Is The Zero RB Strategy Lost After 2016?

Eduardo Miceli

If you’ve been a fantasy football player for a few seasons, you’ve probably already tried out some different draft strategies. Prioritizing running backs, picking that special quarterback earlier than the third round are some of the experimentations all fantasy players go through.

One of the most popular strategies before the 2016 season was the “zero RB” strategy. It basically consists of not focusing on running backs while your league mates are going heavy for running backs with their early picks. You can focus on elite wide receivers, that are, as a lot of fantasy analysts and players say, more reliable than running backs. This strategy gained a lot of traction after the 2015 season, a year dominated by astonishing seasons by Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., DeAndre Hopkins, Brandon Marshall, Allen Robinson… the list goes on. It was particularly popular in PPR formats, naturally. However, the 2016 season brought back that glow that running backs appeared to have lost in Fantasy Football. David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, DeMarco Murray, Ezekiel Elliott and LeSean McCoy were probably amongst the most reliable fantasy players in the past season. With the resurgence of the stud running backs, has the “zero RB” strategy been lost?

I must say I was never a huge fan of the zero running backs approach. My default position for fantasy drafts is to go with the best player available, even if that means leaving a need to be addressed later. You can eventually trade that ‘spare’ player later; it’s usually a better call than settling for the lesser player in a position of “need”. With that in mind, the main reason I don’t go zero running back is simple, position scarcity. It’s easier to find a serviceable wide receiver on waivers than a running back. After all, there are more than one on the field at any given time, and since the NFL has become a passing league, you can find a productive receiver on waivers that won’t sink your team. The same process is way harder if you’re searching for a running back; there is usually one running back on the field on a play, and they are guaranteed to earn the rushing yards if the team runs the ball. For instance, you can have Antonio Brown on the field in all snaps of a certain game, but he might not even be targeted. If Le’Veon Bell’s on the field, he’s the one getting the rushing yards if the Pittsburgh Steelers choose a running play. That’s a convoluted way to say that if the running back is the starter, he has a more solid floor than a starting wide receiver. And if that running back is, let’s say, Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, or Ezekiel Elliott, they have a gigantic production floor.

Zero RB is Circumstantial

You can’t blindly apply the zero running back principle and hope to come out of the draft with a killer team. This strategy only makes sense if your league is leaning towards a running back approach in the early round. If some of your league mates are also trying out the zero running back strategy, you’ll soon realize that you won’t be getting the amazing wide receivers you thought you would when you chose that approach. You’ll probably end up getting steals for running backs – if your league is aiming for receivers, you’ll end up with a lot of depth at the running back position if you read correctly into that trend.

With that in mind, you can’t say that zero running back is dead as a strategy. It’s a bold and interesting approach, and it should provide better results this year than in the past season. The reason is simple. Since running backs are back as hot fantasy commodities, it’s only natural for fantasy owners to go after them in the early rounds. Last year, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., and Julio Jones were almost internet-wide consensus for the first three picks. This year, Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, and Ezekiel Elliott must be at least in consideration for the first picks. It’s going to be interesting to see how wide receivers will be evaluated among the running backs.

The running back position has, once again, become a hot fantasy commodity. The demand for those stud RBs early in drafts might make the zero RB strategy even more effective. If you want to give it a try, just pay attention to your league mates and make sure you’ll be the one with the stellar wide receivers!

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