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Draft Strategy for 2020: Robust RB

By Jason Katz | 8/25/20 |

My annual draft strategy article is without question my favorite article to write every year Ė and I write a lot of articles. I like to think Iíve been basically on point in this column over the years (this is my fifth year writing this piece). My favorite was back in 2018 when I wrote about Single RB. There were approximately six late-round running backs that finished as RB1s (or close to it), which was ideal for Single RB drafters. The best plan for the 2018 season was to draft one RB early and then load up at the wide receiver position. In 2020, the best plan is to load up on multiple RBs early and then fire on WRs in the middle rounds where all the value is. So today, we will be discussing Robust RB.

Before we get into specifics about how to apply this in 2020, please note that by no means am I intimating that I created or am the only one to think of Robust RB. Every year, the primary strategy I push is an already existing one Ė it just happens to be the one I feel is most likely to succeed in the current year. So letís get startedÖ

Yes folks, Zero RB is dead

And if I hear one more person say they went ďModified Zero RBĒ and then look at their draft and see they took a running back in the first round, Iím going to pull the nonexistent hair out of my bald head. If you take a running back in the first two rounds (really the first four rounds) of your draft, you definitively did not go Zero RB. There is no variation of Zero RB Ė itís an all or nothing proposition Ė you either didnít take an RB early or you did. Okay, Zero RB rant over.

Leave the third round with at least two running backs

The basic tenet of Robust RB, as you may have guessed, is to load up early on running backs. This doesnít mean to literally draft bench running backs before you draft a single starting WR. Not at all. This also doesnít necessarily mean to start your draft RB-RB-RB. In an ideal world, I would love to start triple RB, but sometimes the WR value is too good and you may need to take a WR with one of your first three picks. Thatís okay. The goal should be to leave the third round with at least two running backs and to have the maximum amount of running backs you can start (three in your typical league) by the end of the fifth round.

The earlier you can take the running backs, the better. RBs ranked in the 13-24 range not only emerge as RB1s at a lower rate than WRs of the same ilk, but they donít return RB1 value more frequently than RBs ranked in the 25-36 range (credit to JJ Zachariason for this data). The most valuable asset in fantasy football is the elite running back. You put yourself in the best position to end up with a high end running back by taking them early and late.

There are plenty of wide receivers

Robust RB has as much to do with wide receivers as it does running backs. There are a couple reasons as to why there are so many good wide receivers falling in drafts. First, thereís recency bias. Last season was one of the worst for the position in recent memory, especially when juxtaposed with the 2018 season. In 2018, Stefon Diggs was the last WR1 at 17.7 FPts/G while in 2019, Kenny Golladay was the last WR1 at 15.9 FPts/G. Thatís a very sizable 1.8 FPts/G difference. You can go all the way down to WR26 before you find someone averaging 2.0 FPts/G fewer than Golladay in 2019. In 2018, the WR18 averaged 15.7 FPts/G, 2.0 FPts/G fewer than Diggs.

This leads to the second point Ė the edge gained by having a WR1 diminished in 2019. Merely having WR1s and high end WR2s doesnít help Ė they need to be difference makers. In 2019, Michael Thomas was the only WR that truly gave fantasy owners an edge. He was the only receiver to average over 20.0 FPts/G. In 2018, six WRs broke the 20.0 FPts/G barrier, giving you a sizable edge over the WR2s.

Thereís reason to believe that this trend is here to stay. In 2010, NFL teams ran 11 personnel (3 WRs) just 39% of the time. In 2018, NFL teams ran 11 personnel 64% of the time. That number dipped a bit in 2019, but is still well over 50%, a stark increase from just a decade ago. The rise in teams running three and four receiver sets, combined with the increase in pass-to-run ratio, has resulted in a flatter target distribution. Teams are throwing more than they used to and due to the increase in number of wide receivers on the field, quarterbacks arenít locking in on one guy as frequently. In 2010, 43 wide receivers hit the 10 FPts/G threshold. In 2019, that number was 53. There are a handful of WR1s and then 25 or so WR2s and 20 WR3s. Just try creating WR tiers Ė itís very difficult because it isnít clear where one receiver is definitively better than the next by a relevant margin.

To further illustrate the abundance at the position, letís look at last yearís WR18, Calvin Ridley, who averaged 15.0 FPts/G. Itís very easy to say he provided a decisive edge over the WR36, Alshon Jeffery, who averaged 12.2 FPts/G. But there were 18 wide receivers in between them! Ridley is currently going in the fourth round while guys like Courtland Sutton, Tyler Boyd, and Sterling Shepard, who all averaged around 14.0 FPts/G, just 1.0 FPts/G fewer than Ridley, are going in the sixth round or later. Whenever youíre thinking about taking a wide receiver early, remember the wide receiver you take a couple rounds later probably wonít be much worse.

The drop-off at RB is steep

Meanwhile, the running back you take a couple rounds later will be substantially worse. Last yearís RB12, Mark Ingram, averaged 16.2 FPts/G. The RB24, Damien Williams, averaged 13.0 FPts/G. If you go down to RB30, just six spots lower, David Montgomery (insert vomit emoji), averaged 10.9 FPts/G. This is such an important concept to grasp because the smoother nature of the wide receiver decline will make them seem more appealing. In a vacuum, they are.

Example: Your drafts will all likely start the same way - Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara. After that, youíre going to feel some trepidation about any running back you draft. Dalvin Cook has holdout and injury concerns. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a rookie with an uncertain workload. Derrick Henry is overly reliant on touchdowns and his team is due for some serious regression in efficiency. Joe Mixon (insert heart emoji) is on an offense that was terrible in 2019 with a bad offensive line. Miles Sanders is not guaranteed to see heavy volume and has a productive backup behind him that could force a committee. Nick Chubb has a huge Kareem Hunt problem. Kenyan Drake was elite in a small sample size and his team has no allegiance to him if he struggles or gets hurt. Austin Ekeler has never been a true three down back and the team drafted Joshua Kelley. Josh Jacobs was game scripted out of numerous contests last season and the Raiders project to be losing a lot. I can go on and on...

While looking at these running backs, you could easily say, ďyou know what, Iíll just take Julio Jones, Davante Adams, Tyreek HillĒ or ďDeAndre Hopkins, Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay.Ē Itís pretty fair to say that none of these guys are likely to fail spectacularly. Sure, they wonít all return value, but they wonít derail your season.

However, the later into a draft you go, the better the wide receivers will look when compared to running backs. And therein lies the problem. At almost every step of the way, you will feel safer taking the wide receiver. At some point, though, you must take running backs. So, when is the gap the smallest? Early!

You may not feel great about selecting Chubb or Ekeler over Julio and Hopkins, but itís the correct decision. As great as youíd feel about taking those stud receivers, youíll be kicking yourself when you get into the third, fourth, and fifth rounds when the likes of A.J. Brown, Courtland Sutton, Calvin Ridley, Robert Woods, Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf, D.J. Chark and T.Y. Hilton are available. If you start out RB-RB-RB, you can have your pick of two of these guys. If you go WR with one of your first three picks, you can still take these WRs and hope to hit on a later RB or start a WR in the flex. But if you go WR early to the point where you already have three WRs by rounds four or five, you have to pass on these fine WR choices in rounds 4-6 for sketchy RBs.

Here are your RB choices in rounds four and five: David Johnson, James Conner, Jonathan Taylor, Devin Singletary, David Montgomery, DíAndre Swift. I like Taylor and Swift but they are not without serious question marks. And those question marks pale in comparison to the concerns surrounding the other four runners. Remember, the goal is to win your league. Whatís more likely - That DJ has a career renaissance at age 29 following multiple injuries and switching teams or talented second and third year wide receivers like Brown, Sutton, Metcalf, and Chark emerge into league winning WR1s?

Game of probability

Weíre always trying to figure out what is most likely to happen. You give yourself the best chance at succeeding when you take running backs early. Pound the mid-round wide receivers, and then circle back to running back with late-round lottery tickets like Chase Edmonds, Tony Pollard, Boston Scott, etc.

As with any strategy, be ready to adapt. I declared Zero RB dead, but if you pick at the turn and somehow Michael Thomas and Davante Adams are both available, maybe you just lock them up and move forward. The goal is to maximize value and the best way to do that this season is with Robust RB, but every draft is different and you canít be married to one specific strategy if the room pushes you towards another. Have a plan. Practice your plan. And, most importantly, practice what to do if your plan goes awry. Good luck to you all in what may be the wildest and most unpredictable season in history.

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