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Robust RB Best Ball Strategy (2022 Fantasy Football)

by Tom Strachan | @NFL_Tstrack | Featured Writer
May 2, 2022
Christian McCaffrey

Is having Christian McCaffrey and three other top-tier running backs on your team a viable best-ball strategy?

Amongst the many micro-strategies of best ball, the running back strategies perhaps run deepest of any position. While Zero RB is probably the most controversial, Robust RB flies under the radar somewhat but has many of the same polarizing qualities. A Robust RB draft will feature at least three running backs in the first five rounds, and some people will expand that definition to include up to four running backs. Generally speaking, the idea is not to overload the position after taking the early running backs. You will have allocated a lot of draft capital to the position, and it’s sensible to try not to add more than 5-6 in total and fill up your other spots with receivers predominantly.

The core belief behind this strategy is to hit the workhorse running backs heavily and avoid the ambiguity and timeshares that plague the position the deeper it gets. In isolation, this thought process feels robust, if you will. In PPR formats like FFPC, the value of the pass-catcher is slightly more defined than in half PPR (like Underdog uses). However, regardless of the platform, the popular thinking remains that you want a three-down workhorse with pass-catching and touchdown-scoring upside. In the graph below, we can see how typically the later you select a running back, the greater the chances are that they will put up fewer points per game.

It’s not groundbreaking to point out that the running backs who score the most points tend to be selected earlier, but it’s the basis of the argument in favor of this draft strategy. Elite running backs are league winners, and elite running backs get drafted early on. Where Robust RB fails on occasion, though, is not in the correctly held belief that good running backs score the most points; instead, it fails because of the opportunity cost of acquiring them. As the below chart demonstrates, wide receivers make up more of the top 30 in points per game scoring than running backs do year on year.

We also know that wide receivers are inherently a more reliable position in games played per season, as the running backs take on more of a beating every time they take to the field. As the below graph shows for 2021, receivers in the first two rounds played more games on average than their running back counterparts.

We have established that running backs miss more games and make up less of the top-scoring players than wide receivers. Robust RB truthers will use these points to nod toward taking three or four backs quickly, suggesting it mitigates the risk of one going down as they have others to step in. While that may be true, building your roster with injuries in mind is a tepid approach to best ball. While the data thus far hasn’t supported the strategy whatsoever, it’s worth looking back at a broader sample to see if the data support the strategy in different years. FFPC Slim and Underdog have only been around for a couple of years, but we can gain a bigger picture if we look at FFPC Classic data. FFPC Classic is a 28-round format, including defense and kickers. The table below shows win rates for teams that selected three running backs in the first five rounds (i.e., Robust RB builds). 

(Data via RotoViz’s FFPC Win Rate Explorer)

Total RB’s 2017 Win Rate 2018 Win Rate 2019 Win Rate 2020 Win Rate 2021 Win Rate
4 9.20% 5.70% 8.30% 8.60% 10.10%
5 14.90% 4.20% 15.10% 5.10% 7.80%
6 10.50% 6.50% 11.30% 7.30% 7.60%
7 8.40% 5.00% 8.00% 10.10% 5.50%
8 5.40% 3.30% 7.20% 6.60% 7.40%
9 1.40% 5.70%
10 0.00%
AVERAGE 9.68% 4.94% 8.55% 6.20% 7.68%

 
With the baseline win rate being 8.6%, we can see that Robust RB has experienced strong points within the last five years, and while it hasn’t been consistent, it’s hard to argue that it should be faded entirely in favor of a more wide receiver heavy approach. Would we be looking at things differently if the 2021 running backs had experienced a bit more injury luck? For large parts of the draft season, Jonathan Taylor slipped to the second round. If Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, and Derrick Henry had stayed healthier, perhaps the overall win rate and advance figures for 2021 would be better be, a lot healthier. Indeed, the 2017 and 2019 data make convincing arguments when deployed in rosters with five running backs. As discussed at the top of this article, Robust RB is based on the belief of maxing out your running back room early and then only adding to it deeper into drafts to make up for spending such high amounts of draft capital on the position.

Robust RB is a strategy that remains interesting as part of a portfolio of drafts, but if you plan to draft a small amount of best ball teams, it’s a strategy that I would be less interested in. Other strategies have had more consistent win rates over the years. For instance, selecting one running back in round one, one more before round four, and then not taking another before round eight has led to above-average win rates on FFPC Classic every year out of the last five.

Using current ADP, a robust RB build could consist of Jonathan Taylor, Nick Chubb, and Antonio Gibson. Or perhaps Derrick Henry, Javonte Williams, and Cam Akers. Taking those particular routes would mean passing on nearly all of the top 25 wide receivers by the time you make your fourth pick, giving your fantasy lineup a mullet feel. Half of it looks just fine (the running backs), but the other half is a little less pretty (wide receivers). If you took this one step further into the version of Robust RB that some people believe means you have four running backs through five rounds, you’ve already filled a bench spot in most best ball formats, and that player could have been more helpful to your starting lineup.

Furthermore, you’ve decided that a running back will fill your flex spot most weeks, and historically wide receivers have been a better choice in the flex. Like all drafts, we should approach the draft board with fluidity, and if running backs repeatedly fall to you, it makes sense to take them at a certain point. Still, when doing so, we should be cognizant of the strategy we’re drafting within and aim not to over-draft the position later on.

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