The strategy de jour is Zero RB, 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. Then there are some taking an upside down approach, while others have a contrarian view and snatch up running backs early, since their fantasy stock has plummeted with people having recency 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 the start of your season and everything starts hitting the fan, and your guys 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, but during the season 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 skip 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 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.
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 sixth.
An example of this is drafting Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams (2), Eddie Lacy and James Starks (2) and then a guy like Frank Gore (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.
An example of a great "2" combo is David Johnson and Chris Johnson. David Johnson is the teams feature back that will get the ball a ton and will be a steady option every week to get you points. If injured, Chris Johnson would come in and not skip a beat, and you are not likely to see too much decreased scoring from this running back slot in this scenario. The beauty of this combo is also that Chris Johnson can be had for almost next to nothing. Probably not a dollar or two in auction drafts and no higher than a 14th round selection in snake drafts, which is a big key to the best "2" slot combos; to try and 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 late round 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 I mentioned before, a great example of this is Frank Gore or perhaps 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 in PPR leagues 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 Lamar Miller 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 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 Miller. If Miller 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, Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry 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 Henry's ADP, which right now is in the 8th round, making it not an ideal, but viable since Henry can actually act as your "1" as well. The same holds true with Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, but they only make sense if you are being very aggressive at the running back position.
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 some 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 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 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.
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 with this. 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 driver's 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. 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 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, 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 McKinnon as a solid player, skip the AP/McKinnon stack and rather draft Lacy/Stark. You are in control.
- Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams
- Todd Gurley and Benny Cunningham
- David Johnson and Chris Johnson
- Adrian Peterson and Jerick McKinnon
- Eddie Lacy and James Starks
- Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman
- C.J. Anderson and Devontae Booker
- 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)
- DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry (Henry should have stand alone value too)
- Latavius Murray and DeAndre Washington (Pay attention to Jalen RIchard)
- Duke Johnson Jr and Isaiah Crowell (As long as Crowell's ADP stays in check around the 10th, this works)
These two options could work since both guys have stand-alone value and handcuff the other. It goes against the methodology somewhat because you have to use semi-high picks on both guys, but I'm okay with this if you want to be very aggressive on running backs:
These are players I don’t recommend taking as your “2” selection because right now we are not sure exactly sure who the handcuff is or because the drop in value between the starter and the handcuff may be too steep. But certainly monitor these running backs in the event of better clarity or if a quality backup starts to emerge.
- Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue (The drop in production is too steep and there may be a committee with other backs)
- Ryan Mathews and Wendell Smallwood (Sproles involved and Smallwood unproven)
- Ezekiel Elliot (It isn’t clear if it will be Alfred Morris or Darren McFadden)
- Jamaal Charles (It will probably be a combination of West and Ware, both could be viable flex plays, but probably not starters. I do like Ware to have season long stand-alone value though)
- Mark Ingram II and Tim Hightower (CJ Spiller may be involved here, but this could work)
- LeSean McCoy (Reggie Bush, Jonathan Williams and Mike Gillislee all in the mix right now, so it's a wait and see until one emerges)
- Dion Lewis and James White (Too bad Lewis is injured, I loved this stack)
- Jay Ajayi (If Arian Foster gets hurt again, back Ajayi up with Damien Williams, who the Dolphins like)
- T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory (Both players are flex starts until the other gets hurt)
- Charles Sims
- Jay Ajayi
- Spencer Ware
- Rashad Jennings
- Chris Ivory
- 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
- LeGarrette Blount
- Christine Michael (trending to being usable as a flex)
- Chris Thompson (In PPR leagues only)