In 2013, Shawn Siegele (@FF_Contrarian) of RotoViz came out with his Zero RB strategy. Shawn’s idea wasn’t necessarily dogging running backs, but we should be drafting players less likely to get hurt in the early rounds. He specifically used the word “antifragility” to describe this.
Antifragility will naturally lead to not taking running backs early, however, because of the natural tendency for them to get hurt more often. Based on data pulled by Michael Gertz, running backs get hurt 15% more than wide receivers for 22% longer, on average.
Bust rates typically tend to be even across the board for both wide receivers and running backs. Wide receivers drafted as WR1s are slightly more likely to return WR1 value than the same set of RBs, but the difference is small enough to be written off.
The more important thing is projectability. When a top wide receiver goes down, the targets he leaves on the field with him are likely to be spread out among the other pass-catching options. When a running back goes down, there’s often a clear-cut backup there waiting to take the reins, and frequently this running back can be found on the waiver wire.
That’s what brings us to Zero RB. After a down year for top running backs in 2015, it was the strategy in 2016 drafts. That year, six running backs were taken in the first round and 11 in the first two round compared to the current 2018 ADP numbers of nine in the first round and 15 in the first two rounds. This is quite the jump — so what happened? Running backs made a resurgence and first-round receivers like DeAndre Hopkins and Allen Robinson completely busted.
Zero RB isn’t the only strategy that can be used to win leagues, but it’s always best to “zig” when your league mates are “zagging.” If there are tons of running backs flying off the board before you and great value is available at wide receiver, don’t be afraid to miss out on a first-round running back. The historical numbers show your pick will have a better chance of staying on the field and there are plenty of good running back targets in the middle rounds to lead you to a championship. Let’s identify some players you can get in Round 5 and beyond based on our consensus ADP.
Lamar Miller (HOU) ADP 55
Many fantasy owners have been burned by Miller’s mediocrity over the past few years, myself included. But in taking wide receivers (or an elite tight end) with our first four or five picks, we’ve built a solid core that allows us to only need consistent points out of our running backs.
Insert Miller. With D’Onta Foreman extremely questionable to start the season after tearing his Achilles in Week 11 of last year, there’s nowhere to turn for the Texans but Miller. He wasn’t the most exciting player, but he rode good health to an RB14 finish in 2017 and was reasonably consistent along the way, notching RB2 or better numbers in 11 of his 15 weeks.
His efficiency ratings have steadily declined over the years, but opportunity is king in fantasy football, and he is a solid bet for 15+ touches a week in a good Texans offense. I’m grabbing him everywhere I can when I go Zero RB.
Dion Lewis (TEN) ADP 68
I’ve admittedly slept on Lewis every year. “Something something New England backfield…” was the go-to excuse. Well, he produced when he was on the field in New England and was rewarded with a nice contract in Tennessee.
I was very high on Derrick Henry last year in my keeper leagues with the obvious departure of DeMarco Murray, but with Henry not exactly lighting it up, and the front office putting a lot of faith in Lewis, Lewis is now without a doubt my preferred Titans back. Insanely efficient, he was third in YPC, 10th in breakaway runs (15 yards or more) rate, sixth in evaded tackles, and third in juke rate.
He’s not a downfield receiving threat (zero Air Yards last year), but the elusive runner can create plenty out of the backfield on short throws. He was the overall RB12 last year and is currently being drafted as the RB27. While he won’t be as consistent as Lamar Miller, his upside is fantastic in the middle rounds if you have a strong receiving corps.
Marshawn Lynch (OAK) ADP 83
Full disclosure — Lynch is done as a good running back in this league. I wanted zero part of him last season at his mid-20s ADP. People bought the name and were unsurprisingly disappointed.
So why should you pick him this year? Well, he showed that he could still be a volume-based fantasy asset. He’ll get the early down and goal line work in an Oakland offense that has a decent (albeit not great) QB-WR tandem for teams to worry about.
My favorite thing that Lynch has going for him is the fact that he has Jon Gruden as his head coach. All offseason, Gruden has been mocked for the way he wants to get back to old school football and his affinity for over-the-hill players. I honestly think he will be too stubborn to let a more dynamic running back take over for the “hard-nosed vet.” If Lynch stays healthy, 1,000 YFS and 10 touchdowns aren’t at all unattainable and would be a downright bargain at his current draft position.
Rex Burkhead (NE) ADP 99
Burkhead won’t get the weekly yardage totals to make him ultra-reliable, but if he did, he would be going significantly higher than the 99th pick. Sony Michel is expected to fill the Dion Lewis role from last year, but if Burkhead can lock down the goal line role in one of the NFL’s best offenses, he can be a precious fantasy asset. In just 10 games last season, Burkhead found himself 12th in the league in goal-line carries and 11th in touchdowns, finding the end zone eight times. With Mike Gillislee and his five goal-line touchdowns practically out of the picture after falling out of favor last season, Rex Burkhead is your best bet at double-digit touchdowns this late in the draft.
Aaron Jones (GB) ADP 101
Nobody knows how the Green Bay backfield will ultimately play out, but whoever can take hold of the starting job in an Aaron Rodgers‘ offense offers immense value. While Jamaal Williams plodded along for 3.6 yards per carry with terrible underlying efficiency stats, Jones flashed brilliance in his brief time as a starter before getting hurt. Averaging 91 yards from scrimmage and scoring three touchdowns in four games in the starting role, Jones’ 16-game average would put him at almost 1,400 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.
Ty Montgomery will be there to siphon catches out of the backfield, and Jones will be suspended for a couple games to start the season, but you’re not going to find better RB1 upside than a highly-talented Green Bay running back in the ninth round. 1,200+ yards and double-digit touchdowns are within reach.
The above players give a solid mix of upside and floor to supplement a strong receiving core if you use a Zero RB strategy. There are plenty of other options, as well.
If you see your leaguemates panicking and picking running backs early to make sure they don’t miss out, don’t be afraid to go rogue. There’s more than one way to win in fantasy football, and going Zero RB in your draft is just as good as any of the others.