Zero RB Strategy: Early, Mid, and Late Round Targets (2020 Fantasy Football)
Fantasy football has very few constants. There are obvious ones like, “never draft a kicker early,” if your league still even uses kickers. (Pro tip: don’t use kickers).
One of the oldest and most widely-accepted constants in fantasy football has to be the value of running backs. They have always been the lifeblood of fantasy football. However, 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.
Enter the Zero RB Strategy.
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 balances the spectrum.
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 top-tier quarterback in the first four rounds, essentially fading running backs to begin. 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 targeting right away.
Early Round Targets: James Conner (PIT): 46.5 ADP and Le’Veon Bell (NYJ): 48.5 ADP
James Conner tore through the league during Le’Veon Bell’s holdout in 2018. Many envisioned Conner as a high-end RB1 going into drafts last season, but he battled injuries and general ineffectiveness in an offense that struggled without Ben Roethlisberger at the helm. Conner played in just 10 games and failed to muster even 500 yards rushing, but he did quietly score amass an extra 251 yards through the air on 34 receptions. This dual-threat ability is what gives Conner RB1 upside each week.
The Steelers added Anthony McFarland Jr. in the draft, and Benny Snell continues to loom. However, McFarland profiles more like an explosive and dynamic complement to Conner, and he looks like more of an upgrade over Jaylen Samuels than he looks like a replacement to Conner, at least for 2020. This is especially true when you consider how the COVID-19 pandemic will make it hard for rookies to learn the playbook and pass protections necessary to see the field often. Snell is a fine change-of-pace option, but Conner remains the best talent in this backfield for now.
With Snell more experienced and McFarland able to make big plays with limited opportunities, Conner should 0nly benefit, as he won’t be asked to shoulder an abundance of carries that could lead to injury. Getting the lead back in an explosive offense this late in the draft is a steal.
Conner’s former teammate, the aforementioned Le’Veon Bell, also saw his stock plummet after last year’s busted season. Like Conner, Bell remains a dual-threat, even if an Adam Gase offense is historically where talent goes to die. In 2019, Bell posted 1,250 combined yards, and the Jets beefed up their offensive line this offseason while adding pass-catching weapons in 2nd rounder Denzel Mims and free agent Breshad Perriman to line up outside slot maven, Jamison Crowder.
It’s unlikely that Bell, despite his elite talent, will post RB1 numbers under Gase; however, as a consistent three-down workhorse, Bell’s utilization can anchor your backfield and provide some consistency that allows you to chase upside at the position later.
Mid-Round Targets A: David Montgomery (CHI): 61.5 ADP and D’Andre Swift (DET): 63.5 ADP
David Montgomery burned a lot of people last year. You can argue that Montgomery burned the Chicago Bears as well. It didn’t take long to discover Montgomery clearly isn’t the elusive talent we all thought he was, and his high broken tackle rate had more to do with shaking the first defender free behind the line of scrimmage before falling forward for three yards and a cloud of dust rather than actually evading linebackers to break long gains. That being said, the Bears did not add competition in the draft, and Tarik Cohen is a scatback who isn’t a threat between the tackles. Montgomery did show flashes last year.
All of this means Montgomery will be given another year with the best gift possible: opportunity. When it comes to running backs, opportunity is king. Montgomery could threaten 300 carries while still adding value as a receiver, which makes him a true workhorse back. The Bears added Nick Foles in the event Mitchell Trubisky faceplants again, and while Foles is far from elite, he’s at least a competent player in the right system. The Bears brought in a new run game coordinator and Montgomery figures to carry the load for at least one more year, making him a tremendous value after the first 60 picks.
Sticking with another NFC North offense, many D’Andre Swift truthers groaned when the Kansas City Chiefs passed on him in Round 1, only for the perpetually inept Lions to snatch him up in Round 2. The Lions have been a running back wasteland since Barry Sanders retired, and HC Matt Patricia comes from the New England school of valuing a committee approach at the position.
Nonetheless, Swift is the only rusher capable of carrying the load in Detroit. Kerryon Johnson can’t stay healthy and publicly confirmed he’s more effective in a committee. Bo Scarbrough is a talented bruiser in the LeGarrette Blount mold, and the other rushers on the roster are punitive scatbacks. Swift boasts an elite dual-threat skillset with a lethal spin move, and he should lead the committee in Detroit after the first month or so of the season.
Mid-Round Targets B: Cam Akers (LAR): 72.0 ADP and Kareem Hunt (CLE): 77.0 ADP
Cam Akers joins a Los Angeles Rams backfield as a second-round pick exactly one year after the Rams spent second-round draft capital to select Darrell Henderson in 2019. Which rusher will emerge the more valuable commodity is up for debate, but there is no denying that the Rams’ backfield is a lucrative fantasy asset. The bet here is that Akers eventually takes command over what should be a committee with Henderson and veteran Malcolm Brown to begin the year. He’s a complete back.
Rams GM Les Snead opted for Akers in the draft over a mid-round talent like Lamical Perine on the advice of a local area scout who stumped for Akers because he’s a “complete back” and a “workhorse.” Akers averaged 8.8 yards after the catch at FSU, and he offers a three-down skill set.
The Rams offensive line struggled to open lanes for Todd Gurley last year, but Akers played behind an atrocious offensive line at Florida State last year, so he’s well acclimated to making something out of nothing. It’s also worth noting that the Rams’ O-line finished 19th in Football Outsiders Adjusted Line Yards in 2019, so the young line may have played better than many believe.
Another talented rusher, Kareem Hunt also figures to be part of a committee in Cleveland. Odds are slim that Hunt overtakes uber-talented Nick Chubb for lead-back duties, but new OC Kevin Stefanski has possible designs to utilize Hunt as the team’s third wide receiver, a role that would make him a fantasy gold mine in any format.
Hunt already has an RB1 season on his resume, and he’s proven he can be a league winner if given ample opportunity. Getting what could be a low-end RB2 outside the top 75 picks, but one with elite upside should anything happen to Chubb, is the foundation of what Zero RB is all about.
Late-Round Targets: Jordan Howard (MIA): 96.5 ADP, Matt Breida (MIA): 97.0 ADP, J.K. Dobbins (BAL): 100.5 ADP, Phillip Lindsay (DEN): 101.5 ADP, and Zack Moss (BUF): 151.5 ADP
Miami hired Chan Gailey to run its offense, and Gailey has historically been able to get a lot of value out of players in committees (see: Fred Jackson/CJ Spiller or Chris Ivory/Matt Forte/Bilal Powell). Jordan Howard is a perfect scheme fit as a rusher with good vision adept at pressing the hole and finding the cutback lane. There is a reason Howard was able to cut into Miles Sanders’ touches in Philadelphia. Still only 25 and effective as a receiver, Howard is a perfect Zero RB target in an emerging offense that will employ him as the top option on early downs and near the goal line.
Howard’s teammate, Matt Breida, has been NextGen Stat’s fastest NFL player over the last two years, and he makes for the perfect complement to Howard. Breida will not only siphon the majority of passing down work in Miami, but he also possesses the speed to take it to the house on any given play.
J.K. Dobbins was the top running back in this draft class for many, and landing in Baltimore could not have made for a more perfect destination. While it’s true that Mark Ingram remains entrenched as the starter heading into 2020, Dobbins has league-winning upside should Ingram get hurt or replaced mid-season.
Phillip Lindsay came to camp 10 pounds heavier and with a chip on his shoulder, and he has consistently been one of the best in the league when it comes to yards per touch since he took the NFL by storm as a UDFA rookie. Rendered an afterthought by fantasy drafters after the Denver Broncos signed Melvin Gordon, an argument can be made the Lindsay is actually the better talent and will lead the backfield before long.
Finally, PFF’s top-rated college back, Zack Moss, takes over Frank Gore’s role in Buffalo. That should make him a weekly touchdown threat. Moss had the highest percentage of carries forcing a missed tackle among rookie rushers, and his superb pass blocking may ultimately catapult him above Devin Singletary and make him the lead back before long.
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