Running backs are, and always have been the backbone in fantasy football. It’s the position that will make or break your roster. No other position produces league winning type players anywhere near as often. That’s why you need to make sure you’re utilizing the best running back draft strategy in fantasy football this season.
Early Round Running Back Draft Strategy
Many fantasy football players will tell you that you don’t win your league in draft season. But you can certainly lose it. The running back position is the most important position on your roster and is essential in the first 3 rounds this season. There is a clear drop off in the quality of backs after the 17th (Najee Harris) running back in our rankings. You want to avoid having limited upside running backs like Josh Jacobs, Miles Sanders and Chris Carson as your RB2. Make sure you walk away with at least 2 running backs in the first 3 rounds this year.
Remember, there are only 32 starting running backs in the NFL while there are 64+ starting wide receivers. You’ve got plenty of depth to work with in rounds 4 to 8 for your wideouts while the running back position falls off a cliff between those same rounds.
Emergence of Zero RB
A strategy that’s becoming increasingly popular amongst the fantasy community is the Zero RB strategy. The idea behind it is to fade the running back position entirely up until the 6th or 7th round and rely on late round hand cuffs and waiver wire guys to fill the role. It’s all built around running backs being very injury prone, so it’s too risky to stack them up early in drafts. Instead, they’d go get their back ups once they go down and they’ll put up 80% of what the starter did (or so they’d think).
I see the appeal with the strategy, but it’s not something I would ever look to implement for my teams. Taking wide receivers and tight end early will definitely help prevent your team from being bottom tier, but there just isn’t the same amount of upside with the strategy. Last season, the best teams (on average) came from the people who drafted from the 4, 5 and 6 spots in redraft leagues. The reason for that? That’s where Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara and Derrick Henry were being taken.
So while Zero RB doesn’t lose you your league, it sure as hell doesn’t win you your league either. When it comes to fantasy football, having an average team means nothing, and to me, you need that elite tier running back to win your league.
Mid/Late Round Running Back Draft Strategy
Everyone knows about the running back dead zone in rounds 4-8. It’s the guys people might be getting hyped about, but there’s no clear role for any of them and most if not all end up being busts. Starting in round 4, these were the RBs being drafted in that range:
James Connor, Melvin Gordon, Mark Ingram, Raheem Mostert, Leonard Fournette, Devin Singletary, Le’Veon Bell, David Montgomery, Cam Akers, Kareem Hunt, D’Andre Swift, Ronald Jones, J.K. Dobbins, Jordan Howard and Marlon Mack.
Of that group, the 3 rookies, Swift, Dobbins and Akers, showed some flashes, but were far from consistent. The only real hit in this group was David Montgomery, who finished as the RB4 on the season. This is why it’s necessary to get RBs early. You can’t rely on getting guys off the waiver wire, because there’s going to be 11 other teams looking at the same players you are. So my strategy in these rounds is to primarily target QB and WR, taking maybe 1 running back. Some guys in the mid rounds I wouldn’t mind getting are Javonte Williams, Trey Sermon and Damien Harris.
Handcuffing Your Studs
A big debate amongst the fantasy community is whether you should get the handcuffs of your own running backs, or other teams running backs. The answer is it depends entirely on who you draft. A big misconception among a lot of people is that all handcuffs are created equal. Just because someone is listed 2nd on the depth chart, doesn’t mean they’ll take the workhorse role should the starter go down. For example, if Christian McCaffrey goes down, I don’t think any of their guys will get even a 70% carry and target share. Can you still draft Bonnafon or Hubbard? Sure, just don’t expect big numbers. To me there are 4 true handcuff running backs:
Tony Pollard, Alexander Mattison, Latavius Murray and AJ Dillon. That’s not including guys who are already in what’s considered a split backfield, these are guys who are the true number 2’s and would almost entirely take over the starters workload should they go down. So if I draft any of Zeke, Cook, Kamara or Aaron Jones, I would definitely be looking to grab their handcuffs later in drafts. If I don’t draft any of these guys, then I’m going to look to target a handcuff of someone else’s team. It will definitely make your opponent mad, but also more likely to overpay for the handcuff in a trade.
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