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The Strategy Which Shall Not be Named

Saquon Barkley

Saquon Barkley

Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

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I don’t care what you call it.

Modified Zero RB. Anchor RB. Single Elite RB. Hero RB (okay, this one is actually cool, so maybe this is the winner?). The viability of a strategy is more important than the name, as much as Twitter would lead you to believe otherwise.

Let’s start from the top for those who aren’t familiar. C.D. Carter interviewed Zero RB pioneer Shawn Siegele a few weeks ago about the strategy he popularized, but Siegele actually won the NFFC Primetime Main Event in 2013 with Jamaal Charles as his first-round pick. The evidence behind Zero RB supports grabbing an elite RB if you get the chance. No one is denying that high-end RBs are the most valuable assets in fantasy football.

Zero RB is about capitalizing on the fragility of the running back position due to projection error and injuries. The latter is always a concern (especially for backs with monstrous workloads), but we’ve historically been pretty good at predicting who the best guys are. The position gets much sketchier once you get into Round 3 - the start of the RB dead zone. As such, it makes sense to go RB in Round 1 and/or Round 2 before shifting your focus to other positions. It’s the best of both worlds: You get the upside of a top-tier workhorse and still exploit the fragility of RB. In other words, full-on Zero RB isn’t the only way to take advantage of RB fragility.[[ad:athena]]

That brings us to where we are today. Twitter is ablaze fighting about what we should name the strategy I just described. We’re not going to focus on the semantics. We’re going to focus on the viability.

Because it’s the best strategy in fantasy football.

How to Approach WR in Best Ball

In best ball, your highest scores are automatically placed in your lineup every week. If your last-round pick breaks off a 75-yard touchdown, chances are that’s going to count for your team. It’s a different game than season-long in that regard.

Because of this, there exists a notion that you can backfill your roster with wide receivers since it’s a much more volatile position than running back. A late-round RB might only see a few plays every week, whereas there are WRs available at the end of the draft who are going to be on the field for a majority of plays. This is borne out by the numbers, as late-round wideouts do post more usable (top-24 for RBs and top-36 for WRs) weeks than their positional counterparts. For example, take a look at Rounds 11-15.

Position Top-12 Weeks Usable Weeks
RB 1.0 3.2
WR 1.0 4.3

And now Rounds 16-20 (i.e. the final five rounds of Fanball best ball drafts):

Position Top-12 Weeks Usable Weeks
RB 0.5 1.5
WR 0.6 2.6

Based on that, it makes sense why some fantasy players think waiting on WR is optimal. However, we have enough data to show that’s not the case. As you can see in the plot below, WR-heavy strategies typically have an above-average win rate (the black line in the graph at 8.3% shows the average). Hayden Winks reached a similar conclusion last summer.

WRX Win Rates

WRX Win Rates

Clearly, you’re better off attacking the WR position early. There’s more leeway to take other positions once you’ve secured 3-5 solid pass-catchers, but getting a dependable WR core should be one of your top priorities. In fact, the highest win rate on the whole graph is WR4 in Round 5. It sounds excessive to spend four of your first five picks on wideouts, but it’s been an incredibly effective strategy over the last six seasons. Since we want to be starting four WRs every week (WRs score more points than RBs, so it’s better to draft like you’re going to have a receiver in your flex most of the time), you need to target the position early and often.

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How to Approach RB

Still, you have to take RBs at some point. Winks paraphrased something Adam Levitan (of Establish The Run) said last offseason that sums it up nicely: “We have to draft an RB we don’t prefer to a WR at some points in the draft to fill out our rosters.”

Looking at RB and WR production curves (shown below), we can see the two positions are furthest apart in Rounds 3-6. That range is a dangerous combination of costliness and fragility – and the concept of an RB dead zone is widely regarded as fact by now.

RB and WR production curves

RB and WR production curves

Round 1 and Round 2 have no such weakness. RBs and WRs with an ADP in the first two rounds have both posted an 8.6% win rate over the last six years. What we really care about in the graph is the difference between the curves. The gap widens after Round 2 until around pick 75, which serves as more proof that the best time to pick RBs is either very early or fairly late. In essence, you have a two-round window at the beginning of the draft to grab a workhorse back before you should pivot and start picking WRs.

Let’s recap what we know:

  • Loading up on WRs early and often has been a highly successful strategy over the last six seasons. That doesn’t mean you should start with five straight wideouts every single time, but you should leave the first six rounds with a strong stable of pass-catchers.
  • You might think you can arbitrage WR production in the later rounds, but win rate data distinctly proves that is not the case.
  • You still need RB production, so it works out nicely that the first two rounds have been kind to RBs since 2015. After that, you should shift your focus to other positions for a few rounds.

The Strategy Which Shall Not be Named

It’s actually incredible how perfectly things line up for Modified Zero RB/Anchor RB/Single Elite RB/Hero RB. We know we want to load up on WRs early. We know we still need RBs at some point. We know it’s been a pretty good investment to pick one or two RBs in the first two rounds.

Last year, Winks wrote about a strategy he termed “bimodal RB” – two RBs early followed by a barrage of wideouts. Using the RotoViz Roster Construction Explorer (which uses full-PPR data from Fanball), we can confirm that it’s a +EV play. Between 2015-20, best ball teams that took their second RB in Round 2 and their RB3 after Round 6 posted a 9.4% win rate (remember, average is 8.3%). Teams that took their RB2 in Round 3 and again waited at RB3 won at a 9.3% clip. You can catalyze your best ball win rate by selecting two workhorses in the first three rounds and then waiting to select your third back.

But we can do better by going even lighter at RB. Fantasy players who took their RB1 in Round 1 and then waited until after Round 6 for their RB2 posted a ridiculous 11.0% win rate over the last six seasons. Those who did the same thing but waited until Round 2 for their RB1 were at 9.8%. The theory behind it makes sense: If your first-round RB hits, he’s probably going to be in your lineup almost every week. After that, we can count on the seasonal chaos and weekly variance of an NFL campaign to scrounge enough points in our second running back spot. This also allows us to build a strong WR foundation in the rounds friendliest to the position.

If you want to get further into it, you can really send your win rate to the moon by opting for an elite tight end in addition to everything else we’ve talked about. To maintain a sufficient sample size, we’ll look at all teams that took one RB in the first two rounds rather than splitting it up by Round 1 vs. Round 2. The teams that did that and also took an elite TE (defined as TE1 in the first four rounds) had a 12.3% win rate. Bimodal RB teams that took an elite TE were victorious 11.3% of the time. In handy-dandy table form:

Strategy Number of Teams Win Rate
RB1 in Round 1, RB2 in Round 2, RB3 After Round 6 23,075 9.4%
RB2 in Round 3, RB3 After Round 6 22,648 9.3%
RB1 in Round 1, RB2 After Round 6 13,777 11.0%
RB1 in Round 2, RB2 After Round 6 4,551 9.8%
Two RBs in First Three Rounds, RB3 After Round 6, and Elite TE 10,309 11.3%
One RB in First Two Rounds, RB2 After Round 6, and Elite TE 8,122 12.3%

Call it whatever you want. The actionable takeaway is that it works. Seriously, those win rates at pretty decent sample sizes are unheard of. We know a lot of things – the value of an elite RB, the RB dead zone, the importance of grabbing WRs early, the advantage of an elite TE in best ball – and The Strategy Which Shall Not be Named puts it all together in a neat little package. Over the last six years, it’s been the best strategy in fantasy football – and there’s no reason to expect that to change in 2021.