Heading into 2016, one of the most popular and widely used strategies in Fantasy was going with a Zero-RB approach. There are several key factors that caused this strategy to kick off including RB health, WR dominance in 2015, and the steady trend of WR value over the years. Let’s make one thing clear before digging in to these numbers. 2016 was without a doubt a very odd year for Running Backs. Naturally, it only makes sense in the Fantasy world that the year this trend stops, is the year everyone buys in on the Zero-RB strategy. Due to the debate and hype that has developed during this off-season around RBs in the Fantasy World, I put some numbers and information together to address this.
One of the most obvious and relevant issues with 2016 was that WR production as a whole was significantly down. Mike Evans was the league leader in targets with 173, and the last time this number was that low was back in 2009 where Andre Johnson was the league leader in targets with 171. Another fun stat is that in the past four years, 10 WRs have had more than 180 targets. The Top 10 WRs in ½ PPR format also took a significant hit in 2016, as roughly 2,600 Fantasy Points over the past few years has been steadily trending upwards, these point totals dropped to just under 2,300 in 2016. To sum it all up, since 2009 the volume for WRs has been steadily increasing (Targets, Air Yards, Receptions, Yard, Etc.), and in 2016 all of these categories took a significant hit.
Why exactly did these numbers take the hit? One important thing to realize with the RBs in 2016 is that it wasn’t the RB usage that changed, in fact the NFL as a whole averaged just 26.0 Rushing Attempts per game. This number is the lowest of ANY recorded years according to Pro Football Reference. NFL teams also averaged 108.9 Rushing Yards per game, which is the second lowest since 1999. No, it wasn’t the RB usage or involvement in the offense that changed, that trend in the NFL is still continuing in the same direction.
Since 2009, the average Rushing TDs per game was at its highest in 2016, largely thanks to Blount, Elliot, Johnson, and Gordon putting up a crazy amount of TDs. Most years we see multiple significant injuries to RBs, but not in 2016. Ameer Abdullah went down in Week 2 and Melvin Gordon went down late in 2016, past that, there aren’t many major injuries to note. Typically, we see multiple significant injuries to RBs every year, and 2016 just wasn’t the same. Throw in the massive years for David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliot, it isn’t surprising after viewing all of these stats that 2016 was clearly a year of resurgence at the RB position. From a statistical standpoint and recognizing the upward trend in the WR volume, I expect 2017 to remind the Zero-RB haters that trends matter in Fantasy Football. 2017 just might be the year to revert to the Zero-RB strategy, assuming you aren’t lucky enough to land Bell, DJ, or Zeke in your Redraft Leagues.
*In this chart, the blue line represents positions 1-12, the black line 13-24, and red line 25-36
Everyone in Fantasy is well aware of the advantage that comes with a bell cow Running Back such as Elliot, DJ, or Bell. If there is one thing that I have learned in Fantasy Football over the years, it is that trends matter. I am not here to tell you that these big name RBs aren’t major dynasty assets, but it is important to understand that despite this crazy year for RBs, WRs statistically have a longer shelf-life, more likely to have multiple elite years, and are just plain safer in Dynasty leagues for the long haul. For Redraft Leagues, I am completely on board for grabbing DJ, Bell, or Zeke if you can, but with the recent hype around RBs and downplay of WRs this off-season, there are two main points to take away here.
1. Trends matter in Fantasy Football.
2. Outliers are a key part of the game that cannot be ignored.