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Mike Davis | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer

Zero-RB in Theory & Practice for 2019

There’s a lot to be said for the zero-RB approach to drafting. Receivers tend to be injured less often than RBs, so using your early picks on wide-outs is a great way to concentrate your early-round draft capital on the players most likely to contribute to your point totals for the entire season. The underappreciated other side of this injury coin is that backup RBs routinely become major fantasy contributors as the season progresses, and backup RBs are the ones that most zero-RB teams will be forced to gamble on.

The easy part of zero-RB is picking fabulous WRs early; the hard part is figuring out which leftover RBs to draft in the middle and late rounds. You don’t have to be right about all the RBs you take, but you do need to be right about (or at least get lucky with) two or three of them. Fortunately, if you start off a draft with four consecutive picks at WR, it’s easy to justify taking RBs with 6 (or even 7) of your next 7 picks. If you only get 1 in 3 of those RB picks right, you’ll very likely end up with a better-than-average starting lineup.

But there are challenges in both theory and in practice.

Let’s start with a theoretical zero-RB half-PPR draft based on picking from the 6th slot in a 12-team league according to Fantasy Football Calculator’s ADP (as of August 14, 2019):

1.06: DeAndre Hopkins (ADP 1.06)
2.07: Mike Evans (ADP 2.08)
3.06: Stefon Diggs (ADP 3.12)
4.07: Robert Woods (ADP 4.07)

5.06: James White (ADP 5.06)
6.07: Kenyan Drake (ADP 6.07)
7.06: Darrell Henderson (ADP 7.10)
8.07: Kareem Hunt (ADP 8.10)
9.06: Carlos Hyde (ADP 9.09)
10.07: Peyton Barber (ADP 10.07)

11.06: Ben Roethlisberger (ADP 11.09)

12.07: Minnesota Def (ADP 12.11)

13.06: Greg Olsen (ADP 13.06)

14.07: Stephen Gostkowski (ADP 14.07)

Real drafts tend to be messier than this because they include numerous reaches and steals, but for the sake of simplicity, Iíve taken players with an ADP equal to or lower than the draft slots of this fictional team following a bare bones zero-RB formula.

The strength of the team is obviously the receiving corps. The least attractive WR on the roster (Robert Woods) was the 10th most productive receiver in many scoring formats in 2018 and will probably finish as a low-end WR1 or high-end WR2 in 2019, so this team should definitely dominate in the receiving category.

The running backs are a different story. The only one worth getting excited about for the entire season is White. Drake is losing ground to Kalen Ballage in the preseason. Henderson wonít be worth much if Todd Gurley stays healthy. Hunt could be important after his suspension, but may have a hard time winning the starting job from Nick Chubb even after becoming eligible to play. Hyde has flashed in the past, but has never broken the 1,000-yard mark in a season and probably wonít challenge Damien Williams for the starting job in KC (unless Williams gets hurt). Barber has such a low ceiling that he really doesnít belong on most zero-RB rosters. He does make some sense here, however, since most fantasy leagues require 2 starting RBs. With Drake possibly losing his starting role to Ballage by the beginning of the season and the others already being backups, the owner of this team needs SOMEONE to pair with White.

But will 2 of these 6 RBs hit? Only time will tell. White seems very likely to succeed on the basis of talent and experience. The others all need a break (injury to a starter or a change in coaching attitude or the lifting of a suspension) just to get a chance to perform. If White stays healthy and meets expectations, then only 1 of the other 5 needs to catch a break for this fictional team to have a serviceable pair of RBs supporting an awesome cadre of WRs.

I wouldnít bet on all 5 of those RBs getting the break they need, but itís not hard to imagine one of them working out. If Gurleyís arthritis sidelines him for just a few weeks, then Hendersonís value skyrockets. If Chubb disappoints during Huntís suspension, Hunt will likely surge in the weeks just before the fantasy playoffs. Things might go this teamís way.

Or they might not. Rolling the dice on RBs is part of the zero-RB package.

Robert Woods

And now let’s look at an actual zero-RB draft that I conducted from the 11th slot in the FFToday Staff League (12-team PPR with 2 flex players, no kicker, and 18 roster spots):

1.11 Odell Beckham Jr. (ADP 1.12)
2.02 Michael Thomas (ADP 1.10)
3.11 Brandin Cooks (ADP 4.05)
4.02 Robert Woods (ADP 4.07)


10.02 Emmanuel Sanders (ADP 10.02)
11.11 Josh Gordon (ADP 12.07)
12.02 DeVante Parker (ADP 14.05)

5.11 Phillip Lindsay (ADP 4.12)
6.02 Lamar Miller (ADP 6.05)
7.11 Kenyan Drake (ADP 6.08)
8.02 Darrell Henderson (ADP 7.11)


13.11 Jerick McKinnon (ADP 12.07)
14.02 Mike Davis (ADP N/A)


17.11 Gus Edwards (ADP N/A)

9.11 Cam Newton (ADP 9.03)

16.02 Minnesota Def (ADP 12.05)

15.11 Jimmy Graham (ADP 13.10)
18.02 Jason Witten (ADP N/A)

As with the theoretical team, this roster features a very strong receiving corps, and the running backs leave a lot to be desired. However, I would have to give the edge to the theoretical team in the running back department because Lindsay is not as strong an anchor (in my opinion) as White. White has a rapport with Tom Brady that virtually guarantees him a role as a mainstay in the New England offense. Lindsay had a great campaign in 2018, but concerns about his size and a crowded backfield suggest that his workload is far from guaranteed. I like Lindsay, but Iím not confident enough about his role in the Denver offense to feel like I can count him to produce week in and week out.

Miller doesnít inspire that kind of confidence either. Short of injury, I donít expect him to end up on the bench, but his upside is definitely capped by Houstonís acquisition of backfield receiving specialist Duke Johnson. Miller is sort of like a revved up version of Peyton Barber from the theoretical team in that regard. Weíve already discussed Drake and Henderson. McKinnon is hurt; Davis was a sentimental pick (because we have the same name); Edwards was just a 17th-round flyer who is unlikely to repeat his 2018 performance based on the scraps that Mark Ingram and Justice Hill will leave him.

Whereas the theoretical team just needs one RB to get lucky in addition to White, the real team needs Lindsay to get lucky enough to rival White in addition to at least one other RB getting lucky too.

I love having Cook and Woods as my WR3 and WR4 (esp. since I will be able to start 5 WRs in this league), but I think my team would have been stronger if, instead of taking Woods in the 4th round, I had snagged almost any of the RBs taken by my competitors between 4.02 and 5.11: Josh Jacobs, James White, Chris Carson, and Tevin Coleman.

My point here is that the zero-RB strategy isnít as simple as painting by numbers. Yes, you need to be comfortable swinging for the fences (Lindsay) and gambling on backups poised for success (Henderson), but you also want to have at least 1 RB that you can rely on. If the only way to do that is to target an RB in the first 4 rounds, then donít let your commitment to zero-RB get in the way of building the best team you can.

But it may not be necessary in most leagues. This was an expert league with only 1 QB (Patrick Mahomes) drafted in the first 4 rounds. In most leagues, multiple QBs are taken before the 5th, which has the effect of making RBs, WRs, and TEs a little bit cheaper than they were in this league.

Reader Responses

I received a number of intriguing responses to my column for July. Letís start with the comments about players that some readers feel like they should forgive for their disappointing performances in 2018.

Bodio is looking to forgive Corey Davis (which makes a lot of sense to me, since Davis is a perfect candidate for a textbook third-year breakout season) and Marcus Mariota (which makes less sense to me because the Titans appear to be determined to run their offense through Derrick Henry in 2019).

Bryan wants to forgive Dalvin Cook, which I support completely. Cook has struggled with injuries in his brief career, but I hate to hang the ďinjury-proneĒ label on someone just for getting off to a rocky start. Cookís talent is undeniable, and heís part of an offense that stresses defenses in all directions (with Cousins, Thielen, Diggs, and Rudolph). If Cook stays healthy, I consider him a lock to finish as a mid-RB1 or better.

Mike shared his thoughts about forgiveness among other things:

It is tough to forgive a player for subpar performance. If you draft 2 years in a row it feels three times brutal vs two times brutal. I had Fournette and Gordon at the back of the draft in one of my leagues. Fournette will not be drafted by me until 3+ rounds go by if he were still on the board (he wonít be). Gordon I would draft again (assuming no contract issue) even though his missed time killed me.

I totally agree with your QB assessment. I would add one more point. After trends come in, for several weeks, if you donít see value at lower tier RBs, I would investigate schedules on good performing QBs and perhaps pick up a second one. It all comes down to what does the free agent pool look like. I strongly recommend drafting approx. 150 players. It leaves some hope for free agents.

I havenít played super flex, but would strongly suggest equally weighting RB, WR, QB scoring by position. If the league is over tilted to QB scoring, simply call the position QB2, not super flex. Would rather roll with RB, WR, TE flex and keep the QB out.

Flex helps water down the Kicker and D positions. D and K are crap shoots but do add interest to the game. Owners have even discussed ditching the TE position, you need TE since the elite end is scarce and adds to planning / intrigue to the draft. Over time TE may become deeper or shallower via ebb and flow.

Thanks for the feedback, Bryan. Iíll respond to your final point (about TEs) because one league Iíve played in for years has always put WRs and TEs into the same category--and I think itís fine. I understand why some people resist this (especially if theyíre fond of TE-premium leagues, like the Scott Fish Bowl), but after the 2018 season, itís easy to see why some people donít miss the TE position. There simply arenít enough quality TEs for more than half the teams in a league to be competitive at the position. Yes, the dearth of TE talent can make for some interesting developments (Kelce went in the first round of the FFToday Staff League Draft), but allowing people to use either TEs or WRs as receivers can also lead to interesting developments. Some folks like the ďebb and flowĒ of talent at TE; others donít like it; I can go either way.

I also received a question from Andy about the construction of the 36-team mega-league in which I have participated for years.

Itís a blast, Andy. The league has had as few as 24 teams and as many as 48 over the years. Itís divided into multiple conferences of 12 teams each. The scoring is the same across all conferences, but each conference has its own ďsub-commissionerĒ with its own draft and its own playoff tournament.

The fun part is the mega-tournament that pits the playoff teams from the various conferences against each other. If you make the playoffs, you play two games each week (one to advance within your conference; the other to advance within the league). In the inter-conference game, you may end up playing against one of your own players. I won my conference last year (with Christian McCaffrey and Andrew Luck) but lost the league championship (against a team with Christian McCaffrey and Aaron Rodgers).

When my brother was the uber-commissioner of the league, he actively recruited an independent 12-team league to join the mega-league as a new conference. The current uber-commissioner isnít much of a recruiter, but if youíre part of an established 12-team league that wants to compete with us, I can put you in touch with him. You can also start your own mega-league simply by putting 2 or more existing leagues together. Weíve devised a few special rules and traditions over the decades to make sure that thereís parity between the various leagues; feel free to email for additional details if you have specific concerns on that front.

Mike Davis has been writing about fantasy football since 1999--and playing video games even longer than that. His latest novel (concerning a gamer who gets trapped inside Nethack after eating too many shrooms) can be found here.

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