RB Drafters Stack The Deck Against Themselves

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The courage of my convictions, it turns out, is not the rock I thought it to be.

My faith in the Zero RB draft strategy -- which I would once describe as unwavering -- was shaken after a couple days of research into its mustachioed, tough guy cousin strategy, Robust RB. I wrote about what a fantasy squad might look like if one burned high-leverage picks on running backs while piling up wideouts in the middle rounds of a draft. Upon completion, I was horrified. I didn't hate what I saw.

This plunged me into a weeks-long existential crisis.

I could think of only one person who could shore up my once-unshakable belief in an anti-fragile approach to fantasy football lineup construction: Shawn Siegele, the high priest of Zero RB who penned the manifesto on the strategy and its underlying concepts, and who has shown time and again that committing to Zero RB is the path to massive upside, to scoring a whole bunch of fantasy points.

It sounds insultingly simple. Of course we want to maximize fantasy points when building our teams. How dare we say any fantasy manager isn't trying to achieve just that. But a close and honest examination of many draft approaches will show that scoring the most fantasy points possible is not the end goal; it's not even a consideration in some strategies. We can get bogged down in real football. We can suffer from the dreaded take lock. We can sacrifice all-important upside -- the key to winning your league -- to the Balanced Roster Gods, cruel and indifferent deities that they are.

Below, I asked Shawn -- who runs the fantasy football analysis machine known as RotoViz -- to buttress my faith in Zero RB and its anti-fragile underpinnings.

Denny Carter: Last month, I tasted the forbidden fruit of researching how one might piece together a decent Robust RB roster. I won't lie: The fruit wasn't half bad. It's no secret that Robust RB drafters have to hit on receivers in the fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds who have hidden upside in the form of unforeseen target volume. There seem to be more than a couple candidates who fit that description right now -- guys like Julio Jones, Courtland Sutton, Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Robby Anderson. Do these players -- or the NFL's trend toward more three and four receiver sets and more passing -- change the calculus of Zero RB in 2021?

Shawn Siegele: No, I don’t think so. Zero RB was electric in 2020. For example, if you waited until at least Round 7 to select your first RB in a BestBall10, then you won at a better than a 13 percent clip, which is pretty crazy. The environment will be similar in 2021, so I expect another good season for Zero RB. You need a perfect storm – as was the case in 2016 when ADP was WR-heavy and RBs stayed unusually healthy – to create an unfavorable environment for Zero RB.

Plus, having strong WR options in Rounds 4 to 6 should help Zero RB teams, an idea I’ll expand on in a moment.

Denny: I've believed for some time that Zero RB has a PR problem. It's not easy to explain the nuances of the strategy and how to deploy it in various fantasy formats. My theory is that most people learned fantasy football from people and publications that preached the orthodoxy of always, no matter what, using high-leverage picks on running back. Deprogramming that orthodoxy -- and the related thought process -- is a lot of work. Robust RB is more straightforward: get two or three top backs, stock up on wideouts in rounds 4-8, and log out. Have you experienced similar difficulties in properly explaining the theory behind Zero RB and why a fantasy drafter would want an anti-fragile roster? We might require a public relations firm.

Shawn: The nice thing is there are a lot of really bright people who are either out there proselytizing for Zero RB or at least encouraging people to be open-minded and take what they can from it. And I don’t mind when they have a crisis of faith. It’s important to always digest new evidence, consider competing strategies, and evolve as trends change. Sometimes people will change their minds, and that’s OK.

I can completely understand the immediate visceral reaction that says Zero RB is ridiculous. Anything that’s generates a sizable niche following while being on-the-surface weird is going to generate backlash. Any approach that gives you an uncomfortable Week 1 lineup is going to take some heat – especially when it’s so easy to draft a comfortable opening week lineup in 2021. And that’s on top of all of the formats where you shouldn’t use Zero RB.

But it’s also nice to be permanently in the minority. It makes it easier for me to be a successful player because I don’t have to compete against as many league mates using the dominant approach. I tell people I prefer them to disagree with me, and I don’t mean that in a combative way. I just mean that when Zero RB is out of fashion, it makes it easier for me and provides a lot of value for our RotoViz subscribers.

Denny: I wrote a lot about the concept of robustness and how it can apply to fantasy roster building. A lot of readers came away as robustness advocates. They pointed out that Zero RB rosters are sunk if you lose your top wideout or two, just like a Robust RB drafter is finished if they lose their best running back or two. Maybe I flubbed my explanation of why robustness is inherently fragile. Would you care to take a crack at describing the downside of robustness?

Shawn: I’ll definitely take a crack at it because even if readers don’t want to use Zero RB, taking a robust approach is something I’d like them to avoid at all costs.

A Robust RB team needs at least three early RBs and probably four to have any real robustness. That doesn’t necessarily require an RB-RB-RB start, but it does mean selecting them somewhere in the first five rounds or so. The effects of such a start are disastrous for overall team building. The most important decision early in almost all formats is to take an elite tight end. We see this in win rates over multiple years – in both regular and tight end premium – and it’s the best way to supercharge any type of lineup.

This means that in the high-leverage rounds we have at the very least a 3-RB/1-TE start. This means we have an RB from the high-volume back range where injury rates tend to be worse than for the position as a whole and worse than for WRs. It also means we have at least one RB from the RB Dead Zone, a range in which RBs dramatically underperform, at least in part because fantasy managers are selecting less talented players on the premise of early-season volume (or are reaching for talented players who are blocked).

We have another problem. Because we’ve started with three RBs, we’re more or less committed to using the third back in our flex position, and this is a poor use of roster value because RBs have a much lower point expectation than WRs in this range.

Our other big problem is where to get our WRs. We’ve started with the premise that WR is deep, but it’s a lot less deep once we’ve committed at least four of our high-value picks to other positions. We’re now looking at drafting our WRs in Rounds 5-8, where the value has fallen off substantially. For example, in Best Ball10s the win rates for WRs crater after Round 5 and don’t rise substantially again until Round 13. In critical ways – if your desire is to win leagues and make money – the narrative that receiver is deep doesn’t fit with the evidence once you consider overall roster construction.

The other element is the contrast between Robust RB and Zero RB in terms of injury. It’s never good to lose early-round players to injury, but it’s definitely not the case that the two strategies handle this in equivalent ways. In Zero RB you’re loading up at a position that has a much higher expected point total, which means you’re building a lot more total points into your roster. Once injured players are removed, you’re still left with a lot more points, which is one of the ways in which Zero RB handles the chaos of the season even before we get to the dynamic of RB injuries opening up playable starting options.

To give an example: Last season, RotoViz analyst Blair Andrews and I drafted an FFPC Main Event out of the 12 slot. We used what I would call a pure version of Zero RB because we selected no RBs in the first 10 rounds, instead loading up on 7 WRs, 2 TEs, and a QB.

The FFPC Main Event isn’t a perfect format for Zero RB because it doesn’t use a 2-RB, 3-WR, 1-flex starting lineup, but it does have a stealth benefit. Because the 2-RB, 2-WR, 2-Flex format encourages a more RB-heavy ADP, you get better value at WR and that makes the optimal lineup of 2-RB/4-WR even easier to execute with elite options.

In describing my goals for a Zero RB team, I always say that I want to end up with six of the top-15 WRs in terms of fantasy scoring. If our team stays healthy, this allows us to put up huge scores during the bye weeks – essentially gapping the competition when they’re running on fumes. It also means we can overcome an injury or two, and in a situation where we missed on a pick, we can overcome that bust.

And that’s what happened with our Main Event team. At the midway point of the season we had six WRs in the top 15-20 range (Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Brown, Calvin Ridley, Stefon Diggs, and Will Fuller), along with a bust in Mecole Hardman. As we progressed toward the fantasy playoffs, our first-round pick (Jones) was injured, but we were able to win the league title without him. Then we received more bad news with the Fuller suspension before the Overall Race. But with Diggs and Ridley posting massive playoff performances, we still finished 31st overall in the championship portion. So we had an excellent return on investment despite facing off against a huge number of Alvin Kamara teams and countering with Nyheim Hines and J.D. McKissic.

Is it possible to win with a more traditional approach as well? Of course. Most of the teams that finished ahead of us were Kamara teams, including one I drafted with Curtis Patrick. We used the Kamara-Diggs combination to finish 12th overall. But that team had a top-five pick and stayed relatively healthy.

By contrast, you never want to use a Robust RB lineup. That’s stacking the deck against yourself.

Denny: How -- if at all -- did the NFL Draft change the 2021 Zero RB landscape?

Shawn: It shouldn’t change any of the big picture elements, although it appears to be another strong class of WRs which will add to the theoretical depth at the position. The impact of rookie WRs is accelerating, so you could see some of that value already in redraft.

The RB landing spots weren’t ideal for RB-early drafters. If Travis Etienne had landed in Atlanta or Miami, you could have made a case for him as an R1/2 turn selection, which would improve the RB depth. Najee Harris is going to go early. That’s great for Zero RB drafters since he’s a trap player. And that doesn’t mean he’ll necessarily bust, only that fantasy managers will pay for an upside scenario by drafting Harris. The more RB situations early in a draft where fantasy managers are paying for a positive scenario and the red flags aren’t reflected in the price (and there are a lot every year), the easier it is for Zero RB drafters to load up on points.

The RB situations in Miami, Atlanta, New York, Jacksonville, and Denver have all stayed murky or gotten murkier. That also helps Zero RB drafters, which isn’t saying those drafters will necessarily benefit. Zero RB drafters can get trapped as well.

Denny: How does one best apply Zero RB to best ball leagues? In best ball, I gravitate toward what you might call Modified Zero RB, where I take a running back in the first or second round and largely fade the position until the second half of the draft. Have I gotten soft?

Shawn: Not at all. Our Roster Construction Explorers are pretty adamant that Single-Elite RB is the dominant way to approach best ball. It’s the approach that offers the best combination of safety and upside and consistency. The key is just to be very patient with drafting the rest of your RBs – and by patient, I mean wait until you can barely physically stomach it to keep passing. Robust RB is an absolute dagger in best ball. The win rates are almost impossibly low.

Fantasy players are under the impression that you can manufacture points by drafting a lot of WRs and using the optimized lineup to benefit from their inconsistency, but it just doesn’t work that way in practice. These same elements allow teams that are stacked with elite WRs to separate more from the pack. Because again, you need to have WRs in the Flex position. It’s important to think of most of these formats as being 2-RB/4-WR starting lineups.

One way to illustrate this is by looking at the difference between the win rates for WR-WR starts and for Zero RB starts. The win rates for WR-WR starts are generally poor, and that can be misleading. The results are telling us that WR-WR doesn’t work if you then try to balance your starting lineup by selecting RBs in the Dead Zone. That’s still a losing proposition, and it’s especially a losing proposition if you take those RBs instead of getting at least one elite TE.

By contrast, if you start WR-WR but keep taking them – and keep taking them – your win rates start to rise and begin to resemble the win rates from a Single-Elite RB start. In both cases the key is Winning the Race to Fill the Flex, which is more or less the foundation of our philosophy.

Without getting too far into the weeds, whether you win your league boils down almost entirely to whether you selected enough WRs in the high-value rounds. You have to always take your specific format into consideration when determining what you want to do structurally, but in many cases a draft that starts RB-TE and then takes six straight WRs will have more in common with what we’re trying to do than a draft that starts with three or four receivers but then chases RBs.

Denny: I've been very much into structural draft strategies since I started playing fantasy in 2006. What are the pros (and cons, if there are any) of building a fantasy roster with a quasi-ideological approach? Perhaps you disagree with my phrasing?

Shawn: The pros are that you’re trying to figure out what works in your format and then you’re drafting the best players to win your league. Of course, everyone thinks they’re doing this. When I hear people talking about Best Player Available, I nod in agreement. That’s what I’m doing. I’m drafting the best player available.

I’m reminded of a great line from one of my favorite books by Richard Russo. To paraphrase, he says that when he goes to the movies, he just wants to be entertained, a belief that is much maligned by his academic colleagues. Russo then notes, “That I am generally not entertained by the types of movies that entertain other people who ‘just want to be entertained,’ doesn’t mean we’re philosophically incompatible. It just means we shouldn’t go to movies together.”

The whole idea of Zero RB, winning the race to fill the flex, and contingency-based drafting is really just the idea of taking the best player available. We just have different ideas about who that player is. For example, one of my articles last year focused on managers who got stuck with a draft spot in the back third of the draft. I used our Range of Outcomes and Win the Flex tools to independently demonstrate that drafters who started RB-RB in that area of the draft were giving up 100 points to drafters who started WR-WR.

And then reality turned out to be a little worse for RB drafters. So this is obviously a problem. You’re giving up a lot of points, and you’re hoping you can somehow get them back in a different way. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, which is what the Roster Construction Explorers tell us (and also what you see with the terrible win rates from RB-RB out of the back of drafts).

But it’s not just the points you’re giving up, it’s that you’re not punishing the earlier RB drafters at all. (We were starting to see a shift in this in the 2013-2015 time period, but then we had 2016. And with the rise of the uber-back, fantasy players haven’t adjusted. Everyone is jostling for the shot at the next McCaffrey and hoping that when they miss, they might be rescued by 2016 all over again. And in fairness, one of these years they will be.)

If you’re drafting with the 1.01, you’re obviously going to take Christian McCaffrey. If you’re drafting with the 1.03 or 1.04 and you’re asking yourself whether you should take Davante Adams or Tyreek Hill, the answer is no. And the reason is that most of the remaining drafters are going to make the same choice, and they’re going to push the elite WRs back around to these folks drafting out of the early picks. They end up with the star RBs and the star WRs, especially if they go RB-WR-WR.

Take this back to the idea of best player available: Wherever you are in your draft, the best player available is the player who’s going to give you the best chance to win. Structural drafting adds in the necessary tactical layers to help you make that choice.

The BPA is not necessarily the best RB available or the best value to ADP or the best VBD option (there are a variety of reasons for this, but VBD-optimized teams are usually too conservative; they don’t have the upside a hyper-fragile drafter has of being right/lucky or the upside that an anti-fragile drafter has in building in points and benefitting from sleepers). It’s also not necessarily the “best” player, although it often is.

One question that may be helpful to ask when you’re on the clock and trying to decide between two options: Who is the best reality player of the pair? If the answer to that question isn’t the same as the direction you’re leaning with your pick, make sure you have a strong explanation for why you’re going to go with a worse player. Maybe you have a structural reason for it. Maybe you have a volume-based reason, but be careful. During the chaos of the NFL season, superior players hold onto and increase their volume better than inferior players. The infatuation with early-season volume is one of the most exploitable elements in fantasy football.

Editor’s Note: Don’t forget to download the NBC Sports EDGE app to receive real-time player news and updates. Plus, it allows you to easily track your favorite players. Get it here!