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Robust RB Best Ball Draft Strategy (2024 Fantasy Football)

Robust RB Best Ball Draft Strategy (2024 Fantasy Football)

When it comes to best ball, there are many ways to skin a cat, and much breath is spent arguing the “best” way to draft. What is clear is that year to year, we see different strategies work better than others, and understanding the current average draft position (ADP) and how it might affect those strategies is a big advantage.

One such polarizing strategy is Robust RB. 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.

The optimal way to deploy this strategy is with no more than five or six running backs when you draft like this. As the theory goes, you need those early draft picks to hit in a big way, or your roster might be toast already, and there’s no sense pouring large amounts of draft capital into the position after that point.

Best Ball: Robust RB Strategy (2024 Fantasy Football)

The key part to the Robust RB strategy is the belief that the top-end elite running backs bring better chances of league-winning seasons, which Pat Kerrane extensively wrote about in his “Legendary Running Back” series. But while those running backs are more likely to give us seasons like Christian McCaffrey in 2023, they are also prone to high bust rates, with Kerrane noting these running backs bust at a rate of 40%.

Whatever platform you’re playing on and regardless of the scoring format, three-down running backs with the goal line job are a premium worth paying up for.

However, regardless of the platform, the popular thinking remains that you want a three-down workhorse with pass-catching and touchdown-scoring upside.

Early-Round Success Rate

In the graph below, we can see how, typically, the later you select a running back, the greater the chances they will put up fewer points per game. Only two running backs selected outside the top 50 in ADP averaged over 15 half-point PPR points per game in 2022.

In 2023, we can see in the graph below that while the effects were less pronounced with the RB position in general floundering, only eight running backs selected past pick 100 and scored over 10.0 half-point PPR points per game (PPG).

This data shows the crux of a Robust RB argument, with those backs who score the most points typically being selected earlier. Where Robust RB fails on occasion 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 a lot of them.

The chart below shows that over the last six years, wide receivers have typically made up the majority of the top 30 in PPR points per game when we remove quarterbacks.

In Half PPR formats, running backs do make up more of the top 30, but again, the opportunity cost of taking them is steep. The chart below shows that the only wide receivers to average over 15 half PPR points had an ADP inside the top 35.

Thirty-one wide receivers scored between 10.0 and 14.9 points per game in 2023, compared to 27 running backs.

We also know that wide receivers are inherently a more reliable position in games played per season, as the running backs take more of a beating every time they take the field. As the below graph shows, receivers played more games on average than their running back counterparts in 2023.

Wide Receiver Hunger

Since Underdog Fantasy launched, the popularity of wide receiver-heavy starts has steadily increased. The number of wide receivers drafted inside the top 50 is growing yearly, while the number of running backs has dropped to the point where now only 13 are drafted in the current top 50. It should be noted that this could change after free agency and the draft.

Historical Success, or Lack of…?

We’ve established the theory behind this strategy and the reasons why it can fail to succeed: Running backs miss more games and tend to make up less of the top-scoring players. Robust RB truthers believe that taking three or four backs quickly 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 weak way to approach best ball.

While the data thus far hasn’t supported the strategy, it’s worth looking back at a broader sample to see if the data supports the strategy in different years. Fantasy Football Players Championship (FFPC) Slim and Underdog have only been around for a few 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) from 2017 to 2022. It’s still too early in the offseason to have all of the data for 2023, but we’ll update this as the season goes on.

(Data via RotoViz’s FFPC Win Rate Explorer)

Total RBs 2017 Win Rate 2018 Win Rate 2019 Win Rate 2020 Win Rate 2021 Win Rate 2022 Win Rate
4 9.20% 5.70% 8.30% 8.60% 10.10%
5 14.90% 4.20% 15.10% 5.10% 7.80% 9.0%
6 10.50% 6.50% 11.30% 7.30% 7.60% 8.9%
7 8.40% 5.00% 8.00% 10.10% 5.50% 7.9%
8 5.40% 3.30% 7.20% 6.60% 7.40% 6.2%
9 1.40% 5.70% 6.0%
10 0.00%
AVERAGE 9.68% 4.94% 8.55% 6.20% 7.68% 7.6%

With the baseline win rate being 8.6%, we can see that Robust RB has experienced strong points within the last five years. While it hasn’t been consistent, it’s hard to argue that it should be faded entirely in favor of a more receiver-heavy approach.

On Underdog, we can examine Robust RB advance rates for the previous two years of data to see how it faired in a half-PPR format, where the advance rate is 16.7%.

Total RBs Drafted (With three drafted in the first five rounds) 2021 2022
3 12.90% 9.50%
4 12.90% 12.00%
5 14.10% 12.30%
6 14.40% 11.50%
7 14.00% 10.30%
8 8.90% 8.20%
9 4.50% 0.00%

When looking at these figures, there’s no simple way to say it other than Robust RB is not helping you advance at an above-average rate.

In 2023 best ball drafts, it was possible to fall into combinations of Bijan Robinson, Saquon Barkley, Austin Ekeler or Tony Pollard and Rhamondre Stevenson, which even hardened Zero RB fans would have found intriguing. Still, as the season went on, many of the top running backs faltered, leaving lineups dead long before the best ball playoffs. It’s true that the top wide receivers also struggled in 2023, with Justin Jefferson, Cooper Kupp and Ja’Marr Chase suffering injuries. Still, historically, it’s proved wiser to draft the receivers over the running backs.

Robust RB is a strategy that remains interesting as part of a portfolio of drafts, particularly early in the best ball drafting season, as we can take advantage of ambiguity and value that pops up. Still, 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 and one more before round four, 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 the current Underdog ADP, a robust RB build could consist of McCaffrey, Isiah Pacheco, and Rachaad White, or perhaps Breece Hall, Devon Achane, and Travis Etienne. Both lineups sound appealing, but 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 a non-RB 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. If you do intend to utilize the Robust RB approach, remember to be mindful of how many draft picks you use on backs after the early ones.

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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