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Constructing a Zero-WR/Heavy-RB Roster (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Jason Kamlowsky | Featured Writer
Aug 6, 2021

With Zero-RB truthers becoming all the rage recently, it’s a good time to consider challenging that frame of mind on draft day. Many times we can gain an edge by choosing to zig when the rest of the room zags.

For this exercise, we will look at a PPR roster that drafted a running back with its first five picks using the FantasyPros mock draft tool. This is a robust running back roster construction and one that I have not explored before writing this article. A few things stuck out:

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  • The floor on this team is really high. My first five picks were Alvin Kamara, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, David Montgomery, Miles Sanders, and Darrell Henderson. In a PPR league, I am almost guaranteed to have between 60-70 touches with my two running backs and flex position. Four of the five running backs I drafted have a fairly secure role in their respective team’s passing game, with Montgomery being the lone exception to that rule.
  • By Round 6, the receiver pool wasn’t completely barren, but you’ll need to identify your mid-to-late round targets for this roster to work. Getting JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 6th Round is probably too much of a floor pick in hindsight, but I followed that up with Robbie Anderson, DeVonta Smith, and Darnell Mooney. Those are three players who should have a great weekly ceiling and, combined with the PPR goodness of Kamara, should anchor the team.
  • If you are drafting with people who you know are intentional about their Zero-RB strategy, this would be a fun way to draft. Your WR pool would be drained, but you could also be looking at getting some great running back value picks in the 2nd through 4th rounds that would give you a roster with three RB1’s.

I picked in the middle of the draft (pick 5), and here is the ideal construction in my mind:

1st Round

Take a running back who is going to be active in the passing game while also possessing a Red Zone role. Kamara was a perfect fit here, but Ezekiel Elliott, Najee Harris, Saquon Barkley, and Austin Ekeler would also work.

2nd Round

The three backs I am targeting here are Edwards-Helaire, Antonio Gibson, and Joe Mixon. All three of these backs should have a three-down role in offenses that can get up and down the field.

3rd Round through 5th Round

This is the running back dead zone, so there is a good chance two of your four picks are going to flop. What I am looking for here are running backs who I can reasonably project for 20 touches a week no matter how they get them. Montgomery, Sanders, Henderson, Mike Davis, and Miles Gaskin are all guys I would target.

Running Backs I avoided

Chris Carson, Travis Etienne, J.K. Dobbins, Josh Jacobs

I love Carson, but his health is a concern, and the unpredictability of the Seahawks’ offense makes him a hard sell in the 4th Round of a robust-running back construction. Etienne and Dobbins could pop, and it wouldn’t surprise me if one of the two ended up as a high-end RB2, but there are paths to failure here as well. Dobbins is an immense talent, but Gus Edwards still has a role, and Lamar Jackson might be the biggest Red Zone threat in Baltimore.

Etienne may end up being someone I wish I was overweight on, but as of now, I don’t have him on any rosters. I have seen enough of Urban Meyer to know he will use Etienne all over the field, but he still might struggle to get 15 touches a week. As for Jacobs, he is far too game-script-dependent for me to hit the button on a robust running back team.

6th Round

I took JuJu Smith-Schuster here in hopes that he can up his aDOT from last year and, hopefully, get over 1,000 yards. He is almost a lock for 90+ catches if he plays 16 games, and in the 6th Round, I think that is a nice floor for a WR1. I thought about Jerry Jeudy here, but Denver’s quarterback situation is somehow more shaky than Pittsburgh’s is.

7th Round

Robbie Anderson was the pick here, and he’s a sneaky good floor play with upside in the Panthers’ offense. I think Anderson is a bonafide PPR WR2 which, at this stage in the roster’s construction, is what we are looking for. You’d be hard-pressed to do better than Smith-Schuster and Anderson in a PPR format for an RB-heavy build.

8th -12th Rounds

In order, I went Devonta Smith, Ryan Tannehill, Darnell Mooney, Robert Tonyan, Tre’Quan Smith in these rounds. I’ve mentioned the ceiling of Smith and Mooney, who are two lid-lifters on the outside. The biggest miss for me in this draft was not securing Antonio Brown, who I think makes an excellent target on a roster like this. I gambled in the 8th Round taking Smith and hoped Brown would be there with my next pick, and he wasn’t.

Womp womp.

Other than that, there aren’t many players who I saw as “wants” that I wasn’t able to get. Tonyan is one of a host of tight ends who are in the TE8-TE14 range that could end up in the top-5 at the position. In the 11th Round, I’m happy to get a piece of Green Bay’s offense, and you should be as well. Tre’Quan Smith is a slightly speculative play with Michael Thomas being injured, but I can churn that roster spot without losing sleep.

Final Overview

I went into this hating the idea of a robust RB build because most everything I have read makes it seem like a -EV way of building a fantasy team. This was an exercise in me going against my instinct with a typical draft strategy as I am not a fan of Zero-RB or a robust RB build. I tend to draft with more balance in mind s which might make me the vanilla ice cream of fantasy analysts.

This article made me realize that, while there is a lot of risk in investing in fantasy’s most injury-prone position, there is also a lot of built-in security in drafting five running backs who all have locked-in workloads. Injuries to running backs that occur in camp (or, in the case of Cam Akers, just before camp) derail some teams before the season even begins. As we move closer to the season, it would stand to reason that this type of build would be slightly less risky leading up to Week 1.

In the event you choose to go RB-heavy, there is a lot of peace of mind that comes with a roster like this one. It does take an in-depth knowledge of the receiver position because you run the risk of hanging yourself out to dry there. However, the RB-heavy build does offer a lot of security with the chance to chase upside later in the draft.

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Jason Kamlowsky is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Jason, check out his archive and follow him on Twitter @JasonKamlowsky.

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