Fantasy Football: Can the Zero RB Draft Strategy Work in 2018?
If you’ve loitered around the fantasy football cooler long enough, you’ve heard whispers of the “Zero RB” draft strategy. Just saying it seems somewhat sacrilegious. How could you essentially ignore the position widely regarded as the most important in all of fantasy and expect to come out on top?
For those of you who aren’t familiar, the theory is essentially this: avoid the busts and crippling injuries that perennially plague early-round running backs, load up on other positions for the first five or six rounds, and then grab a stable of intriguing RB values later in your draft.
As you may know by now, we at the Fantasy Footballers subscribe to a tier-based draft strategy, which means we wouldn’t go into a draft dead set on going Zero RB. (You must be water, young grasshopper!) But, if the draft were to fall in just the right way, can the Zero RB concept actually work for fantasy? Let’s take a dive into ADP, fantasy finish, and the 2018 outlook to find out.
How Zero RB Happens
As I discussed in much greater detail in my article series on Positional Draft Value, the bust rate of top-tier running backs is, historically speaking, the highest of any position. As a reminder, there’s a 20% chance that a running back drafted in the first two rounds will be a significant bust (finishing outside the top 35), compared to a less concerning rate of 8.8% for wide receivers.
We certainly saw both examples of both last season. Aside from David Johnson‘s injury and Ezekiel Elliott‘s suspension, Jay Ajayi and DeMarco Murray were drafted as top-tier talent and finished as major disappointments among backs. Meanwhile, Odell Beckham Jr. also succumbed to IR, Jordy Nelson lost his QB, and Dez Bryant and Amari Cooper were just plain bad at football. While this was a somewhat balanced group of busts, keep in mind that 2017 was a renaissance for RBs and a recession for WRs.
The other primary reason Zero RB can work is the higher hit rate of flier draft picks. Running backs taken in Rounds 9-11 have a Top 20 hit rate of 22.7%, a much better chance than the 12.7% we see for wideouts. This is possible because of shallower depth charts at the running back position. Great examples of RBs who shot into fantasy relevance last season include Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis, Latavius Murray, and the No. 3 fantasy back, Alvin Kamara.
As for when Zero RB can work in 2018, it’s tough to make a case for any fantasy player drafting in the first four picks. The reliability and upside of the Elite Four (Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Elliott, and Johnson) are just about as sure as it gets in fantasy. However, from then on, the field is wide open.
Antonio Brown, DeAndre Hopkins, and Odell Beckham Jr. — who all appear in Tier 1 of the Fantasy Footballers’ Ultimate Draft Kit Rankings — are all worthy picks in the back half of the second round. Swinging into the second round, you’ll likely face a difficult decision between the RB platter of Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Devonta Freeman, and Jerick McKinnon or the pass-catching smorgasbord of Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, Keenan Allen, and Rob Gronkowski. This is where Zero RB can really take off. Per the Ballers’ UDK rankings, you’re choosing between a few Tier 3 backs or an array of Tier 2 receivers and a Tier-of-His-Own tight end. For drafters who can stomach the idea of heading into Round 3 without a running back, a starting stack of AB and Gronk, or OBJ and Julio, is almost too good to be true.
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop
But surely, you might say, any right-minded chap in such a situation will go RB-RB in Rounds 3 and 4, plugging up their roster hole like that little Dutch boy who put his finger in the dike to save Holland (or something like that). Well, not so fast. Taking our theoretical scenarios into mid- to late-Round 3, we’ll likely stumble across a surprising scarcity of reliable RBs. LeSean McCoy is the only Tier 3 running back that might fall to that range and he has plenty of question marks. After McCoy comes a mess of Tier 4-5 guys like Alex Collins, Royce Freeman, Kenyan Drake, and Derrick Henry. Considering you can get Tier 4 running backs like Dion Lewis, Marshawn Lynch, and Rex Burkhead well into Rounds 5-6, it seems ineffective to reach for one too early.
Instead, the pivot to pass-catchers seems viable yet again. Thanks to the wild run on RBs this year, Tier 3 wideouts like Adam Thielen, Doug Baldwin, and Larry Fitzgerald are all available late in Round 3, as is Travis Kelce if you skipped over Gronk in the second round. As for Round 4, drafters will still have access to Jarvis Landry, the Lions duo of Marvin Jones and Golden Tate, and my personal favorite value at tight end, Zach Ertz.
Assuming you draft purely off the pursuit of the best player in the best available tier, regardless of position, you could legitimately find yourself with an RB-less roster through four rounds. Our AB/Gronk team could have added Doug Baldwin and Larry Fitzgerald, while our OBJ/Julio team might now feature Adam Thielen and Zach Ertz. Those are truly elite starts to a draft, especially in PPR formats and leagues that start three wide receivers.
Before you know it, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, and Deshaun Watson are you looking you in the eye at the end of Round 5. You feel the burning temptation to pivot to running back, but the iffy options at the position pale in comparison to the elite signal-callers on the board, and you snag a top-tier quarterback.
Where the Rubber Meets the … Field
I think it’s fair to call just about any draft where your RB1 is found in Round 6 or later a legitimately Zero-RB adventure, so we’ll finally address the position here. Looking at the available options, you’re likely choosing between names like Kerryon Johnson, Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, Tevin Coleman, Jamaal Williams, and Chris Carson. A couple of these names break the Ballers’ Tier 4 at running back, so remember to reference the UDK rankings for guidance on the best pick. As you progress through the draft, there are several tactics to take when filling in the RB-end of a Zero RB roster.
One strategy rising in prominence is that of stockpiling rookies. Johnson and Michel, as well as Rashaad Penny and Ronald Jones II, all have decent shots at lead back work in 2018, and all can be had after the fifth round. Last year, we saw Kareem Hunt rocket from late round complement to top-tier RB1 with the injury to Spencer Ware and witnessed Alvin Kamara winning owners fantasy leagues thanks to the departure of Adrian Peterson. The same sort of upside can be found in all four rookies mentioned above, and possibly also in later picks Nick Chubb and Jordan Wilkins.
It’s also possible to find starters for your RB slots by targeting murky backfields. The best example this year is the Packers, where Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, and Ty Montgomery can all be found outside the first six rounds. One or more of those guys will be worth an RB2 or better in 2018, and that’s exactly what you’re looking for. Other names to consider include Chris Carson, Peyton Barber, and Marlon Mack, the flip sides of the rookie coins we discussed above. Any of these guys could end up holding the job through the season, and you could also pair them with their rookie counterpart to nearly guarantee a starter all year.
A third source of viable Zero RB ammo is pass-catching specialists. While this is only really viable in some form of PPR format, guys like Duke Johnson Jr., Giovani Bernard, Tarik Cohen, Corey Clement, and even James White could carry RB2 upside week-to-week in the right situations. The best options in this mold are players who could potentially step-up as full-time starters in case of injury — guys like Bernard and Clement, as well as T.J. Yeldon and Bilal Powell.
That leads us straight into the last pool of Zero RB candidates: the handcuffs. The most viable way to outright win a league with a Zero RB draft is to hit on the right handcuffs. We’ve seen this with players like Alex Collins, Jordan Howard, and Spencer Ware in recent years, all of whom produced numbers worthy of an RB2 or better after stepping into a lead role. For 2018, some of my favorite targets include James Conner, Austin Ekeler (who might also fit the Bernard mold we mentioned above), John Kelly, Ware (again), and Latavius Murray. That said, handcuffs are often more difficult to predict than they seem, so this should typically be your last resort.
So can Zero RB work? Yes, I think so. The newly-verified Mike Wright tackled a Zero RB draft in a head-to-head Ballers mock in early August, and his roster turned out quite formidable — and mighty similar to the one you might find following the roadmap above. Granted, it won’t necessarily be easy. You’ll need to have completed an extra measure of research pre-draft, so you’re highly familiar with the later-round RBs worth snagging. You’ll also need to be highly active on the waiver wire. As the guys often say, you don’t win your championship at the draft and a Zero RB roster is far from the exception. Remember, guys like Alex Collins and Dion Lewis went largely undrafted last year and even Alvin Kamara was dropped early in the season in thousands of leagues.
With the help of tools like the UDK, a sprinkle of luck, and the monster performances from a starting five that looks like Wilson, AB, Baldwin, Fitz and Gronk, the Zero RB concept is certainly viable. As mentioned above, don’t go into a draft attempting to force it. But if the cards fall right, don’t be afraid to ride it to a #FootClanTitle.