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Optimal Running Backs Draft Strategy for 2022 Fantasy Football Drafts

austin ekeler fantasy football rankings NFL DFS lineup picks

The running back position has been evolving in recent years. While having an elite back is a great way to usually win a fantasy championship, it is important to understand the shift taking place in the NFL landscape when it comes to running backs.

Teams are continuing to value the running back position less and less due to its overall fragility. Running backs tend to have a shorter shelf-life than the other positions and most backs usually see a steep decline in production by age 28.

In lieu of these changes taking place, it is important to adjust your approach on your league's draft day. We will take a look at the Anchor or Hero RB approach, Zero RB, Robust RB, and a balanced approach. All of these can be effective strategies when implemented properly. In fantasy football, there are multiple avenues to winning a league and it is important to spend time determining your overall tolerance for risk, as well as which approach you feel the most comfortable executing during a draft.

Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers received 13 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association including Baseball Writer of the Year, Football Writers of the Year, Golf Writer of the Year and many more! Be sure to follow their analysis, rankings and advice all year long, and win big with RotoBaller! Read More!



Last season, only one running back saw 80-plus percent of their team's offensive plays, that being Steelers running back Najee Harris. Several years earlier, five running backs saw at least 82% of their team's offensive snaps in 2019, but the number has been declining ever since. As fewer bell-cow running backs have existed in the NFL, this leads to more wide receivers, as well as one tight end usually being in the first round of fantasy drafts.

In 2018 and 2019, Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey dominated the fantasy football world by putting up 720 points in half PPR over that stretch and finished as the RB2 and RB1 in fantasyland. He averaged 24.0 PPG during that span, but after playing back-to-back seasons with 90% of the team's offensive snaps, injuries limited him to 10 of a possible 33 games in 2020-21. Many who drafted him the last two years had their fantasy seasons crushed and it has changed the way fantasy players view running backs in future drafts.


History of First Round RBs by Season

Below is a list of all the running backs drafted in the first round in the last 10 years in the NFL:

Year Pick Player Team
2021 1.24 Najee Harris Steelers
2021 1.25 Travis Etienne Jaguars
2020 1.32 Clyde Edwards-Helaire Chiefs
2019 1.24 Josh Jacobs Raiders
2018 1.02 Saquon Barkley Giants
2018 1.27 Rashaad Penny Seahawks
2018 1.31 Sony Michel Patriots
2017 1.04 Leonard Fournette Jaguars
2017 1.08 Christian McCaffrey Panthers
2016 1.04 Ezekiel Elliott Cowboys
2015 1.10 Todd Gurley Rams
2015 1.15 Melvin Gordon Chargers
2012 1.03 Trent Richardson Browns
2012 1.31 Doug Martin Buccaneers
2012 1.32 David Wilson Giants

There were several years in there: 2022, 2014, and 2013 where no running backs went in the first round at all.

NFL teams have continually stopped prioritizing running backs from a pure value standpoint. In 2018, Todd Gurley was the RB1 in all of fantasy. By the time 2021 had rolled around he was already out of the NFL. No other position usually sees such a drastic decline in production. As more front offices have begun to embrace analytics, it has led to the devaluation of running backs.

As we can see in the chart below from Mike Braude over at Apex, peak seasons for running backs from 2010-present have gotten more difficult to achieve past age 26.


Robust RB Approach for Drafts

The old-school, standard approach to fantasy drafting has always been to load up on running back early. It's typically an approach many didn't question until several years ago. Since running backs tend to score the most points of all the position players, it only made sense to keep drafting them early. However, due to the rash amount of injuries that have ravaged running backs people began to shift their strategy.

While this approach can help you win leagues, it comes with a lot more risk the earlier your league's draft is before the season. Since we are just barely into the preseason at this juncture, you are taking on additional injury risk by drafting this many running backs with high draft capital. If you are in a draft that takes place right before the season starts you mostly don't have to worry about any of your running backs going down before the season even starts. A robust RB approach is typically more beneficial in 1QB leagues that only have 1 flex and are half PPR or standard scoring.


Hero/Anchor RB Approach for Drafts

This method is called many different names but all have the same meaning: a Hero RB approach is locking up one stud running back in the first two rounds, but then loading up your roster elsewhere. Instead of taking a second running back early, you are mostly solid at quarterback, wide receiver, and even tight end before another running back is drafted. The idea with this approach is to target running back again around the 8th or 9th round by looking for handcuffs or backup running backs on good teams who profile as pass catchers.

By taking a Hero RB approach we are doing so with the idea that we will be stronger than the other teams in our league by year's end because we ended up hitting on the later running backs we drafted or we used our FAAB/waiver priority wisely to pick up running backs who were thrust into action after an injury to the starter.

Here's an example of a Hero RB roster in a 1QB league with 2RB, 3WR, 1 TE & 1 Flex from the 1.04:

QBs: Trey Lance (7.04), Mac Jones (14.09)
RBs: Christian McCaffrey (1.04), Kareem Hunt (8.09), James Cook (9.04), Rachaad White (10.09), Kenneth Gainwell (13.04), D'Ernest Johnson (20.09)
WR: Tyreek Hill (2.09), Tee Higgins (3.04), Diontae Johnson (4.09), DeVonta Smith (6.09), Jalen Tolbert (11.04), Jakobi Meyers (12.09), Wan'Dale Robinson (15.04), Curtis Samuel (17.04)
TEs: George Kittle (5.04), Evan Engram (16.09)

This is a very competitive roster out of the gate with the only glaring weakness at RB2. While some do have questions about Trey Lance for 2022, he has some tremendous rushing upside. Should the running backs drafted later break into the starting lineup due to injury this team will be a very formidable foe down the stretch and into the playoffs.


Zero RB Approach for Drafts

There was a recent full article done on Zero RB that can be found here. The premise of Zero RB is mostly to "punt" on the running back position all together while loading up at wide receiver and having a dominant quarterback and tight end. A Zero RB drafter will then shift their focus towards handcuffs, rookies, and other running backs with upside in the later round of the draft.

This approach usually leads to a slow start during the season, but with the use of FAAB and later drafted running backs seeing the field after an injury, your roster should be as strong as your league mates by the season's end.

The allure of a Zero RB approach is that you can start your roster out with the likes of Justin Jefferson or Travis Kelce followed up by Tyreek Hill or CeeDee Lamb. A Zero RB is typically more effective in deeper leagues with Full PPR scoring and multiple flexes. A Zero RB approach is not recommended with the likes of Jonathan Taylor, Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler, or Derrick Henry still on the clock. It is a better approach used towards the end of the first round when you are likely missing out on the top running backs anyway.


Balanced Approach for Drafts

While "playing the board" to see who falls is never a bad idea, having a balanced team can be good and it can also be bad. Having a balanced team can leave you without any glaring holes or weaknesses, but it can also not leave you with much of an advantage at any of the positions either. A good rule to remember on draft day is that you want to be strong in at least three offensive positions and only have a weakness in one.

Sometimes the draft board may fall differently than you want, but often I see too many teams who are strong at wide receiver, average at tight end, but weak at quarterback and running back. By shoring up three of the four areas during the draft, you can either trade from a position of strength to address that weakness or use your FAAB to address it. A balanced approach may sound good in theory, but it's much like trying to hold Europe early on during a game of Risk leaving you fighting too many battles on all sides.



There is no right or wrong answer to the question. For me, I am most comfortable with the Hero RB approach as I feel it is a great way to build a solid roster that gets stronger as the season goes on, but everyone is different. There are so many things that factor into how to go about building the best roster on draft day: pick position, scoring, format, and the overall behavioral patterns of the people in your league. Nonetheless, it's always important to know other strategies and roster builds in case a draft doesn't go as planned.

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