Should We Still Use Zero-RB?

One of the main topics that we discussed on the podcast last year was the Zero-RB strategy; a structural approach to drafting, made famous by Shawn Siegele in his seminal work Zero RB, Antifragility and the Myth of Value-Based Drafting. For a refresher on the approach, check out this podcast and be sure to review his article. I promised that we’d review 2016, post mortem, look ahead to 2017 and determine if we should still employ Zero-RB. Since I’m struggling to find time to record a podcast, this article will have to do for the time being.

Important Caveats

Having used the strategy for a number of seasons, I am an ardent supporter of it’s viability. However, before adopting it yourself, it’s important to recognize that there is no approach that will guarantee you championships in every league you play. Plus, you need to realize that when you ‘miss’ with a Zero-RB team, it will likely be a big miss.

Personally, I’m fine with this. As I play in a number of leagues every year, I can appreciate the increase I’ve seen in long-term success. Also, we need to recognize that Zero-RB is more apt for use in PPR leagues that incorporate a Flex and in which owners have the ability to start a significant number of wide receivers.

The thesis at the core of Zero-RB has nothing to do with WRs being better than RBs. If you read criticisms or analysis that frame their discussion in this lens, they are missing the point.

Key Components

Before we review how 2016 shook out, let’s quickly run through some of the key components of the strategy which I have touted in the past (Zero-RB works for a multitude of reasons and I likely haven’t listed every one. For this reason, I’d recommend combing through more of Siegele’s work).

In no specific order…

1 – In general, WR is an easier position to predict the outcomes of than RB. Volume is vitally important to a player’s fantasy success. There are often three or four WRs on the field but rarely do we see two RBs. This makes it easier for WRs to remain relevant. Even if they slip down the depth chart, they can still accrue points. In my view, this contributes to making it an easier position to project.

2 – Zero-RB capitalizes on antifragility

A postulated antithesis to fragility where high-impact events or shocks can be beneficial. Anti-fragility is a concept developed by professor, former trader and former hedge fund manager Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb coined the term “anti-fragility” because he thought the existing words used to describe the opposite of “fragility,” such as “robustness,” were inaccurate. Anti-fragility goes beyond robustness; it means that something does not merely withstand a shock but actually improves because of it.

Per Investopedia

As the season moves along and injuries occur, teams that drafted RB early will weaken. However, teams that drafted Zero-RB type running backs can benefit from this and turn what was once a weakness into a strength. Even if we assume that injury rates are equivalent across all positions, there are more fantasy relevant players at the WR position than at any other position. For this reason, it’s much easier to center your team around them.

3 – By building a core strength at WR, you can streamline your waiver wire process and concentrate picks on RB.

4 – Zero-RB employs a structural approach that considers roster construction and provides an intellectual underpinning (I’m stealing that language from Matt Kelley of PlayerProfiler) to one’s draft approach. ‘Best player available’ is not a strategy as it in no way considers the makeup of one’s team and does not provide a framework that can be replicated time and again. This is because ‘best player available’ is nearly impossible to define.

5 – In many leagues, you can play more WRs than any other position. In a PPR league, mid-level WRs are much more useful than mid-level RBs and TEs. This makes it the easiest position to build your team around and logically makes sense. For me, this is arguably the most important aspect of Zero-RB.

6 – Your odds of ‘hitting’ on early round WRs are better than RB.

7 – The structural nature of the strategy and the components of antifragility help teams to weather the attrition of the season.

8 – We are not good at projecting players. We just aren’t; and those that think they do so with a much better rate than others are likely overestimating their abilities. For this reason, Zero-RB is a contingency based approach. We load up on the position for which we can start the most players and has the most ‘usable’ players. Knowing that we are going to have a number of ‘misses’ in the draft, we are preparing for this in advance.

The Numbers – Points

I mentioned that Zero-RB is not simply about WRs being better than RBs. However, we do need to compare the positions in a somewhat competitive fashion as they are the only positions for which we can start a significant number of players.

PPG

Average points per game, by draft round, chart very closely between the two positions. In fact, there is a slight edge in PPG earned in Round 1 by RB. However, the portion of the graph that I find noteworthy begins at Round 5 and ends at Round 8. I consider these to be the contingency rounds. These are the rounds in which you will be drafting rotational players. Rotational players are those that will find their way into your starting lineup when your studs are injured, on bye or for any other reason unplayable. Granted it’s a small edge, but this does allow a WR heavy configuration to edge out a RB heavy one. Of course, the total PPG for Rounds 1 – 6 WRs is 58.8 versus 58.6 for RB so let’s be honest this is a wash.

If we look at season long totals, instead, we see a much larger discrepancy. When charting PPG, the numbers are only focusing on games in which players in our sample saw action. In many cases, PPG are more meaningful than season long totals. However, for this analysis I think it’s important that we visualize the total utility provided to our teams by the included groups.

by draft round

As can be seen, the average of total points by WRs, selected in nearly every round, is greater than that of RB. You could argue that for this reason it’s easier to find solid WR options later in the draft and that this would allow you to focus on RB early. However, consider the gap between totals at the positions in the second half of the draft compared to the first. You want your team to enjoy the first half differences. If we total the averages of WRs selected in the first six rounds we get 1,296. The RB total is only 935; leaving us with a difference of over 361 points! Perhaps this is an overly simplistic way of considering the data, and we’re losing some context, but at the end of the day, these results are just the cherry on top of the structural advantages provided by Zero-RB.

If we look at 2016 in isolation the results are better for RBs but not as overwhelmingly as you might expect.

by draft round 2016

The Numbers – Games Played

As fantasy owners, one of our worst nightmares is an early round draft pick going down for the season in Week 1. This happened to Keenan Allen, who I owned all over the place last year, and I nearly cried. I also owned a lot of Eric Decker, who played in only three games last season. It certainly did feel like there were a lot of WR injuries last season but don’t forget that some key RB injuries occurred. They just happened to manifest later in the season with David Johnson suffering a MCL injury in Week 17, Melvin Gordon exiting for the year in Week 14, Lesean McCoy falling victim to a high-ankle sprain in Week 17 and Lamar Miller being sidelined in Week 16.

Below are the average games played by RBs and WRs drafted in Rounds 1 – 8, since 2012. On average, early WRs are playing 1.4 more games than RBs.

injury

For an extremely well-done and really in-depth review of injury rates check out this article by Josh Hermsmeyer.

Below are the results of 2016 in isolation.

injury 2016.png

The Numbers – Return Rates

The above graphs do remove some context from our discussion. One reason for this is that they do not allow us to see the number of outliers bringing up or down our averages. When working with small samples this can be misleading. The below tables break out the percentage of  RBs and WRs that surpassed certain thresholds between 2012 and 2016. Notice how 67 percent of WRs drafted in Round 1 finished in the season ending top-12, whereas only 44 percent of RBs did so. It’s important to note that the WR percentages will dip as you make your way down the list as the majority of top-12 finishes are owned by the early round WRs. This speaks to our ability as drafters to better project the WR position.

Running Backs

Round
# Drafted
AVG Points
AVG POS Rank
AVG PPG
% Finish Top 12
% Finish Top 24
% Finish Top 36
1 36 203 27 12.4 44% 61% 78%
2 27 188 26 11.1 41% 67% 81%
3 24 170 28 9.9 29% 63% 63%
4 21 132 42 9.1 10% 38% 43%
5 21 109 54 8 10% 29% 43%
6 17 132 39 8.1 18% 24% 53%
7 21 110 47 6.8 5% 14% 48%
8 21 118 48 6.8 24% 24% 33%

Wide Receivers

Round
# Drafted
AVG Points
AVG POS Rank
AVG PPG
% Finish Top 12
% Finish Top 24
% Finish Top 36
1 18 271 14 12.2 67% 83% 94%
2 25 239 25 11 56% 64% 76%
3 27 218 26 9.6 30% 67% 74%
4 32 179 39 8.5 9% 38% 53%
5 21 197 35 8.8 29% 52% 62%
6 26 192 36 8.7 31% 46% 58%
7 18 161 47 7.1 11% 28% 33%
8 18 162 48 7.3 6% 22% 44%

The Numbers – RBs and WRs with ‘X’+ Points

There’s no denying that 2016 did feel like a great year for RBs and a down year for WR. Using some arbitrary cutoffs of 150, 200, 250, 300 and 350 PPR points, let’s see if either position had a significantly different season in putting players over or under these thresholds.

RB WR Heatmap

These charts do shed some light on 2016. For starters, 2015 was a pretty horrid year for RBs, recording the majority of the worst finishes for our given time frame. Though not as top heavy as 2014, there were a number of super-high point total seasons last year. The stark contrast between 2015 and 2016 is for sure a major contributor to the feeling that I left the 2016 season with. However, I don’t think that the difference is drastic enough (and by the way, 2016 was anomalous fora number of reasons that RotoViz readers will soon be finding out) to make me stand up on my desk and shout the RUNNING BACKS HAVE RETURNED!

For WRs, 2016 was the worst year we’ve seen in a while. Few players went over 250 PPR points and all failed to eclipse 350. When we compare this with the relative success of 2016 RBs, the great performance of rookie Ezekiel Elliot and David Johnson’s astronomical campaign, it’s easy to see why the casual fantasy player is buying into the notion that RB has once again become the epicenter of the fantasy world.

But does this really change anything? No. Unless of course, you expect the WR position, in today’s pass happy NFL, to continue to struggle as a unit in 2017 and RBs league wide to all become superstars.

Conclusion

I laid out the above numbers to search for cataclysmic shifts in the fantasy landscape, so radical, that I’d have to question everything I thought I knew. Perhaps, I could have gone down a deeper hole or conducted a more scientific or statistically sound study. But the truth is, unless I had discovered something as unexpected as every RB drafted in the first eight rounds going for 250 plus points and zero WRs doing so, it was an unnecessary exercise. This is because none of the above results would change the structural nature of the Zero-RB strategy. The leagues in which I play would still require me to play more WRs than any other position, it would still be advantageous to start a WR in the flex and there would still be more fantasy relevant players at the WR position than at any other. Injury rates at the RB position would still be higher than those at WR and the ability to project the positions would not have changed.

As I mentioned above, there are other facets to the strategy that I did not outline. However, when I consider them, I doubt that any findings that could be reasonably expected would render them null and void. At the end of the day, Zero-RB is a contingency based, structural approach that capitalizes on roster construction, our fallibility as prognosticators, game theory and antifragility. The results of a single season should not be enough to make you shy away from the strategy. I would never advocate that it’s the only strategy that could work and the only one you should use (especially not in low WR, standard leagues) but don’t be afraid to give it another shot if you had one bad season with it.

The other thing to keep in mind is that Zero-RB may have been at the peak of its popularity heading into 2016. With so many drafters now having written the strategy off, it will be an even easier approach to execute in 2017. For this reason, I can’t wait to Zero-RB my way through drafts come August!

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