Fantasy Football Strategy: Roster Construction-Based Rankings RB Edition
Ask fantasy players what their favorite part of the game is, and most will say “the draft.” Roster construction, a.k.a. drafting is one of the most enjoyable parts of Fantasy Football. It so fun, in fact, that fantasy players often participate in hundreds of mock drafts throughout the off-season. Many players will also participate in “Best Ball” leagues, where they draft a team and let the computer select the best line-up each week. (If you want to learn more about Best Ball League Strategy, check out Six Things to Consider in Best Ball Leagues).
In the Introduction to Roster Construction-Based Rankings, I broke ground on a process of using your league’s starting lineup as a way to break down traditional linear rankings for a better visual of how your roster construction is going to play out, and how your league mates drafting patterns will impact that process. If you have not yet read it, I would highly suggest you do so before continuing.
To kick off the first part of the dive into each position, I’m going start where most fantasy drafts do, with running backs. Since this article is being written just after the 2019 NFL Rookie Draft, the names and rankings are simply for examples and by no means represent actual rankings to follow in your 2019 drafts. The focus of this article is on the process, not the presented ranks.
Editor’s Note: For more RB draft strategies, make sure you read Ryan Weisse’s 5 Ways to Draft RBs.
The Perception Problem of Traditional and Tiered Rankings
A traditional ranking list will have anywhere from 50-75 RBs listed in a vertical column. It’s fairly simple to understand; each RB has a corresponding ranking that indicates where the ranker values that player within the position. This presentation suggests that there is an equality to each step down in the rankings; a five spot variance between RB5 and RB10 is visually perceived to be the same as the five spot variance between RB15 and RB20. However, we all know that is not the case. Some players are so close that we are splitting hairs based on age, weight, eye color, etc. On the opposite side, there are also larger gaps where one player is clearly and consistently always ahead of the next group of players. These two aspects are what create tiers in the rankings. A grouping of very similarly ranked players constitutes a tier, and the larger gaps are those tier cutoffs. Tiered rankings have become a popular way to visualize rankings on draft cheat-sheets to help identify value and when to draft players. Below is a sample of traditional RB rankings compared to tiered rankings:
|1||Saquon Barkley||NYG||TIER 1|
|2||Ezekiel Elliott||DAL||1||Saquon Barkley||NYG|
|3||Christian McCaffrey||CAR||2||Ezekiel Elliott||DAL|
|4||Alvin Kamara||NO||3||Christian McCaffrey||CAR|
|5||Melvin Gordon||LAC||4||Alvin Kamara||NO|
|6||Todd Gurley||LAR||TIER 2|
|7||David Johnson||ARI||5||Melvin Gordon||LAC|
|8||Joe Mixon||CIN||6||Todd Gurley||LAR|
|9||Le'Veon Bell||NYJ||7||David Johnson||ARI|
|9||James Conner||PIT||TIER 3|
|11||Damien Williams||KC||8||Joe Mixon||CIN|
|12||Dalvin Cook||MIN||9||Le'Veon Bell||NYJ|
|13||Devonta Freeman||ATL||9||James Conner||PIT|
|14||Josh Jacobs||OAK||11||Damien Williams||KC|
|15||Kerryon Johnson||DET||12||Dalvin Cook||MIN|
|16||Leonard Fournette||JAX||13||Devonta Freeman||ATL|
|16||Nick Chubb||CLE||TIER 4|
|18||Derrick Henry||TEN||14||Josh Jacobs||OAK|
|19||Marlon Mack||IND||15||Kerryon Johnson||DET|
|20||Aaron Jones||GB||16||Leonard Fournette||JAX|
|20||Chris Carson||SEA||16||Nick Chubb||CLE|
|22||Kenyan Drake||MIA||18||Derrick Henry||TEN|
|23||Sony Michel||NE||19||Marlon Mack||IND|
|24||Phillip Lindsay||DEN||20||Aaron Jones||GB|
While the tiered ranking visual is a step-up from traditional rankings, there is still another commonly referenced process that can get in your way: the RB1, RB2, RB3, designations that divide the rankings into groups of 12. There is so much information presented to fantasy owners that focuses on these 12-player categories that it subconsciously begins to discount a player who falls in the high-end RB2 range compared to a back-end RB1. When digging deeper into comparing these players, we may find the gap between RBs ranking 9-14 is minimal and personal preferences are what separate them from being an RB1 or RB2. If you were to speak to a league mate about a trade for a player they rank 11thand who you rank 13th, there is a good chance you will try to use the “he’s an RB2” designation to receive a discount on that player.
Real player value is actually how each owner views that players position and impact on a fantasy team. This roster construction-based ranking process take the tiers to a whole new level by basing the rankings on where YOU would feel most comfortable with that player on YOUR team. With the plan I’m presenting, your categories are not based on those 12 player groupings, but instead on the position they will fill on your roster. I may have 13 RBs I consider worthy of the RB1 position on my roster, while you may only have 8. I cannot stress enough that this is to be applied to YOUR ideal roster build. This is how you can use commonly found rankings, like those found here on TheFantasyFootballers.com, to custom build your roster construction draft plan and personalize your rankings.
|Saquon Barkley||Damien Williams||Aaron Jones|
|Ezekiel Elliott||Kerryon Johnson||Chris Carson|
|Christian McCaffrey||Leonard Fournette||Kenyan Drake|
|Alvin Kamara||Nick Chubb||Phillip Lindsay|
|Melvin Gordon||Derrick Henry||David Montgomery|
|Todd Gurley||Marlon Mack||James White|
|David Johnson||Sony Michel||LeSean McCoy|
|Joe Mixon||Tarik Cohen|
|Le'Veon Bell||Lamar Miller|
|James Conner||Mark Ingram|
|Dalvin Cook||Miles Sanders|
In the above chart, my groups are based on the starting line-up positions and how I choose to build out my team. The “RB1” listed here is not the top-12 RBs, but instead the RBs that I would feel confident using in my top RB position. In this sample, I have 13 RBs listed that are worthy of my RB1 position. My RB2 position is often a spot that I’m willing to mix up to exploit matchups in season. These players, while still confident starters, may be swapped out with a typically lower ranked player when the match-up dictates. In this sample, I only have 11 RBs. Next is the FLEX position and the RBs who fall here are the ones typically sharing opportunities, pass-catching specialists or traditional two-down pounders. By simple deduction of starters, players listed under FLEX are players I wouldn’t feel confident in my RB1/RB2 position each week but see enough weekly opportunity to consider starting in a good match-up. What you’ll notice to this point is that the rankings are still closely resembling traditional rankings. While I have not presented tiers in these examples, you can definitely add them in for even more detail within the groupings. The top of the rankings are typically very similar regardless of the analyst or site, but the farther down the ranking list, the wider the disparity between the rankings.
|Latavius Murray||Nyheim Hines||Benny Snell||Alexander Mattison||Kareem Hunt|
|Royce Freeman||Duke Johnson||Darwin Thompson||CJ Anderson||Mark Walton|
|Derrius Guice||Chris Thompson||Qadree Ollison||Frank Gore|
|Darrell Henderson||Theo Riddick||Chris Warren||Doug Martin|
|Rashaad Penny||Ito Smith||Myles Gaskin||Devontae Booker|
|Jerick McKinnon||Dion Lewis||Bryce Love||Gus Edwards|
|Kalen Ballage||Giovani Bernard||Kenneth Dixon|
|Tevin Coleman||Chase Edmonds|
|Matt Breida||Elijah McGuire|
After our starting levels are laid out, it’s time to fill out our bench positions, and this is where the rankings will really deviate from traditional rankings. If you were using traditional vertical rankings, you might be tempted to take the “best” (highest ranked) player available because the ranking says that this player is better than one below them. However, proper roster construction is not simply drafting the highest ranked player available, but instead drafting a combination of player types to build a team that can win early, overcome injuries and is flexible enough to make moves seeking those surprises on the waiver wire.
I like to fill my bench with upside rookies and RBBC (Runningback by committee) players who have stand-alone value as a flex option, with weekly starter upside in the event of an injury to a teammate. In PPR leagues, players who may not carry the ball a lot but will see consistent usage in the passing game are still valuable assets to your roster and fill a flex position with a solid point floor in the event of an injury. In a traditional ranking format, drafting the top available player may lead to a bench full of RBBC, or all PPR players. If your bench consists of all similar type players, it will make your team less successful overall. Worst of all is perhaps a bench full of the following two groups of players I won’t be targeting to draft. These two groupings are Handcuffs and a DND (Do Not Draft) list.
Handcuffs are the players who are the backups to stud players and are unlikely to see any significant playing time without an injury to the player ahead of them. In the past, owners were encouraged to draft the handcuff to their top RBs. More recently, fantasy analysts have been eschewing the handcuff in search of players who can see playing more easily. Lastly, my “Do Not Draft” list is NOT a list of players who’ve burned me in the past but is a list of players who are starting the year injured or suspended that I have no intention of drafting. Roster spots are a valuable tool in fantasy football and drafting someone who you cannot use for 4-6 weeks is called a roster clogger and essentially forcing you to play short-handed as they tie up a bench spot.
Varying Draft Strategies
The charts presented above are a more balanced roster construction approach. The Charts below will present two other options for two of the most common types of draft strategies: RB-Heavy and Zero-RB. In the RB-Heavy chart, you’ll see that drafter wants two of the top-13 RBs filling their top two RB slots. This set-up will push them to draft RBs early to fulfill that desire, likely drafting 3 RBs to fill their RB1, RB2, and Flex positions within the first three or four rounds of the draft, and continuing to build their bench depth in the middle rounds.
Conversely, you’ll see the Zero-RB form has a much longer list of RBs that this owner is comfortable with starting in the RB1 and RB2 slots. Because this owner is likely focused on top-end WRs, they are accustomed to having lower ranked RBs in their starting lineup. You can easily see that this owner believes they can still draft an RB1 for their team in the 4th Round (Mark Ingram) and an RB2 in the 7th Round (Latavius Murray) Also, the Zero-RB drafter will prefer a WR in their Flex position, but the passing catching backs would likely be their fall-back Flex option, so listing them there instead of the PPR position is preferred.
RB-Heavy Draft Board
|Saquon Barkley||Joe Mixon||Damien Williams||Lamar Miller||Nyheim Hines||Benny Snell||Alexander Mattison||Kareem Hunt|
|Ezekiel Elliott||Le'Veon Bell||Kerryon Johnson||Mark Ingram||Duke Johnson||Darwin Thompson||CJ Anderson||Mark Walton|
|Christian McCaffrey||James Conner||Leonard Fournette||Miles Sanders||Chris Thompson||Qadree Ollison||Frank Gore|
|Alvin Kamara||Dalvin Cook||Nick Chubb||Aaron Jones||Theo Riddick||Chris Warren||Doug Martin|
|Melvin Gordon||Devonta Freeman||Derrick Henry||Chris Carson||Ito Smith||Myles Gaskin||Devontae Booker|
|Todd Gurley||Josh Jacobs||Marlon Mack||Kenyan Drake||Dion Lewis||Bryce Love||Gus Edwards|
|David Johnson||Sony Michel||Phillip Lindsay||Giovani Bernard||Kenneth Dixon|
|Tarik Cohen||David Montgomery||Chase Edmonds|
|James White||Elijah McGuire|
Zero-RB Draft Board
|Saquon Barkley||Aaron Jones||Royce Freeman||Darrell Henderson||Benny Snell||Alexander Mattison||Kareem Hunt|
|Ezekiel Elliott||Chris Carson||Rashaad Penny||Jerick McKinnon||Darwin Thompson||CJ Anderson||Mark Walton|
|Christian McCaffrey||Kenyan Drake||Nyheim Hines||Kalen Ballage||Qadree Ollison||Frank Gore|
|Alvin Kamara||Phillip Lindsay||Duke Johnson||Tevin Coleman||Chris Warren||Doug Martin|
|Melvin Gordon||David Montgomery||Chris Thompson||Matt Breida||Myles Gaskin||Devontae Booker|
|Todd Gurley||James White||Theo Riddick||Jordan Howard||Bryce Love||Gus Edwards|
|David Johnson||LeSean McCoy||Ito Smith||Adrian Peterson||Kenneth Dixon|
|Joe Mixon||Latavius Murray||Dion Lewis||Jamaal Williams||Chase Edmonds|
|Le'Veon Bell||Derrius Guice||Giovani Bernard||Damien Harris||Elijah McGuire|
|James Conner||D'Onta Foreman|
|Dalvin Cook||Jaylen Samuels|
|Devonta Freeman||Ronald Jones|