Navigating Running Backs on the Waiver Wire

Title: Navigating Running Backs on the Waiver Wire
Date: August 26, 2009
Original Source: The On Deck Circle
Synopsis: Sticking with my attempts at being analytic about fantasy football, I examined why relying on the waiver wire for Running Back help is far too unreliable a strategy to be successful.

Ahhh, running backs. The crux of fantasy football. The be-all, end-all, need-all, must-have commodities of the entire fantasy sports realm. Without three, you are lost. Without two, doomed. Without one, truly damned.

Yes, the collective wisdom in recent years has been that fantasy running backs are an absolute necessity, a treasure, and a God-send. That is, if you have them. Strategists have bought into the RB-RB draft model, preferring to load up on the league’s scarcest (and most talent disparate) position. And this logic has worked, for the most part.

But recent trends in real and fantasy realms have begun to change this thinking. Running back platoons are now the norm, with teams even going as far as to employ a three-headed running back stable. This is obviously frustrating for fantasy owners – while it creates a much larger pool of roster-able running back talent, it also increases parity between running backs, decreases the number of ‘home-run’ draft picks, and makes the position far more difficult to predict and scout.

This change in real-ball philosophy has created a de facto fork in the road for fantasy strategists – stick with the old conventional wisdom and hope that your RB scouting is better than that of your competition, or move to a new way of thinking. This new way of thinking values top WR in the same echelon as running backs, with quarterbacks sneaking back into the discussion. It’s no longer season suicide to go RB-WR-QB, WR-RB-WR, or any other combination not loaded with RBRBRBRBRB.

While this makes leagues a little more open in terms of strategies, and gives those who miss out on top RBs a fighting chance, it doesn’t change the fact that RBs are becoming increasingly difficult to analyze.

Between changing workloads, platoons, injuries, and sly coaches not willing to divulge a shred of in-game strategy for us fantasy deviants, choosing an RB outside of the 15-20 or so who have clear roles is cumbersome. A great deal of fantasy RB posturing, especially in thinner leagues and later weeks, will come down to the waiver wire.

With my ongoing desire to withhold strategic draft information from my league-mates (like in my QB piece, but unlike my TE piece), here is a look at how to approach RBs on the waiver wire.
 More after the jump!
The most obvious way to play the waiver wire is to look at match ups. That is, if a mediocre RB has a game against a porous run defense, he may be worth a look. At the same time, if a TD vulture like Mad Ducketts has a run of TDs but is facing a stern run D, he may not be the stopgap your looking for in a bye week.

The chart below shows the correlations between rushing yards allowed, rushing TDs allowed, and fantasy rushing points allowed (for the 2007 and 2008 seasons combined). Obviously, yards and TDs are very highly correlated with fantasy points (since they comprise the scoring system). However, what sticks out is the strong-but-not-too-strong correlation between rushing yards allowed and rushing TDs allowed. What this tells us is that it’s not enough to look at rushing yards allowed alone in terms of fantasy match-up potential, as TDs are not simply guaranteed with porous run defenses. I’d suggest a large reason for this is that teams with weak run defenses are probably weaker as a defensive unit overall, thus creating TD opportunities for the passing game as well.

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The second table shows the game-by-game rushing yards allowed for the best and worst run defenses in 2007 and 2008. While the standard deviation analysis is probably all for naught given football’s small sample sizes and the fact that yards gained are probably not normally distributed around a mean, the point is pretty clear – relying on one waiver wire RB based on a strong match-up alone will probably not be your saving grace.

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Instead, the savvy owner needs to use waiver wire fodder only when appropriate, in concert with game-theory strategy (e.g., to keep a target RB off of your opponent’s roster for a week if your waiver priority is higher). Gamesmanship and strong research can provide a big windfall for owners, especially in the cut-throat RB market.

Just don’t expect Deshaun Foster to vulture you a playoff-week TD against the Lions.


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