Was the Zero RB Draft Strategy effective last season? (2023 Fantasy Football)

“Zero RB” is a strategy that has long polarized the fantasy football community.

My guess is that the first time you were ever introduced to fantasy football, you were confused as to why running backs are generally the most coveted players. Quarterbacks are the most important player on the field, so why is the first round of my fantasy draft mostly RBs?

Well, you soon learned (or didn’t, if you’re my uncle and permanently drafted Tom Brady in the first round regardless of who told him he’d be available five rounds later) that RBs have generally had the most opportunities to score fantasy points based on standard-ish scoring formats and roster structures.

Is that still true though? In a sense no. We’re seeing by-committee running back approaches take over the league, often leaving good running backs on the bench when their teams are in the red zone. Passing offenses have become more efficient, leading certain receivers’ workloads to become more bankable than their running back counterparts.

That brings us to Zero RB.

Did Zero RB work in 2022?

The zero-RB strategy in standard leagues (12-team, PPR, etc.) is generally defined as not taking a running back with one of your first three picks AND not taking more than one out of your first five or six choice.

So – did it work in 2022?

If you drafted Justin Jefferson, Travis Kelce and Patrick Mahomes early and grabbed Rhamondre Stevenson in round seven, well, I’d say it worked out.

If you snagged Cooper Kupp, Kyle Pitts, and Lamar Jackson early and used your flyers up the middle on Antonio Gibson, Rashaad Penny, and Chase Edmonds, then no, your season probably went up in flames.

Of the top twelve running backs drafted last season, according to historical average draft position data, only five of them returned that value: Austin Ekeler, Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook and Nick Chubb.

So when should I use a zero RB strategy?

I would recommend it if your draft doesn’t get you a running trade. If Ekeler drops to pick seven – please pull the trigger. If Saquon Barkley falls to the middle of the second round, of course take him. Outside of an extremely small list, however, I wouldn’t recommend reaching for a running back.

Our small list should be talented, automatic 20+ touches per play guys. This year for me it’s McCaffrey, Jonathan Taylor and Ekeler. Nor do I blame you if you disagree.

This is why zero RB strategies are so attractive. We could debate for days what Taylor’s role in the Colts’ offense looks like with a new quarterback and head coach. Tyreek Hill, on the other hand, I don’t think any of us are questioning his role in Miami.

Now, more than ever, we shouldn’t be afraid to draft receivers or TEs like Kelce and Mark Andrews early. 20 years ago, the NFL’s average completion percentage was 59.6%. 10 years ago it was 60.9%. Five years ago it was 62.1%. Last season it was 64.2%.

Delivery attempts per games aren’t necessarily higher, but passer ratings and passing yards per games are generally up and interceptions are down. Offenses complete more passes and hold drives longer, making receivers more valuable in fantasy football. If we can land a player who is likely to lead a good offense in receptions, I’d probably take them over a running back who isn’t one of the three I just mentioned.

Another wrinkle of a zero RB strategy is taking a quarterback or tight end early. The best way to win a zero RB draft is by taking Kelce or Andrews with a reasonable pick and pairing them with a pair of studly wide receivers. Kelce and Andrews are as close to sure things as we get, and landing one of them gives us a massive positional advantage over 8-10 of our opponents who have to choose between Tyler Higbee and Cole Kmet every week.

Zero RB strategies are most effective in leagues smaller than 12 teams. This is mainly because of the positional advantage Kelce, Andrews and a big QB gives you. In an eight or ten team league, there are enough solid WRs and RBs to go around. That’s not necessarily the case with TEs and QBs.

RBs need to consider targeting after round five

Javonte Williams (DEN): ECR – RB 27

Williams has been hampered by injuries, but there is no doubt that he has looked fantastic on the court. Assuming he is fully healthy to start the season, his competition for leading RB is Samaje Perine. Give me all of William’s shares.

AJ Dillon (GB): ECR – RB 34

With Aaron Jones, Dillon is at worst a 50/50 split guy in a run-heavy offense. If Jones were to miss a game for some reason, Dillon becomes an RB1.

Elijah Mitchell (SF): ECR – RB 41

Just because McCaffrey had a great season doesn’t mean he’ll avoid injury forever. A nod to McCaffrey and Mitchell, as the 49ers RB1, becomes a fantasy asset.

Chase Brown (CIN): ECR – RB 79

Here’s your super duper budget option. Brown was drafted in the fifth round and his competition behind Joe Mixon is Trayveon Williams and Chris Evans. If Mixon misses any time, I’m betting on Brown to get the first crack at earning the lead role.

At Illinois, Brown was a home run threat with some tantalizing potential. I was a fan of him in the draft process and love where he is right now for fantasy purposes, assuming Cincinnati doesn’t add another body to the RB room.

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