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The one fantasy football draft strategy you should avoid

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A lot of fantasy managers still like to play the insurance game at running back, and I understand. It’s human to worry. It’s human to battle anxiety. We accept insurance in so many parts of our everyday lives, so why not embrace insurance in fantasy football, too?

Of course, it’s a -EV (expected value) move. And I want you to think like a +EV player.

A lot of this should be review, but maybe you’re a newer player, or need more convincing. Here’s why it’s usually a mistake to back up your star running back with his understudy — at least at this juncture of the season.

It caps your upside

As you assemble your preseason roster, I want you to dream big. I want you to imagine a juggernaut. I want you to think about the ultimate goal, which is to build the most dynamic, point-gobbling team in your pool.

I want you to play for upside. And when you draft two backs on the same team, you’re obviously capping your upside. Those backs can’t score together.

In August and early September, we want to play for the big inning. Later in the year, when our winning scenarios are more specific, we can think about revising the idea of insurance.

Even when the insurance back comes into value, you’ve almost always taken a loss

We’ve already had attrition at the running back position for 2021. Two unquestioned starters, J.K. Dobbins and Cam Akers, are out for the year. (Travis Etienne is also on IR, but his case is slightly different, since he wasn’t the undisputed touch kingpin in the Jacksonville backfield.)

If you rostered both Dobbins and Gus Edwards (or Akers and Darrell Henderson), you might feel justified at this moment — you lost a weekly starter due to injury, but you have a fresh one ready to go. But notice the new ADPs (average draft position) on Edwards and Henderson — they are not being drafted as eagerly as Dobbins and Akers were. This is not an apples-to-apples swap. Your high-end starter is lost, and now you’re replacing him with a perceived downgrade.

Okay, it’s better than nothing. But you’re chewing up multiple roster spots in the process, and again, missing the point of the summer assembly — to do whatever you can to build a plausible juggernaut. (Meanwhile, the managers who have Edwards or Henderson — without the backs in front of them — just saw a seismic jump. Obviously no one roots for injuries, but they're a part of the NFL landscape and you want to be that manager.)

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We often overrate the upside of the backup, or don’t even have the right backup

NFL backfields are more dynamic and more complicated in the current game than they were a decade or two ago. The bell cow back is almost completely dead, and it’s not uncommon for teams to regularly use three backs on a weekly basis. Some teams might not even know what they’ll do if their starting back gets hurt; it could turn into a hot-hand situation, or a trial-and-error situation. Sometimes a backfield injury will incentivize a trade — back to the Rams, note how they added Sony Michel to their backfield room a week ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ravens acquire a runner in the next week or two, perhaps waiting until the guaranteed-contract window goes away.

Prioritizing an understudy back puts you in a tricky in-draft (and in-season) mindset

I want you to assemble your team confidently, like your early picks were well-considered and well-executed. But opting for an insurance back trips up that frame; it hijacks your team build into doubt, into the idea of “oh no, what if I’m doing this wrong?”

Obviously every running back comes with major injury risk assumed, and anyone will feel a sting if a primary pick gets hurt. But some of the star backs will stay reasonably healthy, and they’re going to significantly sway the winning odds for those managers. If you love Ezekiel Elliott this year and snag him in Round 1, I don’t want you to quickly shift into “must get Tony Pollard” mode. You’ll likely overpay. You’ll have to deal with the opportunity cost of Pollard — the solid player you’re eschewing merely so you can add a backup, insurance player. And if injuries tag you at other positions in-season, it might be difficult to hold onto Pollard all season — you might wind up discarding the insurance plan before it turns into something you want or need.

I don’t want you to draft like your early picks are likely wrong. I want you to assemble your teams on the assumption that your early picks were right.

CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 13: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys acknowledges Ohio State fans following the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on December 13, 2020 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
There's a time and place to roster your star running back's understudy, but it's not during draft season. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

When will I sign off on the insurance backfield play? There are two common frames:

I might insure a star running back now if the backup is obvious and if he has a perceived upside as high as the starter

To be clear, this is very rare. Edwards didn’t quality. Henderson didn’t qualify. And if you can find a back that does qualify, I would posit that it makes more sense to go after the understudy without rostering the starter. Give yourself a chance at building a monster team.

I like shifting to backfield-insurance mode midseason, if enough factors are in place

Back to the Zeke and Pollard example. There are some clean tags here. Pollard is a respected talent, and presumed to be the obvious Elliott backup. If I rostered Zeke, I might look to add Pollard midseason, assuming a few things:

— My team had leverage, courtesy of one of the best records in the league. If I were at .500 or below, I’d shut down the idea instantly.

— My acquisition cost for Pollard was not prohibitive.

— I had a relatively clean roster that didn’t have pressing needs elsewhere; in short, I had roster flexibility at the back of my bench.

— The Dallas offense still enjoyed a dominant offensive line and a strong environment for Pollard to theoretically step into.

TLDR: This is how I want you to play things with understudy backs ...

1. Before the season, draft high-upside understudies, but snipe the understudy backs tied to the star runners on other rosters. Do not go after your own insurance backs. Think big inning.

2. Around midseason, consider playing the insurance game with your star backs, if your record and roster shape allow it, and the buy-in is reasonable. Once your winning scenario becomes more specific, we can play to it.

In baseball, it’s almost always a mistake to bunt in the early innings. You don’t know how many runs you need, and you slap a low ceiling on the inning. Late in the game, when it might be screamingly obvious that one run wins the game, bunting can occasionally be right.

It’s Sept. 1, gamers. It’s too early to be bunting. We’ll revisit this topic in the middle of the year.

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