Zero RB Is Dead: Zero RB Will Never Die
Let me put this as plainly as I can: Zero RB drafting did not work in 2019. In fact, even Modified Zero RB (which is the correct draft strategy, mathematically speaking) did really work. Christian McCaffrey was required to win leagues and he was a huge chunk of the modified Zero RB strategy. The problem is that there were literally no sleeper running backs in 2019.
Where Did All The Points Go?
Of all running backs drafted later than pick 100, only Ronald Jones, Carlos Hyde, and Raheem Mostert finished inside the top-30 of PPR points at the RB position. Latavius Murray went a hair inside the top 100 was really the one true Zero RB target that actually panned out in 2019 as he had two RB1 games and that was enough at his price tag.
In terms of waiver wire failures, it was almost epic how bad injury fill in running backs did. Malcolm Brown had a chance and failed, Ty Johnson/Bo Scarbrough/J.D. McKissic all tried and failed in Detroit, Chase Edmonds got hurt immediately after he became the starter in Arizona (and the team traded for Kenyan Drake), while Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels traded turns making the other ineffective.
Now, this is not to say that every running back drafted early did their job. Alvin Kamara got injured, as did SaQuon Barkley, James Conner and David Johnson. Le’Veon Bell flat out sucked. Joe Mixon saw only 45 targets all season and didn’t have a 100-yard game until Week Nine. Devonta Freeman dusted off, Melvin Gordon held out, Sony Michel was unspeakably bad, Marlon Mack got hurt, Duke Johnson never even started, and Tevin Coleman got injured/replaced. Other top 100 busts include Darwin Thompson, Justice Hill, Darrell Henderson, and Rashaad Penny.
In fact, only 18 running backs total scored more than 200 PPR points. Only six running backs topped 19 points per game. Those running backs also had the highest win rates at the position: CMC, Zeke, Dalvin Cook, Austin Ekeler, Aaron Jones and Derrick Henry.
Conversely, there were 25 wide receivers who scored more than 200 PPR points, though there was only two players who topped 19 PPR points per game (Mike Thomas and Chris Godwin).
Mike Boone (Week 17), Matt Brieda, Chase Edmonds, Wayne Gallman, Jordan Howard, Jamaal Williams, and Jonathan Williams all had exactly one game with 20 or more PPR points. There were only 141 20 or more PPR point games in 2019 by running backs and over 80% of them came from players drafted in the first 80 picks of fantasy drafts.
Wide receivers had 195 games of 20 or more PPR points and over 35% of those performances came from players drafted AFTER pick 100. However, in 2018, there were 22 wide receivers who scored more than 200 PPR points and 14 wide receivers who scored more than 17 PPR points per game. In 2019, there were only FOUR wide receivers who scored more than 17 points per game.
This is was the Zero RB apocalypse: WR scoring was comically bad compared to prior years and there were no true Zero RB’s who swung leagues.
This leads the market to some “easy” conclusions: it is more difficult than ever to find running back production cheaply and it is easier than ever to find cheap wide receiver production. There are a lot of complicated reasons for this but it can sort of boiled down into: teams are playing three-wide receiver sets as their base personnel more than ever, teams are throwing more than ever and using multiple running backs in the same game more than ever. Touches are getting dispersed out in wider and wider distributions so the true “workhorse” running backs are have increased in value.
This flattening of the wide receiver position in terms of scoring is part of why RB ADP is out of control in 2020. The knee jerk reaction is that WR production can be found anywhere and RB production is the ultimate scarce resource.
Return Of The Running Back
Things were not always this way. In 2018, T.J Yeldon, Damien Williams, James White, Latavius Murray, Phillip Lindsay, Dion Lewis, Isaiah Crowell, James Conner, Nick Chubb, and C.J Anderson all had MULTIPLE games of 20+ PPR points and were not drafted in the top 100 picks (and in many cases were waiver wire pickups in 2018).
In 2017, there were eight running backs who had multiple games of week-winning 20+ PPR point performances after not being drafted in the top 100 picks of 2017 drafts. Obviously, we know that the game is heading more in the direction of teams using multiple RB’s so it is much more difficult for injury fill-in running backs to have full-time roles but I am starting to think 2019 might have been a very bad blip for a strategy that still has its’ basis in fact.
The supporting facts for the Zero RB strategy that are still true: running backs are the most at the most risk of injury of skill position players, elite wide receivers have more stable scoring than their mid-tier counterparts and a new fact that was not part of Shawn Siegele’s original analysis: there are now clear tiers at quarterbacks and not having a running quarterback puts your fantasy teams at a real disadvantage.
So, I think at this point, we should be asking ourselves, what has changed? Why is this the year that running backs aren’t fragile? What is causing running back ADP to look like this:
Using this data courtesy of FantasyMojo.com, drafters are DEFINITELY over-reacting to what is a perceived lack of running back scoring. Josh Jacobs and Nick Chubb may not combine for 80 targets but are top fifteen selections. Le’Veon Bell had ZERO runs over 20 yards in 2020 and is going in the third round.
Everywhere we look at RB ADP, we see runners who have massive vulnerabilities.
— Kyle Yates (@KyleYNFL) November 12, 2019
This was David Johnson last season and he is going the pick directly after Bell. Todd Gurley hasn’t had functional knees since 2018, was cut from the Rams and signed to a one-year deal worth only five million dollars and is going in the second round. Look, obviously you have to field running backs and the recent data suggests you are more likely to get a league-winning season (Aaron Jones or Derrick Henry) from a mid-tier runner who gets an extreme boost in usage or touchdown luck than you are from a non-elite tier runner.
I actually understand the impulse to draft players like Leonard Fournette, Todd Gurley, and Le’Veon Bell. Even knowing that their respective teams view them as “starting” running backs psychologically feels good. You can look at your roster and say “I have a good quarterback, two “starting” running backs, three wide receivers I like, and a tight end up with upside.” Don’t lie, you have looked at your fantasy teams and thought exactly this for a team that ended up being terrible.
Using This Information In 2020 Drafts
As always, our friends over at RotoViz have done great work on ZeroRB. Jack Miller wrote what is the perfect summary of the decision that drafters are faced with this “You have to pick between the WR1s rebounding to their historical mean, or you have to gamble on the lower-tier WRs starting a new trend. If you’re betting on statistical regression – and I highly suggest you do – recency bias is allowing you to snag those top-end WRs cheaper than ever before. You’ll also notice that the WRs in the WR13-24 range aren’t actually going higher than usual despite such a strong performance last year, so there’s no need to back off of drafting them either. In fact, you should target them because they fall in a range that has been extremely kind to wideouts historically. What I’m saying here is that it’s smart to draft WRs in the early and middle rounds if you want to capitalize on recency bias”
Essentially, flatter wide receiver scoring distribution and top-heavy running back scoring distribution is causing the market to overvalue running backs and undervalue top-tier WR1’s. Effectively, the market is going all-in on last year’s results as the beginning of a trend and laughing in the face of statistical regression.
So, how do math-based, intelligent drafters respond? It should be simple. Do not overdraft running backs with shaky projections. Draft wide receivers and tight ends who are going to score more points than their running back peers.