If you have been playing fantasy football for a few seasons, you have probably come across chatter about “Zero RB”. But what exactly is this zero running back strategy and how can it give fantasy owners an edge on draft day?
Below is an in-depth analysis of the Zero RB strategy, including players who fit the draft strategy that you can target this season, whether it be re-draft leagues at Sleeper Fantasy or Underdog best ball drafts.
What is Zero RB Strategy?
Despite its name, the Zero RB strategy does not mean fantasy football owners should completely ignore the running back position on draft day, or be bold enough to leave those positions blank in a starting lineup.
In general, Zero RB strategy is based on prioritizing the other positions, and building a stud-wide receiving corps while securing difference-makers at the quarterback and/or tight end spots in fantasy drafts. Although the specific round threshold for a pure Zero RB strategy is arguable, waiting until the fifth round or later to draft a running back fits the concept.
The running back position is generally the most volatile throughout the season with injuries. Backups entering starting roles routinely see workloads that generate impactful fantasy points, regardless of their talent levels. The Zero RB strategy seeks to take advantage of the running back volatility by minimizing draft capital on high-end backs and taking more shots on late-round backs with high upside.
Pros of Zero RB Strategy
There are a few alluring pros of the Zero RB strategy that makes it popular among daring fantasy drafters. An obvious positive is the strength built at the other positions when teams forego the running back position. Specifically, the strategy makes it easier for fantasy players to prioritize the single starting positions at quarterback and tight end.
Travis Kelce in the first round and/or the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, or Jalen Hurts in the second round of single-quarterback leagues become draft targets instead of wrenches thrown in the draft plan. The positional advantage of those superstars is enticing, but many fantasy players are reluctant to invest a high-end pick on those positions. The Zero RB strategy opens up the flexibility to load up on these fantasy difference makers.
Running backs also tend to get injured at a higher rate than most other positions. Each year, multiple first round running backs wind up on the injured reserve and their fantasy owners’ title hopes are also sidelined. Even an elite, durable option like Christian McCaffrey has multiple years with major mid-season injuries. The Zero RB strategy shies away from the risk of top tier running backs ruining your fantasy football hopes and leans toward investing in safer positions from an injury perspective.
Finally, the Zero RB strategy takes advantage of the volatility potential of the running back position. When an injury occurs in the backfield, the next guy up generally receives a significant workload, at least compared to wide receivers. These backups can provide huge fantasy production with late-round draft capital. Without an early-round runner, the Zero RB strategy relies on taking multiple lottery ticket shots at the position in the late rounds. When those hit, they can be league winners at bargain prices. Just last year, Jamaal Williams surprised everyone with 17 touchdowns, one behind league leader Austin Ekeler for running backs.
Cons of Zero RB Strategy
Of course, there are downsides to the strategy as well. First, those lottery ticket late-round running backs must hit for a chance at a fantasy championship. Loading the bench with timeshare and backup running backs could result in a variety of starting options throughout the season, or could turn into a difficult choice each week between disappointing options.
Speaking of those late-round running backs, the Zero RB roster construction usually means your week one starting lineup is going to look bad at the running back spots. But that’s the idea right? Hopefully, you have amassed an incredible starting squad in the rest of the lineup, but be prepared to hold your nose while searching for a RB2 (and maybe a RB1) for the first few weeks of the season until injuries start to take shape.
Maybe the worst potential outcome is a major injury to a top-end quarterback or tight end in a Zero RB lineup. The goal of this draft strategy is to grab superstars at the other positions early and then focus on running backs in the back half of the draft. This likely means depth at quarterback and tight end was sacrificed in the process. A season-altering injury at your positions of strength will have an even bigger impact in this strategy when your running backs are not able to overcome the loss in production.
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When to Draft Your First RB
For a true Zero RB strategy, many fantasy players will advise waiting until at least the fifth round to take the first running back. Of course, there is no fantasy football czar waiting to destroy you if you take Joe Mixon in round three or four instead.
The best advice for any draft strategy is to take advantage of the value on the board. If there is a screaming value for a running back in the first three rounds, the Zero RB strategy should go out the window. But for fantasy owners wanting to stick to the strategy at all costs, the general advice is to acquire your starting wide receivers, quarterback, and tight end prior to drafting a tailback.
In round five or six, a number of starting running backs are still available for consistent production, though likely not high-end results. The likes of James Conner, Dameon Pierce, Rachaad White, and D’Andre Swift all fall into the range of running backs that could serve as RB1 on a Zero RB strategy team.
Remember, the goal is to load the bench with upside running backs in the back half of the draft so hopefully more options will materialize throughout the season to overtake that RB1 spot in your weekly roster.
Top Zero RB Targets in 2023
Let’s look at some potential targets for the Zero RB strategy.
James Conner, Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals will likely be a dumpster fire in 2023 with questions at quarterback, offensive line, and a variety of other positions. There are no questions about the starting running back. The veteran Conner was a workhorse down the stretch in 2022 with over 17 carries per game over the last seven weeks. He finished in the top-13 in running back fantasy points each of those weeks. He is a perfect RB1 target to provide a consistent floor to pair with high-upside later round picks.
Jerick McKinnon, Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs’ offense with Andy Reid and Mahomes provide fantasy boom potential each and every week. Grabbing late-round pieces of that production is a great option for the Zero RB strategy. McKinnon scored nine of his 10 touchdowns in the last six weeks of the 2023 season. With a muddled backfield in McKinnon, Isiah Pacheco, and maybe Clyde Edwards-Helaire, it’s hard to know who will be the fantasy back to own. This is the perfect lottery ticket play.
De’von Achane, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins are another team with question marks on the running back depth chart. Despite rumblings about them signing Dalvin Cook in the offseason, they drafted Achane out of Texas A&M in the third round of the NFL Draft. Achane is a speed demon that can make plays in the open field and caught more than three balls a game during his last season in College Station. Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. are anything but reliable to stay healthy. There is a very realistic path to a major workload for Achane early in the 2023 season.
The Zero RB strategy is certainly a viable option for fantasy success. Like any strategy, the cards still need to fall your way during the season for the strategy to succeed. Just like running backs in the NFL struggling to earn big paydays from teams in free agency, the position is slowly, but surely being devalued amongst fantasy owners. The years of 8-10 running backs being drafted in the first round are likely coming to an end. The Zero RB strategy may still be on the front end of a larger value shift in fantasy football as a whole.