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Zero-RB is an Excellent Draft Strategy in 2021

First things first, and this is where most people throw out the Zero-RB strategy immediately – it is not made for every fantasy football league. It is a draft strategy that is to be used in specific draft settings. Part of the reason Zero-RB gets such a bad rap is it is believed to be a viable strategy across all settings. This could not be further from the truth.

Zero-RB is not for standard scoring leagues. The Zero-RB strategy is best suited for PPR leagues, specifically full-PPR. The other aspect of Zero-RB that trips up a lot of fantasy managers is it doesn't mean to wait until round 12 or 13 to draft your first one. If a fantasy manager wants to implement a Zero-RB strategy, that typically involves waiting until round 5–7 to make their first running back selection.

You might go into a draft wanting to use a  Zero-RB strategy and a running back you really like falls to you in round four, that's okay. The point of a Zero-RB strategy is using those high-leverage rounds, rounds 1–3, on positions with less volatility and risk. Typically, a Zero-RB is not looking to draft a running back in round four either because that is typically associated with the "dead zone" for running backs. No draft strategy is concrete however, they all require you to remain fluid based on what your fellow draftees are doing.

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Why Zero-RB Can Work in 2021

Now, that we got some initial ground rules out of the way and have a better idea of what Zero-RB actually is, we can get started at looking at why the strategy can be a successful one in 2021.

It seems as though every year that goes by, fantasy managers have fewer and fewer workhorse running backs to choose from. Go ahead and go through all 32 teams right now. You'll get maybe 5–7 running backs that you can classify as true workhorse running backs. That's it. That means the other 25–27 teams are implementing some sort of timeshare in their backfield. This effectively gives fantasy managers more running backs to choose from than ever before. But effectively what the Zero-RB strategy is attempting to do is create positional advantages at the less-volatile of positions.

Last year, fantasy managers had to deal with Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Joe Mixon, Austin Ekeler and Clyde Edwards-Helaire all disappointing for a variety of reasons. For wide receivers, that same list pretty much starts and ends with Michael Thomas.

When implementing a Zero-RB strategy, fantasy managers are likely going to end up with some sort of the following combination through four rounds – WR, WR, WR, TE or WR, WR, WR, QB or WR, WR, TE, QB – any of these combinations create not one, but two positional advantages. When drafting a quarterback early, you're likely to end up with Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen or Kyler Murray. And the same holds true for tight end where you're likely eyeing up one of the big three – Kelce, Waller or Kittle.

It's difficult to envision how this might look in practice, but using Underdog's ADP and assuming you have the sixth spot in a 12-team format, one could reasonably expect to draft Travis Kelce, DK Metcalf, Allen Robinson and Ja'Marr Chase. Now, if this is a full-PPR league, that combination of pass-catchers is going to give you a significant weekly advantage at wide receiver and tight end. You might be asking, "okay, well who is your running back going to be?"

Using Underdog's ADP, Travis Etienne would be available in round five and Darrell Henderson in round six. There are a plethora of running backs available in round five and later that fantasy managers will likely be able to reasonably count on for 10-12 points. That doesn't sound like a lot, but when factoring in the strengths you'd have built up at wide receiver and tight end by focusing on those positions early, it becomes more palatable.

Oh, The Options!

Seriously, there are a lot of options for Zero-RB enthusiasts this season. You may not believe it, but there are a ton of running backs out there for fantasy managers in the rounds of 5–8. Let's take a look at some of them and now you'll have to bear with me because there are a lot of them. No, really... there are.

Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams (ADP: 68.5, RB23)

Prior to Cam Akers' injury, almost everyone had him as a locked-in top-12 running back. Some fantasy analysts even thought top-five was a possibility. Mind you, those expectations were with Darrell Henderson still in the picture. Now, Darrell Henderson steps into Akers' role and whoever the Rams use behind him is highly unlikely to be as good as he was. So while Henderson may not be as talented as Akers, he's still stepping into a huge workload in what is expected to be a great offense. He looks like an easy top-24 running back in 2021.

Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns (ADP: 54.8, RB25)

Hunt benefited from Nick Chubb missing four games, there's no question about that. His volume went up and his touchdown numbers are likely to decrease. All of that can be true and he's still a worthwhile addition to any Zero-RB roster. He finished as a top-10 running back last year in points scored. You can drop that by 15 spots if you like and he's still a borderline RB2.

Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP: 54, RB26)

The sky is the limit here, right? Etienne could very well end up like D'Andre Swift in 2020. He might be someone who starts off slow with James Robinson in front of him, but as the season continues on, Etienne is likely to separate a bit more each week. He has more versatility, can be used in the passing game and fits how modern NFL offenses want to play. His connection with Trevor Lawrence certainly doesn't hurt. Neither does the fact that the new coaching regime used a first-round pick on him.

Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals (ADP: 68.7, RB27)

Edmonds was a borderline RB2 last season and that was with Kenyan Drake on the roster who finished as RB16. The Cardinals improved their offensive line and Edmonds looks poised for more work in 2021. If he could finish as RB25 last year with the touches he had, what happens if he gets even more work this season? Or better yet, maybe even scores a few touchdowns?

Michael Carter, New York Jets (ADP: 87.2, RB30)

The Jets are going to be losing a lot and Carter is the best pass-catching back on the roster. He might be their best running back, period. Fantasy managers shouldn't be surprised if he comes close to racking up 50 catches this season. If he does that, he'll be in the top-30 for full-PPR leagues.

Damien Harris, New England Patriots (ADP: 97.5, RB32)

He's not an ideal full-PPR option, but volume is king in fantasy football. Last year, in the games Harris was active he averaged more than 14 touches per game. That amounts to a 224 touch workload in 16 games. Based on what the Patriots' have done in the offseason with the additions at tight end and the offensive line, it looks pretty clear they want to play smash-mouth football. Fantasy managers shouldn't be surprised if he has 250 touches this season. Even if they're almost all carries, that's someone who will flirt with RB2 numbers. He's Josh Jacobs-lite with a three-round discount.

Ronald Jones II, Tampa Bay Bucs (ADP: 98.3, RB34)

I'm not sure why he's going so late. RoJo finished as the RB20 last year in full-PPR and he missed three games. He averaged over five yards per carry and averaged more yards after contact per attempt than Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb. He's not going to catch a lot of balls, but he's the best pure rusher on Tampa Bay and they're going to score a ton of points. Eight touchdowns almost seem like the floor for Jones with upside for more.

Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers (79.5, RB35)

While Trey Sermon is likely the future of the 49ers' backfield, fantasy managers shouldn't dismiss Mostert's potential in 2021. He was RB27 in terms of PPG with 12.5. Coach Shanahan typically implements a committee backfield, so Mostert is likely to carry flex appeal most of the season as it's unlikely Sermon becomes a workhorse in his rookie season. With a strong offensive philosophy built around the run game, Mostert could be an appealing piece for fantasy managers looking to implement a Zero-RB strategy.

Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos (ADP: 81.8, RB36)

I know everyone is hot on the Javonte Williams bandwagon, but Melvin Gordon quietly had himself a really nice season in 2020. He ended as the RB14 and averaged 4.6 yards per carry. Gordon has also been very involved in the passing game throughout his career and one of the things rookies tend to struggle with is their pass-blocking. Fantasy managers should expect Gordon to maintain a strong hole on the passing game work and his experience will likely give him the edge in the red zone, as well. Williams is the future, that's without question, but Gordon is not going to just go away.

Zack Moss, Buffalo Bills (ADP: 101, RB37)

There's a lot to like about Moss's potential in 2021. The Bills are an explosive offense and Devin Singletary has never looked more than just a guy. With Josh Allen's huge, new extension, they might be more inclined to use their actual running backs around the goal line. There's a lot of high touchdown potential here for Moss and if he's able to separate from Singletary, which shouldn't be especially difficult, he could end up being a player that can give fantasy managers, RB2/3 production on a weekly basis.

James Conner, Arizona Cardinals (ADP: 105.2, RB38)

Despite the awfulness of the Steelers' offensive line, Conner was more productive than what fantasy managers give him credit for. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry and was seventh in the NFL in breakaway runs according to PlayerProfiler. He was also 15th in evaded tackles and 17th in juke rate. He's likely taking over the Kenyan Drake role from 2020, which led to him finishing as the RB16.

Injuries and More Injuries

The rate of injuries at the running back position compared to others is significant. We saw several running backs miss a large number of games last season. The same was true for 2019. Losing a player like Christian McCaffrey or Saquon Barkley can be a death sentence to your fantasy squad. That's true for any first-round pick, however fantasy managers continue to see, year after year, more running backs going down.

By avoiding running back early, Zero-RB squads are deflecting that risk onto their other draftees. If we assume three running backs get hurt in the first two rounds, that's three teams who already have their backs up against a wall. We've all heard the saying, "you can't win a fantasy football championship in the first two rounds, but you can lose it." An injury to such a highly drafted player can lose you your season. It's nothing you did and it's certainly not your fault. None of that will be any consolation, however.

Fantasy Production

In 2020, only the top-four running backs out-scored the top-four wide receivers. By RB5 vs. WR5, the edge already shifted to the wide receivers, 281.5 to 258.9. That difference equals 1.4 points per game. RB12 vs. WR12 was 247.5 to 206.5. The difference on a per weekly basis has now ballooned to 2.5 points per game.

In previous years, that switch usually happens around the 10th spot in the rankings where wide receivers start out-scoring their running back counterparts. However, with the NFL game continuing to favor the pass, it shouldn't be a surprise to see the switch happening around the fifth spot on a yearly basis.

Remember, it does not matter where you get your fantasy points, just as long as you get them.

Final Thoughts

Zero-RB does not mean not drafting a running back until the double-digit rounds. It's not meant for standard scoring leagues and it is not an ideal strategy if you have a top-five pick because of the strength at running back early. However, if you find yourself in the middle of the first round of a full-PPR draft, Zero-RB strategy can be a very effective strategy to implement.

The key is loading up on pass-catchers early and take advantage of the full-PPR system that is currently in place. The best way to go is to make sure to lock up one of the elite tight ends early. Not only are you taking advantage of the scoring system in your league, but you're securing a major positional advantage over the rest of your league.

There are plenty of running backs later in the draft fantasy managers can target and there will be some that become fantasy viable that we don't even know about yet. Playing the waiver wire is crucial. Most of us fantasy managers are conditioned to add running back early. Some will be willing to reach to do so, but your fantasy football draft is all about finding value and minimizing risk, especially early.

Don't be afraid to zag when the rest of your league is zigging. If the rest of your league is loading up on running back early, there's a good chance some of the names listed early are going to fall to you later in the draft as they all start looking for wide receivers they feel comfortable starting.

With the continued explosion of the NFL passing game, full-PPR leagues are making elite wide receivers and tight ends even more powerful. Loading up on these early players early can be a sound strategy to avoid risk early and take advantage of your league's scoring system. You might just be happy that you did.

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