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An Introduction To The Running Back Dead Zone (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Brendan Tuma | @toomuchtuma | Featured Writer
Jun 28, 2021

It seems ludicrous in hindsight, but Todd Gurley’s projected workload made him a popular early-round pick in 2020 FF drafts.

I’ve written NFL articles for FantasyPros before, but I’m considering this my first true feature. It’s certainly my first fantasy football piece in a while given how much Major League Baseball has consumed my life since early-March. If you recognize me from the baseball side of things, well hello! And if you’re one of those “football only” folks, well then hello to you as well. I mentioned this on Twitter the other day, but while my content has always leaned baseball-heavy, I’m an equally avid fantasy footballer. And I’m looking forward to bringing a new perspective to things this year.

For the next couple of months I’ll be writing the “Fantasy Football News Roundup”, but I want to kick off my 2021 fake football coverage with more of a big picture topic — the RB Dead Zone. It’s my opinion that we have so much player analysis in the world of fantasy football, and that’s a very good thing. There was a time not too long ago where there wasn’t enough coverage of our little game. But as the industry has only gotten sharper over the years, I believe we should begin taking more of a game theory approach to things. So let’s dive in.

Reminder to feel free to reach out on Twitter with questions anytime.

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What is the RB Dead Zone?

The term “RB Dead Zone” is the latest trend among fantasy analysts. We see buzzwords like this pop up from time to time whether it’s “late-round QB” or “Zero RB”, and we can admittedly get a bit carried away with them. However, like the two aforementioned draft strategies, the lessons of the dead zone is rooted in data.

We all know how important running backs are in fantasy football. Despite their questionable real life importance, workhorse RBs are the lifeblood of our fake game. Therefore, it makes sense that a rational draft strategy should include loading up on as many backs we can, to increase our odds of securing multiple elite options.

It’s important to note that leaving a draft where a “Robust RB” strategy is employed, well, it feels good. A fantasy team littered with RBs up and down the roster who project to handle a starter’s workload beginning in Week 1 can give even the most pro-zero RB minds among us that warm, fuzzy feeling. The issue? Data tells us this isn’t the optimal way to build a championship roster.

What the data says

This is where I turn things over to Jack Miller of Establish The Run for a while. Back in May, Jack wrote a piece for the site that changed the way I’m approaching drafts in 2021.

He found that in the six-year stretch from 2015-2020, running backs drafted in Rounds 3-6 had a below-expectation win rate in best ball leagues. The above graph shows that RB scoring absolutely plummets after Round 2. It then flattens out around pick 75. Conversely, WR scoring doesn’t plummet until pick 50, and even then it isn’t that harsh of a drop-off until a couple of rounds later.

In fact, it’s the history of WR production in Rounds 3-6 that makes avoiding the RB Dead Zone a draft strategy in the first place. You might be asking yourself what position are we drafting instead of RBs during these rounds? Well, the rise of passing in the NFL has caused wideout scoring to tighten among the top pass catchers. Basically, elite WR1s don’t give as much of an edge as they once did. This makes pass-catchers being drafted in Rounds 3-6 closer in value to the top options than they were a decade ago. So put it altogether and starting a draft with two stud RBs before hammering receivers in the Dead Zone puts you at a statistical advantage over your opponents.

(Note: There’s some nuance needed when it comes to the elite tight ends and quarterbacks, which we will cover in future articles on this topic).

Looking back at 2020

You might still be questioning whether or not it actually makes sense to punt fantasy’s most important position with so many early-round selections. So let’s look at what happened last year. It’s not typically a good idea to only look at one season worth of results, but given space constraints in this article that’s what we’re going to do. And remember, the graph above is from 2015-20, so this isn’t just a one-year phenomenon.

Anyways, the table below shows RBs who were drafted in the Dead Zone last season.

I used a heat map for that last column, where “24” was considered neutral (the average of RB16-32). 24 would also denote the last possible RB2, which was a bit of a generous threshold. Alas, while there were some hits among this group, it’s clear that many of these Dead Zone RBs didn’t pan out. This next point I need to stress — the above table compares them only to their own position and doesn’t take into account the opportunity cost of the wide receivers we passed on draft them. 

At the end of the day, implementing a draft strategy based on the Dead Zone is an exercise in probability and opportunity cost. History tells us that backs taken in this range don’t pan out. It also suggests that wideouts taken in this range generally do. By taking RBs here, we are foregoing the opportunity to select those receivers.

How to implement this info for 2021

We still have an entire summer’s worth of analysis to get through. At the start of this piece I alluded to the notion that our industry might have too much player analysis, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for it. The takeaway from this introductory article shouldn’t be to not draft running backs in Round 3-6 no matter what. Instead, fantasy managers should use the data to learn the most optimal method of construction a championship roster. It doesn’t mean it’s the only way.

I also feel compelled to add that the key to avoiding the Dead Zone is that our opponents are taking backs in this range. If the market shifts, then our analysis should shift as well. Just like we’ve seen the ever-so-popular late-round QB strategy begin to morph into the mid-round QB strategy entering ’21, a time may come when it’s optimal to take RBs in this range. But I’m not holding my breath that anything changes this year. Again, that graph again includes data from the past six years.

You might now be asking yourself “which running backs fit into the Dead Zone for 2021?” or “which wide receivers should I target in these rounds instead?” I’ll have followup pieces on both of these questions. It’s still early summer! Now is the time to go to the beach and think about fantasy football in a big-picture sense. Then we’ll zero in on exact targets. More to come, so stay tuned.

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Brendan Tuma is a correspondent at FantasyPros. To read more from Brendan, check out his archive and follow him @toomuchtuma.

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