Using Zero RB Strategy to Win your League

by Nick Johnson | @bigplaycoachj | Featured Writer
May 17, 2017

Top running backs are much more likely to get hurt for extended periods than wide receivers

If you are attacking your fantasy drafts using a big board filled with the most talented players, then you’re off to a good start. If you are drafting your team based solely on the top available players on your big board and you haven’t identified a strategy pre-draft, then the good start you got off to just took a turn too sharp and rolled eight times, coming to a flame-engulfed stop on its hood in the middle of I-70. Drafting without a game plan will cap the potential of your team before Jim Nantz ever says, “Hello friends!” on a September Sunday afternoon. Draft strategy can, without a doubt, be very fluid as the picks begin taking place, and you should be ready to adjust on the fly, but your strategy with early, high-capital picks will ultimately determine success over the duration of the season.

What is Zero RB Strategy?

Shawn Siegele’s Zero RB Strategy was dubbed as such because you should draft a certain number of wide receivers and tight ends before drafting any running backs. Zero RB truthers would say that you should select five or six pass catchers before contemplating drafting a running back. I know, I know…this goes against everything you’ve ever learned about fantasy football. “Draft running backs early and often,” they say. “They’ll get injured and you’ll need depth,” they say. It is for those very reasons that drafting running backs early can break your team’s back. Using early-round picks to select running backs can haunt you forever (I’m looking at you, Adrian Peterson). All it takes is one injury and the value of that pick dissipates. NFL injury data is more classified than most government documents, so it’s rather hard to access. Thankfully, Josh Hermsmeyer of RotoViz wrote a great article on injuries among running backs and wide receivers entitled “Why Zero RB Works: Quantifying Injury Rates” where he compares the two position groups. When Josh took ADP into account and narrowed the field down to players likely to take snaps, running backs were 7% more likely to get injured than wide receivers. This difference is not enough to really even bat an eye at. Running backs are, however, 24 to 31 percent more likely to suffer a serious injury when the data is filtered to include only injuries sidelining players four weeks or longer. The injury data gets even bleaker when you look solely at players tied to high draft capital. When comparing the top-24 ADP wide receivers to the top-24 ADP running backs, the running backs are 200% to 360% more likely to suffer an injury lasting longer than 4 weeks!

Having an early-round running back go down to injury, however, is not the major flaw in a running back heavy draft strategy. The Achilles heel is the lack of depth at wide receiver. Using your first handful of picks on running backs leaves you begging for wide receiver talent in the fifth round and beyond. “Has anyone taken Antonio Brown?” Yes, Grandpa, he was the third pick of the draft. But wait, when I use the Zero RB strategy, I’m begging for running back talent in the later rounds, so what’s the difference? There is a huge difference. Wide receivers are less volatile from year to year. With reasonable accuracy, you can look at a wide receiver’s prior success and the quarterback they will be catching passes from and be able to predict value. Running backs are much more difficult to predict because of the variance in offensive line play. Rarely does a team retain all five starting offensive linemen from one year to the next, and that group has a major impact on a running back’s ability to rack up fantasy points. Changes in the personnel up front can vault a running back to stardom, or send them back to the cellar (I’m still looking at you Adrian Peterson), both of which are extremely difficult to forecast pre-season.

Despite being less volatile from year to year, wide receivers are certainly more volatile from week to week. Receptions and touchdowns are more difficult to predict than a running back’s carries. One week, a wide receiver might catch seven passes for 110 yards and a touchdown and the next week he might only catch three passes for 55 yards and receive zero red-zone targets. It’s difficult to show week-to-week volatility without massive amounts of data being compiled, so let’s just take a peak at last season. The top three wide receivers in 2016 (Antonio Brown, Jordy Nelson and Mike Evans) had 18 top-10 finishes. Comparatively, the top three running backs (David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, and Le’Veon Bell) had 30 top-10 finishes and did so in four fewer games thanks to Bell’s suspension. Running backs tend to hover in the same general area of the weekly results because carries will always be more consistent than catches. The only way to bridge the volatility gap is to draft top wide receiver talent or pass-catchers that are tied to elite quarterbacks. So while your opponents are drafting the “sure thing” running backs like Bell and Elliott, you are spending your first six picks on O’Dell Beckham, Amari Cooper, Keenan Allen, Terrelle Pryor, Julian Edelman, and Donte Moncrief. Even if one of them busts and one suffers an injury, you still have four very strong options to fill your wide receiver slots and your flex position.

Who Should Use Zero RB Strategy?

The Zero RB approach should primarily be used in point-per-reception (PPR) scoring formats. Standard scoring leagues simply do not have enough valuable backs to make this strategy effective. By the seventh round, the majority of starting running backs have been taken off the board and you are left with pass-catching backs, who are not as valuable in standard scoring leagues, or reserve running backs that require an injury or two in order to see significant playing time.

As we’ll dig into in the next two sections, it’s also important for an owner to be comfortable identifying Zero RB targets later in their drafts and actively managing their teams through the fantasy season. This should be a given, as but considering the expected volatility at the running back position, owners will need to stay engaged in their weekly waiver wire in order to convert a successful Zero RB draft into a successful Zero RB season.

Identifying Zero RB Targets

The important and more difficult piece of the Zero-RB strategy is drafting running backs who have a chance to exceed pre-season expectations. Considering Zero-RB Strategy should primarily be used in PPR formats, running backs known for being pass-catching specialists can be available into the seventh round. Current examples are Theo Riddick (ADP 71) and Danny Woodhead (ADP 88). Other Zero-RB targets are often young backs who are second on the depth chart behind aging veterans.

One of my prime Zero-RB candidates for 2017 is Derrick Henry, due mostly to the fact he is the backup to 30-year-old DeMarco Murray, but also because he’s a durable and talented runner. Other backs will supplant starters mid-season and many more will emerge from the dust of an injury-riddled depth chart. Identifying and selecting the running backs with the greatest chance of doing so will give you a chance at finding two or three valuable running backs to cycle through your starting lineup.

Zero RB Roster Construction

Zero RB not only affects your draft-day thought process. It also should affect your roster construction. Knowing that your running backs are riskier picks, it is advisable that you load up on running backs late in the draft. Having selected five or six high-level pass catchers, it is not necessary to draft late-round wideouts. The more backs you draft, the higher the probability of you finding a back worthy of being in your starting lineup. As the season progresses, pay particular attention to those diamond in the rough running backs on the waiver wire. They will be your golden ticket on your journey through the playoffs.

Conclusion

  • Here’s a recap of how you can use Zero RB strategy to win your league.
  • Zero RB strategy is best implemented in PPR leagues.
  • Zero RB strategy says to draft pass catchers (as many as five or six) before selecting your first running back.
  • In the later rounds, target pass-catching backs or high-upside younger players that are just behind aging veterans on the depth chart. Load up on running backs late in the draft.
  • Navigate the waiver wire for ‘diamond in the rough’ running backs that emerge throughout the season.

Good luck!

Nick Johnson is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Nick, check out his archive and follow him @bigplaycoachj.

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