Football by the Numbers: Zero RB strategy

Michael Salfino
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
In PPR leagues, Demaryius Thomas is a safer choice than any RB. (Getty)
In PPR leagues, Demaryius Thomas is a safer choice than any RB. (Getty)

The secret to winning your point-per-reception fantasy football league is not drafting any running backs with premium draft picks.

Some of the sharpest minds in the game have concluded that running backs are too risky due to factors like injury and usage with teams employing so many committees. Rotoviz writer and National Fantasy Football Championship winner Shawn Siegele coined his “Zero Running Back Strategy” in 2013 to claim first and second place and prize money in excess of $200,000. Instead, he loaded up on premium wide receivers, who it turns out are far less risky and easier to project.

While most 12-team fantasy football leagues will draft about 15 running backs in the first and second rounds, only about eight each year reach the modest thresholds of at least 1,400 rushing plus receiving yards and eight touchdowns. See this Wall Street Journal article on the strategy for details by year.  Even worse, since 2010, less than three on average repeat the feat the following season. So this year, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, Eddie Lacy and DeMarco Murray are drafted like sure things but odds are most of them will disappoint and prove to be bad investments.

I understand your skepticism. The golden rule in fantasy football, regardless of scoring format, has been to chase running backs. And some people use this increased bust rate to justify spending more premium picks on running backs as some sort of demented insurance plan. That’s not insurance at all but rather throwing good money after bad.

Am I saying to draft a wide receiver with the first pick in a PPR format instead of a stud running back? You bet I am. And the reason is simple: the wide receiver gets more projected points when you adjust projections for risk.

The top running backs have about twice the risk as the top wide receivers. Last year, five of the eight top scorers from 2012 were either disappointments (Alfred Morris) or busts (Doug Martin, Arian Foster, C.J. Spiller and Ray Rice). But wide receivers are a different story altogether.

So while some running back will beat the top receiver you draft with this hypothetical top overall pick, identifying him is tricky. And when you make a reasonable adjustment for the universal much greater running back risk, the top back on your board ends up with less expected points than the top wide receiver. So in PPR let’s say that Demaryius Thomas has the top projection with about 300 points and at running back the top guy is LeSean McCoy with 330 points. But McCoy has about a 50% chance of scoring 50% of his fantasy points while Thomas has about a 25% chance of scoring 50% of his fantasy points. So now we have to subtract about 82.5 points from McCoy’s total for his risk but only 37.5 for Thomas’s risk. That makes their bettable projection McCoy 247.5 points and Thomas 262.5.

Additionally, according to Rotoviz, since 2011, if you lay the ADP of top running backs over their actual points that year, they underachieve by an average of 15 slots. But the top wide receivers actually outscore their ADP in PPR leagues by an average of eight slots.

My recommendation is to avoid the risk and draft the values, filling up all your available wide receiver and flex slots and maybe your tight end through the first four or five rounds. So most zero running back drafters ignore running backs until rounds five or six, at least.

I told you last week the wide receivers I would draft  — the tall and fast ones, mostly. So now let’s focus on the perfect zero RB targets based on current ADPs at, meaning they’re available five rounds in or later.

Round 5, Joique Bell: a goal-line back who will catch a lot of passes in a terrible defensive division with a starter who barely gets more work and is older and smaller and thus a greater injury risk.

Round 7, Pierre Thomas: He’s PPR gold who should approximate Darren Sproles’s traditional PPR value on the Saints about three rounds cheaper.

Round 8, Bernard Pierce or Danny Woodhead: Pierce has a weak starter and a two-week audition in addition to incredible combine measureables. Woodhead has a very high floor as a 70-catch specialist who should also get about 100 carries.

Round 9, Andre Williams: I will bet against Rashad Jennings becoming the fifth oldest man since the merger to get 200-plus carries for the first time, as I detailed in the Wall Street Journal.

Round 10, Jeremy Hill, Mark Ingram, Darren McFadden: Hill has a high floor as a goal-line back who should get at least the 200-plus carries that BenJarvis Green-Ellis received last year, considering how badly Gio Bernard faded down the stretch. Ingram is a classic post-hype sleeper who is young and starting in a prolific offense and running great all summer. McFadden remains a major talent.

Round 11, Ahmad Bradshaw: Always runs well when healthy and also great in pass protection.

(Note that you don’t stop drafting wide receivers after the first four or five rounds. You still want to finish with at least six. And in a 12 team draft where touchdown passes are scored lower, you want to be the last team to draft a starting QB.)

Could these running backs bust? Of course. But it’s like the old Abbott and Costello joke of marrying an ugly girl instead of a pretty girl because the pretty girl is liable to run away. When Abbott notes that the ugly girl can run away, too, Costello says, “Yeah, but who cares?” Who cares if your late-round RBs bust. You get four top 20 receivers in a PPR league and you’ve made the playoffs no matter who your running backs are.

And, as Siegele notes, every injury or other bad thing that happens to top running backs makes you stronger by making your opponents weaker. You don’t have those guys. But you may have their backups and you now get a chance to get their replacements on the waiver wire, profiting for the enormous risk inherent at the position, a risk that you rationally chose not to pursue.