Fantasy Football Draft Prep: Early round RBs need legendary upside

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It's officially July, which means it's officially fantasy football season. Not best ball szn, but good old, honest to goodness fantasy football season where we draft teams, set starting lineups, and make waiver claims. But that doesn't mean we simply throw out the lessons learned from best ball. Best ball's explosion in popularity has generated important research that can help us win our managed PPR leagues.

I want to dig into one idea in particular: the RB dead zone. Why does it exist in the first place, and does it start earlier than we think? 

The RB Dead Zone and How To Avoid It

I’m sure you’ve heard about the RB dead zone by now. Back in May, Jack Miller used average win rate data from 2015-2020 to warn us that we should be avoiding running backs in the “dead zone” of rounds 3-6. These running backs have averaged fewer points than the available wide receivers, which has created a major drag on win rates. 

If we want to avoid the RB dead zone there are several options. One is to use Hayden Winks’ “bimodal” strategy. This build involves taking two running backs to start your draft and then hammering wide receivers afterward. This structure is supported by Hayden’s research showing that average running back scoring, while lower than wide receiver scoring in the first two rounds, is at least closer than in the dead zone.

Another strategy is to take a single elite running back in the first two rounds, pair him with an early round wide receiver or tight end, and then load up on wide receivers through the dead zone. Jack Miller recently elaborated on the enormous success of “The Strategy Which Shall Not Be Named” (1-elite RB). This approach has the ancillary benefit of sending your opponents into a conniption fit if you don’t use their preferred moniker (Modified Zero RB, don’t @ me). But (much) more importantly, “Hero RB” has posted dominant win rates over the past six seasons. 

And of course, those seeking true enlightenment should read Denny Carter’s interview with the high priest of zero RB, Shawn Siegele. The zero RB strategy relies on the chaos of the NFL season, allowing fantasy managers to utilize the waiver wire and the week-to-week predictability of the running back position make up ground on their early-RB league-mates as depth charts shift. Even though best ball leagues don’t have a waiver wires or start/sit decisions, zero RB has still posted borderline dominant win rates over the past six seasons. It’s a powerful strategy.

There are some caveats to avoiding the RB dead zone. In best ball, the lack of a waiver wire (and in Yahoo's case 0.5 PPR scoring) can make early-RB very powerful, so long as you don't go overboard and still draft enough wide receivers. Mike Leone identified the “hyperfragile” strategy as one of the keys to the 2020 best ball season, and Justin Herzig took down a tournament with a hyperfragile 4-early-RB build. 

Overall though, the research is clear. Selecting multiple running backs early can work, but in most situations, we want to avoid the RB dead zone. Luckily, we have well researched and successful strategies that do just that. But why does the dead zone exist in the first place?

The Dead Zone is Full of the Living Dead

Since 2015, 66 wide receivers have failed to post an average win rate in rounds 3-6—compared to 67 RBs. That is technically more running back busts, but maybe not to the point where we need to be throwing around terms like “dead zone.” Seems a little intense, is all I’m saying.

But of course, far more wide receivers are drafted in the middle rounds than running backs. As a result, running backs fail to meet generic win rate expectations at a significantly higher rates than wide receivers. This is true not just in the dead zone, but in every single early round. 

Failed to meet expectations chart
Failed to meet expectations chart

(RBs and WRs who fail to hit an 8.3% (1 in 12) win rate).

One driving force here is that, as Ben Gretch wrote about when first discussing the dead zone in 2019, running back scoring drops off dramatically after the middle of round three. Wide receivers are out-scoring running backs in this range, so logically they have higher win rates. But every wide receiver isn’t slightly outsourcing every running back. Something bigger is happening.

Many running backs are flat out busting.

Bust Rate Chart
Bust Rate Chart

Running backs are busting at a higher rate than wide receivers. Once again, this is not limited to the dead zone; it's happening in every early round of the draft. Since 2015, 48 running backs drafted in the first six rounds have had a sub-5% win rate. In other words, 27% of all running backs drafted in the first six rounds have been outright losing leagues.

Statistically, if you draft four running backs in the first six rounds, one of them will be a total bust. Wide Receivers in this range are far from perfect. They have an 18% bust rate, but it's still a whole lot safer to invest in them than to load up on early running backs. 

These busts are a key factor in driving down average points for running backs in these rounds. But this is just one part of the story. The dead zone is even more dangerous because it lacks another critical element: upside.

The Point of Drafting Early Round RBs is Legendary Upside

Running back bust rates are bad in rounds 3-6, but they’re actually worse in rounds 1-2. These running backs are busting 40% of the time, compared to a bust rate of just 19% in rounds 3-6. With even worse bust rates, why aren’t we also avoiding running backs in the top two rounds?

Well - sometimes we are. This is why zero RB works. But why does "Anchor RB" also work?

It’s actually pretty easy to understand once you see the win rate results plotted out.

RB Win Rates by Year
RB Win Rates by Year

(Each dot represents an individual player's season in order of win rate finish. For example, the orange dot in the top right is Christian McCaffrey's 37% win rate in 2019).

RB Win Rates by Year
RB Win Rates by Year

Wide receivers are excellent at producing low double-digit win rates. They rarely go nuclear, but if you’re looking for run of the mill “league winners,” wide receivers are actually your best bets.

Wide receivers have produced a higher percentage of 13%+ win rates in every early round of the draft.

League Winners by Round
League Winners by Round

But the vast majority of “league winning” wide receivers still have win rates below 20%. If you want an epic, season-named-after-you style of fantasy result, it is much more likely to come from a running back.

Legendary Win Rate by Round
Legendary Win Rate by Round

Since 2015, running backs have seven finishes with 20%+ win rates. Wide receivers have just three. And running backs have four finishes with 25%+ win rates. Wide receivers have none.

I recently argued for Antonio Gibson as a target this season, invoking 20+ point per game upside. Honestly, I was wrong to reference that threshold. I should have argued for 25+ point per game upside. That's the type of upside we're actually looking for from a running back with Gibson's ADP.

When drafting early round running backs we need legendary upside. I don’t mean guys who simply profile as workhorses. I don’t mean “every-week fantasy starters”. I mean, when you think 2017, you think Todd Gurley; when you think 2019, Christian McCaffrey. Legendary fantasy seasons. Hitting on one of these seasons is worth risking high bust rates. That's why every year we draft running backs with the hope that we have just drafted the next legendary league winner.

But don't lose sight of how rare these outcomes actually are. We're talking about seven such running back finishes over the last six years.

Last year only Alvin Kamara emerged from the early rounds with a 20%+ win rate. Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, Kareem Hunt and David Montgomery all had 13%+ win rates. Aaron Jones, Jonathan Taylor, David Johnson and D'Andre Swift all had above average win rates. The other 21 (21!) running backs selected in rounds 1-6 had below average win rates. 

Running back upside is real and, to a degree, worth chasing. But don't forget the fact that you are walking through a minefield in search of it. The RB dead zone doesn't start in round three—it starts the instant your fantasy draft begins. We only start noticing the dead zone in round three because the running backs who deliver legendary seasons have already been selected by that point.

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Avoiding Busts

If you're lucky enough to hit on an elite running back, you don't want to immediately give back most of your advantage by pairing him with a bust. This fits with Jack Miller's research showing that single elite RB has been stronger in best ball than bimodal (2-early) running back. Find your legend and then move on to other positions.

And by the way - these busts might not be who you think they are.

Josh Jacobs had 235 PPR points as RB8. He finished with a 7.9% win rate.

Nick Chubb had 17.5 points per game last season, nearly two points stronger than Jacobs, and finished as RB11 overall. But he played only 12 games and finished with a 7.3% win rate. Chubb was pretty good on a per game basis, but not good enough to make up for missed games, a common occurrence at the position.

Ezekiel Elliott finished as 2020's RB9 with 232 PPR points. He had a 2.7% win rate. In fact, Elliott has just one season above a 10% win rate: his rookie season, which was his only season with an ADP outside the top seven picks. Elliott has had a terrific career. But his draft cost has meant that his fantasy managers have essentially been treading water—until last year when they sank.

Drafting an early round running back in a managed league is an exercise in searching for irreplaceably elite fantasy production. As a result, do not take refuge in a "safe" projectable floor. If you draft an early round running back and don't hit on a ceiling outcome, you likely wasted the pick. It's really that simple.

Your starting lineup is terrible, but so is everyone else’s.

Before wrapping up this article I wanted to quickly revisit the chart below, on players who failed to hit generic win rate expectations. Take another look at just how many running backs and wide receivers have failed to hit an average win rate each season.

Failed to meet expectations chart
Failed to meet expectations chart

This is another reason why loading up on running backs in the early rounds is ultimately a trap. Yes, it’ll make your starting lineup look great. But your starting lineup is terrible. Luckily, so is everyone else’s.

When you draft a fantasy team, drafting your second running back in round two does not make him your "RB2". Realistically, this running back might not even be on your roster by mid-season. Instead, that player is simply your second opportunity to find a difference making fantasy season. 

We know that legendary seasons are available for running backs in the first and second round in a way they are not for wide receivers. But they are rare; and searching for them is risky. 

Meanwhile, we know that wide receivers actually produce more league winning seasons in every early round, even though they generally lack irreplaceably elite upside. We also know that wide receivers are significantly less likely to bust in the early rounds.

If your goal is to find as many difference making fantasy seasons as possible—let me rephrase—if your goal is to win your fantasy league, you should be strongly prioritizing wide receivers in every early round of the draft. In my view, the only reason to deviate from this plan for a running back is if you truly believe that player has legendary upside.

In my next article I’ll lay out my 2021 early round running back targets for managed leagues.

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