What is Anchor RB? 

Structurally, how you attack the running back position might be the most important decision you make when drafting a fantasy football team. The volatility of RBs, in general, makes it important to have a plan as to when, and if, you’ll be focusing your early-round draft capital on the position. While there’s more than one way to put together a successful roster, one of the most profitable ways to draft in 2021 was by employing the Anchor RB method.

What is the Anchor RB fantasy football method?

Anchor RB – also commonly referred to as hero RB or modified Zero RB strategy– is an approach that has you build around one early-round RB (taken in the first or second round), before using the rest of your early-round picks on positions like WR or TE. The idea works very similarly to the Zero RB method in that it limits us from overspending early draft capital on RBs, and instead leaves us tons of open room to grab high-end receivers in rounds two through seven. D'Andre Swift

Jan 9, 2022; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Lions running back D'Andre Swift (32) waits in the tunnel before the game against the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The main difference between Anchor RB and Zero RB is that Anchor RB lineups allow us to “anchor” our team to what, in theory, should be an every-down “workhorse” at the position. The idea behind the Anchor RB method goes something like this, the RB position may be volatile–and better to approach with a draft method that focuses on late-round RBs–but there’s also immense upside associated with the small number of true, every-down RBs in the NFL each year. 

These workhorse backs bring such value to season-long fantasy football formats because of the volume they receive, week in and week out. If an early-round workhorse stays healthy and avoids catastrophic scenarios (team trades for another star RB, the team is terrible elsewhere and leads to poor usage, OL breaks down, etc) they’ll give us a shot at a truly “Legendary” type of fantasy football season – one that can supercharge our team and make up for missing in other areas, like our late-round RB picks or even an early-round WR. 

Why does Anchor RB work?

Anchor RB works for many of the same reasons that the Zero RB strategy works. RB is a highly volatile position so expending little to no draft capital in the early rounds on RBs keeps us away from the “RB dead zone”, which generally entails rounds three to six of the draft. This RB dead zone was a term coined by Establish the Run’s Jack Miller, who helped identify the -EV returns of drafting RBs between rounds 3-6. The dead zone theory supports the idea of an Anchor RB (or Zero RB) approach as it purports that WRs drafted between rounds three to five are more valuable and produce better returns, over time, than their RB counterparts taken in that range. 

Anchor RB has also proven to be slightly less volatile than Zero RB. In the Underdog Fantasy Bestball Mania II contest from 2021, Anchor RB teams had the highest success rate of making the playoffs (and cashing for a payout) than any other structural draft method employed in the event. 


Underdog BBM 2 Advancement rates

The reason for this result centers around the fact that Anchor RB essentially gives us two ways to hit on the RB position. While the Zero RB method has us relying solely on multiple late-round RBs outperforming their late-round values, the anchor RB method gives us the extra out of having our early-round RB give us that legendary type of year. In 2021, teams who went to a stud like Najee Harris or Jonathan Taylor early on in drafts–and then avoided RBs until after round five–had some monster seasons:

This Anchor RB team was drafted by Conor O’Driscoll in the best ball main event of FFPC last year and landed a $100,000 payout. As you can see, the team expended early draft capital on Dalvin Cook (the team's Anchor, or hero) but didn’t use a pick on an RB again until round eight. While Cook only ended the year as RB16 in full PPR scoring, the ability to load up on WRs in rounds two through seven made his team dominant. Being able to take shots on players like Deebo Samuel and Ja’Marr Chase in rounds five and seven (while many others were likely worried about “solidifying” their RB position) provided the upside needed to finish so high in an event that had well over 10,000 entrants. 

In Anchor RB, we are also still focused on accumulating late-round RBs (after we take our early-round RB in the first or second round) so even if our Anchor, or hero RB, fails us (much as did in the winning lineup above) our later round “lottery”-type selections could also deliver and essentially save our team. In the above example we can see later-round picks like Devin Singletary and Sony Michel helped get O’Driscoll’s team get over the top (and makeup for the Cook disaster) with good breakout games later in the year.

While Anchor RB takes away a little draft capital from our early-round focus on selecting elite receivers, the trade-off is that it’s cushioning us from having to rely solely on later-round RBs and gives us plenty of space to attack the receiver position between rounds three to seven, where (as noted above) WRs typically outperform their RB counterparts. 

When to use Anchor RB?

Anchor RB was a very successful method to employ in large field best ball events for 2021. As we discussed above, teams who used the method made the playoffs in events like the Underdog Fantasy Best Ball Mania II event at a higher expected rate than the field, and more than any other draft strategy, overall. 

As with any structural draft method though, we have to make sure we are being fluid when deciding when to put it into practice. Last year, early-round RBs like Jonathan TaylorAustin Ekeler, and Najee Harris all proved to be solid Anchor RB targets to build around, with Taylor delivering the truly legendary season. However, there were still plenty of underwhelming names like Dalvin Cook and Nick Chubb, who simply didn’t deliver the same kind of upside. 

Legendary performances from RBs aren’t that common (maybe once or twice a season, max) but we still want the ability to take a shot at landing on those types of seasons, if the opportunity arises. If the best workhorse running backs are flying off the board early, it will often be appropriate to at least consider switching to another method, like Zero RB. That way, you can start with an elite WR combo early, and not have to worry about reaching for an RB that you feel doesn’t give you the best shot at hitting on that legendary type of season. 

On another note, if there is an RB who you think has a legendary type of upside but you might be able to get in the second round, starting with a WR and then shifting to grab your Anchor RB in the second round is another option to consider. It sounds silly to think about now, but Jonathan Taylor was going in the second round of many best ball drafts last year, at different points in the drafting season, and obviously ended up outperforming every single player at his position last year–by a wide margin. 


How to draft using the Anchor RB strategy
 

Best Ball Anchor RB draft strategy

  • Focus on grabbing an elite RB in round one or round two – one who you think has legendary season type of upside
  • Avoid taking RBs in the “RB dead zone” – typically between rounds three to six
  • Focus the rest of your early-round picks on grabbing elite WRs or TEs with a focus on making elite WR/QB (or TE/QB) stacks
  • Fill out the rest of your RB positions later on in the draft – there are no set rounds to target but generally, you would look to draft your second RB in round seven or later
  • Take a more measured approach with selecting later-round RBs, generally maxing out at five to six RBs total on your roster (based on a QB/RB/RB/WR/WR/WR/Flex) starting lineup

Utilization rates over time

As with all structural draft methods, you have to be fluid when implementing Anchor RB into your drafts. Obviously, if Najee Harris falls to us in the third round we have to be prepared to pounce on that kind of huge error and break from our structure a bit. However, the general rule of thumb will be to key in on one RB early (rounds one or two) and then ignore the position until later on, allowing your competition to get sucked into taking RBs in between rounds three to six (e.g. the RB dead zone). 


In-season management for Anchor RB teams

Anchor RB can also be implemented into season-long drafts and redraft leagues. The same principles we’ve discussed above would apply as we’d be keying in on one potential stud RB early and then bypassing the position until later rounds. With the waiver wire and potential trades allowing us options to fill our RB void, waiting until even later than the seventh round to draft our second RB (in season-long drafts) makes sense as well.

Season-long Anchor RB draft method: 

  • Draft an early-round RB (aim for max upside), load up on late-round upside targets to fill out your RB position – embrace the volatility 
  • Look to the waiver wire early and often to try and land on more potential big RB performances from undrafted players 
  • If you get a legendary year from your Anchor RB, you may not even need to hit a home run with your later picks or waiver wire picks
  • The advantage over Zero RB in season-long formats is that Anchor RB will give you multiple outs (if your stud RB hits) and will mean less waiver wire reliance
  • Using Anchor RB structure in season-long also means you can likely wait even later than the sixth round to pick your second RB - unlike best ball, we have waivers and trades to help our roster in-year

Anchor RB vs Zero RB


The difference between these two methods is quite simple. They are both based on the same principle of trying to avoid wasting early-round draft capital on the RB position due to its volatile nature and capitalizing on the depth and immense game-to-game upside of the top WRs. 

The main difference is that with Anchor RB, we are giving ourselves one chance to land on a potential home run play among the top RBs. Because the top RBs have the ability to produce what has now been coined as a “Legendary” type of fantasy performance–where they outscore the rest of the players at their position by wide margins–Anchor RB gives us access to potentially hitting on just such a player. early-rounds 

Anchor RBZero RB
Select one early round RB (1st or 2nd round)Do not select first RB until later-roundthe round six or later
Focus on later round RBs (round six or later) to fill out rosterUse early draft picks to focus on high-end receivers - take advantage of wide receiver depth and fact you are starting three or more WRs each week
Use early draft picks to focus on high-end receivers - take advantage of wide receiver depth and the fact you are starting three or more WRs each weekFocus more on quantity vs. quality at RB position
Limit RB exposure to five or six total (optimal for most best ball roster formats)In 2021 Zero RB teams had the highest finals rate among all popular draft structures
In 2021, Anchor RB performed above expectation in terms of playoff rate in large field best ball tournaments 



 


Should I use Anchor RB in best ball?

For large field best ball events, Anchor RB has also proven to be slightly less volatile than Zero RB. The method performed above expectation in terms of playoff rate among all popular forms of draft methods employed in Underdog Fantasy’s Best Ball Mania II event from last season. It should be noted though that Zero RB’s upside was actually superior in the end as it produced a slightly higher rate of finals appearances. 

It should also be noted that Zero RB and Anchor RB aren’t the only structural methods out there that have had proven success. The Hyperfragile RB (two-top RBs but only four total) had a good record in 2020. Additionally, a Double Anchor RB lineup ended up winning a million dollars on Underdog last year. This lineup went with RBs in the first two slots (hence the Double-Anchor moniker) but avoided the position again until the eighth round. 

 

Anchor RB remains a great way to structure your drafts but the success of it and other methods will fluctuate, from season to season. For example, if none of the top RBs produce “legendary” type of years, we could very easily see Zero RB be the more profitable method (over Anchor RB or Hyperfragile teams) in 2022. 

Anchor RB in dynasty

We can also consider Anchor RBs in dynasty formats as well. Since we are taking a longer-term outlook in dynasty, Anchor RB strategy would fit in great with a draft where we were not only able to procure some upside early on at RB, but also grab a younger player we could rely on for at least the next couple seasons. 

If you are looking to implement an Anchor RB strategy in dynasty, make sure you give appropriate value to younger players (e.g. value them more) as age cliffs in RBs tend to cause huge fall-offs in performances and could make your initial Anchor RB selection worthless after year one or two. 


Anchor RB in 2022

The Anchor RB landscape has certainly changed in 2022 as the market has slowly begun to realize the tantalizing floor/ceiling combos of the elite WRs. For the first time, we currently have a consensus top three WRs (Cooper KuppJa’Marr Chase, and Justin Jefferson) going in the first five picks.

When it comes to selecting an Anchor RB in the first few rounds, there is a myriad of options at various price points. Generally speaking, the cheaper the RB, the lower the probability that they will deliver an elite bellcow season.

But what’s most interesting to me for Anchor RB in 2022 is the Boom/Bust tier currently going around the 2/3 turn. In previous years, these backs would likely be going much earlier, but a combination of WR love and question marks surrounding these players has pushed them down to an extremely palatable price point.

While the Tier 1 Anchors like Jonathan Taylor and Christian McCaffrey represent the quintessential definition of an “Anchor” RB, I’m most interested in seeing how far I can push it when selecting my Anchor. In drafts this year I often find myself prioritizing elite WRs with my first two picks before they fly off the board and then grabbing my anchor from the Boom/Bust tier outlined below.

As always, the key is to be both cost-sensitive and flexible within the unique dynamics of each specific draft. Your draft position and what your opponents do will often dictate if and how you execute an Anchor RB strategy.

The Tier 1 Anchors (ADP: 1-5)

  • Jonathan Taylor
  • Christian McCaffrey

Notes: You can’t go wrong selecting one of these two backs. There is some concern with Taylor’s pass-catching role (Nyheim Hines is good) and McCaffrey’s durability, but no other RBs can match the floor/ceiling combo that these two offer.

Najee Harris

Oct 10, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) runs the ball against the Denver Broncos during the second quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Elite Specialists (ADP: 6-16)

  • Austin Ekeler
  • Derrick Henry
  • Najee Harris
  • Dalvin Cook
  • Joe Mixon
  • D’Andre Swift

Notes: The backs in this range offer us elite specialization in either pass-catching (Ekeler, Swift), rushing efficiency (Henry, Cook, Mixon), or volume (Harris). All of these backs have the potential for an elite bellcow season if the stars align for them across another specialty (Henry catches more passes, Swift gets more goal-line carries, etc.), but that takes a leap of faith.

The Boom/Bust Tier (ADP: 17-27)

  • Aaron Jones
  • Saquon Barkley
  • Leonard Fournette
  • Alvin Kamara
  • Nick Chubb
  • Javonte Williams

Notes: This is the fun, YOLO tier. There are scenarios where any of these backs could finish as a Top 5 RB on the season and/or provide us massive spike weeks in the fantasy playoffs, which are particularly useful for large-field tournaments. 

Barkley and Kamara have been perennial early picks who are being discounted due to injuries and suspension risk…Jones and Chubb are homerun hitters in committee backfields, who also have additional contingent upside in the event of an injury to Kareem Hunt or AJ Dillon…You can make a case that Fournette should be a Top 5 pick, but because of his age and the team drafting rookie Rachaad White, there’s a discount available…Williams has probably the most exciting bellcow profile of all of these backs, but will open the season splitting with Melvin Gordon once again. 

The Deadzone (ADP: 30-60)

  • James Conner
  • Ezekiel Elliott
  • Travis Etienne
  • Cam Akers
  • Breece Hall
  • JK Dobbins

Notes: This is generally a range in drafts where we want to avoid RBs and target other positions. Backs in this range are historically being propped up because of projectable volume, but often have warts on their profile. That said, there are exceptions to every rule, and nailing an Anchor RB in this range would allow you to have your cake and eat it too while also securing elite pass catchers early.

Conner and Elliott have been losing efficiency each year, but could hold on for one more last swan song…Etienne and Hall are the young, mystery box selections with mouth-watering upside…Akers and Dobbins are both returning from injury but they project as the lead back in offenses with potent rushing attacks.