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 second slot you could have locked up a title… or been completely out of it. If the board broke right you might have taken Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, and Travis Etienne Jr., RB1,RB8, and RB3 respectively. Or, luck was not on your side, and you ended up with Austin Ekeler, Josh Jacobs, and Aaron Jones, RB26, RB28, and RB37, respectively.

If you had gone Zero-RB Strategy with Tyreek Hill, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Keenan Allen, then you had the WR2, WR3, and WR8. You also could have ended up with Justin Jefferson, Jaylen Waddle, and Tee Higgins, the WR33, WR34, and WR51.

Heck, you could have taken a kicker and defense in the first two rounds then drafted Breece Hall, Rachaad White, D.J. Moore, Sam LaPorta, and picked up Puka Nacua/Kyren Williams 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.

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 Christian McCaffrey at the top of the round or Jahmyr Gibbs at the back of the round. Zero-RB Theory is more for when the best value to you the first couple of rounds is a receiver.

In the drafts from 2012 through 2023, there were 91 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 63 percent of them finished as RB2’s or better, so Top 24 at the position. There were 23 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 23 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 26 of the 55 Top-5 running backs over the past eleven seasons were taken in the first round. That means 47 percent of the elite backs were non-Round One picks.

Wide Receivers

In that same time frame of the past eleven years, there have been 48 wide receivers taken in the first round of half-PPR Fantasy Football drafts.

There was a 73-percent hit rate of your Round One receiver finishing the year as a WR1. Almost 84 percent of them finished as WR2’s and all but four, so 92 percent, finished as at least a WR3.

Mind you that number was 95 percent before Michael Thomas in 2020. Almost half of the 48 guys taken finished as Top-5 receivers in half-PPR scoring.

The average finish of the first wide receiver off the board was WR13. Before 2020 that number was the WR2 overall, with no one finishing lower than the WR3. That also includes Justin Jefferson's WR33 from last season.

The average finish of the top back picked was RB23. Just because CMC was the top pick and top finisher last year, do not forget that Ekeler was second (RB26) and Jonathan Taylor first in 2022 (RB33).

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.

Other Positions

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Of the past eleven 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 four finished as TE5, TE22, TE2, and TE3. This includes Travis Kelce last season, who was TE1 in points per game.

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.

While these positions are not in play for normal league setups in Round One this year, take into account the consistency at the top when it comes to taking the elite instead of running backs in rounds two through five.

Three of the top four quarterbacks selected last year finished in the top four at the position. All finished within the top eight.

Three of the top four drafted tight ends in 2023 also finished in the top four at the position. All four of them finished in the top six in points per game.

There is a level of consistency in the elite tiers of these two positions. This consistency, combined with elite wide receivers, can give you a perfect Zero-RB Strategy built roster.

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 snag an elite tight end after a Round One receiver 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.

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 2024 Fantasy Football content from our great team of writers!

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