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Strategy Roundtable: Is Zero-RB Drafting Too Popular?

Footballguys staff members offer their thoughts on the popularity of Zero-RB strategy

Our Matt Waldman was on an island several years ago with Upside Down Drafting. That theory has been dubbed Zero-RB Draftng by the masses is now all the rage. Is this strategy still viable? What happens if everyone goes Zero-RB?

Matt Waldman: As Paul Charchian says, "Do the Opposite!"

I've been wondering all season whether this strategy has reached the tipping point. When viable feature backs are available after the first 6-7 picks, it's a good indication that the strategy has become conventional. Once something is publicly accepted as conventional, it's no longer a safe strategy when in competition with others. It's why I have often advocated an early-round RB variation to the strategy.

And when you get down to the nuts and bolts of strategic thinking, it's not a great idea to follow one to the letter like it's a baking recipe. Unliked the controlled environment of a kitchen, there are too many variables that you cannot control in a fantasy draft. A strategy should be a guideline and one of the most important tenets of any strategy I've ever laid out to readers is that they need to adjust to what's happening around them.

My suggestion this year--and every year--is to have multiple plans at your disposal based on your draft spot and the choices that your competition makes. If you're drafting early and you suspect that much of your competition is adopting this strategy, then you have to make a choice pretty early because you're setting the tone and lack enough data to wait and react: start your draft with the traditional strategy, use the early-RB variation, or abandon the strategy. This involves understanding which early-round RBs you value, where you think you can get them and make adjustments.

You will have to eschew ADP guidelines and reach a round or two earlier for players you value higher than most and believe in your choices. After all, winning teams are filled with the best players whereas ADP is a ranking of the most popular players.

If you're drafting in the middle spots, you have more flexibility for values to fall to you and don't have to make that early strategic choice. And if you're drafting at the end, you have the luxury to see others' moves and make your decisions from there. Personally, I prefer to go with this strategy in these to ranges of spots because I began using the Upside Down Strategy as a counterpunch, not a mainstream idea.

Ryan Hester: I do think Zero RB has its salient points. First, receivers are becoming more and more valuable relative to running backs due to the pass-heavy nature of the NFL and the committee approach employed in the backfields of many NFL teams. Second, running backs get hurt far more often. Benefitting from that is a massive advantage over your competition. However, completely eschewing an entire position (and, with that, plenty of value) seems like a faulty plan if everyone else is doing the same thing.

Because of this, I recently wrote an article called "Single RB" here at Footballguys.com about the Zero RB phenomenon. Boiled down to its simplest form, my take was that if you can't get one of the top three wide receivers, you shouldn't reach for tier-two and tier-three players at that position just because of a position-specific draft theory. In that case, I'd rather have a top-tier running back. Following that "stud" rusher, use the natural injury turnover to your advantage (as Zero RB suggests) and focus on receivers. Grab late-round talents and "lottery ticket" types at running back to play RB2-by-Committee. It's both a hedge against the "en vogue" theory and also a way to grab an elite player when the chance presents itself.

Chad Parsons: Draft strategies are all about the players involved. Zero Running Back or Late-Round 'Fill in the position here' or stud quarterback theory or any other label CAN be successful with the correct player targets. Each year is different in terms of players, their respective cost, and ultimately developing draft plans based on those two dynamics.

For Zero Running Back this year, I see Charles Sims and DeAngelo Williams as vital players to execute. Sims is outside RB30 and was an RB2 last year despite Doug Martin being healthy all season and having a career year. Williams offers a month-long stint as the lead back on a high-powered offense, a welcome runway of early-season production as a late-round-drafting owner can mine other options from the waiver wire.

Instead of labeling draft plans, I prefer to discuss player valuations in relation to each other. I love going wide receivers early, or a blended approach, but David Johnson in mid-Round 1? I am absolutely interested. Mark Ingram in Round 3 beyond wide receivers like Amari Cooper and Brandin Cooks? Once again, I am interested. The draft plans are more an exercise to see worst case scenarios for each position - as I did with mock draft posts earlier this offseason with Zero Running Back and Zero Wide Receiver.

Chris Kuczynski: Has the Zero RB strategy become "too popular"? Perhaps. Does this mean you should avoid using it to be "different" for the sake of being different (the premise of Zero RB in the first place). Absolutely not.

The main weakness of any draft strategy is being inflexible and "sticking to the script" instead of adapting to the draft and taking advantage of value and best player available. This it true if you are drafting more traditionally, going zero RB, or anything in between. Over the last several years, I am a firm believer in a WR top-heavy draft. To me, this is simply going for the group of players that has the highest floor with nearly guaranteed double digit targets and are "game flow" proof- meaning regardless of the score of the game, they will continue to be used. These players are the top 15-20 WRs that are capable of putting up WR1 numbers. This cannot be said about elite RBs who may be used less in the 2nd half of a losing effort. Another thing to really factor in here is the "bust" rate of 1st and 2nd round RBs. In most years, half of these players will not live up to their ADP expectations due to either injuries, poor performance by them or their offense, or the emergence of other players at the position that eats into their carries.

In the draft, my first two rounds are "scripted" unless someone like Gurley falls to the end of the 1st and my top 6-7 WR targets are gone (very unlikely), or a player like David Johnson, Elliot or Gronk fall to the mid 2nd round (also unlikely). In most drafts that aren't made up of exclusively Zero RB owners, I can grab two WR1s that I will never take out of my lineup except for bye weeks. My 3rd round pick is likely to be a WR, because most leagues start 3 or have flex positions, but again, if a RB like Lamar Miller, Mark Ingram or Doug Martin falls to the 3rd round, I'm not going to just ignore their value- I would take them.

Here is where I start to be flexible in the 4th round. I do like Ryan Hester's idea of "One RB" that gives you one solid producer, then go with a committee for your RB2, but I don't necessarily want to take that RB at the start of the draft- I like it at this 4th round spot because this is where you start to see players slipping when everyone who already took a RB or two panicking to fill what little is left in the WR2/WR3 range as their starting WR.

Strict Zero RB strategy might make you wait even longer to start considering RBs, which may leave you with bottom of the barrel RB2s or difficult-to-predict production in a time share situation. I on the other hand will look to get an anchor RB for the position in the 4th round- this will be someone who has the chance to approach RB1 numbers, but is not what you would consider in the first couple waves of RBs. These players include Matt Forte, CJ Anderson, Eddie Lacy, Carlos Hyde, or Dion Lewis. If I can get one of these guys, I am confident in my ability to draft RBs in bulk in the middle rounds to fill my RB2 position, because my top 3 WRs I can set and forget, then go for a bunch of WR fliers in later rounds. While I'm filling my roster with RBs, then eventually my QB, the state of WR market is either a little too late on players that will produce consistently for you, or reaching too early on high upside guys that won't help your team right away.

I know last year should not be considered typical for the RB position and many may be overreacting, but the only player at the position that was drafted relatively high, who was still healthy and performing well was Adrian Peterson. Personally, I started two RBs in my championship matchup who were not even on my roster before the fantasy playoffs started. My top WRs I drafted, however, stayed in my lineup all year and there was no need to scramble on the waiver wire or pull my hair out about who to start out of a group of WR3s/WR4s.

Andy Hicks: You have to chase the fantasy points and has been proven lately, the NFL has evolved into a passing league. Those that invest too heavily in running backs early are getting burnt and losing leagues. There will always be backs though that are worth investing early picks on. A lot will depend on your draft spot and a lot will depend on who has been taken before you. As Matt mentioned, if people are doing one thing, do the opposite. One of the old adages of fantasy football is to not chase a run. You usually end up getting inferior players in comparison to everyone else.

The most important thing is to have a roster that has the maximum amount of projected points as possible. Where you draft them is irrelevant, as long as you follow the key principles of VBD.

Jason Wood: I've been beating the drum against Zero RB all offseason. Just as we all pivoted away from "RB/RB/RB" strategies that dominated the early days of fantasy, we've now gone too far the other way. I cannot believe how conventional it's become to pass on running backs in the early rounds. Last year's historically bad showing by the RB position has only exacerbated the strategy and frankly it's almost a guarantee it will backfire on most this year.

Chris Feery: I agree with Jason. Zero-RB certainly has its merits, but when everyone and their brother is talking about it as if it’s the holy grail of strategies, it’s time to look elsewhere for a perceived edge. To paraphrase a quote from Warren Buffett: Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful. That’s interesting food for thought in a number of fantasy football related situations, and it definitely applies here.

Justin Bonnema: The problem with "Doing The Opposite" or "Zero RB" is they both push an "absolute" draft strategy into situations that are not absolute. If you're absolutely sure that A) your league is going to leave a few good running backs on the table while you completely ignore the position for five or six rounds, and/or B) you absolutely know that those running backs are going to blossom into confident starts weekly, then by all means, go for it.

But that's generally not the case. Not all of your league-mates will choose to wait on running backs like they do kickers, and it's a very difficult position to predict. In contrast, Zero RB (or whatever) is the easiest strategy to identify, and thereby, the easiest to prepare for.

It's better to attack the wide receiver and running back positions with equal bias and aggression, which is admittedly rather old school. Investing all your early-to-middle draft picks on one position makes no sense. Sort of like how it doesn't matter (as much as we assume) who your First Round pick is; it only matters how you balance him with the remainder of your draft choices.

If only balance drafting had a clever name. Like, Balance wins Championships (or whatever). Nonetheless, it's fantasy football yoga; of which the basic premise is to never overexert yourself at any position. Be flexible. And never allow absolutes into your thought process.

Justin Howe: Yes, it's become the norm in my drafts. And it's really pulled down WR value over the early rounds. But, by the letter of the theory, that's okay - the goal is to stock early WRs, regardless of whether they're projected to be great or not. So the strategy itself is pretty well insulated. The idea is that, since even the WR30 or so (say Allen Hurns) will outscore the RB24 still on the board (say Matt Jones), the WR is the play to make, because he'll likely score more points regardless of the "value" left at the positions.

Still, it's a reminder that our drafts - any drafts, regardless of stated strategy - need to be fluid. If the value vanishes by Rd4 (as it often does), take advantage of certain guys at other positions that have slipped. I can't tell you how many MFL10s I've been able to grab Russell Wilson or Travis Kelce in the 7th, or Frank Gore in the 8th, or Charles Sims in the 9th.

Mark Wimer: I'll reply with something Bob Harris once told me - don't draft last year's stats, find this year's studs! As Matt mentioned earlier, flexibility is key and so is being willing to draft according to your board and not ADP. I have often 'reached' in various drafts, and I don't let the usual chatter and teasing bother me. I am in the playoffs more often than not, and I am almost always in contention for the playoffs. Just shrug off the criticism and stick to your guns, folks.

And remember, this hobby/profession/obsession is supposed to be fun, so - have fun with it!

Devin Knotts: This is a strategy that is very league dependant. It is difficult to say if it is too popular, as you need to judge your league and if they're still going quarterback/running back heavy then you probably still want to go zero-RB.

I anticipate that for the majority of leagues it will become too popular this year as almost all you hear now is to wait on running backs and to stock up on wide receivers. I completely disagree with this strategy if the vast majority of your league is doing it as you will then be able to get really great value on elite running backs. There are only a handful of running backs that you can completely be comfortable with every week to produce, and with this scarcity creates a significant advantage over your competition if you are able to get those players at a discounted price. Even going RB-RB if the value is there is a viable strategy, as the wide receivers that you're able to get in rounds 3-5 are still very solid players.

John Mamula: I agree with Devin that this strategy is league dependant. League scoring and required starting positions should also be considered when formulating an overall drafting strategy and putting together your draft board. If everyone starts going zero-RB in your draft, you need to quickly evaluate your options and the tiers of players at each position. Based on league scoring and required starters, you should target the best player available in each round. A good plan is to put in the research prior to your draft and to participate in as many mock drafts as possible, especially if you know your draft position. After each mock draft is completed, review your team to see if you prefer a zero-RB team or a mix of high end RB and WR. In most of the PPR mock drafts that I have participated in, I have found that if you wait on the WR position until after the 2nd round this season, you are at a major disadvantage at the WR position from the start.