Just like the NFL is a copycat league (remember when everyone had a wildcat package?), so, too, is the fantasy football world. When a large group of fantasy owners finds a new strategy or tactic that works, many others ascribe to the same notion. Such is the case with the zero-RB strategy, which I first saw postulated by Michael Salfino of Yahoo and the Wall Street Journal a few seasons ago. Zero-RB strategy has gained traction over the last couple years, and for good reason. When the conditions for it are ripe and it is carried out correctly, it works.
What is Zero-RB?
Zero-RB is the strategy borne of the fantasy football player market shifting in the direction of wide receivers. As Isaac Newton could tell us if he were still alive today, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. When receivers started flying up draft boards, it had to come at the expense of another position. More often than not, that position was, and still is, running back. The emphasis on wide receivers, and equal declination in the importance of running backs, gave rise to the zero-RB movement.
The zero-RB strategy rests on the foundation of three ideas, some of which have a better track record than others.
• It’s crucial for fantasy owners to hit on their first few picks, and running backs have much higher bust rates than receivers.
• Running backs are more likely to get injured than receivers.
• Running backs are fungible and much easier to replace than receivers
An owner pursuing the zero-RB strategy has no interest in early-round running backs because of the risk inherent in such a pick. Instead, that owner will target elite talent at wide receiver, tight end, and, in rare cases, quarterback, in the first few rounds, before turning to running backs in the middle rounds. A typical zero-RB owner might not have his or her first back until the fifth or sixth round, though, on occasion, it might make sense grab a running back in the fourth round, depending on how the draft has unfolded.
The zero-RB owner believes two things. First, elite talent is elite talent regardless of position, and the best receivers are more reliable than second-tier running backs. Second, quantity at the running back position is your best friend. The zero-RB owner trusts that if he or she can get five running backs with an average draft position between, say, 50 and 120, at least three of them will hit, giving the owner a reliable stable of running backs to start every week, based largely on matchups.
OK, I’m In On Zero-RB. How Do I Do It?
Believing in zero-RB isn’t enough to build a successful team using the strategy. The fantasy owner still has to be armed with the right set of tactics to see it through to completion.
It’s much more desirable to carry out zero-RB from a draft slot in the back half of the first round. Even if you think Dez Bryant or Antonio Brown is worthy of a top-three pick, so many owners remain married to the idea of getting a top-tier back that you can typically get your top receiver around sixth or seventh overall. You might miss out on Bryant and Brown if you’re in the latter half of the first round, but players like Julio Jones, Odell Beckham and Demaryius Thomas are bound to be available with picks eight through 14. This is the perfect staging ground for a zero-RB draft. If you’re already slotted there, sit back and wait for the elite receivers to fall into your lap. If you aren’t, try to find a way to trade down. Not only are you leaving surplus value on the table, but the best of the best at the position, especially in the wake of Jordy Nelson’s season-ending knee injury, could be off the board by time the draft rolls back around to you in the second round.
After securing the best receiver duo in your league, what do you do in the third round? This will depend on what your rival owners have done with their picks, to a certain degree. If you’ve helped to force a run on receivers, you won’t want to force the issue at the position. Typically, though, you’ll be able to find a receiver or tight end at the back of the third round that keeps the ideal zero-RB draft rolling. According to Fantasy Football Calculator, the last six picks of the third round in an average 12-team draft are Jimmy Graham, Jordan Matthews, Latavius Murray, Emmanuel Sanders, Joseph Randle and DeAndre Hopkins. The receivers and tight end in question are all perfect third picks in a zero-RB draft.
If you’ve reached your limit of receivers you can start every week, you’ll probably want to go after a tight end or quarterback with your fourth pick, or you could dip into the running back pool for the first time. Even if you haven’t, a potential receiver corps of Beckham, Jones and Hopkins can be the nucleus of a championship team. Unless another receiver presents extreme value for you in the fourth round, you’ll want to turn to another position. By round five, you’ll almost certainly begin to scoop up running backs with an avarice not typically seen in the middle of a draft. That means you’ll need a comprehensive list of targets at the position.
I've Got Three Great Receivers and an Elite Tight End? Who Carries the Ball for My Team?
The irony with the zero-RB strategy is that the running backs you end up selecting actually represent the most important picks of your draft. Zero-RB, after all, is a misnomer. You have to take running backs at some point, and if you don’t hit on enough of them, it’s possible that all the receiving greatness in the world won’t save your team. That’s why zero-RB owners should spend at least a plurality, if not a majority, of their draft-prep time studying the mid- and late-round running backs to identify the best choices. In drafts where I go zero-RB, here’s who I target at the running back position.
Chris Ivory: In the zero-RB world, Ivory is an RB1. I’m targeting Ivory in all my drafts and auctions, not just ones where I’m going zero-RB, as we’ve discussed on numerous occasions this summer. His stock continues to rise, making it harder to get him as a zero-RB back, but with an ADP of 55.6, he’s squarely in range to lead a zero-RB backfield.
LeGarrette Blount: Like his divisional rival, Blount is also an RB1 for the zero-RB drafter. I discussed Blount’s breakout potential in my column on players I like more than the consensus, so check that for my full thoughts on him this season. In short, Bill Belichick doesn’t have the multitude of similar running back options at his disposal this season as he has had in most seasons when he plays games with fantasy owners’ hearts. I think the Patriots will ride Blount this season, and I’m definitely willing to make that bet at his 62 ADP. That makes him a late fifth- or early sixth-round pick in a typical 12-team draft, which is right in the zero-RB wheelhouse.
Jonathan Stewart: Stewart’s 43.1 ADP could make him a bit too rich for the zero-RB owner, but if the draft flow forces your hand at the position a bit earlier than expected, Stewart can be an appropriate selection. Now that he finally has the Carolina backfield to himself, the only question is his health. Stewart had 809 yards and three touchdowns on 175 carries last season, and also caught 25 passes for 181 yards. If he’s your fourth pick after three receivers, or two elite receivers and a tight end, you’ve done quite well for yourself. Some other players in this same early zero-RB range include Carlos Hyde, and, if they strike your fancy, Andre Ellington and Doug Martin.
Ryan Mathews: Mathews is coming off the board with the 82nd pick in a typical 12-team draft, which lands him at the end of the seventh round. He has a key role in a potent offense and has already shown a proclivity for vulturing touchdowns. On top of that, if DeMarco Murray reverts to his old ways and suffers an injury this season, Mathews could be a top-15 player at the position. He’s a zero-RB slam dunk.
Shane Vereen: The Giants brought in Vereen to improve a backfield that had the seventh fewest receptions in the league last year. This team is going to throw the ball a ton, both out of identity (Eli Manning, Odell Beckham and Victor Cruz are the heart of the offense) and necessity (have you seen the defense?) Vereen is a sleeper to lead all running backs in catches this season, yet he has an ADP of 90.1.
Tre Mason: Mason played well enough as a rookie to hold onto the starting gig heading into 2015, but the Rams drafted his replacement in Todd Gurley. The Georgia product, however, is still working his way back from a torn ACL suffered last November, and could miss time at the beginning of the season. The Rams also aren’t going to overwork Gurley, given the resources they invested in him by making him the 12th overall pick in the draft. You need volume at the running back position if you go zero-RB, and Mason’s 81.7 ADP makes him eminently draftable.
Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman: The Atlanta backfield is almost certain to be a timeshare all season long, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for a zero-RB owner. Remember, you just need a handful of these guys to hit, and from there you play the matchups from week to week. Coleman’s 85.3 ADP is a bit pricey, given that he’s a rookie who has missed nearly the entire preseason, but we know he has big-play ability. Freeman, meanwhile, is more affordable at his 98 ADP. In leagues where I’ve pursued zero-RB, I’ve typically ended up with one of these players.
Bishop Sankey and David Cobb: This is essentially identical to the situation described above. Sankey and Cobb will likely split the duties all season long, but the prices affixed to both make them strong targets for zero-RB owners. Sankey may have burned you last year, but he was in an impossible situation when you consider what was around him in Tennessee. They had the second pick for a reason, and it wasn’t because of the rookie running back out of Washington. Cobb is coming off a strong final season at Minnesota, and will have an at least supplementary role in the offense. Most importantly, you can reliably get both of them outside the first 100 picks in a draft.
Darren McFadden: Everyone seems ready to hand the starting gig to Joseph Randle, but even if he does start, don’t assume that he’s going to relegate McFadden to an insignificant role in the offense. Randle is not DeMarco Murray, in either skill level or contract situation. The Cowboys were happy to run Murray 392 times last year because they knew they were letting him go after the season. That is not true of Randle, meaning the Cowboys might keep 2016 a bit more in mind when parceling out the workload. Dallas will likely run the ball 400-plus times, and McFadden could be in for 150 of those carries. He can turn that into a meaningful role from an ADP of 94.1.
Danny Woodhead: Woodhead was already set for a large role as the primary receiver out of San Diego’s backfield, but with Melvin Gordon struggling to pick up the team’s pass protections, the veteran could be on the field even more than initially expected. It was just two seasons ago that he surpassed 1,000 total yards and found the end zone eight times. He could very well repeat that this year, especially when you consider that his and Gordon’s fantasy value isn’t a zero-sum game. There’s room for both to excel in fantasy leagues. Woodhead’s 95.8 ADP places him in the ninth round of most drafts.
Roy Helu: Helu’s basically a lottery ticket, coming off the board in the 13th round of a typical 12-team draft. He’ll play on most third downs and in obvious passing situations, and remember that the Latavius Murray breakout case is essentially based on one game. Helu could end up with a larger role in the running game than his draft-day price reflects.
Denard Robinson: The former quarterback at Michigan galvanized the Jacksonville running game when the team finally gave up on Toby Gerhart last year. In his first four games as the starter, Robinson ran for 389 yards and four touchdowns on 72 carries. Even with rookie T.J. Yeldon in the mix, Robinson isn’t going away. Just as importantly for zero-RB purposes, his ADP is 156.4.
My Draft is Over, and I Love My Team. Am I Done?
Of course not. Zero-RB owners need to be aggressive in pursuing running backs on the waiver wire. Last year, Justin Forsett and C.J. Anderson weren’t selected in a typical draft. The season before, it was Knowshon Moreno who went from undrafted to fantasy hero. In 2012, Alfred Morris barely registered on the draft radar, but finished as the No. 5 running back in standard-scoring leagues. Some of the best zero-RB candidates aren’t revealed until the third or fourth week of the regular season. Landing one of them can morph a zero-RB team into a championship squad from a playoff also-ran.
Photos: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images (Lacy), Daniel Shirley/Getty Images (Jones), Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images (Thomas), Donald Miralle/Getty Images (Ivory), Jim Rogash/Getty Images (Vereen), Brian Bahr/Getty Images (McFadden)