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What is a Zero RB strategy and how/why does it work?

Here is one fantasy football draft strategy that will make you uncomfortable...


BUT will dominate your friends if you do it right.


It's called the "Zero RB" strategy, and it's (almost) exactly what it sounds like.


Building your championship team around zero (or one, called a "Hero RB") running backs.


Why? 3 reasons really:

✔️ panic drafting and reaching for next-tier RBs is suboptimal

✔️ you need more WRs than RBs in modern day fantasy leagues

✔️ RB is much more predictable/replaceable in a given week than WR


1) Zero RB: Stop panic drafting mediocre options


It's no secret that having an elite running back is a league-winning advantage.


Of the 30 non-QBs that have finished among the top 3 fantasy scorers over the last 10 seasons, 21 of them have been RBs (70%).


It's also no secret that the supply of worthwhile RBs is severely limited in fantasy football as the NFL continues to trend towards a pass-heavy style and franchises continue to embrace a "committee" approach with their RB rooms.


In other words, more NFL teams are using a higher quantity of RBs in a league that is throwing the ball a lot more than it used to, rendering the "workhorse RB" an endangered species on the cusp of extinction.


That's why, when you can get a workhorse RB—which is becoming more rare than a 1st edition Charizard card—you have yourself a league-winning fantasy asset.


But that's also why we see fantasy football managers panic draft 2nd and 3rd tier RB early on, handcuffing themselves to mediocre options while stud WRs fall to patient, savvy managers.


Don't believe me? Consider this...


From 2014 through 2022, fantasy football managers drafted an RB in the 1st round of 12-team drafts a whopping 68 times, compared to just 36 WRs, 3 TEs, and 1 QB.


They drafted an RB within the first six picks 36 times, compared to just 17 WRs and 1 QB.


To put it another way, 63% of 1st round picks in the last 9 years have been spent on RBs. Just 33% have been spent on WRs.


And it's a catastrophic mistake.


During the same 9 years from 2014-2022, just 41 RBs have finished inside the top 12 of non-QB scoring, compared to 63 WRs and 4 TEs.


Put another way, just 38% of the top 12 fantasy scorers over the last 10 years have been RBs. 58% have been WRs.


Let me just drive this home quick...Over the last 10 seasons, RBs are selected in the 1st round 63% of the time, yet finish in the top 12 just 38% of the time. Meanwhile, WRs are selected in the 1st round just 33% of the time yet finish inside the top 12 58% of the time.


Don't get it twisted here; I am NOT advising that you skip Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Austin Ekeler, Bijan Robinson, (Nick Chubb? 👀), etc...


But when the top tier of RBs is picked clean, I AM encouraging you to embrace the discomfort and not force yourself into a suboptimal selection.


Missing on the top tier of RBs presents a prime opportunity to cash in on elite WRs that could finish in the top 12 by the end of the year.


2) You need more WRs than RBs to fill your lineup


Most modern day fantasy football leagues require managers to start 3 WRs and 2 RBs, creating more of a demand for WRs that will enter your lineup on a weekly basis.


In other words, in a standard 12 team league, fantasy managers need to find 36 viable WRs (12 teams x 3 starting WRs) vs 24 viable RBs (12 teams x 2 starting RBs).


And when a flex position is included to stretch the depth of a starting lineup—something that further limits RBs for the reasons listed above (making WRs more valuable)—then fantasy managers are forced to find either 36 viable RBs (good luck) or 48 viable WRs (doable).


TLDR: You need more WRs than you do RBs in fantasy football.


3) Running backs are more predictable/replaceable in any given week than wide receivers


When an RB goes down—which is inevitable considering the brutality of the position—it's often "easy" to know how the volume will be distributed—and it will be distributed; NFL teams have to run the ball.


When a WR goes down—which happens, but less frequently than RB, making the position an inherently "safer" option in fantasy football—it's no sure thing that the "next man up" will suddenly assume the hurt player's target share (in fact, he almost never does).


Think about it...


If Christian McCaffrey goes down, we know that Elijah Mitchell will assume a massive workload, making him a priority waiver wire add (or, even better, a bench stash in anticipation of a CMC injury, but that's an article for a different time).


If Bijan Robinson goes down, we know that Tyler Allgeier and/or Cordarrelle Patterson will step into a fantasy-relevant workload.


If Aaron Jones goes down, we know that AJ Dillon instantly steps into week-winning volume.


But what about AJ Brown? If he goes down, does Quez Watkins suddenly become a must start fantasy option (DeVonta Smith is already rostered)?


If Deebo Samuel gets hurt, does Jauan Jennings suddenly become a week winner?


Is Russell Gage suddenly a hot waiver wire pickup if anything happens to Mike Evans or Chris Godwin?


No, no and no.


RBs are much easier to replace than WRs, which leads me to the REAL "why" behind why Zero RB can be a dominant strategy if deployed correctly...


2023: What does this look like in practice?


Using FantasyPros 2023 PPR ADP, someone drafting from the 1 spot could realistically have something like:

  • Round 1 - WR1: Justin Jefferson

  • Round 2 - WR 2: Jaylen Waddle/DeVonta Smith/Tee Higgins/Chris Olave/DK Metcalf

  • Round 3 - WR 3: Jaylen Waddle/DeVonta Smith/Tee Higgins/Chris Olave/DK Metcalf

  • Round 4 - WR 4: Keenan Allen/Calvin Ridley/DeAndre Hopkins/Terry McLaurin

The good news? This manager just landed FOUR top 20 WRs.


The bad news? They're obviously going to be very uncomfortable at RB...at least for now.


(That said, it's worth noting that fantasy managers in the 1 spot could currently scoop up Miles Sanders, Dameon Pierce, JK Dobbins, Dalvin Cook, Cam Akers, Rachaad White, James Conner, D'Andre Swift, Alexander Mattison, Isiah Pacheco, Alvin Kamara and Javonte Williams between rounds 5 and 7, all of which are top 30 RBs)


But what if this manager also picked up AJ Dillon in the 8th, Jamaal Williams and/or Samaje Perine in the 9th, Antonio Gibson and/or Zach Charbonnet in the 10th, and Rashaad Penny and/or Elijah Mitchell in the 12th?


And what happens if Aaron Jones, Alvin Kamara, Javonte Williams, Brian Robinson, Kenneth Walker, D'Andre Swift or Christian McCaffrey get hurt?


Now all of a sudden this manager has the best WRs in the league AND RBs that just stepped into RB 1 or RB 2 volume.


Every year there's one (or more) running backs who are plucked off of the waiver wire after an injury, leading their new fantasy manager to fantasy football glory.


But what if you already had those potential goldmines stashed away on your roster, ready to pair with FOUR top 20 WRs?


Conclusion

Let me start (or finish I guess?) with this important disclaimer: to be clear, MOST of my drafts after 200+ this summer feature at least 1 RB in the first 2 rounds. Some even feature 2 RBs in the first 2 rounds, especially when I'm at the end of a 12 team league and Saquon Barkley + Nick Chubb are staring me in the face...but more often than not, after 6 rounds or so, my most frequent builds—by far—feature 2 RBs and 4 WRs.


Again, I am NOT advocating for skipping elite RBs. Running backs finish in the top 3 of scoring 70% of the time over the last decade for a reason.


I'm also not advocating for forcing a strategy or even entering any drafts with a pre-determined strategy in mind.


I'm simply trying to introduce you to a new line of thinking, and encouraging you to embrace the discomfort IF your draft board starts to shake out this way during your draft.


Zig when others zag. That's how trophies are won in this beautiful game.


And as always, if you want league-winning resources and the help of hundreds of fantasy football brains this year, please consider purchasing an annual subscription for less than one beer per month!



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