Analyzing RB Trends to Create a Winning Fantasy Football Draft Strategy in 2016
August 3, 2016 | Chet
Editor’s Note: Congratulations to Chris Manni for taking second place in Round 2 of The Fake Football Writing Contest! Here is his entry:
Many of us know the general drafting advice such as “know your league’s scoring system” and “trust your draft board but remain flexible.” Rather than repeat what we already know, this article will explain how to create a draft strategy through evaluating historical data, market analysis, and applying principles of supply and demand. One of the biggest questions that we need to answer this offseason is: what do we make of 2015’s dreadful running back performance? Let’s start with attempting to better understand the current trends, since that will help us forecast and design our 2016 draft strategy.
Was the 2015 RB performance the “new norm” or an outlier?
To answer this question, we need historical data. The first chart displays rushing trends for the RB position (special thanks to Yahoo.com for making these statistics available).
Before analyzing the data, one might expect rushing statistics to be trending down. Yet, looking at the information closer, the numbers from 2011 to 2014 haven’t changed much. It wasn’t until 2015 that the performance decline became more drastic, especially in rushing TDs.
Now, let’s look at RB receiving opportunities.
We see the opposite is true with RB targets, catches, yards, and TDs. From 2011 to 2014, these statistics are all trending up, albeit slightly, except for TDs which is up 9% annually. In 2015, the trend continues upward for RB receiving TDs and all other stats make a similar jump. This makes sense as more NFL teams utilize specific RBs who can aid in the passing game. This means top RBs need to adapt their skill set beyond the outdated, conservative “three yards and a cloud of dust” approach.
Let’s review the combined rushing and receiving stats:
Lastly, let’s put it all together in terms of fantasy football performance:
This chart illustrates the pain so many suffered in 2015. From 2011 to 2014, non-PPR RB1s (or the top 12) averaged around 224 points per season. Comparing 2014 to 2015, the RB1 group production dropped 16.4%! That is a staggering one-year drop-off and certainly outside of the normal production levels.
Looking at this data, is it possible that the RB decline has been overblown?
The data speaks for itself, and the answer is “Yes.” Simply stated, the production has changed but RBs are not dying off. Sure, the RB position looks, smells, and feels different than 5 years ago, let alone 15 years ago. Therefore, we need to adjust our mindset. Gone are the days of teams lining up to play smash-mouth football (unless you are the Titans and make sure you properly brand your running game “exotic”). As NFL franchises create specialized roles for RBs, we need to prioritize those running backs that can be utilized in most if not every situation. That is what makes Le’Veon Bell so effective. He is used on early downs, third downs, short yardage, goal line, and even running routes in the slot. His stat lines were awesome because his skill set dictated him staying on the field. If you rarely come off the field, you will get enough opportunities to contribute to your fantasy team. The beauty of these backs is their high floor and high ceiling. Even when they struggle to run the ball, their ability to catch passes will minimize the risk to your lineup. These backs are becoming rarer every year so if we identify one, we must be aggressive in acquiring them.
Do you expect to get the same advantage in 2016 as 2015 utilizing the Zero-RB strategy?
Hopefully, you are one of the many who can thank Mr. Shawn Siegle for creating the brilliant Zero-RB theory in 2013. For those who are not aware of his theory, Siegle emphasized drafting WRs in the early rounds because of the fragility of RBs. At the time, it seemed counterintuitive to everything fantasy football had taught us over the past 15 years. But that was one of its best aspects, it was contrarian thinking. By investing in WRs who he considered “safer” investments, you improve your lineup every time a top tier RB got injured, or became ineffective, or ate too much “china food.” We’re looking at you, Eddie Lacy. In 2015, the RB position was a bloodbath and, subsequently, Zero-RB followers crushed their competition. Of the 1st round RBs, only Adrian Peterson performed to expectations. Unfortunately, for those who did not heed Siegle’s advice, there were 6 other RBs drafted in the 1st round last year. That is a success rate of only 14%. Yikes.
Moving the analysis forward to the upcoming 2016 season, you can see that the Zero-RB strategy is the hottest trend in fantasy football. I have two ways of proving it.
First, here are the ADPs of the last four years and the current 2016 ADPs according to Fantasy Football Calculator:
2016 may very well mark the first year that more WRs are drafted in the first two rounds than RBs.
Secondly, the Zero-RB strategy is becoming too well known and widely utilized. For example, my brother called me recently to brag about a “new” strategy he was going to use to dominate fantasy leagues this year. That strategy is the old, not new Zero-RB theory. My brother has been late to every trend known to man. He bought a Zune instead of an iPod. Seriously, a Zune. So, even the most lagging fantasy football player is now turning their attention to the Zero-RB strategy. To me, this may present an opportunity to veer off from the crowd. One of the main reasons that Zero-RB was so successful was that it was contrarian. You gain an advantage when your opponents don’t adapt quickly enough. Since your competition is moving towards Zero-RB, that limits the effectiveness of the strategy. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, “one who follows the crowd will only go as far as the crowd.”
Now, we need to apply the logic of supply and demand. Given the pass-happy nature of the NFL, there is a healthy amount of WRs who project to receive more than 100 targets. On the other hand, there are only a handful of RBs who have the skill set and opportunity to approach 250 touches. When there is demand but little supply, costs will rise. The trend we see in the 2016 ADPs is the opposite. People are moving to “safer” options early to limit their risk of RB injury, ineffectiveness, and PuPu Platters. Since the supply of quality RBs is limited, we need to be more aggressive in acquiring them. Apply this logic to the QBs. The reason we see no QBs drafted in the first two rounds is because there are so many quality options. Therefore, we should apply the same logic to WRs and the reverse to RBs. Be aggressive on elite RBs, supplement with WRs, and seek value for your QB and TE. Sounds like a formula for success in 2016.
Conclusion/2016 Draft Strategy
As we all know, drafting is as much about drafting the right players as having the right strategy. Drafting is an art, not a science. There is no magic formula and there are many ways to create a roster. So, after you prepare your draft board, practice in mock drafts, and determine your strategy, aim to be flexible to grab quality options if and when they fall. After analyzing the data, market trends, and supply/demand principles, I conclude with the summarized draft strategy below.
- In the first six rounds, focus on RBs and WRs that provide you the risk/reward profile you desire.
- Regarding QBs and TEs, seek value in the middle rounds but be willing to go off your strategy if elite options fall. If an elite option doesn’t fall, wait until the value is too good to pass up.
- In the late rounds, seek upside regardless of risk level. The reduced cost already lowers your risk.
- Do not draft a kicker or defense until the 14th round at the earliest.
- Be bold, trust yourself, and be in it to win it!