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Faceoff: Is Stud RB Theory Viable?

August 28th

Clayton Gray: The Stud RB Theory has been a mainstay for decades. Is it still viable? Why or why not?

Andy Hicks: Stud RB Theory relies on 2 factors - running backs producing high end statistics and fantasy footballers drafting them accordingly.

On the 2nd front, fantasy footballers have not altered greatly from the stud RB theory, but there have been definite trends over the last 10 years.

Using my fantasy league as a source, ADP data has changed from only 4 backs in the top 6 this year, down from 5 in the previous 7 years and all 6 in 2004 & 2003.

For the first 12 picks, for the 1st time ever only 6 are in the top 12 this year. The previous 4 years averaged 8 a year in the first round amd the five years before that averaged 10.

For the first 2 rounds, there isn't that radical a change however from the last 4 years worth of data, with half being RBs. That is the same as the average over the last 4 years. For the years 2003-2007 however, it averaged closer to 16 Rbs in the first 2 rounds.

Explaining this reduction has 2 answers though:

  • There are more running by committee teams in the NFL.
  • The VBD of other positions has seen elite tiers develop at all the major positions over the last few years as the league evolves into a more passer friendly format.

Despite both of these situations, Stud RB Theory still is a viable proposition, just as Stud TE theory or Stud QB or Stud WR theory is. You are looking to build the highest scoring side in every week, regardless of who gets drafted where. At Tight End we've seen an elite tier develop over the years with first Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, but even moreso with Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham this year. Same applies with Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady at QB and Calvin Johnson at WR. Getting any of these guys in Round 1, apart from the stud RBs in Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy and Ray Rice, means you have the VBD edge over the majority of your competitors at each respective position. Balancing your squads in Round 2 onwards is the same as its ever been, get the best player at the best price and get the highest score possible. Stud RBs used to be the only game in town, but now that elite tiers are developing at other positions, you have the option of how you build your squad and decide which theory you can run with.

With the development of running by committee, RBs score much deeper in fantasy leagues, meaning it's not a mad scramble to grab every starting RB. There are still those few who are in on all 3 downs and are virtual locks to exceed 300 touches and 10 TDs, but the middle rounds of many a league can be won by getting the right backs later and instead by playing the stud WR/TE or QB theories. Stud RB theory still exists. It just has competitors now.

Jeff Haseley: Stud RB theory has taken a step back recently, simply because there are fewer 300+ carry and even 275+ carry running backs in the league. As a result, the shark move evolved into securing stud wide receivers, if an elite running back was no longer an option. This is a prime case of supply and demand. Now that there are more options at wide receiver, securing your running back position (even if not elite) is such an important part of drafting. Skipping a wide receiver in round two is not as great of a value differential than skipping a running back in the same round. In other words, there is not much value lost by waiting on wide receiver, as opposed to picking from the running back scraps in rounds three or four looking for your RB2. The strategy now turns back to stud RB theory and it's all based on value.

I am a firm believer, especially in deeper drafts with one or more flex options, that the decisions made in the middle rounds make or break your outlook. Here's an example - choosing Ronnie Hillman over Peyton Hillis, or vice versa could turn out to be a critical decision. The right decision will win out, the wrong one will make it much harder to be a competitive force. While it's important to have two good running backs on your roster, it's not all lost if your WRs corps is strong and you hit the jackpot with your RB3 or RB4. The only downside to that approach is it's more difficult to accurately predict. The best fantasy players are more successful as a result of their decision making in the middle rounds. I can see how someone who is skilled at determining talent and can visualize the future would decide not to go all-in at running back in the early rounds. The benefit to that strategy can be huge or disastrous. High risk, high reward. Sometimes, that's what it takes to win.

Jeff Pasquino: If you believe that you can secure a true stud RB - especially in Round 1 - I say get him and don't look back. There are maybe a handful of running backs in the NFL that you know will get 300+ touches this season, and if you can get one of them you can rest easier at that position and it gives you a ton of options. You can grab a RB2 for value, let value fall to you, play RB2BC, take a few fliers late and hope for the best, or even plan on hammering the waiver wire in September. The point is that once you have an anchor at RB1, you can feel good about going wherever the value in your fantasy draft takes you next. With a stud RB1 on my roster I'd focus on getting three Top 20 WRs and a Top 8 quarterbck and tight end. If I got all six of those things I would feel like an instant playoff contender.

Maurile Tremblay: When I started playing fantasy football, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, and Emmitt Smith were everybody's top picks. There was no stud RB theory. There was general parity among QBs, RBs, and WRs, with several players at each position being taken in the first round. (It was a secret among VBD disciples that TEs like Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates were worthy of second- or third-round grades, at worst; the first tight ends were generally selected in the fifth round or so.)

What happened in short order, however, was that many of the perennial stud QBs from the early-to-mid 1990s -- Steve Young, John Elway, Warren Moon, Jim Kelly -- were out of the league by the end of that decade, and gone were their reliably productive passing attacks. We went through a period when a lot of quarterbacks came out of nowhere, had a terrific season or two, and then faded back into fantasy mediocrity -- Steve Beuerlein, Kurt Warner, Jeff Garcia, Rich Gannon, Marc Bulger, Aaron Brooks, Kurt Warner again, etc. Sure, there was Peyton Manning, and for a while Daunte Culpepper, but for the most part it was the NFL's rushing attacks, not its passing attacks, that were more reliable. The Stud RB theory made sense because the top ten projected running backs were generally pretty likely to have strong seasons, while the top projected quarterbacks were often upstaged by late-round flyers. And as quarterbacks went, so did their receivers. Many NFL passing offenses were in flux from year to year.

I believe we've come full circle. Once again, the league has a number of reliably productive passing offenses. The Packers, the Patriots, the Saints, and the Lions are almost certain to produce a lot of fantasy points through the air; and the Panthers, Giants, Falcons, Cowboys, and Chargers are solid bets as well. From among those teams, there are quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends who are just as much sure things as the league's best running backs.

That makes the Stud RB theory obsolete.

Mark Wimer: Here is the crux of the situation in 2012 - the NFL has moved to a more running back by committee approach and away from a featured starter approach. There are simply less truly dominant running backs in the NFL today, because teams have parsed various duties and assigned them to outstanding role players (Darren Sproles as the receiving back in New Orleans, for example). Teams that try to go with the "featured back" system keep running into San Diego's problem - Ryan Mathews was supposed to the all-around three-down back this year, but promptly broke his collarbone on the first carry of preseason. Teams have moved to the committee model in order to reduce their reliance (and the need to pay for said reliance) on just one "star" guy. A running back stable is run more along the lines of a wide receiver stable these days - multiple guys who fulfill defined roles on their teams. Or, as we see developing in Tampa Bay, a two-headed monster featuring some sort of workshare between Doug Martin and LeGarrette Blount. Tom Coughlin has won two Super Bowls with a committee approach between a fast, pass-catching first-and-second-down committee leader and a power back for short yardage/goal-line situations. And so forth.

Secondly, the league has slanted it's rule book to encourage more passing, more offense, and more scoring - and it has worked. The explosion of production from the wide receiver position and, last year especially, from the pass-catching tight ends of the league has elevated the value of wide receivers and tight ends relative to running backs. The increase in passing has also lifted quarterbacks' relative value so that all four of the main skill positions have an elite tier of players whose value is essentially equivalent to elite running backs. On my overall draft board this year (as of August 17) - EVEN in the non-PPR paradigm - I have five wide receivers (Calvin Johnson #1, Wes Welker #8, Greg Jennings #10, Larry Fitzgerald #11 and Andre Johnson #12) two tight ends (Jimmy Graham #3, Rob Gronkowski #4) one quarterback (Aaron Rodgers, #7) and four running backs (Arian Foster #2, LeSean McCoy #5, Ray Rice #6, and Darren McFadden #9) among the top 12 overall picks.