Running Back Strategy and Rankings
Updated: Sep 5, 2020
Gotta catch ‘em all. Gotta catch ‘em all.
The quarterback position is all about patience, the running back position is the exact opposite. Running backs may not matter in the modern NFL, but they damn sure do in fantasy football. As more and more teams in the NFL look to avoid paying a running back, we are blowing all of our high draft picks and a considerable portion of our auction budgets (for those who play the auction game) on the running back position. We do this because there is no easier way to win than having reliable weekly production from your running back spots. And if you can get the truly elite production from your running backs, that is what Championships are made from. There is no worse feeling than scouring the waiver wire each week looking for the better part of a platoon from a bad team. It’s miserable. Which is why we look to draft as many running backs in the first six to ten rounds as possible.
There are a few different strategies going around the fantasy world these days in regards to the running back position. I’ll do my best to recap each below and lay out when to use one over the other.
First up is what has been deemed the “Robust RB Strategy”. Really it is exactly what it sounds like: you spend your first three to four picks only on running backs. This will usually net you at least one bell-cow, but also two backs from the second tier and one from the third tier, if you’re lucky you can get three second tier backs to go with your stud. This gives your team a very solid base and accounts for the inherent fragility of the position. Due to the nature of the wide receiver position this year, there are still decent targets in the fifth to seventh rounds, so you would pivot to loading up on that position next. By placing so much draft capital in the running back position early, you would wait quite a long time before taking any further backups to round out your squad. This has become the de facto strategy in Best Ball leagues (draft only league type where your optimal lineup is started for you and there aren’t any waivers through the season). I find that it works better in Best Ball than in season long formats because you don’t have to guess the right week to play your third and fourth tier wide receivers who are a lot more hit and miss than the receivers in the first two rounds. By foregoing the “every week stud” tiers at receiver you can be driven mad by roster indecision and second guessing. Still, it is always great to pull up your team and see multiple running backs with a limited time share and question marks leading the way.
The second strategy is the contrarian to robust: “Zero RB”. A strategy gaining steam in the fantasy world after it has been used to win some of the high-stakes season long tournaments. The thought process is that you embrace the fragility of the running-back position by ignoring it completely for the first four to six rounds of your draft. Preseason projections are not perfect and we use this knowledgeto target running backs in backfields that we think the market might just be wrong about. When our league mates are loading up at the running back position we are securing the highest tier of wide receiver and tight end in the early rounds. Unlike the running back (and quarterback position), wide receivers return value commiserate with their draft slot at a higher rate. To win with this strategy you need to get the right pieces at running back. You will need to be able to guess which part of a committee is going to come out on top and be ready and willing to play the waiver wire each week to get back who gain value due to injury or their own positive performance. This strategy works best in tournaments where you want your team to be best during weeks 13-16 when the elimination rounds are taking place and you have had a whole season to figure out the running back slots on your roster, but it can be just as good in standard season long leagues as well. It allows you to zig when the rest of the league is zagging and gain value from positions that others are not targeting.
The final strategy is what some are calling “Modified Zero RB”. It is derived from the Zero RB strategy listed above, but is predicated on taking a RB in the first two rounds and not completely punting the position. It removes the necessity to hit on your picks in the fifth round and on, when historically those picks return less value. You still prioritize receivers early and gain that edge, but you give yourself one good running back to work with all season making it easier to find two usable running backs before the playoffs. Given the number of really good receivers in the league this season and the prevalence that most drafters are putting on the running back position early, if you autodraft or stick close to the draft applets rankings you will wind up running this strategy almost by default. It’s a far more balanced approach to use and much easier to pull off by spreading the risk of the middle rounds across more positions.
There will be another article coming where I go over my ideal draft strategy, but the main thing is you want to be flexible. Do not go into a draft with a set strategy in mind, because you never know how your league will draft. If everyone starts out planning on going with a Robust RB build then there will be added value in getting those tier one receivers and tight ends. Similarly you won’t want to go with a Zero RB build if you have a top six pick, because then you are foregoing one of the precious few bell-cow backs in the league.
In general I want to leave the first five rounds with at least two running backs and I want to have five or six total backs by the end of the draft. I will usually fill my entire bench with running backs and wide receivers, while not rostering a backup at QB, K or DEF (depending on when I took my TE and how short the bench is I may not roster a backup there either). Get your running backs early and then keep getting them, you can never have too many. Again, they may not matter in the real game, but to us they are gold.
Updated Sept 5
Target (o) - A player we are targeting at their current ADP.
League-Winner - A player whose potential range of outcomes could swing your chances at a championship.
Riser - Someone climbing the ranks or someone I have ranked ahead of consensus.
Faller - A player who has moved down the ranks or someone I have ranked below consensus.