I’ve played fantasy football for 25 years. During that time I’ve read about various strategies that owners need to utilize in order to win a title. First, it was the stud running back theory which meant drafting elite running backs in the first two rounds of the draft. Then it was the elite quarterback theory which entailed taking a stud quarterback like Brett Favre or Peyton Manning early to anchor your team. The latest hip trend to hit the fantasy football world is the zero running back strategy. I feel once again the experts have missed the mark.
First off, in all my days I have never seen a weirder, more unpredictable fantasy football season than 2015. I mean it was quite the shocker. Fantasy stalwarts from all positions were busts and sent their team’s chances down with the ship. Stars like Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, Jamaal Charles, and Marshawn Lynch all went down quicker than the titanic. Despite the pain, I still feel last year was more of an anomaly rather than the new normal. The problem is that many people, experts included, look at last year’s results as the gospel. They forget that last year is over and that the NFL is a fluid, constantly changing environment because of free agency, the draft, new coaches, new schemes, injuries, and new general managers. Assuming last year’s results will carry over is a common trap many owners fall into.
The zero running back theory basically is a play on words. There is no such thing as zero running backs, you have to draft running backs in fantasy football. Followers of this strategy wait to pick them in the middle and later rounds. Instead they believe owners should invest their early picks in wide receivers and possibly a tight end like Gronk since these are “safer” picks. The birth of the zero running back strategy came about because many of the NFL teams eliminated the bell cow running back who played all three downs and instead started using the infamous rbbc (running back by committee) which essentially split the carries and the fantasy points that came with it. Running backs also go through more wear and tear and tend to have a higher injury risk further adding fuel to the argument. In ppr (point per reception) leagues this is a wise strategy, but in other formats it is fools’ gold. Let’s take a closer look.
Last year you could have drafted Antonio Brown and Julio Jones in the first two rounds which obviously would have turned out really well. Then later on you could have filled out your team with Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, Devonta Freeman, and David Johnson which would have built a very powerful squad in any format. However, last year you very easily could also have picked Dez Bryant and Randall Cobb with your first two picks along with Ryan Tannehill, Tevin Coleman, and CJ Spiller. Here’s where I’m going with this, just because you employ a strategy doesn’t mean it’s the end all, be all, foolproof system. Last year, Cobb and Dez were elite ranked wide receivers and they turned into busts. What matters most is hitting on your picks, not necessarily avoiding certain positions early in the draft like running backs. Let me repeat that because it’s important. What matters most is hitting on your picks, not necessarily avoiding certain positions early in the draft like running backs. Got it? Good- let’s move on.
Over the years the best approach that I’ve found is the balanced approach. I’ve tried various strategies, including the zero running back theory and time after time my best drafts (in standard and .5 ppr) were the ones in which I used the balanced approach. While there isn’t a perfect strategy that works 100% of the time, this one works the best because of its simplicity. It helps you pick the best available player because you’re not committed to HAVING to pick a position. For example, if you pick wide receiver with your first two or three picks and you like a wide receiver or quarterback currently on the board you may pass on him because you have yet to pick a running back. You may feel the pressure to pick a running back just for the sake of getting one. Instead if you go with a balanced approach like a running back and wide receiver with your first two picks it usually works out better. Let’s take a look. Say you took Ezekiel Elliott in the 1st round and Amari Cooper in the 2nd. You can go in a variety of ways with your 3rd round pick. If you have Andrew Luck rated as your top quarterback you’re MORE likely to take him giving you a solid/ elite ranked player at each position. I know a lot of you insist on waiting on quarterbacks, but stick with me for a moment. In the 4th round if you like T.Y. Hilton you’re MORE likely to take him because he’ll be your 2nd wide receiver instead of your 3rd or 4th. Essentially you are MORE likely to draft the highest player on your board with each pick, which results in a stronger overall team.
Okay now let’s say you use the zero running back approach and take Julio Jones and Amari Cooper. Obviously you love your wide receivers over most teams in any format. Later on is where things get tougher for the zero running back followers. You might feel the need to take Matt Forte or DeMarco Murray and pass on players you have rated higher- like Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, or Michael Floyd which is a mistake. If anyone has Matt Forte ranked higher than Andrew Luck- first do me a favor and smack yourself. Snap out of it already! You deserve to lose with that line of thinking. Luck is a future star. He is described by NFL scouts as a once in a decade type of talent at quarterback. Matt Forte is on the back end of his career in a rbbc on the Jets. That’s the kind of analysis that should be easy yet both are going near each other in recent adp’s. Here’s the point, it’s hard for most people to pick the best available player in the middle of a draft when there’s a glaring hole at running back on their roster, under pressure, when they’re on the clock. I’m going to paraphrase the words from the movie 21 when Professor Rosa gave advice to his student Ben Campbell on how to win at blackjack, “Most people lose control, give into the pressure, and let their emotions get the best of them- you will not.” Applied to fantasy football, you will use logic and reasoning to draft the best player on the board. When other owners let the pressure of the moment get to them and consistently pass on picking the best player available just to fill a need they are losing value and their overall draft will suffer.
Another important factor which is often forgotten, especially during mocks is being unpredictable. In poker it’s important to not give off tells on what cards you’re holding and what cards you’re looking for. That’s why professional poker players like Daniel Negreanu clean up on amateurs. They can figure out what cards their opponents have and which ones they’re looking for rather easily. Fantasy football drafts are similar. In mock drafts people often concentrate solely on their team. You should also be looking at other owners’ teams near you, especially if you’re drafting near one of the turns, to practice this skill. For example, if other owners drafting near me are using the zero running back approach they’ve most likely drafted wide receivers early. I know the chances of them picking another wide receiver in the 4th or 5th rounds are lower. Sooner or later they’re going to have to make their move and fill out the rest of their roster. If I like two players, a running back and wide receiver equally, who do you think I’m going to pick? I’m playing the percentages and taking whichever position they haven’t addressed yet and hoping the wide receiver I like comes back to me. I’m reading their future move and countering it. This is a lot harder for me to do if someone drafts using the balanced theory. In that case I’m taking my highest ranked player, but there’s a greater chance whoever I don’t pick doesn’t make it back to me- making my overall draft a little weaker because I can’t predict who might slip.
Another thing to keep in mind is the ability to find players after the draft. Remember wide receivers are usually easier to find than running backs on the waiver wire. While there aren’t as many bell cows as the past, there still are a few. Grabbing a guy like David Johnson or Ezekiel Elliott not only solidifies a starting spot, but it provides a decided advantage over your opponent’s top running back and also gives you the flexibility to have a stronger draft. You won’t have a black hole of lost points in that position unless Elliott becomes another Trent Richardson- which will be difficult running behind that all pro line the Cowboys have. Wide receivers, while they are less injury prone, are also less consistent on a weekly basis. When teams get down to the 5 yard line- they usually run it in. Good running teams also travel better, both on the road and in bad weather.
In most leagues (especially standard or .5 ppr) there isn’t a full proof strategy. Many owners who were burned by using the stud running back theory have revolted and now follow the zero running back strategy. The stud running back theory was too extreme during its heyday and now the pendulum has swung too far the other way in my opinion. Good scoring systems should reward owners who pick solid players regardless of which position they play, with the exception of defense and kicker. However, over the years the balanced approach has worked the best for me. I’m able to make better picks and have stronger drafts because I don’t reach for players. Instead I let the draft come to me and select either the best player available or the best player available that’s likely to be taken if I pass on him. This gives me added value and the edge that I need to consistently draft well. I think for most owners, going with the balanced approach will yield the best results and improve their drafting skills. So remember the lessons of Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid and focus on balance Danielson. Balance is not just valuable for karate, but also in life, which includes fantasy football drafts. Now practice balance and no scare fish haha! Good luck!
Senior Fantasy Analyst