Let’s start with a confession: I’ve always been anti-Zero RB. And I’ve been wrong.
I started playing fantasy football in 1997, when RBs dominated the game. Barry Sanders ran for 2,053 freakin’ yards in ’97. Terrell Davis went over 2,000 the following year. And Marshall Faulk racked up 2,429 total yards in 1999.
So as my moldable fantasy mind was forming, RBs were the key to winning championships.
Then the NFL changed. More passing. More specialized roles for RBs. Fewer workhorses like Sanders and Davis and Faulk.
But changing fantasy mindsets isn’t easy — at least for me. While Rotoviz’s Shawn Siegle was penning the brilliant Zero RB, Antifragility, and the Myth of Value-Based Drafting back in 2013, I was still stuck in the ‘90s. Still loading up on RBs early.
And that was wrong. Early-round WRs have won fantasy championships the past 3 years, while many of the allegedly elite RBs have been land mines.
Being anti-Zero RB was wrong. Was. I’m anti-Zero RB again in 2016. And I don’t think I’m wrong this time.
How does Zero RB work?
The idea behind Zero RB is to capitalize on the volatility and fragility of the RB position. You let your opponents take those early-round RBs that are riskier in comparison to the high-end WRs you’re gobbling up.
I’ll let Siegle take it from here:
“You can see fairly easily how Zero RB benefits from randomness. Whenever a starting RB gets hurt, my lineup gets better. It gets better in relation to my opponents because I didn’t have the player in question, and it gets better in the sense that I either own the backup or I have a shot to acquire the backup in free agency.”
That makes a ton of sense. RBs get hurt more often than any other fantasy-relevant position. And backup RBs are often capable of stepping in and providing nice production.
But Zero RB also relies on your ability to load up at WR and gain a big advantage over your competition at that position. And that’s where this strategy will fail in 2016.
No Longer Contrarian
Zero RB was so successful because it was so contrarian. Sure, WRs have been steadily climbing in ADP the past few years. But how many owners in your league truly went Zero RB, using their first 4, 5 or 6 picks on pass-catchers?
The folks who went full-on Zero RB were able to assemble a crushing group of WRs. In 2013, for example, 17 WRs were selected in the first 4 rounds of drafts, according to My Fantasy League ADP data. That means, theoretically, you could land 4 top-17 WRs. Do that and you’re gonna be tough to beat — even with minimal production at RB.
In 2014, 20 WRs went in the first 4 rounds of average drafts, again according to MFL. Last year: 22 WRs in the first 4 rounds. So it became a bit tougher to assemble that studly stable of WRs, but still doable.
It’ll be a heckuva lot tougher this season. As of mid-June, 27 WRs are coming off the board in the first 4 rounds. Those guys you’re taking in the 3rd and 4th are probably sitting in the 20s in your WR rankings. They’re not the high-end WR2s or maybe even low-end WR1s that you were getting at that point a few years ago.
That means your advantage at WR will be considerably smaller because some or most of the other teams in your league are also attacking the position early.
2016 Draft Strategy
"You want to be greedy when others are fearful. You want to be fearful when others are greedy.”
- Warren Buffett
With the rest of the fantasy community shifting more and more toward Zero RB, we can capitalize by moving in the other direction. The crappy production from RB1s last year looks like a fluke. But recency bias means those guys will be undervalued this season.
Check out the number of RBs selected in the first 2 and 4 rounds over the past 4 years:
Early-round RBs have steadily decreased in popularity. There are 50% fewer going in the first 2 rounds and 36% fewer going in the first 4. If those top-end RBs are going to return to their pre-2015 levels of production — and I think they will — they’re presenting big value.
Now, I’m not advocating a Zero WR strategy. Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and Odell Beckham deserve to be the first 3 guys off the board in most fantasy formats. A.J. Green makes sense anywhere in the back half of Round 1. DeAndre Hopkins, Allen Robinson and Dez Bryant are all solid picks in the 2nd.
But the RB position could very well offer more value early on — even if they’re riskier picks. “Scared money don’t make money,” a blackjack dealer once told me.
David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley all offer enough upside to be worth 1st-rounders. Ezekiel Elliott and Lamar Miller are also worth considering with your 1st pick. Adrian Peterson, Devonta Freeman, Jamaal Charles, Doug Martin and Mark Ingram are potential top 5 RBs available in Round 2. LeSean McCoy and C.J. Anderson are sweet values at their late-4th or early-5th-round price tags.
The optimum draft strategy for 2016: Be flexible and take the best player available, regardless of position.
Of course, that’s been my strategy for the past 3 seasons. We’ll see if I’m right this time around.