2015 Fantasy Football: The Zero Running Back Strategy
Jack Delaney discusses the Zero Running Back Strategy in fantasy football.
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One of the most frustrating aspects of fantasy sports is that there isn’t a single strategy that will let you win your league. Fantasy football strategy mainly revolves around biases and misinformation, and there are generally few resources available to those looking for answers on specific strategies. If you’re looking to move past selecting running backs in back-to-back rounds the Zero Running Back Strategy may be right up your alley.
In 2013, I was determined to select a dominant running back crew. I started off the draft with Ray Rice, selected Stevan Ridley in Round 2 after his 1,263-yard performance in 2012 and I thought Maurice Jones-Drew was a value in Round 3. Needless to say, I didn’t make the playoffs. I played the waiver wire hard and drafted guys like Josh Gordon that helped my team survive, but my first picks killed my season.
I knew there had to be a better way to draft a team than automatically selecting running backs back-to-back, and I experimented with different strategies. When I learned about the Zero Running Back Strategy, I was all in. You don’t want to follow any strategy blindly, as there will be certain situations where a strategy may not fit. If you have the first pick in your draft, you aren’t going to select Dez Bryant or Odell Beckham Jr. over Le’Veon Bell or Eddie Lacy. Still, this strategy seemed to offer a solution to drafting running backs in Round 1 and Round 2 who did not meet expectations.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Zero Running Back Strategy or aren’t sure how it works exactly, I’m going to break down everything you need to know.
Zero Running Back Basics
Essentially, the Zero Running Back Strategy is all about limiting your risks. Your first picks in the draft are supposed to be the foundation of your team. You look towards them as the breadwinners, and you build the rest of your roster around your picks in Round 1 and Round 2. Instead of selecting Arian Foster at the end of Round 1 and C.J. Anderson at the start of Round 2 just because they appear to be the best backs on the board, you would draft wide receivers instead with the Zero Running Back Strategy. While wide receivers aren’t without their own sets of risks, they are generally able to provide much more stability. The running back position is filled with hazards and committee approaches that tend to lead towards instability, which creates a major decrease in your investment as the season wears on.
If you’re drafting towards the back of your draft, you might have an opportunity to select Demaryius Thomas and Calvin Johnson. Why is this more beneficial than drafting running backs, and wouldn’t you miss out on owning two running backs who could potentially finish in the top 10? While you may miss out on two top-10 performers, you are also missing out on a huge amount of risk. Foster is productive when he is on the field, but he is quickly approaching his 29th birthday, and has only played two-full seasons in his entire career. Anderson is talented, but new coach Gary Kubiak may want to see what Montee Ball still has in the tank, and start a timeshare in the Denver backfield. Even though Johnson suffered injuries last season, he’s a pretty safe bet to finish as a top-five receiver every season. Despite a potential decline in Peyton Manning’s production, Demaryius Thomas is still his favorite target. With Thomas and Johnson, I’m limiting my risk and opting for two players I can build a team around.
Zero Running Back Strategy Drafting
The strategy is not for everyone. You will have to be comfortable with watching running backs fly off the board, and not owning one until the later rounds. I always suggest drafting a running back when you feel comfortable. If you want to draft a running back in Round 5, then draft a running back in Round 5. If you wait until Round 8, that is perfectly fine as well. It’s your team, and you need to understand your own risk tolerance.
Now, there is some debate on exactly what constitutes a Zero Running Back Strategy. Some people will say that you’re only using the strategy if you select receivers for your first picks up until Round 4. Some people will say that you can draft any position but running back, and it is still the Zero Running Back Strategy; although others argue that leads to Value-Based Drafting biases. Again, it’s your team, and you can do whatever you want, but these are the general thoughts on the strategy.
Based on current ADP from FantasyFootballCalculator.com, I am going to provide examples of what a team may look like if you decide to try the Zero Running Back Strategy in your 2015 fantasy football drafts.
Example 1: 12-team standard league, ninth pick in the draft
Round 1: Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys
Round 2: Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions
Round 3: DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans
Round 4: Andre Johnson, WR, Indianapolis Colts
Round 5: Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami Dolphins
Round 6: Darren McFadden, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Round 7: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
Round 8: Shane Vereen, RB, New York Giants
Round 9: Reggie Bush, RB, San Francisco 49ers
Round 10: Jason Witten, TE, Dallas Cowboys
Round 11: Jay Ajayi, RB, Miami Dolphins
Round 12: Zac Stacy, RB New York Jets
Round 13: Vernon Davis, TE, San Francisco 49ers
Round 14: Detroit Lions, DEF
Round 15: Nick Novak, K, San Diego Chargers
All of my wide receivers have a pretty good chance of finishing in the top 20, and I have a few who might be able to crack the top 10. If Bryant or Johnson become injured or underperform, I still have solid options to replace them. My running backs aren’t RB1s, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t surprise a few people. I’m simply looking for backs who have the potential to provide consistent results, and I will be very active on the waiver wire to locate running back talent when the season starts.
If I drafted using the alternative Zero Running Back strategy, by taking all positions but running back, this is what my team might look like with the ninth pick in a standard scoring draft.
Round 1: Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
Round 2: Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions
Round 3: Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
Round 4: Jordan Matthews, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Round 5: C.J. Spiller, RB, New Orleans Saints
Round 6: Melvin Gordon, RB, San Diego Chargers
Round 7: Vincent Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Round 8: Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders
Round 9: Knile Davis, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Round 10: Delanie Walker, TE, Tennessee Titans
Round 11: Sam Bradford, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Round 12: Dwayne Bowe, WR, Cleveland Browns
Round 13: Denver Broncos, DEF
Round 14: Trent Richardson, RB, Oakland Raiders
Round 15: Connor Barth, K, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
As you can see, you’ll find different results with variations of the strategy. If you draft a tight end and quarterback early, you can spend more of your middle and late-round picks on wide receivers and running backs. In either scenario, you will still have to be very active on the waiver wire to find running back talent.
Again, this isn’t a strategy to follow blindly. If you have one of the first picks in the draft, you aren’t going to pass on Lacy or Marshawn Lynch. If you’ve been burned in the past by running back busts in the early rounds of your draft, however, this is a strategy that can offer more stability. If you’re preparing for your 2015 fantasy draft and would like to know more about this strategy, you can check out my new ebook for additional information on the Zero Running Back Strategy.