News & Analysis

Fantasy football mock drafts: RB strategy a key to a 16-teamer

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 17: Dalvin Cook #33 of the Minnesota Vikings rushes against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second half during the game at Heinz Field on September 17, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

A 16-team draft is worlds different from a 12-teamer. If you have Pick 5 and wait until the fifth round for your first running back in a 12-teamer, you’re starting your ball-carriers with … Derrius Guice, or Marshawn Lynch, or Sony Michel. It’s not Le’Veon Bell, but assuming you’ve bulked up on upper-tier receivers, you can make a run with those guys.

In a 16-teamer, though, if you wait until the fifth round, you’re starting with … Marlon Mack, or Royce Freeman, or Jamaal Williams.

Zero-RB isn’t really en vogue in 2018 as it was a few years ago, but in a 16-team league, it’s just about impossible. There are strategies that emerge, to be sure, but waiting on a crucial position just can’t be one of them.

The PFF Fantasy team gathered for a 16-team slow mock. To fill out the ranks, also participating were:

Otherwise, the draft’s structure pretty normal. Below, we’ll look at the notable strategies that emerged.

The first round

Pick Owner Player Position Team
1 Mike Castiglione Le'Veon Bell RB PIT
2 Jeff Ratcliffe Todd Gurley RB LAR
3 Tyler Buecher David Johnson RB ARZ
4 Scott Spratt Ezekiel Elliott RB DAL
5 Dan Clasgens Alvin Kamara RB NO
6 Nathan Jahnke Saquon Barkley RB NYG
7 Mike Tagliere Antonio Brown WR PIT
8 Curtis Patrick Kareem Hunt RB KC
9 Walton Spurlin DeAndre Hopkins WR HOU
10 Michael Moore Odell Beckham Jr. WR NYG
11 Tyler Loechner Michael Thomas WR NO
12 Scott Barrett Julio Jones WR ATL
13 Mike Clay Dalvin Cook RB MIN
14 Danile Kelley Keenan Allen WR LAC
15 Dan Schneier Melvin Gordon RB LAC
16 Pat Thorman Leonard Fournette RB JAX

That’s six running backs off the board before Brown was picked and 10 of 16 first-round picks in total. Running back put up more fantasy points at the top end last year, but obviously bottomed out much earlier, with each team offering one, maybe two fantasy running backs but three and sometimes even four relevant receivers.

The (quasi-)zero-RB rosters

Two teams went WR-WR to start the draft, meaning no running back until pick 42 (for Michael Moore) or 46 (for me). There was one other roster that waited on running back, but we’ll get to it. Here’s how those rosters ended up:

Michael Moore roster Daniel Kelley roster
Position Player Team Pick Position Player Team Pick
QB Philip Rivers LAC 10.07 QB Drew Brees NO 7.14
QB Matt Ryan ATL 11.10 RB Lamar Miller HOU 3.14
RB Derrick Henry TEN 3.10 RB Royce Freeman DEN 4.03
RB C.J. Anderson CAR 5.10 RB Kerryon Johnson DET 5.14
RB Matt Breida SF 8.07 RB Tarik Cohen CHI 6.03
RB Austin Ekeler LAC 12.07 RB Kalen Ballage MIA 13.14
RB Chris Ivory BUF 14.07 WR Keenan Allen LAC 1.14
WR Odell Beckham Jr. NYG 1.10 WR Mike Evans TB 2.03
WR Davante Adams GB 2.07 WR Sterling Shepard NYG 8.03
WR Jamison Crowder WAS 6.07 WR D.J. Moore CAR 9.14
WR Nelson Agholor PHI 7.10 WR Willie Snead BAL 12.03
WR Keelan Cole JAX 15.10 WR Amara Darboh SEA 14.03
TE Evan Engram NYG 4.07 TE Vance McDonald PIT 10.03
TE Cameron Brate TB 9.10 TE Jared Cook OAK 11.14
K Matt Prater DET 16.07 K Robbie Gould SF 16.03
DST LA Rams 13.10 DST Carolina 15.14

I asked Moore about his roster. He said it wasn’t an intentional strategy to go WR-WR early, but couldn’t pass up the value of Adams that deep in the second round. As for filling out his backs after missing the big names he readily admitted he could struggle with depth, but likes Henry and Anderson more than most and thought the value worked out. Overall, he loaded up on receiver and tight end and let the running backs play out with hope.

For my roster, choosing to go WR-WR early led to a domino effect — I felt like I had to load up on mid-round upside plays in Freeman, Johnson, and Cohen after getting Miller in the third. Waiting until the eighth to take a third receiver meant I needed to get more receiver depth, which is why I went Snead and Darboh late instead of a backup quarterback (12 of 16 teams had a backup). And all of that meant I waited on tight end — McDonald and Cook would be a great best-ball duo, in my opinion.

The lesson of going light on backs early in a 16-teamer is that it separates you from ADP for a big chunk of the draft, as you have to scramble to make your roster make sense after missing out on the top tier.

The TE-heavy roster

The other team that eschewed running backs early really went out on a limb, with Tyler Loechner going TE-heavy and not taking a ball-carrier until the fourth round (54th overall):

Tyler Loechner roster
Position Player Team Pick
QB Jared Goff LAR 11.11
QB Case Keenum DEN 13.11
RB Alex Collins BAL 4.06
RB Nick Chubb CLV 5.11
RB Theo Riddick DET 7.11
RB James White NE 8.06
RB Darren Sproles PHI 10.06
WR Michael Thomas NO 1.11
WR Cooper Kupp LAR 6.06
WR Calvin Ridley ATL 9.11
WR Corey Coleman CLV 12.06
WR Keke Coutee HOU 15.11
TE Rob Gronkowski NE 2.06
TE Zach Ertz PHI 3.11
K Stephen Gostkowski NE 14.06
DST Pittsburgh 16.06

For me, this was a noble exercise — control the tight end market and dominate the position — but ultimately not one that should catch fire in 16-teamers. There’s no roster in this 16-teamer with a wider range of potential outcomes than this one — Goff and Keenum both took massive leaps forward in 2017 and could slide back in 2018, Collins and Chubb both head up full backfields, meaning they could find themselves out of a job with any struggles, and as overblown as Gronkowski’s injury risk might be, it does still exist, and if he misses significant time, this team just doesn’t have the depth to overcome it.

Loechner more or less agreed, saying “The final product wasn't as bad as I feared it could have been — but I'm not sure this is a strategy I would ultimately deploy in a real draft. Monopolizing the tight end position in a 16-team league does have some intrinsic value,.. but I was left really thin at the running back position. … There's a little too much risk associated with this roster for my liking.”

The RB-heavy rosters

Three teams went with three running backs in their first four picks. Coincidentally, it was all three of our ringers:

Nathan Jahnke roster Mike Tagliere roster Mike Clay roster
Position Player Team Pick Position Player Team Pick Position Player Team Pick
QB Andrew Luck IND 8.11 QB Russell Wilson SEA 6.10 QB Patrick Mahomes KC 10.04
QB Jimmy Garoppolo SF 9.06 RB Joe Mixon CIN 2.10 QB Alex Smith WAS 11.13
RB Saquon Barkley NYG 1.06 RB Sony Michel NE 3.07 RB Dalvin Cook MIN 1.13
RB Rashaad Penny SEA 3.06 RB Dion Lewis TEN 4.10 RB Jay Ajayi PHI 3.13
RB Duke Johnson CLV 4.11 RB Doug Martin OAK 9.07 RB Ronald Jones TB 4.04
RB D'Onta Foreman HOU 7.06 RB Spencer Ware KC 13.07 RB Giovani Bernard CIN 8.04
RB Charles Sims TB 16.11 WR Antonio Brown PIT 1.07 RB Jonathan Stewart NYG 15.13
WR Tyreek Hill KC 2.11 WR Corey Davis TEN 5.07 WR A.J. Green CIN 2.04
WR Pierre Garcon SF 5.06 WR Marquise Goodwin SF 7.07 WR Emmanuel Sanders DEN 5.13
WR Randall Cobb GB 6.11 WR Mohamed Sanu ATL 10.10 WR Devin Funchess CAR 6.04
WR Mike Wallace PHI 10.11 WR Allen Hurns DAL 11.07 WR DeSean Jackson TB 7.13
WR Quincy Enunwa NYJ 14.11 WR Geronimo Allison GB 12.10 WR Jordan Matthews NE 13.13
TE Benjamin Watson NO 11.06 TE O.J. Howard TB 8.10 TE Charles Clay BUF 9.13
TE Vernon Davis WAS 12.11 TE Hayden Hurst BAL 14.10 TE Mike Gesicki MIA 12.04
K Wil Lutz NO 15.06 K Jake Elliott PHI 16.10 K Chris Boswell PIT 16.04
DST Jacksonville 13.06 DST Arizona 15.07 DST Philadelphia 14.04

 

All three of the drafters said their early-RB strategy was a mix of intentional (“I always try to land at least two RBs through three rounds,” Tagliere said; “I knew they’d dry up quickly,” per Clay) and the way the draft went. And ultimately, with them able to take players like Goodwin (who neared 1,000 yards in 2017) and Jackson after a player like Burkhead, who has upside but could struggle to see the field, or Crowell in a PPR, the value ended up making sense for them.

The light-RB approach

Curtis Patrick definitely didn’t go zero-RB in the draft. He spent his first two picks on the position … and then only took one more the rest of the way.

Curtis Patrick roster
Position Player Team Pick
QB Kirk Cousins WAS 7.08
QB Blake Bortles JAX 12.09
RB Kareem Hunt KC 1.08
RB Jerick McKinnon MIN 2.09
RB Devontae Booker DEN 10.09
WR Alshon Jeffery PHI 3.08
WR Jarvis Landry CLV 4.09
WR DeVante Parker MIA 6.09
WR Ted Ginn NO 9.08
WR Donte Moncrief JAX 11.08
WR Carlos Henderson DEN 15.08
WR Chad Hansen NYJ 16.09
TE Kyle Rudolph MIN 5.08
TE Jack Doyle IND 8.09
K Greg Zuerlein LAR 14.09
DST Minnesota 13.08

If Hunt and McKinnon are healthy and productive for 2018, there’s plenty of reason to like this roster, especially with enough wild cards at the receiver position to ensure plenty of upside. If Hunt and/or McKinnon gets hurt, though, this could become a disaster in a hurry, with Booker not even guaranteed anything more than a backup role.

I asked Patrick about his entire approach — not just avoiding depth at RB but going defense and kicker earlier than most. He talked about his desire against streaming at one-starter positions (QB, TE, K, DST) in 16-team leagues, where the waiver wire is so much shallower than we’re used to. There’s a tradeoff that has to be made in a league this deep, and he chose to go into the season with a potentially too-light running back group, confident in his ability to either play the wire over the season and find one there or finagle a trade.

All told, RB strategy was the key to this 16-teamer. Wait too long on them, and you might love your receivers, but you could be scrambling to make a logical roster make sense the rest of the way. Take them too early, and you have a strong top tier, but you might end up hurting for depth.

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