Why Zero RB Will Work in 2017

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When Shawn Siegele published "Zero RB, Antifragility, and the Myth of Value-Based Drafting" in 2013, he brought Zero RB to the mainstream. It took a few years to really catch on, but entering 2016 fantasy football drafts Zero RB was all the rage. Many players ignored running backs in the early rounds and stock-piled wide receivers. For the first time ever three wide receivers were selected with the top three picks in almost every draft. Unfortunately for drafters who used this strategy, 2016 saw a resurgence at the running back position. Players like David Johnson, Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiell Elliott and others dominated the fantasy landscape in a way running backs haven’t since the days of LaDanian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson.

As we enter the 2017 draft season, running backs once again are at a premium. At the time of this writing, the top three PPR choices according to FantasyFootballCalculator are running backs. Running backs also occupy five of the top nine picks. Compare that to 2016 when the first running back off the board was David Johnson at pick four and only three running backs went in the first nine picks. The fantasy community is a fickle bunch indeed.

The question then is this: are running backs really back or can a Zero RB draft strategy still work? I think it can and will. In this article, I will discuss why I feel the running back position is headed for regression in 2017. I will also discuss how wide receivers are safer choices and how and why a Zero RB strategy can give you a huge advantage over the rest of your league.

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Running Backs Are Due For Regression

Running backs scored touchdowns at an unsustainable rate in 2016. I looked at all NFL rushing data from 2010-2016 courtesy of Pro Football Reference and here is what I found: teams in 2017 attempted the fewest number of runs, combined for the second fewest rushing yards and called the lowest percentage of running plays during that stretch. Yet despite the league running the ball less than ever, running backs combined for the most touchdowns over that stretch by 33. That is two extra rushing touchdowns per week. In fact, you have to go back to 2008 to find a season that had more rushing touchdowns than 2017. The difference is teams ran the ball 800 more times that year.

Teams weren't running more in the red zone either. 2016 ranked second-fewest in total red zone carries, yet featured 44 more touchdowns than any other year tracked. Teams were, however, incredibly successful at running the ball in the red zone, specifically inside the five. In 2016, teams scored on 46.9% of their carries inside the five yard line. The average over the previous six years was 42.3% with a high of 43.7% in 2012. So either teams suddenly got really good at running the ball inside the five or 2016 was an outlier year for running back scoring. I'm going with the latter.

Take away the touchdowns and 2016 looks eerily similar to 2015. Here's a table to illustrate just how close they were:

Attempts Yards YPA TDs Rush%
2016 13,321 55,763 4.2 443 40.7
2015 13,488 55,724 4.1 365 40.9

 
Pretty easy to see what stands out.

Running backs weren't being used in the passing game more either. In 2016, the top 36 PPR scoring running backs combined for 1,420 receptions and 11,620 yards. In 2015, the worst fantasy year for running backs ever, they combined for 1,391 receptions and 11,876 yards. That's virtually the same number of PPR points (2,582 vs 2578.6). Even receiving touchdowns were virtually identical (58 to 54).

If running back scoring regresses closer to what happened in 2015, which the numbers support happening, players who draft running back heavy are going to be very disappointed.

 

Drafting WR Will Differentiate You From League-Mates

Let's face it, the goal of most fantasy leagues is to win. Winners get all the glory and most (if not all) of the money. Sure, some leagues pay small amounts to other positions but the real glory and the real money is in winning. Winning a fantasy football league is not easy. It takes preparation, tireless work during the season, and lots of luck! An easy way to give your team an advantage over your league-mates is to do what they aren't doing. Basically zig while everyone else is zagging.

Much like a large GPP tournament in daily sports, if your lineup is the same as everyone else's you can't win. Good GPP players will try to predict player ownership in an attempt to target high upside players who they believe will be low owned. You can use a similar tactic in your fantasy football drafts. If you suspect most of your league-mates are high on running backs it would be in your best interest to ignore the running back position and draft wide receivers instead. This may seem counter-intutive but let me explain.

Any advantage you have over every other team in your league increases your chances of winning. If your entire league is strong at running back and weak at wide receiver no one has an advantage. It comes down to sheer luck. In the same scenario if you are weak at running back but strong at wide receiver you have an advantage no team can match. You have separated yourself from the pack and increased your chances of winning. Similar to what the pros are able to do in GPP tournaments. If at some point during the course of the season you can improve your running backs either through trades or waiver pickups you will have an insurmountable advantage.

I predict that in most casual leagues running backs will be going early and often. Even in "expert" drafts that I have seen running backs are dominating draft boards. In early ADP data from Fantasy Calculator twelve running backs are being selected in the first twenty-four picks of PPR drafts. As we get closer to the season I would expect that number to rise even more as casual players begin drafting.

 

Wide Receivers Are Safer Than Running Backs

In a 2016 study done by Air Yards guru Josh Hermsmeyer titled "Why Zero RB Works: Quantifying Positional Injury Rates" he proved that wide receivers are safer when it comes to injuries. While his study showed very little difference in injury rates between the positions, it showed a massive difference in the severity of the injuries. He states:

Running backs are anywhere from 24 to 31 percent more likely to come up lame from a serious injury than a wide receiver.

Having your stud receiver miss a game or two will not end your championship hopes. But having your stud running back suffer a serious injury (in this case defined as four or more weeks) could absolutely keep you from a spot in your leagues playoffs.

Here's the most alarming part of his study if you are drafting running backs early. Backs taken in the first five rounds of drafts tend to get injured at a much higher rate than wide receivers and suffer much more serious injuries. Hersmeyer speaking on backs and receivers taken in the first five rounds:

While the non-serious injury rate for WR stays relatively constant, the non-serious injury rate for RBs skyrockets. The relative risk for RBs in the first five rounds is 31-45 percent higher than that for WRs.

He goes on to say:

WRs drafted in the first five rounds are actually less likely than the rest of the WR population to suffer a serious injury. Meanwhile RBs drafted in the first five rounds continue their upward trend, and are far more likely than the RB population to suffer a serious injury. When combined, these two results cause the relative risk of choosing a RB in high leverage rounds to balloon to a ludicrous 200-360 percent more than choosing a WR.

So by foregoing running backs early in favor of wide receivers you are accomplishing some good things. First, you are giving your team an advantage other teams will not have. Second, you are choosing players who are much more likely to still be healthy come fantasy playoff time. Third, when other teams invariably suffer injuries to their high drafted running backs they are unable to recover because of their relative weakness at the other positions.

I think one of the major points that got lost on people who choose to go Zero RB was how it benefits from chaos. In that original article Siegel talks about how Zero RB benefits from this chaos:

You can see fairly easily how Zero RB benefits from randomness. Whenever a starting RB gets hurt, my lineup gets better. It gets better in relation to my opponents because I didn’t have the player in question, and it gets better in the sense that I either own the backup or I have a shot to acquire the backup in free agency.

In 2015, Tim Hightower won many players a fantasy football championship. In 2016, running backs like Bilal Powell, Zach Zenner and DeAndre Washington came through late in the season (playoff time) for fantasy owners. When a stud running back goes down it is much easier to predict who will see the bulk of the carries versus when a stud wide receiver goes down. Teams that were already strong at receiver and grabbed Powell, Zenner or Washington off waivers likely crushed the rest of their league.

In Part Two of my Zero-RB study, I will look at some of my favorite late-round running backs who can help the Zero-RB drafter dominate in the face of chaos.

 

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