Hero RB: The Perfect Underdog Best Ball Strategy

by Michael O'Connor · Best Ball Plays & Strategy

Batman and Robin. Han and Chewie. Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee. Each of these pairs have the same thing in common: these heroes are at their best when they have their sidekick. Batman needed Robin to defeat the Joker; Han needed Chewie to fight the Empire; and Frodo needed Samwise to destroy the one ring to rule them all. 

In the world of fantasy sports, your RB1 and RB2 should share this same relationship. The fallacy of the “dead zone” for drafting running backs has allowed the Robins and Chewies of the football world to emerge as prime RB2 candidates at a discounted price.

Using PlayerProfiler’s advanced stats and metrics as a guide, I’m ready to bestow some of my nerdy wisdom upon you to help you win some best ball drafts. Fear not, for the Hero RB strategy will save you.

What Does Hero RB Mean?

Consider Hero RB the second-cousin to the pure Zero RB strategy. While Zero RB drafters essentially load up on as many “Robins” as possible, they fail to secure the Batman they need to succeed. The Hero RB strategy is one where you invest in a bell cow RB with your first pick, then go heavy at WR and other positions until Round 5 or 6, where you can scoop up a low-end RB2 for a relative steal. I’m not saying that everyone drafting Darrynton Evans or Latavius Murray as their RB1s is wrong – they’re just a bit too extreme. 

I’m also not going off of my gut here. As my fellow intern Neel Gupta pointed out in his article covering RB and WR positional tier distribution, WR2s and WR3s are getting much closer than they’ve ever been before. In fact, both RBs and WRs have grown scarce at the top, with the lower tiers growing deeper and closer together. Neel does a great job explaining how clustering works, and if you haven’t read his article, you’re seriously missing out (editors note: he’s right, you know).

While Neel does go on to discourage using league sizes to organize players into tiers, I will be using the historical ADP for RBs drafted between the third and sixth rounds over the last 10 years to show where value can be found, and how that value has shifted recently (courtesy of FantasyFootballCalculator.com). Sorry Neel.

Historical Performances of Low-ADP RB2s

So what does this mean for your draft? And how have mid-round RBs performed historically? 

Since 2010, RBs drafted between Rounds 4 and 6, typically low-end RB2s and high-end RB3s, have been outperforming their ADP in later rounds at an increasing rate. The growing depth of true RB2s from Neel’s clusters supports the above theory: better RBs are available in later rounds now more than ever before, and those late-round RB2s are actually closer to their peers taken in Rounds 2 and 3 than you might expect.

Notice all the green in Rounds 4, 5, and 6 from last year? That might be because guys like Kareem Hunt and David Montgomery, RB27 and RB29 respectively in ADP who went in Rounds 5 and 6 last year, finished as the RB10 and RB4 overall.

However, you might be asking yourself: “Michael, why should I draft a ‘Hero RB’ in the first round when they’re all red?”

Well, each bar represents the median finish relative to each RBs ADP. If the RB10 overall finishes as the RB1 overall and knocks everyone ahead of him down one spot in the rankings (ADP RB1 finishes as RB2, ADP RB2 finishes at RB3, etc.), then the median finish for RBs in that round relative to their ADP would be negative. 

The lengths of the bars for RBs taken in the first round help show that, although the median finish relative to their ADP is negative, the average first round RB finished as an RB1 or RB2 in eight of 11 years, with median finishes trending in the positive direction during the last four. In fact, six out of the eight other RBs that finished in the top ten in 2020 had ADPs in the first round. Heroes are becoming more and more reliable. Trust them.

Where Zero RB Drafters Get It Wrong

Listen, I love my Zero RB friends out there. Game respect game. But y’all have taken the general principle to the extreme. RB3s have gotten slightly better in recent years, but the gap between true RB2s and RB3s has actually been growing steadily. Waiting too long to grab your RB2 almost guarantees that you’ll miss out on a solid starter in the hopes that your backup RB2 will see playing time.

You draft your bench for upside, but make sure your starters are actual starters.

Some of you might be apprehensive about buying into the Hero RB strategy – and I get that. It challenged my priors on the RB dead zone and the belief that RBs drafted in Rounds 4-6 have low win rates; but perhaps that research fails to answer whether or not the chicken came before the egg. Is it possible that, rather than causing teams to have a low win rate, RBs drafted in the middle rounds were products of a poorly constructed roster? I say yes, and the data above helps show that we may be thinking backwards about the dead zone.

Now, some of you might say “Michael, you’re just talking about modified Zero RB!”

You’re right, I am. I’ve just given it a clever name that I stole from The Podfather himself (who likely borrowed it from a patron, but who’s counting?). The Hero RB strategy takes a much more conservative approach than Zero RB and, in the process, allows you to grab a player that is almost guaranteed to see the field as either a low-end starter or the better-half of an ambiguous/split backfield. 

Now that we’ve identified that RBs in Rounds 4-6 have actually been outperforming their ADP in recent years, here are four players you should target in Best Ball whose ADPs fall in that range:

Myles Gaskin

Myles Gaskin’s current ADP on Underdog is in the middle of the fifth round at 56.4, putting him at RB24. Gaskin is the perfect RB2 for your Hero RB builds. His production in 10 games was impressive for a former seventh-round pick, averaging 16.4 (No. 10 among qualified running backs) Fantasy Points Per Game on 15.9 (No. 10) Weighted Opportunities Per Game despite not starting until the middle of the season. His usage in the passing game was also encouraging, with the young back boasting a 13.4-percent (No. 8) Target Share, an 87.2-percent (No. 3) Catch Rate, and a 2.08 (No. 3) Yards Per Route Run average. 

Gaskin was one of the biggest winners of the NFL Draft, with Miami electing not to take an RB until the seventh round. If you want to be one of the winners of your draft, take Gaskin as your RB2 in the fifth. You’re welcome.

Chase Edmonds

Remember “Chase Edmonds RB1″ SZN? Well, it seems like the recoil from the James Conner signing has yet to fully correct itself. Edmonds may have a tougher path to being a workhorse RB, but he’s still a nice value at his current 69.8 ADP.

Edmonds was incredibly efficient with his 37.6-percent (No. 48) Opportunity Share, averaging 4.4 (No. 20) True Yards Per Carry with a 5.2-percent (No. 15) Breakaway Run Rate, and a 12.5-percent (No. 11) Target Share. Connor, his main competition for touches, averaged 4.0 (No. 50) True Yards Per Carry last year in Pittsburgh, with a 5.3-percent (No. 13) Breakaway Run Rate and an 8.4-percent (No. 29) Target Share. Both players look similar enough on the ground, but Edmonds is clearly the better receiving back. In 2020, he averaged 1.39 (No. 13) Yards Per Route Run compared to Conner’s 0.92 (No. 31) YPRR.

Edmonds’ strengths are tailored perfectly to the Air Raid offense in Arizona, and if you’re willing to buy in on him being the bona fide starter in Arizona, then he’ll serve as a nice high-upside RB2 for your Hero RB squads.

Kareem Hunt

Kareem Hunt is officially ranked almost a full round below ADP on the the “World Famous” Draft Kit, yet I’ve still chosen to include him on this list. Why? Hunt represents the perfect player to challenge general rankings that fail to take roster makeup into account. With Nick Chubb still hoarding 200-plus carries each year when healthy, Hunt’s ceiling isn’t too high going into 2021. Yet he represents a consistent RB2 that will produce even in a limited role, and provides the perfect kind of stability for teams in need of a fringe RB2.

Despite playing second fiddle to Nick Chubb, Hunt still saw 198 (No. 11) carries on a Browns team that averaged 30.9 (No. 4) Team Run Plays Per Game. He also averaged 1.71 (No. 6) Yards Created Per Touch despite facing 7.1 (No. 16) Average Defenders In The Box. Proof that he can be incredibly efficient regardless of the situation he’s put in.

Even with Chubb healthy, Hunt has consistently put up RB2 numbers. If you’re the type of fantasy player drafting for injury upside, then he is easily the best RB for you.

Javonte Williams

You’ve read about the best low-end starter; the best ambiguous backfield pick; and the best “backup” RB with injury upside. Now it’s time for the rookie plug!


Javonte Williams has Day 2 pedigree, and it’s worth noting that even comes with the premium value of being selected as a trade-up (J.J. Zachariason has some great research on historical performances of players drafted in trade-up scenarios). Denver might still have Melvin Gordon, but it’s clear they were eager to pick up Williams, an efficient rusher who averaged 7.3 (93rd-percentile) Yards Per Carry this past year and saw an increased usage in the passing game with an 8.4-percent Target Share.

Williams projects similarly to former Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno, who strung together a few RB2 seasons with the Broncos between 2009 and 2013. We’re slightly below consensus on Williams, but he projects as a solid gamble if you’re looking for a rookie to take later in the draft.


Closing Remarks & Optimal Draft

Some of the above picks might be above or below consensus based on ADP, but it’s worth noting that rankings vary drastically depending on the makeup of your roster. If you draft a running back in each of the first four rounds, you shouldn’t smash Myles Gaskin in the sixth round for value – that process is just inherently flawed. Conversely, if you don’t have a solid RB2 yet and have to reach for one relative to ADP, drafting Kareem Hunt is worth it. 

The Zero RB truthers out there will tell you it’s the hip new thing and it’s here to stay – but I don’t buy it! The Hero RB strategy WILL reign supreme, and hopefully you’ll reign supreme by following it!

Here are the first seven rounds of an Underdog Best Ball Mania II draft I recently completed, where I tried to follow the Hero RB strategy as best I could. Hopefully now you’ll see that the Hero RB might just be the key to winning your league!

1st Round – Austin Ekeler
2nd Round – Calvin Ridley
3rd Round – Keenan Allen
4th Round – CeeDee Lamb
5th Round – T.J. Hockenson
6th Round – Chase Edmonds
7th Round – Justin Herbert