The strategy de jour is Zero RB, where you just grab a bunch of guys late or off the waiver wire during the season and hope you will be okay. Then there are some taking a contrarian view this year and snatching up running backs early, since their fantasy stock has plummeted with people having resency bias due to the slew of injuries at all sorts of offensive positions, causing running back numbers as a whole to decline last year.
However, come fantasy season and everything starts hitting the fan and your guys start dropping like flies, you need a plan in place to weather the storm and thrive. When Jamaal Charles went down last season, your were fuming when someone grabbed Charcandrick West, or maybe you were smiling that your team didn't miss a beat since you already had him as the handcuff. When Marshawn Lynch got injured, you almost cried when Thomas Rawls was already owned, or maybe you sent your league mates a thumbs up emoji with a wink, letting them know you were still the man.
Fantasy Football is all about gaining an advantage over your opponent and about securing week-to-week consistency from your players, especially in season long head-to-head leagues. Over the years I have employed a running back strategy I like to call 2-2-1, which helps you do just that and can actually be instituted with any drafting order strategy, including Zero RB. In fact, it can help compliment it, especially this year with running backs being drafted so late.
With the NFL moving to more of a passing league and with many fantasy leagues favoring a point per reception (PPR) format, scoring from the wide receiver position is becoming more prevalent and reliable. That is not to say that you should neglect the running back position. Quite the opposite; it is essential to have a sound strategy to ensure you will be secure at the position throughout the season while spending valuable draft picks on other positions. In fact, making sure to have proper week-to-week scoring from the running back position is paramount. You want to insure some value each week from the running back slot while generating greater production at the others.
The strategy is simple in execution although slightly more nuanced in theory: draft two (2) running backs, from two (2) different teams, plus one (1) more bye week/flex running back as a utility back for your team. This strategy works whether you are drafting your first running back in the first round or in the sixth.
An example of this is drafting LeVeon Bell and DeAngelo Williams (2), Eddie Lacy and James Starks (2) and then a guy like Charles Sims (1). By doing this you are essentially locking down the running back position for your team for the whole year, and can then focus all your other picks on wide receivers, tight ends, quarterback and even defense.
So instead of drafting five, six or seven random backs, lock down two backfields and one more running back, that can act as a bye week replacement, occasional flex play or maybe even starter value if things break right with them. But it has to be the right backfields and right running back. What you are looking for in the 2 back slots, are running backs that are heavily involved in the offense on a week-to-week basis, and then in the event of injury, a clear handcuff that will take over without diminishing the position’s value too much.
An example of a great 2 combo is Eddie Lacy and James Starks. Lacy is a feature back that will get the ball a ton and will be a steady option every week to get you points. If injured, Starks would come in and not skip a beat, and you are not likely to see much decreased scoring from this running back slot in this scenario. The beauty of this combo is also that Starks can be had for almost next to nothing. Probably not a dollar or two in auction drafts and no higher than an 14th round selection in snake drafts.
In the 1 slot, you are looking for a running back that can act as your bye week replacement or occasional flex starter for the season and not cost you too much. As I mentioned before, a great example of this is Charles Sims. You probably don’t want to have to rely on him every week as your main starter, but he is more than serviceable week-to-week, especially during bye weeks or as a flex start when needed. He also has upside to possibly emerge as a great starter if there is an injury to Doug Martin.
Some may think of this as simply handcuffing your running backs, but as I mentioned, it is more nuanced than that. Take Todd Gurley for example. He does not make a great 2 because he doesn’t have a clear/proven handcuff that can just step in without any decrease in value and he is also an expensive player to select as a 1. I would probably lean towards drafting a player like Adrian Peterson, who has a clear late round handcuff in Jerick McKinnon, over a player like Gurley. If Gurley goes down, your season may very well go down with it. You want to make sure you get value out of your first round draft pick. For those going running back early, in this example, it also allows you to take a top end wide receiver with your first pick in the draft and save your second pick for a top end running back.
Digging deeper, Doug Martin and Charles Sims are an interesting case study that provides a good nuanced example. In most leagues, this would not be a great 2 selection because of the high cost associated with procuring both running backs. Preferably with your 2 selection, you are drafting a running back with a high pick and only using a later round pick on the handcuff. The viability of this combo depends on Sims's ADP, which right now is in the 7th round, making it not an ideal, but viable since Sims can actually act as your 1 as well. The same holds true with Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill.
Once again, the goal of this strategy is to rely on just five running backs total, that’s it. Now in deep leagues, such as the FFPC or in Best Ball Leagues, I’m not saying you shouldn’t grab any other running backs late in the draft or if they are clearly the best option at that point in the draft, but what I am saying is that it really shouldn’t be necessary for your team to succeed in the current fantasy football climate. Rather spend those late round picks on upside wide receivers, defenses, quarterbacks and tight ends since there is no reason to draft any additional running backs.
Additionally, all of this is not to say ignore the waiver wire during the season. You should always be looking to upgrade and tweak your lineup by picking up a running back that has great potential value and also being proactive grabbing a player if your handcuff changes.
For instance if you drafted Shane Vereen as your 1 last season in a PPR league and he just wasn’t getting it done, don’t hold on to him, try and upgrade him. Guys like Devonta Freeman, David Johnson and Tim Hightower were waiver wire gems that won you your league. Additionally, last year I had Jamaal Charles, and after Week 2, word came out of the Chiefs camp that Charcandrick West had passed Knile Davis on the depth chart, so I switched them out a week before Charles went down. Then the week after Charles went down I grabbed Spencer Ware, as word out of the Chiefs camp was that he was the handcuff to West. My team hardly skipped a beat in the harsh running back landscape last year. Similarly with Marshawn Lynch, last season I had Fred Jackson as his handcuff to start the season, but word after Week 1 was that Thomas Rawls was the guy to own, so I switched them out and it paid off. This strategy should remain fluid throughout the season, but you are the one in the drivers seat since most of the players in your league are not paying attention to the handcuff to Jamaal Charles if they don’t own him.
During the season your 1 can also easily become a 2, and don’t hesitate to grab that backup. For example, if Frank Gore is your 1 and UDFA rookie Josh Ferguson really starts to come on, drop a bench player that is doing nothing and grab Ferguson. Boom, you have a solid 2 combo.
If you have a shallow bench it can sometimes become difficult to hold onto handcuffs. But that is the beauty of this strategy; since you only need to use five roster spots on the running back position, even in leagues with just 15 player spots, this is a viable strategy.
Here is a list of some great 2 combos and 1 plays. Since we are still nearly two months out from the start of the season, this list will change as the pre-season progresses. These are also not listed in any particular order; the spot where you draft the players depends on how aggressive you want to be at the running back position. If you go running back in the first two rounds, snatching up your 2's, you could easily be grabbing your 1 in the 4th round, and that is fine. Often times though, you can wait on your 1 all the way into round 8 or beyond. Just remember, as I mentioned earlier, make sure to follow closely if your handcuffs change during the season and swap them out. By doing so, you will insure you don't have to spend big FAAB money once your guy goes down. Lastly, this is my list, if you don't view McKinnon as a solid player, skip the AP/McKinnon stack and rather draft Lacy/Stark or White/Lewis. You are in control.
- LeVeon Bell and DeAngelo Williams
- Todd Gurley and Benny Cunningham
- Eddie Lacy and James Starks
- David Johnson and Chris Johnson
- DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry (Henry should have stand alone value too)
- Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell (As long as Crowell's ADP stays in check around the 10th, this works)
- Adrian Peterson and Jerick McKinnon
- Dion Lewis and James White
- Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman
- C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker
- Latavius Murray and DeAndre Washington
- Ryan Mathews and Wendell Smallwood (Don't love this one or this offense)
- Carlos Hyde and Shaun Draughn
- Thomas Rawls and Christine Michael (Michael could have some stand alone value)
- Matt Forte and Bilal Powell (Powell should have stand alone value too)
- Charles Sims
- Jay Ajayi
- Javorius Allen (In PPR leagues only)
- Spencer Ware
- Rashad Jennings
- Chris Ivory
- Jeremy Langford
- Justin Forsett
- Frank Gore
- Ameer Abdullah
- Theo Riddick (In PPR leagues only)
- T.J. Yeldon
- Jonathan Stewart
- Bilal Powell
- Giovani Bernard
- Tevin Coleman
- Isaiah Crowell
- Ameer Abdullah
- LeGarrette Blount
- Christine Michael (trending to being usable as a flex)
- Chris Thompson (In PPR leagues only)
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