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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 others who are taking two stud running backs early before hammering wide receivers and tight ends starting in the 3rd or 4th round.
No matter your strategy, once the season starts and injuries start mounting with your guys 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, I get that, 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 evenings, 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 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 complement such strategies.
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 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, it's not a strategy I use in every draft, but it’s a strategy I keep in my back pocket to pull out if the draft unfolds in a way where I find it to be useful. This season I have actually found myself employing it in a few industry leagues where benches are deep and scoring systems favor positions outside of running backs.
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 LeSean McCoy and Mike Tolbert (2), Ty Montgomery and Jamaal Williams (2) and then a guy like Mark Ingram (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 Doug Martin and Jacquizz Rodgers, Martin 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 (or during suspension) Rodgers would come in and not skip a beat, and you are not likely to see too much of a decrease in scoring from this running back slot in this scenario. The beauty of this combo is also that Rodgers can be had for almost next to nothing. Probably not more than two or three dollars in auction drafts and no higher than an 11th-round selection in snake drafts, which is key to the best (although not all) "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 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 I mentioned before, a great example of this is Darren Sproles or a guy like Theo Riddick. You probably don’t want to have to rely on these guys every week as your main starter, but they 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 I mentioned, it is more nuanced than that. Take Melvin Gordon 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 LeSean McCoy over him, who has a clear late round handcuff. If Gordon goes down, your season may very well go down with it.
Digging deeper, Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry are an interesting case study. While you have to use a second round pick on Murray and a seventh on Henry, 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 Melvin Gordon or Jordan Howard, in favor of Murray. Another option is to target Isaiah Crowell in the 3rd and Duke Johnson Jr in the 8th. The beauty of both of these selections is that you don’t need to even grab a “1” since Duke Johnson Jr and Derrick Henry 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 4 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, 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. In fact, per stats from last years MFL10 best ball leagues, teams with just 3 or 4 running backs both had a higher win percentage than teams with 5.
The one clear caveat to this strategy is in regards to David Johnson and LeVeon Bell. If you have the first or second pick in the draft, it is very tough passing up on either of these guys. Just like Zero RB doesn’t apply to them, this strategy does not have to apply to them. Both players are rare talents, in great situations and are like starting both a high-end running back and a wide receiver every week. That's said, I would lean Bell because he has what looks to be a more viable handcuff in Conner and if you really want to stick to the strategy, it's best to rather grab a guy like Antonio Brown with the first pick, and focus on your running backs in later rounds.
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 onto him, try and upgrade him. Guys like Jordan Howard and Jay Ajayi 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. Two 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.
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 Marlon Mack really starts to come on, drop a bench player that is doing nothing and grab Mack. 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 Duke Johnson Jr as a solid player, skip the Crowell/Johnson stack and rather draft Ingram/Peterson. You are in control.
Updated Note: Users of this strategy who already drafted prior to the Chiefs 3rd pre-season game are smiling and are in better shape then they were before Spencer Ware went down. They grabbed Kareem Hunt, and their teams haven't skipped a beat!
- Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson
- Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara (PPR leagues only)
- Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman
- C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles (watch for rookie De'Angelo Henderson, this is iffy)
- Bilal Powell and Matt Forte
- DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry
- Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray
- Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr
- Ezekiel Elliott and Darren McFadden
- Doug Martin and Jacquizz Rodgers
- LeSean McCoy and Mike Tolbert
- Christian McCaffrey and Jonathan Stewart
- Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick (PPR leagues only)
- Rob Kelly and Samaje Perine
- Kareem Hunt and Charcandrick West (pay attention to C.J. Spiller)
- Ty Montgomery and Jamaal Williams
- Adrian Peterson
- Shane Vereen
- Rex Burkhead
- Darren Sproles
- Danny Woodhead
- DeAndre Washington
- Terrance West
- Duke Johnson Jr
- Frank Gore
- Theo Riddick
- Jonathan Stewart
- Derrick Henry
- Bilal Powell
- Giovani Bernard
- Chris Thompson
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