(Disclaimer: Zero RB drafting and the strategies portrayed in this article are best utilized in PPR leagues.)
Zero RB drafting is a contrarian strategy. Its rise in the fantasy community was built on the idea of pivoting away from the majority of drafters. At the time of its initial proposal a couple of years ago, it was a radical concept. It was common knowledge that you were supposed to draft RBs early and often, or you would surely live to regret it. Fast forward to this time last year and drafting Zero RB had basically become mainstream, making it a less effective strategy; then, 2016 happened and saved its life.
After last season’s mixed results, many drafters are going right back to snagging RBs early and often in drafts. True Zero RB believers are being brushed back into the shadows, where they can finally grow and thrive, like a bright green patch of moss. If you are one of these loyal Zero RB drafters, I want to suggest an unpopular concept that may help you to maximize the value of the mid round RBs that you choose to invest in: Backfield Drafting.
This whole concept is about mitigating risk. The idea is to essentially double down on the offenses that you expect to be really good, but there is also zero clarity on how the RB touches will be distributed. We can do this by drafting 2 or even in some cases 3 RBs on the same team to increase our odds of getting a big contributor. It’s sort of like drafting a handcuff, but useful. Most drafters dig their heels in and take a stand on certain players that they either want to win the job or that they think is the most talented. While this sounds like a good approach, NFL coaches have proven that they will always see things their own way, and we can’t change that. By backfield drafting, we are trying to capitalize on and embrace our own uncertainty, and potentially increase our odds of locking up some of that valuable RB production. We are staying open to the possibility that our opinions may be wrong. Think about it more as investing in the offense, rather than the player. Go get the guy you want, but also plan for the unexpected. If there’s anything we can count on in the NFL season, it’s that the unexpected will happen.
Below I’ve listed a few offenses that I’m targeting with this approach.
New England Patriots
Mike Gillislee (ADP RB28): He is the hot name rising up draft boards this offseason, and for good reason. He played well for the Bills last year when he received opportunities, and now he finds himself on one of the best offenses of our generation.
James White (ADP RB40): He’s typically the next guy going in drafts. The Patriots recently signed him to a 3-year contract after his 2016 breakout. All signs indicate that the Patriots love his skill set and he will have some kind of role on this team.
Dion Lewis (ADP RB70): He’s returning to the field after a knee injury cost him more than an entire season, but the last time we saw him healthy he was regularly putting up RB1 numbers in this offense and making it look easy.
Rex Burkhead (ADP RB61): He seems like a great depth guy at first glance, but looking closer you notice the team signed him to a fairly large 1-year contract this offseason, making you think they have some type of role in mind for him.
Some may argue that the smart move here is to avoid this backfield altogether, but we know this is an offense that will regularly find themselves in scoring position, want proof? LeGarrette Blount led the league in rushing TD’s (18) and red zone carries (71) last year for the Patriots. We can’t ignore that level of opportunity. All 4 of these players are worth taking a chance on in most PPR leagues. This is one of the only situations where I may consider taking 3 backs from the same team, depending on my league settings. Also if/when 1 of these RBs gets hurt, the other 3 backs will immediately increase in value.
HOW I WOULD PLAY IT:
My ideal haul here would be Gillislee and Lewis. I think they’re the highest ceiling options and you’re almost guaranteed that one of them will be startable every week. If I miss on Gillislee, I would also be thrilled to pair White/Lewis together. One of these guys will lock down the passing game work and make me a very happy owner. Whatever combination you choose has the potential to pay off, so the savvy move may be to take the two cheapest players in Burkhead and Lewis and root for chaos.
New Orleans Saints
Mark Ingram (ADP RB21): It feels like the man has been around forever in this offense. Most fantasy owners have probably experienced both the ups and downs of owning Ingram. When he’s healthy, he’s valuable, but that’s the key. Last year was only the 2nd time in his 6 year career that he has been healthy for a full 16 games.
Adrian Peterson (ADP RB32): This is one of the greatest fantasy (and real) RBs of my lifetime. He has been away from the field for a full season and is now 32 years old. That is not typically a kind age for an NFL RB, but with Drew Brees, he will also likely be facing defenses that aren’t loading the box against him for the first time in his career. It’s hard not to wonder what he’s got left in the tank.
Alvin Kamara (ADP RB54): The Saints prioritized Kamara in this years draft, trading their 2018 2nd round pick & their 2017 7th rounder to jump into the 3rd round and get him. At Tennessee, Kamara showcased his ability to catch passes and make people miss in the open field. He also had some success running between the tackles when he got opportunities. He’s bigger than you think, electric with the ball and really just a different type of player than the other two backs and could easily step into the 3rd down satellite back role on this offense. We saw Travaris Cadet catch 40 passes in that role last year. Kamara is an upgrade.
There is loads of uncertainty here, but again, this is an offense that will move the ball and be in scoring position often.
HOW I WOULD PLAY IT:
Ideally, I would feel best ending up with Peterson/Kamara. I think getting those two guarantees you a contributor. Both players have what appears to be a defined role. Peterson will get every opportunity to succeed, and if he doesn’t, Kamara will be sitting there with his gold grill and fresh legs ready to benefit. To me, all these RB additions point to the fact that the Saints aren’t fully invested in Ingram. He will likely still have a role of some sort, but he’s the least exciting option by a mile for me.
Eddie Lacy (ADP RB26): Seattle signed him to a 1-year contract, laced (lol) with incentives to make sure he stays in shape. We know that Lacy is talented and can put up big numbers if given the opportunity, but the contract is a pretty big red flag right off the bat. So far, he’s done what it takes to get his body ready for the season, but the team obviously has their concerns. Can he be the next Marshawn Lynch on this offense? That’s a lot to ask of him. All the Seahawks seem to be asking is that he stay in shape and be a contributor of some sort, but the talent is there if he can put it together.
Thomas Rawls (ADP RB52): Incredibly frustrating for owners last year, but he was a league winner the season before. After being banged up for most of the 2016 season, he should be back and in the mix again this year. He is in the final year of his contract and will be out to prove that he deserves to get paid by somebody after the season.
C.J. Prosise (ADP RB39): He’s the only back we know for sure will still be around next year. His coming out party happened in week 10 last year against the Patriots when he had 17 carries and 7 catches and put up 22 fantasy points in PPR for his patient owners. He ended up going down with an injury the following week, missing the rest of the year. Bummer. All signs point to the team wanting him to become the bell cow in the near future. He’s a former WR that converted to RB his last season at Notre Dame, so he catches passes naturally, and has shown some burst when given carries. Color me intrigued.
It’s hard to know which of these RB’s will get the bulk of the carries here, but with Russell Wilson as the QB, this is an offense I’m happy to take a couple chances on.
HOW I WOULD PLAY IT:
Despite the weight concerns, Lacy still interests me. I would be thrilled to pair him with Prosise, giving me a great chance at locking down this backfield completely. I would also be fine with pairing Prosise with Rawls if I were to miss on Lacy. Rawls is essentially free and could very well begin the season as the starter. The constant here is Prosise. If I’m getting multiple backs in this backfield, I want him to be one of them.
Joe Mixon (ADP RB16): So tantalizing. It’s hard not to think that the talented Mixon will take his opportunities and run with them, becoming the unquestioned lead back of this offense right away. The problem is, he’s never really been a true workhorse back. In college, he split carries with Samaje Perine at Oklahoma. Not to say he’s not capable of carrying the load, but with 2 other young and more experienced RBs still on the roster, assuming he will take over this role completely is a risky bet.
Giovani Bernard (ADP RB48): He’s only 25 years old and still a great athlete and pass catcher. The coaching staff believes in him as they recently resigned him to a 3-year contract, making him easily the highest paid back on the team. Bernard is apparently recovering well from the torn ACL he suffered in Week 11 last year that ended his season. It’s hard not to think he’s a guy that will solidify himself as the 3rd down back at the minimum, providing sneaky PPR value late in drafts.
Jeremy Hill (ADP RB50): He can be a super boring player to own if he’s not scoring TDs, but he has also shown in the past that he can provide a huge boost to his team. Who knows? Sometimes it feels like Jeremy Hill is super old, but he’s only 24. He still has room to grow and get better. If he has the trust of the coaching staff, it’s going to be hard for them to keep a player with that much experience on the bench. Like Rawls on the Seahawks, he’s a guy that could realistically begin the season as the starter, and he’s really cheap to acquire right now.
HOW I WOULD PLAY IT:
Mixon has really attractive talent that makes me want to take him, but I think his price is creeping into that range that may be a little too rich for my blood. He’s a little too much of an unknown for me. That being said, I can easily take Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill late in drafts, hanging my hat on the fact that Mixon is just a rookie and one of these guys is likely to have some type of role. This is an offense that has a ton of weapons in the passing game and added more in this year’s draft. There is going to be loads of scoring opportunities, and an injury to one of these backs could easily provide clarity here overnight.
These are just some ideas to help you think outside the box. This is not a strategy you should commit to at all cost. But I do think there are certain players that Zero RB drafters are taking as their RB1, who aren’t the locks for production they’re hoping for. Don’t over commit yourself to these players. Zero RB is about grinding every week and searching for value at RB wherever you can get it. Don’t be afraid to take more than one back from the same team just because it makes lineup decisions tricky. Players get injured. Situations are fluid. Embrace the flow and plan for chaos; that’s when Zero RB gets fun. Good luck!
All ADP’s were taken from fantasypros.com
Follow me on Twitter @gerry_adair