There are many fantasy football draft day strategies, but none has been embraced as widely as the Zero RB plan, which advocates steering clear of running backs until the fifth or sixth round of a draft.
The reasoning behind the strategy is twofold: Running backs are more susceptible to injury than other players, and the NFL is becoming more focused on quarterbacks and receivers with each passing season, leaving fewer and fewer opportunities for rushers to accumulate fantasy points solely on the ground. As a result, savvy owners are targeting wideouts earlier in the draft and then accumulating running backs with upside in the later rounds.
However, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy. For example, if you are assigned a top four or five pick in the draft, you’re going to want to grab one of the top four running backs, such as Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, David Johnson or Ezekiel Elliott, because there is simply too much of a drop-off from them to the rest of the players at the position to justify using the Zero RB strategy. If you find yourself in the fifth slot or later, and those four rushers have been selected, by all means give Zero RB the green light.
With that in mind, here is a round-by-round Zero RB blueprint for a 12-team, point-per-reception (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 seven bench players.
Once the top running backs are gone, there are four wideouts you will be focusing on in the first round, in this order: Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., Michael Thomas and DeAndre Hopkins. Those are the four receivers expected to score the most points because they get the most targets, the lifeblood of fantasy football pass catchers.
Brown shouldn’t survive much longer than the sixth pick in a PPR league — according to data at Fantasy Football Calculator, Brown has an 18 percent chance of being available at pick No. 7 — for obvious reasons: he is a near lock to catch more than 100 passes for more than 1,000 yards and 8 to 10 touchdowns.
If you are lucky enough to pick late in the first round, you could find yourself with two stud wideouts very quickly. Thomas, and perhaps Hopkins, could fall to the first or second pick of the second round, and if not, there’s always Julio Jones waiting in the wings.
Hopkins gets the largest share of team targets of any receiver in the NFL (34 percent in 2017), and Jones caught 88 of 148 passes thrown his way for 1,444 yards and a league-leading 3.1 yards per route run last season.
Alternatives to target in this round include Keenan Allen, Davante Adams, A.J. Green and Adam Thielen.
After focusing on superstar wideouts, turn your attention to tight ends. There are only two players worthy of a third-round pick: Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce.
Gronkowski is an injury risk — the injury experts at Sports Injury Predictor see Gronkowski missing almost five games this season. But only tight ends Jimmy Graham (36 percent of team targets) and Kyle Rudolph (28 percent) were targeted more often in the red zone than Kelce (26 percent) and Gronkowski (24 percent) last season.
It is possible Larry Fitzgerald is still lingering by the start of the fourth round (17 percent chance), and if so, scoop him up. Fitzgerald and Brown are the only two receivers coming off three straight seasons with at least 100 catches, 1,000 yards and six touchdowns.
If not, target Golden Tate or Jarvis Landry with your fourth-round pick.
Tate flies under the radar; however, he earned the seventh-highest grade by the game charters at Pro Football Focus in 2017. Landry had the third-highest catch rate among slot receivers (78 percent), trailing only Tate (80 percent) and Kendall Wright (80 percent).
The fifth round is where you start to diversify your roster, starting with a premier quarterback such as Russell Wilson or Cam Newton. There will be other passers on the board — Deshaun Watson, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, for example — but Wilson and Newton provide good value in this spot.
Wilson is coming off a season in which he tossed 34 touchdowns and rushed for three more, giving him a league-high 86 percent of his team’s touchdowns in 2017. Newton wasn’t as prolific through the air (28 touchdowns), although he did make up for that on the ground (tied for a league-high six rushing touchdowns).
Here’s where the focus finally turns to running backs. The goal is to accumulate versatile, pass-catching backs who either play significant roles in the offense or get enough work at the goal line to provide a steady stream of fantasy points. It’s an added bonus when those players are also in line for an increased workload if something should happen to the No. 1 option on the depth chart.
Tennessee Titans running back Dion Lewis might be available (19 percent chance) in this round; if not, cast an eye toward Tarik Cohen, Tevin Coleman or Rex Burkhead.
Per Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune, Cohen has been “lining up everywhere to maximize his speed, agility and explosiveness with the ball in his hands” under new Coach Matt Nagy. Nagy also said Cohen was the Bears’ “most dynamic player.” High praise for the second-year pro.
Burkhead scored on 5 of 16 red-zone carries for the New England Patriots in 2017, including 4 of 9 in goal-to-go situations.
There hasn’t been much to like about the Cleveland Browns offense the past two years, though none of the blame can fall on Duke Johnson. The 24-year-old do-it-all back produced more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage in each of the past two years, with a career-high seven touchdowns in 2017. He also recorded the third-most yards per route run (2.1) for running backs that year, per Pro Football Focus, behind only first-round picks Alvin Kamara (2.8) and Todd Gurley (2.1).
No running back selected this late will be perfect, yet there should be plenty of available options, including Sony Michel, Marshawn Lynch, Ronald Jones II, Isaiah Crowell and C.J. Anderson.
Anderson is coming off a 245-carry, 1,000-yard season for the Denver Broncos and could vulture opportunities from Christian McCaffery in Carolina. Anderson also has a better chance to break the game open with a big run: his nine rushes of 15 yards or more in 2017 were almost as many as McCaffery (four) and Jonathan Stewart (six) had for the Panthers, combined.
According to Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception study, which looks at how successful and efficient receivers are based on the routes they run, Allen Hurns, now with the Dallas Cowboys, has the NFL’s best catch rate in contested situations (92 percent) over the past four seasons.
There should be a few good receivers available, such as Marqise Lee and Sterling Shepard, to increase your roster depth.
Based on preseason snaps, Shepard should again be used by the New York Giants in the slot, leaving him poised to take advantage when wideout Beckham draws double coverage. That would also maximize Shepard’s ability to be effective on crossing routes, a staple of Pat Shurmur’s offense. According to Pro Football Focus, Shepard’s 11.5 yards after the catch per reception in 2018 were the most by a receiver since 2012.
Latavius Murray might not be able to wrest control of the starting job in Minnesota from Dalvin Cook, but he does provide the Vikings with a viable back-up option.
Murray averaged 2.6 yards per carry after contact in 2017, with eight rushes producing 15 or more yards, the same breakaway percentage as Gurley and Melvin Gordon.
Washington Redskins running back Samaje Perine isn’t getting first-team reps, but Rob Kelley hasn’t shown he is ready to be the main back after rookie Derrius Guice was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL and lost for the season. (The Redskins signed Adrian Peterson this week, but it isn’t clear how big a role he might play.)
That could allow Perine, whose rates were similar to Kelley’s last season, per Sports Info Solutions, to move up the depth chart. Remember, part of the Zero RB strategy is to anticipate upside, and Perine fits the mold, even despite suffering an ankle injury in a preseason game against the Jets.
|2017 Redskins||Attempts||Yards per attempt||Yards after contact per carry||Broken tackle rate||First down rate|
Bilal Powell of the New York Jets touched the ball 189 and 201 times in 2016 and 2017, respectively, with five total touchdowns each year, giving him ample opportunity to be a factor either as an injury or bye-week replacement this season.
Pittsburgh Steelers receiver James Washington is going undrafted in PPR leagues, but that could be a mistake. The second-round pick in the 2018 draft made five catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns against the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night, and had the highest contested catch rate (88 percent) among all prospects in the last three draft classes.
Round 15 and 16
Find a defense and kicker you like and enjoy what should be a fantastic fantasy football season.
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