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Why Zero-RB Still Won't Work in 2017

When embarking on my reasoning for this piece, I was having difficulty explaining exactly why zero running back won’t work this season. For some inspiration and hope to clear writer’s block, I read Shawn Siegle’s initial articles explaining the theory of zero running back and listened to the recent Numberfire podcast on which Siegle was a guest. Reading and listening to his work was enlightening and pinpointed areas of research I wanted to dive into to see if data backed up the idea of zero running back.

On one hand, the data does back up the fact that Zero-RB is a viable strategy. For example, there is no reason we should draft like it is 2013 when only one non-running back went in the first round. Resorting to this type of drafting would have the likes of Marshawn Lynch, Isaiah Crowell, and Lamar Miller in the discussion as first round picks. We can all agree those are not effective draft decisions.

On the other hand, zero RB was an excellent strategy when it was not a mainstream strategy, however, since its popularity has risen, it’s effectiveness has fallen. Therefore, for the same reason it was effective upon inception years ago, I'll explain exactly why Zero-RB will not work in 2017.

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Debunking Zero-RB as an Effective Strategy for 2017

The Popularity of Zero-RB has risen

As a starting point, it is worth establishing that the ADP landscape of both wide receivers and running backs has changed drastically since 2013. Below is a table illustrating the rate at which running backs were drafted from 2013 to early ADP returns from this season.

As this table clearly lays out, running backs drafted in the top four rounds have dropped dramatically over the past five seasons. This is in large part, if not exclusively, due to the zero-RB theory and its popularity among the expert community. Looking across the landscape of fantasy websites and podcasts, it is difficult to find an expert who isn’t touting the utilization of zero-RB theory. This shift in ADP shows that the zero-running back theory is no longer a zig when other owners zags theory, and ultimately begs the question of whether zero-RB is still the most effective strategy to winning fantasy football titles.  


Running Backs Drafted in the top Six Rounds are Just as Likely to be Startable Fantasy Assets as Wide Receivers

Zero RB is meant to capitalize on fragility of the running back position by avoiding heavily investing capital into the most volatile set of players. Given that injuries have been found to occur most frequently at running back, it would make sense that fewer high-round draft picks would show up as startable fantasy assets (top 24 RB and 36 WR) at the position as opposed to wide receiver. With that premise, I decided to look at the top 24 and 36 fantasy point leaders at the running back and wide receiver positions respectively from 2014-2016. The results appear below:

What these tables show is that running backs drafted in the top top six rounds are just as likely (actually more) to be startable assets as wide receivers. This alone suggests that even if running backs are more likely to be injured, wide receivers are just as likely to bust whether that be from poor individual performance, poor quarterback play, or injury.


Finding Late-Round Startable Assets is more likely at Wide Receiver 

Looking at this from the inverse perspective produces a similar result. The table below details startable assets at each position that were drafted in the 10th round or later from 2014-2016.

From this perspective, it is more likely for a late-round or waiver wire addition at wide receiver would turn into a startable asset as compared to running back.


Fantasy Playoff Data

Another key point that Siegle brought up in his appearance on the Numberfire podcast was that because injuries are more likely to occur to running backs rather than wide receivers, the top producing wide receivers are more likely to be producing when it matters most for fantasy owners: the fantasy playoffs. To test this theory, I looked at fantasy production over the last five weeks (13-17) of each season from 2013 to 2016 and again compiled the rate at which startable assets were drafted with top six-round picks.


This data does indicate that wide receivers taken with high draft capital are more likely to still be producing at the end of the fantasy season. However, like most of the data found, it was not by a drastic margin.


What Does All This Mean?

The final takeaway from Siegle’s appearance on the Numberfire podcast was when he was asked about the misconceptions of the zero-RB theory. Siegle answered that it is misguided to have a hard and fast rule against taking running backs in the first five-to-six rounds and that wasn’t the way that zero running back began and it’s initial intent was to create more freedom in drafting. Picking up on this statement, this data shows that the way drafts went prior to 2014 were seriously flawed. Picking running backs at a 70% clip in the first 24 picks of a draft is a poor decision based on data we now have. On the other hand, it is also a mistake to blindly draft wide receivers just because they are believed to be less risky. That has proven to be an incorrect assertion over the past several seasons and there is little reason to believe that will change this season.

Football is inherently a game where injuries occur frequently. Even beyond that, individual player skill doesn’t always determine fantasy success because an individual player is reliant upon at least one other (if not more) player in part for their success. That means players will bust across all positions even in the most unexpected circumstance. Contrarily, players we never expect to be elite fantasy producers emerge out of nowhere. This is true whether the player is a running back or wide receiver. As such, going into the draft with a strategy of explicitly ignoring one position for the first half of a draft is a losing proposition and will continue to be in 2017 and beyond.

Taking one of the big three at running back is an easy choice this season and the data suggests there’s no reason to shy away from taking them. More importantly, though, it’s inadvisable to push the likes of Michael Thomas and T.Y. Hilton ahead of Melvin Gordon or LeSean McCoy simply because of the position they play. Likewise, it’s a smart decision to value a potential breakout player like Isaiah Crowell in a similar way as Amari Cooper. The takeaway from this article should not be that drafting wide receivers early is a bad decision. Instead, as previously stated, it is inadvisable to ignore a player you otherwise like simply because of the position they play.


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