DFS Strategy: How to Attack the RB Position (Fantasy Football)

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The running back position has historically dominated the fantasy football landscape for years. Yet, with the league adapting to a more pass-heavy approach and teams trending away from a three-down one RB system, league-wide rushing production has continued to gradually decline. As a result, it opens up more opportunity in today’s DFS to find more running backs to play. In other words, as more NFL teams utilize a committee backfield, it expands the RB player pool in DFS, especially on DraftKings, which uses full PPR scoring format.

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Here’s how to attack the running back position in DFS:

Opportunity Means Everything…But Context Matters

Every fantasy football player understands how important volume is yet that importance is elevated to extreme levels in DFS where you’re rostering players to hit a ceiling performance for just one game. With the week-to-week variance in the NFL due to small sample sizes, accurately predicting who will dominate the fantasy football player pool on a weekly basis is no small task. Therefore, we need to put ourselves in the best position possible in order to give ourselves a chance.

For this section, I’m going to discuss how to approach the running back position in cash games vs. GPPs, or tournaments.

Cash Game Approach

Running backs, in general, see more touches than wide receivers and tight ends, and as a result, projecting volume on a weekly basis is easier than trying to project target share for a pass catcher. In other words, the projection for a running back is relatively safe when compared to a projection for a wide receiver. Of course, every running back is capable of putting up a dud week relative to expectation, but we know across a large data set, the top running backs perform better than the middle and lower tier running backs. Volume is king, especially in cash games, where we care about an elevated floor.

Furthermore, with the ultimate RB opportunity pie decreasing as a whole, and the trend of more teams moving towards a running-back-by-committee approach, the value of the few true workhorse RBs left in the league has increased.

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So to recap:

  1. We know opportunity is the name of the game because it helps to elevate the floor we’re looking for in cash
  2. We know RB is easier to project in DFS on a weekly basis when compared to pass catchers
  3. We know there are only a few STUD workhorse RBs left in the league

It sounds like we should probably focus on those players right? Right. There are two significant reasons why this strategy is ideal:

  1. Three-down RBs have heavy guaranteed workloads
  2. Three-down RBs are generally involved in the passing game as well. This is important because when an RB is involved in both phases of the offense, it means they are not as dependent on a particular game script for success. They can produce regardless of whether their team is winning or losing, meaning there are more possibilities for them to reach a ceiling performance while also having a high floor.

Don’t overthink expensive salary price tags and roster percentages when it comes to the elite backs like Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, etc. Lock in their guaranteed workloads and worry about getting contrarian (if you’re playing in tournaments) with your other seven roster spots, or be willing to spend down at RB…more on that next.

Tournament Approach

When trying to get different than the field, understanding how to use roster percentages is crucial to success in GPPs. I talked about that in detail with Kyle on this episode of the DFS Podcast. When we discuss ‘chalk’ players or those who are going to be heavily rostered in a given week, we’re faced with a difficult decision point – play the chalky RB or try to get different at the running back position?

To make an extremely generalized statement, the most popular running backs don’t fail as often as the popular wide receivers. After all, we just established that volume is king, and RBs see the most of it, making them a relatively safe bet most weeks. As a result, it’s okay to play popular running backs for a given slate, but that means that you have to get different in other parts of your lineup to create leverage on the field.

But what if we fade the most popular RB plays for a given week? Is that a -EV move? Not necessarily. Take a look at the winning Milly Maker lineup from Week 1 last season.

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You’ll notice, this DFS player played one popular running back (Josh Jacobs at 28%) and one that was a lineup differentiator (Raheem Mostert at 7.6%).

How about the winning lineup from Week 3, as shown below.

This DFS player spent up on one of those elite running backs in Derrick Henry, but he got extremely different at the RB position, rostering Jeff Wilson and Rex Burkhead both at less than 2.5% at the stone minimum price tag for an RB on DraftKings at $4,000.

But these are just two examples – is it really that good of an idea to spend down at running back? Based on last year’s trends, it appears the answer to that question, in part, is “yes.” I took an in-depth approach on how to attack the QB position in DFS, and I found that in tournaments it’s advantageous to spend up at the QB position, or at least avoid spending down. We have a finite number of dollars to spend in terms of salary, so where do these savings come from?

At least in part, saving some salary on running backs in tournaments appears to be beneficial. Using FantasyLabs data, I took a look back at how top-performing teams in the Milly Maker allocated their salary. When looking at teams who finished atop the leaderboard in the Milly Maker, they spent an average of $6,400 on the RB position. When expanding that data set to the teams that finished inside the top 100, these teams spent about $5,800 on the RB position.

This is intuitive. I think it makes sense that if we want to spend up on the top tier QBs in tournaments given their massive ceiling, we have to save salary somewhere, and it appears as though spending down to the mid-tier price at RB is a way to both access ceiling games and save money to then be able to pay up for those top tier QBs.

I want to be clear here: I’m not advocating that we immediately log in and find the cheap RBs to play. Rather, I think we should be looking at the expensive backs who are going to be heavily rostered and asking ourselves the question, “How does this player fail?” If there’s a logical argument to be made against one of the expensive backs and they’re going to be popular, it appears as though it makes sense to look at the next tier in pricing.

Appreciate Cheap RBs In Starting Roles Due to Injuries

Injuries are a huge deal in DFS because they can open up a ton of opportunities for other players that almost always come with a much cheaper salary price tag. On top of that, there is no easier one-to-one replacement in football than at the RB position. Therefore, in a lot of cases, it makes sense to roster the near-minimum salary RB that is going to start if we can realistically project them to see a significant amount of opportunity. In cash game formats, paying the backup RB who gets a start due to an injury to the starter in front of them is usually the correct play because the value that it presents is massive.

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When this kind of opportunity presents itself though, you’ll want to strongly consider taking advantage. Locking in an RB projected to see close to 20 touches at near-minimum salary provides you with great value and frees up salary cap space that will allow you to roster more studs at your other RB spot, or other positions such as WR, QB, and even TE. This is what we call the “Free Square” in the DFS world.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

In cash games, this conversation is easy, but in tournaments, there is a decision to make. Do we ignore roster percentage and play the cheap RB because he projects well and saves us salary or do we fade him given that we know he’s guaranteed to be one of the most popular plays on the slate, and thus, will give us massive leverage on the field if he fails?

This is typically a decision to make on a case by case basis and one that we’re definitely going to discuss in detail on the DFS Podcast, but here are a couple of points to consider regarding cheap backup RBs:

  • Are they in line to see passing down work? – It’s far easier to fade a cheap two-down RB who could go for 75 rushing yards but doesn’t find the end zone than it is to fade a back who has an opportunity to accumulate fantasy points via the passing game and the rushing game.
  • Have we seen the RB reach a ceiling outcome before? – Every year, we see a cheap RB who has a proven history of being productive back in the league. It’s less likely we’ll want to fade those players.
  • Is the RB on a good offense? – A cheap RB is great and all, but what if they play on a bad team? Will they find themselves in an opportunity to find the end zone and score TDs? After all, we’re not talking about floor outcomes here – we want to find a ceiling in tournaments, and of the easiest ways to do that is to target backs who have the ability to score TDs.

Again, Kyle and I will discuss each scenario that pops up throughout the season, so you’ll definitely want to be subscribed to the DFS Podcast to hear our thoughts on each specific situation.

Utilize Advanced Statistics To Give You An Edge

In order to aid our ability in successfully implementing the general approach at RB I just laid out, it’s crucial to utilize advanced statistics to give us a leg up on the competition when building lineups. Whereas most DFS players will base their decisions on raw counting stats such as rushing yards, receiving yards, and TDs, we’re going to be diving deeper.

Here are some RB data points you’ll want to pay attention to throughout the 2021 season:

  • RB Market Share – Percentage of total team’s RB carries received
  • RB Target Share – Percentage of the total team’s RB targets received
  • RB Opportunity Share – Percentage of total team RB carries plus targets received
  • RB’s Matchup based on opponent’s Rush DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) calculated by Football Outsiders. DVOA adds more perspective to a stat like total rushing yards allowed by measuring a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent.
  • Vegas Lines – They give us more information to help us predict game outcomes and game flow, which is crucial with RBs as backs on teams projected to win, especially when playing at home, generally produce more. Similarly, we see similar results with RBs playing in good fantasy games with lots of projected points.

This is just an introductory article and the intention was to give you a general understanding of what philosophies and statistics to utilize and be looking for this season. Our DFS crew will be bringing you multiple articles a week using these advanced statistics to break down and explain why a certain RB is the right play. After all, it’s all about the process over results and our team is committed to using a logical process in order to help you have a fun and profitable 2021 DFS season.

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