Late-August news reports surrounding running backs David Montgomery (groin strain), Darrell Henderson (hamstring injury), Joe Mixon (migraines) and Le’Veon Bell (frustration with Jets Coach Adam Gase, again) will only fuel chatter about using the Zero RB approach this season, as will Monday’s surprising release of Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette.
The reasoning behind the strategy is threefold. First, it tries to take advantage of projection errors at the running back position, in which high-upside players survive past the first few rounds. Second, it is considered an antifragile approach. Antifragility, postulated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book “The Black Swan,” is a concept rooted in randomness and uncertainty; avoiding popular running backs allows fantasy GMs to take advantage of inevitable player injuries and to perform better amid volatility. And lastly, it is a contrarian approach, allowing fantasy GMs to stock up on highly ranked players at other positions rather than settle for a mid-level running back.
However, due to the projected dynamics of 2020 fantasy drafts, a surge in NFL teams using running backs by committee and the increasingly competitive nature of the waiver wire, the Zero RB approach is no longer a feasible strategy. In fact, with running backs expected to dominate in the early rounds of most drafts, you should avoid the strategy at all costs.
Projection errors occur at every position. No one truly knows how many rushing touchdowns Christian McCaffrey will score in 2020, despite his status as the consensus top pick. But what we do know is the consensus rankings of NFL experts and the average draft position from hundreds of fantasy football drafts can give us a reasonable ranking of how well players should perform during the course of the season, leaving fewer mid-round running back jewels.
The injury rate among running backs is also difficult to project. In 2015, the top five running backs selected in fantasy drafts averaged 10 games of action, but that jumped to 13 games in 2016. It was 14 games in 2019. Over the five-year span from 2015 to 2019, the top five running backs averaged 12 games a season. That’s one fewer than the average of the top five tight ends, two fewer than the average of the top five wide receivers and three fewer than the average of the top five quarterbacks. So yes, top running backs are especially susceptible to missed games.
But figuring out which running backs will be the ones to get injured is a different matter. In 2015, it was Le’Veon Bell (projected No. 2), Jamaal Charles (No. 4) and Marshawn Lynch (No. 5). In 2016, it was Adrian Peterson (No. 5). In 2017, it was David Johnson, the projected No. 1 running back. In 2018, it was Bell again, this time at No. 3. And in 2019, it was James Conner, projected as the No. 5 pick at the position.
And it isn’t as if later-round running backs are less likely to get injured. Running backs selected in the fifth and sixth rounds, which is typically when adherents to the Zero RB strategy start looking for ball carriers, average the same number of games played as those selected in the first two rounds, yet they provide a much lower ceiling in terms of fantasy points.
Also, consider how scarce running backs will likely be in 2020 drafts by the time the fifth or sixth rounds begin. There are 10 or 11 running backs expected to be selected in the first round alone, and 25 over the first four rounds. The estimated contribution in point-per-reception, or PPR, leagues is also expected to fall from 18 points per week among first-round running backs to 10 points per week among those drafted in Round 4. The fall continues after that.
The running backs penciled in to be available starting in the fifth round include Raheem Mostert, Kareem Hunt, D’Andre Swift and Ronald Jones II. Rookies Cam Akers and J.K. Dobbins, plus veteran James White, are among the top running backs available in Round 6.
Are these mid-round building blocks? Mostert appears likely to share the workload in San Francisco with Tevin Coleman and perhaps Jerick McKinnon and Jeff Wilson. Hunt was part of a tandem in Cleveland with Nick Chubb last season and outperformed his teammate in six of the eight games he played. However, he never had more opportunities (rushing attempts plus targets) with the ball. Akers is part of a crowded Los Angeles Rams backfield. He, Darrell Henderson Jr. and Malcolm Brown will all fight for carries, according to Les Snead, the team’s general manager. Swift and Dobbins are rookies, and White plays for the revamped Patriots. Each of those players feels more like a lottery ticket than a solid foundation for your team.
Instead, make sure you select the best running back you can in the first three rounds, and don’t be afraid to grab two or even three. Even if you do that, there is nothing stopping you from collecting high-upside running backs later in the draft. Depth is always a good thing at any position, but especially at the most important position in fantasy football.