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Why Zero RB Didn't Work in 2016

Zero-running back as a strategy and theory is nothing new. However, it has come into vogue over the past few seasons and hit a fever pitch heading into the 2016 season thanks to a disastrous 2015 for some of the top-drafted running backs such as Todd Gurley and Doug Martin.

The strategy didn’t pay off, as many of highest drafted running backs delivered for fantasy owners, out-producing their wide receiver counterparts in standard scoring leagues. This article offers two overarching reasons why the zero running back strategy failed last year.

Ed. Note: Keep tabs on Rotoballer's NFL page for the latest reaction and analysis to free agent moves in order to stay ahead of the game!


Volume (Health)

Running backs are valuable fantasy assets due to their stability. Starting running backs are guaranteed roughly 20 touches per game, giving them a floor that wide receivers can’t have. Thus, even if they are relatively unproductive-- think three yards per touch plus a touchdown-- they still produce a respectable fantasy performance. Wide receivers who perform with the same relative inefficiency would be much less likely to produce a desirable fantasy outcome. For example, Todd Gurley was widely considered to be a bust in 2016, yet in non-PPR leagues, he would have finished as the WR12. That was ahead of Michael Crabtree, Amari Cooper, Tyrell Williams, and Rishard Matthews, all of whom received plenty of positive attention throughout the season. This exercise illustrates the importance of volume.  

A big part of a running back's volume is his ability to stay on the field. To state it simply, running backs stayed healthier last season than they did in 2015. In 2016, the first 20 running backs selected averaged 207.55 carries over the course of the season, whereas, in 2015, that figure was just 178.15 carries. That left greater volume to backups, most of which were either late-round picks or waiver wire pickups, which is exactly where those employing the zero running back strategy look for production. Since the relative improved health of running backs in 2016 left less volume of carries to be found in late-round picks and on the waiver wire, this made late-round running backs less productive on the whole.

Not only did zero-running back drafters often get left with duds at the running back position, but the top running backs selected also outperformed the same receivers that zero-RB drafters were taking early in drafts. Going back to volume for a moment, high draft picks in 2015 like Le’Veon Bell, Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy, and Marshawn Lynch all battled injury to some degree. None of them recorded more than 187 attempts, allowing the top wide receivers to outperform most of the highly drafted running backs. Meanwhile, in 2016, none the first six running backs selected had fewer than 200 carries. Given the importance of volume, it is little surprise that four of those six running backs outscored Antonio Brown, the number one overall pick in most drafts, in standard scoring leagues. Those same four running backs also outscored Odell Beckham, often the second pick off the board in 2016 drafts, as did 10 total running backs in standard scoring leagues.

Putting this all together, not only did zero-running back drafters lose out at the running back position in 2016, but they also lost value on their early round picks when elite running backs outperformed elite wide receivers. This presents the downside of the zero running back strategy and also illustrates the effect that volume has on player value.


Quality (Team Offense)

We all know the age-old debate of quality vs. quantity, but both worked in elite backs' favor last season. The first 20 running backs in 2016 drafts played on better offenses than those drafted in the top 20 at the position in 2015. Excluding team data from running backs with 150 carries or less, the first 20 running backs selected played on offenses that ranked 13.81 on average in total yards and 14.66 in points scored per game. The top 20 running backs selected in 2015 were members of offenses ranked 19.86 in yards per game and 17.06 in points per game on average. Thus, the top drafted running backs in 2016 played on better offenses on the whole than the top running backs drafted in 2015. Ezekiel Elliott is the prime example of this, but not the only one.

It makes sense that running backs benefit from playing on good offenses. They produce fantasy points in their largest quantity from scoring touchdowns, something most common when their offense gets them close to the end zone. Thus, we already know that the volume of carries that the top drafted running backs received was greater in 2016. With running backs playing on better offenses, it is permissible to believe the quality of those touches also improved in 2016.

There are examples of running backs with average or worse individual skills who were lifted in their performance due to the offense they were a part of. Latavius Murray was the 14th running back off the board in 2016 drafts. He finished 13th among running backs in standard scoring, despite averaging just 4.0 yards per carry thanks to 12 touchdowns. His offense, the Oakland Raiders, was the sixth best in yards per game and seventh best in points per game. Similarly, Melvin Gordon was the 19th running back selected in 2016 drafts. He finished eighth among running backs in standard scoring leagues despite averaging just 3.9 yards per carry thanks to 12 rushing touchdowns. His offense finished 14th in yards per game and ninth in points per game. These examples illustrate that even if the individual skills of a running aren’t necessarily elite, the quality of team offense can more than make up for their lack of individual skill. Because the running backs drafted early in 2016 played for better offenses as a whole in 2016 than 2015, the zero running back strategy took another hit.



Context is key to the success of the zero running back strategy. When the top drafted running backs fail in either quality or quantity, or both, the strategy is more likely to be a winner. When a running back plays on both a quality offense and maintains a steady volume of carries, the strategy will always be a losing one.


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