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Was a running back heavy strategy effective in 2020?

by Jeff Bell | @4WhomJBellTolls | Featured Writer
Jun 23, 2021

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Ideologies run rampant through the fantasy landscape. “Robust Running Back” or “Zero WR” have built cult-like followings, espousing the value of rigidly following a potential value add system. But does it work?

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TOP-END CONSISTENCY PROVIDES UPSIDE

If you ask a player who rostered Alvin Kamara, the answer to early RB investment is a definitive yes. No player with a 2020 1st round ADP found themselves on more ESPN playoff rosters (60%). Sprinkle in his 59 point championship explosion, and no player provided a greater return on early investment. As FantasyPros’ own Isaiah Sirois points out, Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry were just behind Kamara in terms of impact.

These three players provide an exceptional case for building the running back stable early. The reality is that output from elite top RBs is predictable on a year-to-year basis, and the advantage is massive.  

In 2019 no single position player came close to equaling Christian McCaffrey’s impact. Averaging 29 PPR points per game, McCaffrey cleared the field by 6 points. Kamara shifted more league winnings than any single player in 2020.

A simple fact rings tried and true with fantasy football; building a league-winning roster without early running back investment is a complicated task.

THE INHERENT DOWNSIDE

Players who rostered McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, and Joe Mixon came up well short. Between the three backs, injury cost 37 games. Ideally, the early investment is locked to a handcuff back. However, even that safeguard can be tricky as Reggie Bonnafon, Devonta Freeman, and Giovani Bernard presented “obvious” handcuffs at varying points.

Running backs are among the most fungible positions in football. Teams have historically avoided giving players a second contract, and in 2020, the age downside hit hard. Leonard Fournette had little chance of paying off his 40th overall ADP after the Jaguars decided he was no longer in their plans.  

Age crept up hard on three other backs who went top 44 in ADP: Todd Gurley, Mark Ingram II, and Le’Veon Bell. All three of these players received second contracts in their careers and saw elevated draft positions based upon predicted roles. Each was taken down by foreseeable pitfalls, between Gurley’s injury history, J.K. Dobbins‘ threatening Ingram’s role, and Bell stuck in a precarious position with the Adam Gase Jets death rattle.

UNCERTAINTY: THE KEY TO UPSIDE AND DOWNSIDE

Fantasy players far too often overestimate their ability to read situations. Uncertainty can yield tremendous fantasy value with a low cost of entry, but paying on the high end often leads to disastrous results.

Misreading situations lead to two of the biggest misses in ADP with Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Kenyan Drake. Both were stepping into assumed bell-cow roles and ended in committee situations. On the flip side, J.D. McKissic and Nyheim Hines equaled their efforts on bargain ADPs.

No player future illustrates the value created from uncertain situations than James Robinson. Emerging after Fournette’s departure, Robinson’s finish as the overall RB4 propelled him to the single highest playoff representation. 

It is worth mention, clear handcuffs with actual RB1 upside like Tony Pollard can be a difficult selection for robust running back teams. Teams that fade running back will actively seek out these handcuffs as a key to their “Zero RB” strategy. Robust running back teams can frequently find themselves building their WR depth during this draft phase.

DOES A RB-HEAVY APPROACH WORK?

In reality, with the benefit of hindsight, you can claim any strategy. A robust running back enthusiast could point out a drafter could have started Dalvin Cook – Aaron JonesJonathan Taylor and ran roughshod over their league. On the flip side, a zero RB apologist could point to the injury history of the position evidenced by McCaffrey and Barkley or the steep decline of the Gurley – Ingram II – Bell troika.

Operating off the 2020 ADP showed little benefit to starting a draft with four RBs and selecting a back like Ingram over a top 10 WR like Calvin Ridley (pick 43) or D.K. Metcalf (pick 48) placed a ceiling on an optimum roster.

How can we apply this to 2021?

At the top of the draft, ADP is pretty similar between the two years. There were 19 backs in the top 36 from 2020 and 20 backs in a similar position for 2021. The running back disaster zone from 2020 also presents some fade candidates to avoid in 2021: Melvin Gordon, James Robinson, and Myles Gaskin. All three could be paying a premium price to crash out on high-end uncertainty.  

Bottom line, there is no advantage in fantasy like the ability to line up three elite running backs in a traditional 2 RB – 2 WR – flex lineup. But uncertainty entering the fourth round shifts the equation, and building a complete lineup becomes the optimized play.

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