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Best Ball: Zero RB Strategy (2023 Fantasy Football)

by Tom Strachan | @NFL_Tstrack | Featured Writer
Feb 8, 2023
Khalil Herbert

You would be hard-pushed to find a more misunderstood fantasy football strategy than Zero RB. Since Shawn Siegele brought it into the fantasy lexicon in 2013, arguments have been had about its viability. Other debates have transpired around the definition of the strategy.

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2023 Best Ball: Zero RB Strategy

Let’s take a closer look at how to utilize Zero RB strategy when constructing your best ball rosters.

Zero RB Basics

While the name may use the word “zero,” most Zero RB teams will have at least 6-7 running backs rostered. Zero RB as a system would probably come across as less extreme if it had been named “Late Round RB” instead.

The essence of the strategy is to stock up in the early rounds on elite wide receivers and possibly an elite tight end and quarterback, too, avoiding the most injury-prone position in fantasy football.

RB Injury Risk

If we look back at 2022, specifically at games missed, it’s obvious which position has the most injury risk.

Games Missed RB WR
ADP 0-48 2.27 2.08
ADP 49-72 4.6 3.08
ADP 73-120 3.06 3.05

The chart above shows running backs and wide receivers who had an ADP inside the top 120 on Underdog in 2022. Running backs missed more games than Wide Receivers at every level.

With that said, 2022 wasn’t a bad year for early running backs who benefitted from players like Cooper Kupp and Ja’Maar Chase missing time, along with nobody else in the first-round separating massively from the rest. Eight players from the first round managed to score over 16 Half PPR points per game, which kept advance rates for that round evenly distributed. Still, we can see in the chart below that every first-round wide receiver scored above 15 half-point PPR points per game, whereas only three of the six first-round running backs managed to do so.

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Zero RB Intricacies

We shouldn’t head into a draft with a specific strategy in mind. But if you’re drafting currently, you’ll have experienced the drop-off in wide receiver talent between rounds 8-11. It’s a zone filled with the likes of Jakobi Meyers, Darnell Mooney, and JuJu Smith-Schuster. They are all fine players in their own right, but they all have reasons why they’re being drafted in that range.

Any team that started RB-heavy in 2022 likely ended up in a situation where a player like Allen Robinson, Brandin Cooks, or Darnell Mooney was needed to be a roster’s WR2 or WR3 when they moved away from running backs and chose a wide receiver. These players quickly landed that team in trouble. With a Zero RB build, the aim will be to have a large percentage of the top wide receivers filling out your WR positions and your flex, allowing you to pick up running backs such as Miles Sanders, Tony Pollard, and Rhamondre Stevenson in this range. Those running backs aren’t a shade on players like Christian McCaffrey. But this strategy builds a collection of players who will combine to do enough to support running back scores while wide receivers potentially put up huge weeks again and again. The goal is always to dominate the flex, and we want to have enough wide receivers to do so. As we can see in the chart below, wide receivers make up a majority of the top 30-point scorers year after year in PPR formats.

In Half PPR formats, things swing slightly in favor of the running backs, with them making up the majority of the top 30 for four out of the last five years. This doesn’t mean that Zero RB can’t work in certain formats; it is just a reminder that we need to be mindful of where top scorers can come from and that we need to be taking enough shots at those types of players to strike gold.

The key with a Zero RB build, despite the name, is nailing the running backs that you do take. In 2021’s FFPC Slim best ball leagues, you can see that teams who selected their first running back in round six or later nearly always had an above-average win rate (8.3%) and enjoyed their best success when taking a total of seven overall.

(Data via RotoViz FFPC roster construction tool).

Again, on Underdog Fantasy in 2021, Zero RB teams with exactly seven backs experienced the most success for that type of build.

Target Pos. Count Teams Playoffs Adv. Rate Semifinals Adv. Rate Finals Adv. Rate Avg. Roster Points
4 492 9.15% 0.81% 0.00% 1502
5 2788 13.38% 1.36% 0.29% 1521
6 2632 15.58% 2.28% 0.27% 1540
7 592 19.26% 2.53% 0.17% 1556
8 80 17.50% 3.75% 0.00% 1551
9 4 50.00% 0.00% 0.00% 1548
Baseline – 16.6% Baseline – 1.85% Baseline – 0.10%

(Data via 4for4 Underdog Construction Tool)

Seven running backs represent 35% of available roster spots on FFPC Slim drafts and 38.88% of Underdog’s draft picks in their format of 18 roster spots. It stands to reason seven is a fair amount to aim for going forward, and roughly 35-40% of your roster spots should be for running backs in a Zero RB build.

Zero RB Viability

In 2022 Underdog awarded a $1 million dollar prize to first place through the regular season before the playoffs started. The winner, ‘@kingKappital’ used a Zero RB team where he avoided the running back position till Round 8 and took a total of six running backs, including Chris Evans, who contributed minimally through the year.

The winning roster had seven Wide Receivers, six Running Backs, two Tight Ends, and three Quarterbacks.

1.10 Davante Adams 10.03 Kenneth Walker
2.03 Travis Kelce 11.10 Rachaad White
3.10 A.J. Brown 12.03 Dameon Pierce
4.03 Jaylen Waddle 13.10 Nico Collins
5.10 Amon-Ra St. Brown 14.03 Khalil Herbert
6.03 Jalen Hurts 15.10 Evan Engram
7.10 Joe Burrow 16.03 Chris Evans
8.03 Miles Sanders 17.10 Zay Jones
9.10 Garrett Wilson 18.03 Davis Mills

Zero RB Traits

The type of backs selected is as important as the balance of picks dedicated to running backs. We can break these down into the following categories:

Ambiguous backfields: Remember Leonard Fournette and James Conner in 2021? Both had doubts about them, but we had seen both players handle a huge workload in previous situations and return value. In 2022, Rhamondre Stevenson played his way into a larger workload.

Pass catchers: Even in Underdog’s half PPR scoring, pass-catching RBs without a three-down role can have spike weeks that help the position stay serviceable while your WRs dominate.

Play for good teams: It feels a little obvious to say, but good teams tend to score more points, and we want exposure to those points.

Ability to become a workhorse in the event of injury: Players like Tony Pollard, Rhamondre Stevenson, and Khalil Herbert were are all running backs who could provide stand-alone value but could become top 12 options should the backs ahead of them suffer an injury or pick up a suspension.

Rookies: Taking shots at rookies can be tricky, but it can also lead to a high upside, particularly as the season goes on. As we saw with the Million Dollar team, Kenneth Walker, Dameon Pierce, and Rachaad White, all helped that team at one time or another. None had consistent league-winning performances, but they spiked often enough to help this type of build.

Drafting Zero RB can feel uncomfortable when you’re not used to it, but it’s a “zig when others zag” tactic that can exploit your opponents for being afraid of it. With it being a less popular tactic, it also retains a contrarian build with tournament-winning upside should you advance. It might not be for everyone, but next time you start a draft with a wide receiver, see how the board falls to you if you hold off on taking a running back for a while.

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