2020 Fantasy Football Strategy: Modified Zero RB Or Die
2020 Fantasy Football Draft Day Strategy And Plan: Modified Zero RB Or Die
While fantasy football often comes down to “picking the right players” (ask anyone who had Christian McCaffrey, Lamar Jackson, and Austin Ekeler on their teams last year), it is best to go into every draft with a strategy. A strategy is a framework for making decisions; information points that influence the outcomes of your draft, not hard and fastened RULES.
This is a great distinction to bring with you into your drafts. We can say “It is unwise to select running backs from rounds three through five because historically speaking, those running backs have outsized bust rates” while also acknowledging that some players (like James Conner, for example) can still be values at a historically hazardous spot.
Today, we are going to break down our optimized strategy for all of our fantasy football drafts in 2020. High stakes leagues, best ball championships, 12-team PPR leagues…our general principles in the Draft Day Strategy article will apply to all of these formats.
2020 Is Uniquely Good For Fading Fragile Running Backs
If you have never read the original Shawn Siegele Zero RB article, 2020 is probably the most ideal season since the original article was published in which to read it. As Shawn explains “value-based drafting, the default method used by almost all supposed fantasy “experts,” does not work.”
This is a serious claim. You still see many high stakes fantasy football grinders and big-time TV personalities discussing VALUE as the end-all, be-all of fantasy football draft evaluations. However, as we have learned over the years, the “magic formula” style of drafting two or three running backs to begin your draft (often players who don’t catch passes) is the most fragile way to build a fantasy team. What we mean by “fragile” is that very slight disturbance can cause these fragile-build teams to go off the tracks. For all the twitter arguing and haranguing about Zero RB, the simplest reason why it works is: “Whenever a starting RB gets hurt, my lineup gets better. It gets better in relation to my opponents because I didn’t have the player in question, and it gets better in the sense that I either own the backup or I have a shot to acquire the backup in free agency.”
Of course, the key to why Zero RB or modified Zero RB as we will examine in just a moment, in 2020 is that we are going to be dealing with a whole new beast. QBs, RBs, WRs, and TEs are all going to miss multiple games with CoVid-19 in all likelihood. Mike Thomas and Ezekiel Elliot are equally likely to contract the coronavirus.
The difference is that if Mike Thomas misses three games, Manny Sanders doesn’t become the best WR in fantasy football. If Ezekiel Elliot misses time, Tony Pollard might be the favorite to lead the NFL in fantasy points while Elliot is sidelined. It is as simple as that; your waiver wire dollars are going to be better spot on replacement RBs than WRs and the injury fill-in RBs are going to be a more stable source of points than injury fill-in WRs.
The reason why we have applied the “Modified” moniker to the Zero RB handle is that it no longer makes sense to pass on these RBs for Mike Thomas/DaVante Adams: Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliot, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and controversially for some, Miles Sanders. As the NFL has become an increasingly pass-heavy league with more and more split backfields, TRUE workhorse RBs are the most valuable resource in fantasy. No one disputes this. You should select these awesome players who are projected to score league-winning amounts of points when they are available. The mistake that drafters have been making is putting the second-tier of RBS, all of whom have significant warts (lack of passing down work, real competition in their own backfield, injury/health concerns, or performance problems) ahead of proven difference-making WRs and TEs. This of course leaves them vulnerable to the vagaries of fragility.
This is our primary guiding light as we draft in 2020. Do not take running backs who won’t catch passes over long-term proven studs like Mike Evans or Julio Jones. Don’t select Leonard Fournette when you can take D.J Moore. Embrace the chaos of the 2020 Co-VID NFL season and gain from disorder.
Sir, Wide Receiver Is NOT Deep
Even if you don’t really “buy” the concept of modified Zero RB and want to start plugging away your draft with multiple running backs (which I actually think is fine in some situations; for example, if you can start Miles Sanders, Kenyan Drake, & James Conner that is a reasonable starting point) it is so vital to realize that WR is not a deep position. If you are looking for you WR2 in the eighth round, you’re just going to have a bad team.
For starters, most league settings allow you to start up to four wide receivers and it is becoming increasingly en vogue to require three starting WRs. In the “high stakes” formats like the FFPC Main Event or Football Guys’ Players Championship, each lineup can start up to four WR and is only required to start two RB yet in every draft, you will see drafters select their third and fourth RBs before taking even one WR. The salacious lie that Robust RB’ers tell you is that WR is deep! “You can get a starting level WR in Round Eight!”
The above graph is the free Sportsgrid PPR wide receiver projections for 2020. While you can quibble with the individual rankings or projections (Idiot, you have WR X too high and WR Y too low!) what the graph shows are that his position does not go nearly as deep with 200+ PPR point scorers as the market would have you believe. The graph also displays the massive advantage you can get with stacking up players like Julio Jones/Smith-Schuster/AJ Brown types in rounds two-four.
By passing up those elite WRs in rounds two-four for the likes of Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell, you are making a bet with asymmetric downside. Best case scenario, those third-tier running backs grind out seasons where they stay healthy and don’t kill you on a weekly basis.
As our friend Ben Gretch recently pointed out on Twitter, Todd Gurley hit his ceiling for the Rams last year and was a NEGATIVE win rate player in best-ball leagues.
Fwiw, Gurley had 223 carries + 49 targets and scored 14 TD last year and per RV his win rate was 4.4%, though his ADP was 13.3.
Obv you’re talking more targets + later ADP, but still fascinating to see a 2nd round RB with 250 touches and 14 TD with that win rate.
— Ben Gretch (@YardsPerGretch) August 13, 2020
The evidence would suggest that not only are you making -EV picks by taking running backs in the dead zone (Ben Gretch’s look at the RB Dead Zone is mandatory reading) but in 2020 specifically, you aren’t leaving yourself outs to figure out wide receiver production later.
Unlike running backs, we are terrible at knowing which week wide receivers are going to do their scoring. It is why we say that we like Mecole Hardman and Will Fuller better in best ball. It’s why we draft nine WRs in best ball! A big competitive advantage you get from drafting elite WRs is that you are not stuck guessing on who to sit or start. You’re just starting the guys you drafted who all have 25% target shares of their offenses.
On the converse, if you truly think WR is deep, on a weekly basis you will be trying to start guys from this group with confidence (ADP after pick 100 in FBG Championship over the last week from www.fantasymojo.com)
I really like Mecole Hardman, Jalen Reagor, Brandon Aiyuk, and several of these other WRs but I like them much more as the fifth and sixth WRs on my team so that I am waiting for the breakout in the second-half of the season as opposed to starting them in Week One. Ideally, the back half of your draft should be about drafting players who have the ability to outproduce their draft slot significantly as opposed to patching holes in your roster. When you’re forced into the RB-heavy start, you find yourself drafting players that you think “Well, he won’t kill me if he is my WR2” instead of “This guy can win me multiple weeks as my WR3”. To be fair, the same is true when drafting Tarik Cohen, James White, Nyheim Hines-types in WR-heavy starts so as always we are searching for that balance by targeting high-upside young RBs like Cam Akers, Ronald Jones, J.K Dobbins and Matt Brieda in the middle rounds.
Wide receiver is not deep. While that perception continues to permeate throughout the fantasy football community, it is not backed up in reality. We aren’t good at knowing when to start medium-tier WRs and wide receivers are far less likely than RBs to become league-winning players off of the waiver wire because fantasy points are more linked to talent at the WR position than sheer opportunity the way it is for RBs.
Learning From High Stakes Fantasy Drafts
As the offseason has gone on, I have participated in a number of “high-stakes” fantasy football drafts, both with partners and on my own. I always find that the more reps I get under my belt against stiff competition, the better I feel about my teams as the offseason goes on. You’re less likely to get caught by a positional “run” and have a better sense of the players you can wait on and those that you can’t.
One of the most interesting drafts I did was in the $150 Best Ball Championship on the National Football Championship’s site. The entire room was as thirsty for running backs as I have ever seen in my entire life.
Probably the first thing you will notice about my team is: the RBs are a very scary sight. No one wants to head out of a draft with Zack Moss and Ke’Shawn Vaughn (pre-LeSean McCoy signing) as their RB2s. However, when players like David Montgomery and Chris Carson are going in the third round, the intelligent thing to do is gravitate towards the values instead of over-drafting Devin Singletary by three rounds. This is one of the most important lessons for drafts this year: do not pay top-dollar prices for bargain-basement running backs.
On the other hand, starting with a premium running back in a different high stakes environment (The Football Guys Players Championship on the FFPC) and waiting for your second running back can produce much more aesthetically pleasing teams. The FFPC format is tight end “premium” (1.5 PPR for tight ends) so the addition of Kittle and Kelce to the top 15 or so players is a significant wrinkle.
There were still falling knife running backs in this draft (drafting out of the fourth spot with the Ship Chasing boys, Peter Overzet and Pat Kerrane) with Chris Carson and David Johnson tempting us. However, taking Stefon Diggs where almost 90% of fantasy players would have taken any available RB gives us a more anti-fragile lineup and would do the same thing for anyone reading this in a similar spot. As you’re seeing in these drafts, it really is such a tremendous edge to get a top-six pick in fantasy football this year as you are able to lock up a stud RB and have more room for artistry in the rest of your draft.
We can’t always pick that high, obviously. Sometimes we will be stuck at the 10/11/12. Thankfully, the Philadelphia Eagles seem like they are ready to commit to Miles Sanders as a true workhorse running back and the market is not quite caught up. In the DraftKings Best Ball Championship, Sanders is one of my most-owned players and the boost he gives the beginning of a roster is apparent in my FFPC Pros Vs Joes Draft (took place before Damien Williams’ opted out).
It is an important distinction that Sanders is considered as a true workhorse because many Joe Mixon/Nick Chubb/Josh Jacobs/Aaron Jones drafters make the same argument for taking their favorite RB where I selected Sanders in this draft. You may think it is quibbling over a few targets here or there but the fact that all of those second-round RBs have massive competition both for third-down work AND goalline work makes them very sketchy buys. Furthermore, when you start your draft without a truly elite-elite-elite RB (we like Sanders but he isn’t quite there), you should be more open to the rounds five-nine RBs than you normally would provided you invest intelligently at WR.
The Cheat Sheet
As I have worked on projections, done my rankings, chatted with industry leaders and high stakes fantasy football grinders, I have put together a draft board using a combination of NFC high stakes ADP, FFPC high stakes ADP and the Fantasy Pros Expert Consensus rankings as well as the model inputs from the SportsGrid fantasy football projections.
The cheat sheet is listed in a Google Doc and is color-coded based on how we should be valuing players (buys, do-not-draft at cost, fine at ADP, only in stacks). The sheet is sorted by the cumulative rank though of course there is always room to adjust based on what your room is doing and to complete stacks. It is my hope that by walking through the positional concerns this season, viewing some high-stakes draft boards and using these round-by-round targets, SportsGrid readers will crush fantasy football in 2020.