By: Doug Ludemann
Zero-RB Draft Strategy
Zero-RB Draft StrategyBy: Doug Ludemann
Anybody who has followed me on Twitter or read any of my previous works will know that I take a lot of unsolicited jabs at the Zero-RB crowd. As one of the true old-schoolers in fantasy football (I’m embarking on my 4th decade playing the game) I’ve always held those stud running backs in high regard and never saw the real advantage of grabbing the elite wideouts in the first round. That all changed of course with the advent of points per reception scoring methods. All of a sudden middling wideouts were worthy of a start every Sunday, and those truly elite pass catchers can break fantasy matchups wide open. Even more miraculous was the emergence of the scat back in fantasy football due to their added value in the PPR format making the RB position far deeper than ever before, a fantasy wrinkle from which the Zero-RB strategy had it’s genesis.
What is it?
Obviously the strategy doesn’t imply you’re taking zero running backs in your draft, quixotically, zero-RB actually means you’re probably taking a greater number of RBs than you might otherwise were you not pursuing such a specific draft strategy. No Zero-RB doesn’t mean you take none, it means you expend none of your high-end draft capital at the position. This means fading the Jonathon Taylor’s and Austin Ekeler’s of the world in favor of the Davante Adams’ and Tyreek Hill’s. In fact, in that Zero-RB strategy, you’ll probably be fading the RB position for at least the first half-dozen rounds, particularly in a superflex setting.
Proponents of the Zero-RB concept point to the season-ending injuries, of which running backs are seemingly prone. And I have to admit, having drafted a few leagues early this year, it really sucks to have lost Dobbins, Akers, and Etienne before the starting gun. This is compared to the other positions at least, where injuries also occur, but are generally perceived as less-severe and less often are they of the season-ending variety.
This means a safer investment of high-end draft capital, and relying on elite players at the receiver, tight end, and potentially even quarterback positions, rather than building your team around one or two elite runners (which it’s claimed are inherently riskier bets.)
When should you employ it?
First, never walk into your draft with a specific plan in mind. In other words, don’t project that you’re going to take player A, then B, then C in that prescribed order. You’re just as likely to find yourself on tilt in the middle of the first round (which is a terrible place to be, fwiw) as you are to grab all three of those players…no wait, that tilt thing is far more likely, especially in the veritable home league where literally anything can happen.
Decoding what kind of draft strategy to employ is the kind of decision you will need to be able to make on the fly, depending largely on who falls to you in the first few rounds as well as the tendencies of the group that you’re dutifully observing (or at least you should be.)
I think it’s fairly safe to say that if you have the 1.01 of your draft, you are going to take Christian McCaffery in most all single-QB formats, in superflex the first overall is generally Pat Mahomes. No big controversy there, right? But what about at the 1.09? In single QB formats Travis Kelce, and the tremendous positional advantage he offers, is going to start to look really good in comparison to a runner linked to contextual baggage. Perhaps it’s Ekeler’s lack of goal-line touches, maybe Jonathon Taylor’s injured left guard, left tackle, AND quarterback, that have you shying away from the risk at their acquisition costs.
Maybe you’d prefer to go with WR1 overall Davante Adams instead, who was first in the league in team target share as well as target share inside the red zone in 2020, accounting for his league-best 20 red-zone targets on the year as well. Or, perhaps Adams is a slam-dunk league-winner due to his ridiculous release off the line that produced the second-most open-receptions (receptions with at least 3-yards of separation), second only to DeAndre Hopkins, who would also be an excellent pass catcher attainable with an upper-half second-round pick. Sounds better than a risky Jonathon Taylor to me.
The back end of the first round has several great pass-catchers you can grab, as does much of that second round. But if you pass on RBs in the first two rounds, chances are most of the best RBs will be off the board by the time you get to your next pick at roughly that 30th overall spot. I think David Montgomery will be a fine RB2, but I’m not passing on George Kittle or Darren Waller to select him. Chris Carson would be a fine RB2, but the prospect of having a Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, or Josh Allen on my roster are very appealing as well.
I can see is little benefit to getting multiple RB2-3s to fill your RB slots when WR1-2s, QB1s, or one of the top 3 TEs are still available. This is especially true in PPR or TE-premium leagues which add bonus points for TE receptions. Think about it this way, in terms of value-based drafting, the difference between an RB3 and an RB4 is not as great as the difference of a WR1 to an WR3-4.
Additionally, another tenet of the Zero-RB strategy is that out of nowhere an unheralded RB will “pop” for fantasy, a prediction that is as reliably accurate as the weather forecast (good but not perfect). The problem is knowing where that breakout will come from. Is it that undrafted free agent nobody has ever heard of? Or is it that post-hype sleeper veteran that “nobody is talking about”?
Rather than investing in those backup quality backs in rounds three through six, it can certainly be advantageous to pad the depth on your receiving core or even grab one of the elite mobile quarterbacks before grabbing a runner. This will give you great depth at the WR position as well as elite positional advantage at QB or TE, and allow you to throw multiple darts at the RB position after the pass-catchers options with truly elite upside in your draft start to dry up.
Another place I’ll often find myself falling into a Zero-RB draft strategy is during dynasty startups. What the kids are calling “productive struggle” I used to call my “2-3 year plan.” It involves allowing your team to be lousy in the first year while you load up on appreciable assets, like young wide receivers in particular. Players who hold value (because WRs have inherently longer careers than RBs) for a long duration of time and stand the greatest chance of appreciating in fantasy value.
As a devout Agist, I have a natural tendency to fall into this draft strategy in my startups as I’m forever appalled at the concept of buying into a fantasy RB’s production after signing their second contract. Not only are you buying at their price peak, which is always a no-no in prudent dynasty strategy, but you’re also then obviously procuring a depreciating asset. That’s all fine and dandy if you see your team in a win-now situation, or there’ll be a window to sell off your asset later if need be. But the further you get from that veteran player’s prime, the less that asset will be worth after you drive it off the lot, metaphorically speaking of course.
Potential downfalls of Zero-RB
One of the biggest challenges in trying to assemble a competitive Zero-RB roster is navigating the RB Dead Zone. The premise of the RB Dead Zone is that WR scoring falls much less precipitously than does RB fantasy scoring over the first 4-5 rounds, with this phenomenon most prominent in the middle rounds (rounds 4-6, give or take). It’s in this region of the draft that some Zero-RB drafters turn their attention to the RB position in earnest for the first time, and despite positional needs this may be the absolute worst place to do so.
Sure, Mike Davis and Myles Gaskin could smash this year. But what if they don’t? You’re missing out on the opportunity to draft Cooper Kupp, DJ Moore, or Kyle Pitts in that range, all of whom I’d rather have than a runner with a middling probability of success. You can get that same middling probability of success later for cheaper. DJ Moore’s upside will be tough to find in later rounds.
Another potential issue with the Z-RB strategy is that players at other positions get injured too, Joe Burrow, George Kittle, and Odell Beckham Jr. all proved that it’s not only RBs that sustain season-ending injuries. Kenny Golladay and Michael Thomas proved that you don’t need a season-ending injury for that player’s health to have a season-derailing impact on your fantasy season.
Imagine creating a roster that is as inherently imbalanced (heavy at WR/TE for instance), then losing one (or two) of those players even after sacrificing RB acquisition capital at those “safer” positions, only to find yourself suddenly weak in both areas. The truth may be difficult for some to accept, but the reality is that those receiver positions are just as likely to yield time missed due to injury as the running back position, as you can see in this excellent piece by Football Outsiders, the time missed due to injury for the three positions was equivalent in their data set. Thus, the real advantage of the Z-RB strategy may truly lie with the value-based drafting concepts we touched on earlier.
Keys to success
Do your homework.
It is vital that if you’re going to make this plan succeed, you need to have done your homework on the RBs you’re adding to your roster, especially when drafting through the dreaded RB Dead Zone. Additionally, you need to keep your nose to the ground to sniff out those waiver additions that almost always arise.
Waiver activity translates to team success.
Sure, you can’t always read the tea leaves correctly, sometimes you even drop a guy prematurely (listen, it happens to us all now and again), but failing to make the waiver move that could win your league could just as easily sink your season. Watch for depth chart adjustments week to week closely and be prepared to pounce on players seeing their playtime trending upwards. You’ll also want to watch for injuries to other key players at the position, or trades with runners changing teams, aggressively pursuing attrition at the RB position on the waiver wire.
Target circus offenses.
Circus offenses, or offenses that stand a good chance of being productive and are also paired with a poor defense. This drives offensive volume and is often linked to unheralded productive pass-catching RBs. Two examples of circus offenses last year were Seattle (especially in the first half) and also Minnesota, where pass-catchers on both teams benefitted from offenses expected to compensate with touchdowns what their defenses lacked in ability. Potential circus offenses this year include Atlanta, Oakland, and Green Bay, though I despise preseason defensive rankings.
Make trades. Be happy.
Okay, so now you have 4 WR1s on your team. What now? Well, you trade them obviously. Go grab a runner who stands to provide you that last push to get your team producing elite-level fantasy points. Depth is great an all, but startable quality players on your bench sure ain’t helping much. Swap them out to improve at the position you’re going to be most vulnerable: running back. In redraft this is where you cash in on your savvy drafting and trade some of the assets that have accrued value since you drafted them (think Claypool week 4 2020 after his crazy four-TD week).
Don’t be stupid.
Easy right? Frankly, you’d be astonished at how difficult some people make it look. Listen, let’s slow this down to a crawl for a second, let me whisper something into your ear:
If a talented high-end running back falls in the draft you select that player and pat yourself on the back for an excellent selection.
Look, you may not believe in Joe Mixon. Maybe he burned you last year. And the year before. And the year before… Does that mean you cancel the man forever? NO! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we suck at predicting the future. For all intents and purposes, the man has the archetype of a league-winning fantasy player. The talent is there, the context is there (promising offense, probably not a great defense) for him to succeed, it’s just those questions of health. Just keep reminding ourselves that we cannot predict injury, and you can fade players at ADP on draft day. But talent we’ve faded available a round or two lower than ADP or expert rank is a decision that should far more palatable.
Bottom line, when talent falls, you adjust your draft strategy to suit and you soak up that value.
Runners to Target – 5th Round
- Darrell Henderson
- Javonte Williams
Either of those two players could easily become your RB1 on the season, both are being selected outside the top-24 players (FantasyPros ADP) at the position in far far far too many drafts. Henderson has real potential to smash right out of the gate, whereas Javonte Williams has sky-high dynasty potential in that Denver offense (more on that below.)
Runners to Target – 6th Round
- Damien Harris
- Gus Edwards
Both of these guys are primed for a larger role than was anticipated only a few weeks ago. With Mac Jones ascending to the starting role in New England, the prospect of Cam Newton vulturing TDs at the goal line evaporated along with the veteran signal-caller’s release this past week. Edward stands to benefit from the injury of promising sophomore RB JK Dobbins.
Runners to Target – 7th Round
- Ronald Jones
- Melvin Gordon
Look, I get it, they’re not the sexy picks. Jones simply isn’t going to see the passing work (or he’s going to drop his targets regardless), and he’s mired in a committee backfield that will limit his looks. But Jones will still see the volume and he’ll be on a well run and presumably very successful offense, and RBs in that context generally produce. Gordon might not be the shiny new toy, but Denver runs the ball enough with over 550 attempts last year and OC Pat Shurmur has a history of rushing-heavy offenses with his best offenses stemming from the rush-heavy attacks he led in Philadelphia (2013-16) and Minnesota (2016-17).
Runners to Target – 8th Round
- AJ Dillon
- Damien Harris
- James Conner
This is actually my favorite group to target, regardless of my overall RB strategy, as this is where the true-league winners live. AJ Dillon has second-round NFL draft capital, has the size and athleticism that sets him as a true outlier, and when relied upon late in 2020, Dillon responded with 21 carries for 124 yards and two TDs. Aaron Jones has never carried significantly more than 60% of the load in Green Bay paving the way for Dillon to receive 180 touches in 2021 based off last year’s offensive rushing stats. That’s RB3 territory with Aaron Jones on the roster, should Jones find himself unavailable on any given week Dillon would be a smash play. Harris is being faded only because of the lack of clarity in his backfield, with promising rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, as well as JJ Taylor and veteran James White all likely to see looks. At least Cam is out in NE, and the incoming QB Mac Jones is far less likely to vulture TDs on the goal line. Harris is a fine value play with upside.
Is James Conner really an injury risk? Because that seems to be the only real ding on his resume. The man was productive in 2020 when on the field, and Arizona didn’t bring him in on a free agent deal to sit on the bench.
Runners to Target – Rounds 9-13
- Nyheim Hines – 11th
- Tony Pollard – 11th
- Jamaal Williams – 13th
So, who’s likely to have production that we’ve missed? I think Hines stands to see a ton of usage catching passes out of the backfield. The Colts offensive line is banged up, and there’s a chance the team begins the season without two starters on the offensive line, both on the left side. This offense figures to be a bit of a mess, especially at first, making Hines a likely target to soak up the check downs, particularly with the young wide receiving core in Indy. Jamaal Williams is perpetually underrated and he seems to have finally found himself in a position to get serious playing time, particularly early in the season. With rookie D'Andre Swift struggling with a groin injury, regular playing time could be in Williams’ future.
Pollard is that lottery ticket nobody wants to let go. Sure, he could be a league winner with his speed and elusiveness…of course the key to his success would be attrition at his on the Cowboys depth chart, which is why Pollard is in the last half of the draft and not the upper half.
Late Dart Throws
- Alexander Mattison – 14th
- Devontae Booker – 17th
- Tony Jones - Undrafted
- Ty’son Williams – Undrafted
- Kylin Hill - Undrafted
- Darrell Williams - Undrafted
- Jarret Patterson - Undrafted
- Chuba Hubbard - Undrafted
- Chris Evans - Undrafted
Mattison is one Dalvin Cook missed game away from being the number one waiver addition in the NFL. Booker may be the lead back on the NYG if Barkley can’t go to start the season. Jones and Williams have impressed in the preseason and endeared themselves to their respective coaching staffs, flat-out earning their way onto the roster with strong play. Watch these two, they're going to be rising up draft boards this week.
Kylin Hill may very well turn into the steal of the draft, this explosive runner has all the tools to fall into the Aaron Jones role on this offense. Both find themselves suddenly in the thick of it for playing time on two run-heavy offenses. Patterson is suddenly the back up to Antonio Gibson for that one professional football franchise located DC. Hubbard and Evans are the handcuffs for CMC and Joe Mixon respectively, Hubbard is worth a flier in any deeper league and Evans should be rostered in most dynasty startups.
I'd encourage anybody curious about the Zero-RB strategy to run through some mock drafts, or even better, draft a few best ball teams, utilizing the Zero-RB concept. You'll be impressed with teams with tremendous advantages at WR, QB, and TE. Then, with a little spit and polish, a savvy trade here, and a timely waiver pickup there, and bam! You have yourself a ship-worthy roster.
And as much as I like to dish on the strategy itself, I will absolutely fade the RB position. And if backed into a corner, I'll absolutely fade the position, particularly when it follows an adage I appreciate significantly: drafting the best player available.
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