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Between 2015-20, 67 running backs had a best-ball ADP within the first two rounds. Six of them (9.0%) posted a win rate of at least 20%.
66 non-RBs were selected in the first two rounds, with 4.5% winning at a 20% clip or better.
No other group has as much league-winning upside as an early-round RB. Just look at the five highest single-season win rates since 2015 (across all positions).
All five are RBs. Four of the five were drafted in the first two rounds. Early-round RBs have the most game-breaking upside in fantasy football, but it comes at a cost. Since 2015, 40.3% of them have posted a sub-5% win rate, more than the 11.8% rate for the whole player pool and 33.3% for non-RBs with a top-24 ADP. No other group can carry your team like an early-round RB, but none of them can sink your team to the same degree either. Case in point: The mean win rate for these RBs is 8.6%, but the median is just 6.6%.
Earlier this summer, I explained how the margin for error in fantasy is either really big or really small depending on how you choose to think about it. In essence, you can miss on a bunch of your picks as long as you draft at least one of the few players each season who absolutely destroy ADP. A lot of the time, those guys are elite RBs.
Pat Kerrane wrote about a similar idea recently. Although he broke it down by position more than I did, he concluded that early-round RBs need legendary upside to be worth the cost of admission. Based on that, more risk-averse players might be inclined to favor other positions but that's probably not the way to play it either because that would cause you to miss out on the league-winning performances these players have the potential for. And as Pat demonstrates, they almost need that type of performance to pay off their ADPs. Josh Jacobs averaged 15.0 points per game in 2020 and finished as the RB9. His win rate was 7.9%. Ezekiel Elliott had 14.9 PPG as the RB10, but teams with him won just 2.7% of the time. Your early-round RB pick needs to hit in a big way to be worth it and history shows that they do hit in a big way more frequently than other positions.
This begs the question: How should we draft with this in mind? Today, we're not going to focus on identifying who those league-winning RBs are but rather how we should construct our rosters knowing the upside and risk of high-end runners.
Drafting as if You're Right
This offseason, I've seen more talk about the idea of "drafting as if you're right," especially for large-field best-ball tournaments. Basically, some decisions have so much influence over the fate of your season that your team is sunk if they don't work out. For example, if you do a full-on New Orleans stack with Jameis Winston and every pass-catcher, you're facing an uphill battle if Taysom Hill leads a run-heavy Saints attack. If you start with three straight RBs, your win probability drops dramatically if any of them get hurt and/or underperform, so you don't need to spend much (or any) more capital at RB.
That makes sense, especially in tournaments. It's viable to gamble on different scenarios playing out to your benefit as described above.
Here's the thing: There's drafting as if you're right. And then there's drafting as if you're invincible.
We now know that early-round RBs have posted a legendary win rate (arbitrarily defined as 20%) 9.0% of the time over the past six seasons. They have busted at a 40.3% rate. 29.9% of seasons have been above the average win rate of 8.3%. Based on that, one could claim that you are already drafting as if you're right simply by picking an early-round RB. You have less than a 30% chance of that pick paying off!
You could argue the payoff rate is higher – did Jacobs pay off his ADP last year by finishing as the RB9? – but it's important to remember we are picking players against other options rather than in a vacuum. In other words, when you draft Elliott as the RB6, you're not betting on him to have a top-six RB (or whatever, it doesn't have to be exactly top-six) season. You're betting that he is the best option available. If Jonathan Taylor finishes as the RB1, Elliott's season would probably be a disappointment in comparison even if his end-of-year positional ranking is better than his positional ADP.
We can be pretty certain there will be a few highly drafted backs who crush ADP this season. By drafting an RB early, you are tying your team's success to the probability that he is one of them. Of course, it's not completely binary like that – a below-average win rate is not the same as a 0% win rate – but if someone posts a season like Christian McCaffrey's 2019 and his 36.9% win rate, it's almost like you either draft him or you're wrong. In that sense, you are already drafting as if you're right by picking a single elite RB.
We know high-end RBs have awesome upside. We also know they have unmatched risks. Considering RBs with a top-24 overall ADP average an 8.6% win rate over the past six years, it's fair to say the upside outweighs the risk and they are a strong selection in general.
Let's say you're lucky enough to draft one of the top guys. Do you double down on an uncorrelated low-probability outcome by choosing another one in Round 2 or 3? Or should you opt for a higher-floor option like a WR or an elite TE, knowing that you already took a big chance in the first round?
Win rate data can help us decide how you should construct your team if you were fortunate enough to nail down an early-round RB. Now that we've talked about the theory a little bit, let's dig into the numbers to nail down the line between drafting as if you're right vs. drafting like you're invincible.
What Do the Numbers Say?
Pretty much every theory-based discussion is a cost-benefit analysis. Once you've drafted an early RB, the reason for drafting another is twofold. First, you open yourself up to the possibility of an absolutely monstrous team. If both RBs hit, you might not need much else to win your league. Second, if your first-round RB busts, you're giving yourself another chance at a league-winner.
The downside is equally evident. You are gambling on another unlikely event. There is an edge in drafting an RB early, but it's more likely than not that you give some of that edge back by opting for another.
It's useful to try to think through whether the upside is worth the risk, but we also have six years of best-ball data to inform our decision-making.
Round 1 Pick
Round 2 Pick
Only seven TEs have had an ADP within the first two rounds over the past six years. Three of them posted an above-average win rate, including 2020 Travis Kelce, who posted a 24.4% win rate. 2019 George Kittle (15.1%) and Zach Ertz (12.6%) were both barely outside the top-24 in ADP, although it's worth noting their win rates benefitted from Christian McCaffrey's huge season because their ADP was right at the 2/3 turn.
It seems like it's best to take a balanced approach through two rounds, as RB-WR and WR-RB starts have had more success than RB-RB or WR-WR.
The second RB might not be worth it, although there are steps you can take to mitigate the risk, which we'll get to later.
Don't draft a QB this early.
Expanding into Round 3, teams that took at least two RBs in the first three rounds won at an 8.0% clip. Teams with exactly two won 8.2% of the time. Meanwhile, those with one RB through three rounds had an 8.8% win rate. When that one RB came in the first two rounds, that number jumped even higher to 9.2%.
RBs After Three Rounds
1 (picked in the first two rounds)
2 (RB-RB start)
We see the same idea looking at the first four rounds.
RBs After Four Rounds
1 (picked in the first two rounds)
2 (one in the first two rounds)
2 (RB-RB start)
A lot of this is simply that Round 1 RBs are better. McCaffrey and Gurley posted two of the best seasons ever from a Round 2 ADP, but second-round backs average just an 8.0% win rate. Only 25.9% of Round 2 RB seasons had an above-average win rate between 2015-20. The reason these guys aren't considered part of the RB dead zone is that they are capable of mind-blowing seasons, but they bust at a truly incredible rate (as Kerrane explained in his article). Because of this, it's usually not wise to double down at RB if you already grabbed one in Round 1.
One way to draft as if you're right is to construct the rest of your roster assuming you have one weekly starter at RB, which allows you to stock up on other positions. After all, if your first-round pick isn't starting for you most of the time, it's probably not a good season anyway.
The goal is to avoid drafting as if you're invincible. An RB-heavy start doesn't preclude you from accomplishing that goal, but there are certain steps you need to take if you go that route.
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Bimodal RB and Half-PPR
"Bimodal RB" has recently entered our fantasy football vocabulary to describe a strategy in which you take two RBs in the first two rounds and then wait until roughly Round 7 or later before you draft another RB. It's probably the best of the RB-RB starts because it gives you two shots at an elite RB and still allows you to build a strong WR corps.
Bimodal RB has had a 9.4% win rate since 2015. The baseline win rate is 8.3%. It's even +EV in comparison to teams that drafted a RB in the first round (which has an 8.4% win rate).
Bimodal RB works because it accomplishes two things:
You draft an RB in Round 1, opening your team up to the possibility that he is a league-winner.
You load up on WRs in the RB dead zone, creating a robust group of WRs during the time when the opportunity cost is lowest.
Hayden Winks recently visualized Underdog scoring based on how many RBs you had in a particular round and found that teams with two RBs through two rounds averaged the most points last year. My data agrees that bimodal is a strong strategy, but also indicates it's slightly better to forgo the second RB and instead focus on other positions. I'm using full-PPR data and he's using half-PPR, so that could easily be the main cause.
It could also be that an RB-centric start widens your range of outcomes without actually increasing your probability of success. For example, teams that started RB-RB over the past six years averaged 2,212 points and posted a 7.8% win rate. Teams that started RB-WR averaged 2,213 points and an 8.2% win rate. That's a negligible difference in points but a meaningful one in win rate.
Here's an even better example: Teams that took their RB1 in the first two rounds and their RB2 after Round 4 averaged 2,218 points and posted a 10.2% win rate. Those that started RB-RB and had two backs through four rounds averaged 2,225 points and had an 8.9% win rate. The lighter RB approach averaged seven fewer points but had a win rate that was 1.3 percentage points higher!
We've talked a lot about how taking RBs early exposes your team to risk, but it also raises your ceiling. Basically, that second RB will help you beat your opponents by even more if you do win, but it won't actually help you win more. It feels weird to think about it this way, but RB-RB is an extreme start in terms of the risk you're taking on. To counteract that, you have to go extreme in the other direction after that and not take your RB3 for a long time.
Robust RB is drafting as if you're invincible. It's not fair to label bimodal the same way since it's clearly +EV, but it might be an even better idea to take only one elite RB and then start drafting other positions, at least in PPR. We'll have to revisit the idea again in half-PPR once we have more data, although I've still been pivoting to other positions after taking a workhorse in Round 1 regardless of format. I lean even more in this direction because of how much RBs are falling in Round 3 onward.
When Does It Make Sense to Roll the Dice Again?
I just made it sound like you're the worst fantasy player ever if you take hammer RBs early. That is not the case – and there are even scenarios in which it's optimal. The most prevalent case is when an RB falls past ADP. Everything I showed is based on ADP from previous seasons, but that's just an average. I don't have the data to quantify exactly when a falling RB becomes a better value than a WR, but it has to be true at some point. If Aaron Jones falls a full round past his ADP, you shouldn't pigeonhole yourself into drafting a WR.
You also have to take league structure into account. The data I used is for regular best-ball leagues, so it's most relevant to non-tournament formats. If you are drafting in a tournament, you need to look at the rules to determine how to play it. Underdog's Best-Ball Mania II is set up so that two teams from each 12-team division advance to the tournament stage at the end of Week 14. From there, it's three GPP-style competitions where your team has to pop off in back-to-back-to-back weeks to take home the million-dollar prize. As I explained in a previous article, you don't need a superteam to win; you just need to do well enough to keep advancing and then have the best team in Week 17.
With only one year of BBM data, we can't say for sure what's optimal and how much you need to change your strategy compared to normal best-ball leagues, but a major focus should be just getting out of your 12-team league. Given the structure, you don't need to draft as if every pick has to be perfect to win, so taking one early RB and then loading up on other positions still makes sense.
On the other hand, Drafters (another best-ball platform) organized their tournament such that the overall highest-scoring team wins. No playoffs, no tournament, nothing like that. It's just who has the most points at the end of the year. In a format like that, you actually do need the nuts to win the whole thing. Because of that, it might make more sense to go all-in and gamble on multiple early RBs because you need that sort of upside. You need a near-perfect team on Drafters as opposed to only needing a few great weeks at the end of the season on Underdog.
You don't need a superteam in redraft leagues either, plus you have the benefit of in-season management to find RBs during the year. Especially in PPR, you should focus on other positions after securing a workhorse back.