A lot of people are doing some last minute cramming for their fantasy football drafts and have asked me to explain the Zero RB Strategy that I invented in 2009.
What is this weird strategy? Isn't Fantasy Football built around Runningbacks? Is this strategy still relevant? How would I even implement this strategy in 2023? I'm here to answer all your questions.
The Zero RB Stategy is built off of a simple principle, while Runningbacks are the stallions of Fantasy Football, they are also the most injury prone. In 2020, Christian McCaffrey was basically a unanimous 1st overall pick, but he played only three games and finished the season as RB53. In 2021, the clear top 3 of McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, and Dalvin Cook missed a combined 23 games between them. In 2022, Jonathan Taylor was the clear RB1 and missed six games finishing as RB36. So while you could have been feeling really good about your team in August or September, things didn't turn out so good for you in December. In the early 2000s, an NFL.com Fantasy Writer, Michael Fabiano invented what he called "The Faulk Stategy" which was to draft three RBs with his first three draft picks. The reason was for depth as despite being the best fantasy RB at the time, between 2000-2004 he missed 2, 2, 2, 5, & 2 games in those respective seasons. He cited that Faulk was too valuable to pass up, but he's simply account for his injuries and draft an RB3 early for insurance when Faulk inevitably missed a couple of games.
Flashforward to 2009 and nothing had really changed. RBs were still king in the fantasy world with bellcow backs like Faulk, Priest Holmes, Ricky Williams, LaDanian Tomlinson, and Shaun Alexander dominating the decade. I was drafting 12th in a 12 person league. I drafted Andre Johnson. Since I also had the next pick, I chose Calvin Johnson. It was a long wait until pick 36 when I'd get another crack and had a Runningback on my mind, but wouldn't you know it, but Marques Colston was still on the board coming off an injury plagued 2008, so I took a shot on him as he had WR1 type value the year before he got hurt. After my first three picks, my team was incredible, but very top heavy in one position. Those three guys finished WR8, WR6, & WR17 and my interest was piqued. I was going against the grain and I was interested in trying it again in the future.
My 2012 team from the tweet above was my favorite team I've ever managed. I struck absolute gold with the Zero RB Strategy and Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, and A.J. Green finished that year WR1, WR2, & WR4.
I was suffered a tough blow in the Playoffs going against Adrian Peterson in his MVP 2012 season and lost a high scoring affair, but the 3rd time was the charm. Had I won that matchup in the wild card round, I would have blown through the rest of the playoffs and essentially proved this counter-culture strategy was viable, but to myself, I had proven enough. This way of thinking had real legs.
The main principles of a Zero RB Strategy is to avoid any Runningbacks with your first three overall picks. With more and more adoption, owners employing this strategy typically aren't diving into the RB pool until Round 5 or Round 6 typically. I did a study a few years ago and looked at the Top 25 Scoring Players at each position and if they were drafted in the first six rounds. The results were clear.
It showed that of the top scorers at each position, WR was the most predictable by a wide margin. 2020 was a bit of an anomoly as the top WR that year (Michael Thomas) got hurt in Week 1. So the differences between the rounds are a bit more blurry, but looking at 2019 and 2021, we're seeing HUGE drops between 1st Round WRs and 6th Round WRs. Whereas Runningbacks it is a bit of a crap shoot. In fact, the return is better on 1st & 2nd Round RBs vs. just 1st Round RBs over the past three years.
And while that may feel like a lot to digest, what this data says is that Runningbacks get hurt, a lot. Wide Receivers do too, but at a much lower clip. It makes sense, they're touching the ball far fewer times and getting hit far less and when they do, it's generally by Cornerbacks and Safeties as opposed to Linebackers and Defensive Lineman. So with the outcome of the position being more predictable, take advantage of that and load up on higher quality WRs earlier.
Now if you're an owner employing the Zero RB stategy, you'll have to accept that your Runningbacks just won't look that great after the draft is over. You'll have to be calculating with who you target. In full PPR formats, 3rd down RBs that catch a ton of passes like Jerick McKinnon, Antonio Gibson, and more traditionally, Theo Riddick, Reggie Bush types can get the job done. If they catch five passes per game, they just need 50 total yards to get to double digits in scoring.
While it won't necessarily look sexy immediately after the draft, you're taking advantage of your scoring system. If you're in 0.5 PPR or standard scoring, a method I like to utilize is flood the mid-rounds with young RBs with a ton of upside like Breece Hall, Aaron Jones, Rachaad White, and others. You just have to accept that your hit rate in the mid-rounds won't be great. There is a lot more unknown with these players, but if you practice patience, you could get the next Rashaad Penny (from 2021) who blows up late in the season and carries you to a Championship. You'll also have to be very active and spend your Free Agent Acquisition Budget (FAAB) or waiver priorities on RBs that blow up. Guys that went very low or undrafted last year like Jamaal Williams, Kenneth Walker III, and Jerick McKinnon finished RB10, RB18, & RB21 last year, so you'll need to be active on waivers and pay attention to what backups are shining to be successful.
This year is tough, my recommendation would be to really consider this if you have any pick but the 1st overall. At 1.1, especially in PPR or half point PPR, Christian McCaffrey has to be the pick. He's not only on a very run-friendly offense with a star studded team, but he's going to catch A TON of passes. Given the uncertainty of Tier 2 of the RBs this year, I'd rather pick a Tier 1 WR, because it is a more predictable position. This year, I'd even encourage you to think about TE Travis Kelce as his splits above TE2 (+6 points per game) is enormous.
But at the end of the day, if you do consider using a Zero RB Strategy, I'd urge you to keep an open mind. Maybe you're lucky enough to snag Tyreek Hill and Garrett Wilson in R1 & R2. If an RB you're high on (Najee Harris, Travis Etienne etc.) falls to you in the 3rd Round, DO NOT blindly snub them to stick to this strategy. This strategy started with and flourished while letting the board fall to you, so don't be afraid to abandon ship if good value presents itself.