Was the Zero RB Strategy Effective in 2016? (Fantasy Football)

Jun 29, 2017

Frank Gore may have salvaged Zero RB rosters in 2016

I was not a proponent of Zero RB in 2016. In fact, quite the opposite. But I didn’t start out that way. I was all about the load up on WRs strategy early in the offseason. It wasn’t until mid-to-late August that it dawned upon me to more closely analyze 2015 and why it appeared that the WR takeover was complete.

About a month ago, I wrote an article on the return of the RB to dominance. In that article, I analyzed the average performance of RBs compared to WRs based on tiers (1-10, 11-20, etc.). Without repeating everything I said previously, the numbers indicate that the top 10 RBs, as a group, consistently outperformed the top 10 WRs. However, as you moved further down the line, the production differential decreased. The reason going RB early has always been effective (with the exception of the anomalous 2015) is because it’s easier to find WRs later than it is RBs and, furthermore, the disparity between early-mid round RBs and late round RBs is greater than the disparity between early-mid round WRs and late round WRs.

With that foundation in place, let’s see how we would have fared under Zero RB in 2016. To do this, the information I will use is Fantasy Football Calculator PPR ADPs and FantasyPros stats for Wide Receivers and Running Backs. Before we even get into it, there’s no denying that it was possible to win with Zero RB last year. It’s possible to win with literally every strategy every year if things break your way. The goal here is to assess whether Zero RB should have worked. Yes, there will be a lot of hindsight here.

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2016 Zero RB Targets

For the purposes of this analysis, I will assume that Zero RB meant you did not draft a running back until you had at least three receivers, a quarterback, and a tight end. There are obviously variations to this, but the general idea is going to be that a Zero RB player is one you did not draft until at least the sixth round.

Player ADP Total Points Avg Points Final Rank
Jonathan Stewart 6.03  132.2 11.0 32
Duke Johnson 6.07  144.6 9.6 27
Frank Gore 7.02 204.7 13.6 11
Rashad Jennings 7.03 125.7 10.5 34
Matt Jones 7.06  75.3 10.8 54
Ameer Abdullah 7.10 26.8 13.4 91
Chris Ivory 7.12 94.5 8.6 44
Charles Sims 8.03 67.9 9.7 59
Justin Forsett 8.07 53.6 6.7 68
LeGarrette Blount 8.08 221.8 14.8 8
TJ Yeldon 8.10 137.7 9.2 29
Theo Riddick 9.04 161.8 16.2 24
Isaiah Crowell 9.11 186.5 12.4 17
Jay Ajayi* 10.03 204.4 14.6 13
Darren Sproles 10.09 155.9 11.1 25
Tevin Coleman 10.12 176.2 14.7 21
Spencer Ware** 11.06 193.9 13.9 14
Jerick McKinnon 13.05 122.4 8.7 36

 
*Ajayi was drafted in most leagues, but subsequently dropped by most fantasy owners after he totaled a mere 31 carries for 117 yards through the first four weeks of the season.

**Ware’s ADP moved up to about the seventh round as September neared and it became increasingly clear that Jamaal Charles was going to miss a significant portion of the season, but he still qualifies as a Zero RB guy.

Above we have 18 realistic Zero RB candidates from the 2016 season. LeGarrette Blount and Frank Gore were the only ones to finish as an RB1. Spencer Ware was close as a high-end RB2. Out of these 17 running backs all available in the sixth round or later, you could have found yourself two low-end RB1s, four RB2s, six RB3s, and five guys who were pretty much useless. If you employed the Zero RB strategy, there was about a 64% chance that your RB1 was no better than an RB3. Sure, you could have picked up Jordan Howard, Rob Kelley, or Terrence West. Unfortunately, we can’t factor that into the Zero RB analysis because waiver pickups are not exclusive to any strategy – every team, regardless of how good, was likely to be interested in grabbing these guys. They can be viewed as bail outs for a failed Zero RB plan, but cannot be considered part of the plan itself.

Focusing a little more on the fails in the above table, we can see that all five of them occurred right smack in the middle of the draft; right at the time when Zero RB teams are typically taking their first two RBs. Jones, Abdullah, Ivory, Sims, and Forsett all went in the seventh and eighth rounds. I’m even going to throw in Jennings as a fail because he was useless for the majority of weeks last season. So we have six Zero RB darlings that contributed nothing. That’s not impossible to recover from, though, as the Zero RB strategy entails throwing as many as five or six darts at late-round RBs. You only need to get two correct (or one really correct, like Blount or Ware…as long as the second guy isn’t useless).

14 of the top 24 running backs drafted last year finished in the top 24. David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell each averaged over 26 fppg. They were a solid five points better per week than the next two, Ezekiel Elliott and LeSean McCoy. The best Zero RB performer on a per week basis was Theo Riddick at 16.2 fppg. The drop off to the next guy, LeGarrette Blount, was 1.4 fppg. After Blount, we get a more steady decline, but I think the point has been made: there was a pretty significant difference between the elite RBs and the lesser RBs last season. In order to survive using Zero RB, you had to have a strong edge in the WR department.

2016 WR-WR Combinations

Every draft is different so it’s impossible to account for every potential WR duo. Some undoubtedly worked better than others. Here, I will highlight a handful of popular and realistic WR duos from last season and see how much of a problem a weak RB corps would have been.

WR1 Total Points Avg Points WR2 Total Points Avg Points
Antonio Brown 307.3 20.5 Brandin Cooks 241.4 17.2
Odell Beckham 287.2 19.1 Alshon Jeffery 144.1 13.1
Julio Jones 237.3 18.3 Amari Cooper 217.0 14.5
AJ Green 186.4 18.6 Jordy Nelson 292.1 19.5
DeAndre Hopkins 178.1 11.9 Dez Bryant 180.0 15.0
Brandon Marshall 156.7 10.4 Keenan Allen 12.3 12.3
Mike Evans 286.6 19.1 Allen Robinson 186.1 12.4

 
T.Y. Hilton, Doug Baldwin, Demaryius Thomas, and Jarvis Landry all had strong years as well. If you drafted one of them as your third receiver, things probably went well. However, out of the receivers taken in rounds 3-5, nine out of 16 can be classified as busts, some significant, too. You were just about as likely to fail as succeed with a third receiver.

As for these top 14 guys in the table above, only the Antonio BrownBrandin Cooks duo really succeeded. Now you could have paired any of the top three receivers or Evans with Cooks or Nelson and done quite well. If you paired one of them with Cooper, you probably were fine. But look at how many of these guys let you down. Green got hurt. Hopkins was a huge disappointment. Marshall was a mega bust. Jeffery got hurt and wasn’t great when he played. Bryant missed games. Allen missed the entire season. Robinson was a huge disappointment as well. If you add Rob Gronkowski to this mix, you get another injury/disappointment club member. Less than half of the players in this table were truly elite. It is extremely unlikely that you would have been able to find a WR duo capable of overcoming your weaker RBs in a Zero RB strategy.

If you went RB heavy early on and had to find yourself a WR3 and bench WRs later, you probably hit on at least one. 12 of the top 24 WRs from last season were drafted outside the top 24. All but four of them were drafted round nine or later. Compare that with just eight of the top 24 RBs having been drafted outside the top 24. Additionally, there were WRs that, although they didn’t finish top 24, had stretches of WR2 or better performances after they emerged later on in the season. A few examples are Cameron Meredith, Jamison Crowder, and Tyreek Hill.

Conclusion

In 2016, Zero RB likely failed you. That’s not to say it failed everyone nor is it a declaration that you should throw out the strategy in the future. Use this analysis of how 2016 played out to help study up on what a Zero RB strategy might look like in 2017. In a game filled with randomness and unpredictability, the best we can do is implement the strategies with the highest probability of success.


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Jason Katz is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Jason, check out his archive or follow him @jasonkatz13.

 


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