Who Are Fantasy Football’s Best Zero-RB Candidates?

Jun 24, 2019 12:20 PM EDT
  • "Zero-RB" refers to the popular contrarian fantasy football strategy of waiting on running backs until later rounds.
  • Ryan Collinsworth explains the reasoning behind the strategy and dives in to locate three of the best Zreo-RB targets for the 2019 season.

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. Our crew will be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2019 season; this is part of that series.


“Zero-RB” is a popular contrarian fantasy football draft strategy that attempts to build an anti-fragile roster by waiting on the running back position. By targeting wide receivers and tight ends in the early rounds of a draft, fantasy players seek to hedge downside risk associated with running back injuries.

When a starting running back suffers a mid-season injury, it’s usually easy to identify the back-up who will inherit his workload. Moreover, that workload is reasonable predictable. As a result, these back-ups, or “handcuffs” offer immense value in the later rounds of the draft or via waivers.

Last season alone, we had numerous high-profile examples of this situation:

  • Damien Williams taking over for the suspended Kareem Hunt
  • C.J. Anderson stepping up for the injured Todd Gurley
  • Jaylen Samuels filling in for the injured James Conner
  • Gus Edwards earning a starting role over Alex Collins when the Ravens installed rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson

Many fantasy teams started these kinds of running backs deep into their playoff runs. Back-up running backs frequently offer immense replacement value with minimal overall cost. However, the same cannot be said for wide receivers. It is rare — if not impossible — to find that kind of replacement value for elite wide receivers. This is the primary reason why Zero-RB is such a popular contrarian strategy.

Additionally, Rob Gronkowski’s retirement has made top tight ends as valuable as ever. There will be many fantasy drafters who covet the likes of Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz and George Kittle in the early rounds of 2019 fantasy drafts. By taking a Zero-RB approach, you can be among the few teams ideally positioned to accept that tight end value. You’ll also likely have first pick of a quarterback if you so desire it.

The downside, of course, is that waiting on running back means you likely won’t be selecting your first one until the fifth round or later. So, you’ve got to make those middle round picks count. With that in mind, let’s examine 2019’s best running back candidates for a Zero-RB draft based on current ADP.


Target Mid-Round Running Backs with Receiving Upside

To help identify ideal Zero-RB targets, I compiled on-field and fantasy statistics for all running backs drafted in Rounds 5 to 10 since 2010. I chose to limit our sample to those draft rounds, because:

  1. Most Zero-RB drafters won’t select a running back until the fifth round or later.
  2. Running backs taken beyond Round 10 are usually dart throws. While there may still be ample draft value in the deep rounds of the draft, these kinds of players rarely have predictable upside. Simply put, you can’t expect to consistently snag Alvin Kamara or James Conner in Round 11.

So, let’s take a look at how running back statistics break down by round drafted:

The first big takeaway from these splits is that drafters tend to favor players with higher projected rushing volume earlier in the draft. That makes sense; I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel here — just stating the obvious.

However, this increased rushing workload has not historically translated to a systematic increase in PPR scoring by round drafted. In fact, there is no statistically significant correlation between round drafted and PPR scoring between Rounds 5 and 10.

Now, let’s examine per-game splits for players who out-performed and under-performed their ADP in this range.

Players who perform above their expected ADP-value boast improved splits across every statistic. However, I’d like to draw your attention to the receiving splits in particular. Players who excel in these rounds of the draft report a 82.0% increase in targets, 91.2% increase in receptions and 215.1% increase in receiving touchdowns per game. Contrast that against the 37.1%/57.7%/93.3% differentials for rushing.

These dramatic receiving splits underscore the importance of targeting running backs with receiving upside. More targets translates into increased opportunity for receptions, of course, but increased targets also greatly increases overall touchdown potential.

Let’s view this same data in terms of PPR scoring distribution between rushing and receiving stats.

Under-performers score 37.9% of their overall PPR fantasy points from receiving statistics. Over-performers boast a 5.0% improvement in that same category.

Lastly, to metaphorically volleyball-spike this point home, let’s take a look at statistical splits for running backs finishing as fantasy RB1s, RB2s, RB3s, RB4s and beyond.

This chart is perhaps the most telling of them all. Fantasy RB1s drafted from Rounds 5 to 10 boast a staggering 5.11 targets and 3.90 receptions per game. RB1s, RB2s and RB3s all boast similar rushing attempts, but receiving volume serves as the primary differentiator among the groups.


Players to Target in 2019 Redrafts

Among running backs currently being drafted from Rounds 5 to 10, three stand out as possible RB1/RB2 contenders: James White, Kenyan Drake and Tarik Cohen. All three players make strong Zero-RB candidates based on their receiving histories and projected workloads.

The Case for James White

White boasts the highest receiving ceiling and historical touchdown production. However, touchdowns aren’t very sticky from season to season, so banking on him to sustain 10+ touchdowns in 2019 isn’t exactly predictable.

The Patriots have also undergone major personnel changes following the retirement of Rob Gronkowski and the indefinite absence of Josh Gordon. New England also drafted rookies Damien Harris and Nick Brossette, thereby adding even more backfield competition in an already crowded committee.

Uncertainty abounds regarding the Patriots’ field-stretching ability without Gronk and Gordon. It remains to be seen whether that will amplify or suppress White’s receiving production. Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine any scenario where White is not heavily involved in the Patriots offense, which makes him an excellent high-floor option.


The Case for Kenyan Drake

Drake operated in a 50-50 split with veteran Frank Gore last season, and then-Head Coach Adam Gase chose to relegate Drake mostly to third down duties. Now Gore and Gase are both gone, which — in theory — could unleash Drake as a three-down workhorse option for the Dolphins.

Drake boasts the best rushing statistics of the three running backs and demonstrated dynamic play-making potential when given the opportunity last season. However, he does not have the same high-level historical production that either White or Cohen has. So, target Drake if you’re in the market for high upside and can stomach a little added risk.


The Case for Tarik Cohen

Since day one of his rookie season, Cohen has been a consistent, explosive, indispensable component of the Bears offense. He boasts two consecutive seasons as a top-24 fantasy performer, and he accomplished that feat despite splitting time with Jordan Howard.

Now, Howard’s heavy rushing volume is gone, but the Bears have brought in new competition in Mike Davis and rookie David Montgomery. Unlike Howard before them, both Davis and Montgomery have a legit three-down skill set, which may limit Cohen’s utility as a dedicated receiving option.

Alternatively, Cohen also has an excellent opportunity to outperform both of those players and earn a larger rushing role than in seasons past. No matter how that backfield committee shakes out, Cohen will not be left out of the mix.

He also has one trump card over the other two options: his big-play potential. Last season, Cohen averaged 7.97 yards per target. Contrast that with 6.11 for White and 6.53 for Drake. So, even if Cohen’s overall usage declines unexpectedly, he may be more resilient to downside risk than either Drake or White.


Accept Value When It Falls To You

Truthfully, all three backs make excellent Zero-RB options, and the differences between them are small. In fact, our rankers have them side-by-side as RB23 (Drake), RB24 (Cohen) and RB25 (White). Any would make an excellent first running back off the board in a traditional Zero-RB draft. Accept value as it falls to you, and if you can grab two of them somehow, don’t hesitate in doing so.

How would you rate this article?

Top Stories