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Zero RB Strategy Guide

By Matt Schauf 8:07am EDT 7/30/20


If you’re looking for a dive into whether the “Zero RB” draft strategy works for fantasy football, then go search elsewhere.

That discussion is pointless. It has worked. Rotoviz’s Shawn Siegele has proved it in practice since introducing the theory back in 2013. And countless others have employed it since then.

It can work. It has worked. Does that mean you need to employ it? Of course not. If everyone drafted a certain way, then this whole fantasy exercise would come down to mere luck.

The method -- and, really, any fantasy-drafting innovation -- has always been based in venturing down a path that veers from what most of your competitors are doing. That allows you to attack their weaknesses and siphon value.

Does Zero RB always work? Of course not. Take a couple of early-round receivers who don’t hit and miss out on the biggest waiver finds of the year, and you’re headed for a non-descript fantasy finish.

But here’s why you should consider it for your 2020: We’re all pushing RBs back up the draft board again. If it’s close, your league mates are more likely to take the RB over the WR or elite TE. Here are the total RBs coming off the board by round (in 12-team drafts) in recent years:


For 2014-19, I used MyFantasyLeague.com 12-team, PPR drafts after Aug. 15. The 2020 ADP data turned out goofy, with QBs shoved way up the board. (Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson in the middle of Round 1; Dak Prescott and Kyler Murray in Round 2, for example.) So I used BestBall10s ADP for July in the 2020 row (hence the asterisk).

Lest you worry that best-ball drafting skewed the numbers, I compared 2019 and 2018 BB10s (the years they have available) ADP to the MFL numbers and found the results close.

So there’s room for you to find an advantage over your league and contest mates by ignoring RBs early. And even if you can’t bring yourself to pass over that RB in the 1st half of Round 1, the “modified Zero RB” approach has emerged.

Of course, any drafting method relies on proper application. So here’s a guide to drafting your Zero RB roster in 2020 …


What is Zero RB?

In case you’re not familiar with the method, let’s run through a Cliff Notes version:

RBs have long been considered the bedrock of fantasy teams. But they get hurt more often than players at other positions. By loading up on top options at other positions in the early rounds, you are betting on the fragility of RBs.

Then you fill your RB slots with players poised to gain value when others go down. This can prove especially effective in PPR formats, where later-drafted RBs might not even need the starter to get hurt. And PPR stands today as the preeminent offensive scoring format.

Zero RB, however, also calls for working the waiver wire in season. Not only do you draft handcuff types to build your roster’s upside and chip away at the rosters of your competitors. But you mine the inevitable in-season revelations to help bolster your RB group.

Missing out on waiver gems at WR matters less because you overloaded on early-round options at the position.


Starting Out

Going the Zero-RB route makes more sense in the back half of the round than it does earlier. As you’ve almost definitely seen in our rankings, there’s a big projections gap between our #5 RB in PPR and the next guy. On the non-PPR side, those gaps come out much smaller.

That’s the next part of this. The approach makes more sense in PPR scoring formats. That’s where top wideouts are drawing consistently large target totals and giving you the floor you need to gamble elsewhere.

So drafting in the 2nd half of Round 1 in a PPR league sets you up best for trying a Zero-RB approach. Let’s use ADP to see how this approach might go …


Rounds 1-2

This might be the easiest part. At RB, you’re probably looking at players such as:

Derrick Henry
Joe Mixon
Kenyan Drake
Miles Sanders
Nick Chubb
Josh Jacobs
Austin Ekeler
Aaron Jones
and now Clyde Edwards-Helaire

It’s not hard to make arguments against any of those players at their draft-day prices. These pass-catchers, on the other hand, reside in the same range:

Michael Thomas
Davante Adams
Tyreek Hill
Julio Jones
DeAndre Hopkins
Chris Godwin
Travis Kelce
George Kittle

I’m not interested in Hopkins in Round 2 in his new digs. Arizona isn’t likely to give him the 30.1% target share he averaged over the past 5 years, and Kyler Murray must take a giant step up to avoid being a big downgrade from Deshaun Watson.

Otherwise, though, that looks like a high-floor group of pass-catchers. Starting your PPR roster with, say, Davante Adams and Julio Jones sounds pretty comfy.


Rounds 3-4

If you’ve been paying any attention to our rankings, the player profiles or our podcast so far, then you know we project Rams WR Robert Woods well ahead of consensus. Vikings WR Adam Thielen just garnered special treatment. Seahawks WR Tyler Lockett is going later than he should. And Buccaneers WR Mike Evans has slipped into Round 4 in some recent FFPC drafting.

All this to say: There is no shortage of WR options in this span.


Rounds 5-6

Let’s say your first 4 picks went: Davante Adams, George Kittle, Adam Thielen, Robert Woods. Through 4 rounds, you’re sitting on 3 lead wideouts and a TE who could lead his position in target share. That doesn’t sound too bad for a 2020 PPR roster.

Now you could still be looking at players such as Tyler Lockett, Terry McLaurin, Keenan Allen, DeVante Parker, T.Y. Hilton and Marquise Brown in Round 5. You can find upside. You can find relative target safety. And the Round 6 crop still likely includes Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green.

Even if you mixed a RB pick in among these 1st 6 selections, it’s not hard to get seduced by this start. The combo of safety and upside among these pass-catchers will be particularly attractive when you’re setting your weekly lineups rather than compiling a best-ball roster, where your top weekly lineup automatically gets filled in.


The Fun Part

There’s no official range for selecting your 1st back on a Zero-RB roster. But after Round 6 traditionally qualifies. So let’s look at some of the most attractive options for building out the position.

Ronald Jones, Buccaneers
ADP: 7.03

I’m using BestBall10s July ADP here, so we know it’s a RB-hungry crowd. Yet you can still get the likely starter behind Tom Brady in Round 7 of fantasy football drafts. The Bucs left Cam Akers and J.K. Dobbins on the board while selecting S Antoine Winfield in the 2nd round of the NFL Draft. So they clearly weren’t overly concerned with replacing Jones.

GM Jason Licht indicated as much this offseason, saying: "[Jones] hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he can be. We have a lot of faith in Ronald, and in fact, we have more faith in him now that we ever have."

Jones didn’t light it up last season but improved over a wretched rookie season. And the whole backfield should benefit from Tom Brady’s arrival -- at least in pass targets.

Tevin Coleman, 49ers
ADP: 8.08

Coleman heads into 2020 as the perfect handcuff. Not only will he see a huge value boost if Raheem Mostert goes down, but there’s room for Coleman to enter fantasy lineups even with Mostert healthy. He did beat Mostert in carries in 9 of their 17 shared games last season, including the playoffs. And Coleman beat Mostert in targets despite missing 2 contests.

Matt Breida and Jordan Howard, Dolphins
ADPs: 9.07 and 8.10

We project Breida ahead of Howard for PPR formats, despite Howard going nearly a round earlier in ADP. Both RBs sit beyond the middle of Round 8 in ADP, though. So you’re free to select your favorite between them or roster both. Breida should emerge as the more frequent receiver between them and thus offer a higher PPR floor.

Zack Moss, Bills
ADP: 10.01

Devin Singletary took over the lead role in Buffalo’s backfield as a rookie. But the Bills proved reluctant to run him at the goal line. Moss arrives 20 pounds heavier and featuring a bruising rushing style. He also beat Singletary in college receptions. Moss not only could unseat an injured Singletary; there’s a chance he emerges as the better back even over a healthy Singletary.

Latavius Murray, Saints
ADP: 10.01

Murray sits right behind Moss in BB10s ADP. I'd argue that his floor doesn't approach Moss', based on the lack of work and production for Murray when Alvin Kamara was healthy last year. But the 2 games that Kamara missed revealed Murray as 1 of the league's highest-upside handcuffs. That's worth chasing with this particular roster construction. (Bonus: You steal value from the roster of Kamara's owner should that starter go down.)


The Double-Digit Rounds

These guys don’t look likely to start but feature plenty of upside at their depressed draft prices.

Darrell Henderson, Rams
ADP: 11.04

The Rams moved up to draft Henderson in Round 3 just last year. Their 2020 actions certainly suggest that they like RB Cam Akers more. But Henderson remains the explosive back that intrigued them in 2018. And what if Akers just does down? Henderson would likely take the carry lead in what has been 1 of the league’s most run-friendly offenses over the past 3 years.

Duke Johnson, Texans
ADP: 11.04

There is no “must-draft” handcuff. But Duke Johnson comes pretty close.

David Johnson stunk last year. Maybe it was because of injuries. Perhaps he’s just wearing down. Either way, there’s obvious risk in betting on a bounce-back season from a 28-year-old RB.

Duke Johnson didn’t do much after Houston spent a 3rd-round pick to acquire him last season. But the Texans also didn’t give him much chance to. This Johnson never topped 9 carries in a game and didn’t exceed 5 targets until Week 13. (He averaged 3.2 per contest over the first 11 games.)

Should David Johnson go down (again), there would be room for the RB who spent nearly all of his 4 seasons in Cleveland operating at above average efficiency as both a runner and a receiver.


Sample Roster

You could wait until Round 7 to draft your 1st RB and still finish Round 10 with a roster such as this:

Davante Adams
George Kittle
Adam Thielen
Robert Woods
Terry McLaurin
Tyler Boyd
Tevin Coleman
Jordan Howard
Matt Breida
Zack Moss

And that’s even assuming Ronald Jones leaves the board at his early-Round 7 ADP, before your pick in the 2nd half of the round. Obviously, you could go in different directions at certain spots, mix in a QB pick, take 1 early RB to go the “modified Zero RB” route, etc. But it’s not hard to envision a solid roster while avoiding RBs early.


Late Targets

In the double-digit rounds, you can find at least as much upside in situations as player talent. Here are some players and situations worth targeting.


Chargers backfield

HC Anthony Lynn has already indicated that this top 3 RBs will all find regular roles. We’ve also yet to see Austin Ekeler control lead duties over a full season. That makes Justin Jackson and Joshua Kelley each attractive at ADPs beyond Round 13. There’s room for either to be a standalone starting option even with a healthy Ekeler, and the upside for big role growth if Ekeler goes down.


Seahawks backfield

Carlos Hyde is the current handcuff to Chris Carson, and his mid-Round 16 ADP makes him easy to stash. Rashaad Penny, though, has also seen his ADP tumble through the offseason and now sits at the end of Round 19. He’d be a terrific stash if your league has an IR slot or even just a deep enough roster that you can sacrifice a bench spot. We’ll watch reports on his knee recovery as the season draws nearer and adjust plans for Penny. But as we move from best-ball focus into lineup-setting formats, we can simply drop Penny from rosters if it becomes clear he won’t be a factor -- or if you need that spot for a waiver pickup.


Patriots backfield

I said back on our AFC East podcast that I wasn’t interested in Damien Harris for best-ball drafting. If Sony Michel’s ready for the start of the year, then Harris likely still sits 4th on the RB depth chart. But he makes more sense as we focus more lineup-setting formats. If Michel’s season start is delayed, then Harris could capitalize. And Brandon Bolden opting out of the season opens up a game-day roster spot at the position. Rex Burkhead remains worth a late look as well.


Jets backfield

There has been 1 year -- 2014 -- in which Le’Veon Bell has played every game. And yet both Frank Gore and rookie La’Mical Perine are going as RB80 or later in ADP. This is not an exciting situation, but the volume upside is obvious should Bell go down.

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