Fantasy Football draft strategy has evolved considerably over the years, and that’s especially true at the running back position.
In the old days, several owners would bunker down on draft day and load up on the early backs, not even looking to the side. Starting with two backs was fairly common – many viewed it as a mandate – and some flex owners would look to open with three straight running backs.
Football 2015 is a different animal. The NFL has morphed into a pass-happy league, and several teams now consider the running back position as platoon-oriented, a collection of specialists.
Most of my fantasy strategy comes from an agnostic tilt – I’ll take what the room gives me, so to speak – but that doesn’t mean I don’t consider draft blueprints and themes before the big day arrives. I’m just sure to compose plans in pencil, ready to erase and rewrite at all times.
Here are some of the backfield blueprints I’m thinking about on an early August afternoon.
ZERO RB has become a rage in the Fantasy Community in recent years. Here’s a hat tip to high-stakes winner Shawn Siegele, who coined and popularized the strategy earlier in the decade (and cashed in on it). The idea is to pound the non-RB positions with your primary picks, feeling that you’ll get more consistent and projectable scoring from those spots. Now that running back is more volatile and unpredictable than ever, why attack it early? You’ll double back to the runners later, look to click through volume (more on that below).
I’ve become a partial RB sympathizer against the RB Zero crowd, feeling that if you happen to click on an early running-back pick, the advantage you net gives you a monstrous addition to your ultimate winning chances. While some pundits are focused on floor with early picks – getting on base, if you will – I want to focus on slugging percentage. It’s not if you get a hit or not, it’s how much gain are you making if your pick at the most critical position does click. It’s difficult to win any competitive football league, but I want to reduce my winning chances to the smallest number of plausible, explosive outcomes.
Frame it this way: the weakest owner never wins a fantasy baseball league, because too much stuff needs to go right. But the weakest owner can win a fantasy football league, because often it comes down to getting the right 2-3 breaks.
ANCHORS AWEIGH has become my term-du-jour for my running back strategy (and if you’re a baseball player, I like using it there, too, on the mound). I’m perfectly fine to dial up an early pick on a running back, so long as it’s a player I’m completely sold on. I never want to force an early back just for the sake of getting into that column, and I’ll pass on that position if the draft doesn’t flow in a way I like. But if I’m a full believer in the runner I see, I love tackling this position early. There are few workhorses in the game; why not be open minded to grabbing one if the timing is right?
If you see a back you feel great about in Round 1 or Round 2, I strongly consider you take the plunge on him. There are a handful of backs I’d look for in Round 1, and if C.J. Anderson or Jeremy Hill make it to me in Round 2, that’s lovely, too. The idea is I’ll get one back with my first two picks, and also get to land one of the dynamic wide receivers that are all over the board (if you can’t find 8-10 wideouts you love this year, you have impossible standards).
While Zero RB and Anchors Aweigh deal with when to take a running back, we also should discuss some themes about what types of players to take and not take and other thoughts about roster construction.
• I’m a complete believer in SLAPPING OFF THE CUFFS – not getting hung up in the handcuff game at running back. Selecting a RB handcuff is like bunting in baseball – it’s playing for one run, and it’s all you’ll ever get. Again, I want to be upside driven with my picks, give myself the best chance for things to go right.
I would be open-minded to a handcuff if the setup were perfect – if the primary back was a high-upside player in an elite system, if his backup were completely known and documented, and if I felt wonderful about the rest of my team. These perfect circumstances occasionally show up. But keep in mind in many cases, the presumed backup doesn't turn out to be the right guy to own.
Rather than handcuffing your own players, I’d suggest you look to backups for players you don’t own. Get the most positive value possible. Ghoul someone else.
• Many wise pundits consider running back the NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN position, loathe to touch anyone close to 30, or over that milestone. Mike Salfino wants no part of Frank Gore this year, for one example. Arian Foster is entering his age-29 season, and he’s an old 29; Foster is not invited to my Anchors Aweigh party.
If you'd like an extensive data dive on this theme, here's an excellent breakdown from Austin Lee of Pro Football Focus.
• Running back production has a positive correlation to team wins, so whenever possible, you want to get backs from winning teams – LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. If you do own a running back on a bad team, he better be someone who can catch the ball, stay on the field in different game scripts. This theme makes Todd Gurley look like a risky pick, unless you see the Rams busting through in 2015. My friend Raymond Summerlin discussed this idea, and Gurley specifically, in a fine article here.
• While I suspect this is fairly obvious to most seasoned players, in most leagues you’ll want to STOCKPILE RB LOTTERY TICKETS. Volume is your friend. Be judicious what other positions you back up (and for the love of all holy, don’t waste time in the early season with backups at fringe spots). Again we’re looking for the simplest path to plausible upside, the non-established player who needs the tiniest break before he comes into fantasy relevance. Raid next week’s waiver wire ahead of time.
The usual disclaimers apply. Yes, any strategy works if you click on your picks (and any reasonable strategy can go down in flames). Yes, every league is different and context-driven. Please share your running-back themes and strategies in the comments.
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