Zero-RB: An Avenue Towards Dominating Your League in 2020
Just the mere mention of the term "Zero-RB" makes people roll their eyes as they draft Jonathan Taylor, Le'Veon Bell, and Devin Singletary in the 3rd through 5th rounds. It's not going to win over a crowd. It's not for the risk-averse.
So what does this particular fantasy football strategy entail? Well, you don't draft running backs. For a long time. Real deep, I know.
That said, there's a ton of nuance and thought behind not taking a running back for a good portion of your draft, and that's where this article comes in. Not only will wide receivers be heavily drafted in these high-leverage rounds, but possibly an elite tight end and quarterback as well. Let's jump into this.
Zero-RB is a conceptual draft strategy coined by Shawn Siegele of RotoViz, which pulls inspiration from a book by Nassim Nicholas Tabel called "Antifragile", in which his definition of the term antifragile states:
"Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure. Yet in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better."
Take a typical fantasy football lineup, which is a balanced one in nature. After 8-9 rounds, you have your starting lineup (format dependent) and the drafter would then use the remaining rounds to secure depth on their bench. Provided one drafts at least a quarterback, 3 or 4 running backs, 3 or 4 wide receivers, and a tight end, that balance makes your roster construction incredibly fragile.
Think of this balanced construction as a thin layer of ice. Once weight is applied to the surface, it immediately cracks, splinters to most of the surface area and eventually, gives way.
But you can also go #RobustRB, right? Establishing quantities of an asset should invariably put you in an advantageous situation, no? Using whatever prediction method you choose to make your determinations when drafting several running backs, one false move spells doom for your entire roster construction, and leads you to take the wrong players and wrong positions.
Robust RB is predicated on drafting several running backs within the first 3-4 rounds of a particular draft. When you fire off these running backs in your draft, you're chasing wide receiver mostly (based on the inherent nature of needing more of them) starting in the 4th round and while you're taking those receivers coming out of WR2 into WR3 range, the RB supply dries up even further. It doesn't give you many bullets in the chamber to fire off at upside in the double-digit rounds, so you're pretty much entirely dependent your 2-3 running back start as the crux of your starting lineup, which leads back to the thin ice metaphor. One injury, one prediction miscue splinters your roster and leads you chasing back points from an unbalanced position. Fantasy teams must deal with attrition at the running back position that they invested so much capital in.
Both the balanced "value-based drafting" and Robust RB strategies certainly make sense in a vacuum, and while Zero-RB may not be for everybody, it certainly isn't something you should go into a draft with your heart set on. Committing to a draft strategy without having drafted a single player puts you squarely behind the 8-ball.
As we see from this chart (per Jack Miller at RotoViz), running backs have been going earlier and earlier since 2016. Separated by specific ranges of RB, you can see a sharp increase in ADP across the board and it's very telling as the landscape has changed across the NFL. The era of the "bell cow" running back has dried up for the most part, so intrepid drafters are locking those guys up with higher and higher draft capital.
Referring back to the quote from Taleb's book, Zero-RB thrives and benefits from the volatility of the running back position. That volatility mainly surfaces in the form of injury.
The running back position is incredibly exposed to injury (and serious injury) than every other position in fantasy football, especially among high-usage running backs.
Josh Hermsmeyer had a wonderful piece on RotoViz a few years ago detailing positional injury rates and we can use this to show some of the volatility at the position. For this chart, a serious injury is defined as one that caused a player to miss four or more weeks. As for running backs in high leverage ADP?
We're getting into the thick of it now with some crazy numbers as the sample size is reduced to the top 24 RB/WR ADP. Simply put, a running back drafted in the first five rounds of a draft is 200-360 percent more likely to suffer a serious injury than wide receivers are.
The risk with drafting high-leverage running backs is astronomical, to say the least. Roster constructions buoyed by running backs with high draft capital are more prone to losing the upside they seek to create at the beginning of the season. When you're looking to score the most points towards fantasy football playoff time, you're coming up short on the upside needed to win your league, even if you have great luck with the early-round backs.
Teams that roster cheaper options, such as high-end backups and satellite backs have an edge as they see new RB starters pop up each week as the high-usage (and highly drafted) backs fall to attrition. If Dalvin Cook were to miss time, Alexander Mattison would be a must-start option each week. Same with Tony Pollard, Latavius Murray, Chase Edmonds, and so on. On the flip side, if you lost Amari Cooper to injury, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb, and Blake Jarwin are almost universally owned in leagues, so there are no benefits to reap. Simply, elite running backs are easier to find on the waiver wire than elite wide receivers, and the workloads these running backs receive may not be the previous starter's workload, but it's much easier to forecast versus a wide receiver. Taking COVID-19 into consideration would lead me into rostering more outs to getting backs who either are getting the work or are next to get the work with contingent value (more on that later).
How do we go about this strategy?
There are different ways to go about Zero-RB but both offer one thing that is paramount to a successful strategy, and that's a positional advantage. Sure, Zero-RB implies that you'll be drafting other positions well before the need to draft a wide receiver. The importance of hitting these other positions hard with early-round draft capital before you eventually get to running back is vital. If you can establish positional advantages over your league mates at wide receiver, tight end, and quarterback, and fire off as many bullets at the running back position late, you'll be in excellent shape. This is all well and good, but league parameters need to be in place to implement this? There are several settings we must look at which provide an optimal environment for such a strategy:
- Full PPR scoring (1/2 PPR is okay too, but full is preferred)
- The ability to start 4 or more wide receivers (including FLEX)
- FAAB budgets
Full PPR allows you more outs to capturing running back standalone value. Think players like Nyheim Hines, Tarik Cohen, or Duke Johnson, who would be going at the very end of drafts without PPR scoring.
Starting 4 or more wide receivers is a huge factor, considering WR tend to score more points in PPR formats than running backs do.
FAAB budgets help you grab available players that have changes to their roles or absorb roles from injured players ahead of them, which we know through attrition is a certainty.
Now that we've looked at the different build structures and the volatility that comes with them, let's take a look at a Modified Zero-RB's draft implementation.
Modified Zero-RB and Implementation
If you have an early pick, you should be taking a high-end running back. Picks 1-6 are not the time to play it cute. Forcing the strategy just for the namesake by drafting Michael Thomas, Travis Kelce, or Davante Adams in the 1st round well ahead of ADP is not a fruitful endeavor. The best part about having to start with a running back in these early positions is that you'll have a decided advantage with a gigantic floor/ceiling amongst your league mates at RB1, while still maintaining that positional advantage we're looking for. Take this start for instance:
With the 1.02 in an Underdog Fantasy "Bubble" draft earlier this week, I took Saquon Barkley and then came back around and took two receivers in DeAndre Hopkins and Juju Smith-Schuster, both with overall WR1 upside at their position, in high-upside, high-volume passing offenses. Mark Andrews was a no-brainer pick at 4.11 to capture massive upside as the primary target for Lamar Jackson and get the leg up at the tight end position. Robert Woods is in my top-12 WR rankings and if the Rams continue to play more 12-personnel in 2020, Woods should be a lock for WR1 production. To round out the first six rounds, Kyler Murray provides a huge upside and a rushing floor, as well as a stacking opportunity with Hopkins. It's fair to say that I may have a positional advantage over most teams in this league. Modified Zero-RB allows you to take that high-end RB at the beginning and then take those top options at other positions.
We want to help protect against receivers underperforming or getting injured, so after our first three, we add volume to our receivers by grabbing three more high-upside options. We then hit our second running back in Round 10 and then several more through Round 13. It all depends on your league settings and feeling out your competitors to draft running backs, but typically, the 8-10th rounds are a good spot, but depending on value falling, I'd take one in the 7th.
The final rounds were just shoring up a couple of bye week requirements as well as stocking up the late-round values at running back.
So for Modified Zero-RB, it's a great starting point for people intrigued by the process but still can't get over not having a running back. At the very least, you're getting a very safe high floor/high ceiling running back with the least amount of concerns before dipping into other positions.
But what about TRUE Zero-RB? Let's look at the implementation of that strategy.
True Zero-RB and Implementation
True Zero-RB is... well, not taking a running back at all for a majority of the beginning of drafts, while giving yourself a huge positional advantage. True Zero-RB works very well in the back-end of the 1st round, where players like Michael Thomas, Davante Adams, Travis Kelce, and to a lesser extent, George Kittle normally come off the board. Being able to pair two top receivers or a top receiver and tight end just gives you a decided advantage against our league mates. Let's go into some of the implementation here:
I'm in the Down Under Bowl hosted by @FF_DownUnder, a large-field charity tournament to help children and the hungry in Australia. In this tournament, you can start up to 5 wide receivers with flex spots, as well as it being a Superflex league and tight end premium (added .5 per reception). There are some wrinkles in the strategy, but it still has everything we're looking for to optimally draft a Zero-RB team here. With the amount of running backs that typically go, and now with quarterbacks being prioritized by teams, it's even better for a Zero-RB team to be advantageous and pick up the falling value everywhere.
Drafting at the 1.07, I took the top wide receiver on the board, Michael Thomas, at cost. Seeing 10 picks ahead of me, I was hoping to get one of Kelce or Kittle if they fell, which neither did. 7 other running backs fell, so Julio Jones was the pick in the 2nd round. Andrews was an easy smash pick in the 3rd round, and then two more receivers in Smith-Schuster and D.J. Chark, which gives us that decided advantage at WR/TE. Rounds 6 through 8 allow us to scoop up a falling DeVante Parker and our two quarterbacks, Tom Brady and Cam Newton, both of which are in my top-12 in my quarterback rankings. We have our positional advantage at 3 positions and now can turn our attention to running back starting in round 9.
Reeling off six straight running backs allows up many bullets to get those shares of good backfield options and standalone value. LaViska Shenault is a luxury pick as my WR6 and could be a nice weapon for a Jacksonville offense that could be throwing often as they get behind in games. This draft is still going on, but I'll be targeting a 2nd TE and two more running backs.
The players within the Zero-RB strategy
With the running backs we acquired in the two implementations and the backs we're looking to acquire in drafts, we're eyeing for very specific types of value from them. Namely:
- Contingent value
- Standalone value
- Avenues towards one or more of these above
When you think contingent value, you think of a true handcuff, along the lines of the aforementioned Pollard, Murray, Edmonds, Zack Moss, Alexander Mattison, where if something happened to the starting running back, they would immediately absorb a very healthy amount of that work and become an instantly startable "set and forget" running back. By taking advantage of the fragile nature of the high-usage running backs, if something were to happen, these backs and others would be at least, startable running backs and at most, league-winning backs.
Standalone value means just that, value out of the gate in Week 1. This tier of running back is very important, especially at the beginning of the season, when you need to get something out of your running backs. Think James White, Tarik Cohen, Boston Scott, Nyheim Hines, or Phillip Lindsay. Each of these backs have PPR value for their pass-catching, but it's not all about pass-catching. High-leverage roles also involve goal-line touches or defined splits in backfield work. Players like Kerryon Johnson, Marlon Mack, Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon, and so on. It's important to keep an eye on some of these splits as they could potentially lose some of the work to rookie running backs, but guys like Coleman and McKinnon who operate in a system that features multiple "hot-hand" running backs are very valuable too.
Upside is littered through the tiers we covered, but a lot of lower-end players have a crazy amount of upside that you need to capitalize on later in drafts. A.J. Dillon comes to mind as somebody who could work his way into the goal-line mix in Green Bay with his intriguing player profile. DeAndre Washington was just added by the Chiefs and if for some reason Clyde Edwards-Helaire is slow to start 2020, Washington could reap the benefits in what should be an outstanding Kansas City offense. Other names like Joshua Kelley, Bryce Love, Damien Harris, Darrynton Evans, Lynn Bowden Jr., Benny Snell come to mind when I think about the upside very late in drafts that could be realized.
The key to finding Zero-RB targets is to find players with avenues towards league-winning upside. Drafting with Zero-RB in mind makes your team stronger and benefit from the other teams' fragility at running back. The best example of how to summarize all this is with a horse named Zenyatta, a horse that won the first 19 starts in a 20 race career. Zenyatta would routinely start slower, which is what you can expect with the running backs you roster at the outset. As the horse would stay in the back of the field, it would slowly creep up on the pack, and then in the last quarter-mile, Zenyatta would start her burst and overtake everybody by multiple lengths.