In my general dynasty startup draft strategies, I mentioned that more specific draft strategy articles would be on their way. I’m a man of my word! Today’s article will focus on the Zero RB strategy and how you can apply it in dynasty fantasy football startup drafts.
How To Thrive in a Draft Using the Zero RB Strategy
The term Zero RB has become a bit of a polarizing topic in recent years. It’s taken on characteristics of a political issue. When a fantasy manager hears the term, it’s rarely met with apathy. There’s usually a visceral reaction, whether positive or negative, to the notion of Zero RB drafting.
Zero RB is a risky, yet potentially very beneficial strategy for managers in dynasty startup drafts. What are the benefits and risks associated with ignoring running backs early in your draft?
What Is Zero RB?
With any activity, as humans, we’re going to be heavily influenced by what we learned when we first started. Fantasy football is obviously very different now than it was 20 years ago, which is when I first started.
If you started playing this game in the 2000s or earlier, you did so in an era where the game was dominated by running backs. Those early years of playing fantasy football haven’t remained ingrained in the way we think. It can be hard to accept the notion of not drafting running backs early.
For the younger generation of fantasy managers, you started playing during the era in which the NFL was already starting to shift heavily toward being a passing league.
Prior to the great quarterback boom of 2011, the foundation of every great fantasy team was the running back.
When I first started playing fantasy football back in 2003, my leagues didn’t even have Flex positions because it created an unfair advantage for the teams that were able to draft three bell-cow RBs. Running backs dominated the first two rounds of fantasy drafts and were the cornerstone of every great roster.
The NFL has since moved away from the traditional reliance on power football. This has caused fantasy managers to adapt. That led to Shawn Siegele coming up with the concept of Zero RB.
In 2013, Siegele laid out what was, at the time, a radical draft strategy that involved drafting “zero” running backs. As an aside, it’s wild to think about the fact that Zero RB has only been around for a decade.
Obviously, Zero RB doesn’t actually mean you don’t draft a single running back. Rather, the idea is that you don’t draft any of the top running backs. The basic tenet of the strategy is to leverage the increasingly risky nature of RBs into a sizable advantage at the other positions, most notably, wide receiver.
Over the years, Zero RB has birthed multiple derivatives and variations. We can debate the specifics as to what round it becomes okay to draft a running back and still be able to say you’re using a Zero RB strategy.
The general rule of thumb is Zero RB involves not drafting any running backs until at least the sixth or seventh round. The idea is to stack your roster with wide receivers while adding an elite tight end or quarterback (or both).
If executed properly, you will obviously be weak at RB, but you should have the best WR corps in the league. Hopefully, you have an advantage at QB and TE over most other teams as well.
Given how frequently usable RBs pop up on the waiver wire, you can figure out the running back position on the fly, and by the end of the season, you’ll have a juggernaut.
How To Implement Zero RB in a Dynasty Startup Draft
You won’t find me endorsing a Zero RB approach in redraft leagues. There may be situations where a draft room forces me into it, but I will never enter a draft room intending to go Zero RB.
That may seem like I’m criticizing the strategy or suggesting it doesn’t work. Quite the contrary. In an ironic way, that’s the reason I’m not a fan of the Zero RB strategy.
I don’t believe it to be an actual predraft strategy. Instead, it’s the perfect pivot strategy. It’s how you adapt on the fly to give your fantasy team an advantage. Every manager needs to be comfortable implementing it when the situation calls for it.
In dynasty, though, it’s a completely different story. If you largely ignore RB in a dynasty startup draft, you don’t have to fix it during the upcoming season. That makes Zero RB a very viable predraft strategy in a dynasty startup. You absolutely can enter your draft planning to forgo running backs in favor of wide receivers. Here’s how.
How Zero RB and Punting Year 1 in a Dynasty Startup Mesh Together
Despite the converging values of wide receivers and running backs, the elite RB remains the most valuable asset in fantasy football. In fact, I would argue the elite running back is even more valuable now than ever because of how few there are.
The issue, of course, is finding one. That’s much easier said than done. Wide receivers are more reliable than running backs, both in terms of longevity and year-to-year consistency.
If your plan entering your dynasty startup draft is to not really care about competing in the first year, Zero RB is a great way to build the foundation for a potential juggernaut. You can dedicate all of your resources to a strong base of wide receivers that will remain on your roster for 5+ years and then fill it out with running backs the following season.
One of the main reasons building around WRs is a popular dynasty strategy is the amount of time they remain highly productive players. Running backs reach their primes sooner, but wide receivers stay there for much longer.
Typically peaking at around age 25, the average shelf life of a running back is only 3-4 years. You will typically see running backs produce their best seasons during their second through fifth years in the league. The most elite running backs can produce at a top level from around ages 22-28.
Wide receivers rarely have their best season in the first three years in the league. With running backs, it’s most common to see that.
WRs start to peak around age 24, but their prime lasts until age 29. That’s roughly six seasons. If you look at every running back drafted since 2010, you won’t find a single one that was highly productive for over seven years. Not one.
More recently, we’ve seen the top receivers remain elite unto the first year or two of their 30s. Currently, the NFL has one of the most talented groups of wide receivers aged 30+ we’ve ever seen.
On the whole, rookie RBs are much, much better fantasy assets than rookie WRs. But once a receiver reaches that elite status, it’s possible to get a full decade’s worth of production. You’d be lucky to get half that from a running back.
Using Zero RB, you can load up on wide receivers, building a strong core of players at the wide receiver position who aren’t going anywhere.
You shouldn’t really care too much about five years from now in a dynasty startup, but if you draft a bunch of talented wide receivers age 25 and under, you’re expecting them to remain on your roster and produce at a high level for 5+ years.
Then, in the second year of your dynasty league, you can focus on bolstering your running backs.
A big reason the Zero RB draft strategy works is because of our ability to project immediate production from rookie backs. If you’re punting Year 1, you’re planning on having a top 2-3 pick in your rookie draft the following season. There should be an RB available that can contribute right away.
While not every draft class has sure things at running back, historically, the sure things at RB hit a higher rate than the sure things at WR. So, while you’re focusing on building up your running backs, you’ll already have a bunch of quality receivers because you focused on them in the early rounds of your dynasty startup.
The advantage of Zero RB is time. If you aren’t able to find running backs right away, that doesn’t mean your window is going to slam shut in your face. You have time because of the longevity of wide receivers.
On the other hand, if you build your roster around running backs and can’t figure out the wide receivers for 2-3 years, your RBs will already be closer to the end than the beginning. This will limit the time your team can compete for a championship.
Zero RB is a very viable strategy that, if done right, can set you up to dominate for several years.
What Are the Risks of Using a Zero RB Strategy in a Dynasty Startup Draft?
Where dynasty differs from redraft most is in roster size and the implications that come with an inherently weaker waiver wire.
Most dynasty rosters are somewhere from 20-30 players in size. In redraft, one of the most important aspects of the Zero RB strategy is the expectation that managers will constantly be shuffling running backs at the back of their roster.
You’re expected to work the waiver wire, stream spot starters, take advantage of injuries, and find reliable fantasy starters during the season.
In dynasty, at least two running backs from every team are typically rostered. Some teams will have three players rostered. When one inevitably goes down, or a backup unexpectedly pops, that player is far more likely to already be on someone’s team, making it quite difficult to fix an RB problem in season without trading.
Therefore, even when implementing a Zero RB draft strategy, you need to be sure to draft some of these running backs with injury-related upside. Avoid older backs, and don’t draft floor players.
You don’t need running backs who are locked into a role where they see a handful of carries and a reception or two. If an RB doesn’t have the upside for a larger role, you have no use for him. You want guys that can hit hard.
Look for young running backs — under the age of 25 — who are stuck behind an established starter. You want guys that can conceivably win a backfield either with performance or if the starter gets hurt/leaves the following season.
A Zero RB strategy in a dynasty startup draft can be very advantageous if done correctly, but it can also set your team back multiple seasons if things go awry. Now, to be fair, that’s the case with just about any strategy. If you don’t execute properly, or if you encounter a stroke of bad luck, you’re going to have to fix it.
Not everyone who implements this strategy will succeed. There’s an inherent risk in everything about fantasy football. Zero RB is a high-upside strategy, but it has a low floor if you miss on the receivers or can’t find startable running backs.
By no means should this scare you away, though. Every strategy has risks, and the risk of drafting busts exists in every draft in every league. It doesn’t matter what strategy you use if you get the players wrong.
Regardless of what you decide to do, make sure you commit to it. Going half-in on any strategy is a surefire way to lose. You’re better off going all-in on whatever you do, and if it fails, you hit the reset button and start from square one the next season.
There’s nothing worse in dynasty than having a team good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to win. The Zero RB strategy is designed to ensure your team doesn’t get caught in fantasy purgatory. If you do it right, you could be a dominant force for years.
With the fantasy football season behind us, why not start preparing for your rookie drafts with our dynasty rookie rankings? Additionally, as you look to improve your team heading into 2024, our dynasty trade calculator can help you find the perfect deal to boost your championship chances.