Fantasy Football Zero-RB Strategy

by Michael Tomlin
Fantasy Football Zero-RB Strategy

Fantasy Football Zero-RB Strategy has become one of the more prevalent Fantasy Football approaches to drafting a team. Some people swear by it while others mock and ridicule those that choose to utilize it. So, who between the two types of people is correct?

The answer is both… and neither. The saying that there are, “Many ways to skin a cat” is not only super weird but quite applicable to Fantasy Football. No matter what positional or philosophical strategy you take into a Fantasy Football draft it can fail or succeed.

Consider: if you drafted running backs in your first three rounds last season from the seventh slot you could have locked up a title… or been completely out of it. If the board broke right you might have taken Austin Ekeler, Jonathan Taylor, and D'Andre Swift, RB2, RB1, and RB18, respectively. Or, luck was not on your side, and you ended up with Saquon Barkley, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and James Robinson, RB32, RB41, and RB25, respectively.

If you had gone Zero-RB Stratey with Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, and Keenan Allen then you had the WR3, WR6, and WR14. You also could have ended up with DeAndre Hopkins, Calvin Ridley, and Allen Robinson, the WR43, WR104, and WR86.

Heck, you could have taken a kicker and defense in the first two rounds then drafted Cooper Kupp, Mark Andrews, Leonard Fournette, James Conner, and picked up Hunter Renfrow/Cordarrelle Patterson off the waiver wire, and ran away with the league.

We can safely agree that every kind of Fantasy Football drafting philosophy can succeed or fail. But I am here to tell you why Zero-RB Strategy is the safest way to go.

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Fantasy Football Zero-RB Strategy

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Overall Fantasy Football Philosophy

I live and die my Fantasy Football life by two things: value-based drafting and the saying, “You cannot win your league in Round One, but you can lose it.”

This means that you want to mitigate risk early in your draft. You HAVE to come away with serviceable players if not studs early on if you want to give yourself the best chance to win a championship.

So what gives us the best chance to succeed early in the draft?

Early Bust Rates

Running Backs

Somewhere along the way, the old guard of Fantasy Football analysts has drilled into the masses’ heads that you must draft running backs in the first two rounds. You just must get your bell-cow, three-down workhorse backs.

You know what? I do not completely disagree. I am still taking the top few backs if I am in the top half of the round. Zero-RB Theory is more for the back half of Round One. But I also will always choose to pick there if given the option.

In the drafts from 2012 through 2021, there were 78 running backs selected in the first round of half-PPR drafts (per Fantasy Calculator’s historic Average Draft Position). Only 50 percent of those backs finished as RB1’s, or in the Top 12 in scoring at their position. So you get a coin flip whether you actually draft a stud with your first pick in the draft.

Only 62 percent of them finished as RB2’s or better, so Top 24 at the position. There were 25 percent, almost a quarter, of these running backs that finished outside of the Top 36 in scoring. So by taking a running back in Round One you had a 25 percent chance that he was unusable.

“But all of the top guys get taken then, so if you want an elite back you have to take him early!” Only 23 of the 45 Top-5 running backs over the past nine seasons were taken in the first round. That means 46 percent of the elite backs were non-Round One picks.

Wide Receivers

In that same time frame of the past ten years, there have been 38 wide receivers taken in the first round of half-PPR Fantasy Football drafts.

There was a 72 percent hit rate of your Round One receiver finishing the year as a WR1. Almost 88 percent of them finished as WR2’s and all but three, so 93 percent, finished as at least a WR3.

Mind you that number was 95 percent before Michael Thomas in 2020. Almost half of the 36 guys taken finished as Top-5 receivers in half-PPR scoring.

The average finish of the first wide receiver off the board was 12.14. Before 2020 that number was the WR2 overall, with no one finishing lower than the WR3. The average finish of the top back picked was RB24.

Other Positions

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Of the past ten tight ends to be, on average, the first of the position selected in Fantasy Football drafts, SEVEN of them finished as the top scorer. The other two finished as TE5, TE22 and TE2.

The only year in the past decade or so that quarterbacks edged their way into Round One was 2012. That year three quarterbacks went, on average, in the first round. They finished as QB2, QB1, and QB3 in the order that they were drafted.

This all does not just apply to Round One. Over the past four seasons, there were 37 running backs taken in the Top 24 at the position that did not finish there. That is nearly 40 percent of them busting. There were only 27 wide receivers in the same category.

Application of the Zero-RB Strategy

That was a long, drawn-out preamble to show that it is generally safer to take non-running backs early in drafts. The majority of analysts this year will tell you that taking backs early is the only way to win. Well, the last time there were ten running backs going in Round One, five of them finished outside the Top 25 at the position.

This is where we apply the Zero-RB Strategy to our drafting. The beauty of this strategy is that there is nothing set in stone like going RB-RB to start.

If you want to take four wide receivers to start the draft, then go ahead! Would you rather start with Travis Kelce and then also get an elite quarterback? Sure! The Zero-RB Strategy gives you more flexibility than almost any other draft strategy.

The basis is that you just do not take running backs early. There is no limit on how long you have to wait to take one either. You simply take the best value available and if that happens to be a running back in Round Four the go ahead and pull the trigger!

The rationale behind using the Zero-RB Strategy is that you are zagging when the rest of your league is zigging. If you have the twelfth pick in the draft and there are eleven running backs off the board, why would you take the RB12 with your first pick?

Instead, you can grab the top two wide receivers, or the top tight end and top wide receiver and you now have a positional advantage at two different positions every single week. If you follow the sheep, then not only are you already extremely behind at running back but you will inevitably be taking the other positions after them as well.

Taking Running Backs Later

When you do start targeting running backs, make sure they give you either massive upside or weekly consistency. This strategy really works best in Points Per Reception formats, as there are so many third-down backs available late in drafts that give you a weekly floor of production due to catching the ball.

But you also want to look at guys that are in the lower end of timeshares. These running backs can either take over on their own or get the job due to injury. However, you might still be able to use them as a bye-week fill-in to get you something.

Also, do not be afraid to snipe some handcuffs of the elite tier of running backs. The guys with a clear path to the starting role should the starter go down are valuable both as bench stashes and trade chips.
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Stay Flexible

As I always caution with any Fantasy Football strategy advice: you must remain flexible. No one knows how the board is going to fall. Do not zero in on the exact order of positions you want to draft or anything.

Say you want to wait until Round Seven to draft a running back. However, half of your league is also utilizing a form of Zero-RB Strategy. Do not let the value slide by you just because you want to stick to your plan.

This goes the other way, too. If you are zeroing in on tight end early but the top one comes off the board right before you, do not sweat it. Take the best two receivers and keep an eye on the next tier.

Flexibility is the key to the Zero-RB Strategy. Your ability to be flexible with your strategy gives you the advantage over the guys that are forced into their picks by their roster.

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Summing Up the Zero-RB Strategy

The Zero-RB Strategy gets too much ridicule as something that can not work in Fantasy Football. This is just from the people that do not understand the value it provides. It also is recency bias because the top wide receiver busted for the first time in a decade.

As I already said, I do not automatically utilize this strategy with every draft. It tends to be my go-to draft philosophy if I am picking in the back half of Round One, but I still do not use it all the time.

You must stay flexible in case the rest of your league does something unexpected. And people will always do something unexpected.

So know the Zero-RB Strategy and the reasons behind it so that if your draft sets up for you to employ it, you can successfully build a championship Fantasy Football team.

Next week I will provide some specific targets for the Zero-RB Strategy. Check out the rest of our 2021 Fantasy Football content from our great team of writers!

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