The Gut Check No.371: Early RB Anchors for Upside Down Drafting

Waldman reveals which early-round backs are best for Upside Down Drafting.


What is the Upside Down Draft Strategy? 

It's a method of drafting that has been around long before fantasy football found a home on the Internet. I decided to study it, create a few processes that made it teachable online, and over the course of the next decade, explore variations of the idea as a writer.

The basis of the strategy is to draft positions other than running back during the first 3-4 rounds and then go heavy on backs for the next 5-6 rounds. The variation is to draft one established stud in the first round (the "First-Round Anchor) and then wait until the 5th or 6th round as the starting point to select a block of runners. 

I initially called it "Maximizing Sleeper RBs" in a 2009 article.

In that column, I revealed that the turnover among starting-caliber running backs was often larger than receivers. It meant a fantasy owner willing to go against the grain of public opinion, could use that information to his benefit. Between 2009 and 2014, the prevailing public opinion has been to draft backs early and place a lot more attention on the other positions between the 5th and 10th rounds.

Isn't This the same as Zero RB? Did Zero RB copy You? 

In recent years,  Shawn Siegele wrote about a variation of this strategy and coined it Zero RB. It's the name that stuck in the public consciousness of many fantasy owners and the one most in the community have used ever since.

I'm a former musician with a decent bit of formal training. One thing most musicians eventually learn is that there are very few, if any, original ideas. Most academics, scientists, artists, and inventors without a narcissism disorder come to realize that game-changing ideas are built on layers and layers of insights derived from the work of others. The most striking of them often come from an individual or group of people recognizing how seemingly disparate ideas can be integrated into something worthwhile. 

One individual may earn credit for developing an idea despite the fact there were a handful of other individuals who arrived at a similar place at the same time, or even before the individual who is earning the public attention. I'm making this point because a couple of months ago, I saw a debate between fantasy writers Matthew Berry, Pat Fitzmaurice, and John Paulsen about who came up with this idea. 

I intervened and what I sad then, I'll share with you now:

Did I write about a variation of this idea before Siegele? Yes and that's an indisputable fact. Although I haven't had the opportunity to read Siegele's version, I'd be willing to bet that he made this concept his in a totally acceptable way. 

Should he give credit to me? My first thought is why?

If the answer is "yes" then I'm presuming Siegele read my work and that's an arrogant assumption. I rarely have time to read anyone's work unless asked to do so. I had no idea that Paul Charchian, the head of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association and a long-time fantasy writer, was espousing a similar strategy he called "Do the Opposite" before I ever thought to write about Upside Down Drafting. 

And I'd bet money that we could come up with dozens of guys in home leagues across the country who developed a similar approach to these ideas well before Siegele, me, and Charchian. 

The credit that matters most to me is those who thank me for sharing the idea: fantasy owners in local leagues and two individuals that I know of who credited my variation of the strategy as influential in their high-stakes victories. Even an anti-terrorism investigator for the NYPD took the time to share that the ideas I was using were similar to some of the techniques his teams used on the job (and now, his fantasy leagues). 

I'm sharing this because the next time folks broach the topic about credit, I'm going to copy and paste a link to this article and let them have at it. If you want to learn more about the nuts and bolts of how the strategy works, check out the links above. 

Do I recommend this as "The Strategy" to use?

No. There is no single strategy that will cure all your ills. If someone tells you so, run in the other direction. 

Still, It has been one of my favorite methods to use in my leagues between 2007-2015. Even when I didn't win leagues, I was most likely a points leader and heavy contender. But I'm concerned it's gaining mass popularity. And once a strategy becomes conventional, it's no longer as likely to give you an edge.

I like some of the early round backs enough that passing on one of them between the 1st and 4th rounds could be a mistake. So instead of calling it the "First-Round Anchor," I'm changing it this year to the "Early-Round Anchor").

I'll profile my picks for the Early-Round Anchor this week. Next week, I'll focus on the Mid-Round Block of backs and some mock draft results. And the week after, I'll profile the receivers that are the best fit for the early rounds and a few more mocks.  

Early-Round Anchors

The backs below are the safest options in terms of productivity and ability in the opening rounds. If you're an ageist with running backs, you'll either need to get over it or hope you can get the younger guys on this list. If not, use the Upside Down Draft without the anchor variation. 

First Round

The appeal of taking a first-round back from the list below is the real possibility that the first two players are special enough physical to author a dominant fantasy season relative to their peers. The third player has a line that's good enough for him to surpass the first two despite being a just a shade below those two in athletic gifts.  

Adrian PetersonDespite leading the league in carries, yards, and touchdowns last year, many fantasy owners and analysts are dropping Peterson to the back end of the first round. The pervading thought is that it's wise to consider Peterson's age, which Footballguy Dan Hindery labels a "built-in risk factor" that you cannot ignore. 

Unless you listen to Dr. James Andrews explain what he saw when he opened Peterson for surgery: 

"I can't believe it," Andrews told them, in a conversation recalled by Peterson's father, Nelson, during a phone interview with "For this guy to have played as much football as he's played his whole life, and not to have hardly any wear and tear, it's incredible. I've never seen a football player, especially one who runs and cuts as much as he does, with a knee in that condition. It's like a newborn baby."

If you want a medical argument that a 31-year-old Peterson is an exception to the age guideline, I can't think of a better one coupled with the fact that he was still a fantasy stud behind a weak offensive line that should be much better in 2016 because it's healthy. Add Laquon Treadwell's prowess as a blocker to the mix and Peterson should also earn more big-play runs of at least 15-20 yards than he did last year.  

Hindery also makes the arguments that Jerick McKinnon will see more time in the passing game and Peterson only caught 30 passes in 2015. I'll counter that Peterson has only caught more than 35 passes 3 times during the 8 seasons he played at least 12 games and of those 5 years he caught fewer, he was a top-3 fantasy back 3 times. 

I'm not concerned. Neither should you as long as the Vikings line and either one of Treadwell, Charles Johnson, or Cordarrelle Patterson remains healthy as the "big" receiver in this scheme. One thing that's left out when arguing that McKinnon will see more time in the passing game is that the Vikings offense should see more time on the field.

Less pressure on Bridgewater should equate to more first downs for the offense. More first downs should also mean more carries for Peterson in addition to more passing. More offensive reps mean Peterson's opportunities shouldn't decrease dramatically enough to hurt him. Last year, Peterson earned 357 touches as the No.2 fantasy back. He was also a top-3 back in 2007 and 2010 with 257 touches and 319 touches, respectively. 

I'm also more likely to believe that summertime commentary from coaches about getting certain bench players more involved in the offense is more aspiration than a reality. It's worth noting and considering for that bench player's upside but not gospel for downgrading a star. 

There there's this salient fact that I mentioned earlier...Peterson led NFL runners in touches last year despite paired with a struggling passing offense. I don't think we need to sweat the workload angle for Peterson—even as a fine point between potentially elite fantasy options at the position. 

The bottom line? Peterson is a freak of nature. He's proven it. At this point, normal guidelines don't apply. If the rest of my peers and your league wants to apply those guidelines, be my guest. All I know is that if Peterson's otherworldly physical ability, his relative safety as a top-5 producer and the improvements to the Vikings offense are too good to ignore. Peterson remains the top pick in my rankings and he presents value if he becomes available to me at any point in a fantasy draft after 1.01.

Todd GurleyJared Goff is a legit starter talent who offers more upside than the pre-cooked, rookie version of Sam Bradford. Long-term, Goff's presence in the offense will bring effective balance to the scheme. Short-term, the Rams will lean hard on Gurley. 

I've often compared Gurley to Eddie George in terms of agility and power. George in his prime was bigger and stronger, Gurley is faster. What will be similar is the workload that Jeff Fisher will give Gurley. The former Georgia Bulldog earned 250 touches in 13 games and did it after a late-season ACL tear the year prior. 

If I were to project Gurley's 2015 touch rate over a 16-game season, I'd first eliminate 7 touches from the Steelers' game because it was the only contest where he saw fewer than 26 snaps (14) and it was his NFL debut. With that adjustment, Gurley averaged a little more than 20 touches per game over a 12-week season, for an adjusted total of 324 touches for a 16-game campaign.

George's touch totals from 1996-2003 were 358, 364, 385, 367, 453, 352, 379, and 334. Adjusting for the difference in era and the Titans' talent along the offensive line, the idea that Gurley earns 320-330 touches fits well within reasonable expectations. It's also more than any back not named Adrian Peterson or Devonta Freeman last year. 

Gurley may not earn Eddie George's workload but few backs ever will. By today's standards, he'll be Fisher's version of the Ohio State star in the Rams offense and that's enough to make him my No.2 back—and close enough to Peterson that I'm sometimes opting for Gurley as my No.1. 

Ezekiel ElliottPeter King says Elliott "better be ready for 375 carries." As I alluded to above, that's a consistent workload of a bygone era. But it's not unrealistic for a team in need to lean that hard on a good, young back. Cowboys gave DeMarco Murray 392 carries in 2014, Arian Foster toted the rock 351 times in 2012, and Maurice Jones-Drew earned 343 carries in 2011. 

All three of these backs were veterans with at least four years of NFL experience before they saw this kind of workload. As also mentioned above, Gurley's adjusted 16-game total for last year would have likely been 320-330 total touches. More games, more skilled opponents, and more punishment often dictates why running backs often need a physical acclimation period to the stamina they'll need to earn this kind of workload in the league. 

This is no knock on Elliott. He earned 273 carries in 15 games during 2014 and 289 in 13 games during 2015. He's ready to start and thrive in the NFL but expecting Elliott to earn touches within a range that only 3 backs in the past 5 years have approached seems unlikely—even if the most recent line to author one of these backs is the Cowboys. 

Unlike Murray's season, Dallas has a good reserve with productive starter experience in Alfred Morris and a third capable runner in Darren McFadden. I doubt Elliott earns 375 carries but I'd sold that his carries are in the range of 280-300 and his average at least 4.5 per carry behind that line.

When Cian Fahey saw McFadden overrunning openings and lurching for the hole's exit like a scream queen escaping Michael Myers, it's not difficult to imagine that back with much better vision and good burst and power should be closer to 5 yards per carry.  Do the math on those carry totals and average and you don't need me to say anything more about Elliott's spot on this list. 

Second/Third Round

The two backs below are first-round values in my rankings. Both have top-3 upside but neither has that "dominant year" potential of the trio in my first round. 

Doug MartinThe Buccaneers' lead back posted 313.6-point fantasy season in 2012. It's the 12th-best output for a fantasy runner in PPR leagues during the past 6 years. Martin hasn't lost anything physically. If anything, he's probably gained a bit from his renewed dedication to training. 

What he's lost is a stranglehold on the touches. Charles Sims is a legit contributor with starter upside if Martin gets hurt. That said, lots of folks worried about Devonta Freeman not having a stranglehold on touches last year and he became 2015's top PPR back. If Sims gets hurt, Martin's value skyrockets. If not, Martin still posted the 4th-best PPR totals of an RB despite an offense that had a rookie quarterback.

A more accurate statement is because of its rookie quarterback. Winston was the 8th most productive fantasy quarterback on third and fourth down with at least 50 passing attempts. 

1 Cam Newton qb 2015 65 130 939 7.2231 51 13 2 132.8500
2 Carson Palmer qb 2015 94 147 1295 8.8095 77 14 2 120.7500
3 Russell Wilson qb 2015 91 134 1210 9.0299 69 11 2 118.4000
4 Tom Brady qb 2015 99 156 1238 7.9359 70 11 2 118.0000
5 Eli Manning qb 2015 105 178 1294 7.2697 72 14 7 115.1000
6 Kirk Cousins qb 2015 114 166 1153 6.9458 75 12 5 114.3500
7 Teddy Bridgewater qb 2015 90 137 1046 7.6350 52 7 3 109.0000
8 Jameis Winston qb 2015 87 154 1104 7.1688 65 9 8 106.1000
9 Ryan Fitzpatrick qb 2015 94 161 1123 6.9752 67 11 7 105.5500
10 Philip Rivers qb 2015 111 183 1342 7.3333 76 9 6 99.6000
11 Jay Cutler qb 2015 95 148 1289 8.7095 68 8 2 99.3500
12 Blake Bortles qb 2015 82 156 1084 6.9487 63 8 4 97.5000

Tampa Bay was good on these late downs both running and throwing the football. 

1 Danny Woodhead rb 2015 10 56 5.6000 7 0 46.7000
2 C.J. Anderson rb 2015 18 180 10.0000 8 2 39.6000
3 Darren Sproles rb 2015 12 67 5.5833 10 1 38.8000
4 Adrian Peterson rb 2015 16 143 8.9375 10 3 38.0000
5 Giovani Bernard rb 2015 30 158 5.2667 10 2 36.7000
6 Shane Vereen rb 2015 10 53 5.3000 5 0 34.1000
7 Matt Forte rb 2015 24 80 3.3333 13 2 33.1000
8 Jonathan Grimes rb 2015 17 78 4.5882 3 1 27.7000
9 Charles Sims rb 2015 13 51 3.9231 6 0 27.7000
10 Brandon Bolden rb 2015 11 55 5.0000 5 0 27.3000
11 Doug Martin rb 2015 19 150 7.8947 12 0 25.8000
12 Charcandrick West rb 2015 19 77 4.0526 11 2 24.8000

The Bucs played this well with a rookie quarterback, two rookie tackles, and missing two prominent members of its starting receiving corps. They should only improve this year and it should lead to more opportunities for the run game. Again, I'm not sold enough on the summertime aspirational quotes from coaches on workload to downgrade Martin and it means he's value I'd gladly take in the early second round if I'm at the back turn (slots 9-12) and I have a shot at A.J. Green, Allen Robinson, and Jordy Nelson in the first round compared to Alshon Jeffery, Mike Evans, and Brandon Marshall in the second.

Matt Forte: One of the more prevalent aspirational summertime coaching comments on a backup I've read about is Bilal Powell taking carries away from Forte. I chopped down the tree and milled the wood for the Powell bandwagon when he was with Louisville so I'm happy to see that Powell performed well last year. But if the Jets were that confident in his abilities, they would have added Khiry Robinson and either another career backup or a late-round rookie and left Forte alone.

Powell is a "nice to have" back with skills to hold his own as a starter but at this stage of his career, he has been pegged as a backup. Even if I think the veteran Jet could be more, he's not in the same neighborhood as a healthy Forte. 

What Forte brings to the Jets is a true feature back. I think fans and analysts imagine he's a lot like the twilight version of Ladainian Tomlinson who still had enough to best Shonn Greene but only post RB15 production in that "surprising" last year of fantasy starter relevance.

More than anything, Forte was a victim of the fiscal realities of NFL management. Because he's over 30, the incumbent team would be reticent to pay top-dollar for a back who may have 1-2 good years left. It often takes a team to turn away its featured player for that player to adjust to the new reality that his value is less than his present ability. 

Forte still earned RB7 fantasy production in PPR leagues in 13 games last year. That's more than fellow part-timers David Johnson and Todd Gurley. And a better comparison head-to-head is Gurley because they had the same number of games played and similar carries. Forte was more active in the passing game than Gurley and the three receiving TDs he scored helped him earn a respectable total of 7 TDs overall to Gurley's 10. 

Although some analysis I've read views the Jet's offensive line as a downgrade to the Bears, I don't think it's a significant one. I'd also add that the surrounding skill talent and coaching staff in New York are enough of an upgrade to make up for what Forte loses upfront. 

The reason is Chan Gailey will use Forte a lot more as a receiver than John Fox's staff. Forte caught over 100 passes two years ago and that was with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery playing 29 of 32 possible games, Martellus Bennett earning top-five TE production, and an offensive line that was worse. 

Forte was the No.2 and No.3 PPR back in fantasy football two out of the past three seasons and he's only a year older and has a much better health history than Jamaal Charles who has suffered two ACL tears during his pro career. Still, Charles has a late-first ADP and Forte has a third-round ADP. 

But Charles was having a great season before his injury. 

Forte had a minor injury relative to Charles and he finished as the No.7 RB last year. Charles is a special talent but he has always been recognized as such. Forte has always been an underrated special talent. Even after his first season as a top-10 RB for the Bears, fantasy owners looked at his yards per carry and determined that Forte was a volume-oriented fluke. 

Forte's agility is comparable to Charles, his vision is every bit as good, and he has more power. Charles has better top-end speed and burst. In this respect, it makes complete sense why most people notice what sets Charles apart but underplay where Forte is better. 

All I know is that Forte presents excellent value.  With an ADP in the late-third (33), I'd consider Forte in the third round as your early-round anchor. We're tracking his high-end ADP at pick 27 and low end at 46, which means his spread is large enough to invoke more risk with obtaining him. 

Because of this spread, I'd only consider Forte as a part of my strategy if I'm flexible about the variation of Upside Down Drafting I intend to use. There's a good chance you miss Forte and you'll have to be alright with applying the original recipe of Upside Down Drafting. 

What about ________?

Certainly, there are other backs within this early range who will help you succeed with this strategy. The five above are my favorites and the only ones I endorse without reservation.

If you want to know my thoughts about other runners, insert an early-round back in the blank that I didn't mention and go to one of two places: My commentary in my rankings or the other articles I've written. 

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