Fantasy Draft Strategy: Is Zero-RB Viable This Year?

CARSON, CA - DECEMBER 31: Keenan Allen #13 of the Los Angeles Chargers fends off T.J. Carrie #38 of the Oakland Raiders as Allen makes the catch during the third quarter of the game at StubHub Center on December 31, 2017 in Carson, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
CARSON, CA - DECEMBER 31: Keenan Allen #13 of the Los Angeles Chargers fends off T.J. Carrie #38 of the Oakland Raiders as Allen makes the catch during the third quarter of the game at StubHub Center on December 31, 2017 in Carson, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

Most of the time, starting your fantasy draft with a balanced roster is the best way to go. This year, though, zero-RB could be a sneaky good strategy.

Getting a pick outside of the top six near the back of the first round may seem like a disadvantage. You certainly don’t get to draft one of the elite fantasy running backs or Antonio Brown. While that’s true, I’d argue there is real value to drafting at the end of the first round. Because of the steep talent drop-off at wide receiver, you can gain a significant advantage over your league by grabbing one or two of the top 8 receivers. Especially in a half or full PPR league, going WR-WR to start your draft from the back of the first round might be the way to go.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll analyze draft strategy for picks 9-12. Hypothetically, this is a 12 team, full PPR draft, too. Looking at current fantasy football ADP, there are only two receivers going in the top 8 of PPR drafts. Those receivers are Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins. This trend is surprising in PPR, even though there are certainly numerous elite running backs this year. This sets up perfectly, though, for a zero-RB draft for someone at the back of the first round.

TStill available at picks 9-12 are receivers like Odell Beckham, Jr., Julio Jones, and Michael Thomas. Thomas may not be the best choice in PPR because of the Saints’ propensity to spread the ball around. However, any one of these three players is an elite WR1. The running backs available, of course, are solid too, but come with much more risk. Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook are serious injury risks. Others like Kareem Hunt and Devonta Freeman don’t have the guaranteed workload of other elite RBs. Starting a zero-RB team with a guy like Beckham or Jones is the perfect way to do it.

On the quick turn from the first to second round, the last of the elite PPR wide receivers are available. WRs like Keenan Allen and AJ Green are the end of the guaranteed 90+ catch players. Getting an elite player at the end of a tier in a fantasy draft is one of the biggest advantages you can create over your league. Meanwhile, at RB, the tier break has already happened, making reliable but limited RB1/RB2s like Christian McCaffrey and LeSean McCoy available. At this point, it makes far more sense to grab a second elite receiver like Allen. That way, you begin your draft with 200+ catches instead of reaching for a back-end RB1 in the second round.

Having started off WR-WR, a pure zero-RB strategy starts to form. Guys like Jordan Howard, Derrius Guice, and Derrick Henry may be available, all of whom are solid backs. But loading up on elite players at other positions will likely make your team even better. In PPR, the third round is a great time to snag one of the top 3 tight ends. Likely, Rob Gronkowski will be off the board, but Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz are almost always still available.

Kelce and Ertz get targets like top end WRs, making them super valuable in PPR. More importantly, the difference between a guy like Kelce and, say, Kyle Rudolph, is substantially more than the difference between Guice and, say, Tarik Cohen. The tier break at tight end, like wide receiver, is substantial in PPR. It occurs around the back end of the third round as well. Going pure zero-RB feels risky, but starting your draft with three elite pass catchers is a huge plus in PPR formats.

The fourth round, even with a zero-RB strategy, is a good point to break the running back drought and look for an upside RB1. Henry may still be available since many people don’t believe in him as a pass catcher. Also, Alex Collins and Rashaad Penny come into play as well. Collins and Penny incur a lot of potential risk, but both have fairly easy paths to becoming three-down backs. They are great choices if you are looking for upside at the running back position.

However, I would punt running back one more round if a certain quarterback was still on the board. Aaron Rodgers, currently going as the last player in the third round, could definitely trickle into the early fourth round. If that were the case, I would pounce on him immediately. Rodgers is the only elite QB who doesn’t come with substantial risk, so he could certainly lock up elite QB production for your team. Later QBs like Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, and Carson Wentz are much riskier. They may not be worth the mid-draft capital. Rodgers, however, is a tier above all of them, and is worth an early 4th round pick in PPR.

Assuming a start of Beckham, Allen, Kelce, and Rodgers, the rest of the draft becomes a search for upside at running back. In PPR, this becomes easier because pass catching running backs see a big bump in value. The best players to target, though, are perennial sleepers and rookies.

In the fifth round, Mark Ingram is still available, as well as rookies Sony Michel and Ronald Jones II. Ingram is an interesting case, since he’s suspended the first four games of the season. However, he has been an RB1 the last three years, and may be worth holding onto for four games to get the late-season production he will bring. Michel and Jones are both rookies whose teams highly invested in them. The Patriots backfield is a mess right now, but the team definitely wants Michel to absorb Dion Lewis’ old workload, and likely more. Similarly, the Buccaneers cut Doug Martin, so Jones can easily step into his workload and add on pass catching, too.

In the later rounds, you can add some security by adding a reliable pass catching running back. Tarik Cohen, Marlon Mack, and Chris Thompson are all going in rounds 6-8 in PPR drafts. None of those three backs are likely starters for their teams, but each has solidified a role as a pass catcher. Cohen and Mack flashed as rookies last year in fantasy, and should be able to take on a bigger load this year. Thompson is more of a veteran, but had a career year last year before sustaining a leg injury. Any of these three running backs would be a solid RB2.

Going four rounds without selecting a running back is somewhat intimidating, but you can put together a superb roster by doing so. Getting guaranteed elite production at QB, WR, and TE gives your team a strong foundation. All it is after that is drafting for fantasy upside at the running back position. Zero-RB from the back of the first round is one of my favorite draft strategies this year.