Skip to main content

Players To Target In The Running Back Dead Zone (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Brendan Tuma | @toomuchtuma | Featured Writer
Aug 3, 2021

As this NFL offseason has gone along I’ve become more and more interested in “big picture” fantasy football analysis. There will be plenty of time for individual player takes, especially in August as training camp depth charts become more clear. I certainly haven’t been ignoring player analysis by any means, but I definitely feel as if it’s a saturated space in our industry.

That’s why I’ve been more so aiming to identify macro edges within our game, and the idea of the “Running Back Dead Zone” is what has grabbed my attention the most. I wrote an introduction to this topic back in late June, and I followed it up with a piece analyzing which RBs meet the criteria in 2021. I highly suggest reading both of those to fully understand the idea, but I’ve also summarized the main points here:

  1. The RB Dead Zone is rooted in data. When analysts discuss this concept they aren’t speaking anecdotally. Over the past six seasons loading up on RBs in Rounds 3-6 has been a negative-EV strategy.
  2. We can still draft an RB in this range, especially if your favorite pick falls to you or a value presents itself. The main point is that we don’t want to be reliant on RBs in Rounds 3-6.
  3. We shouldn’t focus too much on whether or not certain RBs from this range of players have worked out in the past. That’s because over the same six year time frame, wide receivers drafted in this range have proven to be good bets. For each Dead Zone RB we select we are foregoing the opportunity to take a wideout.

With these key points in mind, let’s take a look at some of the players we should be targeting in this range of our drafts. And remember to feel free to reach out on Twitter with questions anytime.

Get expert advice during your draft with our fantasy football draft software >>

2021 Dead Zone Players To Target

The below names are 11 players to target who are currently being drafted inside the “Dead Zone” over at NFFC. These ADPs are as of Monday, August 2nd with a timeframe of the past 14 days. It’s also worth pointing out that the below ADPs are for high stakes league with fantasy managers, so the results might differ from your standard home/office league.

Regardless, let’s finally get to the high floor, high upside options that we should take over the RBs in this range of drafts.

CeeDee Lamb (WR – DAL) ADP: 28.1
Whereas in my last piece I identified Mike Davis as the poster boy for everything we do wrong in Rounds 3-6, Lamb is the exact type of wideout I want to draft in this range. Of course, he has a much earlier ADP than Davis, so the comparison isn’t apples to apples. However, Lamb is a high floor, high ceiling fantasy receiver tied to arguably the most exciting offense in football.

Lamb registered 74 receptions for 935 yards as a rookie in 2020 despite the disaster of a second half from Dallas’ offense. Furthermore, he averaged 13.1 PPR points per game for the season, a number that spiked to 17.1 in games with Dak Prescott. A strong college performer who immediately had a role in his first year as a pro, Lamb is generating plenty of hype through the early days of training camp. He’s the ideal third-round pick this year.

George Kittle (TE – SF) ADP: 32.8
The best tight end in real football, Kittle is an elite blocker whose well-rounded skill set probably hurts his fantasy production. The inventor of “National Tight End Day” would be a fantasy superstar if the 49ers aggressively fed him targets more consistently. We see Kittle pop up with huge games now and then — such as in Week 4 when he caught 15-of-15 targets for 183 yards and a score. Unfortunately, San Francisco’s run-centric offense lowers his floor. Nonetheless, securing an elite TE is one of the advantages to fading RBs early in draft.

Robert Woods (WR – LAR) ADP: 34.4
Cooper Kupp (WR – LAR) ADP: 40.2
Here we have a set of teammates on an offense that I want to invest in like it’s GameStop in 2019. It cannot be overstated how much of a difference Matthew Stafford could potentially make with the Rams. We’re dealing with an unknown quantity (the QB change), so we can’t assume certain results. With these more-than-reasonable ADPs, though, that’s a good thing. There’s plenty of upside if Stafford helps LA make “the leap” in ’21.

Tyler Lockett (WR – SEA) ADP: 47.4
It’s fashionable to call Lockett “a better player in best ball” given his week-to-week volatility, but that doesn’t mean we should fade him in managed leagues. We WANT wide receivers who can single handedly help us win weeks, and it’s my opinion that Lockett’s issues are overstated. The 28-year-old has topped 1,000 receiving yards in back-to-back seasons, and he totaled a career-high 100 receptions in 2020. One could argue most (basically all) of last year’s production came in the first half when “Let Russ Cook” was in full force, but the presence of new OC Shane Waldron should be seen as a positive for Seattle’s offensive tempo this fall. Still tied to Russell Wilson on a narrow target distribution, Lockett is an enticing option late in Round 4.

Adam Thielen (WR – MIN) ADP: 49.7
Here we’re targeting another offense with a narrow target distribution, as the Vikings have their own version of DK Metcalf/Lockett in Justin Jefferson/Thielen. We typically want No. 1 receivers in fake football, but when the ball doesn’t stray far from two wideouts on a given team, it becomes much easier to invest in secondary options. Thielen turns 31 this month and is destined for TD regression following a 14-score year on just 108 targets. However, he has a well-established rapport with Kirk Cousins and should continue seeing scoring opportunities given the fact Minnesota runs plays designed for him at the goal-line. He isn’t a sexy pick at the 4/5 turn, but he’ll help your fantasy roster.

Ja’Marr Chase (WR – CIN) ADP: 50.4
Tee Higgins (WR – CIN) ADP: 53.3
Just like with Woods/Kupp and the Rams, the Bengals’ passing attack is one to invest in this fall. Zac Taylor’s offensive unit likes to play fast and will undoubtedly benefit from the return of Joe Burrow. Prior to the rookie’s ACL injury the team was averaging 22.7 points per game. Afterwards? Just 15.3 sans Burrow.

Chase is one of the best receiving prospects we’ve seen in a while — an early declare who broke out at a young age despite playing with other talented receivers in college (Jefferson, Terrance Marshall). The 2020 wideout class was special, but Chase had a better career market share of yards than any underclassman selected in Round 1. This feat is even more impressive considering the in-house competition he had at LSU.

Meantime, Higgins should also benefit from a Cincinnati offense that’ll throw a lot (likely with concentrated targets, too). In 10 games with Burrow as a rookie, Higgins averaged 12.1 half-PPR points per game, which ranked 20th among receivers. A year two leap is on the table amidst an offseason filled with rave reviews.

Lamar Jackson (QB – BAL) ADP: 54.5
Jackson was considered the No. 1 fantasy QB at this time last year following an MVP campaign in 2019. The Ravens then spent the first half of 2020 trying to change what worked so well for their star quarterback, before “getting back to the basics” to close out Jackson’s second straight 1,000 yard rushing season (becoming the first player ever to accomplish such a feat). He’s on this list for being the cheapest of the Big 4 QBs (Mahomes, Allen, Murray being the other three). Now, LT Ronnie Stanley returns from his ankle injury while Baltimore also brought in WRs Rashod Bateman and Sammy Watkins. An overall QB1 finish is once again in play.

Odell Beckham Jr. (WR – CLE) ADP: 61.8
This is the cheapest OBJ has been since his rookie season, and there are enough positive signs surrounding his supporting cast for me to think he’s worth investing in again. Beckham has burned fantasy managers over the past two seasons, but that’s why he’s available at the 5/6 turn this summer. While Cleveland typically gets labeled as a “run first” team, it’s worth noting that the Browns actually had a positive pass rate over expectation in each of their final six regular season contests (compared to just one over their first 10). Additionally, Beckham had a 23% target share before going down with his ACL injury. There are age and injury concerns here, and I don’t expect a return to stardom, but Beckham is being priced at his floor and is set up to be a strong flex option this year.

Jerry Jeudy (WR – DEN) ADP: 71.3
Reports on Courtland Sutton‘s knee haven’t been good thus far, but Jeudy was someone to buy into even before this news. The sophomore receiver might not have the best hands (12 drops in 2020), but he’s an elite route technician who can easily get open on timing patterns. Therefore, fantasy players should be rooting for Teddy Bridgewater to win the Broncos’ quarterback competition. Jeudy had healthy usage as a rookie, running 32.2 routes per game, albeit with a weak 46% catch rate. Some of that was his own fault, but Denver’s QBs didn’t do him any favors either. What we have here is an inexpensive breakout candidate.

Conclusion

I don’t believe anyone is advocating for gamers to avoid running backs in this range no matter what, but we can better position ourselves in the race to “win the flex” by taking multiple high-end receivers between Rounds 3-6 (perhaps with an elite TE or QB mixed in too). We’ll need a little bit of luck to hit on some running backs later in the draft or in early-season waiver wire runs, but a draft strategy like I’ve outlined above will better set us up to have a dominant fantasy team. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Fantasy analysis continues to get sharper and sharper every year, and it’s not only important to identify macro edges like the “RB Dead Zone”, but to put those ideas into practice. Any strategy can work in fantasy football if you simply pick the right players, but what savvy gamers have begun doing is giving themselves the best odds at picking the right players.


SubscribeApple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | SoundCloud | iHeartRadio

Beyond our fantasy football content, be sure to check out our award-winning slate of Fantasy Football Tools as you prepare for your draft this season. From our free mock Draft Simulator – which allows you to mock draft against realistic opponents – to our Draft Assistant – that optimizes your picks with expert advice – we’ve got you covered this fantasy football draft season.

Brendan Tuma is a correspondent at FantasyPros. To read more from Brendan, check out his archive and follow him @toomuchtuma.

Featured, Featured Link, NFL