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Single RB, Part I: What to Do When Contrarian Has Gone Mainstream

A twist on the "Zero RB" strategy and how to apply it to 2016

Would you rather draft the player pictured above? Or his teammate who will likely touch the football at least three times as often? Settle for a second-tier player at receiver? Or choose between multiple top-tier running backs?

If you've followed fantasy football analysis even a little bit during this preseason, you've likely heard of the Zero RB draft strategy. Many have publicized articles of contrarian drafting styles, including our own Matt Waldman who has discussed "Upside Down Drafting" for years. But it was Shawn Siegele who coined the term "Zero RB" in his 2013 article. Siegele also discusses a term called anti-fragility, which basically means benefitting from naturally-occurring volatility.

The running back position in fantasy football is volatile. Injuries occur at running back very frequently compared to wide receiver or quarterback. Siegele's "anti-fragile" method capitalizes on those injuries but not in the way that many fantasy owners or analysts would think is typical. Drafting the handcuff to your RB1 is a common approach. Siegele calls that a "robust" tactic, but being robust just covers a loss; it doesn't generate a profit. Being robust is drafting Jerick McKinnon if you already have Adrian Peterson. Profiting would be drafting McKinnon if you don't have Peterson. It makes the Peterson owner weaker and your team stronger if Peterson happens to be one of the many backs who will inevitably be victimized by injury this season.

Zero RB: An Artform (*With Fine Print)

*Scoring System is Important: Though Siegele doesn't explicitly say so in the original article, Zero RB is at its best in PPR leagues - especially those that start three wide receivers plus a flex. The points generated by elite receivers in the PPR format make them the more preferred position, and the position scarcity when at least three (and preferably four due to the PPR format) are required further solidifies receivers as the premium position in such leagues. But what about other formats? Standard leagues or even half-PPR leagues that start only two receivers and a flex have less emphasis on the wide receiver position.

*Waiver Studs Aren't Guaranteed: The Zero RB theory thrives on chaos. It makes teams that may look pitiful on draft day morph into elite rosters late in the season. Having players that are drafted late "hit" is just part of that transformation. The other part is the waiver wire. Just last year, Tim Hightower was among the top-scoring players in the fantasy playoffs. He wasn't drafted in any but the deepest of leagues. Cherry-picking examples like Hightower last season, or C.J. Anderson in 2014 is easy, but actually hitting waiver picks isn't. Look no further than this NumberFire article for evidence.

*Contrarian Works: Another calling card of Zero RB and anti-fragility when Siegele penned the brilliant piece was that it was a contrarian strategy. Heck, look no further than Siegele's twitter handle (@FF_Contrarian) for evidence of that. But this year's confluence of events (Zero RB gaining steam, 2015's incredibly high injury rate among running backs, and the top 2016 backs being mostly unproven players) have limited the contrarian factor.

The "Single RB" Hedge and Why You Should Use It

Yes, wide receivers are the consensus top-three picks (at the very least, they make up three of the top four even in standard leagues), so I'm not advocating a complete avoidance of the position; I'm simply saying that avoiding running back entirely out of principle could lead to passing up big time production. After all, one of the main attractions of Zero RB was its contrarian nature, proof that "zigging" when others "zag" is a way to separate yourself as a fantasy owner.

If you're outside of the top three picks, you're unlikely to get a receiver in the top tier of Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr, or Julio Jones. So instead of selecting a second tier player, grab a first tier running back - especially in leagues that aren't full PPR. In fact, fantasy owners with picks in the middle or end of the first round are probably the most ideal Single RB candidates.

For instance, if you hold Pick 1.07 and five and the first six picks were receivers, you have the choice between the sixth-best receiver or two or three potentially elite backs. But even if you do hold a top-three pick (or get the chance to draft one of the "big three" at receiver elsewhere in the first round), Single RB can still work. Let's examine a couple of scenarios.

Execution: Early Rounds

Option 1: Elite RB1

There are many articles all over the internet discussing the merits of many top-tier running backs. Look no further than this very site for a few:

The much-esteemed Sigmund Bloom had this to say about Elliott as well:

Elliott will be a third-down back from the word go, and he has a real shot to lead the NFL in rushing as a rookie. A marriage of elite talent to a team blueprint that features him is the stuff fantasy dreams are made of.

Any time praise is pushed on players like this, it's hard to pass them up, regardless of pre-determined strategy.

Option 2: Elite WR1

If I can get any of Brown, Jones, or Beckham Jr, I'm doing so, regardless of league format. So for the sake of this hypothetical, let's say you're drafting near the top of the first. Grab whichever of the "big three" you prefer and be thrilled that you have one.

In Round 2, I'm still sticking with a receiver because in this scenario, my Round 2 pick is still in a place where the grouping of Mike Evans, Brandon Marshall, Brandin Cooks, and even T.Y. Hilton (on whom I am particularly high, as you'll see if you indulge a little shameless self-promotion) are in play. And that's too tantalizing to forego for the players at other positions still available at this stage. At least one of these players will finish in the top-12 among receivers.

Round 3 is where I would begin my search for my first running back. Although you might be selecting a player outside of the top 10 or 12 as your RB1, you've already locked up two elite receivers, which is a chief tenet of the Zero RB theory, regardless of league type. The targets here would be the tier of Doug Martin, LeSean McCoy, and C.J. Anderson. All have RB1 pedigree in their pasts, all will get the lion's share of their team's workloads barring injury, and all are goal line backs. Much like the tier of receivers suggested in the paragraph above, at least one of these players will finish in the top-12 on a points per game basis.

Execution: Middle and Late Rounds

The Single RB method is based on eschewing backs in the 13-24 range (Rounds 4 and 5). In order to fill our lineup each week, we're going to use an "RB2-by-Committee" approach.

Again, this is nothing new or earth-shattering, but how we approach the process of targeting specific players for this season is the unique exercise. To form my RB2-by-Committee, I'm separating all of the backs I like into categories. These categories cover the ceiling aspect of Zero RB (i.e. the high-value handcuffs) and the floor of simply getting carries and touches into our lineup. But when I first read Zero RB, I noticed a small gap. Leaning on game-script-dependent and high ceiling handcuff backs can leave you a little naked in the early part of the season when depth charts are set and injuries have yet to occur.

So I've also added an early-season emphasis category to my running back segmentation in order to capitalize on some certainly before the chaos ensues later in the season. After all, if you draft exclusively players who need a change of circumstance to reach value, who are you going to start in the early weeks before circumstances change?

Stay tuned for Part II later in the week where I categorize and rank the RB2-by-Committee candidates.

Questions, comments, suggestions, and other feedback on this piece are always welcome via e-mail hester@footballguys.com