However, this isn’t a fit for every spot in the draft. If you are assigned a top-four or -five pick, you’re going to want to grab one of the top running backs, such as Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott or David Johnson. There is too steep a drop-off from those stars to the rest of the running backs to justify using the Zero RB strategy at the top of the first round.
But if you find yourself picking in the sixth slot or later and those rushers have been selected, by all means give Zero RB the green light. (Both the No. 11 and No. 12 teams in our perfect draft avoid running backs through the first four rounds.)
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.
Round 1: DeAndre Hopkins, Davante Adams or Julio Jones
Hopkins, Adams and Jones, in that order, are the wideouts you want to nab with your first pick. Hopkins is the most coveted of the three, having caught 115 of 163 targets for 1,572 yards and 11 touchdowns last year while drawing a league-high 33 percent of his team’s passing targets. He’s now No. 5 on our list of top first-round picks.
Adams benefits from having a star quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) and uncertainty elsewhere on the receiving depth chart, enough that he could improve on his 169 targets from 2018. Plus, according to Matt Harmon of Yahoo Sports, no wideout has made more strides against all coverage types than Adams.
Jones caught fire toward the end of the season, catching five of his eight touchdown passes during the last four games. Much of that came from a renewed focus on getting Jones red-zone targets, a strategy that could pay more dividends in 2019.
The New England Patriots wide receiver played only 12 games last season, and if you prorate his production to a 16-game schedule, it comes out to 99 catches for 1,133 yards and eight touchdowns. Plus, he could benefit from the retirement of tight end Rob Gronkowski. Since 2016 (Edelman didn’t play in 2017 because of injury), Edelman scored 15 PPR fantasy points per game with Gronkowski active and 17 per game in contests without Gronkowski.
Round 4: Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods or Kenny Golladay
Cooks — a wide receiver who has at least 65 catches, 1,000 yards and five touchdowns in each of the past four seasons — is a good target for this spot, but the Rams speedster is available in the middle of the fourth round in only 28 percent of PPR leagues. Woods and Golladay are more likely to be here, and each should be a productive member of your Zero RB roster.
Of the two, we prefer Woods, who gets the added benefit of a soft early schedule. Only one of the Rams’ first-half opponents, the Cleveland Browns, ranked in the top half of the league in expected points allowed via the pass in 2018, with six of the other seven ranking among the worst pass defenses.
Michel ran the ball 209 times for the Patriots as a rookie last season, producing 931 yards and six touchdowns. A team-high 39 of those carries were in the red zone. This season, look for Michel to get more involved in the passing offense: He was targeted just 11 times last year but has been seen split wide as a receiver and resembling more of a pass catcher in seven-on-seven drills this summer.
Murray came to New Orleans as Kamara’s backup, but if he sees a workload at all similar to the one Mark Ingram enjoyed in 2018, it could turn into a strong fantasy campaign. Ingram averaged 12 carries and two targets last season; using Murray’s numbers from last year, that would translate to 69 yards from scrimmage. Add in four total touchdowns (Ingram had seven last year), and suddenly Murray is as viable a fantasy starter as Tevin Coleman, Tarik Cohen or Lamar Miller.
Round 7: Darrell Henderson
The Rams traded up to select the running back in the third round of April’s draft after he rushed for 1,909 yards on 214 carries (8.9 per attempt) for Memphis. He averaged 10.7 yards per carry on outside zone handoffs, a play the Rams run more than any other team, per research done by Blaine Grisak.
If you are still not convinced, John Paulsen, dubbed the most accurate fantasy football expert by Fantasy Pros for the 2010 and 2014 seasons, found that when teams trade up for a running back in the third round, they produce 54 percent more fantasy points than their third-round counterparts.
Since Howard was drafted in 2016, only nine running backs have more carries inside the 10-yard line. And only five of those nine have more rushing touchdowns on those plays. Rookie Miles Sanders might be the No. 1 name on the depth chart, but you can bet the Philadelphia Eagles traded for Howard with the intention of giving him a majority of their red-zone carries in 2019.
Lewis inked a four-year deal with the Tennessee Titans this offseason, putting him on one of the NFL’s most run-heavy squads of 2018 (61 percent of plays). He is going to catch passes out of the backfield, too, giving him a chance to stay on the field. His competition for carries, Derrick Henry, injured his left calf on the first day of training camp and just started running routes and catching passes in mid-August.
For the third time in five years, Jackson led the league in yards per reception (18.9) last season, while all four of his touchdown catches were on plays of 20 yards or more. Among wideouts, only Tyler Lockett (six), Tyreek Hill (seven) and Antonio Brown (10) turned more deep plays into points last season.
Round 11: Tyrell Williams
Williams saw his targets dwindle for two straight years while with the Los Angeles Chargers, but his 2016 campaign — 69 catches for 1,059 yards and seven touchdowns — gave us a glimpse of his potential.
Meanwhile, the Oakland Raiders’ most-targeted wide receiver still with the team from last year is second-year pro Marcell Ateman, who caught 15 of 31 targets for 154 yards. That leaves a projected 232 other targets to be divided among Williams, Brown and the rest of the receiving corps.
The Dallas Cowboys quarterback is good value here despite reportedly turning down a contract extension because it did not meet his demands. As long as he’s on the field, look for him and wideout Amari Cooper to continue the chemistry they had from last year. In 2018, the two connected on 53 passes for 725 yards and six touchdowns over nine games.
Prescott improved across the board once Cooper arrived, raising his passer rating from 87.4 during the first seven games to 103.0 over the last nine.
The Houston defense will suffer a bit if the team ends up trading disgruntled pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, but the Texans still feature five-time Pro Bowler and three-time defensive player of the year J.J. Watt, who fashioned a comeback season in 2018 with 16 sacks, 62 solo tackles and a league-leading seven forced fumbles.
Perhaps this is earlier than you’d like to take a kicker, but don’t be afraid to select the 49ers veteran in this round. Gould attempted 34 field goals in 2018, the sixth most last season, and he led the league in success rate (97 percent). That includes going 9 for 10 on attempts from 40 to 49 yards and 2 for 2 on attempts from 50 yards or more.
The Chicago Bears running back is going undrafted in the majority of leagues, but he was the 19th-most-valuable rusher of 2018 per Football Outsiders, and he believes he will have a bigger role in Chicago than he had in Seattle last year (146 touches for 728 yards from scrimmage and five total touchdowns).
The Miami Dolphins wideout might not be ready for Week 1, but stashing him on your roster with your last pick is a wise move. Over the past two seasons, Wilson has been one of the best slot receivers in the NFL; according to Pro Football Focus, Wilson ranks first in yards per target (13.2) and fantasy points per target (2.69) from the slot over that span.