Zero RB Strategy: Why It's Now a Viable Fantasy Football Draft Approach

Fabs has altered his draft strategy and explains why you should too.
Oct 1, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) warms up before the game at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 1, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) warms up before the game at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports / Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

I have been a running back truther for as long as I can remember playing fantasy football. My first-ever draft pick came back in 1998 when I took Terrell Davis. I later traded for then-rookie Fred Taylor. Can you say championship?

Since then, I’ve focused my early-round picks on runners. From Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk, and LaDainian Tomlinson in the past to the likes of Christian McCaffrey and Breece Hall in more recent years, getting a few stud runners was always at the forefront of my fantasy roster build.

So, when the “Zero RB Strategy” was introduced by Shawn Siegele back in 2013, I scoffed. This philosophy is based on completely avoiding running backs in the first five rounds. Instead, fantasy fans load up on wide receivers, a tight end, and a quarterback before turning their attention to the running back position. To me, it made zero sense and gave me zero chance to win. After all, backs have long been the lifeblood of fantasy football!

Why the hell would I avoid that?

In my opinion, the Zero RB strategy required a lot of luck. You had to hope at least a few of the backs you drafted after the first five rounds panned out, and many times those lottery tickets ended up on the waiver wire. If you didn’t land a breakout or sleeper runner on the wire either, well, your backfield was likely trash. In this scenario, a bad backfield was a fantasy death sentence.

Then, the 2022 season happened.

A few of the running backs we’ve leaned on for years, like Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott, Dalvin Cook, and Leonard Fournette (to name a few), saw their totals decline at some level. The top overall pick, Jonathan Taylor, finished as the RB32, making it the third straight year the consensus top pick was a runner who failed to meet expectations. We also saw a further increase in the number of backfield committees emerge around the league.

At the same time, wide receivers thrived.

Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, and CeeDee Lamb were among the young wideouts who were rising up. A.J. Brown, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith (to name a few) also thrived for fantasy fans. And while the position isn’t completely clear of injuries (Cooper Kupp), it’s far less likely a receiver will suffer a long-term ailment compared to a running back. That’s part of the reason we are seeing so many runners holding out over current contractual issues while No. 2 and 3 wide receivers are getting their bags.

This has been the perfect storm, and it’s created a huge shift in the importance of wideouts. In the high-stakes world of the NFFC, where some of the best fantasy players play for oodles of dough, eight of the top 12 overall picks are wideouts. What’s more, 17 of the first 36 picks (top three rounds) are receivers. It’s a different world, folks. And backs, to a degree, have been left behind.

When we include these factors, plus the emergence of several top-tier quarterbacks and tight ends as top-50 overall choices, we’re now seeing running backs getting pushed down draft boards. It’s created a scenario where (I can’t believe I’m saying this), the Zero RB Strategy is a more viable approach. In fact, I have even used it in the last two years.

Ja'Marr Chas
Dec 16, 2023; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (1) catches a pass during warmups before the game against the Minnesota Vikings at Paycor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports / Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Do I use this all the time?

No. I prefer an altered version where I draft three wideouts in the first four rounds. The other two picks are likely running backs. I’ve also used the “Hero RB” philosophy, which has managers grab a running back in Round 1 and then go with non-running backs in each of the next four rounds. It all depends on where you’re drafting and the flow of the draft, of course, but I’ve pushed runners down in my top 200 regardless.

That doesn’t mean I’m avoiding the position altogether, of course. Besides CMC, I’d love to get Bijan Robinson, Breece Hall or Jahmyr Gibbs in the first round. But when you look at the ADP data, there are more elite or great-to-good runners on the board in the middle rounds of drafts.

Right now, you can draft productive backs like Kamara, Rhamondre Stevenson, James Conner and D’Andre Swift outside of the top 50. Breakout/sleeper runners, who used to go in the top 50 when managers would reach at the position, are also on the board much later. This season, that list includes the likes of Zamir White, Jonathon Brooks and Zack Moss, who are all available outside the top 80 based on the current ADP data at the NFFC. Heck, you can even get Nick Chubb outside the top 90. I know he’s coming off a knee injury, but he’s been been picked much higher in past years.

This strategy isn’t for everyone. Heck, I’ve even said I don’t follow it to a tee. It might be my long love affair with running backs that keeps me from avoiding the position with each of my first five picks. With that said, I am far more likely to have just one runner and three and maybe four wide receivers on my roster with my first four to five picks than I would have five years ago.

Don’t be afraid to make that switch to your draft strategies in PPR formats either. Offenses around the NFL have evolved, and fantasy managers should follow. I did. Much like Jedi master Yoda told Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, “you must unlearn what you have learned.”


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Michael Fabiano

MICHAEL FABIANO

Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Formerly of CBS Sports, NFL Network and SirusXM, Michael was the first fantasy analyst to appear on one of the four major TV networks. His work can now be found on SI, Westwood One Radio and the Bleav Podcast Network.