The strategy de jour the past couple of seasons has been the Zero RB strategy, where you just grab a bunch of running backs late in your draft, or aggressively off the waiver wire during the season, and hope you will be okay, especially in point per reception (PPR) leagues where finding random pass-catching backs is often viable. This year, drafters have shifted to running back to the early and often approach due to the scarcity of 3-down bankable options at the position.
No matter your strategy, once the season starts and injuries start mounting, and players start dropping like flies, you need a plan in place, not only to weather the storm, but to thrive.
Many people don't like drafting handcuffs. That is a totally valid position to take, and this article is not for you. But for those that do like to back up their running backs, for those people who don’t want to be biting their nails as the waiver wire runs late on Wednesday evening, this is for you.
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 called "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 complement such strategies.
With the NFL moving to more of a passing league and with many fantasy leagues favoring a PPR format, scoring from the wide receiver position is becoming more valuable 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 ensure some value each week from the running back slot while generating greater production at the others. This is how you win your league these days.
In the spirit of full disclosure, this is not a strategy you want to use in every draft, but it’s a strategy to keep in your back pocket to pull out if the draft unfolds in a way where it can be useful. This season, I have actually found myself employing it in a few industry league drafts where benches are deep and scoring systems favor positions outside of running backs. It is also useful in leagues where drafters are hammering running backs hard early on, which seems to be the case this year more often than not. It’s even useful this year to zig when everyone else is zagging. Since people are hammering running backs early, perhaps, instead go with a stud wide receiver in Round 1 and come back with two running backs in back-to-back picks in Rounds 2 and 3.
The strategy is simple in execution although more nuanced in theory: draft two (2) running backs, from two (2) different teams, plus one (1) 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 third.
An example of this is drafting Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida (2), Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard (2) and then a guy like Rex Burkhead (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 the right running back, that is key. 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, there is a clear handcuff that will take over without diminishing the position’s value too much. And “too much” means that the replacement at least holds bankable RB2 PPR value should they be called on to carry the load.
An example of a great "2" combo is Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray. Cook is the team’s feature back that will get the ball a ton and will be a steady option every week to get you points. If injured, Murray would come in and not skip a beat, and you are assuring yourself at least RB2 value in this running back slot in this scenario. The beauty of this combo is also that Murray can be had for relatively cheap. His draft capital probably won’t cost you more than two or three dollars in auction drafts and no higher than a 13th-round selection in snake drafts, which is key to the best (although not all) "2" slot combos. The best combos are when you only have to use a later-round pick on the backup.
Once again, by doing this you are allowing yourself to spend important draft capital on players at other positions while ensuring production at your running back position. Additionally, if something does go wrong with your handcuff, you are only losing a later pick, which shouldn't hinder your team very much, if at all.
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 either. As mentioned before, a great example of this is Rex Burkhead or Chris Thompson. You probably don’t want to have to rely on him every week as your main starter, but are more than serviceable week-to-week, especially during bye weeks or as a flex start in PPR leagues when needed.
Some may think of this as simply handcuffing your running backs, but as mentioned, it is more nuanced than that. Take Jordan Howard for example. He does not make a great "2" selection because he doesn’t have a clear/proven handcuff that can just step in without any decrease in value. At least you shouldn't view Tarik Cohen in that way. Instead, lean towards drafting a player like Joe Mixon over him, who has a clear later-round handcuff who we have seen handle the load.
Digging deeper, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are an interesting case study. While you have to use a second-round pick on Freeman and a seventh on Coleman, you at least know that you are securing a top end running back all season, behind one of the leagues best offensive lines. If employing this strategy, you would forgo drafting a player like Jordan Howard or Melvin Gordon III, in favor of Freeman.
Another option is to target Christian McCaffrey in the third and C.J. Anderson in the eighth. The beauty of both of these selections is that you don’t need to even grab a “1” since Coleman and Anderson could make for decent flex or bye week players as well. You are getting two in one. Draft both of these mentioned backfields and you just need four running backs, boom!
Once again, the goal of this strategy is to rely on just five running backs total at most, that’s it. Now in deep leagues, such as the FFPC or in Best Ball Leagues, this strategy doesn't say you shouldn’t grab any other running backs late in the draft or if they are clearly the best option at some point in the draft. Rather, 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. In fact, per stats from 2016 MFL10 best ball leagues, teams with just three or four running backs both had a higher win percentage than teams with five.
The one clear caveat to this strategy is in regards to the early studs: David Johnson, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and Le'Veon Bell. At the moment, and this could very well change soon as training camp progresses, but at the moment, none of them have clear handcuffs that would return bankable value. Additionally, given the state of the running back position, it is very tough passing up on these players. Just like Zero RB doesn’t apply to them, this strategy does not necessarily have to apply to them. All four players are rare talents, in great situations, and are like starting both a high-end running back and a high-end wide receiver every week.
That's said, you can certainly stick to this strategy and come out looking pretty savvy as well. For instance, you can pass up on all four of these players and grab Alvin Kamara instead in the first round and then grab Mark Ingram II in the fifth, boom! Another way to go is to grab Antonio Brown over these guys, and then come back with the combination of Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida, Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard, boom, boom, boom, boom!
Additionally, all of this is not to say you should ignore the waiver wire during the season, quite the opposite, 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, last year if you drafted Theo Riddick as your "1" and he just wasn’t getting it done, don’t hold onto him, try and upgrade him. Guys like Kenyan Drake and Alex Collins were waiver wire gems that won you your league.
You should also pay close attention to your "2" handcuffs during the season as well. This is very important and you must be pro-active about this. A few years ago 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 that year.
This strategy should remain fluid throughout the season, but you are the one in the driver's seat since most of the players in your league are not paying attention to the handcuffs. Fantasy football is an active game, so yes, you do have to pay attention to what’s going on.
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.
Below is a list of some great "2" combos and "1" plays. This list will grow and change, as we get deeper into training camp and actually see who emerges and how they look on the field.
The spot where you draft the players below 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 2s, you could easily be grabbing your "1" in the fourth round, and that is fine. Often times though, you can wait on your "1" all the way into Round 8 or beyond. Just remember, make sure to follow closely if your handcuffs change during the season and swap them out. By doing so, you will ensure you don't have to spend big FAAB money once your guy goes down.
Lastly, this is my list, if you don't view Isaiah Crowell as a solid player, skip the Crowell/Powell stack. You are in control.
- Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram II
- David Johnson and Chase Edmonds
- Todd Gurley and John Kelly (Kelly is a Karrem Hunt clone)
- Leonard Fournette and Corey Grant (going on a bit of a limb here)
- Kareem Hunt and Spencer Ware
- Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray
- Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman
- Christian McCaffrey and C.J. Anderson
- Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida
- Joe Mixon and Giovanni Bernard
- Kenyan Drake and Frank Gore
- Ronald Jones II II and Peyton Barber (Barber actually may be the starter)
- Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell
- Marshawn Lynch and Doug Martin
- Sony Michel
- Lamar Miller
- Dion Lewis
- Chris Thompson
- Duke Johnson Jr
- Rex Burkhead
- Mark Ingram II
- Frank Gore
- Theo Riddick
- Devontae Booker
- Matt Breida
- Bilal Powell
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