What if I told you that there’s a fantasy football draft strategy that will have you lapping your league-mates this season (and every other season) and laughing in the face of injury? Where every other team gets weaker during the season, but your roster gets STRONGER? How is this possible?
(No wait, don't leave!)
The name alone inspires derision from countless fantasy football managers because they have already dismissed the strategy in their minds. The emotional attachment to how we’ve always drafted fantasy football teams with running backs and sorting through fantasy football rankings looking for the next bell-cow back is something we’ve gotten used to. If you’re a seasoned fantasy manager and have been playing fantasy football since the days of calculators, Monday morning box scores, and writing down weekly scores without a computer, you’re already rolling your eyes back into your head.
I don’t blame you one bit.
I'm going to tell you that this strategy, when employed correctly, WORKS. Sure, it may seem uncomfortable, and it’s never fun coming out of a draft where you either feel uneasy, disgusted or downright hating your team at the end of your draft.
As somebody who is numb to emotion in fantasy football and a formerly staunch running back drafter that has been drafting Zero RB teams for the last few seasons, I’m going to show you why this fantasy football strategy is something you should have in your toolbox come draft time.
Where Did Zero-RB Come From?
For that, we have to look back to 2013 for this conceptual and contrarian draft strategy’s origin. Shawn Siegele of RotoViz first coined the term in an article that still holds true with foundational strategies and concepts almost a decade later and in my opinion, is one of the best fantasy sports articles ever written.
In it, Shawn’s mention of the term “antifragility” comes from a book written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb called “The Black Swan” and pulls a quote relating to antifragility:
"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."
This can be attributed to the world of fantasy football and in this specific instance, Zero RB, in which your roster can benefit from the chaos of the NFL season. The NFL season is essentially 17 one-week seasons. So much can change in an instant from role changes, injuries, breakout performances, or factors we may not even know about yet. Just look at COVID-19 and how that changed the landscape of fantasy football in 2020 and 2021.
But how can we use that antifragility to our advantage in fantasy football of all things? By removing the “stressors” — the running back position in the early part of our drafts.
How the Running Back Position Remains So Volatile Year After Year
It would be easy to pick the best players in any fantasy drafts. “Draft the best players” and “Play the best plays”, and so on. Easy game, right?
Zero RB has a stigma that’s well documented throughout the fantasy community and among those stigmas is the belief that the strategy is “risky”. What if I told you that drafting multiple high-end running backs with top draft capital is even RISKIER?
For years, people have talked about drafting running backs in quantity at the top of drafts to play it “safe” in their fantasy leagues. There’s just one issue with that:
Safety doesn’t exist.
At least not with the running back position.
The running back position and the word “safety” might as well be oil and water. They don’t mix and they don’t play well with each other.
RotoViz’s Josh Hermsmeyer did some injury-specific research regarding running backs. In a seven-year study of running backs selected in the first five rounds of fantasy football drafts, running backs are 200%-360% more likely to suffer a serious injury (injured for four or more weeks) than wide receivers.
The running back position is incredibly fragile as a whole.
Now I just want to clarify that I’m not advocating for them to be removed entirely from ESPN, Yahoo, CBS, and other fantasy operators’ player pools. I haven’t gone THAT rogue yet. We need to be more price sensitive and informed with our running back selections. If you have a conviction about a running back, then draft them! That would fall under the Anchor RB strategy, which I wrote about recently.
Finding the Legendary Running Back Season is Largely an Exercise in Futility
The legendary Christian McCaffrey season in 2019 where he scored 29.5 fantasy points per game (FPPG) and almost single-handedly carried teams to fantasy football championships.
Todd Gurley’s 26.6 FPPG in 2018 was a massive league-winning season.
THOSE are the legendary running back seasons we want, but unfortunately, they’re so few and far between and we only get one pick in the first round, one in the second, and so on. For the few high-scoring running back seasons, there are dozens of injury-plagued seasons from highly-drafted running backs who had sunk teams before they even got going.
How many of the consensus top-6 running backs in 2021 drafts finished as top-6 at the end of the season?
Just one — Austin Ekeler.
McCaffrey and Derrick Henry got hurt and missed half or more of the 2021 season, Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara both missed four games, and Ezekiel Elliott just missed the top-6 as well. Only 12 of the 2021’s top-70 running backs in PPR played all 17 games.
Add in the fact that the bell-cow role in today’s NFL is a thing of the past, with more specialized backfields and committees making the pool of high-volume backs more shallow. However, It widens the pool for fantasy-relevant running backs and adds more options to the end of your bench.
Besides one outlier season in 2019, there have been more top-12 scoring weeks by late-round running backs than in the “RB dead zone” — defined as running backs drafted between Rounds 4-8. In short, more fantasy-relevant running backs are available later in drafts and in large quantities.
The Perfect Conditions for Zero-RB
Your 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 are less optimal as the scoring benefits running backs more)
- Either three starting wide receiver spots, multiple flex positions, or a combination of both.
- Free Agent Acquisition Budgets (FAAB) or Waivers, though FAAB is preferred
Also, reading the draft room is key, too, as if the draft skews running back heavy and doesn’t leave any appealing options for you, drafting a wide receiver or tight end is a good way to gain an edge. Don’t just draft a running back to have one. That’s how you leave points on the draft board. Isn’t scoring the most points the name of the game?
How Should We Construct Our Zero-RB Roster?
While we’ve looked at late-round running backs and the archetype “buckets” recently, the rest of our roster should give you the firepower you need, especially in the season come playoff time when it matters the most. If your league prioritizes drafting running backs early and often, this can be the pivot you can make to get “different” from the rest of your league.
Of course, this is all context-dependent and nobody is telling you to pass on Jonathan Taylor of Christian McCaffrey early in drafts. That would be where the Anchor RB strategy could be an option for you. However, it does bear repeating: it’s not a strategy you should set out to do before your draft, but rather something you can pivot to after seeing how your draft is going.
If you are drafting Zero RB, your aim for your roster construction should be targeting elite wide receivers, an elite tight end, and a high-end quarterback early in the draft while waiting until Round 6 (or later) to select your first running back. The aim is to select high-scoring and/or high-upside players through the RB dead zone, which is running backs in Rounds 3-7 that have been proven to be bad bets for high-scoring weeks throughout the season. This is not a rigid or strict guideline, however. When we get to the roster examples, this will become clear.
The highlighted box is a portion of the running back dead zone and illustrates some of the widest gaps between running back and wide receiver scoring in drafts. The top scorer at running back in most seasons eclipses the highest scoring wide receiver, but the overall depth and reduced injury risk make the wide receiver position the one to target at virtually every draft round.
We want to be able to crush everybody else at every other position and then make up for running back with quantity in the later rounds. Because we will be so strong at the other three positions, you don’t even have to hit more than an average-scoring season with your running backs for this strategy to succeed.
Then, we’re looking for running backs that fit into several of the “buckets” or “archetypes” we mentioned earlier.
- PPR Backs
- Contingent Value
- Ambiguous Backfield
- Standalone Value
- (some running backs are a combination of these buckets)
If you read the Late-Round Fantasy Football Running Back Targets, you’ll see I went in-depth about how these buckets work. But I did add a new archetype: rookies.
Rookies are the “mystery box” asset in fantasy leagues, and one or more of the above archetypes fit with these rookies. Most of the time, rookie running backs are ambiguous because of uncertainty in the roles they’ll have in their first NFL action and because of the mystery inherent with rookies.
There isn’t a rookie heading into a guaranteed starting spot, so most if not all rookie running backs have varying degrees of contingent value. The best part is that their average draft position (ADP) has this already baked into their price on draft day.
Running backs like Breece Hall, Ken Walker, James Cook, Isaiah Spiller, Rachaad White, Tyrion Davis-Price, and Tyler Allgeier headline the fantasy-relevant backs that could potentially become fantasy stalwarts towards the end of the season.
Enough Talk. Let's See Some Zero-RB Rosters!
Note: These are Underdog Best Ball teams but are used to illustrate the construction of the Zero-RB teams
The best part about all of these teams is that different types of constructions are used with the same end result of a Zero RB team. So you can bend your constructions or even come out of them completely, as long as you go back.
Team 5 has a Round 6 running back before coming back in Round 10 with two more.
No two drafts will have the same construction. Just like if you drafted at the 1.05, you’d never have the same players available to you every time. You have to be willing to be liquid and bend to your league-mates.
Your roster construction is as critical if not even MORE critical than the players you select.
I’ll close this the same way I closed my previous Zero RB piece a couple of years ago 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 is about finding running backs in the late-rounds with paths to league-winning upside. Players like Conner, Rashaad Penny, and Sony Michel were fantastic for fantasy football managers at various points of the season and in the case of Penny and Michel, at the end of the season when it matters the most. Add that to quarterback, wide receiver, and tight end firepower on your roster, and you’ve got the skeleton key to unlock a championship in 2022.
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- The Ultimate Fantasy Football Cheat Sheet
- Anchor-RB Overview and Draft Strategy
- Late-Round Running Back Targets
- Dynamic Tier RB Rankings Primer