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Fantasy Football Robust RB Draft Strategy

Kadarius Toney

Kadarius Toney

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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Drafting a Zero RB fantasy team, selecting receivers and tight ends over the NFL’s best running backs, is deeply uncomfortable. Fading running backs with locked-in workloads can cause debilitating skin irritation for some fantasy managers. Don’t look that up -- just trust me.

Over the years I have held fantasy managers’ hands as they construct a Zero RB (or Hero RB) team. Their skin crawls at the prospect of piling up elite wideouts and tight ends in the early rounds and taking running backs as an afterthought. And I get it: Humans crave the safe path. We’ll do anything for a little certainty. Grabbing two or three (or four) wideouts to start a fantasy draft surely feels safe.

It is, in a way. Probably a team with two or three workhorse running backs have a nice weekly floor for as long as those backs remain healthy and upright. A Robust RB team probably won’t deliver a string of spiked weeks, but no matter. As long as you don’t run headlong into the buzzsaw of bad luck -- facing league mates posting absurd weekly totals -- you’ll be OK.

Philosophically I can’t support drafting a Robust RB fantasy squad, especially in PPR formats. You’re building a hyper-fragile fantasy team, one that breaks easily, one that usually gets worse when the predictably unpredictable chaos of the NFL season strikes. When the unforeseen happens, a Robust RB team will likely become weaker, and in some cases, utterly fall apart. You thought you were drafting for safety. In fact, you created a fragile roster.

Zero RB, which is more viable in redraft than it is in best ball leagues, is based on the concept of anti-fragility. Most Zero RB squads won’t just survive the shock of chaos -- injuries, mostly -- but improve as a result of said chaos. These teams are far less vulnerable to randomness. The idea is to eventually have the best of all worlds: A handful of great wideouts and a few running backs whose fantasy usefulness spikes amid the various shocks of the regular season. Like everything in fantasy football, this requires probabilistic thinking: Anti-fragile Zero RB rosters will probably improve with in-season chaos. There are no guarantees. This isn’t a mattress warranty.

But wait, there’s more.

If you must draft a Robust RB team, if you simply can’t stand the sheer discomfort of an anti-fragile roster, I’m here for you. Not all mid-round and late-round wideouts are the same. Some have viable paths to major target volume in potential productive offenses. Many of these fifth and sixth and seventh-round receivers don’t have their best-case scenarios baked into their redraft ADPs.

Those are the guys you want if you’re dead set on using your first two or three picks on running backs.

Robust RB Draft Targets

Rounds 4-7
4.02: Terry McLaurin
4.03: Mike Williams
4.05: DK Metcalf
4.06: D.J. Moore
5.06: Courtland Sutton
5.09: Allen Robinson
6.01: Adam Thielen
6.06: Gabriel Davis
6.08: Michael Thomas
7.04: Rashod Bateman
7.09: DeVonta Smith
7.10: Elijah Moore

-Moore’s peripherals are good enough to make you cry. He’s caught passes from some of the worst quarterbacks the NFL has to offer over the past couple of years and he’s managed to be (mostly) fantasy viable in 12-team formats. Last year, with dead-armed Cam Newton and hair-on-fire Sam Darnold throwing him the ball, Moore was 16th among receivers in yards per route run and fifth in targets per route run. Only Justin Jefferson and Davante Adams had a higher WOPR (a combined share of targets and air yards) than Moore in 2021. Since the start of the 2020 season, a mere six receivers have more expected fantasy points than Moore, who is trapped in a wretched Carolina offense. Perhaps Baker Mayfield can bring some stability to the Panthers passing offense in 2022. Dominating short-area targets and deep shots, Moore -- as always -- has the potential to go off and post WR1 numbers for the ADP of a WR2/3.

-Allen Robinson is something of a must-get for Robust RB drafters. He’s a mere two seasons removed from a 154-target campaign for the Bears in which he was sixth in targets per route run among wideouts and fifth among receivers with 23 red zone targets. Robinson recorded the tenth most wideout targets inside the 10 yard line that season. Last season was a wash for A-Rob. He dealt with the lingering effects of COVID-19, Chicago’s coaching staff was almost willfully incompetent, and Robinson was clearly not in their plans for one reason or another. Playing with an elite quarterback in an LA offense stocked with weapons, Robinson is primed to blow through his redraft ADP. Rams coaches are reportedly infatuated with what he brings to the offense.

-I’m on record, for better or worse, as saying Gabriel Davis’ redraft ADP isn’t too high. In Buffalo’s high-octane offense, Davis likely brings more weekly upside -- what you might call week-winning outputs -- than anyone on the above list. NBC Sports’ Peter King said this week that Bills coaches are “very comfortable” with Davis as their WR2 behind Stefon Diggs. A bulked-up Davis running routes on 80 to 90 percent of Josh Allen’s drop backs is enough to make you lightheaded. The case against Davis seems to be that if you take away his big plays, he has no big plays. I’m good with that.

-Drafting DeVonta Smith as a starting wideout in leagues that start at least three receivers is a bet that the Eagles offense will be far more balanced in 2022. The maturation of Jalen Hurts as a passer and the addition of alpha wideout A.J. Brown would suggest Philadelphia won’t be as stubbornly run-heavy as they were in the second half of the 2021 season. Smith, meanwhile, should benefit from the unceasing attention secondaries will give to Brown.

-NBC Sports EDGE’s Zachary Krueger laid out a convincing argument for Elijah Moore overcoming the Jets lackluster offense after proving to be a true target commander in 2021. He’s a fine addition to a Robust RB team, though I don’t think he’s a priority pick.

-Carson Wentz is very likely an upgrade for McLaurin and the rest of Washington’s pass catchers. Taylor Heinicke was unbearably bad in 2021, and the Commanders shifted to an ultra-conservative offensive approach to hide their QB’s many flaws. Right behind Moore in expected fantasy points sits McLaurin, who, like Moore, has been cursed with horrendous quarterbacking. Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, and Justin Jefferson were the only receivers in 2021 to post more air yards than McLaurin. Heinicke’s downfield accuracy -- or lack thereof -- doomed McLaurin to weekly close misses on those deep shots. McLaurin, who undoubtedly has that dawg in him, should see more high-quality passes come his way in 2022. A Robust RB drafter who can snag both Moore and McLaurin is doing quite well for themselves.

-There’s going to be a gulf between the normie fantasy manager perception of Mike Williams and the perception of Williams among best ball geeks. In more casual 12-team leagues where Williams regularly falls into the fifth and sixth rounds, he’s something close to a must-have for Robust RB truthers. Seeing more reliable, intermediate targets in 2021, Williams had a higher yards per route run than all but ten receivers. Hopefully, Williams’ 2022 usage looks more like his early-season 2021 usage than how he was deployed later in the season when his yards per target jumped as he saw more volatile downfield looks. You’re going to want the primary downfield pass catcher in Justin Herbert‘s offense.

-That Metcalf’s redraft ADP had dipped by four rounds compared to August 2020 is bordering on silly. Metcalf is a dominant boundary receiver who can blow away his redraft ADP without Russell Wilson under center. Metcalf, eighth in receiving fantasy points over expected since the start of 2020, probably doesn’t have top-12 in his range of outcomes thanks to the disaster that is the Seattle quarterback situation. He doesn’t need to be a top-12 guy to prove a major value in redraft formats. Robust RB drafters should be smitten to take Metcalf -- who has the fifth most air yards in the league since Week 1 2020 -- in the fourth or fifth round this summer. In his down 2021 season, Metcalf had the eighth highest expected fantasy points per route run among wideouts with at least 80 targets. He’s good.

Rounds 8-11
8.08: Drake London
8.10: Christian Kirk
8.11: Russell Gage
9.06: Kadarius Toney
10.07: Jarvis Landry
11.07: Marquez Valdes-Scantling
11.11: Jakobi Meyers

-I didn’t plan on becoming a radicalized Kadarius Toney truther, but here I am in the summer of 2022, a radicalized Toney truther writing about his outstanding indicators from last season. Toney had a dominant two games as New York’s WR1 in Week 4-5 before succumbing to an injury in Week 6 that sidetracked the rest of his season. In those two wondrous outings, Toney posted the third highest expected fantasy points per route run, the highest targets per route run, and the second highest yards per route run. It was all very good. It’s a minuscule sample size, I know. But Toney showed us what he can do as a primary receiver in an NFL offense. Now he has Brian Daboll designing plays. My algorithms can’t fully grasp his electric playmaking. With a (somewhat) healthy campaign, Toney could be the key for fantasy managers who hammer running back early and often.

-Kirk has reportedly been Trevor Lawrence‘s unquestioned top target through the early part of Jaguars training camp. That his peripherals with the Cardinals last year -- even in DeAndre Hopkins’ absence -- were less than impressive shouldn’t stop Robust RB folks from taking Kirk as a volume-based option (Kirk in 2021 was in line with Mecole Hardman and Jamison Crowder in targets per route run). It doesn’t hurt that his quarterback is a screaming touchdown regression (the good kind) candidate.

-Don’t laugh at Landry’s inclusion here. Stop it. Stop smirking. Landry has been nothing but a target magnet throughout his career. Even last year in Cleveland’s lifeless passing offense, Landry was eighth among wideouts in expected fantasy points per route run. Only 18 receivers had more expected fantasy points than Landry over the past three years. A slightly more aggressive Saints offense with a potentially great trio of receivers might be a treasure trove for Robust RB drafters mining for high-target guys in the later rounds. Landry, for what it’s worth, dominated Saints OTAs and minicamp. It doesn’t matter that Landry is old and boring. He could be a valuable stabilizing force for drafters who go hard at running back in the early going.

Late-Round Options
Isaiah McKenzie
Randall Cobb
Kendrick Bourne
Julio Jones
David Bell
Josh Palmer

-McKenzie is reportedly lighting the world aflame at Buffalo training camp. While veteran slot guy Jamison Crowder is sidelined with “general soreness,” McKenzie has been one of the highlights of Bills practices as a staple of the first-team offense. “Even before Crowder started missing practices, McKenzie was fully integrated into the Allen-led passing attack during practice, signaling just how much faith they have in the seemingly up-and-coming receiver,” The Athletic’s Joe Buscaglia said. “McKenzie’s route running this summer has taken a definitive step up, as has his savvy to find soft spots in the defense. … If he continues it through the first few padded practices, the Bills will have a hard time justifying keeping McKenzie off the field.” A massive upgrade over dusty slot WR Cole Beasley, McKenzie could be a PPR cheat code if he gets the full-time slot role in Buffalo. The Bills in 2021 had three receivers on the field on 71 percent of their plays, the fourth highest rate in the NFL.

-Only older millennials trying in vain to relive their glory years will take Randall Cobb late in drafts. That doesn’t mean he’s not a reasonable target who will probably play every snap as Aaron Rodgers’ slot guy. As I tell my wife at least once a day, you could do worse.

-Bourne was wildly efficient in 2021 (13th in yards per route run) but saw limited snaps throughout the season in the run-heavy New England offense that rarely deployed three wideouts. A more balanced Patriots offense headed by second-year, slimmed-down QB Mac Jones could make Bourne interesting. Robust RB folks could do worse than stashing Bourne in 12 and 14-team formats.