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Was an RB-Heavy Strategy Effective in 2021? (2022 Fantasy Football)

by Tom Strachan | @NFL_Tstrack | Featured Writer
Jun 21, 2022
Nick Chubb

Nothing quite gets people divided more than the subject of how many running backs you should draft for your fantasy team. Corners of Twitter will spend hours debating the effectiveness of Zero RB versus Robust RB; people will even go to bat for Zero WR. One thing is for sure in fantasy football, and that’s the simple fact that this game changes year to year, but typically, certain structures and tactics tend to work better. Whilst we shouldn’t expect 2021’s data to be repeated exactly, we can find trends to be mindful of when drafting in 2022. 

This article will be primarily aimed at redraft leagues, but if you’re also playing best ball, be sure to check out the viability of both Zero RB and Robust RB in that format.

In 2021, we saw a strange occurrence when Round 2 fantasy running backs performed the best they have in seven years and Round 2 wide receivers performed the worst they have in seven years. Jack Miller has done some great research on this subject, and the table below shows just how much the players in the sample outscored the average.

Fantasy Football Redraft Draft Kit

 

Half-point PPR scoring
Year RB WR
2015-2020 Average 177.77 185.33
2021 214.4 154.3

 

Whilst it might occur that this was bolstered due to Jonathan Taylor’s monster season and him occasionally slipping into the second round, his ADP was 10.4, according to FantasyPros’ consensus ADP tracker, and similarly recorded elsewhere, it was other running backs that helped this statistical anomaly. Using FantasyPros’ tools, we can see the players who were drafted in Round 2 and how they finished positionally. On the whole, wide receivers performed poorly and running backs performed well. 

 

Player & Team Consensus ADP Half-PPR Positional Finish
Stefon Diggs (WR – BUF) 14 WR7
Najee Harris (RB – PIT) 15.6 RB4
DeAndre Hopkins (WR – ARI) 17.2 WR43
Antonio Gibson (RB – WAS) 17.6 RB10
Calvin Ridley (WR – ATL) 18.4 WR104
DK Metcalf (WR – SEA) 18.8 WR12
Joe Mixon (RB – CIN) 20.8 RB3
Justin Jefferson (WR – MIN) 23.4 WR4
A.J. Brown (WR – PHI) 23.8 WR32

 

Unfortunately, if you went running back-running back to start your draft, then you were in trouble if you drafted Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Derrick Henry, or Ezekiel Elliott, who all either missed games or underperformed relative to the cost of drafting them when you did. 

 

Player & Team ADP Games Played Half-PPR Points per game
Christian McCaffrey (RB – CAR) 1 7 15.6
Dalvin Cook (RB – MIN) 2 13 14.6
Alvin Kamara (RB – NO) 3 13 16.2
Derrick Henry (RB – TEN) 4 8 23
Ezekiel Elliott (RB – DAL) 5.8 17 13.4
Aaron Jones (RB – GB) 9.4 15 13.5
Saquon Barkley (RB – NYG) 9.6 14 9.2
Austin Ekeler (RB – LAC) 10.4 16 19.3
Jonathan Taylor (RB – IND) 10.4 17 20.8
Nick Chubb (RB – CLE) 10.4 14 14.7

 

At this point, we can conclude that two running backs to start your draft wasn’t an ideal strategy, but it wasn’t necessarily a touch of death either, because of the poor performances from wide receivers in Round 2. Whilst the first rounds typically set up your team for success if things go according to plan, it can often be the rest of a draft that will determine just how successful your team is. If we zoom out a little and look at how players performed week-to-week, we can gain a slightly different view of things.

The chart above shows how many players at each position finished inside the top 36 fantasy scorers each week when we remove quarterbacks. Looking at things this way, we remove the draft capital aspect and instead can focus on if running backs were more helpful to your starting lineups each week. Across the course of the 2021 season, the top 36 were made up of a majority of wide receivers on nine occasions (52.9%), and running backs on six occasions (35.2%). There were also two weeks with an even amount of wide receivers and running backs. Taking this chart at base value might lead us to believe that an RB-heavy approach wasn’t viable, but we can delve a little deeper than that. If we remove tight ends from the equation, which provides a very small sample size, we can look at the overall average points the top 36 skill-position players were scoring each week. 

This shows us that whilst running backs were less often making up the majority of the top 36, they actually outscored the wide receivers more often than not when we view it as a group. On 10 occasions, the running backs finished with the highest scores (58.8%), whereas the receivers only managed it on seven (41.1%). Across the course of the season, the running backs in the top 36 averaged 20.22 half-PPR points, compared to 19.95 for wide receivers. The difference in scoring isn’t dramatic, but if we break things down further, we can get an even more detailed picture of what occurred.

 

Category Top 1-12 Players Top 13-24 Players Top 25-36 Players
Avg. number of WRs 5.59 5.35 5.88
WR points average 25.42 18.58 15.7
Weeks outscored RBs 9 9 10
Number of RBs 5.47 5.35 5
Avg. RB points average 25.55 18.46 15.54
Weeks outscored WRs 8 8 7

 

We can see that if we break down the top 36 into thirds, it shows us that running backs outscored the wide receivers in the top 12, but then fell behind for the rest of the sample. Running backs also made up less of the top 36 in each segment. Although the wide receivers outscored the running backs and made up a greater amount of the sample, they didn’t do it in a dramatic fashion, which brings around a fairly simple conclusion that a balanced roster was the correct approach in 2021. It also further hints that having an elite running back can often be more of a benefit than an elite wide receiver, but the injury risks for running backs are well-known and showed up for all to see in 2021. Extreme strategies such as Zero RB and Robust RB can be effective and this research doesn’t rule them out, but instead, it shows that often the top points are scored by a mix of wide receivers and running backs, and setting up our rosters with a balanced amount of both can help us potentially access good returns. If you draft running backs heavily early on, then make up for it by drafting a lot of receivers later on to counterbalance it. And the same applies if you draft receivers heavily at the start of a draft. If you have any questions, you can always find me on Twitter @NFL_Tstrack.


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