditions Are In Place Again for 2019

Everyone knows about the RB Apocalypse in 2015. First-round running backs averaged 29 points below replacement that season. That wasn’t the case at all in 2018. Four first-rounders scored more than 300 points, and the group averaged 69 points above replacement even with Le’Veon Bell’s bagel.

On the surface, these two years couldn’t be any more different, and yet a weird thing happens when we look at Zero RB win rates in the Fanball Roster Construction Explorer.

Zero RB 2015 (RB1 After 4)

Zero RB 2018 (RB1 After 4)

* In both cases, the win rate jumps above 14% if you use a more traditional Zero RB construction and wait until after Round 5.

How can this be possible if first-round RBs were so useless in 2015 and so powerful in 2018?

Why Zero RB Worked in 2018

It was actually a confluence of two trends. Wide receiver scoring returned to the levels we saw before the 2016-2017 interlude, and WR pricing returned to 2015 levels. Essentially, we returned to the halcyon days of Zero RB dominance . . . but with the new presence of uber-backs.

Let’s start with the cost.

RB ADP

Number of RBs selected in each round 2015-2018

2015 2016 2017 2018
R1 6 4 6 9
R2 6 4 4 4
R3 4 4 2 4
R4 7 4 5 5
Total 23 16 17 22

After the emergence of Todd Gurley to go with Bell and David Johnson, and with young stars like Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, and Alvin Kamara offering the potential for more 20-plus PPG backs, there was a rush to grab RBs early in 2018. As we’ve seen, this was hit and miss, but the hits were gargantuan. However, this RB enthusiasm dramatically increased prices as well. During 2016 and 2017, the average number of backs selected in Rounds 1-4 was 16.5. The average in our Zero RB-favorable seasons (2015, 2018) jumps to 22.5. More than an entire extra round worth of backs were crammed into the first four stanzas.

While the results in the first round were impressive, that didn’t carry over beyond the first tier.

RB Average Points Over First Replacement 2015-2018

2015 2016 2017 2018
R1 -29 149 50 69
R2 11 -45 65 8
R3 10 -2 44 -63
R4 -67 -25 -3 -58
R1-4 Avg -23 6 37 0

The exact numbers for any given year are going to depend on a variety of factors, including elements that aren’t affected by ADP, such as injury. But we can clearly see the impact of RB inflation. Look at 2015 and 2018 specifically. Third- and fourth-round RBs averaged more than 50 points below the first replacement back in three of four instances. As a result, and even with the presence of numerous 300-plus RBs in 2018, the average early-RB score during those two years was not above replacement.1

We can crosscheck this with WR scoring to see the relative values of the two positions.

WR Scoring

WR Average Points Over First Replacement 2015-2018

2015 2016 2017 2018
R1 95 42 51 106
R2 -3 12 41 90
R3 57 7 2 55
R4 -4 -47 31 23
R1-4 Avg 37 4 32 59

Only three WRs were selected in the first round in 2018, and although none of them scored 300 points, they averaged 266. In fact, only one of the first 11 WRs drafted scored below 230 points, which helps explain why the first two rounds registered such gaudy numbers in points above replacement.

Points above replacement were fairly balanced in 2016-2017 between RBs and WRs, with a very slight edge to RBs. In 2015 and 2018, WRs led by a whopping 60-point average. In looking for an ADP balance, we might hypothesize that 2016-2017 ADP represented a more efficient market.

2019 RB ADP

When we add 2019 RB ADP to our table, we get the following results.

2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
R1 6 4 6 9 6
R2 6 4 4 4 7
R3 4 4 2 4 6
R4 7 4 5 5 3
Total 23 16 17 22 22

This has to be disconcerting for RB-heavy drafters, and indeed for anyone who picks outside the first four or five slots. In RB-Heavy Will Kill Your Best Ball Team, we discussed the recent impact of selecting RBs in Rounds 3 and 4.

2017-2018 Win Rates
Round 3 Round 4
RB1 5.5 5.8
RB2 6.6 7.1
RB3 5.4 6.2
RB4 3.6

These numbers fit with our results in terms of points above replacement, and they’re scary for 2019 because the bargain you get on third- and fourth-round RBs is as bad as it was last year.

RB-Early Is Not a Value Decision and RB-Heavy Is Simply a Bad One

RBs are structurally overvalued. It’s difficult to make a value-based drafting case for early RBs, because the historical averages cut against the claim.2 You can engage in scenario-based drafting, essentially admitting that RBs aren’t good picks from a value perspective, but that when they hit, they hit big enough to overwhelm value concerns. After all, your goal is to win your league, not to consistently finish above average.

We’ve seen the value of taking this approach in You Can Have Your Cake and Eat it Too: Why Now Is the Perfect Time for the Dominant Best Ball Strategy. The 1-Elite-RB approach allows us to benefit from both the rise of the uber-back and still retain much of the value found in the tenets of Zero RB.

“WR Is Deep This Year”

You’ll hear this refrain more or less constantly in the fantasy world, and I have to admit having some sympathy with it. I personally have more WR targets in Rounds 5 through 8, so it would seem sensible to simply wait for these players. Unfortunately, this can be misleading. Many leagues require more WRs,3 but almost all require flex players. And since value-to-ADP dictates that those players will be WRs in an optimized lineup, your original draft needs more WR depth than it sometimes appears at first glance.

The “depth at WR” argument is also simply wrong in a very important way. When we look at an image from Blair Andrews’ soon-to-be-released Win The Flex tool, it’s clear that the best window for RB value relative to WR actually comes exactly where many drafters are looking for WRs.4

RB/WR Points By ADP 2017-2018

We can see the “Zero RB window” in exactly the area RotoViz users have prowled for league winners through the years. This window overlaps with the “rookie RB window” from which I drew my first big RB recommendation for 2019.

We also want to think about upside and getting points into our starting lineups. Fantasy chaos benefits WR-heavy teams. Depth chart shifts at RBs are easier to play from a start/sit perspective and leave you with higher upside players. For the same reason that you might take a swing at RB in Round 1, you want to take a swing at them late. Over the last four seasons, RB holds an 18-17 advantage in 200-point seasons by players drafted outside the first four rounds. From an upside perspective, it’s difficult to argue that WR is deeper in a way that leads to fantasy titles.

Image Credit: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: James White.

  1. One straightforward criticism of Zero RB as a 2019 strategy is found in Bell’s doughnut. If he scores 300 points instead, things look different for first-round picks. In 9 RB Land Mines to Avoid and 10 RBs to Target, I explain why we shouldn’t be so quick to discount Bell’s zero. Bell’s presence would not have influenced the R3 and R4 scoring, which would still push us in the direction of 1-Elite-RB.  (back)
  2. If the wisdom of the experts or the wisdom of the crowd actually allowed us to pick out the backs who would outperform, it would be different. Unfortunately, the experts and the crowd have a bad track record.  (back)
  3. And I’ve set the replacement values for this exercise using a 2-RB, 3-WR starting requirement.  (back)
  4. You might expect the window to be different over the 2015-2016 time period, but it’s virtually identical.  (back)

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