The Zero Running Back Strategy: Pros and Cons

Zero RB The line has clearly been drawn in the sand for the fantasy football community: You either support the zero running back strategy or you don’t. 

Much like political association and religious beliefs, fantasy football players hold their draft strategy near and dear to their hearts. Any questioning on a thought process or the selection of a player is the equivalent of a declaration of war. If you told a third grader that Santa Claus wasn’t real, and you told a fantasy football player that their draft strategy doesn’t make sense, you probably would get similar responses. There will be yelling, crying, finger pointing and a whole lot of hurt feelings. 

Most people are a big fan of themselves when it comes to their fantasy football ability, but that isn’t a bad thing. Unless you are Warren Buffet or Dan Bilzerian, you probably have someone you have to listen to tell you what to do at some point during the day. Whether that is a employer, a significant other or your dog scratching at the door to go outside, you are getting bossed around on a daily basis. One of the most appealing aspects of fantasy football for me, is the ownership and complete control of something. Sure, I look at rankings and will listen to the commentary of others, but at the end of the day, I have complete control of who I start and who I bench. Other then a buddy giving me a hard time, I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder or telling me I need to change how I am doing things. In a world constantly telling you how you should think and what you should do, fantasy football puts you back in the driver seat of your decision-making process. 

So while I understand you want to defend your fantasy drafting abilities at all costs, you should have an open mind when it comes to new concepts and strategy. You can either evolve or you can die, and I want to be ready for whatever fantasy football has to throw at me. 

If you are reading this, I am going to assume you are already familiar with the basic concept behind the zero running back strategy. If not, you can find out what it is and see examples of mock drafts that have used the theory here. I can find data that showcases support or opposition to the concept, but I want to provide real examples of how the strategy contains positive and negative elements. If you have stuck with me this long, your wait is finally over.

Pros

1. The zero running back strategy helps to eliminate risks

According to Sean Berenbaum’s article on Gridiron Experts, more than half of the the top-six running backs drafted will not finish as top-12 backs. On the flip side, around 30% of the top-six receivers drafted will not produce top-12 numbers. This really comes into play this season. After LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte come off the board, who should you draft with the fifth-overall pick? Who should you draft with the eighth and ninth picks? In one of my leagues last season, C.J. Spiller was the fifth running back off the board with the seventh pick and Trent Richardson was sixth running back with the ninth pick. If you had selected Calvin Johnson with the seventh pick and A.J. Green with the ninth, Johnson would have netted you 103 more points than Spiller and Green would have netted you 104 more points than Richardson. 

2. Top-tier wide receivers are gone quicker than people think

If you draft two or three running backs in rounds one, two and three, you aren’t going to have as large of a pool of wide receivers to chose from in the later rounds. In the second round, you can draft Brandon Marshall, Antonio Brown, Julio Jones and Jordy Nelson. In the fifth round, DeSean Jackson, Percy Harvin, Michael Floyd and T.Y. Hilton are available. While those players are fantasy relevant and do have upside, I would much rather have Brandon Marshall as my first receiver than T.Y. Hilton. 

3. For most leagues, the zero running back strategy is easily implemented

If you have the ninth pick in a standard 12-man league, it isn’t far fetched to think that you could have Demaryius Thomas and A.J. Green on your team. While most of your opponents will look towards Montee Ball and Arian Foster at the end of round one, you can capitalize on that by landing two elite receivers. If everyone else is going left, sometimes it pays to go right. 

4. Rushing attacks are being turned into committee approaches

There are very few running backs who are able to play all 16 games, and even if they do, carries can easily be vultured. Running backs also generally require more touches to be effective, but a wide receiver has the ability to make a big fantasy impact with only a few targets. Because of the nature of the routes wide receivers have to know, it is much easier to put in a running back on a rushing play than it is to substitute different receivers for different aerial attacks. 

5. I got burned drafting three running backs in a row

Last year, the first three picks in one of my leagues was Ray Rice, Stevan Ridley and Maurice-Jones Drew. At the time, my rushing attack looked pretty strong. I had a six-win season in that league, and I was part of the 53% of people who draft a running back in the first-round that doesn’t produce as a top-12 back. MJD had the best year out of those three. 

 

 

Cons:

1. Of my four teams that made the playoffs last season, I only had one top-10 receiver

If you are able to hit on running backs, you are able to make it to the playoffs without a super-elite receiver. I will stress that you really do need to hit big with your running backs, but if you can, using an early-round pick on a receiver may be a waste. Three out of my four playoff teams had at least two top-10 running backs, and one team had three. 

2. You need to really understand a running back’s upside

Drafting Maurice-Jones Drew and Darren McFadden is not enough to build depth for your running backs. If your first starting running back is Stevan Ridley, you need to make sure you are drafting a minimum of three running backs who have upside. These aren’t players who will start right away, but they will have a chance to be fantasy relevant if the right circumstance is presented. This isn’t easy, so if you have a weakness for building depth and identifying opportunity, you are going to have a difficult time successfully implementing a zero running back approach. 

3. You will miss out on elite quarterbacks and tight ends

This strategy can vary from person to person on which position you draft and in what round you select a quarterback, but I see most people drafting four wide receivers straight in a row. That means you will miss out on Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Julius Thomas

4. If other people in your league use zero rb, you may need to alter your strategy

I was recently acting as a consultant to one of my buddies, and he had the third pick in his draft. We had went over implementing the zero rb theory, and he was all for it. Our game plan was to select Matt Forte after LeSean McCoy and Adrian Peterson were off the board, and we would focus on wide receivers for the next few rounds. As I expected, Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy and Marshawn Lynch were selected in that order. To my shock and horror, the people picking near the end of the first round appeared to be fans of this wide receiver heavy strategy. Johnson, Thomas, Dez Bryant, Marshall, Green, and Julio Jones were all gone by the early start of the second round. I feel confident in our next three picks of Antonio Brown, Jordy Nelson and Vincent Jackson, but I was expecting to potentially have Jones fall to us in a non-ppr league. I was positive that more running backs would have been selected in the first and second round, but I was wrong, My friend still compiled a strong team, but you have to prepare yourself if things don’t turn out exactly as you planned. 

5. If your running backs can’t score at all, you might be sunk

What if your starting running backs lose their jobs or become injured, and Carlos Hyde is the best back on your bench, but he isn’t starting? You should be able to add some running back talent through the waiver wire at some point during the season, but you can’t always rely on that. If your backs just aren’t producing and your backups aren’t panning out, the rest of your players may not be able to carry the team. 

Whether you plan on using it or find ways to exploit your opponents who are using it, understanding the basic features of the zero running back strategy is crucial for success in your fantasy season. 

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