Strategy Credit: Rotoviz were the ones to originally come up with this theory.
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ne of the fastest growing strategies in the fantasy industry is the zero running back method. Popularized last season, zero-RB can be described as risky, efficient and against the grain, but before you know how it works, it’s important to know why it works.
Anyone who plays fantasy football knows about the inconsistent and unpredictable nature of the running back position. RBs are more prone to injuries, game flow issues and are the most replaceable skill position in the NFL. This makes opportunities less important than talent in many scenarios. Over the last five years, 16/30 of the top-6 running backs drafted finished as an RB1, which is a top-12 RB. That means that from this years top-6 RBs (say, McCoy, Charles, Peterson, Forte, Lacy and Lynch), only three will finish the season as a top-12 RB in 2014 on average. That is the peak of the position, it only gets worse as you go farther down.
These kind of bust-rates for RBs are not breaking news for fantasy owners, but the way that we’ve been dealing with these high bust-rates has been wrong. To try to capitalize on the lack of predictable elite RBs owners would try to get two and even three of the upper-tier RBs, in hopes that having more of them would yield a higher return on RB1. I tried that last season, drafting Ray Rice, Steven Jackson and Reggie Bush with 3/4 of my first picks in my most important league and you can probably guess how that worked. The fallacy with loading up on elite RBs who pan out only 50% of the time is that those early round picks need to be used on guys who will pan out. Top-6 wide receivers drafted in the last five years have returned WR1 value (top-12 at the position) 22/30 times, a 73% success rate that is much higher than the 53% rate of running backs. Early round quarterbacks are even a safer investment than wide receivers. The vast majority of the time, when you draft an elite QB, they actually play like one. The point of zero-RB is to divert the risk inherited when drafting running backs from the front of your draft, to the end of it so that you can capitalize on elite WRs, QBs and TEs in the early rounds.
A big part of zero-RB is when you should crack and snag your first ball carrier and the truth is there is no right answer. I usually get my first running back from rounds 5-7, but it is totally dictated by the flow of the draft. This is a very flexible strategy that often favors picking the best available player so by no means reach for an RB just because you are feeling nervous that you don’t have one yet and your league mates have 3 or 4. Load up your team with an elite QB, an elite TE and elite WRs until either all of them are gone or you feel a RB you really like has slipped too far, then get your RB. As for who your first RB should be, there is a certain type of mold that you should look to fill. While the later rounds are where you take your shot at upside at the RB position, your first one should be somewhat of an anchor for your RB core, a player you can rely on in case your late round fliers take a while to reach fruition. For example, Steven Jackson (RB30) is going in the 6th round. His situation is favorable for this strategy in that he will see 15+ touches every game and is a goal-line back, meaning you can bank on him for close to double-digit fantasy points a game. While he doesn’t have the upside of someone like Chris Johnson (RB24), he is more consistent week to week and is someone you can count on.
By the time you get your first RB, most of your starting roster should be filled, meaning now is the time to load up on upside. While its okay to use a few picks on other positions, most of your bench should be filled with high upside backs who given the right breaks can replicate the RB1’s and RB2’s that you passed on in the early rounds. When using this strategy, it is important to know that the majority of these late rounds fliers will not pan out and that it may take a while for the ones who do to actually produce. The point is that since the rest of your lineup will be filled with elite players that have a high rate of living up to their draft stock. You only need 1 or 2 of your RB fliers to pan out in order for your team to be unstoppable. Zero-RB users last season found gems in Pierre Thomas, Zac Stacy, LeVeon Bell, Knowshon Moreno, Danny Woodhead and others, pairing them with elite QBs, TEs and WRs to create great fantasy teams.
Your final Zero-RB roster composition should look something like this:
- QB: Either elite quarterback or wait until end of draft and stream during the season, depends on flow of draft.
- TE: Either Graham, Thomas or Gronkowski, or wait to grab a late TE.
- WR: 3-4 good receivers that you can count on starting every week and 1-2 high upside fliers drafted in the later rounds.
- RB: 1-2 “anchors” that can hold you until late round fliers pan out, 4-6 high upside players who can replace RB1’s and RB2’s.
Here are some of my favorite targets at the running back position when employing this strategy, ranked by ADP:
Shane Vereen (RB22)
- Guaranteed touches as receiving back, minimally effected by game flow, could gain a lot of carries if Ridley fumbles the starting job away.
Joique Bell (RB27)
- Should see a lot of touches in run and pass game, plays in top-5 offense and could overtake Reggie Bush as the early down back.
Steven Ridley (RB29)
- Uncontested shot at early down role in run first offense and could easily land double digit TDs.
Steven Jackson (RB30)
- Early down back in elite offense, no competition for role. Will remain goal-line back and could reach double digit TDs.
Lamar Miller (RB32)
- Three-down back in what could be extremely run heavy offense. Enormous talent ,but has a lower floor due to lack of track record of success.
Bernard Pierce (RB38)
- Huge talent coming off bad year which makes him cheaper. Pending Ray Rice’s suspension, could be three-down back on a team that relys on strong run game.
Jeremy Hill (RB42)
- Could take BJGE’s role and see 200+ carries and goal-line work, putting him in RB2 territory from immediately.
Christine Michael (RB45)
- One of the best pure runners in the NFL, one injury away from early down work on elite running offense. Also could wind up in a time-share with Lynch.
Knile Davis (RB54)
Another extremely talented runner, Davis is one injury away from a full workload in the most running back-centric offense in the NFL.
Roy Helu (RB59)
- Much better fit for Jay Gruden’s offense than Alfred Morris and could possibly overtake early-down work. Already in sole possession of passing-down work.
Because you are drafting RB’s with high ceilings and low floors, this strategy will have a high variance of results. You could hit on three of your late RBs and run away with your league, or you could hit on none of them and you end up 3-9 with the worst group of RBs in your league. That kind of upside is what you should be chasing because fantasy football is about getting in first place, not coming in second or making the playoffs. This is my strategy of choice because no other strategy can give you the upside of having elite players at every position. RB is the only position where players consistently go from late round pick to RB1 on a year to year basis, so it makes sense to use that to your advantage. stock up on elite players early and take your gambles late. If your goal is to win your league at all costs, zero-RB is the strategy for you.
Sean Berenbaum is a student at The Ohio State University but is originally from Herndon, VA, a suburb of Washington D.C. Sean has never seen a winning season or a playoff game as a serious Rams fan but remains as passionate a Rams fan as there is.