Has Zero RB Hype Created an Opportunity for Value?
Fantasy football managers are always on the lookout for innovative strategies to gain an edge in their leagues. One tactic that has gained popularity in recent years is the Zero RB approach. This unconventional draft strategy involves avoiding top-tier running backs in the early rounds and instead focusing on wide receivers and tight ends. However, recent data trends suggest that the 2023 fantasy football drafts might surprise us with hidden value at the running back position.
Over the last three years, the number of passing attempts per season has been steadily declining. From 35.2 in 2020 to 34.4 in 2021, and hitting a 14-year low of 33.3 last year, it appears that the league is shifting its offensive strategies.
*per Pro Football Reference
In that same time frame, fantasy point scoring in the NFL has experienced an overall decrease of 8.4%. Changes in offensive schemes, two-high safety defenses, aging quarterbacks and bad offensive line play are all contributing factors. However, the good news is that running backs have shown remarkable resilience compared to their wide receiver and tight end counterparts.
The fantasy points scored by RB1s (top 12 running backs) in half-point PPR formats have seen an 8.1% dip since 2020. While this might sound concerning, when we compare this decline to the league average drop in fantasy production, it is actually lower. This indicates that top-tier running backs are still valuable and might not be losing as much luster as initially thought.
Injuries are one of the concerns that drive the Zero RB approach. Since 2020, RBs drafted in the first round of fantasy drafts have missed 19.7% of their games. However, that number is skewed by Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley in 2020 and 2021. If you take them out of the equation, that number drops to 12.3%. By the same token, WRs taken in the first round since 2020 have missed 22.4% of their games. Although WRs have a much smaller sample size, it does show that injury risk is not any higher for first round RBs than for first round WRs.
What's even more intriguing is that RB2s (ranked 13-24) have seen a surprising increase of 2.2% in fantasy points since 2020. Despite the overall decrease in fantasy scoring across the league, RB2s are stepping up their game. Additionally, RB3s (ranked 25-36) have maintained relatively steady scoring over the last three years, showing that mid-to-late round running backs can still be valuable fantasy contributors.
On the other hand, wide receivers and tight ends have experienced a decline in fantasy point scoring. WR1 scoring is down by 4.4%, WR2 by 9.6%, and WR3 by a significant 13.1%. The situation is not any better for tight ends, with TE1 scoring down 9%, TE2 down 9.9%, and TE3 down 1.1%. These numbers highlight the challenges of securing reliable wide receivers and tight ends in fantasy football.
The impact of these trends on fantasy drafts is evident. In 2020 and 2021, nine running backs were among the first-round picks in half-point PPR fantasy football drafts. However, this year, there has been a steep decline, with only five running backs being taken in the opening round. The growing popularity of the Zero RB strategy seems to be the driving force behind this shift, advocating for early-round prioritization of wide receivers and tight ends.
However, the data trends suggest that the Zero RB strategy might not be the ultimate holy grail. Running backs have proven their worth and are showing more resilience compared to other positions. So, before blindly embracing the Zero RB trend, it is worth reconsidering.
A balanced approach might be the golden ticket to fantasy football success in 2023. Locking in a stud RB1 to anchor your team and keeping an eye out for reliable backs in the mid-to-late rounds to fill your RB2 and RB3 slots could be a winning strategy. While the Zero RB strategy has grabbed attention, the data indicates that running backs are still shining bright in fantasy football, while wide receivers and tight ends are facing a more challenging landscape.
As you gear up for the 2023 drafts, consider taking a more balanced approach that takes into account the evolving trends in fantasy production. By doing so, you can position yourself to be ahead of the curve.
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