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Why Zero RB Won't Work in 2018


Take yourself back to the 2015 draft season. We had just come off the year of the receiver, highlighted by breakout rookie seasons from Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans, and career years from Emmanuel Sanders and Golden Tate. In 2014, 23 players had 1,000 or more receiving yards and 10 had more than 1,300. 2014 also gave us some monumental busts at running back, most notably Adrian Peterson, who had a season-long suspension. Other forgettable names to remember include Montee Ball, Andre Ellington, and Zac Stacy, all first or second round picks that delivered nothing to their owners. By remembering the climate of 2015 it’s easy to see how ZeroRB gained steam as a strategy.

The league had ostensibly undergone a paradigm shift. Teams were moving away from workhorse running backs into the dreaded running back by committee (RBBC), running backs are more likely to get injured based on workload, and receivers could return similar value at high draft cost. Teams were also passing more than ever. Between 2008-2015 league-wide passing yardage went up every season, and as a result television announcers are contractually obligated to say “It’s a passing league” at least once per quarter in any given broadcast. Similar to the rise in three-point attempts in the NBA or increase in home runs and strikeouts in baseball, passing more looked like the correct move from a probabilistic standpoint. And thus, ZeroRB became the hot new draft strategy, making anyone still going with a running back in the first round look like an out of touch Luddite.

Things have changed since then. Passing was at a seven-year low last season as the league threw for just 114,870 yards in 2017, the lowest total since 2010. Only 15 players had 1,000 yards receiving, and only four had 1,300 yards. Conversely, league-wide rushing yardage was at a three-year high in 2017 and it seems that running the ball is back in vogue in the NFL. When it comes to fantasy draft strategy in 2018, ZeroRB is on the way out.

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Zero RB Has Been Priced Out of the Market

Let’s say you were dead set on going ZeroRB in a draft this season. There are currently two wide receivers going in the top 12 in ADP, Antonio Brown (6) and DeAndre Hopkins (11). Nine of the top 24 picks are not running backs, and Rob Gronkowski (24) is the only tight end in the top 24. If we followed this ADP verbatim (which obviously doesn’t happen in real drafts, but for the purposes of this exercise it will suffice) the only time going WR-WR would align is at pick 11, where the hypothetical owner would select DeAndre Hopkins in round one and Julio Jones in round two.

We’re going to compare this to historical ADP data (which is available at fantasyfootballcalculator.com). In 2015 12 of the top 24 players were not running backs, including five of the top 12. 2016 was the height of zero RB as a strategy, as 13 of the top 24 were not running backs, including five of the top 12 and three in the top four, including Antonio Brown as the number one overall pick. 2017 was more of the same, with 12 of the top 24 as non-running backs and five of the top 12. The draft board has shifted slightly this year, but the most important changes are in the first round. The only wide receivers the market deems worthy of a first round pick are Brown and Hopkins, and reaching for anyone else over one of the first round running backs would be a stretch in valuation.

When drafting it’s important to pick players based on your own rankings and valuations, but it’s also crucial to incorporate market value into draft decisions. For example, it’s one thing to think Josh Gordon can rebound as a top five receiver, it’s another thing to draft him as a top five receiver. That eliminates any value he might provide. We can also think of this in dollar value. If the market says player A is worth $100 and you think he’s worth $140, don’t pay $140. You pay between $105-$135. That’s the issue with zero RB this season, to execute this strategy in standard leagues we need to overpay. Personal rankings are always king when it comes to drafting, but good rankings consider market value and league trends as well as personal opinion.

 

Running Backs Aren’t Really Riskier

A common argument for ZeroRB is that running backs are incredibly volatile because of increased injury risk, the rise of RBBC and potential role shifts, and they are at the mercy of both an offensive philosophy and game situation. Completely eschewing running backs in higher rounds both overestimates the amount of risk running backs carry and underestimates the amount of risk other positions carry. We will test this by comparing the amount of busts in the top two rounds over the past three seasons by position. A three-year average is a measuring stick commonly used in fantasy baseball to evaluate both individual player and league trends since it allows us to capture longer periods of time without having to data from so long ago that it is no longer relevant in the present league context. When defining bust it’s important to remember that bust is a subjective term, but for this exercise, we’re looking at players that significantly underperformed for issues of performance, injury, or role change. Mainly players that either missed at least 25% of the fantasy season or had under 1000 yards rushing or receiving.

2015 was a disaster for running backs, with eight of the 12 running backs going in the top 24 definitively, and two, LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte, kind of on the border as busts. Either way drafting a running back was significantly riskier than drafting a non-running back early, where only three of 13 non-running backs (Dez Bryant, Andrew Luck, Randall Cobb) were definitive busts. 2015 was a year where age and injury seemed to catch up with a lot of players, such as Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch, and unproven players like Eddie Lacy and Jeremy Hill turned out to be one-year wonders.

2016 was much better for running backs. Only four of the 11 running backs in the top 24 were busts, and two (Eddie Lacy and Jamaal Charles) were busts two years in a row, so prudent owners could have avoided those players. Todd Gurley and Adrian Peterson were the other two busts, and they were harder to see coming as Peterson was injured early in the season and Gurley was a victim of circumstance with the Rams that year. Seven of the 13 non-running backs in the top 24 were busts, and several came out of nowhere. A.J. Green, DeAndre Hopkins, and Allen Robinson all posted sub-1000 yard seasons after monster years the previous season, while Keenan Allen suffered a torn ACL in week one. Risk-averse drafters could have avoided Dez Bryant, Rob Gronkowski, and Brandon Marshall, as the former two have a history of injury and the latter was over 30 when the season began.

2017 was slightly more favorable for running backs, but about even overall. Four of the 11 running backs going in the top 24 (David Johnson, Devonta Freeman, Jay Ajayi, and DeMarco Murray) would be considered definitive busts. Other than Murray these busts would have been nigh impossible to see coming. Murray was entering his age-29 season and had only played 16 games twice in six seasons before 2017. Ajayi was an unproven player, but no one can predict a midseason trade. Five of the 13 non-running backs in the top 24 were busts, and only two (Jordy Nelson and Dez Bryant) would have been somewhat predictable. Nelson was going into his age-32 season and coming off two incredibly touchdown dependent seasons in 2015 and 2016. Dez Bryant was entering his age-29 season, coming off two major injuries over the past two seasons, and was the only player to qualify as a bust in all three seasons between 2015-2017. Anyone that drafted Bryant at cost in 2017 got exactly what they paid for.

So, what does this all mean? If you were randomly assigned one of the 34 running backs drafted in the first two rounds between 2015-2017 you had a 47.1% chance at drafting a bust. Comparing that to non-running backs, if you were randomly assigned one of the 38 non-running backs between 2015-2017 you had a 39.5% chance of drafting a bust. That is taking owner decision making completely out of the equation. Sharp owners can limit their risk through smart drafting, but some busts, like young players with no injury history suffering catastrophic injuries, are simply unavoidable.

It’s important to note how heavily influenced 2015 was on these results. Three-year averages can be a useful measure for analysis in fantasy sports, but in a small sample size sport like football, which also has a lot of roster turnover one outlier season carries more impact than a sport like baseball, where so many more games are played and things tend to normalize. Between 2016-2017 36.4% of running backs in the first two rounds busted, while 46.2% of non-running backs busted. It was riskier to take a non-running back than a running back over the past two seasons.

 

Can I Still Go Zero RB?

Can you still go into drafts with the intent of going ZeroRB in the first two rounds? Longer? Sure, it’s your team. You can go kicker-kicker if you really want too. But if it’s to avoid the bust potential of running backs, ZeroRB doesn’t really solve the issues of busts. Busts are going to happen in fantasy football regardless of position, and while the last three years tells us running backs are more likely to be busts, the last two tell us that might just be noise and both RB and WR are pretty equal. Over the past three years, 31 of the 72 players drafted in the top two rounds were definitive busts, a 43.1% bust rate. Failing to draft a running back won’t shield an owner from busts, only smart drafting and good fortune will do that.

Furthermore, to go ZeroRB not only locks you into an overly rigid strategy, it forces you to devalue running backs far beyond what the market says they are worth. It’s okay to reach a few spots in drafts, but going ZeroRB in 2018 doesn’t occur organically too often in 12-team leagues based on ADP data. With rushing yards trending up leaguewide and passing yards trending down, reaching on receivers and quarterbacks doesn’t seem like a winning strategy. Surely there will be championship teams here and there that use a zero RB strategy, but with league makeup, market valuation, and bust probabilities there isn’t really a reason to go plan a ZeroRB draft strategy other than for the novelty of it.

 

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