‘Zero-RB’ strategy could the draft-day difference

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Remember in the original “Star Wars” when Luke and Han go to the Death Star to save Princess Leia from Darth Vadar? The plan didn’t quite work out as envisioned, and at one point they ended up in a trash compactor.

Obviously, spoiler alert for a 40-plus-year-old movie, they do eventually escape. But also obviously, they wouldn’t have constructed a plan that nearly got them crushed to death along they. They had to improvise to save themselves.

When constructing any strategy for any particular goal, like forming a game plan for your fantasy football draft, part of your initial plan should not include dumpster diving, at least not for key positions where top players are in high demand.

Assuming this infallible logic is correct, why would anyone intentionally embark on a zero-RB strategy from the outset? Zero-RB is contrarian idea that is essentially this: Instead of following the masses by grabbing running backs early, you do the alternative and load up at other positions.

There is some debate about how long one has to wait before addressing the RB position for the strategy to qualify as zero-RB (zero being zero in the early rounds, not actually zero, that would be even sillier). For our purposes here, we going to say, to employ zero-RB means not drafting a running backs in the first five rounds of your draft.

To be clear, sometimes you get trapped. Great players at other positions fall. Or you have qualms about the RBs on the board where you’re picking. Or there is a top player at quarterback or tight end you just can’t pass up (an idea we normally reject outright but are a tad more forgiving about this season because of unpredictable COVID concerns).

If this unfortunate sequence of events happens during the course of your draft, you adjust. You audible. You do what you can to stay alive, even if it means entering the zero-RB trash compactor to do so.

jerick mckinnon 49ers fantasy football zero-rb
Jerick McKinnonAP Photo

However, this is a rarity. Normally there will be an RB or two or three worthy of selection when your first five picks come up. And when those options reveal themselves, we like to embrace them, not dodge them just to adhere to a poorly constructed initial strategy. Zero-RB should be an escape route, not your normal commute.

Maybe you’re stubborn or you just don’t trust the Madman and are determined to make it work regardless of what we say. Lucky for you, we don’t hold grudges, so we’ll help you out with your foolish plan.

If you are going to practice zero-RB, then obviously you are going to load up on wide receivers. But it also means you must get a top QB and a top tight end. Why else avoid addressing the hardest position to fill if you aren’t going to get top picks at other positions. And we know, the Madman normally doesn’t like early QBs or TEs, but this is zero-RB land. Nothing is normal.

Once you do start targeting RBs, you need to go for upside. Already you are going to be weak at that position, so getting mediocre players with limited upside is not going to help you dig out of the hole. You’ve already risked heavily by dodging RBs early, might as well double-down with hopes of hitting big on an upside play later.

And here’s something you don’t hear often from the Madman: Make a point to try to handcuff your RBs. We normally don’t prioritize this idea (we would rather have 4-5 playable RBs from various NFL teams than invest in a real-world backup for one or two of our fantasy starters). But in the age of COVID, we’re more agreeable to the cuff strategy. Also, since you have punted on top RBs, investing in overall running games is not a bad idea.

For example, the 49ers. Raheem Mostert sometimes falls beyond the fifth round. So let’s say you are able to grab him in the sixth. You would want to firm that up with Tevin Coleman around the ninth round. If you miss on Coleman, then Jerick McKinnon deep in the draft. The idea being, you want to own the lion’s share of that team’s running game – not a bad one to have since they run the ball so often.

The Washington Football Team is a lesser example. You could get Antonio Gibson in the 11th round and seek to fortify that pick with Adrian Peterson in the 12th.

You might not want to wait that long, and try to obtain your RB flock in the middle rounds. You’re going to be choosing among players who don’t have guaranteed playing time or touches. But since we’re shooting for upside, we’re going to downgrade bland but stable options and look for explosive but risky rookies or younger backs. So we prefer D’Andre Swift to Kerryon Johnson, and Jonathan Taylor to Marlon Mack (neither of which we would do if not employing zero-RB). You also can target guys like Matt Breida, J.K. Dobbins and James White in the middle rounds.

You might want to consider rostering six RBs. Theoretically you are going to be stronger at other positions, and the chances of any one RB hitting will be fairly slim, since they are devalued for a reason. You have a better chance of hitting on two if you have six than you do if you have just four or five. It’s math.

Hopefully, you don’t have to go this route. If you’re wise, you don’t plan on having to navigate the trash compactor of QBs. But at least if you do get trapped, you now have a method to climb out of the RB dumpster.

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