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Is Zero RB a dead strategy in NFL Best Ball Fantasy Football contests?



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Is "Zero RB" a dead strategy in NFL Best Ball Contests?

- By Derek Devereaux


It’s inescapable. Every blog you read. Every podcast you listen to. On your favorite sports shows. You should be drafting zero RB fantasy football teams this season, and this is why.


If you can’t escape it, it’s likely that all of your competitors can’t, either. Is it time for a new approach, and if so, what would that look like?


Take a step back. What even is a Zero RB strategy?


Zero RB acts exactly like it says. You’re attempting to use as little draft capital, especially early, on running backs, with the intention of making up for it later in the draft. You can read Mikey’s full write-up of it here.


As a general rule of thumb, the rule states you should prioritize other positions, especially wide receiver, during the first 4-6 rounds and ignore the running back pool altogether.


Historically, this has been for three reasons:


  1. Running backs are more likely to get hurt than any other position due to the nature of their position. They’re taking the most hits of any skill player on the field more often than not. And their replacements, for the most part, have been successful in making up a solid portion of the points that the starter produced.

  2. In more recent times, we’ve seen a downtick in true “workhorse” running backs, as teams shift to more committee-type approaches.

  3. Running backs were being overdrafted relative to other positions. It wasn’t uncommon to see no starting running backs left after the first five or six rounds of a draft just a few years ago. 


Most of that still sounds true. So why would Zero RB be dead?

It’s that last reason that sticks out the most: The market has now overcorrected to the point that good, but not great, wide receivers are being drafted quite early, while running backs who would normally be first or second round picks are falling all the way down to the fifth or sixth rounds.


Let’s take a look at ADP data from Underdog, which runs a 0.5 points per reception scoring system, comparing 2022’s draft landscape to 2024’s draft landscape and note the differences between just three years worth of draft data for the top 15 running backs and the top 15 wide receivers. (ADP data courtesy of FantasyPros, current as of June 1, 2024.)


Running Backs

Position

2022 Underdog ADP

2024 Underdog ADP

Net Change

RB1

1

1

0

RB2

2

5

+3

RB3

5

7

+2

RB4

7

12

+5

RB5

8

13

+5

RB6

11

14

+3

RB7

12

17

+5

RB8

14

18

+4

RB9

15

28

+13

RB10

17

32

+15

RB11

18

38

+20

RB12

19

45

+26

RB13

23

48

+25

RB14

28

55

+27

RB15

35

57

+22


Wide Receivers


Position

2022 Underdog ADP

2024 Underdog ADP

Net Change

WR1

3

2

-1

WR2

4

3

-1

WR3

6

4

-2

WR4

9

6

-3

WR5

10

8

-4

WR6

16

9

-7

WR7

20

10

-10

WR8

22

11

-11

WR9

24

15

-9

WR10

25

16

-9

WR11

27

19

-8

WR12

29

20

-9

WR13

31

21

-10

WR14

32

22

-10

WR15

33

23

-10


As you can see, every one of the top 15 wide receivers is being drafted earlier than they were back in 2022, and every one of the top 15 running backs is going at the same spot or later than in 2022.


But didn’t you say that running backs were not as much of workhorses as they were before? 


That was generally true, yes, but there’s a reason I stopped the data at the top 15. Any one of those backs could easily be workhorses in their offense, dominating at least 67% of the touches on the team.


The part I want to key on is the back half of that RB group: RB11 through RB15 are all going 20 or more spots later than they were in 2022. For this year, who are those current running backs?


  • RB11 is Travis Etienne Jr (JAX). They drafted a running back last season (Tank Bigsby) in the fourth round with the intention of “limiting [Etienne’s] snaps to keep him fresh.” The result was Etienne having over 300 touches on the season.


  • RB12 is James Cook (BUF). A running back who can catch passes on a high powered offense. They did draft a running back this year in the fourth round that Mikey really likes, but James Cook was in essentially a two-back system last year and still finished as RB11 in half point PPR scoring.


  • RB13 is Rachaad White (TB). The Bucs did spend a fourth round pick on former Oregon running back Bucky Irving, who I think will take some snaps from White, but he’s a smaller, change-of-pace type player, and Rachaad White is a factor in the pass game himself, too, catching 64 balls las year for over 500 yards. Even losing 50 additional touches from last season still would’ve put him at 65% of the total workload, though.


  • RB14 is Isiah Pacheco (KC). His backup is Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and they lost pass-catching specialist Jerick McKinnon this offseason. There’s no reason to think that Pacheco won’t be a workhorse.


  • RB15 is Joe Mixon (HOU), who replaces Devin Singletary on the Texans. (Singletary signed with the New York Giants this offseason.) Dameon Pierce is still there, if that matters, and Dare Ogunbowale might take a small amount of pass work, but there’s a clear path for workhorse-level production on the hottest offense in football.


All of these risks are clearly baked into ADP, and in some cases, might even be overbaked into ADP.


So how do we attack best ball fantasy football drafts if we’re not doing a Zero RB approach?


For me, the data above tends to speak for it: We can get RB value in the fifth, sixth and even seventh rounds, so we should be considering it there. After all, those first two points above - running backs getting hurt more often and timeshares generally being more prevalent - are still directionally true. But those are baked into the ADP discounts now, especially in those later rounds. As with any draft, you should let the draft board dictate what your decisions will be, but in general, I like to ride the WR wave early and build a Hero RB (that is, one running back drafted) team by the fifth round. In some cases, I’ll even have two RB’s by the sixth round. 


In practice, after six rounds:


  • In a Hero RB build, four wide receivers, one running back, and either a QB or TE; sometimes I’ll even have five wide receivers and one running back, depending on where I take the running back. (Taking Breece Hall in the first round, for example, will make me more likely to take five wide receivers than, say, taking Isiah Pacheco in the fifth round and then drafting five wide receivers around him.)


  • In a two RB build, I’m almost always taking four wide receivers and two running backs, passing on elite QBs and TEs in the first six rounds. (Both of those running backs are usually taken in the 4-6 round range.)


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