There are many different strategies you can employ on draft day, but none have been written about or scrutinized more than the Zero RB strategy, which advocates steering clear of running backs until the fifth or sixth round of a draft.
The reasoning behind the championship-winning blueprint is simple: The NFL is becoming more focused around quarterbacks and receivers with each passing season, leaving fewer and fewer opportunities for rushers to produce fantasy football points. As a result, more and more owners are targeting wideouts earlier in the draft, accumulating running backs with upside with picks in the later rounds.
To successfully pull off Zero RB in a 12-team, point-per-reception, or PPR, league with roster requirements of one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, one flex player (RB/WR/TE), one defense, a kicker and six bench players, you want to fill up your starting skill-position slots with pass catchers before moving on to running backs and quarterbacks. That means drafting four wideouts and a tight end before moving on to running backs with upside.
Players are prioritized here according to our Draft Score metric, a formula that rates a player from 0 to 100 based on 2017 point projections, strength of schedule and injury risk, with higher scores indicating better fantasy football players.
Available players will vary depending on the league you are in, but here is a draft guide you can use to make sure you pull off the perfect draft using the Zero RB strategy.
The key here is to target the best possible receiver available — someone who is going to get a lion’s share of the targets, including red-zone opportunities, with a limited injury history.
The most desirable wideout would be Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The 29-year-old receiver out of Central Michigan caught 106 of his 154 targets for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, giving him three straight seasons with at least 150 targets, 100 catches, 1,1200 yards and double-digit touchdowns.
If Brown isn’t available — there is a 92 percent chance he is gone by the sixth overall pick — don’t be shy drafting New York Giants standout Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons, Jordy Nelson of the Green Bay Packers or Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Jones is the preferred pick if Brown isn’t available. He led the league in yards per route run in 2016 (3.12) according to the game charters at Pro Football Focus and gets to face the eighth-easiest slate of games in 2017, including easy matchups against the New Orleans Saints (twice) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers during Weeks 14 to 16, weeks that are typically reserved for the fantasy football playoffs.
It is tempting to go for New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in this round, especially if you are drafting late, but resist the urge and instead look to select Michael Thomas, Doug Baldwin or Amari Cooper. If Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck appears to be healthy for Week 1 of the season, go ahead and add T.Y. Hilton to this list as well.
Thomas burst on the scene as a rookie last season, catching 92 of 121 targets for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns, ending the year with the ninth-highest receiver grade from PFF. Thomas was also quarterback Drew Brees’s most targeted red-zone threat, scoring seven of his nine touchdowns from inside the 20-yard line.
DeAndre Hopkins and Demaryius Thomas are the key players in this round. Both received 26 percent of their team’s targets in 2016, ranking them sixth and eighth, respectively, for volume, which is critical to any wideout’s fantasy success.
According to Sharp Football Stats Success Rate Over Average, Thomas was an above-average receiver all over the field, with better hands than Hopkins on deep throws (20 or more air yards), catching five of the 18 targets thrown his way, but Hopkins was better at creating plays, producing 7.33 yards after the catch per reception.
Jarvis Landry makes the most sense here. He is a top receiver for the Miami Dolphins with the second-highest yards per route run from the slot in the league (2.33) by the end of the 2016 campaign. As an added bonus, Landry’s average yards of separation from his defender (2.9) was the seventh among slot receivers last season, which increased to 3.4 yards when lined up out wide, leading to the second-most yards after the catch in 2016.
There is a 64 percent chance Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen survives this long, and if he does, be sure to add him to your roster.
Olsen went over 1,000 yards for the third year in a row last season but saw a downturn in touchdowns scored (three), reaching the end zone half as much as he did in each of three years prior. Don’t panic — some of that was a function of quarterback Cam Newton battling injuries. Now that Newton is healthy, look for Olsen to rebound on that front.
The return of Kelvin Benjamin could steal some red-zone targets way, but it’s worth noting Newton’s passer rating and average net yards per attempt to Olsen over the past three seasons is higher than it has been to Benjamin or Carolina’s receivers as a whole.
|Cam Newton to:||Passer rating from 2014 to 2016||Net yards per pass from 2014 to 2016|
Now it is time to target running backs. Because this is the Zero RB strategy, don’t be afraid to reach a bit for rushers with upside, and that includes Indianapolis Colts running back Frank Gore.
Among sixth- and seventh-round selections in 2017 mock drafts, no running back had more opportunities with the ball (carries plus targets) last season. Gore rushed 263 times last season, producing 1,025 yards and four touchdowns on the ground and another 277 yards with four touchdowns through the air, catching 38 of the 47 passes thrown his way. And defenses won’t be able to just put eight or more defenders in the box — Gore averaged 3.7 yards per carry against eight defenders in the box in 2016, just slightly below the league average of 3.9 yards per carry.
Selecting members of the Cleveland Browns can be scary, but running back Duke Johnson provides the versatility that excels in PPR formats.
Since his rookie year in 2015, Johnson has been targeted 148 times, fifth-most over the past two seasons with a league-high 17.9 percent of his team’s targets coming on third down, per TruMedia. His 36 touches on third down last season were the fourth-most at the position behind David Johnson, Bilal Powell and DeMarco Murray.
According to Sharp Football Stats, the Browns ran the 21 personnel package — two running backs, one tight end and two wide receivers — 105 times in 2016 (11 percent of offensive plays), the ninth-most in the NFL, and are even using Johnson as a slot receiver in the preseason, presumably as a way to take advantage of his 1.73 yards per route run, the third-most in the NFL last season among running backs, according to Pro Football Focus. That should give Johnson plenty of opportunities to share the field with Isaiah Crowell, the No. 1 rusher on the depth chart.
The Panthers should have their passing game back in order, but that doesn’t mean running back Jonathan Stewart can’t be a valuable member of the offense. In fact, because Carolina figures to improve, there should be more opportunities to get Stewart the ball. When they had less than a 40 percent chance at winning the game per Pro Football Reference’s win probability formula, the Panthers ran the ball just 34 percent of the time. If the win probability was 60 percent or more, they ran the ball nearly half the time.
And Stewart is an elusive runner who created 47 missed tackles last season, tied for second-most with Le’Veon Bell behind Jay Ajayi (58), making him a bargain this low in the draft.
Stewart does have hyped rookie running back Christian McCaffrey waiting in wings, but if training camp is any indication, McCaffrey will be used as a pass-catching back, perhaps taking some direct snaps in the Wildcat, in addition to punt and kickoff return duties.
If you think selecting a member of the Cleveland Browns is scary, allow me to introduce you to the New York Jets offense. Journeyman quarterback Josh McCown likely gets the starting nod under center, but his wide receivers leave a lot to be desired after Quincy Enunwa was lost for the season due to a neck injury. In his stead are Robby Anderson, Charone Peake, and Quinton Patton. (Don’t be embarrassed if you never heard of any one of those guys.) There’s also tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who will serve a two-game suspension to start the season for violating its substance-abuse policy.
That leaves running backs Matt Forte and Bilal Powell to shoulder the offense.
Powell is a fifth-round pick and shouldn’t be available here, but Forte could provide nice value in the ninth round. He had 218 carries for 813 yards and seven touchdowns in his first season with the New York Jets in 2016, adding 30 catches for 263 yards and one touchdown. It’s not unreasonable for him to improve on those numbers considering the Jets have one of the easiest schedules during the first half of the season.
Target volume is one of the most reliable indicators of wide receiver performance, but air yards per target can also indicate which receivers should be on the rise, such as Marvin Jones of the Detroit Lions.
Jones caught 55 of his 103 targets last season for 930 yards and four touchdowns, but his 13.9 air yards per target ranked him 12th in the league among receivers last season. And that was despite dealing with a foot strain and a hamstring strain during the season. Perhaps that injury helps explain his lack of success on short passes (less than 14 yards from scrimmage), although he did make up for it on deep passes down the middle. It’s also worth noting Jones produced a first down or touchdown on 44 percent of his targets in 2016, higher than Golden Tate (37 percent), who was targeted 32 more times during the course of the season.
Since 2012, 99 of the 120 (82.5 percent) wide receivers finishing in the top 24 at the position had 120 targets or more during the season, with the average top-24 wideout accumulating 147 targets per campaign. That illustrates how important it is to key in on players at the top of the depth chart, like the Browns’ top wideout Corey Coleman.
|Depth chart||Average targets||Most targets||Average PPR FPts|
|No. 1 WR||128||203||222|
|No. 2 WR||91||141||154|
|No. 3 WR||60||104||96|
Coleman caught 33 of 73 passes for 413 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games as a rookie last season and figures to be in line for an increased workload. Over the past four seasons, Cleveland’s most-targeted wideout has received an average of 134 targets with a high of 150, finishing the season as the 4th, 48th, 28th and 21st most productive wideout in terms of fantasy scoring from 2014 to 2016, respectively.
|Season||Most-targeted CLE WR||Rec||ReYds||RecTD||PPR FPts||End of season fantasy rank|
It’s time to get a quarterback, and if you are in the 79 percent of leagues where Tyrod Taylor is still around, go ahead and make him your starter.
Taylor had the ninth-highest Total Quarterback Rating (68.2) among qualified passers last season and has the ability to create something out of nothing, rushing 95 times for 580 yards and six touchdowns in 2016, with seven of those plays resulting in rushes of 20 yards or more.
If he isn’t available, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is a decent consolation prize with upside.
Wentz completed over 62 percent of his passes in his rookie season, producing 3,782 yards with 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions for a below-average 79.3 passer rating. However, most of that futility came while facing a pass rush — he had the league’s lowest passer rating under pressure in 2016 (32.8), lower than the rating produced for an incomplete pass (39.6).
The good news is he will benefit from playing behind PFF’s top offensive line in the NFL next season, which should help keep the pass pressure at bay. Wentz had a 94.4 passer rating from a clean pocket last season.
The Houston Texans have Lamar Miller entrenched as the primary back, but rookie D’Onta Foreman, a third-round pick in 2017, is starting to turn some heads.
Flashing the strength and speed he showed at Texas, Foreman was impressive in his preseason debut against the Carolina Panthers, rushing for 76 yards on nine carries, including a 41-yard run down the right sideline during the fourth quarter that included him hurdling over a Panthers defender.
The fantasy football analysts at Rotoviz are also high on the prospect. Kevin Cole wrote Foreman could be “one of greatest draft-day bargains we’ve seen” based on his production profile and athletic measurables. And Shawn Siegele, the originator of the Zero RB strategy, had Foreman No. 1 overall in his 2017 RB Prospect Lab rankings after he posted “one of the best scores of the past decade.”
If Foreman is gone at this point, consider a taking a flier on Cowboys’ backup Alfred Morris.
Most owners will be focusing their efforts on running back Darren McFadden as a viable alternative with starter Ezekiel Elliott anticipated to serve a six-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, but Morris produced a higher rate of yards per carry after contact (2.22 versus 2.13 for McFadden) for Dallas last season and was the more successful back according to Sharp Football Stats and Football Outsiders.
|DAL RB||Sharp success||FO DVOA|
The Oakland Raiders lured 31-year-old running back Marshawn Lynch out of retirement, perhaps with the promise of a large workload and featured spot in the league’s 10th most prolific rushing attack in 2016. But don’t buy into the hype just yet.
The prognosis for a running back as old as Lynch playing in his 10th season (or later) is not encouraging. Over the past four seasons, seasons in which passing attempts have reached all-time highs, there have been 14 running backs similar to Lynch in terms of age and experience to play at least 10 games for their team. Just one, Frank Gore, has managed to rush for 1,000 yards or more. That leaves the door open for second-year pro DeAndre Washington.
Washington had opportunities to rush the ball (87 carries) and catch passes out of the backfield (23 targets) in 2016, producing a first down or touchdown on 21 percent of his touches, slightly more than Jalen Richards (18 percent), his main compensation for No. 1 duties if Lynch falters in any way.
Draft a defense. Among the 22 teams with at least a 40 percent of being available at the start of the 15th round, the Indianapolis Colts, a defense that is going undrafted, has the easiest strength of schedule, including soft opponents during Weeks 15 and 16, typically reserved for a fantasy league’s playoffs.
If going that much off script is too much for you to endure, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense faces the eighth-easiest strength of schedule, with little to worry about for the first five weeks of the season. You will, however, want to find a replacement during Weeks 6 through 13 — they could be surrendering a lot of points during those weeks as they face some of the best offenses in the NFL.
Kickers are roughly interchangeable, but take any of the kickers below that are still available with your final pick of the 2017 draft.
- Graham Gano, Carolina Panthers
- Chris Boswell, Pittsburgh Steelers
- Blair Walsh, Seattle Seahawks
- Cairo Santos, Kansas City Chiefs
- Dustin Hopkins, Washington Redskins
- Caleb Sturgis, Philadelphia Eagles
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