By Pat Kerrane, Establish the Run
Special to Yahoo Sports
There are a lot of misconceptions about the “Zero RB” draft strategy. Below I’ve outlined what the strategy really is, why it works, where to use it, which running back profiles to target, and why 2020 is shaping up to be an ideal year for the strategy.
1. What is Zero RB and where did it come from?
Fundamentally, Zero RB is exactly what you’d expect it to be: you don’t draft RBs ... for a while anyway.
The strategy was originated by Shawn Siegele in 2013, the same year he took first and second place in the NFFC High Stakes Main Event. And it has since become a well known (although not always popular) high stakes strategy.
In Shawn’s original article he specified that he preferred to take, at most, one high upside running back through the first five rounds. And generally speaking, the strategy will have you mostly avoiding RBs in the high leverage rounds and then targeting RBs later in the draft when many of your leaguemates will be catching up at receiver. But Zero RB isn’t just a set of prescriptions for how many RBs to take or when to take them. To use the strategy, it’s critical to understand how it works.
2. Why Does Zero RB work?
The first reason that Zero RB works is that drafters consistently overestimate the reliability of projections.
Projection error exists at every position, but RBs — despite being easier to project on a week-to-week basis than WRs — are particularly exposed at the season-long level. Let’s take Josh Jacobs as an example. He’s going 18th overall on Yahoo season long and 20th overall in FFPC ADP despite having just 20 receptions last year. Looking at projections though, Jacobs is a defensible pick in this range. You’ll typically find him projected for at least 30 receptions this season.
But what’s going on here is that projections have to account for the downside possibility that Jacobs isn’t used any differently than he was used last year – something that appears a little too likely for comfort after the addition of Lynn Bowden and a two-year extension for Jalen Richard. And then, projections also have to account for the upside that Jacobs emerges as a three-down workhorse, in line with comments by Mike Mayock before the draft. But whatever middle ground a projector chooses for Jacobs – however sound that choice – it won’t be an especially likely outcome in and of itself. In fact, relying solely on that projection actually obscures Jacobs’ wide range of outcomes.
Jacobs is hardly the only player with a wide range of outcomes this season, but he’s a helpful example here because in many ways, how Jacobs’ season plays out is not up to him. Unlike a receiver, he won’t get the chance to out compete his position-mates for targets. He’ll either be on the field for passing downs, or he won’t be. Therefore Jacobs, like many other early round RBs, is dependent on his team’s unknown/uncertain plans, to an extent not typically found in early round receivers. When drafting Jacobs and RBs like him, it is important to remember that you are making a bet on his ceiling projection: that he emerges as a workhorse RB. You are not locking up a safe floor at RB, because spending high draft capital on RBs is not safe…
The second reason that Zero RB works is that Zero RB is antifragile. Antifragility is a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan. When something is fragile it is easily broken by chaos and volatility. When something is antifragile, it is not resilient to these forces, it is made stronger by them.
Therefore, when we say that Zero RB is antifragile, we mean that Zero RB drafters benefit from the chaos of the NFL season, while that same chaos is wreaking havoc on teams that spent multiple high picks on RBs.
Part of that chaos comes from projection error. But the bigger source of volatility is injuries. And like with projection error, it’s not that RBs are the only ones at risk, but that they are the most exposed.
Josh Hermsmeyer demonstrated in 2016 that while injury rates were pretty even among all RBs and WRs, high usage RBs were far more likely to be injured than highly drafted WRs: “RBs drafted in the first five rounds are 200-360 percent more likely to suffer a serious injury than WRs. This is a large reason why Zero RB works as well as it does.”
These injuries rip apart teams built on early round RBs. Even teams that survive by having drafted enough RBs to weather the storm are left with a shortage of upside at exactly the part of the season when teams need to be scoring the most points.
But for teams rostering less expensive committee RBs, pass catching space backs and explosive backups, each RB injury unlocks a new potential starter. Moreover, the higher reliability of RB projections from week to week begins to advantage Zero RB teams as the season progresses. For example, while Tony Pollard is a difficult player to project for the season, we would be highly confident putting him in our lineups if Ezekiel Elliott were to miss any time. By capitalizing on this dynamic, Zero RB teams become stronger over the course of the season while the competition becomes weaker.
The third reason that Zero RB works is that Zero RB is a contrarian strategy. Maybe it seems like a stretch to call Zero RB contrarian, considering that it’s widely known in the high stakes community, and has been part of the general fantasy lexicon since 2013. But actually deploying it is more contrarian than ever.
From 2016-2017 FFPC High Stakes ADP had an average of 21 RBs going in the top 60 picks. That jumped to 28 RBs over the last two seasons. This year, our data shows that fully half of the top 60 picks are RBs. Roughly 100% of high stakes drafters have heard of Zero RB – very few are actually adopting it. By swimming against the RB current, we can capitalize on WR and TE values that our leaguemates are missing out on in their rush to draft projectable RB touches.
3. Where and How to Implement Zero RB
The first step to winning any league is to understand how its scoring settings and positional requirements will affect player value. Generally speaking, Zero RB is going to be more effective in leagues requiring more starters at WR, leagues with more FLEX positions, and in PPR scoring. Here’s an example of a starting lineup that is ideal for Zero RB: 1QB – 2RB – 3 WR – 2 FLEX – 1TE with PPR scoring. But it’s also important to consider how many bench spots you have and how that will affect available options on the waiver wire (if drafting in non-best ball).
In league settings that don’t perfectly align with the traditional Zero RB approach, we can modify our tactics while keeping the larger strategy intact. Let's look at the FFPC High Stakes format as an example. This format has 2 FLEX positions, but only requires 2 WR starters. Additionally, it is 1.5 PPR scoring for TEs. This can allow teams that are weak at WR but strong at RB and TE to keep pace with or exceed classic Zero RB builds. The FFPC’s regular season is also only 11 weeks long, which means that teams constructed to be antifragile have less time to get up to full strength than they do in most formats.
Because of the structure of their high stakes tournaments, the FFPC also sees extremely aggressive pricing for breakout RB candidates who might normally fall to the double-digit rounds. For example, in my FFPC Main Event last September Justice Hill was drafted in Round 7 and Darwin Thompson went Round 9. This aggressive pricing can make it very difficult for classic Zero RB drafters to get enough RB upside on their rosters.
In an environment with a diminished ability to use WRs to dominate the FLEX, a need to start off quickly, and with aggressive RB ADPs throughout the draft, the preferred approach becomes taking one elite RB early in Round 1 and then going Zero RB for the remainder of the high leverage rounds. Of course, this requires having an early first-round pick in order to implement, but getting access to a truly elite RB ceiling is still one of the best ways to attack a format like that. (Even Zero RB does not view drafting Christian McCaffrey as verboten).
Another option for drafters on the back half of the board is to begin attacking RB a round or two sooner than Zero RB typically calls for. Last year for example, Aaron Jones, Austin Ekeler and Miles Sanders were available in the 4th-6th round range in FFPC. This year’s ADPs show some intriguing backs in the same range, just as WRs with elite ceilings are beginning to dry up. RBs in this range have historically had very high bust rates however, so drafters need to be highly selective.
Another option is to draft a true Zero RB team with an elite tight end. This allows drafters to remain dominant at the non-RB skill positions, while building RB strength over the course of the season.
4. Which RBs to Target
I’ll have plenty more on this soon, with specific player targets. But here are some general principles for RB selection.
Early Picks should have elite upside
One of the foundational ideas of Zero RB is that no RBs are safe. One of the quickest ways to get yourself into trouble then, is to draft “safe” RBs early. For example, Sony Michel went 3.12 in my Main Event last year. This would be an example of “drafting touches” where a guy gets pushed up draft boards simply because we think we can reliably project a high number of carries for him.
Leonard Fournette jumps out as an example of drafting touches 2020. Fournette had everything in place last season for a monster year and he didn’t deliver. His team has now repeatedly signaled that he will not see the same elite workload in 2020, and we have ample evidence that he won’t deliver elite efficiency either. But from where we sit today, it’s hard not to project Fournette for a “safe” workload. But Fournette’s projectable workload is in fact a TRAP.
Ben Gretch’s TRAP stat is incredibly helpful in illuminating the right type of RBs to target, and those to avoid. Ben found that 58% of recent RB fantasy scoring has come on a very specific sliver of RB touches, that only accounts for 25% of total RB volume. These critical touches are carries within the 10-yard line, and receptions. We therefore want to avoid RBs whose workloads are bloated by “Trivial Rush Attempts” (carries outside of the 10-yard line).
Last year, Derrick Henry was a highly successful TRAP player, so it’s not that this type of RB will never succeed. But TRAP helps explain why Nick Chubb and Joe Mixon didn’t deliver big value for where they were picked despite seeing well over 300 touches.
We’ve already covered the importance of mitigating projection error and injury risk. But TRAP RBs magnify both of these risks. These RBs toil away on projectable but ultimately low upside workloads, all the while exposing themselves to much higher injury risk than their lesser used receiving or situational rushing counterparts.
This year, Henry, Mixon, Chubb and Jacobs are all going in the top 15 picks despite major TRAP red flags in their workload profiles.
Target undervalued workloads and contingent value
Players with low TRAP profiles (think Alvin Kamara as a prototype) can often deliver major value. This profile isn’t limited to pass catching backs either. For example, LeGarrette Blount smashed his 2016 ADP by leading the league in carries inside the 10, despite catching only 7 passes. So whether it comes from a goal line rushing role, a passing down role, or ideally both, we want to target RBs later in the draft who have more valuable roles than their raw volume indicates.
We also want to draft players with high contingent value – players whose value will increase substantially when projection errors and injuries inevitably come to pass. Basically… we’re looking for committee backs and top backups. But not every such RB qualifies. For example, Darrell Henderson profiles as a committee RB with limited contingent value. This is because Henderson had just two carries inside the 10-yard line to Malcolm Brown‘s 10 last year and saw a measly 6 targets (tied with Brown). If Cam Akers is injured, Henderson will undoubtedly see more work, but it’s unlikely that he’ll have a lock on high value rushes or receptions.
On the other hand, Austin Ekeler was an example of high contingent value in 2019. His larger than expected workload unlocked an explosive, week-winning ceiling. We want to be selective in our 2020 targets to make sure that if our RBs do see an increase in playing time, that they can also deliver week-winning upside.
5. Why to go Zero RB/Modified Zero RB in 2020
I’ve already covered that Zero RB is especially contrarian in 2020. And because scooping up WR values while others are focusing on RBs is the core focus of the early rounds, the current environment makes the strategy, or modified versions of it, even more effective.
But we can also see the advantage of following Zero RB principles when looking at Evan Silva’s Top 150 and our Top 300 FFPC Rankings. These rankings mesh very nicely with drafting an elite RB1 and then pivoting away from RB for the next four rounds. Because after the elite RBs are off the board, our RB ranks aren’t keeping pace with ADP.
Right now FFPC drafters are dipping into Evan’s Tier 4 RBs at the same point in the draft where almost all of his Tier 2 WRs are still available. This creates a huge opportunity to pick up value at WR, as long as we can bring ourselves to pass on non-elite RBs in the high leverage rounds.
Want to draft Evan’s WR6 Amari Cooper or his WR7 Juju Smith-Schuster? They’re both available in the third round. Want to pair that WR with Evan’s WR8 or WR9? You can – Adam Thielen and Calvin Ridley are going in the mid-late 4th.
In our FFPC rankings, we also have 5 of the top 6 TEs ranked above ADP, with Zach Ertz and Evan Engram ranked nearly a round above where they’re going in drafts. This means that for drafters with a later first-round pick, starting with 4 WRs and an elite TE is a very viable strategy.
Regardless of your draft position, if you’re following our ranks and tiers you’ll likely find yourself passing on RBs quite a bit in the early rounds. That may feel sub-optimal at the time. And your roster may not look as Week 1 ready as your opponents’ do. But drafting the values that ETR has identified at WR and then selecting RBs with breakout profiles later in the draft, will leave your team looking much stronger than your opponents’ in Week 16… when it counts.
Pat is a Dynasty and high-stakes season-long specialist. His Dynasty Rankings at Establish The Run are updated throughout the year and include a dynasty-focused player overview, contract status and age.
Establish The Run is a premium fantasy football analysis website. ETR will be providing exclusive content for Yahoo Fantasy Sports players leading into the 2020 NFL fantasy football season.