Zero Running Back Mock Draft (Fantasy Football)
Entering the 2016 fantasy football season, the Zero RB draft strategy had become more popular than the song Gangnam Style was back in 2012. After the 2015 fantasy season saw only one running back (Devonta Freeman) break the 300-point PPR plateau, the concept of waiting on running backs was the best way to construct the ideal fantasy football roster. But then David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, and Ezekiel Elliot happened. And now?
Robust RB is back in vogue.
But Zero RB is still a viable draft strategy and one that I am using in most of my drafts. I decided to construct what the best Zero RB roster would look like from an early selection. Using the Fantasy Pros Mock Draft Simulator, let’s start by simulating the first, second, or third overall pick and create the ideal Zero RB fantasy team.
As a point of reference, we will assume the following scoring settings and roster construction details:
- Passing TDs: 4 points each
- Rushing, Receiving TDs: 6 points each
- Receptions: 1 point each
- Starters: 1 QB, 2 RB, 3 WRs, 1 TE, DEF, K
- Bench: 6 Players
- 12-Team League
For each selection, I will provide the ideal choice as well as the available other options that are being selected. Each selection will have a rationale that describes my process in selecting that specific player. The goal is to provide a strong PPR scoring team that has a quality bench to support bye weeks and injuries.
Round One: Just Because It’s Easy Doesn’t Mean It’s Wrong
Rationale: Don’t overthink this selection. While the temptation may be great to select one of the big three running backs (David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, or Ezekiel Elliott), in a PPR format the ideal first-round selection is simple. Over the last three seasons, Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown has averaged 123.7 receptions, 1,605 receiving yards, and 11.7 touchdowns. He finished as the top fantasy wide receiver in each of those last three seasons.
Even if you are addicted to selecting a first-round running back, the only unreasonable option at this draft spot will be Elliott. Given the rumors of a possible upcoming suspension, there is no reason to take that risk in round one. Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham is more volatile on a weekly basis than Brown, and the nagging injuries of Atlanta’s Julio Jones are a source of weekly frustration for owners. The first-round pick for the ideal Zero RB lineup is unequivocally Brown.
Round Two: The Rodney Dangerfield of Wide Receivers
Rationale: Doug Baldwin doesn’t get any respect from the fantasy community. All he has done in each of the past two seasons is finish as a top-10 fantasy PPR wide receiver. He’s tethered to a great, young quarterback (Russell Wilson), and has averaged 114 targets per season. The naysayers said his 5.5-to-1 touchdown to reception rate in 2015 couldn’t continue, and they were right. In 2016, he only caught seven touchdowns but increased his receptions by 16 (78 to 94) and added 59 more receiving yards.
Fellow fantasy drafters will make the mistake of drafting players like New England tight end Rob Gronkowski before Baldwin, which will allow you to start with two primary receiving targets on top teams with star quarterbacks. There is a multitude of other fantasy options here, but all have their own warts. Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen has played nine total games since 2014, Green Bay wide receiver Davante Adams still hasn’t broken 1,000 yards in three seasons with a Hall of Fame quarterback, Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins still has awful quarterback play, and Patriots new wide receiver Brandin Cooks will be fighting several players for targets from quarterback Tom Brady.
Round Three: The Chief Tight End
Rationale: This is earlier than I prefer to select a tight end, but if Kansas City’s Travis Kelce is still on the board, he’s the best third-round selection. The Chiefs jettisoned their most reliable wide receiver in Jeremy Maclin, leaving only Tyreek Hill and several underwhelming receiving options. Kelce led all tight ends last year with 223 PPR fantasy points, and his targets have increased each of his first three seasons (87, 103, 117). In 2016, he ranked second among all tight ends with 85 receptions and first with 1,125 receiving yards.
In a four-point-per-passing-touchdown format, selecting a quarterback is a clear mistake which devalues Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. Jacksonville rookie running back Leonard Fournette is still an unknown and inherits a below average Jacksonville offensive line. Philadelphia’s Alshon Jeffery has an extensive injury history, and Texans running back Lamar Miller maintains a questionable “true bell cow” status.
It would be foolish to pass up on last year’s top fantasy tight end when even more targets are projected for 2017. Travis Kelce is the perfect Zero RB PPR third-round selection.
Round Four: The Golden Ticket
Rationale: Staying true to the Zero RB format, it’s time to lock up our your third starting wide receiver by drafting Detroit’s Golden Tate. He has three consecutive 90+ reception seasons on an annual top 10 offense in pass attempts. Tate is one of the NFL’s best in yards after catch, finishing first overall last season with 676 yards (PlayerProfiler).
Tate’s current ADP average of WR 25 is an incredible value for a player who has finished 11th, 24th, and 17th in total fantasy points the last three seasons. Fantasy owners are still punishing Tate for his anemic five-game start last season when he averaged 3.4 receptions, 26.8 yards, and produced zero touchdowns. After those five games, Tate’s per game averages rose to 6.7 receptions and 85.7 yards.
New England’s wide receiver Julian Edelman has major target competition and is north of 30 years old. Raiders wide receiver Michael Crabtree is still option No. 2 in Oakland, and Carolina tight end Greg Olsen is consistent but not fourth-round worthy. While I am high on Green Bay’s running back Ty Montgomery, the history of consistent production for Tate wins out here.
Round Five: Pass the Jamison
Rationale: Given the four-point-per-passing-touchdown format, there are too many great options still available to even consider taking a quarterback in round five. The best choice is to secure your fourth wide receiver and select Washington Redskins third-year breakout candidate Jamison Crowder.
The reports are rampant that Washington wants to increase Crowder’s role, and it’s easy to understand why. Even last season with Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson as the starting wide receivers, Crowder finished inside the top 20 at the position with 363 yards after catch (PlayerProfiler). He led Redskins wide receivers with seven touchdowns while totaling 67 receptions on only 99 targets.
The off-the-field issues with Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant concern me, as does quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s injury history and the offense’s struggles on the road. It is too early for San Francisco running back Carlos Hyde and Seattle timeshare running back Eddie Lacy, and the scoring format makes me pass on New Orleans star quarterback Drew Brees.
With Antonio Brown, Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate, and now Jamison Crowder, your fantasy team has the perfect lineup of wide receivers to battle for any PPR fantasy football championship.
Round Six and Seven: Team Backfield Drafting…The New Coke
Selection: Ameer Abdullah (RB – DET); Theo Riddick (RB – DET)
Other Options: Derek Carr (QB – OAK), Bilal Powell (RB – NYJ), Philip Rivers (QB – LAC), Tyler Eifert (TE – CIN), Kirk Cousins (QB – WAS), Jameis Winston (QB – TB), Doug Martin (RB – TB), Mark Ingram (RB – NO)
Rationale: Time to finally select our running backs, and the optimal move is to follow my Team Backfield Drafting philosophy. The versatility provided by drafting both Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick is the exact essence of Zero RB. This provides you the luxury of observing how Detroit deploys their backfield, and then simply adjusting your weekly lineup accordingly.
Detroit’s Ameer Abdullah is a talented pass catcher that is explosive in space. He was incredibly productive at Nebraska but has yet to reach his potential in the NFL. While it was only one game, Abdullah flashed his potential last season with a 120 total yard, one-touchdown, five-reception performance in Week 1 against Indianapolis. He was off to a great start against Tennessee the following week (six carries, 38 yards), before suffering a foot sprain that ultimately required Lisfranc surgery.
It is well within the range of outcomes that Abdullah has a breakout season, and drafting teammate Theo Riddick provides not only insurance but standalone PPR value. Riddick is only one year removed from an 80-reception/697-yard season, both of which were second among all fantasy running backs. The 5’10″ 201 lb PPR monster is still only 26 years old and may be the most elusive pass-catching back in the NFL.
Quarterbacks start to fall quickly in round six and seven with Oakland’s Derek Carr, Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston, and Washington’s Kirk Cousins all going off the board, but they fail to provide enough differential from later-round quarterbacks to justify selection here. New York Jets running back Bilal Powell is potent in PPR formats, but he remains Matt Forte‘s backup. Cincinnati tight end Tyler Eifert’s 13 touchdowns on 74 target season in 2015 has lost its luster. Both Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin and New Orleans running back Mark Ingram are much more talented than Riddick but are both in muddled time share situations.
Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick are the perfect pairings to begin building your Zero RB PPR backfield. It’s better to fully secure one full backfield rather than acquire slightly more talented running backs with significantly more uncertainty.
Round Eight and Nine: Find Ignored Value
Rationale: Washington’s backfield is one of the hidden gems in fantasy football this year. I took Samaje Perine in round eight because his ADP on the automated draft board was higher than teammate Rob Kelley (spoiler alert for next pick). The Redskins had one of the league’s best run-blocking offensive lines, and their passing preference causes favorable defensive fronts to attack on the ground.
Perine is off the radar of casual fantasy drafters because of split time at Oklahoma with backfield teammate Joe Mixon. While many see the Redskins backfield as cluttered, Perine and Kelley provide production at a Costco-esque discount. By following the Zero RB draft strategy, it is impossible to find individual running backs in these rounds that will dominate touches. Philadelphia’s LeGarrette Blount and Seattle’s C.J. Prosise both share snaps. Tennessee wide receiver Eric Decker and Tampa Bay’s DeSean Jackson are established veterans in crowded circumstances with young quarterbacks.
One of these two running backs will score double-digits touchdowns. Select them both and adjust when the Redskins lead running back is established, or start both if Washington can mimic the Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman production from last season.
Round 10: Shock and Awe
Rationale: In a 12-team league with passing touchdowns worth four points, the quarterback value in the later rounds is incredible. My preference in this format is to be the last person to select a quarterback. Few drafters will take two quarterbacks in this scenario, leaving fantastic options after the first 11 quarterbacks are selected. While it may be hard to believe that Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota is still available in round nine, when you look at the earlier quarterbacks drafted it is very realistic.
The only two quarterbacks I was surprised were selected before Mariota were Philip Rivers and Dak Prescott. However, the ideal Zero RB lineup would still look just as strong with either player at quarterback.
If Mariota is still available at this spot, he is an automatic selection that is a very popular breakout candidate among the fantasy community. Entering his third season, Mariota is a dual-threat quarterback that finished fourth among all quarterbacks with 365 rushing yards in just 15 games. Tennessee upgraded its receivers with first-round rookie Corey Davis and veteran red-zone specialist Eric Decker. Mariota is protected by one of the league’s best offensive lines and limits mistakes as shown by his nine interceptions last season.
No matter who you select, waiting on quarterback is the only play for the ideal Zero RB lineup in four-point-per-passing-touchdown leagues. The dual-threat Mariota is a great high-floor signal caller to put in your weekly lineup.
Round 11: Ole’ Reliable
Rationale: Fantasy drafters are cooling on the Panthers veteran running back to the point of insanity. Jonathan Stewart is the lead RB on a run-heavy offense who is consistently among the league leaders in elusiveness. As per PlayerProfiler, Stewart finished fifth and 11th in each of the last two seasons in Evaded Tackles. The Panthers coaching staff will focus on protecting Cam Newton more which will translate to even more red-zone touches for Stewart. He had 16 rushes inside the five-yard line last season which tied for fourth-most among running backs. In 2015, Stewart ranked seventh among the position with nine attempts inside the five-yard line.
The addition of rookie Christian McCaffrey could hurt Stewart’s receiving opportunities, but it could also keep him healthy. The biggest concern is his injury-prone reputation. Stewart has missed 26 games over the last five seasons, but that’s irrelevant as an 11th-round selection. The other options all have bigger question marks: Matt Forte (age/RBBC), Giovani Bernard (PUP list to start season?), and Darren Sproles (not goal line RB).
Having the opportunity to draft a goal line RB1 in round 11 is incredible value and provides your fantasy team with a strong bench option.
Round 12: PPR Lottery Ticket
Rationale: The easiest pick of the entire draft. In these rounds, you are looking for a wide receiver that could crack your starting lineup a few times and produce at a WR3 level. Insert the PPR magnet Cole Beasley, who has seen a 100 percent increase in targets from 2014 (49) to 2016 (98). His yards have risen in that same time span from 420 to 833 yards. Beasley has also maintained consistent touchdown numbers during those three seasons with four, five, and five touchdowns, respectively.
None of the other options are the least bit appealing, and I prefer selecting Marcus Mariota one round earlier over both Detroit’s Matthew Stafford and Washington’s Kirk Cousins. Beasley will be a PPR beast for Dallas this season and a great bye-week replacement.
Round 13: A Starting Backup
Rationale: Our bench contains three running backs and two wide receivers. Where should we go for the last bench spot? There are several mediocre wide receivers, so the choice is Coby Fleener of New Orleans. He is the starting tight end with no competition on a high-powered New Orleans offense.
Fleener disappointed all fantasy fans when he failed to come close to his 77.83 ADP as the TE6 last season. He finished the season as the TE23 with just 8.6 fantasy points per game. However, there is a path that shows a big rebound season for Fleener.
Last season was Fleener’s first in New Orleans which necessitated an adjustment. He still is just 28 years old and possesses outstanding athleticism. Despite a disappointing season, he still managed 10 red-zone receptions which was fifth among all tight ends. Certainly being tethered to Drew Brees and the explosive Saints offense is still a huge benefit, and the 117 vacated targets by Cooks’ departure are up for grabs.
While Seattle’s defense is great, there is more value in grabbing a backup tight end and selecting a defense in the next round. Seattle’s Thomas Rawls and the New York Giants pair of quarterback Eli Manning and wide receiver Sterling Shepard would all be repetitive fantasy assets on your team.
Round 14: Don’t Sleep on the Jags
Selection: Def-Jacksonville Jaguars
Other Options: Def-Baltimore, Def-Carolina
Rationale: With only two rounds left, it is time to select a defense. I have targeted the Jaguars’ defense in all of my drafts, as there is always one team each year that makes that big leap into the upper echelon of fantasy defenses. The unit only allowed 3.8 yards per rush (eighth overall), but their inefficient offense put them on the field too often, which explains the 19th overall finish in total rushing yards allowed.
The best part of the Jaguars defense is their secondary. They only allowed 3,444 passing yards which was fifth fewest in the league. Rookie Jalen Ramsey showed great promise. He graded out as the 21st best cornerback according to Pro Football Focus. In addition, Jacksonville signed A.J. Buoye to a $67 million contract. He graded out as the third best cornerback (Pro Football Focus).
The Jaguars brought in defensive tackle Calais Campbell to join Malik Jackson and Dante Fowler on an improved front line. Throw in a solid linebacking core of Myles Jack, Paul Posluszny, and Telvin Smith, and the Jaguars defense could be the sleeper fantasy defense of 2017.
Round 15: Grab a Leg
Selection: Dan Bailey (K – DAL)
Other Options: Matt Bryant (K – ATL), Mason Crosby (K – GB), Matt Prater (K – DET)
Rationale: Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey hasn’t missed an extra point in his entire six-year NFL career. He is 250 for 250. Also, as per NFL.com, Bailey is 68.6 percent (24 of 35) over his career from 50 yards or more. He is reliable from short range, has a strong leg, is on an explosive offense, and plays indoors. You couldn’t ask for more from your fantasy kicker.
The Ideal Zero RB team from the early draft position for PPR leagues is now complete. Let’s recap the roster:
The Zero RB draft strategy is the ideal PPR roster construction format for the 2017 fantasy football season. When drafting from an early position, you can easily acquire the best wide receiver group in your league while still finding great mid-to-late round RB value. Implementing the Team Backfield Draft Strategy, you can grab the Detroit and Washington full backfields, and just wait to see who develops as the bell-cow running back.
With the best wide receivers in your league, two strong team backfields, the 2016 top PPR tight end, and quarterback Marcus Mariota, this fantasy team would serve as a top contender for your league’s 2017 fantasy football championship.