Fantasy Football Strategy: 5 Ways to Draft RBs
If you’ve played fantasy football for just about any amount time you know that RBs matter…or they don’t…that all depends on the camp you fall into. For years the 1st round of fantasy drafts was RB after RB coming off the board. As PPR became the norm, WRs started to creep in and it is now just about a 50/50 split. The only real certainty is that you have to start at least 2 RBs in just about every fantasy league and you better have a plan around drafting them when your fantasy league kicks off its season. Here we’ll discuss 5 different strategies that will help you construct your roster with RBs top of mind.
1. Draft the Top 5 Stud
In 2019, the 5 highest drafted RBs are likely going to be Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara, and Christian McCaffrey; but to land one of those guys, you’ll very likely need a top-5 pick based on their current ADP. While initially, this strategy sounds like it would only work if you have a high draft pick, there is a little nuance here. You’re not just looking at
- Can be an EXTREME positional scoring advantage- In 2018, the RB1 outscored the RB6 by almost 90 fantasy points or over 5 points per game. Owning one of the top-5 guys gives you a built-in advantage in nearly every weekly matchup.
- More flexibility than you might think- Drafting a Top 5 Stud doesn’t have to mean going with the consensus, look for guys who have already shown top 5 ability. Will Le’Veon Bell or David Johnson return to prominence? Can Dalvin Cook, who was the RB6 in the last 5 weeks of 2018, continue the hot streak he ended on? Even if you don’t have a top-5 pick, odds are that one of the backs who will end the year in the top-5 is staring you in the face.
- Can be limited by your draft position- Sometimes random draft position can be unkind and no amount of planning can stop what might happen if you end up in 10-12 spot. The owners drafting ahead of you hold a lot of your destiny in their hands.
- Bust %- Over the last 10 seasons, on average, only 1-2 of the previous season’s top 5 RBs finished the following season in the top 5. There were 2 instances where none of the top 5 guys repeated (2014/15 and 2015/16) and only one instance of 3 of those backs repeating, way back in 2012. Todd Gurley is the only back to finish as the #1 overall RB in back to back seasons over that time. The top 5 drafted guys fair only slightly better. While on average it’s still between 1 or 2 backs that finish in the top 5, there was always at least one RB with a top-5 ADP to finish in the top 5 and there is one instance when 3 remained in the top 5 (2018). So basically, if you follow last season or ADP, you have at least a 66% bust chance.
2. The Double Up
The thought process here is simple, your first 2 picks are going to be RBs, regardless of who is there. A key to this strategy is planning. If you play in a standard 12 team league, you know there are going to be 24 picks in the first 2 rounds. While unlikely, plan as if every one of those picks is going to be an RB. Rank your top 24 RBs and just know that you are going to come out of the first 2 rounds with 2 of these guys in a worst-case scenario. In real life, it’s usually about 12-15 RBs taken in those first 2 rounds so you are likely walking away with 2 of your top 15 RBs.
- Easy Lineup Setting- You spent your first 2 picks on RBs and in most leagues you are going to start 2 RBs. Set and forget it.
- Double that positional advantage- Pairing this with the Top 5 Stud strategy means that if all goes well, you are going to be better than any opponent you face in any given week. You have increased your odds of landing two top 10 RBs and that could mean 10-15 point positional advantage over your opponent.
- Mitigate positional scarcity- Every team in the NFL typically has between 1-3 relevant WRs on a weekly basis, the same can’t be said of RBs. There are WRs left for you later in your fantasy draft, there may not be RBs.
- Passing up a big name WR- This strategy takes discipline because the names that will be left at WR for your 2nd pick are likely to be far more tempting than your 2nd RB. You could be sacrificing a higher floor for a higher ceiling.
- Less draft flexibility- When you start with 2 RBs, you tend to feel obligated to grab a WR with your 3rd pick, maybe again with your 4th. Your draft starts to feel very dictated and less fluid.
3. Zero RB
This is essentially the opposite of the first 2 strategies. In this strategy, you are going to avoid RBs for as long as there are quality WRs available, typically the first 4-6 rounds of your draft. The goal here is avoiding the higher bust % of the higher drafted RBs and securing higher floor WRs. In leagues where you start a Flex, this strategy gives the highest floor possible since you’ll be able to start 3 of the 5 WRs you drafted every week. Another luxury it affords is the ability to draft one of the very few stud TEs without much guilt.
For more info on Zero RB, check out Matt Okada’s article Will Zero RB Work?
- Lineup Nirvana- If handled correctly, setting your lineup after a Zero RB draft is a thing of beauty. The top WRs tend to have a lower bust %, so you will have 3-5 guys able to start for you every week that you know will produce. You might even get to plug Travis Kelce or Zach Ertz at TE. Then at RB, if you landed guys like James White or Nick Chubb late in drafts or free agency in 2018, it almost felt unfair.
- Mitigate Bust %- Early drafted WRs have a higher likelihood of finishing near their ADP, compared to the 66% bust chance at RB. Plus you could still end up with an RB1. In the last 5 seasons, it should be noted that at least one top 12 RB was drafted outside of the first 5 rounds every year.
- Injury Protection- Did one of those top WRs get hurt? That’s okay because you have 2-3 other high floor guys waiting to replace him. Did you lose a late round RB? Well, you can cut him guilt-free since you didn’t pay a premium.
- More Research- Of all the strategies we’ll talk about in this article, this one will take the most research. The running backs available after round 5 aren’t exactly household names. The key here is looking for guys who are getting to touches, be it carries or catches. You’ll need to stay up on every bit of news (start by following Andy, Mike, and Jason) to ensure you can be very active on the waiver wire.
- More Lineup Tinkering- You may not end the season with a true RB1, but if you plug and play the right guy every week, you’ll still get RB1 production. This will sometimes require making choices between 3-5 backs with less than ideal matchups and churning the bottom of your roster for the next big thing in free agency
4. Draft the Backfield
The idea behind this draft is two-fold: 1. There are some backfields that are so productive that you want to own all of the pieces involved. 2. If you own an entire backfield, the risk of injury is minimized. You’re going to have to study ADPs here and make sure you’re willing to reach for your handcuff but this is a strategy that can work. Just looking at 2018, if you cuffed Le’Veon Bell with James Conner you were ecstatic, same goes for Kareem Hunt and Damien Williams. Grabbing Sony Michel and James White certainly paid off for owners in 2018.
- Injury Insurance- More than any strategy, you are protected against RB injuries. If one goes down, the other tends to gain quite a bit of value that almost more than makes up for the loss.
- Weekly matchups help dictate starters- Backfields tend to breakdown into 2 roles: the runner and the receiver. If their team is a heavy favorite, play the runner as he should see more work. If they are playing from behind, the opposite tends to hold true.
- A bad week is a very bad week- Our entire lives we’ve been warned of putting all of our eggs in one basket…who knew you were being prepped for fantasy football? If the squad you’ve shown such allegiance to is shut-out, it is likely that your fantasy backfield is going to score in the bottom of your league too.
- Surprise additions- Can the real handcuff please stand up? We went into 2018 suspecting that Spencer Ware would be the guy to replace Kareem Hunt if needed…in came Damien Williams. Gus Edwards wasn’t even an afterthought in Baltimore. A lot of times the guy we thought would be the primary handcuff isn’t the answer and you have to be quick to waivers to get the right guy once he reveals himself.
5. Focus on Pass-Catchers
Usually paired with the Zero RB strategy, the Pass Catchers strategy is employed mostly in PPR formats. The point here is that some touches are more valuable than others.
- Relatively easy to predict- Once a guy is an established pass-catcher, he tends to be utilized that way for…just about forever, especially if he remains in the same system.
- There were 10,995 “RB” rushing attempts in 2018. On average, an RB rushing attempt yielded 0.627 fantasy points per rush. In 0.5 PPR, an RB target was worth almost DOUBLE (1.88x) at 1.17 fantasy points per target. Targets matter!
- Tends to give you a high floor RB- For context, in any form of PPR, a guy that catches 60 balls will score 1-3 more points per game than a guy that catches 15 balls.
- Can be bogged down by game flow- As mentioned above, if your pass-catchers real team has a runaway lead, they may not be utilized much, if at all.
- Deeper research- You better be ready to know coaches and offensive coordinators as much as you know players. Knowing whose offenses promote pass-catching RBs can help you find the next big thing and avoid busts but can be a lot of work.