2021 Zero RB targets: best ball tiers

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C.D. Carter
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This is about the time of year I travel from town to town across this great nation, selling the simple and all-too-often rejected concept of anti-fragility in fantasy football drafting.

Some townsfolk regard me with suspicion, while others timidly admit that yes, they’re interested in creating volatile fantasy lineups designed to blow the roof of their respective leagues, but they’re not sure how, and they fear being excommunicated by loved ones. In other towns, I’m driven out by furious pitchfork-and-torch-wielding fantasy drafters who see anti-fragility as unsavory, and in some cases, unnatural. Give me 300-touch running backs, they say, or give me death.

The Zero RB structural draft strategy will be the topic of this column, if you haven’t yet figured it out. It’s undeniably a divisive subject in the larger fantasy football community, engendering strategic passion on both sides of the debate: One side trusting in the power of balance and the other sure of their abilities to exploit inefficiencies in our little game.

I am a grizzled veteran of the Zero RB Wars. I survived the all-out Zero RB conflicts of 2013 and 2014. I’ve struggled through the Zero RB skirmishes in recent offseasons, alienating thousands in the process. I’m here to be a guide this season for those who might consider themselves Zero RB-curious. They’ve read the reasoning behind the strategy, they understand the upside inherent in building an unbalanced fantasy lineup, but they can’t stomach the sight of a roster with zero -- or one -- running back in the first half of a draft. For them, the exercise is nauseating. It feels like giving up on two spots in your lineup.

I suppose I should (roughly) define the Zero RB draft strategy before we go further. The idea is to fade running backs in the high leverage part of your draft -- usually the first five or six rounds -- and round up as many elite receivers, tight ends, and yes, even quarterbacks, as humanly possible. Plucking a handful of running backs in the latter half of your draft puts you in position to capitalize on running back injuries -- a mere 14 backs have played every game over the past two season -- and the general volatility of an NFL backfield. You’re going to draft some duds -- guys who might barely play if the starter in their backfield manages a full season. The hope is to hit on a few running backs who have temporary or long-term value based on volume alone.

Think Mike Davis, J.D. McKissic, Ronald Jones, Myles Gaskin, Jeff Wilson, or James Robinson from a year ago. Think Kenyan Drake, Austin Ekeler, Jones, or Kareem Hunt in 2019. Think James Conner, Phillip Lindsay, Aaron Jones, Chris Carson, or Tarik Cohen in 2018. Some of them gave you a decent stretch of fantasy usefulness while others offered half a season or more of startable fantasy production. It can be done. You just have to pinpoint backs who would (presumably) take on the starting role with little or no competition for touches if and when their backfield is thrown into chaos. Zero RB allows you to capitalize on that chaos. It’s about predictable unpredictability, it’s about the known unknowns. Your roster won’t just survive the maddening variance of a 17-game season; it’ll thrive.

To get your mind around the concept of anti-fragility, peruse this excerpt from the definitive book on the subject:

Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. This property is behind everything that has changed with time: evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, good recipes (say, chicken soup or steak tartare with a drop of cognac), the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance … even our own existence as a species on this planet. And antifragility determines the boundary between what is living and organic (or complex), say, the human body, and what is inert, say, a physical object like the stapler on your desk.

The antifragile loves randomness and uncertainty, which also means— crucially—a love of errors, a certain class of errors. Antifragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them— and do them well. Let me be more aggressive: we are largely better at doing than we are at thinking, thanks to antifragility. I’d rather be dumb and antifragile than extremely smart and fragile, any time.

Going heavy on running backs in the early rounds of a draft is the best way to construct a fragile fantasy lineup. Any backfield turmoil and you have nothing on which to fall back. You have no top receivers, you likely don't have a top tight end, and you certainly don't have the late-round running backs who benefit from the ensuing chaos. At best, your lineup is resilient, remaining the same. At worst, it collapses amid the randomness that we know is coming.

Naturally, the strategy is better suited for seasonal leagues in which you can work the waiver wire for backfield adds. Best ball offers no such recourse for those without the game’s top running backs. That makes a modified Zero RB approach viable in best ball leagues -- one in which you use one of your top two or three picks on a running back, then fade the position until the second half of the draft.

In this space, I’ll rank Zero RB candidates in tiers, both for best ball drafting and, eventually, seasonal drafting. Things will fluctuate, sometimes wildly. A training camp injury, a free agent signing, supercharged coach hype: These factors can rapidly inflate or deflate a running back’s average draft position, moving them out or pushing them into Zero RB range. Zero RB darlings in April or May might be third or fourth rounders by August. A back going in the middle rounds might slip down into double-digit rounds and become irresistible to Zero RB truthers looking to gobble up as many backfield touches as possible.

Before we get into the below rankings tiers, I’m legally obligated to tell you Zero RB -- in its purest form -- isn’t ideal for every league type. There are variations on the Zero RB approach, largely depending on your lineup requirements, scoring, and format.

If, for example, a league has two running backs spots, two receiver spots, one tight end, and a flex, it would be bullheaded and something short of optimal to roll out the pure Zero RB approach. There’s no reason to fade running backs for six or seven rounds since you’re limited with the number of non-RB slots to fill. The strategy is more sensible if you have three wideout spots and a flex -- especially if the league is PPR (the only legitimate scoring system). And if you’re in a highly evolved league with a slew of flex spots, all-out Zero RB is the way to go. Give me five or six flexes in a lineup and I might not take a runner until a dozen rounds have come and gone.

Another caveat: Every player is a value sometime. For as ideological as Zero RB has become -- the strategy is a worldview as much as it is a way to score fantasy points -- we don’t pass up values when he see them. A running back with a locked-in role drifting beyond his ADP is an invitation for Zero RB truthers to capitalize on value. We’re not Sandra Bullock in the rowboat, blindfolded to any and all running backs.

OK, now to the tiers. The ADP data is based on 12-team PPR leagues.

Tier 1

Player

ADP

Positional ADP

Leonard Fournette

6.07

RB29

Mike Davis

8.04

RB33

Kenyan Drake

8.09

RB35

Damien Harris

9.04

RB38

Tony Pollard

9.10

RB39

Alexander Mattison

13.01

RB46

  • Fournette is back with Tampa after brief free agency flirtations with a couple other teams. There’s not much reason to think Bruce Arians will change the way his backfield operated in the final stretch of the 2020 season, when Uncle Lenny transformed into Lombardi Lenny. That was in part because Ronald Jones struggled through a thigh injury, but it would be a major upset if Fournette was relegated to the short end of a timeshare in 2021. He had at least 20 touches in four of the Bucs’ final five games last year. It doesn’t really matter what you think of Fournette as a player: He could be the primary back in a Tom Brady backfield, and he’s available in the sixth round.

  • I was torn about putting Pollard in the first tier. He has almost no value as long as Ezekiel Elliott is upright. But the potential is clear, and his relatively low ADP makes Pollard a tough Zero RB candidate to fade. He’s the best back in the Dallas offense. Let’s hope the team realizes it sooner rather than later.

  • Drake is a weird (and welcomed) Zero RB target. He’s a year removed from a RB15 campaign and he’s now available in the eighth (sometimes ninth) round. The reason is obvious: Josh Jacobs is still considered the Raiders’ lead back. For however idiotic Jon Gruden is for paying a second running back, he seems intent to use Drake as a runner and pass catcher. The upside, as always, is Drake taking over for a dinged-up Jacobs.

  • I struggled with founding father Alexander Mattison as a first tier candidate. Eventually I gave in because it would be the Mattison show if Dalvin Cook were to go down. In his only 2020 start that wasn’t a blowout loss in which Minnesota had to abandon the run game, Mattison had 21 touches for 145 yards and two scores. His bottom-barrel ADP makes him something close to a must-have for the Zero RB faithful.

  • Davis is in the first tier for now. Probably that’ll change after the NFL Draft. Atlanta isn’t going to head into the season with Davis as its unquestioned lead back. But for now, you could do worse.

  • The Patriots are gearing up to pummel the league into submission, cutting across the NFL’s pass-heavy grain with the highest-testosterone lineup money can buy. Folks forget that Damien Harris saw 14.3 touches per game in ten starts last year before suffering a pesky ankle injury. We’re going to want the main between-the-tackles thumper in this revamped New England offense, which, for now, is on track to once again be one of the NFL’s run heaviest.

Tier 2

Player

ADP

Positional ADP

Ronald Jones

7.01

RB30

Gus Edwards

11.06

RB43

Jamaal Williams

13.03

RB47

Latavius Murray

15.01

RB53

Jeffrey Wilson

9.03

RB37

Damien Williams

19.02

RB60

Mike Boone

20.08

RB63

  • Probably you’re upset about Gus Edwards cracking the second tier. Hear me out: Edwards, a year after seeing 153 touches in the NFL’s run-heaviest offense, has a clear path to weekly relevance in deeper formats and an RB1 role if J.K. Dobbins gets dinged up in 2021. Mark Ingram is gone, Baltimore’s offense is going to continue to pound the rock, and Edwards has proven effective with his opportunity (5.2 yards per carry). The mainstream media won’t talk about this, but only three backs had a higher Pro Football Focus rushing grade than Edwards in 2020.

  • Any potential starting back in a Kyle Shanahan offense should be first and foremost on the obsessive minds of any Zero RB adherent. Wilson had 19, 23, and 23 touches in his three 2020 starts for the Niners. He proved a tough runner and a capable pass catcher. Wilson, with Raheem Mostert sidelined, scorched Arizona for 204 total yards in the 49ers’ upset Week 15 win. Mostert has missed 20 regular season games over the past four seasons.

  • We’re back to perennial Zero RB target Latavius Murray. Coming off back to back seasons of 146 carries behind one of the league’s best offensive lines, Murray should be scooped up as a source of occasional points when Alvin Kamara is at full strength and the potential to be the top dog in the New Orleans rushing attack. Murray has nine games of double-digit carries in 2020. Again, you could do (much) worse.

  • Fantasy football managers love nothing more than to hate on Jamaal Williams, a fine back who can handle a three-down role. I don’t get it. If D’Andre Swift struggles through injuries in 2021 or doesn't seize the every-down role in Detroit's offense, Williams becomes very much relevant. When you can grab a running back like that in the 13th round, you do it.

  • Boone is certainly the best “bang for your buck” (excuse me while I pander to the teens) Zero RB candidate. Available in the 20th round, Boone should have weekly usage in Denver’s backfield behind the oft-injured Melvin Gordon. Boone, 25, is something of an athletic unicorn: He had a 100th percentile burst score at the 2018 combine. Boone had 148 yards and a touchdown in his only pro start.

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Tier 3

Player

ADP

Positional ADP

Phillip Lindsay

14.03

RB51

Zack Moss

11.05

RB41

AJ Dillon

7.06

RB31

Myles Gaskin

7.09

RB32

Michael Carter

11.06

RB42

  • It’s tough, bordering on impossible, to get excited about any Buffalo running back. Both Moss and Devin Singletary had shots to take over the Bills backfield in 2020 and neither did. The Bills will remain one of the pass-heaviest offenses in the league, leaving an exceptionally narrow path to real volume for Moss. Still, his depressed ADP and his likely role as the team’s goal line back makes him hard to pass up.

  • Dillon plunges into the third tier because he’ll probably be used far less than Jamaal Williams was in the Green Bay offense. The team clearly doesn’t see him as a pass catching complement to Aaron Jones. I suppose they could use the big-bodied Dillon as a battering ram near the goal line in 2021 but that’s a volatile role on which to bank with his seven round ADP. I’m out on Dillon until his ADP gets into the ninth or tenth round.

  • Try not to vomit when you think about drafting a Houston running back. OK, good. Now consider picking up Lindsay in the 14th as someone who can capture some cheap PPR production in case of a David Johnson injury. Don’t make me write anymore about the Texans backfield. Please.

  • Until Miami adds someone better to its backfield, Gaskins is the RB1. He profiles as someone who will bounce around the Zero RB landscape for the next few months, though he deserves attention from those seeking cheap touches in a reasonably efficient offense.

  • Carter could fall into touches if he’s drafted by a team without a dominant runner. Carter’s landing spot will determine whether he has any real fantasy value in 2021. He could just as easily have no fantasy value in 2021.

Tier 4

Player

ADP

Positional ADP

Sony Michel

22.03

RB69

Darrynton Evans

24.05

RB77

Lamical Perine

24.08

RB74

Benny Snell

22.01

RB66

Marlon Mack

20.02

RB62

Carlos Hyde

24.04

RB76

Kylin Hill

21.07

RB65

  • No one in the fourth tier is going to inspire tremendous confidence. In fact, I could end up in a labor camp for touting these guys. So it goes. We’re targeting Michel for the same reason we’re targeting Williams. The Patriots are primed to establish the run so hard they open up a wormhole to 1969, and Michel could (maybe) be a beneficiary. In the 22nd round, you don’t have a whole lot to lose.

  • You’re triggered by Carlos Hyde’s presence here. I get it. Unless the Jaguars add a back in the draft, a James Robinson injury means Hyde is the primary ball carrier for a Jacksonville offense that might be less terrible in 2021. We’re talking about the 24th round. What do you people want from me?

  • Derrick Henry is 27 years old and has 718 touches over the past two seasons. Evans, with an 86th percentile speed score and an 81st percentile burst score at the 2020 NFL combine, looks to be the heir to the Titans’ starting role if anything befalls the Big Dog. Please stop sending me the video of Henry doing pushups with a 500-pound chain around his neck.

  • Perine is just as good a Zero RB target as Ty Johnson. The Jets have a fourth round draft pick invested in Perine and picked up Johnson off the street during the 2020 season, so I side with Perine as the guy who will get the first crack at being New York's lead back. Johnson was indeed impressive in (very) limited opportunity last season, turning 24 Week 11 touches into 117 yards and a score. I am aware Tevin Coleman is a Jet. I have reached the point in my life where I'm fine betting against Coleman as anything close to a long-term answer in any NFL backfield.

  • Hill makes the final tier because, well, he’s interesting. Two short years ago, Hill piled up 1,350 rushing yards for Mississippi State while commanding a 24 percent target share. That’s incredible. Before opting out of the final couple months of the 2020 season, Hill had 23 receptions for 237 yards in -- get this -- two games. He left the team’s Week 2 game after one carry with a head injury. Landing spot is everything, but Hill could be fun for fantasy purposes if he’s drafted by a coaching staff that knows how to fully utilize his considerable skillset.