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Fantasy Football: The Zero-RB Draft

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Running backs? Who needs ‘em?

Philadelphia Eagles Minicamp Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

In honor of Fantasy Football season, I wrote for you (yes, you) a lovely poem:

As August nears and training camps open, players are frantic; smack talk will be spoken. Your commish sends a text “hey bro, you still in”, your reply with a smirk “this time, I will win”. You open your browser, a league champ with surety, as Yahoo Fantasy, again, has upped their security. Your wife has been told, you play just for fun, meanwhile at work, no work’s getting done. With draft day approaching, your dream team in mind, you’re constantly planning, living the grind. The dynasty season has been going for months, from the draft to free agency, your team gives you goosebumps. Your budget is set, your league’s been created, even the new guys’ve been initiated. For now, sit back, and enjoy the preseason, even though we all know it’s sport without reason. Let’s hope and let’s pray that our athletes stay healthy, let’s plan and let’s scheme our way to ‘come wealthy. For now, good luck, Bleeding Green Nation, just sit back relax, and enjoy my narration.

What is a Zero-RB Draft?

Over the past few seasons, a draft strategy that has been employed by some is the “Zero-RB Draft” strategy. Now, contrary to the name, you should probably draft a couple running backs before it’s all said and done, but the basic principle of a “Zero-RB Draft” is to overload on talent and value elsewhere, since almost every other position in fantasy football is considered more stable than the running back position. Now, I will get into reasons you may want to avoid this strategy later, but as for reasons you might consider it, there is no reason better than the uncertainty regarding almost every “stud” running back in recent years.

Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, and David Johnson, who were the top 3-players on almost every draft board last year, all have humongous question marks surrounding them.

Bell, after taking a year off to work on his rap career to get “paid”, is on the Jets now. For those unfamiliar with football, the Jets offense is not very good and offers little, if any, of the stability that Bell enjoyed throughout his 6-year career in Pittsburgh.

Todd Gurley is no longer considered a “3-down back” and will almost certainly see a reduction in his snap count this year.

David Johnson, after becoming a household name in 2016, didn’t look like the same player last year after missing most of 2017 with an injury.

Behind the big three above, the following players were all taken in the first round more often than not: Ezekiel Elliot, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, and Dalvin Cook. Elliot, Barkley, and Kamara are still considered to be top draftees, but Hunt (thanks to a suspension and team change) and Cook (thanks to injuries and inconsistent play) are no longer top-level players.

To help justify whether or not a Zero-RB strategy would work this year, I looked at the value of each position above a hypothetical “replacement-level” player at their position. To do this, I looked at the average number of rostered players at each position, and then averaged the projections of the next twelve players to find what a “replacement-level” player at each position would average. Here is what I found:

  • QB: 211.8 pts
  • RB: 75.5 pts
  • WR: 125.8 pts
  • TE: 91 pts
  • DST: 102 pts

I then looked at how the top players at each position compared to said replacement level players to see which players are truly more valuable to own than the others. The following is how the positions break down by round:

Round 1:

  • 8 RBs
  • 3 WRs
  • 1 TE

Rounds 2-3:

  • 1 QB
  • 13 RBs
  • 8 WRs
  • 2 TE

Round 4-5:

  • 8 QBs
  • 5 RBs
  • 10 WRs
  • 1 TE

Rounds 6-10:

  • 17 QBs
  • 14 RBs
  • 17 WRs
  • 11 TEs
  • 1 DST

As is painfully obvious here, high-value running backs are far more abundant than high-value players at other positions. This is likely due to the low value of “replacement-level” running backs when compared to the same other positions. Initially, this gives some credence to the “Zero-RB” strategy. If there are a lot of high-value running backs and not a lot of high-value players at other positions, you should aim for the lower quantity and get a valuable running-back who falls later, right? Well here’s the thing about that... while running backs offer the best value when they hit their projections, they are also the position least likely to hit their projections.

How to achieve a perfect Zero-RB Draft

The irony of the “Zero-RB” draft strategy is that to run it successfully, you should leave draft night with more running backs than most other teams. With any fantasy football draft, you should not enter the draft planning a certain strategy, and instead enter the draft with a trusted value board (which I would recommend for at least for the first 6 rounds). Your draft strategy should then be primarily based upon optimizing the value through the first 6 rounds, and then filling out your team through the remainder of the draft. Here is how a perfect “Zero-RB” draft would go. [Author’s note: this will be a long one. I do, however, believe that if you follow these guidelines, more often than not, you will be in the best position to win your league following the draft. There will be a TL/DR below]

In our hypothetical draft situation, lets say you are randomly chosen to draft 10th overall, out of 12 players. [Author’s Note: To keep this applicable, I am not going to use player names, but instead their position on your board. For example, if you have Saquon Barkley at number 1 overall, he would be “1 (RB1)”. If Michael Thomas is your top WR, but 5th overall player, he’d be “5 (WR1)”.] As the draft begins, round one unfolds as such:

Pick 1/1: 1 (RB1)
Pick 1/2: 2 (RB2)
Pick 1/3: 3 (RB3)
Pick 1/4: 4 (RB4)
Pick 1/5: 7 (RB5)
Pick 1/6: 8 (RB6)
Pick 1/7: 9 (RB7)
Pick 1/8: 5 (WR1)
Pick 1/9: 10 (WR2)

You’re up. Here are your choices:

  • You panic. The top 7 running backs on your board have been taken. You select the 11th best player on your board (RB8) because he is the best remaining running back.
  • You notice that your 6th best player (TE1) was not selected. You select him happily noticing you just got your 6th overall player at pick 10.
  • Even though you had a TE ranked higher, you choose to ignore your board and select the 12th best player on it (WR3) because you feel that its better to have a “good WR” than it is to have a “good TE”

Now honestly ask yourself, which option would you choose? The correct answer here (whether or not you are following a “Zero-RB” draft strategy, by the way) is option 2. You trust your prepared draft board and get the most value available and take 6 (TE1) with the pick. The draft continues:

Pick 1/11: 12 (WR3)
Pick 1/12: 11 (RB8)
Pick 2/1: 14 (RB9)
Pick 2/2: 16 (RB10)

Again, it’s your turn. Since you correctly chose to bypass an undervalued RB in lieu of an overvalued TE, three more RBs have been taken and now you really feel like you’re missing out. Here are your choices:

  • You panic. Now the top 10 RBs have been taken and you realize that you may not even own a true RB1 in the league if you don’t take one now. Your next pick isn’t for ages. You follow your gut and take your 16th best player (RB11) with the 15th pick.
  • You see that you’ve already got the best TE and decide to double dip, ensuring you’ll be the strongest at the position in the league. You draft the 20th best player on your board (TE2)
  • Without even thinking twice, you know what QB you want and you take him. You get the 25th player on your board (QB1) and leave the second round with your top player at two different positions
  • Everything happens for a reason. You trust your board and draft the 15th best player with the 15th pick, who happens to be your WR4.

Now how many of you would have chosen the WR, because that would be your best move. You always trust your board (remember #value) early in the drafts, even if it seems like the wrong thing to do. By trusting your board and following the unfolding draft, the fantasy football gods have decided you have now officially entered “Zero-RB” draft. Through the first two rounds, most of your top-24 players will be selected. The following four rounds, however, are where the real champions are made. As your fellow drafter continue their drafts, some will inevitably reach to fill a role. For every reach, there will be value added to the remaining pool. If you can find that value, you will win your league more often than not. The draft continues:

Picks 2/3 through 3/9 take the following players:

  • RBs 11-13, 15-17, & 19
  • WRs 5, 7-11
  • QBs 1-3
  • TEs 2 & 3

Your turn arrives and the following players are the best on your board: WR7 (19th overall), RB14 (24th), RB18 (27th), RB21 (36th), RB22 (40th), QB4 (42nd). What do you do?

  • Take WR7. His health has some question marks and the QB throwing his way is getting up there in age, both of which have caused him to drop, but when he performs, he really performs.
  • Take RB14. Enough is enough and you need a running back on your team before it’s too late.
  • Snag QB4 because you’ve accepted the “Zero-RB” hand you’ve been dealt, but you still want a balanced team otherwise.

How many went with another WR, WR7? As I hope is becoming predictable by now, you need to trust the draft board you’ve made and go for the value. You may not have a RB yet, but you’ve got 2 WR1’s and the top TE on your board.

The draft continues:

Pick 3/10: 41 WR13
Pick 3/11: 43 WR14
Pick 3/12: 42 QB4
Pick 4/1: 28 RB14
Pick 4/2: 43 QB5

With the 3rd pick in the 4th round, you’re up, buttercup. Finally, a run on WRs and QBs has left a RB as the best available player. How do you handle it?

  • Draft the 34th overall player on your board (RB19) with pick 39.

Only one choice here... For the fourth consecutive turn, you’ve managed to get a player who is a handful of slots above where you had them. Is this guy going to be a bell call back? Probably not. Is that okay? It sure is. There’s a lot of draft left and, just as there were last year, there will be gems hidden in the later rounds.

Rounds 4 and 5 continue on and the following players are taken:

  • RBs 22-24, 30, 33
  • WRs 15, 16, 18, 22, 24
  • QBs 7, 8, 11, 13, 16
  • TEs 4-6

Your up and have the following players valued over the current draft slot: RB21 (36th overall), QB6 (47th), WR17 (48th), WR19 (51st), RB25 (52nd), WR20 (54th), and RB26 (56th)

Who do you draft?

  • You follow your board and draft the 21st best running back who you have as the top available player.
  • You need a QB. You take QB6 and don’t feel bad about it.
  • You know that WRs are more stable and decide that its better to take WR17 so you have a dangerous trio of starting WRs

How many followed their board? In this hypothetical scenerio, the starting lineup has worked out well and evenly leaving you with the following starting lineup:

QB:
RB: RB19 (34th), RB21 (36th)
WR: WR4 (15th), WR7 (19th)
TE: TE1 (6th)
DST:

Two questions you may have with this draft strategy so far are: (1) Why do we only blindly follow the best value until round six? (2) What happens after round six? Well, to answer these questions as simply as possible, the round six rule is a meant for guidance more than to be an absolute law. In a perfect world, your team will fill in nicely just by taking the most valuable player, but sometimes it won’t. What if, for example, in each of your first four picks, you have a WR on the top of your board? Do you draft all four of them? To answer this, you need to look at your leagues starting lineups. If you start 2 WRs and 2 FLEX players, than yes, you take all (4). If you are in a different league that, say, doesn’t have FLEX, you will need to adjust your thinking, slightly. The first 2 WRs taken will be starting players, but do you want to use 2 of your top 4 picks on bench players? Probably not. When you are ultimately forced to decide between a better value bench player and a lower value starter, you have reached your “round six”. From my experience, it tends to happen after your sixth pick, but this will certainly not always be the case.

In our hypothetical draft, if we assume this league has a 1 standard WR/RB/TE FLEX position, we still have 2 starters left before we are forced to make a decision. To illustrate how the decision would be made, here are the possible following scenerios for your sixth and seventh rounds.

  • In round 6, a WR/RB/TE is the top available player. In round 7, a QB is the top available player. In this scenerio, you take both of them without thinking about it.
  • In round 6, a WR/RB/TE is the top available player, again. In round 7, however, there is also a WR/RB/TE available. This is one of the situations where you will NOT take the top player available, and instead take your top QB available as a starting player will almost always provide more value than a backup (DST excluded).
  • In round 6, a QB is the top available player. In round 7 a QB is also the top available player. In this case, you will want to take the QB in round 6, and then take your best WR/RB/TE player in round 7.

Once your starting team is filled in (except for DST), you then basically continue the draft as if it was starting over. Fill in the reserves just as if they were another starting lineup. One thing to keep in mind is you ALWAYS want to use your last 2 picks on your DST and then your kicker.

That’s all she wrote for our Zero-RB draft primer. Here is a TL/DR for those of you who skipped to the bottom:

  • Before the draft, establish your draft board and lock it in. This could be a standard “cheat sheet” from your favorite site, or a more complicated list involving value over replacement as illustrated above. Either way, set it and forget it, as they say.
  • Once the draft starts, draft the best available player (on your board), regardless of position, until your starting lineup, sans K and DST, is set. Only deviate from your draft board if the top available player is of the same position that you already have your starters set.
  • After you lock in your starters, repeat this process, drafting your bench players.
  • Always draft DST then K with your final two picks.

As your draft night approaches, feel free to ask questions in the comments below or reach out to me on twitter to ask any questions specific to your scenario. I’d say good luck, but with these tips you don’t need it. Kick some fantasy ass, BGN.