Somewhere during the past couple of years, there was a line drawn in the sand between Zero-RB Theorists and people staunchly against it. Personally, I think it has gotten a little too black and white so I am introducing something I like to call the Single-RB Theory.
Since the dawn of (modern) Fantasy Football time, the Running Back has been the first priority for any owner. With the changing of the league, more passing yards and fewer bell cows has led to a higher emphasis on receivers. This evolution brought the apex of the Zero-Running Back Theory last year as the first three picks in most drafts were wide receivers.
Receivers were starting to become the safer options: they got hurt less, and now seemed to “bust” less because of the volume of targets they were receiving. What happened next? Two of the first 10 receivers off the ADP board had season-ending injuries, and four more were complete letdowns.
On the other end, three running backs emerged as complete Fantasy Studs with a few more just behind them. So this would signal the tide turning back to the backs, right?
Early Wide Receivers?
I can safely say that I have been championing taking wide receivers early (if the value is there) as much as anyone since I started getting serious about Fantasy Football in 2011. I was near the end of the snake in a couple of drafts that year. Instead of taking Darren McFadden or Rashad Mendenhall, I went with Calvin Johnson.
If you recall, in 2011 only three receivers had double-digit touchdowns and one of them was Laurent freaking Robinson. The weekly advantage Megatron provided boosted me to a couple of championships.
I kept taking Megatron, and then Antonio Brown over and over, earlier and earlier. Then last year it reached a breaking point. If you wanted an elite receiver, you had to be in the first three picks overall.
While those three still provided great value, I definitely reached if I was outside of the top three spots. (I’m looking at you DeAndre Hopkins, Brandon Marshall, and Allen Robinson!!) This opened my eyes to the prejudice I was taking against running backs in the Round 1. Hell, I had written an entire early-draft program highlighting avoiding the first-round bust.
So I have been re-evaluating my stance on strategy. I am getting back to the best way to draft Fantasy Football players: take the best value.
The thing about Fantasy Football strategies is you will have first-hand evidence of every, single strategy working and failing.
For example, a Zero-RB Theorist that got Odell Beckham and Jordy Nelson in the first two rounds then picked up LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi late will champion that strategy as loud as he or she can. While the same strategy yielded DeAndre Hopkins, Dez Bryant, Justin Forsett and Christine Michael in the same spots for another person. The second person will then tell you how it is the worst approach ever.
On the other end of the spectrum, the RB-RB philosopher that took Todd Gurley and Jamaal Charles is never taking a running back early again. However, that same person in a different draft ended up with David Johnson and LeSean McCoy from the same spots.
All the while, the Taco of your league took a kicker in Round 1. He backed it up with Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman, Terrelle Pryor, Michael Thomas and Davante Adams after Round 6. He won the league.
I’ll say it again: every draft strategy imaginable can succeed as well as fail.
The Single-RB Theory
The State of the Elite Running Back
This is where I hit a crossroads in how to convey an effective draft strategy. I know that the most important thing is avoiding a Round 1 Bust. I also now know that getting at least one elite-level running back is paramount to success in most leagues.
According to ESPN, the Top 11 most common players on Fantasy Rosters in the playoffs included eight running backs, two wide receivers, and one quarterback. Both wide receivers were waiver wire pickups, and Matt Ryan had his career year to thank for his inclusion. He wasn’t even drafted in some leagues.
Of the eight backs, four were backup, waiver wire pickups as well. The others are four of the Top 15 or so running backs going into this season. Nowhere on that list were the top receivers. Three of the Top 5 backs drafted ended up on it.
What I take from this, is that the running back pool is as shallow as it gets. You need one of these guys if at all possible. Does it mean you have to try and reach for a top guy? NO! David Johnson was the most frequent player on Playoff Fantasy rosters, but it was still only 66%. That means that one-third of people that owned DJ still did not make the playoffs.
— SoCalledFantasyExprt (@SoCalledFanEx) July 20, 2017
As you might have read in my Starter Consistency research, there were seven running backs that performed with the Starter Consistency that I laid out at least 66% of the time. This means that of the Top 24 Running Backs by year end points (36 for wide-outs) they were an RB1 among that group that often. Only one receiver managed this (Antonio Brown).
After this first group of backs, there was a steep drop-off in consistency. Wide receivers had a pack at the top and a gradual drop in the next tier. Only 13 receivers performed consistently at least 40% of the time, while 20 running backs achieved that status.
What I gather from these numbers is that after the top group of backs, the difference between RB8 and RB24 is not that large. However, for your second wide receiver, there is a massive difference between WR10 and WR24.
This further leads into the Single-RB Theory: you need to get one of the elite backs while getting as many of the consistently strong wide receivers that you can.
Which Backs Are Elite?
Getting a top back is important, but getting the best value is more important. When these two ideas collide, then we have the Single-RB Theory.
So with that in mind, I looked at who I really considered the top tier of running backs. The top two are no brainers: David Johnson and LeVeon Bell in some order. If I’m picking in the first two picks I am walking away with one of these studs, no questions asked. As far as Ezekiel Elliott, he is in this group by talent/team situation but the suspension is a wrench in the plans, so hold that thought.
I think there is then a clear second elite tier just below those guys. It consists of Melvin Gordon, LeSean McCoy, and Devonta Freeman. Gordon I think is the no-brainer and is closer to the top tier. McCoy is a little older, but he looked as young as ever last season and that offense in Buffalo is only him. Freeman is the least reliable to me, of this group. Yet he is the only back with 1,000 rushing yards in each of the last two seasons. I think the Falcons will regress some on offense, but in a PPR league, he is still worthy of this distinction.
The last group of true RB1’s all have major question marks: Jordan Howard, DeMarco Murray, Jay Ajayi and Todd Gurley. Howard and Gurley have two of the worst quarterback/team situations in the league. Their volume could be affected by constantly being behind and they will both see their share of stacked boxes.
DeMarco bounced back in a big way last year, but Derrick Henry is lurking. I could definitely see this turning more into an equal timeshare. Ajayi is one of the most interesting players this season. He had one of the best stretches of Fantasy Output ever but was average at best the rest of the season. I mean 41% of his total scoring came from one three-game stretch.
So while the final four backs will be considered “RB1’s” going into the draft process, I will do everything in my power to avoid giving them that distinction on my roster.
The Zeke Problem
— Theophilus ن (@PhillBennetzen) August 15, 2017
First off, he did just appeal the suspension. Due to the evidence supporting that he is being framed, I definitely think it will be reduced to 3 or 4 games. So I am going to work off of a 4-game suspension as of now.
So what is Ezekiel Elliott’s value if you are only getting 8 out of 13 regular season match-ups in Fantasy Football from him? (Most leagues don’t play Week 17, and the Cowboys’ bye week is another week you would be without him).
Last season he averaged 133 scrimmage yards per game with a little over two catches and more than a touchdown each outing. The schedule is a bit tougher, but I think they will ride him more with less overall wear possible for the season. I think a safe bet is 125 total yards, two catches, and 0.66 touchdowns a game, or 18.5 PPR points a game.
That output would have put him 12th among all running backs last year for a FULL SEASON. This is where you have to factor in that you are not just getting a zero each week during his suspension.
The 25th running back off the board right now is Tevin Coleman. He averaged 10 PPR points per game before factoring in his ridiculous touchdown luck. So let’s say the replacement baseline off of your bench is 10 points a game. Add that total to your expected amount from Zeke and you would have had RB6 last year.
So taking Elliott is still worth it, it’s just a matter of when. This will be your issue since his ADP will fluctuate every single day on every single site. I live in Dallas so I’m sure he will still a first-round pick in my drafts and I have no problem with that pick. If you are getting the elite, RB1 production for the majority of the season still, then it is worth it and it still fits the Single-RB Theory.
Best. Value. Available.
I cannot stress enough the importance of taking the best value on the board. I know, I just spent a few hundred words about how much you must get one of the elite running backs. This is where I caution you again: every strategy can work just as easily as it can fail.
Just because I am trying to stick to the Single-RB Theory does not mean I am concrete on the idea. For instance, if you are drafting third overall in a PPR league and the top two backs are taken, you still need to take Antonio Brown. Do not reach and pass up on value just to assure yourself an elite runner.
In all honesty, if you are drafting third through seventh in a 12-team league, it is going to be really difficult to pull one of the Top 6 running backs for the Single-RB Theory. I get it. That’s when you take the best value on the board and let the strategy come to you. Hope that you can pick up Elliott in Round 2. Do not chase wild, outside of the strike zone curveballs just to fit the theory you had in mind pre-draft. Take what the board gives you.
Now I know I have said it multiple times and will keep saying it: value. I will have a separate post about finding value and how to decipher who is more valuable between positions. Catch up on my Dynamic Value-Based Drafting strategy from last year.
My biggest advice to anyone crazy enough to listen to me has been staying flexible. Never fall into the trap of “having” to pick a certain player or position. For example, just because you want to get an RB in the first round, don’t think to yourself, “I HAVE to reach on Devonta Freeman over Mike Evans here.”
This is where the Single-RB Theory has a massive advantage over the Zero-RB version. With Zero-RB strategy, you are blocking out an entire position for the first four or five rounds. (When I have done a Zero-RB style of draft, I sometimes start taking them in the third or fourth round, even though I know some people stick strictly to later rounds).
By opening yourself up to every position, you are keeping your flexibility open and therefore are able to take the best value available. Pretty much every position combination is open game to start the draft. It will just depend on where you are slotted and how the draft falls to you.
If you are at the head of the snake, then you will probably end up RB-WR-WR, while if you are in the 10-12 range you might go WR-RB-WR. If the value is there, you might even have a TE or QB as your third pick. The point is with the Single-RB Theory I am trying to make drafting strategy as flexible as possible, with only one running back early.
Single Starter Positions: TE and QB
I mentioned taking one of the single starting positions in most leagues if the value is right. With the way depth is working out to be this year, I will probably be taking opposite approaches to rostering my quarterback as opposed to my tight end for my Single-RB Theory.
As I keep reiterating, best value available. In most scoring setups, I can promise you that the upper tier of quarterbacks will not bring the value over their replacement level peers that other positions will at their ADP.
As has been the case in the past few years, I will probably be the last person in most of my drafts to take a signal caller. Tyrod Taylor, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers and Andy Dalton are all being drafted after QB12. All of them have elite Fantasy potential.
Tight ends, on the other hand, are a bit of a quandary this year. People keep mentioning that tight end is “deep” this year. However, this depth is fool’s gold; yes there are 15-18 start-able players. However, the consistency is not there with the majority of them. I want one of the elite guys that guarantee me points. The goose egg from the tight end spot was a sneaky-critical thing to avoid last year.
So I will be looking to snag one of the group of Jordan Reed, Travis Kelce or Greg Olsen while keeping my best player available mantra going. Notice I do not include Rob Gronkowski. There is just too much variance as well as too high of a price. Reed has injury concerns as well, but he tends to miss just a couple of games. When the Redskin starts, he performs at an elite level consistency.
Perfect Single-RB Draft
Like I said previously, there are two spots where the Single-RB Theory will have an easier route to success: at either end of the snake, picks 1-2 or 10-12.
I feel like the second pick is best so that you assure yourself one of the top two backs while getting to pick first in Round 2. Ideally, I would get LeVeon Bell at Pick 2, and hopefully, someone like Dez Bryant falls to me at Pick 21. I have my super-elite running back paired with a solid WR1.
With the Zeke suspension, there is definitely a chance you can get Antonio Brown in Round 1 and Elliott in Round 2. That would be a perfect scenario, but like I said no one has any clue when Zeke will be drafted.
The way I have seen mock drafts go is that Doug Baldwin will be readily available for me in Round 3. In Round 4, I am then hoping that Jordan Reed is the best value available so that I lock in my elite tight end. If he is gone, I would not disagree with taking Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady to lock down a QB-advantage each week. In most non-industry drafts the top quarterbacks will go well before Round 4 though. If all are gone, then you can go best RB/WR value available. Either way, quarterback is so deep that I will be waiting.
In my “perfect Single-RB Theory scenario” I get Reed or Kelce in Round 4. This leaves me to take the best available RB/WR for the next four or five rounds. Since I only play in PPR leagues, I’m loading up on pass-catching backs like Tevin Coleman, Bilal Powell, Danny Woodhead, Theo Riddick and James White. I am also attracted to the target hoarders Jamison Crowder, Emmanuel Sanders, and Pierre Garcon.
Like I keep saying though: I’m taking the best value available. So with my perfect Single-RB Theory scenario, my team would look something like one of these lineups, based on my draft positioning:
|1||3||Antonio Brown||1||10||Melvin Gordon|
|2||22||Ezekiel Elliott||2||15||Jordy Nelson|
|3||27||Doug Baldwin||3||34||Travis Kelce|
|4||46||Jordan Reed||4||39||Michael Crabtree|
|5||51||Julian Edelman||5||58||Jamison Crowder|
|6||70||Bilal Powell||6||63||Tevin Coleman|
|7||75||Danny Woodhead||7||82||Frank Gore|
|8||94||Mike Gillislee||8||87||Theo Riddick|
|9||99||Matt Forte||9||106||LeGarrette Blount|
|10||118||Darren McFadden||10||111||Devante Parker|
|11||123||Adam Thielen||11||130||Tyrod Taylor|
|12||142||Mike Wallace||12||135||Kevin White|
|13||147||Josh Doctson||13||154||Shane Vereen|
|14||166||Andy Dalton||14||159||Cole Beasley|
I get my top-level running back combined with a couple of upper-tier receivers. I have my elite tight end. Then, I get a solid quarterback late. Then I fill out my roster with heavy target guys both out wide and out of the backfield to complete my Single-RB Theory. I would also advise going after Running Back platoons for your later round backs.
The Single-RB Conclusion
Fantasy Football Draft Strategies should be like bullets in a James Bond special gun chamber. There is one for every scenario. You want your main ammo (Single-RB Theory or normal .44 caliber bullet) but you have other options if the board/situation calls for it (Zero-RB, RB-RB, etc; tranquilizer, smoke bomb, etc).
So going into my drafts I will have the Single-RB Theory in the front of my mind. If I can pick my draft slot by some sort of Beerlympics or luck of the draw, then I will focus on getting a pick slot that lends itself to the strategy.
However, if the right value is not there to start the first couple of rounds, I will pivot. Once again, you need to take the best value available. Value-based drafting has the best odds in constructing a complete and competitive roster.
If the value on the board and the Single-RB Theory line up, then you have yourself a winner. So go forth and try it out in some mock drafts to prepare! Draft day will be here before you know it!
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