Football by the Numbers: Best of times for zeroRB

Michael Salfino
Roto Arcade
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/24913/" data-ylk="slk:Bilal Powell">Bilal Powell</a> is a shining example of a zeroRB target
Bilal Powell is a shining example of a zeroRB target

The zeroRB strategy seems to be more en vogue this year, raising questions about whether it still pays to utilize it. If there is basically a run on WRs in the first five rounds of a draft, do you draft into it or draft against it by taking running backs?

Let’s seek to quantify the general market and focus on some of the often-ignored underlying reasons for a zeroRB strategy, as well as making our zeroRB picks like last year, when we identified Rashad Jennings (Round 6 ADP in 2015), Chris Ivory (Round 7), Danny Woodhead (Round 10), Charles Sims (Round 11) and David Johnson (11). Of course, there were big misses too (but not big at all when you factor in price). The misses include Joique Bell (6), Bishop Sankey (8) and Roy Helu (13). But if you hit on 60 percent of your mid- to late-round running backs, you are crushing zeroRB because, of course, even more viable options come on line as the season progresses.

This year, according to the NFFC high-stakes drafts, we have 14 running backs going in the first four rounds broken down this way: Round 1 (four), Round 2 (four), Round 3 (four), Round 4 (two). Last year there were 19 drafted in the first 48 picks, so we’ve declined over 20 percent. The distribution last year, again in NFFC PPR leagues was as follows: Round 1 (four), Round 2 (seven), Round 3 (two), Round 4 (six). Just for fun, in 2013, before the zeroRB strategy was widely known, the numbers were 24 RBs in the first 48 picks (insane) with it broken down like this: Round 1 (10), Round 2 (six), Round 3 (four), Round 4 (four).

We are in a new era for sure. Running backs have never been so lowly regarded early in drafts. So does it still make sense to go with a zeroRB approach?

I’m comfortable drafting one running back in my first four picks given this new paradigm. But it has to be someone I feel really confident about.

I’m not taking Todd Gurley because the Rams hardly ever got near the end zone last year and that may not change in 2016. I refuse to take a running back in the first round unless I think he has a plausible path to 15 touchdowns. I’m good with David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott though. Beyond the first round, you’re looking at the total scoring package and so Lamar Miller in the second round is fine. So is Doug Martin in the third. And I love Thomas Rawls in the fourth because he could easily be a top five back if healthy given he had the second-highest rookie yards per carry since the 1970 merger (minimum 100 carries, behind only Maurice Jones-Drew) and 147 carries is a decent sample size. I’m on the fence with LeSean McCoy. But I will not draft Adrian Peterson (too far past his RB prime, historically), Devonta Freeman (very ordinary the entire second half in efficiency) or Matt Forte (the Jets want to split carries with Bilal Powell).

Most don’t understand that zeroRB is not really the objective but rather the result of risk-adjusting wide receivers and running backs for the variance between their historic ADP cost and ultimate point-scoring finishes. The short hand is to discount WR projections about 12.5 percent for this variance and RBs about twice as much (25%). Once you do this, you draft the highest projection on your board and in PPR that’s usually a WR. If it happens to be a RB, take him; you’re still applying zeroRB concepts in your valuation and properly assessing RB risk.

Before making some zeroRB recommendations based on current ADP by round, let me also make the point that while it may not be easier to get playable running backs off the waiver wire in-season, the ones you can get can be more reliably played because their touches are far more projectable than free-agent-type of wide receivers.

But when it comes to drafting zeroRBs, meaning cheaper ones, the best model traditionally for PPR is to first select the receiving backs who you expect to be every down backs with an injury, then the backups with a high touch floor and then the goal-line backs that can be every down backs with an injury.

So, using FantasyPros ADP, the best zeroRB receiving backs with a sixth-round or later ADP who would start with an injury, are: Gio Bernard (62), Charles Sims (85), T.J. Yeldon (92), Jerick McKinnon (143), DeAndre Washington (146), Buck Allen (148), Shaun Draughn (226). At price I like Allen, McKinnon and Draughn.

In games where both running backs are healthy, the normal NFL-wide carry distribution is 61.8% for the starter and 23.4% for the backup. Bilal Powell (115) should crush that average. So should Derrick Henry (112), who is also probably the goal-line back. Get Powell at ADP for sure.

Spencer Ware (200) is the one goal-line back who could start with an injury to Jamaal Charles, not exactly an uncommon occurrence.

But, incredibly, this year, due to the dearth of RBs in the first-four rounds we actually have starters (1st and 2nd down runners) who are available in our zeroRB target rounds (after Round 5, on average): Ryan Mathews (63), Jeremy Langford (64), Jonathan Stewart (70), Jeremy Hill (71), Frank Gore (76), Melvin Gordon (77), Arian Foster (83), Chris Ivory (93), Rashad Jennings (98), Isaiah Crowell (106), LeGarrette Blount (135). Of these, I am most down for paying this sticker price for Foster, Stewart, Hill and Jennings.

So is this the worst of times to zeroRB or the best of times? We hear a lot about it being the former but it seems pretty clear to me that it’s the best time because so many projectable running backs have never been available this late. My advice: get your wideouts early and count on rostering four of the zeroRBs listed above, expecting 2-3 to be very playable for the majority of the upcoming season.

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