It is the season for thought experiments because the people’s content cravings don’t subside during the NFL’s agonizing pre-draft dead zone, leaving us time to navel gaze about draft strategies and philosophies.
Let's stare at our bellybuttons for a while.
I’ve written plenty about Zero RB. You know where I stand on the antifragile approach to fantasy football roster construction, both in best ball formats and seasonal leagues. Asa concession to the skeptics and haters, I’ll explore the concept of a Robust RB roster -- what it looks like and how it could succeed in 2021. This could lead to excommunication from my local Zero RB chapter. So it goes.
Robust RB, for the uninitiated, requires a fantasy manager to use their high-leverage draft picks on workhorse running backs. It’s not nearly as well defined as Zero RB, though for the purposes of this exercise, I’ll say Robust RB constitutes running back selections in each of the first three rounds.
Let’s (briefly) define robustness, since we know what it means to be antifragile, or to gain from randomness. A robust system is able to tolerate “perturbations that might affect the system’s functional body.” It can be "the ability of a system to resist change without adapting its initial stable configuration,” according to the International Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management. In his book on antifragility, Nassim Nicholas Taleb charges that anything robust is built to last only for a while. In the long term, he writes, “you need perfect robustness for a crack not to end up crashing the system.” Here's the thing: Nothing is perfectly robust.
A robust system will falter with random events -- it’s not a question of if, but when. Volatility and stressors make a robust system weaker, whereas an antifragile system or model is only strengthened by these factors. It’s largely counterintuitive. Mistaking the unknown for the nonexistent, Nicholas Taleb writes, is a natural instinct, one that pervades the concept of robustness.
How does this translate to fantasy football? A roster bursting with running back robustness should withstand some unforeseen -- if very much anticipated -- volatility. Enough stressors -- major injuries to one or two of your top picks or the receivers you drafted in the fourth and fifth rounds -- and your robust lineup is looking less robust. The same, naturally, applies when a Zero RB drafter loses one or two of their top wideouts. The difference: Running back injury rates are higher than that of NFL wideouts. The grueling nature of the running back position is hardly conducive to injury-free seasons. There’s also the issue of roster requirements that force us to start at least three receivers every single week, but just two running backs. In the midst of midseason backfield chaos that usually grips the NFL, finding two running back spot starters -- working the wire or deploying a late-round target who’s found his way into an every down role -- isn’t a heavy lift.
How Robust RB Worked in 2020
Making Robust RB work is not entirely dissimilar to making Zero RB work in that one must find players who could see opportunity that isn’t incorporated into their average draft position. With Zero RB, that means drafting a handful of late-round running backs who have a path to three-down duties, creating a best case scenario in which you might have three top-20 receivers and one or two top-10 running backs. You’re expending precious little draft capital on these backup running backs though. A Robust RB approach requires one to use fourth, fifth, and sixth round picks on wide receivers who -- in the best case scenario -- outperform their ADPs.
Robust RB, I suppose, would succeed with wideouts who could see (much) more target volume than we think. Below is a list of players who made Robust RB feasible in 2020 redraft leagues.
Hindsight analysis paves the path to fantasy football hell, but since this is merely a thought experiment, we’ll allow it. What did most of the above receivers have in common? Massive, mostly unforeseen volume.
- Diggs in 2020 was positioned as the clear No. 1 receiver in a Buffalo offense that had 2019’s seventh highest rush rate and mostly ran a slow offense headed by a quarterback who would take off after one read. That Diggs would lead the entire league in targets (166) was seemingly outside even his most optimistic range of outcomes. The Bills, as you might know, transformed into a Zero RB NFL offense and Diggs was the main beneficiary.
- Both Seattle wideouts, Metcalf and Lockett, proved mind-melting values in the first half of 2020 as Russell Wilson was -- at long last -- allowed to cook. Metcalf was an iffy starts in 12-team leagues for much of the season’s second half, with Lockett being useless for fantasy purposes until a cruel Week 17 blowup performance. The Seahawks had the sixth highest rush rate in 2019 -- one of many seasons in the Pete Carroll era in which they were among the run heaviest teams in the NFL. While high touchdown rates helped Metcalf and Lockett, both saw far more targets than most fantasy managers expected in the summer of 2020.
- Ridley was always a good bet to outperform his 2020 ADP. It was clear that by the end of the 2019 season, Ridley was the 1b to Julio Jones’ 1a. The 2020 season saw those roles switch as Ridley commanded 143 targets while Julio struggled with injuries throughout. Probably Ridley would've seen fewer looks had Julio played even a few more games.
- I remain bitter about Allen’s 2020 success. Tyrod Taylor at QB for the Chargers made Allen an easy fade -- the easiest in recent memory. He was definitely not going to see anything close to his usual volume until the team’s training staff stabbed Taylor in the lung and inadvertently jump started the Justin Herbert era. Allen, at one point in 2020, had an utterly absurd 38 percent target share. His season ending with an injury-riddled fizzle shouldn’t obscure that Allen was a key to the Robust RB strategy in 2020.
- Brown’s 2020 ADP was perplexing throughout the summer. The electric second-year wideout was his team’s clear-cut No. 1 pass catching option with a hyper-efficient QB at the helm. It didn’t make sense. Brown’s 106 targets (7.6) per game were good enough to make him a steal in all formats. The volume actually wasn’t there for Brown but when nearly 16 percent of your receptions go for touchdowns, it doesn’t matter so much.
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How Can Robust RB Work in 2021?
Now for the actionable stuff.
Which wideouts available in rounds 4-7 could be this year’s key to going running back heavy in 2021? Many of the aforementioned receivers seeing their ADPs (rightly) spike means we’re working with a new crop of wideouts who could -- maybe -- see far more volume than most anticipate. Below are eight receivers who could fit that bill.
- First thing's first: D.J. Moore just barely missed out on this list; he’s a couple spots too high to make the cut, though he certainly should be a target for Robust RB truthers who can draft him as their WR1. Moore’s teammate, Anderson, profiles as a more traditional Robust RB draft target. Coming off the quietest 136-target campaign in league history, Anderson -- excuse me while I indulge in some sweet, sweet narrative-based analysis -- will be reunited with Sam Darnold in 2021. Anderson, after all, caught 88 of 163 targets for 1,353 yards and 11 touchdowns from Darnold when both played for the Jets, tearing the top off opposing secondaries time and again. Anderson, who somehow managed a top-20 season last year with noodle-armed Teddy Bridgewater throwing passes for Carolina, is now being drafted as a WR3 in 12-team leagues. Something doesn’t add up. A little more vertical usage with the stronger-armed Darnold under center in 2021 and Anderson could blow the proverbial roof off his fantasy valuation.
- Fuller’s prospects hinge on Tua Tagovailoa progressing as a passer after a rough rookie campaign. But his ADP is absurdly low (and will probably rise steadily in the coming months). Fuller finishing his 2020 suspension in the first week of the coming season shouldn’t discourage fantasy managers -- no matter your draft strategy -- from going in on Fuller, Miami’s No. 1 receiver and one of the few wideouts who can single handedly win fantasy contests.
- Both Rams wideouts are being drafted as if Jared Goff wasn’t cast off to Detroit. Kupp and Woods get a massive QB upgrade with Matthew Stafford slinging sidearm passes their way in 2021, opening up Sean McVay’s offense to the benefit of every fantasy-relevant player in the Rams Offense. Woods, who averaged the 19th most PPR points among receivers last year, is being drafted at his floor. There’s a good argument for Kupp being drafted well below his fantasy floor with Stafford under center. Both guys could be gifts to Robust RB drafters.
- Having Julio on this list is weird and different. It’s not so much volume that isn’t corporated into the 32-year-old wideout’s ADP; it’s his deteriorating health. A fully healthy Julio -- or something close to it -- combined with two or three top running backs seems unfair. It’s easy to lose sight of his 20 percent target share in the nine games he played in 2020 -- two of which saw him operate as an injured decoy.
- Aiyuk is being drafted as a low-end WR2 in 12-team leagues exactly one year after averaging the 17th most PPR points among receivers. Deebo Samuel’s and George Kittle's absence and runaway negative game script helped Aiyuk compile targets and receptions last year. A better, healthier Niners offense might suppress Aiyuk’s ceiling: He averaged 5.3 targets per contest with Kittle and Deebo in the Niners lineup, about half of what he averaged when both guys were sidelined. That's a frightening split.
- Tee Higgins’ ADP shows fantasy players are bullish on Joe Burrow returning for a full season after his horrific ACL tear last winter. Burrow being held out for the season’s first month or so would make Higgins the easiest fade in all of fantasy football. Assuming a 16-game season for Burrow, Higgins has the touchdown-driven ceiling that could make him a critical addition to any Robust RB roster. The big-bodied receiver could be in position to hog the team’s high-value downfield targets in 2021 -- that’s enough to bet on Higgins as a guy who could make his ADP look silly come the fall. Burrow averaged 10.58 adjusted yards per attempt when targeting Higgins in 2020, a full three yards per attempt higher than when he targeted Tyler Boyd. He would, of course, need to siphon some of Boyd’s target share to emerge as a WR2 in 12-team formats. That seems like a reasonable projection for the second-year wideout. Without a target share bump, Higgins would be a frustratingly volatile fantasy producer, as he was in 2020.
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