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Why Zero RB Will Work In 2020

justin jackson fantasy football rankings NFL DFS lineup picks

In a world where Christian McCaffrey is coming off a historic year comprised of 287 carries, 142 targets, 19 touchdowns and over 2,300 yards from scrimmage, the Zero RB strategy might seem like a losing recipe. How can you justify shooting for any non-running back at the top of drafts when we’ve seen just how dominant the top-tier running backs can be?

McCaffrey is joined at the top of the running back rankings this year by fellow workhorses Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott. All three of those stars should have fantastic years and a number of the running backs in the next tier, such as Derrick Henry and Alvin Kamara, should excel as well, but there’s still a lot of reason to believe that the Zero RB strategy is alive.

Even though the aforementioned studs have distanced themselves in their position, we’ve also seen some widening gaps in the tiers of other positions, suggesting that in 2020, Zero RB can lead you to a prosperous fantasy year as long as you plan things out properly.

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The Wide Receiver Breakdown

While every other drafter is in a mad rush to attain the workhorse running backs at the top, there’s an equal amount of validity to the approach of targeting the workhorse receivers instead. Just as there’s a scarcity of running backs who have workhorse potential, there’s a similar scarcity of receivers who have the potential for an elite target total.

Drafting two receivers with WR1 potential and a high floor can provide for a phenomenal base for your team.

Last year, only five receivers had 150 or more targets: Michael Thomas, (185), Julio Jones (157), Allen Robinson (154), Julian Edelman (153) and DeAndre Hopkins (150).

Only 12 other receivers earned over 120 targets last year. Here they are, followed by their 2019 target totals and their average, per-game rankings amongst wide receivers in standard leagues last year:

So even with 120-plus targets, seven of the 12 members of this above group were unable to break the top-20 receiver rankings on a per-game average. Excluding Allen, who barely made the top-20 cut and figures to have a production drop off as he begins life without Philip Rivers, we now have a total of nine receivers from the first two groups who figure to earn elite targets and have the potential to turn those elite targets into WR1 seasons.

These are the receivers who rounded out the top 15 in per-game average in standard leagues, followed by their 2019 target amount and their ranking:

Now, in total, we have 17 receivers who seem to realistically have a shot at being a WR1, taking into consideration target share and production. It’s extremely unlikely for anyone not named Tyreek Hill to be able to produce a WR1 season without getting close to or above 120 targets.

If your league starts two receivers, you can give yourself a huge leg up in the position by passing on running backs and acquiring a top-tier guy like Thomas or Adams and pairing him with another potential WR1 in Golladay or Parker or if you want to wait a bit longer, Ridley or Chark.

Fantasy owners who use their top two picks on running backs will have to rely on a low-tier member of the above group as their WR1 and a flyer from the mid-rounds who will likely be a very inconsistent WR2.


Quarterback Tiers

While you might see someone like Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Jared Goff, or Tom Brady on the outskirts of the top-10 in preseason quarterback rankings and think you’re completely fine to wait on a quarterback, you’d be oversimplifying the situation.

Lamar Jackson was of course the No. 1 overall quarterback last year. He averaged 28.11 points per week in standard, six-point per passing touchdown leagues last year. Behind him were Deshaun Watson (22.13) and Dak Prescott (21.80).

As a comparison, Matt Ryan finished tenth in average points last year with 18.76 and Aaron Rodgers finished 14th with 17.65. The gap between Prescott and Ryan may seem small, but if the numbers start to gravitate in a particular direction, it could quickly become much more alarming. Prescott’s offense added a top rookie receiver in CeeDee Lamb while Ryan’s offense added a potential workhorse running back in Todd Gurley II. A few more points per game for Prescott and a few fewer points per game for Ryan and suddenly the disparity widens significantly.

It’s going to be hard for Jackson to repeat his MVP campaign in 2020, but he still has a potential output that’s just untouchable by all but a select few fantasy quarterbacks. Watson, Prescott, and Patrick Mahomes could all compete for the No. 1 overall quarterback spot if the former two improve upon last year’s production and if Mahomes returns to his 2018 productivity (26.07 points per game).

Other than that, we could maybe see Kyler Murray breaking out in a big way after averaging 18.58 points per game as a rookie or we could see Russell Wilson (20.85 last year) taking a step forward, but the options for elite QB production are clearly limited. Waiting on a dependable, limited upside option like Rodgers or Goff could hold you back in the position.


Tight End Depth Illusion

Tight end is in a similar spot to quarterback. Waiting to draft an intriguing sleeper like Tyler Higbee or Hayden Hurst is alluring, but the potential of them even coming close to producing a season like Travis Kelce or George Kittle is extremely minimal.

Kelce had 136 targets last year, while Kittle had 107. The top tight end tier is rounded out by Zach Ertz, who had 135 targets last year, and Mark Andrews, who had 98.

Andrews was a bit of an outlier as he was remarkably efficient last year, the only player in the league to catch 10 touchdown passes with under 100 targets.

Higbee was certainly a revelation last year, but all his production came while the team’s other primary tight end Gerald Everett was sidelined and it’s a big question as to what the target share will look like this year.

Kelce and Kittle are guaranteed targets and guaranteed elite production that will give you a step up in the tight end position over your opponents on a weekly basis. Ertz and Andrews should have you in good standing at the position as well.

While the rest of the pack will have some flashes of success and we could see someone else break into the top tier, it’s going to be hard to determine which tight end that will be. If you want safety at the position, draft one of the top four.


Prime Zero RB Targets

While it may sound like cruel irony, the biggest key to the Zero RB strategy is in fact knowing which running backs you’re going to draft.

After you’ve locked down two receivers as well as a quarterback and/or a tight end, it’s time to start taking your flyers on running backs. So your run of running backs should begin with your fourth or fifth pick.

Here are some of the running backs most likely on the board for you, followed by their ADP:

If you look over that list and feel a bit queasy, then Zero RB is not for you.

However, for anyone looking to scope out the diamonds in the rough, there’s a lot to like about this group of players. If you can end up with two from this group, try to target one player who could be a primary back going into Week 1 and then another player who could emerge as an RB1 in a best-case scenario season.

An example: Pairing Mack with Mattison. While Jonathan Taylor is stealing all the headlines in Indianapolis, it’s still likely that Mack is the team’s primary back going into Week 1 and he’s done nothing but supply high-end RB2 numbers ever since he’s been the starter for the Colts. Mattison, meanwhile, is a potential star if Dalvin Cook is off the field. Cook is being held out of team drills as he’s in contract negotiations so that situation could become ideal for Mattison sooner than we think. Plus, Cook has dealt with a number of injuries over the years.

Other players from this group who could be primary ball carriers to start the year include Ronald Jones, Jordan Howard, Kerryon Johnson, Darrell Henderson, and Adrian Peterson.

The players from this group with the most upside in a best-case scenario season are Dobbins, Michel, Lindsay, Breida, Coleman, Vaughn, Pollard, and Gibson.


Late-round high-upside players to target

A.J. Dillon, Green Bay Packers (ADP: 51)

Aaron Jones is an intimidating factor, but the Packers didn’t invest a second-round pick in Dillon this year to keep him on the bench. Jones has had some injury trouble over his first three seasons and his yards-per-carry dropped from 5.5 in 2018 to 4.6 in 2019 as he took on a heavier workload. The Packers might have seen that as an indication that they need to mix things up a bit more, which could mean Dillon gets a significant workload this year.

Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals (ADP: 52)

For evidence of Edmonds’ fantasy potential, look no further than Week 7 last year when Edmonds carried the ball 27 times for 126 yards and three touchdowns. He got injured in the following game and Kenyan Drake took things over from there. If Drake goes down this year, Edmonds could be a gem. Even with Drake in a featured role, Edmonds should still see at least five touches per game, primarily in the passing game.

Justin Jackson (ADP: 53); Joshua Kelley, Los Angeles Chargers (ADP: 67)

While Austin Ekeler is no doubt an elite pass-catching running back, there’s still a bit of a question as to whether he deserves to be a primary ball-carrier. Jackson saw limited work last year as he dealt with injuries, but while on the field, he excelled, carrying the ball 29 times for 200 yards, good for a whopping 6.9 yards-per-carry. Kelley, meanwhile, was a fourth-round pick of the team this year and is getting great reviews from camp. Whoever appears to have the leg up on the No. 2 running back spot in San Diego will be an intriguing fantasy asset to monitor.

Damien Harris, New England Patriots (ADP: 59)

Sony Michel, the Patriots lead back, had leg surgery in the offseason and is coming off an extremely disappointing year where he averaged just 3.7 yards-per-carry. James White will of course return for his pass-catching specialist role, but Harris could find himself in a position where he’s the team’s lead ball carrier, which could make him a gem in an offense that loves to run.

Darrynton Evans, Tennessee Titans (ADP: 69)

A third-round pick of the Titans this year, Evans could become the pass-catching specialist to complement Derrick Henry. His upside is limited as long as Henry is healthy, but he appears to be a unique asset amongst the Titans’ current personnel.

Ito Smith, Atlanta Falcons (ADP: 71)

If Todd Gurley struggles with injuries or efficiency, then Smith appears most likely to be the beneficiary. Smith quietly had a very productive year while on the field in 2019, averaging 4.8 yards-per-carry.

Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens (ADP: 76)

Dobbins is the more exciting Ravens running back behind Mark Ingram as he’s an extremely talented second-round pick, however, don’t sleep on Edwards. Over 270 carries the past two years, Edwards has averaged 5.3 yards-per-carry. Due to this high degree of success, it’s probably more likely that he’s the next man up in Baltimore rather than his rookie teammate.

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