It seems like it was just yesterday that the consensus No. 1 overall pick in redraft PPR leagues was Antonio Brown. Hell, in 2016 four of the first five picks in fantasy football were wide receivers, as Odell Beckham, DeAndre Hopkins, and Julio Jones accompanied Brown on most top-five draft boards — and rightfully so. Brown and Jones both had ridiculous 2015 campaigns with 136 receptions each and over 1,800 yards receiving. It seemed that NFL teams were going away from a true “bell cow” running back and the Zero RB strategy gained prominence.
However, it was the wide receiver draft class of 2014 that really changed the game for a few years. That year produced impactful fantasy relevant rookie seasons for Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks, Kelvin Benjamin, Martavis Bryant, Davante Adams, and Beckham (just to name a few). The NFL was becoming a passing league, and the talent of the wide receiver position was taking over. This is how the Zero Running Back philosophy was instilled in the minds of fantasy football players, fans, and experts alike for the last few seasons. Wide receivers were more reliable and consistent than a guy who was splitting touches out of the backfield. In 2015, there were only five backs that had more than 250 carries. In 2017, there were eight, and five of those eight running backs had more than 50 receptions.
The workhorse running back has made a comeback, and it is not a coincidence that each year since 2014 there have been studs at the position produced from the NFL draft. In 2015, it was Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon. Ezekiel Elliott was drafted in 2016, and last season Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Dalvin Cook, and Leonard Fournette added to the depth of elite players at the running back position.
In current Best Ball drafts for the 2018 season, the ADP has switched completely from the 2016 mentality. What a difference two years makes. According to Fantasyfootballcalculator.com, 10 of the first 13 players off the board are running backs in PPR leagues. People are actually losing their minds and going coo-coo for cocoa puffs over the running back. That’s why this year for Best Ball and redraft leagues, there is wide receiver value early in drafts that has not been seen in a long time.
Let’s make a case for Zero RB while exploring how it compares to other strategies for redraft leagues. We’ll also talk a little Best Ball as we try to figure out how to get the most bang for your buck on draft day.
To Zero RB…
The rules of Zero RB state that a running back should not be drafted until the fifth round, but can this be done in 2018? Usually for Zero RB to work in all of its glory, there have to be a couple of running backs that drafters should be targeting and can feel comfortable with. The idea is to avoid injury or busts with high draft capital on running backs and stack up on target monsters and touchdown machines at wide receiver. A realistic scenario this season in redraft leagues — per ADP — is to have Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, and Davante Adams with the first three picks. The WR1 in Brown is a perennial top-five wideout, while Evans and Adams have that kind of upside. Larry Fitzgerald, T.Y. Hilton. Demaryius Thomas, Brandin Cooks, Juju Smith-Schuster, and Julian Edelman would all be up for grabs potentially in the next couple of rounds, giving a team an advantage at the position.
The disadvantage, of course, is that most of the teams in your league will have a running back on their team that can potentially win weeks. If 10 of the first 13 guys being drafted are running backs, then those guys are being drafted with the expectation of a large share of touches. Saquon Barkley’s ADP is 1.08, and the hope for anyone drafting him at that price is that he gets 300 touches. That sort of workload is harder to find in the fifth round, but it is certainly there. Lamar Miller is a name that makes most fantasy football experts want to vomit in their mouths, but his ADP is 5.01 and he is the clear No. 1 running back in an offense that is led by Deshaun Watson. Miller had 274 touches in 2017 and will most likely see a similar workload next season. With a healthy Watson, he should be able to exceed last season’s RB14 finish in 2018. There is your RB1 for a Zero RB roster that is absolutely loaded at wide receiver.
Miller is a good candidate for the Zero RB strategy, but there are a few others that fit the bill for 250-300 touches. Frank Gore left 290 touches in Indianapolis, and Marlon Mack has been deemed the centerpiece of the backfield for the Colts. His current ADP is 8.01, but that should rise once he is named the starter. However, the best way to destroy opponents with a Zero RB strategy is to hit on a rookie that figures to get a majority workload. Kareem Hunt and Dalvin Cook were grabbed in the third or fourth rounds last season and provided value. The former led the league in rushing, while the latter was on pace to be an RB1 before he went down with a torn ACL. Royce Freeman, Ronald Jones, Rashaad Penny and Kerryon Johnson are all in store for a potential sizeable workloads in 2018. Narrowing in on one that has the best chance to break out could be the difference-maker in putting together a championship season.
Not To Zero RB…
Okay, so maybe everyone isn’t that crazy. There is a reason why Julio Jones, who has put up at least 1,400 yards since 2014, has an ADP of 2.02. Passing up on an elite running back presents risk. It is about minimizing that risk in opportune situations during a draft. With that in mind, sometimes having no strategy at all is, in fact, the best method for success. If you are dead set on drafting a running back at pick 11 and Odell Beckham is there, you should probably draft Odell Beckham if you think he is the best player available. However, if Kareem Hunt is there and he is the best player on your board, take him.
Taking the best player available in rounds two through four will more times than not be a wide receiver with the hoard of running backs going off the board to start. This presents a One RB strategy, which can be advantageous for drafters who can begin a draft feeling secure at perhaps the most important position in fantasy football. This strategy will work best when drafting within the first five picks. Leveon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, or Todd Gurley present the least amount of risk in terms of touches assuming perfect health. Grabbing one and then drafting a receiver in the next three or four rounds provides a strategy that can make a team fully capable for big weeks on a consistent basis from the WR while having an advantage at the RB1. A.J. Green’s ADP is 2.09, and Mike Evans’ is 2.10. One of them could drop to the third round if a quarterback or a tight end go in the first two rounds (it happens in home leagues everywhere). David Johnson, Green, and Evans to potentially go along with Larry Fitzgerald in the fourth and Juju in the fifth? Sign me up.
Best Ball Fever
A Best Ball standard scoring roster is one QB, two RBs, three WRs, one TE, and one FLEX. The best of each of those roster spots will be played that week of the available 18 players on a team. “One RB” works best in this format, and there is more leverage to wait longer in the draft to grab the second running back. Often with Zero RB, after the fourth round the “uh-ohs” start creeping in once the running back pool thins out. With One RB in Best Ball, no matter how many running backs go off the board, your team has its workhorse and can load up at a position that takes up a potential four roster spots. Best Ball drafts are more practical for players like Tyreek Hill or T.Y. Hilton that are boom or bust, and there a lot of those type of players from rounds 2-7.
Going running back heavy does not provide much value in Best Ball, as an injury or a busted season will destroy a team’s chances at success in a league format in which rosters cannot be replenished. A scenario where a team drafts Gurley, Devonta Freeman, and Jerick McKinnon could blow up in the drafter’s face if two of those guys don’t pan out for whatever reason.
Best Ball is a format that makes fantasy football even more unpredictable. Drafting wide receiver-heavy early in Best Ball leagues will help minimize risk while giving a drafter a better probability at hitting at the premium position of the format.