I still remember when I first came across the strategy of “doing the opposite” in fantasy football. It was 2001, my fourth season of playing fantasy. Back then, conventional wisdom said that you should take running backs with your first two picks, or at least two of your first three, and then move on to other positions, regularly revisiting running backs throughout the draft.
The first person I read advocating for the opposite approach was Paul Charchian, one of the godfathers of the industry. The thinking was simple. Sure, you’d take Marshall Faulk if you had the first pick, but while your leaguemates were grabbing the seventh or eighth best running back, you’d zig and go for the top wide receiver. In the second round, when backs in the 12 to 18 range are coming off the board—and believe me that was the case, even in 2007, 13 of the first 14 picks by average draft position were backs—you could grab another top-three receiver. From that foundation, you were free to load up on mid-round backs, confident in the knowledge that at least a few of them would hit.
That do-the-opposite approach is now one of the most popular draft strategies in the fantasy community, though under a different name and with a completely altered justification. Zero-RB strategy, first popularized by Shawn Siegele of RotoViz, is the natural reaction to the rules and stylistic changes that have turned the NFL into a pass-first, pass-second and pass-third league. It no longer comes with the implicit guarantee of getting the very best receivers that it did when it was the opposite strategy, but it is still a rock-solid, and frequently the best, way to build a fantasy team.
Zero-RB rose to prominence alongside not only the pass-friendly shifts across the league, but also in response to high bust rates among running backs, as well as the increasing frequency of split backfields. All fantasy owners understand that it’s nearly impossible to win a league if one of your first few picks is a bust. Running backs are exposed to a greater risk of injury, and thus more likely to fall well short of expectations. At the same time, split backfields have decreased the number of bankable RB1s while increasing the pool of affordable RB2 and RB3 types, the very class of running back that a Zero-RB drafter wants to target.
Let’s lay the groundwork of the Zero-RB theory. It’s imperative to lock in high floors early in drafts. Early-round receivers have turned into more reliable assets than their equally priced running back counterparts. You don’t have to go beyond last year for proof. Seven running backs were taken in the first round of typical fantasy drafts in 2015. Of those seven, five finished the year ranked 25th or worse at the position and just one, Adrian Peterson, was in the top 12. Two, Le’Veon Bell and Jamaal Charles, suffered significant knee injuries, while a third, Marshawn Lynch, missed nine games. Among players who stayed healthy all year, another of these first-round backs, Eddie Lacy, was arguably the biggest bust in the league.
Compare that to the experience of first-round receivers. Antonio Brown and Julio Jones finished the season ranked second and third, respectively, in fantasy points among backs and receivers. Demaryius Thomas fell short of expectations because of Peyton Manning’s struggles, but he still had 105 catches for 1,340 yards and six touchdowns, scoring more fantasy points than all but 11 running backs. The only first-round receiver who went bust was Dez Bryant, and that was completely due to injuries to him—the first significant one of his career—and Tony Romo.
It extended into the second round, as well. The next three receivers off the board in a typical draft were Odell Beckham Jr., Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green. They finished the season ranked fifth, ninth and eighth, respectively, among receivers. The running backs selected in a typical second round were DeMarco Murray (total bust), Matt Forte (solid), LeSean McCoy (solid when healthy, but he missed four games and finished as the No. 17 back) and Justin Forsett (total bust).
The first strength of Zero-RB is that it eliminates the high bust risk of early-round running backs from the equation, favoring the bedrock of high-end receiver production. Fantasy owners may differ on the order in which they’d take Green, DeAndre Hopkins, Bryant and Allen Robinson, but no one thinks they’ll go bust. The Zero-RB drafter can safely start their team with one of them, regardless of their draft slot.
The next strength is Zero-RB continues to mine the depth at the top of the wide receiver charts by staying there for another two or three rounds. Take a look at your wide receiver cheat sheet and ask yourself how many of them you believe in at their ADP? Pat Fitzmaurice and I did this in a roundtable a few weeks ago, and we both landed right around 30, which takes us into the middle of the sixth round of a typical draft. Be honest with yourself and answer the following questions. Who do you think has a greater chance of going bust this season: Brandon Marshall or Devonta Freeman? Brandin Cooks or Thomas Rawls? Sammy Watkins or Latavius Murray? Jeremy Maclin or Jeremy Hill? In all of those battles of ADP neighbors, the receiver is the safer pick. In many of them, the receiver has the higher ceiling, too.
Owners who focus on running backs early in the draft will be diving into the wide receiver pool in the middle rounds. The reverse is true for most Zero-RB drafters. Once you’ve built your receiver-based foundation, you can move on to running backs in the middle of your draft. And guess which class of running backs provide the highest average return on investment? Don’t worry, I’ll show you.
Let’s revisit last season again. Three of the top-five backs—Devonta Freeman, DeAngelo Williams and Todd Gurley—had an ADP of 54.9 or worse. Freeman and Williams were both still on the board in the middle of the ninth round of a typical draft. David Johnson came off the board in the 11th round of a typical draft. Danny Woodhead and Darren McFadden were both selected in the 80 to 90 overall range. All three ranked in the top 13 at the position. Going back to the top of the ranks, though, Freeman and Williams do a great job of illustrating another positive of the Zero-RB approach.
My friend and Yahoo fantasy writer Scott Pianowski has a line that I’m going to borrow here. Thanks in advance, Pianow. He likes to say that you should not draft trouble in fantasy football leagues, because trouble will always find you. That’s why you don’t go after Le’Veon Bell this year at a first-round ADP and why you don’t fall for the idea of drafting and stashing Tom Brady for a month. The Zero-RB drafter isn’t only prepared for league-wide trouble, but can actually benefit from it.
To reiterate a point from earlier, one that is absolutely essential to the success of Zero-RB drafting, running backs are more likely than players at any other position to get injured or go bust. Owners who bought into running backs early cannot benefit from those eventual turns that every season takes. At best, they can remain at neutral, by having their players avoid injury or bust, or by handcuffing their backs, though few backups are guaranteed to take over as a feature back should the starter go down.
Zero-RB drafters automatically benefit from tumult at the running back position. Since they avoided those early-round running backs, they’re insulated against those injuries or busts. They also spent the middle and late rounds mining for running back value that often comes to the surface in light of one of the early-rounders getting hurt or struggling.
That’s exactly what happened with Freeman and Williams last year. Freeman was a mid-round flier, while Williams was seen as short-term starter or handcuff to Bell. Both received opportunities to start because of injury, and never looked back.
In 2014, uncertainty in the Baltimore backfield in light of Ray Rice’s suspension resulted in Justin Forsett coming from nowhere to finish as the No. 8 back in standard-scoring leagues. Jeremy Hill’s role in the Cincinnati offense increased thanks to a Giovani Bernard injury, and by time the latter returned, the former had taken over the starting gig. C.J. Anderson was waiver-wire fodder at the beginning of the season, and ended up totaling 1,173 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns. All three would have been Zero-RB targets that year.
We can keep on rolling back the clock. In 2013, Denver’s Montee Ball was a popular rookie with a shiny NCAA record under his belt, while teammate Knowshon Moreno was a veteran previously written off by the fantasy community. Ball went four rounds earlier than Moreno in a typical draft, but it was the Georgia product who ended the season as the league’s No. 5 fantasy back. C.J. Spiller, then of the Bills, had a mid-first round ADP, but it was ninth-round pick Fred Jackson who led the Bills’ backfield, racking up 1,271 total yards and 10 touchdowns. An injury to Daryl Richardson opened the door for largely undrafted Zac Stacy, and he finished 12th among backs in points per game and 18th in total points.
Zero-RB theory used to be contrarian, even as recently as two years ago. This season, it’s likely many, if not most, of your leaguemates will pursue it. Even so, the receiver position has become so deep and bankable over the last few years, that multiple people in the same league can execute it successfully. A good fantasy owner is going to adjust along with his or her draft or auction, but Zero-RB is the best foundational strategy for the 2016 season.
Photos: Andy Lyons/Getty Images (Brown), Ed Zurga/AP (Charles), Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images (Jones), Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images (Rawls)