By James Koh
Special to Yahoo Sports
Let me say this emphatically: this is absolutely the year to go zero-RB.
And yes, even near the top of your draft, I’m a full-on advocate of going wide receiver. Give me DeAndre Hopkins over Saquon Barkley. Give me Davante Adams ahead of Christian McCaffrey. Yeah, I said it.
The vast majority of you reading this have already scoffed, racing to comment sections and sharpening your digital pitchforks, ready to unfurl super original and super creative insults like, “This guy is a moron, how does he get paid to do this?” and “Idiot probably doesn’t watch the games.”
Those of you who are still with me may be thinking this is some kind of hot-take, click-baity-type column. I assure you — it is not.
Look, many words have been spilled on why and how zero-RB works but the basic idea is that running backs are the most injury-prone while also possessing the highest bust rate. In fact, 4for4 found “about a quarter of top-12 [running backs] totally bust every year.”
I have Alvin Kamara as my 1.01, ahead of Saquon, CMC and Ezekiel Elliott. Why? Well, while Kamara is playing sans Mark Ingram in a great Saints attack, Saquon is attached to a team with a potentially bottom-10 offense. In Carolina, should Cam Newton’s creaky shoulder force him to miss time, the Panthers offense could bottom out ala the Rams back in 2016. We saw how that worked out for Todd Gurley. Zeke is threatening to hold out, Lev Bell style.
While all are fine choices as top-five picks, their surrounding circumstances increase their volatility. Adding that level of risk to the trends listed above, you can see why I’m not scared about going receiver-heavy early.
And the reason this year, in particular, is one of the best years to go zero-RB — even though Dalton Del Don would say this year is perfect for zero-WR — is because the thirst is real for running backs, meaning you’ll end up getting great value on receivers and tight ends.
But on the flip side, the problem for most folks attempting to go zero-RB is that you absolutely must come in prepared. You can’t wing it. There are entire tiers of players you need handy so you don’t get flustered and accidentally reach for a running back you don’t really want. That’s why I’m here. Let me be your sherpa.
Here are the basic tenets: For the first four or five rounds, you’re going wide receiver and tight end (and maybe, possibly, Patrick Mahomes, if he falls far enough). Fill out your wide receiver spots, your FLEX, and your TE before even thinking about running back.
The running backs you target should generally be pass catchers or potential starters in good offenses.
In the later part of your drafts, we’ll focus in on young running backs that could take starter snaps, should injuries beset the depth chart.
FIRST 4-5 ROUNDS
We can argue nuanced rankings but for the most part, the top 20-ish receivers are all rock-solid. Fire off two receivers to start your draft, then pick up Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, or George Kittle in the third round. This trio is far and away more stable than the next tier of tight ends. Remember: A big part of zero-RB is creating a high floor. This helps achieve that goal.
Speaking of floors, if Mahomes is still around, grab him. With another year of Andy Reid and a never-suspended Tyreek Hill, Mahomes could easily lead the league in touchdowns again. This should insulate you somewhat from early season struggles you may have trying to incorporate backup backs.
If Mahomes is not there, and in most leagues he won’t be, grab the best wide receiver you have on your board. In order, I’d prefer Stefon Diggs, Jarvis Landry, Chris Godwin, Calvin Ridley, or any of the Rams triumvirate. If any of those players are available in the fifth round, I’d be more than happy to push off grabbing a running back for another round.
IDEAL MID-ROUND, ZERO-RB BACKS
Now, this is where we make our money. Remember, we’re preferential to pass-catching running backs or starters in good offensive systems. You want five or six of these running backs to give yourself the best chance to hit on at least two serviceable ones.
Phillip Lindsay — the second-year back is currently going in the late fourth to early fifth of 12-team PPR leagues according to mock draft data on Fantasy Football Calculator. Last year, Lindsay posted nearly 1,300 scrimmage yards with 10 total touchdowns and 35 receptions. I’m by no means counting out Royce Freeman, whom I showed love to last week, but Lindsay was phenomenal last year and I don’t see his usage decreasing even with a new staff in place.
Tevin Coleman — a late fifth-rounder, Coleman’s upside is enticing because of the Shanny system in San Francisco. Despite having unheralded players like Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. tote the rock for long stretches, the Niners were still able to post an above-league-average 4.86 YPC last year.
Coleman comes in having compiled nearly 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns last year for the Falcons. Those nine scores were no fluke as he’s averaged 9.3 touchdowns per season over his last three campaigns.
Others in this range:
Tarik Cohen — the explosive pass-catching RB saw a whopping 91 targets in the pass game last year in Chicago. He finished with 71 receptions, 1,169 yards, and eight touchdowns.
Derrius Guice — Adrian Peterson is back but is about a million years old. (Ed note: Peterson is 34)
Latavius Murray — the new Saint may not see as much volume as Mark Ingram did, but will play a similar role in what is a good offense.
Damien Harris — I still think it’s Michel’s backfield to lose but remember, the Pats spent a third-round pick on Harris. The rookie out of Alabama will most definitely get work.
Carlos Hyde — Now on his fourth team in three years, Hyde finds himself as a capable backup playing as part of what could be the league’s best offense in Kansas City. Oh, by the way, Damien Williams has never had more than 73 touches in a season.
Devin Singletary — currently a mid-11th round selection, I would be zero-percent surprised if we saw Singletary start multiple games for the Bills this year considering LeSean McCoy is still a potential cut candidate.
A natural pass catcher, Singletary was a monster in college, averaging 1,750 scrimmage yards and 27.5 touchdowns per season over his final two years at Florida Atlantic.
He bombed the combine (posting a 4.66 40 time) but early camp reports have been positive and he looked every part a professional running back in his first preseason game.
Duke Johnson — A mid-11th round pick, this is the one late-round running back I feel like I absolutely must have for my zero-RB team. An underrated between-the-tackles runner, his ability to catch the ball is what makes him a potentially special player. And that’s also what makes him a perfect fit in Houston, regardless of Lamar Miller’s status. Given the shaky injury history of Texans’ receivers, adding someone like Duke to be a Swiss Army Knife is massive.
Other dart throws:
Alexander Mattison — the Vikings rookie out of Boise State seems to have a firm grasp on the backup role behind Dalvin Cook. That being said, Cook does come with a bit of an injury history, having torn his ACL back in 2017.
Matt Breida — I don’t understand how this man is currently going in the late 12th. Jerick McKinnon could potentially start the season on injured reserve, meaning plenty of backup snaps for Breida and truth be told, the Niners will likely mix him in with Coleman regularly. Plus, the fact that the Niners are using Breida “all over the field” makes him one of my favorites for zero-RB.
Tony Pollard — Zeke is threatening to sit out. ‘Nuff said.
Want more detailed explanations on zero-RB and why he’s targeting certain players? Find him on Twitter @JamesDKoh.