Zero Running Back and Antifragile Rosters in Real Events


Author’s Note: Originally written in the heat of the action last fall, this post has been updated to show how some of the Zero RB teams finished and to provide links to other relevant Zero RB articles.

In Part One of this article, I explained why I believe Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s theory of Antifragility is relevant to fantasy football and why it helps to debunk value-based drafting. In Part Three, I’ll demonstrate how to put together an elite RB corps even if you don’t use early picks at the position. In this piece, I’d like to examine whether Zero RB will hold up under the lights.

One of the key components of Taleb’s philosophy is that you shouldn’t take advice from those who aren’t taking personal risks. There’s an aspect of dogged and curmudgeonly arrogance to Taleb’s writing which can be occasionally enjoyable and yet unwise to emulate. Nevertheless, his point is generally a good one. Many of the big name fantasy football writers have never seriously played fantasy football.1 I’m occasionally asked to do reviews of Expert Mock Drafts, and it’s fairly common to discover high profile writers are unfamiliar with the current ADP developments, with the importance of roster depth, and with the impact of roster structure and scoring rules.

Please understand, this isn’t a shot at these individuals as people, or as writers-as-entertainers. Some of them are very good entertainers in the same way that certain CNBC personalities are excellent entertainers. The argument is simply that if you want to make money investing or to win fantasy football leagues, there’s significant value in interacting with those who are willing to test their ideas and see which ones hold up.

Over the past several years I’ve played in more than 200 leagues, taken the opportunity to test quite a few ideas, and discovered the occasional value in being wrong.

Serious Leagues

A lot of RotoViz writers are playing in serious leagues this fall. One of the biggest reasons we were drawn to RotoViz was the opportunity to interact and try to learn from each other .

Update: Bryan Fontaine and the Fantasy Douche both won their FBG leagues. Aaron Messing dominated in the MFL10 format.

Recently, I was drafting in a National Fantasy Football Championship league when something surprising happened – I started to get heckled in the chat box. This is normal, in fact expected, in friends and family leagues, but unusual in high stakes play. The heckler was so confident that he proposed a $1000 side bet where he offered to give me 2-1 odds.2

Many of the other participants got involved in the discussion and suggested that even at 2-1 the bet was a mortal lock for him. I bantered with them a bit even though I was also drafting another Main Event team in the 12-team format simultaneously.

You can guess why my opponent felt so confident. I wasn’t drafting running backs.

Here are the first ten rounds of our respective drafts. I had the fourth pick and the format is 3RR (again 14 teams so the depth runs out quickly).

My Team Opponent
Calvin Johnson Trent Richardson
Jimmy Graham Maurice Jones-Drew
Pierre Garcon Victor Cruz
Jordy Nelson Gio Bernard
Le’Veon Bell Torrey Smith
Kenny Britt Stevie Johnson
Alshon Jeffery Jared Cook
DeAndre Hopkins Emmanuel Sanders
Pierre Thomas Eli Manning
Kendall Hunter Michael Vick

My opponent actually drafted a lot of RotoViz favorites (Richardson, T. Smith, S. Johnson). You could even argue that he opted for a resilient approach since he selected three startable RBs and three startable WRs. He went the moderately late round approach at both TE and QB.3Later in the draft he also hit on Fred Jackson for a fourth quality RB. All of these things should have given him a strong team.

Meanwhile, I drafted six receivers in the first eight rounds and only one running back, a guy who even happened to be hurt at the time. The question posed in the chat was simple. Where was I going to put all of my WRs and who was I going to start at RB?

If this had been a mock draft, everyone would have walked away with their preconceptions intact. But this is a real league with a $1500 entry. What’s actually transpiring?

My Team: 1166 My Opponent: 947.

Update: This team ended up winning the league by scoring the most points and earning the best record. It finished in 3rd Place overall for the NFFC Classic regular season. You can learn more about the team by reading Pai Mei, Zero RB, and the 2013 NFFC Report Card. The opposing team finished 11th in the league.

The Flex Wins Championships

I’m sometimes surprised by the way drafters focus only on Week 1 and only on the starting lineup. When determining the number of players you’ll need at any given position, you must factor in three key areas of potential loss: injury, underperformance, bye weeks.

There is also the issue of the Flex, or, to be more precise, the fact that the Flex Wins Championships. As frequent readers know, a 2-RB, 3-WR, 1-Flex format is essentially a 2-RB, 4-WR format. That makes the WR position at least twice as important as the RB position (possibly more since WRs score more points). The caliber of player in my WR4 spot is going to be at least as important as the caliber of player in my RB2 spot.

In looking at my roster, it was both good fortune and good planning that when Calvin Johnson missed Week 5 with an injury, Alshon Jeffery stepped in and scored 37 points. During the weeks when Nelson, Garcon, and Jeffery were on the bye, I hardly missed a beat.

I needed all of that depth because Kenny Britt was an inexcusably egregious pick, but part of any good strategy is having the humility to expect misses and prepare for them.

Zero RB and the Antifragile Lineup

Let’s look at a different team to further illustrate Zero RB and Antifragility. This is another $1500 team for the NFFC’s 12-team format. My squad drafted out of the No. 8 spot, again with Third Round Reversal.

RD Player
1 Dez Bryant
2 Peyton Manning
3 Andre Johnson
4 Pierre Garcon
5 Jordy Nelson
6 Le’Veon Bell
7 Josh Gordon
8 Chris Ivory
9 Alshon Jeffery
10 Jared Cook
11 Christine Michael
12 Pierre Thomas
13 Kendall Hunter


This draft took place after the first Thursday night game. I’m a big believer in the Late Round QB approach, but I also didn’t plan to leave 65 points on the table when Manning came back around to me in R2. (I’m also starting to believe that Antifragile lineups might not really need to wait at QB.)

You’ll quickly note a couple of things. Josh Gordon was drafted as my WR5 and Alshon Jeffery as my WR6. Andre Johnson has mildly disappointed, but every week I’m in a situation where someone like Johnson, Pierre Garcon, or Jeffery is in my Flex spot.

Secondly, Chris Ivory, Christine Michael, and Kendall Hunter have been relatively worthless. I’ve since released Ivory and Michael, although I’d love for either of them to still be on the team if I had the bench space. Meanwhile, I’ve acquired Zac Stacy, a player I suggested might be the best runner in the 2013 class before the NFL Draft, and Andre Ellington, a guy I prioritized because I like the receiving back in timeshares. As a result, my running backs are strong despite only using one pick on the position in the first seven rounds (and having my mid-to-late round RB selections mostly miss).

This is the key to an Antifragile strategy. Randomness and stress across the system make the team better, not worse. The team I’ve described here has been in first place from Week 1 and is currently clear of the field by 115 points.

Update: This team also won its league with the most points and the best record. It finished No. 3 overall in the NFFC Primetime regular season. The two teams mentioned in this article are not the same teams that ended up finishing first and second in the NFFC Primetime playoffs.

It’s possible, of course, to apply some of these principles to other types of lineups. Aggressively pursuing free agents and building the bottom of your roster is frequently more important than the actual draft. But I’ve found that trying to use a balanced or RB-heavy approach simply doesn’t yield the same results. Moreover, I’ve found that RB-heavy teams tend to underperform even when the early round running backs hit and stay healthy. (This is the case in PPR, not necessarily in Standard.)

Luck, Cherry-picking, and Sustainability

Some of the results I’ve described here can simply be put down to luck. If I’d chosen my worst teams to evaluate, the results would not look as good. However, the numbers suggest the efficacy of the general strategy.

I’m playing 14 Main Events, and my teams are strongly positioned to make the playoffs in ten of them. Keep in mind that in this format only 25% of the entries qualify for the playoffs – less in the 14-team version – and every owner has invested $1500, an amount of money than tends to signal both previous experience of success and the intention to seriously compete.

Update: In total, 10 of my 14 Main Event entries made the playoffs and seven finished in the Top 11 in regular season points. Almost all were Zero RB teams, except for the ones that finished 1-2.

As always, I’m interested in all types of feedback, competing theories, things I might have missed. Let me know what you think. @FF_Contrarian. Also be sure to check out Part 3: Zero RB, Breakout Stars, and Having More Fun Drafting.


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  1. There is a tangential question here. Is this an equivalent situation to complaining about the abilities of coaches who have never played a particular game at the highest levels? I’m not sure that it is. Coaching and playing a sport are very different competencies. I’m sure coaches who haven’t played have blind spots, but they frequently innovate because they lack certain false preconceptions. If I’m trying to learn more about fantasy football, I would prefer to hear the ideas of a creative-thinking non-practitioner than someone who’s been “playing” for years without doing so seriously.  (back)
  2. There was nothing truly nasty in his suggestion that my team was terrible. He was mostly just bewildered by my approach.  (back)
  3. although drafting two quarterbacks in the first ten rounds isn’t recommended.  (back)
By Shawn Siegele | @ff_contrarian | Archive

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