What is Zero RB?

Zero RB is a method of drafting whereby you bypass the running back position entirely, early in drafts. Instead of hyper-valuing the most popular every-down running backs, you focus your initial attention on high-end receivers and lean into the RB position later in your draft. This allows you to use the higher injury tendencies, the scarcity of true workhorse RBs in the NFL, and the general chaos of the RB position to your advantage.  

There are no set rules for how to employ the Zero RB method. However, a good rule of thumb when using a Zero RB structure in your drafts is to avoid the position until after round 5, but some drafters will expand this to round 8 and beyond. The reason for this is simple, avoiding RBs early allows you to load up on receiving studs and get exposure to some of the highest upside QB/WR and QB/TE stack combos in the league. 

Who created the Zero RB strategy?

The most commonly cited creator of Zero RB is Shawn Siegele who coined the phrase back in 2013. At the time, the strategy was considered more radical and mostly applied to season-long redraft leagues. 

The Zero RB draft strategy (and other structural drafting methods like Hyperfragile and Anchor RB were created as a way to counteract the myth that value drafting (or simply taking the best player on the board when it is your turn) is the best way to draft a fantasy football team. 

The idea goes something like this:

Since football is a highly volatile sport, choosing the best player available on the board when it is your turn to pick is a much harder task than people make it out to be – and something most fantasy football participants are terrible at (even though we all like to think we’re great at it). Using a method like Zero RB in your drafts allows you to create your teams based on a structure (e.g. targeting receivers early, waiting on RBs till after round five) and allows you to avoid having to make purely player-based or value-based decisions at every pick. 

The term Zero RB is far more commonly cited now than it was back in 2014, but it’s still a method that few people actually implement, even in the massively popular best ball contests available throughout the industry. 

Despite growing evidence that Zero RB is one of the more successful methods to employ in a best ball draft, we can see from the above graphic that less than 5% of the teams in the $3M Underdog Mania Best Ball II contest from the 2021 NFL season actually utilized the method when creating teams. 

Why does Zero RB work?

The Zero RB draft strategy works because it takes advantage of the fact that the RB position tends to be one of the most volatile in football. Injuries, coaching decisions, and general performance spikes, or performance regression, can lead to shifts on the depth charts and in player usage throughout the year. 

Running backs have also been cited to have some of the highest “long-term” injury potential in the league (e.g. knee and leg injuries like ACL tears and Lisfranc sprains). However, the volatility of the RB position goes beyond injury proneness. Workhorse RBs are simply a dying breed in the NFL with more teams looking to a committee approach seemingly every year. 


Underdog BBM 3 Zero rb advance rates

Between 2012 to 2014 there was an average of 11 RBs who took 250 or more carries during the season. Conversely, between 2019-2021 the average number of RBs who took 250 or more carries dipped to five. For fantasy purposes, this lack of volume also means that, over time, fewer and fewer of the top-ranked running backs will produce monster seasons. 

Why volume is important for fantasy RBs?

Running back tends to be a more volume-based position for several reasons. Most RBs don’t accumulate targets or PPR points at the same rate that receivers do. Additionally, yards on a play-by-play basis are simply harder to come by for RBs. The top RB in 2021 averaged 6.3 yards per carry vs. 17.9 yards per catch for the top wide receiver. Running backs need volume to thrive and, since they tend to have far smaller receiving roles (there are exceptions to this) than WRs – or even some TEs – without volume they become more volatile and less reliable fantasy players. 

Since teams are simply managing the running back position differently these days, it’s also led to an increase in the upside probability of late-round RBs. This is especially true later in the season when the wear and tear of the NFL tend to cause max chaos with rosters. This is important for best ball as those later round RBs now have more chances to pay off with potential spike weeks for the playoffs (generally Week 13 and onward), spike weeks which will help lead lineups to higher finishes in these massive field best ball tournaments. 

This later season tendency can be seen perfectly with some data (via Michael Dubner at RotoViz.com) from last year’s Best Ball Mania II on Underdog Fantasy:


Underdog BBM 2 advancement rates

While the Zero RB method wasn’t as reliable as some other structural methods, in-season (it only had a 14.4% playoff success rate), the end-game upside with it was is evident. When the chips were on the line (Weeks 14-17), the Zero RB lineups had the most success and landed a higher rate of finals appearances than any other drafting method employed in the event. Simply put, lineups that took a shot and put their faith in later-round RBs got rewarded with more success, when it mattered, later in the year. 

The depth of the WR position 

The other reason why the Zero RB draft structure works is due to the fact it's simply easier to pick upside players at wide receiver early in drafts. In 2021, the top-25 wide receivers in 0.5 PPR scoring landed 175.0 or more fantasy points. Conversely, only the top-21 running backs achieved that mark. This gap also widens considerably when we switch to 1.0 PPR scoring. 

As we can see below, courtesy of Rotviz.com, wide receivers taken in the early portions of the draft typically outproduce RBs as a group, year over year. 


While the top scorer at RB may eclipse the top scorers at other positions, the overall depth at wide receiver means that, for the early rounds of a draft, we’re selecting from a larger pool of studs – and thereby gaining a better chance of hitting on our selection.

Aug 28, 2021; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) warms up prior to the game against the Green Bay Packers at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Stacking

Taking wide receivers early also allows us to focus on stacking early. Stacking an elite WR with a QB (or elite TE with a QB) is one of the most important things we can accomplish in a best ball draft to set ourselves up for long-term success. Maximizing our best player’s best week, by pairing them with a teammate that they tend to have a strong correlation with (and most top-end WR/QB combos have a strong correlation), can give us access to monster weekly production that can then work to propel us to league and tournament titles in best ball. 


Targeting a late-round RB for Zero RB

There’s no set rule of what makes a late-round RB a good target. However, there are certain characteristics we should focus on to give ourselves a better shot at success. 

Uncertain backfields 

Running backs playing in ambiguous backfields, without a dominant starter, typically make for our best late-round targets. While there is often plenty of coach speak early in the season about workload and usage, the truth is that there is often only four to six RBs in the NFL, each season, with very defined workhorse-type roles – and even they could see their workloads reduced if performance, or a lack of team success, becomes an issue. The rest of the starting running backs in the NFL are either already in some kind of committee (and at risk of seeing their touches diminished) or playing with very shaky job security. 

For our late-round RB picks then we want to target plus athletes who are playing behind starters who we feel may be in for a performance dip, and at high risk of having their projected starting season, and volume cut into. In 2021, the best example of this, by far, was on the Atlanta Falcons, who went into the season proclaiming journeyman Mike Davis as their potential starter. Most bought into the hype, selecting Davis as a “safe” mid-to-high draft choice. We all know what happened next, as Davis flopped and eventually gave way to former first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson, who took over as starter early on and produced a legendary type of year (for a late-round RB). 

Receiving ability 

Patterson’s season was also helped by his receiving ability (he was drafted out of college as a receiver) and RBs with good receiving upside should also be high on our list of late-round targets – especially if on a poor team. As teams tend to pass more when they are down in games, a running back with better receiving skills than his back mates, on a bad team, could see a jump in usage any week – much like Patterson did in 2021. Good receiving skills also give an RB a better chance of staying in the team’s rotation, than a back who doesn’t have the same kind of skill. 

While there are plenty of different factors that can go into making a late-round RB appealing (receiving ability, pedigree, weak starter) the main types of characteristics we should be targeting, when looking at later-round RBs, are below:

  • Already in some kind of committee role, and playing behind or alongside a shaky veteran starter (even better if that starter is injury prone)
  • Pass catching ability that will allow him access to bigger weeks when his team’s passing volume spikes
  • Plus athletes who have shown a propensity for bigger plays or performances in college or pros 

When to use Zero RB?

Since the goal of avoiding RBs in the early rounds is to invest more in the heavy upside of WRs, it’s obvious that leagues where 1.0 PPR scoring is the norm are better suited for the Zero RB structure. However, the fact that Zero RB teams had the highest rate of advancement to the finals in the Underdog Fantasy Best ball Mania II tournament from last season – an event that uses half-point PPR scoring – also shows it can have success in other scoring formats as well. 


Best ball utilization over time

Ultimately, we also need to be flexible in what strategy we employ in our best ball drafts. Often what moves our competition makes in a draft can help determine what draft structure we should employ. For example, when the opening of your draft sees many of the top running backs like Christiaan McCafferyDalvin Cook, and Jonathan Taylor all fly off the board early, leaving little value or appealing options left among the remaining RB selections, it will open up an opportunity to grab multiple stud receivers and structure your draft around the Zero RB method. 


How to draft using the Zero RB strategy?

Zero RB is a structural method of drafting. Like most methods, it’s sometimes OK to slip out of the boundaries and be fluid based on your competition. 

Below is a general overview and key points associated with the Zero RB method, points that you should at least be mindful of when employing it in your best ball drafts:

  • As a general rule of thumb, a Zero RB structure means we do not select an RB until at least around five, but potentially even later. 
  • Early selections should be focused on elite receivers at WR and TE, with an eye to stacking them later with their QBs
  • Target late-round RBs
    • Looking for quantity over quality – will generally want to select five(or more) RBs to give yourself a better shot at hitting on a late-round selection
      • This number is also dependent on the roster rules of whatever site you are drafting on. 
    • Target RBs that are already in some kind of committee or have a fragile starter that could be easily bypassed
    • Pass catchers or plus athletes who have shown potential for big upside in college, pros, or at combine already
  • Allow your competition to dictate when you employ Zero RB
    • If people are overdrafting RBs early on, that’s often when it’s best to employ the Zero RB approach – this will be often as most drafters continue to overvalue RBs early

In-season management for Zero RB teams

If you are looking to use Zero RB as an approach in your season-long redraft leagues then there are a few other things to mention. Obviously, in redraft leagues, we have the ability to look at the waiver wire and make changes to our roster. If you drafted using Zero RB then you should be looking to make good use of your Faab and/or waiver priority to go after solid upside at RB when available. 

If an injury occurs to a starter, grabbing an RB from that team who could see his role increase from the waivers would be vitally important for your team given its heavy WR/TE roster makeup. 

A great example from 2021 was Sony Michel from the Los Angeles Rams. When Cam Akers went down in preseason to the Rams, many rushed to pickup or draft Darrell Henderson Jr.  However, Michel was a great stash and waiver target eventually who produced a couple of very solid weeks when Henderson endured injury, and performance issues of his own, later on. 

Like best ball, in redrafts, you should be focused on quantity over quality when taking RBs, and get used to going after as many “home run” plays as possible on the wire, especially early in the year.

Zero RB strategy in dynasty 

Since dynasty leagues often take a longer-term approach, Zero RB is also an excellent strategy to employ there as well. Bypassing older RBs in the early rounds and focusing on later round RBs with the same principles we listed above (fragile starter, good pass catcher, A+ upside if his role changes) is a good way to begin dynasty leagues and will potentially give your lineups excellent foundation at the receiver positions. 

One quirk about using the strategy in dynasty leagues though is to remember that it’s also OK to go after running backs in the yearly rookie draft. Since you loaded up on other receivers (and potentially TEs and QBs) during the startup, looking to grab upside at RB within the new batch of players being introduced only makes sense and will give you a good shot at building out a monster lineup over time. 

Zero RB strategy in best ball

As we mentioned above, the upside that Zero RB gives us makes it an ideal method to deploy in larger field best ball tournaments. However, since we don’t have any waiver wires or rookie drafts we can use to shore up our roster after the draft, it's important that we remain nimble while in our best ball drafts.

If running backs aren’t flying off the board early, we can adjust our strategy and look to other similar, and profitable, methods to employ instead. 


Zero RB method vs Anchor RB method 

One other method that has produced solid results in larger best ball tournaments is the Anchor RB method. Similar to Zero RB, Anchor RB has us focusing on loading up with receivers early in the draft. The main difference though is that instead of bypassing the RB position entirely in the first 5+ rounds, we are giving ourselves the leeway of selecting one high-end RB to “anchor” our lineups around. 

Most Anchor RB teams look like this:

  • Select one high-end RB in round one or two
  • Don’t draft another RB until AT LEAST round six 
  • Tend to max out at five to six RBs for the roster (assuming a 1QB/3WR/2RB/Flex lineup)

The appeal of the Anchor RB method is that it gives us a shot at landing on a potential league-leading type of player, who could deliver a legendary type of season – much like Jonathan Taylor did in 2021 when he bested the number two ranked RB Austin Ekeler by over 40.0 points for the year in half-point PPR scoring. 

This method has also proven to be successful in big tournaments like Underdog’s Best Ball Mania, and lineups using Anchor RB had a higher rate of making the playoffs in that event than the Zero RB strategy – although the Zero RB strategy lineups made the finals with more regularity. 

Nov 18, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; NFL New England Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson (38) straight arms Atlanta Falcons safety Duron Harmon (21) during the first quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports


Is Zero RB a good strategy, and when should you implement it?

Zero RB is one of a basket of strategies that you can use to structure your fantasy football drafts and get away from purely “value-based” drafting. While it remains a risky strategy that can blow up quickly if none of your later-round RBs hit, it has been proven to produce big upside more frequently than other methods – and produced the highest rate of finals appearance of any lineup construction in the Best Ball Mania II tournament on Underdog Fantasy last year. 

Since many of the best ball tournaments now have well over 50,000 participants (Best Ball Mania III on Underdog has an astounding 451,200 entries) taking risks with a strategy like Zero RB makes a ton of sense in these events where the goal is not just to cash, but to give ourselves a realistic chance at the top prize (in this case $2M). 


Underdog BBM 2 Utilization rate over time

As noted throughout the article, Zero RB also tends to work better when you’re in a draft where others are already hyper-valuing early-round RBs and allowing the more elite receivers to fall to lower positions. As such, often the best time to implement a Zero RB strategy is when you feel that you’re getting a better value on an available WR or TE with your first or second-round pick, than on any of the RBs left on the board. 

Zero RB then can be a great way to counteract some of your opponent's draft tendencies while still building out some of the best upside lineups possible. While it carries more bust potential than other structural methods, Zero RB does deliver in that it produces consistently better upside than other draft methods as well. This alone makes it a valuable strategy and one you should be ready and willing to employ when entering your best ball drafts this year. 


What is Zero RB - FAQ:

  • What is the RB deadzone?
    • This was a term coined by Establish the Run’s Jack Miller, who helped identify the -EV returns of drafting RBs between rounds 3-6. The dead zone theory supports the idea of a Zero RB (and Anchor RB) approach as it purports that WRs drafted between rounds 3-5 are more valuable and produce better returns over time than their RB counterparts taken in that range. 
  • What is the best drafting strategy?
    • There are numerous successful draft structures we can employ in our best ball and redraft leagues. The success of these methods will fluctuate year over year (based on certain positional spikes) but, overall, Zero RB, Anchor RB, and Hyperfragile RB methods have all proven to be successful strategies, especially in larger best ball tournaments.
  • Is Zero RB the best drafting strategy?
    • Zero RB had the highest rate of finals appearances in the Underdog Best Ball Mania II event from 2021–of all structural methods employed in the draft. It is great at creating potentially massive upside lineups but does carry more bust potential than other methods like Anchor RB
  • Does Zero RB mean we take Zero RBs in our draft?
    • No, it simply means that you avoid drafting RBs for the early rounds of your draft and focus on the RB position later, usually after round 5. 
  • If you are using Zero RB, when should you take your first RB?
    • There are no set in-stone rules for how to employ the Zero RB method. However, a good rule of thumb when using a Zero RB structure in your drafts is to avoid the RB position until at least after round 5. Being flexible though based on your competition (and what they are doing) is important as well. If top Running Backs are flying off the board early, the zero RB method will almost certainly be a good way to counteract that kind of action. 
  • What are the best places to use the Zero RB method?
    • The Zero RB method has been proven to be successful in larger best ball tournaments, where we’re competing for massive top-end prizes and going up against hundreds of thousands of participants. However, it can also be a good way to approach redraft and startup dynasty leagues where the rookie draft and waiver wire allows us to backfill the RB position. 

Zero RB in 2022

It’s setting up to be another great year to employ Zero RB in fantasy, specifically in large-field tournaments with top-heavy payout structures and PPR leagues where you can start up to 4 WRs weekly.

Earlier in the offseason, there were some unique opportunities to grab RBs with Top 5 upside at the 2 /3 turn, but as we get closer to the season the RBs will naturally get pushed up and make Zero RB an extremely attractive strategy.

One thing I think about a lot when executing Zero RB is the “texture” of the RBs I’m drafting. Because we are waiting for the chaos of the season to kick in and vault some of our RBs from obscurity into fantasy relevance, we’ll need to balance some of our contingent selections (e.g. handcuff RB) with primarily pass-catching RBs who can provide us with some usable weeks right out of the gate.

Looking at current ADPs across a few different sites, here are my favorite archetypes of Zero RBs to target in 2022 drafts, as well as specific players to select. A great Zero RB target will generally fall into a couple of these buckets:

Rookies

First-year players who are often discounted because of role uncertainty

Rookies are the skeleton key of Zero RB drafting. They are often discounted in drafts because of ambiguity surrounding their role, but year after year we see rookie RB production peaks in the playoffs and can therefore supercharge WR-heavy teams when it matters the most.

Every rookie RB target below will be joining a backfield with an established incumbent, but history tells us that a couple of them will wrestle away the lion’s share of the touches by the end of the season.

When drafting a rookie RB, I’m looking for backs who check a couple of these boxes:

  • Solid college production profile
  • Discounted ADP
  • Elite offensive environment
  • Immediate path to touches

2022 rookie targets:

  • Breece Hall - Jets (Round 5)
  • Kenneth Walker - Seahawks (Round 8)
  • James Cook - Bills (Round 10)
  • Rachaad White - Bucs (Round 12)
  • Isaiah Spiller - Chargers  (Round 12)
  • Tyler Allgeier - Falcons (Round 13)
  • Tyrion Davis-Price - Niners (Round 14)

Notes: Backs like Walker and Allgeier won’t be playing in elite offenses, but they have an immediate path to touches. On the flip side, White and Spiller likely won’t see much work out of the gate, but would be league winners in the event of an injury to Leonard Fournette or Austin Ekeler

Ambiguous backfields

Backfields that appear to be full-blown committees, but there’s the potential for one back to pull ahead

It’s a normal reaction to want to stay away from ambiguous backfields that appear to be timeshares, but JJ Zachariason has shown that these are actually the exact situations we want to be targeting

Think Chase Edmonds and James Conner in 2021, who were both going in the mid- to late-rounds because the market was unsure on who would be the lead. Despite going after Edmonds, Conner ended up scoring 15 TDs as a league-winning Zero RB pick.

When drafting players in ambiguous backfields, I’m looking for players who check a couple of these:

  • Explosive athletic profile
  • Discounted ADP (anything after Round 7ish)
  • Elite offensive environment
  • Teams who prioritize running the ball

2022 ambiguous backfield targets:

  • Chiefs (Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Ronald Jones, Jerick McKinnon)
  • Patriots (Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson)
  • Seahawks (Kenneth Walker, Rashaad Penny)
  • Bills (Devin Singletary, James Cook)
  • Eagles (Miles Sanders, Kenneth Gainwell)
  • Falcons (Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier)
  • Dolphins (Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert, Sony Michel)

Notes: We know the Patriots and Seahawks want to establish the run so there are points to be had here. The Chiefs and Bills are two of the most high-scoring offenses in the league that we should be targeting from all angles. No one is excited about the Dolphins backfield, but they are begging to be drafted at their current costs


Contingency-based plays (handcuff RBs)

Handfcuff RBs, backups aka anyone who would benefit from an injury in front of them

Contingency-based selections will often project for very few points on paper, but represent the highest upside selections we can make in drafts. These are the backs who can serve as a 1-for-1 role replacement for the starter. Tony Pollard

Nov 17, 2019; Detroit, MI, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Pollard (20) celebrates his touchdown during the first quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

While these RBs maybe 0s on your bench if the starter remains healthy, they are virtually guaranteed to contribute starting points to your lineup if anything happens to the starter. Just ask Alexander Mattison, one of the most classic contingency-based picks the past few years. In games where Cook has missed, Mattison averages over 18 points per game. 

When drafting handcuff RBs, I’m looking for players who check a couple of these:

  • Explosive athletic profile
  • Discounted ADP
  • Bellcow upside (catch passes)

2022 handcuff targets:

  • AJ Dillon - Packers (Round 7)
  • Tony Pollard - Cowboys (Round 8)
  • Alexander Mattison - Vikings (Round 12)
  • Darrell Henderson - Rams (Round 13)
  • Khalil Herbert - Bears (Round 14)
  • D’Onta Foreman - Panthers (Round 17)

Notes: There are backup RBs on every team, but these players have the potential to step in for the starter and soak up almost all of the touches. 


Pass-catching backs

RBs who have a defined role and can give us a solid floor via receptions 

It can often take time for our other targets (rookies, handcuffs) to start accruing points, so we need to make sure we are getting some usable weeks out of the gate to tide us over. 

Pass-catching RBs are often unsexy selections because they don’t offer bellcow upside, but they are incredibly valuable to Zero RB teams.

When drafting pass-catching RBs, I’m looking for players who check a couple of these:

  • Proven track record of catching passes
  • Discounted ADP
  • Offense where QBs like to check down

2022 pass-catching targets:

  • Nyheim Hines - Colts (Round 12)
  • Michael Carter - Jets (Round 13)
  • Kenneth Gainwell - Eagles (Round 14)
  • J.D. McKissic - Commanders (Round 16)
  • Chris Evans - Bengals (Round 18)
  • James White - Patriots (Round 18)

Notes: While backs like McKissic and White are unlikely to ever have a role beyond catching passes, some of these backs have sneaky contingent upside as well. RBs like Hines, Carter, Gainwell, and Evans could potentially provide a pass-catching floor right out of the gate, but also step into a bigger workload in the event of an injury.