Zero RB Strategy: Early, Mid, and Late Round Targets (2019 Fantasy Football)
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Fantasy football has very few constants. There are obvious ones like, “never draft a kicker early,” if your league still even uses kickers. You will also hear less obvious ones such as “always play it safe in the first round.” As the expression goes, you can’t win your league in the first round but you can certainly lose it.
Moreover, one of the oldest and most widely-accepted constants in fantasy football has to be the value of running backs. As replaceable as many argue they are in the real sport, it’s almost impossible to win your league without strong production from your stable of backs. They have always been the lifeblood of fantasy football. However, the league has evolved much since the days when every team had a run-first mentality and a bellcow rusher to execute that game plan. The NFL has largely become a pass-first league, and more and more teams have begun to use committees at running back, utilizing multiple runners with varying skillsets to challenge defenses. Not all constants remain so over time.
If you’re reading this, you either like to be bold in your quest for fortune when drafting your team, or you’re intrigued by the idea of taking the road less traveled. The Zero RB Strategy is not for the faint of heart. It’s not easy passing on superstar tailbacks in order to prioritize talent at other positions, especially when for decades, running backs have dominated the first two rounds of most fantasy drafts. Less than a decade ago, this strategy was harder to deploy and required ample speculation, risk, and reliance on pass-catching backs; in fact, it was used almost exclusively in PPR leagues. With the changing landscape of the league, and thus the running back position, it’s becoming easier to find highly productive featured runners, not just satellite backs, later in drafts.
The goal of this article is not to list all the available targets when using the Zero RB Strategy. Instead, we’re going to focus on precisely which targets you should be aiming to acquire in the early, middle, and later rounds. To appeal to the broadest audience, we will look at FantasyPros’ ADP for Half PPR Scoring, since this format values all running backs on a more level base. For the sake of argument, let’s say your plan is to come away with three solid pass catchers (WR-WR-WR or WR-WR-TE) and a quarterback in the first four rounds. While all the RB1 and stronger RB2 candidates have likely been scooped up by Round 5, that still leaves us with a few strong early-round running back targets in the lower-tier RB2 range who possess RB1 upside. In fact, there are two that you should be targetting right away.
Early Round Targets: David Montgomery (ADP 46.3) and Mark Ingram (ADP 46.3)
First, I want to mention Mark Ingram, as he will be the lead rusher on a Baltimore squad that will almost certainly be a run-first team with Lamar Jackson behind center. Ingram’s ADP (46.3) puts him squarely on the edge of availability at the turn of Round 4/Round 5, so if Ingram slips, he’s a strong target here as well. There’s some downside with Jackson siphoning a lot of work on the ground with designed QB rushes, so David Montgomery figures to be a stronger candidate as a target here.
By now, you’ve probably seen the viral clip of him barreling over would-be tacklers during Bears’ practice. He is a battering ram with excellent vision who made Jordan Howard expendable. Pro Football Focus detailed how Montgomery forced more missed tackles in a season (109 in 2017) than any other rusher ever. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, his 102 forced missed tackles last year rank as the second-best mark ever. Only Josh Jacobs had a higher rushing grade than Montgomery coming out of college for the draft this year.
Playing in the NFC North in the winter will provide Montgomery with a lot of rushing attempts as the Bears attempt to a ball-control offense under HC Matt Nagy. Scatback Tarik Cohen was heavily involved last year. Cohen received the second-most targets without a drop last year; he’s not riding the bench in this offense, but a big reason for that heavy involvement stemmed from Jordan Howard‘s limitations in the passing game. Montgomery is a more complete back, and he’s more talented than Mike Davis, who will back him up. There is some legitimate RB1 upside here.
Mid-Round Targets A: Tevin Coleman (ADP 64) and James White (ADP 64.7)
By the time you reach the middle rounds using a Zero RB Strategy, you want to begin stockpiling running backs. This is the range where scatbacks like James White and Tarik Cohen go. Both those backs have seen their stock buoyed by their receiving ability and volume, though both also carry some risk given their low carry totals and fact that both their respective teams added talent at their position in the offseason. White is the better target of the two considering his consistency (three straight seasons of 60 or more receptions and 20 total touchdowns).
However, a player like Tevin Coleman makes for a better target here. He will catch plenty of passes in a Kyle Shanahan offense, but he also should garner enough carries out of the backfield to give him an RB2 floor. Coleman knows this offense from his time with Shanahan in Atlanta, and without Devonta Freeman sharing the backfield with him, he has the opportunity to seize the lead role of what should be a quasi-committee in San Francisco. Jerick McKinnon has not had a smooth recovery from an ACL tear last season and he still remains a couple of weeks away from a potential return. Coleman figures to handle the majority of touches out of the backfield to begin the season, and if even when (if?) McKinnon returns soon, the team will most likely ease him into action over multiple weeks. This should give Coleman the chance to run with the job if he can excel as both a runner and a receiver.
As fate would have it, Coleman was PFF’s second highest-graded running back on receiver routes last season. This fact alone could keep Coleman on the field even with Matt Breida or McKinnon in the backfield. Coleman’s 133.8 passer rating when targeted as a receiver last season was also the second-highest grade of any running back last season behind only Kareem Hunt. He averages 9.5 yards per catch after a reception, so he’s a legitimate weapon as a receiver. There is some risk here given the crowded backfield, but we know the 49ers are going to try to run the ball to set up the play-action, and there remains immense upside with Coleman at his ADP.
Mid-Round Targets B: Miles Sanders (ADP 81) and Latavius Murray (88)
Miles Sanders’ role is not quite as defined as Latavius Murray’s, another player you can get in this range. Murray makes for a fine fallback option here, since you know that Alvin Kamara will not receive too hefty of a workload as the Saints attempt to maximize his efficiency. No player has had more rushing touchdowns over the last three seasons than Murray, and he should receive more targets in head coach Sean Payton’s offense out of the backfield than he did in Minnesota. However, so long as Kamara is healthy, Murray’s upside is limited to that of a mid-range RB2. Again, that’s his ceiling.
Sanders represents a better pick here if you’re looking for upside. Sanders will almost certainly be sharing time with Jordan Howard in Philadelphia, but unlike in New Orleans, the player in question here is actually the most talented. Playing behind one of the better offensive lines in football, Sanders also enjoys the third-easiest schedule for running backs, according to PFF. Sanders averaged a robust 5.8 yards per carry on 220 rushing attempts last season in college, and unlike Howard, Sanders has a three-down ability that should eventually lead to him head the committee Philadelphia is sure to uphold. A dynamic talent with big-play ability playing behind a top-tier offensive line in an elite offense is exactly the sort of upside you should be chasing with the Zero RB Strategy here.
Late-Round Targets: Royce Freeman (ADP 101.3) and Kalen Ballage (ADP 125.3)
There’s an argument for Kalen Ballage here. In fact, with a foot injury keeping Kenyan Drake out indefinitely with no clear timetable for a return, Ballage becomes the unquestioned starter in Miami, while the other names lack defined roles. Ballage is neither special nor elusive, but the 2018 fourth-rounder is athletic with good size and serviceable hands as a pass-catcher, so he won’t need to come off the field in passing downs. Coupled with his versatility is the fact Ballage does get the second easiest schedule for running backs this year and represents a tremendous value late in drafts. What Ballage lacks in terms of vision and explosive, playmaking ability, he could make up for in volume in opportunity.
There are a ton of other guys here with arguably more upside like Devin Singletary, Darrell Henderson, Ronald Jones II, and Tony Pollard. Any of them make for fantastic late-round targets as well given their draft pedigree and ability. However, all of these backs come with risks, most notably abundant questions about how much playing time they will receive during the early part of the year. Many drafters got burned last year waiting for Jones II to overtake a pedestrian runner like Peyton Barber, but in the end, Barber’s solid, if unspectacular play, trumped Jones and his inability to pick up the nuances of the pro game.
This is what separates Royce Freeman from all these aforementioned names. He not only has a defined role in Week 1, but unlike Ballage, Freeman is a more natural runner with better vision and elite production in college. With Phillip Lindsay’s growing injury history, Freeman could easily find himself getting the heavier workload of the two entering his second season. According to PFF, Freeman had a higher elusiveness rating than Lindsay last year despite facing the second-highest rate of stacked boxes against him. If the Broncos ‘offensive line has more fortune in the health department this season, new O-line coach Mike Munchak should be able to bring out the best in this crew. In the last five years with Pittsburgh, Munchak’s lines ranked inside the top-10 four times and never worse than 15th. Freeman is a powerful rusher more capable than Lindsay of wearing down a defense while new head coach Vic Fangio’s defense takes over. Lindsay remains the preferred option for most, but Freeman is a far better value.