The Ultimate Guide To Drafting Zero RB In 2020: Part One

by Alex Johnson · Draft Strategy

The Robust RB approach is the popular trending draft strategy for 2020, and it’s the optimal way to draft in many cases. However, there are times when Modified Zero RB or full Zero RB is optimal.

Why Zero RB?

At a time when the running back position is booming, why would we not take advantage and draft multiple in the first few rounds of our drafts? Especially considering how deep the wide receiver position is perceived to be. The answer is not cut-and-dry, but it’s not that complicated either. When the Zero RB Draft strategy was first coined by Shawn Siegele, the forefront of his argument was that running backs are far more fragile and have a high bust rate compared to the other positions. The basis of the strategy then became to load up on wide receivers early, with at least one quarterback or tight end in the first five rounds, then find running backs with upside for high scoring weeks without paying high draft capital.

The ultimate goal is that by the end of the season, we are as strong at running back as our leaguemates. The difference is, we also have stud wide receivers and tight ends because we drafted top-tier guys early. We want to build a juggernaut. A successful Zero RB team will do this while accessing upside and unlocking a ceiling greater than that of other roster constructions. Drafting third round running backs who don’t have elite ceilings, such as Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, and Leonard Fournette, won’t allow our teams to reach their maximum potential.

When To Draft Zero RB?

Of course, this is easier said than done. Zero RB is a niche strategy that can be effective, but we have to know when to use it.

League settings are important when considering taking the Zero RB approach to draft day. The optimal leagues for this strategy will have:

-FAAB bidding: This allows us to be aggressive and be sure we acquire hot waiver wire RBs.

-Full PPR: A must to pull this off.

-Two RB starters: Allows the chance to load up on WRs early as opponent drafters take more RBs and take them earlier.

Able to start at least 4-5 WRs: With all those early WRs, we’ll have an edge in multiple starting slots.

A mid-to-late first round pick: We’re not passing on elite bellcow RBs such as Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, or Alvin Kamara.

How To Zero RB

We now understand the strategy and when to use it, but we need to know how to do it effectively.

Zero RB will work in 2020 because the majority of drafters will go RB heavy, leaving a ton of wide receiver talent for us to absorb. The main argument for Robust RB and anti-Zero RB drafters is that wide receiver is unbelievably deep. For example, we can draft Calvin Ridley in the fourth round, so why take Chris Godwin in the second? The response is we can take both. Of course, we’re betting on elite wide receiver scoring to rebound after a down 2019.

After we load up on wide receiver talent early, with a top-three tight end potentially in the mix, we will eventually need to start drafting running backs. This is where it gets challenging. It’s not easy to find quality running back talent with potential to smash their ADP once we get past the first few rounds. This is why so many fantasy drafters shy away from Zero RB, but it’s also why it’s so effective when done right. Luckily, analysts such as Shawn Siegele, J.J. Zachariason, and Pat Kerrane have done extensive work to help us identify which running backs fit the archetype of a strong Zero RB target.

Criteria for Mid-to-Late Round RBs

The running backs that will help make the Zero RB strategy work have standalone value and are not traditional handcuffs. They are pass-catchers who have touchdown-scoring upside and come from ambiguous backfields. They are also athletic and play in good offenses. Once the draft is complete, the strategy is not over. We need to be vigilant and aggressive on the waiver wire, identifying running backs who can capture the same type of upside we look for in our draft targets. Luckily, because we took such a different approach on draft day, we won’t have to compete as much with our leaguemates for waiver pickups. While they are already strong at RB, they are more likely to target wide receivers and tight ends off waivers. Zero RB drafters will already be strong at wide receiver and have less competition for those important running back adds.

Using the criteria laid out above, along with PlayerProfiler’s advanced stats & metrics, here are some running backs we’ve identified as targets for Zero RB teams in the mid-to-late rounds. These are running backs with ADPs in the sixth round or later. This first part will feature mid-round targets, part two will be late round targets.

Middle Rounds

Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns

Kareem Hunt is the ultimate Zero RB target. He’s elite in the passing game, as we saw during his time in Kansas City where he caught more than 50 passes in 2018. He was also the primary pass-catching back in Cleveland last year once he returned from suspension in Week 10. Nick Chubb dominated the touches in Weeks 1-9 without Hunt, enjoying a 12.0-percent Target Share. That number dropped to 5.0-percent when Hunt entered the picture. He came in and averaged 5.6 targets per game over the final eight, garnering more than 75-percent of the backfield receiving work over that span.

Hunt proved to have standalone value, while he and Chubb split snaps almost equally upon his return. Hunt was PPR RB24 from Weeks 10-17. When identifying Zero RB targets, we want to find guys with that league-winner ceiling. What Hunt also has, that most other backs around his ADP and later don’t, is the floor. We can start him week-to-week even without a Chubb injury and know we’re getting a safe RB2/RB3 performance. That makes him much more valuable when tackling this contrarian strategy.

Hunt’s ceiling is the highest of any of the Zero RB targets. If Chubb goes down, Hunt slides into a massive Opportunity Share. He would have the backfield to himself, absorbing all the carries, receptions, and touchdowns. He would instantly become a top-five fantasy running back. We don’t even have to assume that he can do it, we’ve seen it from him already.

Boxes Checked: Standalone value; Athletic; Pass-Catcher; TD Upside; Good offense.

Damien Williams, Kansas City Chiefs

Damien Williams was a disappointment for anyone who drafted him in the early rounds last year. Though that can be blamed on multiple early-season lower body injuries and the team’s insistence on force-feeding the dust ball that is LeSean McCoy. Williams was actually efficient, evidenced by his +21.9 (No. 16 among qualified running backs) Production Premium. Once healthy, Williams came on strong late and put up an MVP-caliber performance in the Super Bowl. He is a talented runner with elite speed and receiving capabilities. At 222-pounds, he is best comparable to Joe Mixon.

The Chiefs drafted former LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round which is why Williams is available in the middle rounds. Edwards-Helaire could not overtake Nick Brossette on the LSU depth chart just one season before his breakout 2019 campaign that coincided with the team’s record-setting offensive output. The counting stats were nice, but in reality, CEH held an underwhelming share of the offense with an 18.3-percent (27th-percentile) College Dominator Rating. He’s also slow, leaving the door open for the bigger, more athletic Williams to capture a large share of the Chiefs backfield. At minimum, he will be a featured option in Week 1 and in position to thrive if the rookie falters in any way.

Boxes Checked: Ambiguous Backfield; Not a true handcuff; Athletic; Pass-Catcher; TD Upside; Good Offense.

Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Ke’Shawn Vaughn was a fast-riser after going to the Bucs on Day 2 of the NFL Draft. The hype has since cooled, with the scales tilting back in favor of the incumbent Ronald Jones, but Vaughn is everything Jones enthusiasts always wanted him to be. Vaughn is a true three-down back with a 103.5 (74th-percentile) Speed Score and the size to be the workhorse in Tom Brady’s offense. He accumulated 2,272 yards from scrimmage and 24 touchdowns over the last two seasons at Vanderbilt. His 40.4-percent (90th-percentile) College Dominator Rating was second best in the 2020 class.

It’s easy to see how the more talented Vaughn can earn a significant role in year one while supplanting two-down plodder and second-round bust Jones. He has a clear path to RB2 value if he does.

Boxes Checked: Ambiguous Backfield; Standalone Value; Athletic; Pass-Catcher; TD Upside; Good Offense.

Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos

Phillip Lindsay came out of nowhere in 2018, going from undrafted free agent to fantasy star. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry and averaged 14.9 (No. 13) Fantasy Points per Game. His second season wasn’t as impressive though, splitting work with third-rounder Royce Freeman, but Lindsay was better than advertised. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry on 224 (No. 16) attempts and scored seven (No. 17) touchdowns. That was while playing in a bad offense that averaged only 1.6 points per drive, but Lindsay didn’t care. He averaged an impressive 5.0 yards per attempt when facing a stacked front and recorded 10 (No. 12) Breakaway Runs.

We know the team brought in Melvin Gordon, but we shouldn’t be so quick to write in the former Charger as a bellcow in Denver. Lindsay, who may actually be the better runner, will have something to say about it. Despite all the fantasy accolades in five seasons, Gordon has only rushed for 1,000 yards once. Lindsay has reached that milestone in each of his first two seasons.

Lindsay is explosive in the passing game. He struggled with drops in 2019, but he caught 35 passes in each of his first two seasons and held a 14.6-percent (93rd-percentile) College Target Share at Colorado. He has shown enough to believe he will still hold a fair share of the Broncos backfield work. If Gordon gets injured or proves ineffective, we already know Lindsay can step into that RB1 role and thrive.

Boxes Checked: Standalone Value; Pass-Catcher; Athletic.

Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears

Tarik Cohen was the talk of the town after his impressive 2018 campaign. He went over 1,100 total yards and was named a first-team All-Pro as a returner that season. He averaged 14.6 (No. 14) Fantasy Points per Game that year, but 2019 was seen as a let down. He saw his points per game average drop from 14.6 to 10.1 (No. 36). A big part of that was his touchdown total falling from eight (No. 20) to three (No. 50) while playing in a poor Bears offense, but Cohen wasn’t as bad as advertised. He drew 104 (No. 3) targets and is only behind Christian McCaffrey, James White, Alvin Kamara, and Saquon Barkley in targets over the last two seasons. Cohen turned those targets into 79 (No. 4) receptions for 456 (No. 10) yards.

The possibility of Nick Foles taking over at quarterback in Chicago only helps Cohen’s case. With Foles under center in Jacksonville last season, Leonard Fournette averaged nine targets per game. The offense will be more efficient than it was under Mitchell Trubisky. Cohen’s role in Chicago, which earned him a top-20 rank in Weighted Opportunities, isn’t going away. They’re desperate for explosive weapons and David Montgomery offers no threat to his passing downs work. With his 4.42 (95th-percentile) speed and ability to make defenders miss, Cohen will continue to be a threat to score every time he touches the ball. We know he can put up big fantasy weeks, scoring as an RB1 or RB2 50-percent of the time over the last two years. He has never finished lower than RB27 and yet is being drafted as the RB43. A healthy Cohen is a lock to beat that draft position.

Boxes Checked: Standalone Value; Pass-Catcher; Athletic.