So you clicked into this article as some curious fantasy football drafter looking to gain an edge on their leaguemates or just interested in the strategies that make up the beautiful game of fantasy football. You’ve come to the right place, with the right writer and with a strategy that goes perfectly hand-in-hand with the current landscape of the NFL in 2023.

Depending on your individual league settings, the Zero RB strategy itself could be the skeleton key to unlocking the upside and firepower necessary to dominate your fantasy football leagues. That’s what we’re all looking to do, right?

This article isn’t being written by somebody that just dabbles in the strategy; my primary strategy in most leagues I’ve done for the last three years has been rooted in Zero RB and concepts derived from the strategy. While Zero RB has its detractors, it’s undoubtedly led to success in not just home leagues but industry-wide tournaments as well. The regular season winner of Best Ball Mania 3 was a Zero RB team as well as the King’s Classic Auction league, an industry league featuring notable fantasy analysts like Marcas Grant, Dwain McFarland, Gary Davenport, Scott Pianowski, Pat Fitzmaurice, and many more.

It can be done in any format: best ball leagues, redraft or season-long, dynasty, auction, you name it. We’ll give you everything you need to know to crush your leagues using Zero RB this season.


What is Zero RB?

If you use a search engine and type in “Zero RB definition”, you might get several answers. For our purposes here, it’s not selecting a running back in the first five, six (or later) rounds of a fantasy football draft. 

Zero RB’s roots grew and thrived from an article in 2013 by Shawn Siegele, which is one of the most heralded and important articles in fantasy football, ever. Siegele, known as the father of Zero RB, first built the association of this contrarian draft strategy with the word “antifragility”, which is the title of a book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In that book, a quote from Taleb succinctly defines antifragile:

“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure. Yet in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”

Zero RB leans hard into the chaos of the NFL season and stands to benefit from that chaos. The days of 300-carry backs being so plentiful in fantasy football are over for the time being. The purpose of the Zero RB draft concept was to help dispel the myth that value-based drafting (drafting the best player available) was the best way to win a fantasy league.

Each week of the NFL season is its own season. For fantasy purposes, it’s 17 one-week seasons. So much can change in an instant and can flip a season on its head when you’re factoring in injuries, player performance, coaching changes, coaching decisions, a player’s role change, suspensions, you name it. We saw it just last season with the unfortunate injury to Damar Hamlin, and with that game being the last game of the fantasy season in most leagues, commissioners and fantasy platforms were stuck as to what can happen. That is unfortunate chaos, but it’s chaos nonetheless.

In terms of the other examples of chaos that can happen in an NFL season, we can use that to benefit our rosters and fantasy football teams throughout the season. The easy way to benefit from antifragility is removing the stressors, as coined in the above quote. What are those stressors? The running back position and by passing on the available running backs early in the draft, we change how we think about that position group from an individual and team context as well as fantasy draft roster construction.

Why Is the Running Back Position So Volatile?

There are lots of ways we can answer this, but the most important things that make the running back position so volatile are:

  • Injury risk
  • Projection error
  • Change in league-wide offensive philosophies

The injury risk for running backs in the top-24 average draft position (ADP) is higher than for the same cohort of wide receivers. 

Josh Hermsmeyer from RotoViz did a seven-season study a number of years ago about the injury rates of position groups and found that running backs selected in the top-24 are 200-360% more likely to suffer a “serious injury”, which is defined here as any injury that causes a player to miss four or more weeks of a season.

While that injury risk is scary, we’ve seen the running back be devalued at the top of ADP and in the first few rounds of drafts this season, specifically as a reaction to some of this injury risk.

The volatility of the running back position can also be attributed to projection error. With value-based drafting,  that essentially ignores most tenets of building a purposeful and thoughtful roster construction. Each NFL season and fantasy draft season has its own set of context that’s different from every other year, but drafting multiple running backs to start a draft that gets hurt more often than other positions just because we “think” that they will each carry the ball 300 times is a recipe for disaster. 

As we explained earlier, the days of the “bellcow running back” are going the way of the dodo or unicorn. Only three running backs attained the 300 carry plateau, and none of them were the RB1 last season — that was Austin Ekeler — but all three (Derrick Henry, Josh Jacobs, and Nick Chubb) all finished in the top-six of fantasy points per game in 2022. Each of these backs played all 17 games but Henry (16).

Touching on an earlier point about the bellcow running back basically going extinct in today’s NFL, the volatility of running backs can in part, be explained by the league-wide change in philosophy as it comes to the position. They are being paid less and less around the NFL, we’re seeing committee backfields on most teams, those backfields split work into two or three different backs with specialized roles. And even those roles and backfield splits are not immune to the chaos of the NFL season. That said, those ambiguous backfields are something Zero RB can take full advantage of when we just don’t know about a particular team’s backfield.

The “TL;DR” is that with dwindling numbers of bellcow backs and the ones remaining being in short supply, there is less and less chance a running back will put together a monster fantasy season.

How Can We Take Advantage of the Volatility of Running Back with Zero RB?

Simply by waiting to draft players at the running back position. And being thoughtful of what KINDS of running backs we eventually select.

We must be cognizant of a very important thing while drafting: opportunity cost. When drafting a running back, it takes away from a selection you can make at the other positions. Wide receiver tiers dry up pretty quickly when looking through a lens of just this season, but a question that’s asked a ton is: why is it so important to draft wide receivers?

Because at almost all ADP ranges until around the ninth or tenth round, wide receivers are the better pick. After that, the curve flattens out and for essentially the rest of your fantasy football draft, running back is always the best pick you can make in your draft. By waiting on drafting a running back, you can load up on elite wide receivers, a possible elite quarterback, a possible elite tight end, or some combination.

One of the points I cannot stress enough is the value of running backs through the season amidst the chaos. With a Zero RB roster, you stand to benefit from running back role changes, coaching decisions, injuries, etc. We’re obviously not rooting for injuries to befall any player in the NFL, but having a player like Brian Robinson if Antonio Gibson were to miss time, having a player like Zach Charbonnet if Kenneth Walker misses time, or having Trayveon Williams if Joe Mixon were suspended for any length of time are just some ways you can stand to benefit from the NFL chaos that happens weekly.

What Kinds of Running Backs Should We Target Later in Drafts?

If you employed Zero RB in your leagues and wanted to see what types of running backs were successful last season, here’s a list of running backs available later in drafts with their end-of-season finishes in 2022:

All of these late-round running backs finished in the top 30 fantasy running backs last season, and all of them had one thing in common: they all were part of an uncertain backfield before the season. Whether the reason was that the backfield mate got hurt, scheme changes, or for other reasons, they benefitted from the chaos. These uncertain backfields are gold mines for being able to find value, and it’s no different in 2023 with a new crop of backfields that are very uncertain.

In my “Late-Round Running Backs” article from last season’s draft guide, we separated running backs into different archetypes:

Some of these running backs fit more than one archetype, but knowing these archetypes will help make you make better choices in the running backs you select in your draft. Pairing a couple of the standalone or receiving backs to get you a needed points floor early in the season with some of the ambiguous or contingent value backs that have late-season upside to help propel your team to a championship.

We’ll dig more into the specific archetypes next week in my 2023 version of the Late-Round Running Backs article.

The Perfect Conditions for a Zero RB Draft

Your fantasy football league may have the optimal conditions to employ a Zero RB strategy if they have some of the following settings:

  • Full PPR scoring
    • Standard and half-PPR formats are less optimal as the scoring benefits running backs more
  • Either three starting wide receiver spots, multiple flex positions, or a combination of both.
    • Multiple flex positions mean more roster spots to put higher-scoring wide receivers in your lineup
  • Free Agent Acquisition Budgets (FAAB) or Waivers, though FAAB is preferred
    • If you’re in a season-long league, you have the ability to continue to add valuable running backs who find themselves in key roles with teams.

Think along the lines of:

All of these running backs were fantasy-relevant and very useful in stretches of time throughout 2022 and were all found on waiver wires once these situations happened. All of them provided value and could help buoy teams that either were running back deficient or bolstered Zero RB teams even further.

A final point to make is this: reading the draft room is key. 

If a draft room starts off with more wide receivers being drafted than normal, it’s okay to be fluid and draft a running back. We won’t go into these drafts dead set on drafting with a particular strategy, but as a tool in our toolbox that we can use to be liquid with our drafts. Maybe you want to grab a single running back as an anchor running back and build your roster that way. Britt Flinn wrote a great piece this year in our Living Draft Guide about Anchor RB with strategies and how to employ Anchor RB.

Example of Zero RB Teams

We’ve talked a lot about what kinds of factors make up a Zero RB team, but let’s put that into action. This team is from Underdog Fantasy, where you can get a deposit match of up to $100 by using promo code “FANTASYALARM”.

This running back group dips into all four archetypes, with receiving backs (Strong, Fournette when he signs), contingent backs (Cook, Warren, Bigsby), ambiguous backs (Cook, Robinson) and standalone backs (Cook, Robinson, Fournette).

This cohort of running backs is paired with an elite QB almost a full round after ADP, an elite TE, and numerous high-end wide receivers.

As we said before, it’s not just best ball that we can execute a Zero RB strategy; this is a mock draft from Scott Fish Bowl, one of the biggest charity industry drafts that are season-long redraft leagues and require setting lineups each week:

While this league is Superflex — where you can start two quarterbacks — you can still perform the strategy extremely well. We have two elite quarterbacks, a solid tight end, a ton of elite wide receivers and an excellent group of running backs. 

If Javonte Williams didn’t get hurt and miss the second half of the year, we may be talking about him as a first-round running back. Getting his value for a late-season push in the eighth round represents fantastic upside for a Zero RB roster. 

For the early season, we have standalone backs in Damien Harris and Devin Singletary, plus the contingent upside of Kendre Miller and Ty Chandler. If Leonard Fournette signs with any NFL team tomorrow, he will gain several rounds in his ADP. Getting that value when other teams are trying to fill their wide receiver position is massive. 

Taking advantage of the ambiguity not just on a team level but what team Fournette could land on in 2023 is another level of strategy within poaching value throughout fantasy drafts. By being thoughtful with how you construct your Zero RB roster, you can create superteams in fantasy and crush your leaguemates at every position.

Closing Remarks

I’ll close this the same way I closed my previous Zero RB piece in last year’s draft guide because it perfectly encapsulates the Zero RB strategy in a different way.

Zenyatta is a horse that won 19 consecutive starts in a 20-race career. This horse would start a bit slow in the race but gain steam as it continued, eventually overtaking the rest of the field by multiple lengths.

Zero RB’s goal and aim is simple: finding running backs in the late-rounds with paths to league-winning upside and benefit from the fragility and chaos of the NFL season. By thoughtfully drafting and considering your roster’s construction, you can draft superteams that will steamroll their way to championships in 2023.