The debate over a Zero-RB approach to a fantasy football draft is easy to get sucked into. Most people fall into one of two camps. Some think bell-cow RBs are irreplaceable and a must draft with multiple early picks. Others see them as a fragile asset class that isn’t as safe of an investment as top WRs. Both are wrong. The right mix of RB darts can erase the need for early round picks. Conversely, RBs do have slightly more injury risk but in football no one is safe. The crux of a Zero-RB approach depends entirely upon the rest of your league. Do they primarily fall into one camp or the other? Then you have a league ripe for a Zero-RB (or Zero-WR) strategy. It hinges on the rest of your league pushing value at one position your way.
More often than not that position of value will be WR. Now, you won’t know this is entirely the case until the draft unfolds. Some guesswork is required. If it’s a home league you have insight into your leaguemates and have past drafts to examine. A public league will require a riskier guess. It can be done, though. The Single-RB strategy is also perfectly viable should that be what the value dictates for a pick in the first or second round.
Step one is to consider your draft spot. If you have pick one, two, or three it’s likely you’ll be starting with a running back. At four through eight you have a chance at the safest WR of 2019 in DeAndre Hopkins . Either of those starts can pair with WR or TE picks in the next two rounds to get your Zero/Single-RB approach off the ground. The ideal place to execute Zero-RB is near the turn, though. You’ll have a better idea of who your second pick will be. Any combination of Davante Adams , Michael Thomas , Travis Kelce , Julio Jones , Odell Beckham , or JuJu Smith-Schuster works well. Don’t let ADP force you into Adams or Thomas, either. If you want Beckham and Smith-Schuster do it. That combo is just as likely to succeed. If you think Kelce is the only lock at TE don’t be afraid to draft him as high as eighth or ninth. He’s not likely to survive the turn and there’s a negligible difference between the next five WRs. If you picked fourth and took Hopkins I would look at Ertz with your second pick. You want one of the top three TEs if possible. Julian Edelman and Brandon Cooks are two of my favorite targets for a late third or early fourth pick.
You then want to get your first RB by taking a risk with one of these tiers, ideally with your fourth or fifth pick if the price is right.
Kerryon Johnson - If the Lions would just commit to him all signs point to a top 10 back. He showed the ability to break tackles, catch passes, and carry the offense. If he gets quality goalline work he becomes a steal.
Aaron Jones - Another talented back that just needs his team to wise up. Jones 5.5 Y/A is one of the best in the NFL for backs with minimum carries. No amount of pass blocking should offset that. I’m cautiously optimistic that new coach Matt Lafleur won’t repeat one of the mistakes that got Mike McCarthy fired.
Derrick Henry - Henry was buried behind Dion Lewis for a large chunk of last season. The minds in the Titan’s building that want a smashmouth run game eventually won out and Henry rewarded their confidence. When he gets carry volume he beasts.
Marlon Mack - If Mack can stay healthy all season he’s the best back in a great scoring offense. It’s somewhat of a concern that he’s been a mediocre pass catcher. Touchdowns are king, though.
Phillip Lindsay - An absolute league changer as an UDFA that won the starting job as a rookie. His season was cut short with a fairly serious wrist injury. It sounds like he’ll be ready for training camp without restrictions. That risk plus some uncertainty whether a new coaching staff could have a preference to mix Royce Freeman in more has his price depressed.
The Expensive Rookies (Sub-100 ADP)
Josh Jacobs- The Raiders job is his by default. Jon Gruden seems to be telegraphing he wants a better running game. He’s the only rookie that’s a safe bet to get volume with pass catching ability on top of rushing chops. Durability is a concern with him, however.
David Montgomery- He figures to be the favorite for the early down role vacated by the Jordan Howard trade. It’s not a guarantee with Mike Davis having been signed prior to the draft and Monty’s metrics being average at best. His tackle breaking is A+ though.
Miles Sanders- The shine is coming off Sanders early hype as he missed OTAs with a minor leg issue. Some rate him as the most complete back in the class, however. He has a long way to go to consolidate touches on an Eagles team that insists on a three-man rotation. If he gets red zone work it’s enough to make him an RB2 in a solid offense.
Darrell Henderson- Guessing a top RBs handcuff is never cut and dry. Most assume TG3’s is Henderson and it’s pushing his price constantly up. Hendo is talented but Malcolm Brown is the vet who knows the offense. My bet is on Brown being the primary backup with Henderson getting change of pace work so be careful how much you pay.
You’ll want to grab your next RBs from these pools wherever you can.
The Cheap Rookies (ADP 100+)
Alexander Mattison- There’s one thing that’s certain in Minnesota: they want to run the ball. That they grabbed Mattison earlier than expected in the third round tells you what they think of the battering ram runner. Should Dalvin Cook ’s hammy issues return Mattison will have a major role in one of the run-heaviest offenses.
Damien Harris- The Patriots drafting Harris spells trouble for Sony Michel in my eyes. Maybe the team is worried about Michel’s knee. In any case, Harris profiles as a between the tackles runner and could end up in the role that made Michel so valuable last year.
Devin Singletary - Another team telegraphing their desire to run more is Buffalo. They signed Frank Gore and T.J. Yeldon in addition to drafting Singletary. They probably move on from LeSean McCoy , who’s also on the roster. If that happens, an aging Gore is the only thing between Singletary and a lead back role.
Justice Hill (PPR)- Hill came from an up-paced offense in Oklahoma State, which is similar to what Baltimore will look to do behind QB Lamar Jackson . Having 4.4 speed is a great way to grab attention in a crowded Ravens backfield. At the least, Hill should see passing work with the departure of Buck Allen.
Ryquell Armstead - He’s not the second string RB in Jacksonville. Yet. What he is, though, is big, fast (4.45), and a hard runner. Exactly what the Jags like in Leonard Fournette . Unlike Fournette, Armstead reportedly has a great work ethic and attitude. That tends to be a requirement for a fifth rounder from Temple. If leg/foot problems continue for Fournette, or his attitude become untenable to the team, Armstead could slot right in.
Darwin Thompson (PPR)- Targeting backs in Andy Reid offense is a main tenant of Zero-RB plans in PPR leagues. They get terrific volume when the passing role is incorporated. There are names in front of him, but no one that’s entrenched as the starter.
Benny Snell Jr.- James Conner (and any human being running back) showed how hard it is to shoulder the load the Steelers ask their running backs to carry. If he goes down we’ll likely see a thunder and lightning combo between Jaylen Samuels and Snell. Benny can certainly bring the thunder.
Peyton Barber - Ronald Jones is rightfully garnering attention in Tampa. Don’t let that prevent you from considering Barber. He’s an average back at best. The lead role in a Brice Arians offense at his price would be a windfall, however.
Dion Lewis - A bust at last year’s price may prevent you from considering a deal at this year. Lewis is a talented player and will see the lion's share of passing work.
Elijah McGuire - One of my favorite handcuffs. Would it really be a surprise if Leveon Bell’s season turned sour somehow? McGuire’s the only other complete back on the Jets roster.
Rex Burkhead - Injuries have limited Burkhead the past two seasons. The team loves him and trusts him in the red zone. The last Patriots RB you expect to do well usually does the best.
Carlos Hyde - If you haven’t figured out that the lead back in Andy Reid’s offense is a season winner you haven’t been paying attention. Hyde has an outside shot of winning that role, or inheriting it if Williams goes down.
Adrian Peterson - The man says he wants to rush for 2000 yards. That won’t happen. He will consolidate carries out of the gate as Darius Guice is eased back in off knee 2018 surgery.
Chris Thompson (PPR)- The third wheel in the Washington backfield is getting no love in 2019. He was coming off of a serious injury last season so his reduced efficiency was unsurprising. The passing back role should still be his no matter what happens with the other two guys.
C.J. Anderson - The new Lion showed he had something left during the Rams stretch run. He’s a candidate to inherit Legarette Blunt’s goalline role and vulture Kerryon Johnson ’s hard work between the 20’s.
Giovani Bernard - Bernard had pretty poor injury luck last season. If healthy, he’s too talented not to be involved (or traded). He’s worth more in PPR but has received stand-alone work with an occasional series to himself.
A solid mix of lottery tickets will hopefully yield an RB2 solution at an early point in the season. With Zero-RB you’ll want to commit your bench spots to almost all backs. Taking on players with less dependable roles can result in the need for a rotation at your RB2 spot. Be certain to hold extra options even if one of your darts is getting the job done at the moment.
The Zero-RB approach has little to do with RBs and everything to do with market scarcity. WRs do offer slightly less injury risk but in a single league scenario, it’s not as significant as some expect. It’s all about zigging when your league zags. If you’re in a room full of Zero-RB truthers it would be foolish to steer into the skid and try to match them. Know your league the best you can, be decisive in the opening rounds, and be flexible on the parts you need compared to ADP. The team you construct gets no points for drafting ADP values no matter how good it feels.