This is about the time of year I travel from town to town across this great nation, selling the simple and all-too-often rejected concept of anti-fragility in fantasy football drafting.
Some townsfolk regard me with suspicion, while others timidly admit that yes, they’re interested in creating volatile fantasy lineups designed to blow the roof of their respective leagues, but they’re not sure how, and they fear being excommunicated by loved ones. In other towns, I’m driven out by furious pitchfork-and-torch-wielding fantasy drafters who see anti-fragility as unsavory, and in some cases, unnatural. Give me 300-touch running backs, they say, or give me death.
The Zero RB structural draft strategy will be the topic of this column, if you haven’t yet figured it out. It’s undeniably a divisive subject in the larger fantasy football community, engendering strategic passion on both sides of the debate: One side trusting in the power of balance and the other sure of their abilities to exploit inefficiencies in our little game.
I am a grizzled veteran of the Zero RB Wars. I survived the all-out Zero RB conflicts of 2013 and 2014. I’ve struggled through the Zero RB skirmishes in recent offseasons, alienating thousands in the process. I’m here to be a guide this season for those who might consider themselves Zero RB-curious. They’ve read the reasoning behind the strategy, they understand the upside inherent in building an unbalanced fantasy lineup, but they can’t stomach the sight of a roster with zero -- or one -- running back in the first half of a draft. For them, the exercise is nauseating. It feels like giving up on two spots in your lineup.
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I suppose I should (roughly) define the Zero RB draft strategy before we go further. The idea is to fade running backs in the high leverage part of your draft -- usually the first five or six rounds -- and round up as many elite receivers, tight ends, and yes, even quarterbacks, as humanly possible. Plucking a handful of running backs in the latter half of your draft puts you in position to capitalize on running back injuries -- a mere 14 backs have played every game over the past two season -- and the general volatility of an NFL backfield. You’re going to draft some duds -- guys who might barely play if the starter in their backfield manages a full season. The hope is to hit on a few running backs who have temporary or long-term value based on volume alone.
Think Mike Davis, J.D. McKissic, Ronald Jones, Myles Gaskin, Jeff Wilson, or James Robinson from a year ago. Think Kenyan Drake, Austin Ekeler, Jones, or Kareem Hunt in 2019. Think James Conner, Phillip Lindsay, Aaron Jones, Chris Carson, or Tarik Cohen in 2018. Some of them gave you a decent stretch of fantasy usefulness while others offered half a season or more of startable fantasy production. It can be done. You just have to pinpoint backs who would (presumably) take on the starting role with little or no competition for touches if and when their backfield is thrown into chaos. Zero RB allows you to capitalize on that chaos. It’s about predictable unpredictability, it’s about the known unknowns. Your roster won’t just survive the maddening variance of a 17-game season; it’ll thrive.
To get your mind around the concept of anti-fragility, peruse this excerpt from the definitive book on the subject:
Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. This property is behind everything that has changed with time: evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, good recipes (say, chicken soup or steak tartare with a drop of cognac), the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance … even our own existence as a species on this planet. And antifragility determines the boundary between what is living and organic (or complex), say, the human body, and what is inert, say, a physical object like the stapler on your desk.
The antifragile loves randomness and uncertainty, which also means— crucially—a love of errors, a certain class of errors. Antifragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them— and do them well. Let me be more aggressive: we are largely better at doing than we are at thinking, thanks to antifragility. I’d rather be dumb and antifragile than extremely smart and fragile, any time.
Going heavy on running backs in the early rounds of a draft is the best way to construct a fragile fantasy lineup. Any backfield turmoil and you have nothing on which to fall back. You have no top receivers, you likely don't have a top tight end, and you certainly don't have the late-round running backs who benefit from the ensuing chaos. At best, your lineup is resilient, remaining the same. At worst, it collapses amid the randomness that we know is coming.
Naturally, the strategy is better suited for seasonal leagues in which you can work the waiver wire for backfield adds. Best ball offers no such recourse for those without the game’s top running backs. That makes a modified Zero RB approach viable in best ball leagues -- one in which you use one of your top two or three picks on a running back, then fade the position until the second half of the draft.
In this space, I’ll rank Zero RB candidates in tiers, both for best ball drafting and, eventually, seasonal drafting. Things will fluctuate, sometimes wildly. A training camp injury, a free agent signing, supercharged coach hype: These factors can rapidly inflate or deflate a running back’s average draft position, moving them out or pushing them into Zero RB range. Zero RB darlings in April or May might be third or fourth rounders by August. A back going in the middle rounds might slip down into double-digit rounds and become irresistible to Zero RB truthers looking to gobble up as many backfield touches as possible.
Before we get into the below rankings tiers, I’m legally obligated to tell you Zero RB -- in its purest form -- isn’t ideal for every league type. There are variations on the Zero RB approach, largely depending on your lineup requirements, scoring, and format.
If, for example, a league has two running backs spots, two receiver spots, one tight end, and a flex, it would be bullheaded and something short of optimal to roll out the pure Zero RB approach. There’s no reason to fade running backs for six or seven rounds since you’re limited with the number of non-RB slots to fill. The strategy is more sensible if you have three wideout spots and a flex -- especially if the league is PPR (the only legitimate scoring system). And if you’re in a highly evolved league with a slew of flex spots, all-out Zero RB is the way to go. Give me five or six flexes in a lineup and I might not take a runner until a dozen rounds have come and gone.
Another caveat: Every player is a value sometime. For as ideological as Zero RB has become -- the strategy is a worldview as much as it is a way to score fantasy points -- we don’t pass up values when he see them. A running back with a locked-in role drifting beyond his ADP is an invitation for Zero RB truthers to capitalize on value. We’re not Sandra Bullock in the rowboat, blindfolded to any and all running backs.
OK, now to the tiers. The ADP data is based on 12-team PPR leagues.
- Gaskin, like Mike Davis, remains his team's RB1 against all odds after the NFL Draft. He's catapulted from the third tier to the top tier accordingly. Miami only selected a running back -- Cincinnati's Garrid Doaks -- in the seventh round of the draft. Malcolm Brown and Salvon Ahmed remain behind Gaskin on the team's depth chart. Gaskin could soon exit Zero RB territory as drafters are far more secure with his role in the Dolphins backfield (I'd guess his ADP will settle in the fourth round by the summer). He's a year removed from operating as the team's three-down back for portions of the season. Miami adding pass catching weapons Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle certainly won't hurt Gaskin's cause in 2021.
- Probably you’re upset about Gus Edwards cracking the top tier. Hear me out: Edwards, a year after seeing 153 touches in the NFL’s run-heaviest offense, has a clear path to weekly relevance in deeper formats and an RB1 role if J.K. Dobbins gets dinged up in 2021. Mark Ingram is gone, Baltimore’s offense is going to continue to pound the rock, and Edwards has proven effective with his opportunity (5.2 yards per carry). The mainstream media won’t talk about this, but only three backs had a higher Pro Football Focus rushing grade than Edwards in 2020.
- I was torn about putting Pollard in the first tier. He has almost no value as long as Ezekiel Elliott is upright. But the potential is clear, and his relatively low ADP makes Pollard a tough Zero RB candidate to fade. He’s the best back in the Dallas offense. Let’s hope the team realizes it sooner rather than later.
- Drake is a weird (and welcomed) Zero RB target. He’s a year removed from a RB15 campaign and he’s now available in the eighth (sometimes ninth) round. The reason is obvious: Josh Jacobs is still considered the Raiders’ lead back. For however idiotic Jon Gruden is for paying a second running back, he seems intent to use Drake as a runner and pass catcher. The upside, as always, is Drake taking over for a dinged-up Jacobs.
- I struggled with founding father Alexander Mattison as a first tier candidate. Eventually I gave in because it would be the Mattison show if Dalvin Cook were to go down. In his only 2020 start that wasn’t a blowout loss in which Minnesota had to abandon the run game, Mattison had 21 touches for 145 yards and two scores. His bottom-barrel ADP makes him something close to a must-have for the Zero RB faithful.
- Davis inexplicably survived the NFL Draft. Atlanta seems -- at the moment -- to be committed to the journeyman back as their 2021 starter. I suppose Qadree Ollison, the team's RB2, could emerge as a fantasy option if Davis gets dinged up this year. Probably it had something to do with the most dominant rusher of a generation lining up in the Tennessee backfield, but new Falcons head coach Arthur Smith ran a Titans Offense in 2020 that was third in neutral rush rate (50 percent).
- The Patriots are gearing up to pummel the league into submission, cutting across the NFL’s pass-heavy grain with the highest-testosterone lineup money can buy. Folks forget that Damien Harris saw 14.3 touches per game in ten starts last year before suffering a pesky ankle injury. We’re going to want the main between-the-tackles thumper in this revamped New England offense, which, for now, is on track to once again be one of the NFL’s run heaviest.
- The zoomers won't recall that Henderson -- all the way back in the year 2020 -- was a plug-and-play fantasy starter for most of the season's first half. He gave way to explosive rookie Cam Akers over the season's final month, relegated to mop-up duty as Sean McVay went all in on his new workhorse back. Today, Henderson is the only back behind Akers on LA's depth chart (behind two people named Xavier Jones and Raymond Calias). An Akers injury would give us Henderson szn. Henderson, somehow only 23 years old, can (and has) operated as a three-down back. In what could be a vastly underrated LA offense, Henderson has plenty of Zero RB appeal. The Rams offensive line, by the bye, was graded by Pro Football Focus as the league's fourth best run blocking unit in 2020.
- James Conner is officially on the board as a second-tier Zero RB target. He is what we're seeking. In the case of Chase Edmonds missing time, it should be Conner who becomes an every-down back for Arizona. Remember: Only Dalvin Cook saw more carries inside the five yard line than Kenyan Drake in 2020, and no one had more inside-the-10 attempts than Drake. Conner taking those high-value touches makes him awfully appealing for those fading running backs in the early going. Conner is going five rounds after his backfield mate in best ball leagues. Probably those ADPs will tighten in the next few weeks.
- You may have heard Sermon was drafted by the Niners in the third round. His selection complicates the already complicated 49ers backfield. Training camp and preseason reports will hold a lot of weight with the rookie (and Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson), but for now, it's reasonable to project Sermon as a Zero RB target who should have some weekly usage and a bunch of upside in case the oft-injured Mostert misses time in 2021. Former NBC Sports Edge analyst Hayden Winks sees Sermon as a potential bellcow back.
- The first post-free agency domino to fall is Leonard Fournette dropping into the second tier, alongside teammate Ronald Jones. It was Tampa's signing of pass-catching back Giovani Bernard that stripped Fournette -- who had at least 20 touches in four of the Bucs’ final five games last year -- of his top tier status. Fournette's potential involvement in the Tampa passing attack was set to smooth over any kind of rushing struggles the veteran had in Tom Brady's offense. The addition of Bernard -- who commanded at least 50 targets in six of his eight seasons in Cincinnati -- means Lombardi Lenny has little to no shot of providing reliable pas catching production for Zero RB enthusiasts. Bernard is sure to eat into the 89 total targets (14.7 percent target share) Jones and Fournette had last year.
- Any potential starting back in a Kyle Shanahan offense should be first and foremost on the obsessive minds of any Zero RB adherent. Wilson had 19, 23, and 23 touches in his three 2020 starts for the Niners. He proved a tough runner and a capable pass catcher. Wilson, with Raheem Mostert sidelined, scorched Arizona for 204 total yards in the 49ers’ upset Week 15 win. Mostert has missed 20 regular season games over the past four seasons. Sermon's addition to the 49ers backfield makes Wilson's avenue to fantasy relevance a steeper climb.
- We’re back to perennial Zero RB target Latavius Murray. Coming off back to back seasons of 146 carries behind one of the league’s best offensive lines, Murray should be scooped up as a source of occasional points when Alvin Kamara is at full strength and the potential to be the top dog in the New Orleans rushing attack. Murray has nine games of double-digit carries in 2020. Again, you could do (much) worse.
- Fantasy football managers love nothing more than to hate on Jamaal Williams, a fine back who can handle a three-down role. I don’t get it. If D’Andre Swift struggles through injuries in 2021 or doesn't seize the every-down role in Detroit's offense, Williams becomes very much relevant. When you can grab a running back like that in the 13th round, you do it. Williams and Swift should benefit from a Detroit offensive line bolstered in the draft.
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- Hubbard is 2021's Mike Davis -- one Christian McCaffrey lower-body tweak away from absorbing most (or all) of Carolina's backfield touches. Hubbard in his sophomore campaign at Oklahoma State piled up 2,084 yards and 21 touchdowns. Surgeries on his ankle may have stripped Hubbard of his prior explosiveness, but he still profiles as a serviceable NFL back. Taken by Carolina in the fourth round, Hubbard is in line to serve as the team's starter should CMC find his way back to injured reserve in 2021. Hubbard, like many Zero RB candidates, won't have any fantasy value as long as McCaffrey is upright.
- Carter lands in a Jets' backfield teeming with uncertainty -- a perfect spot for fantasy players who salivate at the prospect of a backfield with no clear starter. Carter, thanks to Javonte Williams serving as North Carolina's top rushing option, never had a season with more than 200 touches, so it's tough to project him as an NFL workhorse. Carter was excellent in the pass game though, recording 82 receptions and just six drops over his four years at UNC. It's not as if he had no rushing success at Carolina: Carter eclipsed 1,200 yards at eight yards a pop and scored nine rushing touchdowns in his final collegiate season. New York investing a fourth rounder on Carter means he has a less-than-terrible shot to be the guy in 2021.
- It took me eleven hours to decide whether to place Penny in the third or fourth tier. He's certainly not a second tier Zero RB candidate because, simply put, there's no guarantee he would become an every-down guy if Chris Carson were to once again miss time in 2021. Probably Penny would see a usage boost if Carson were sidelined this season -- how big a boost will be the subject of much summertime fantasy banter. Travis Homer -- a pass catching specialist -- and DeeJay Dallas are the only two backs on the team's depth chart besides Carson and Penny. Dallas, who saw spot start duty in 2020, could easily foil a Penny breakout in the case of a Carson injury. It appears Penny is finally, at long last, healthy, for whatever that's worth.
- I take no pleasure in adding Booker to this list. I have little choice in the matter after Giants general manager Dave Gettleman said the team sees Booker as a three-down back. That's a big, billowing smoke signal to the Zero RB adherents among us: The Giants now seem likely to use Booker as an every-down guy should anything befall Saquon Barkley upon his return from his ACL injury. Booker has proven an adept pass catcher, totaling more than 30 receptions in each of his first three seasons in the league (with Denver). We're a year removed from Wayne Gallman emerging as an every-week starter in 12-team leagues. Shut your eyes and draft Booker.
- It’s tough, bordering on impossible, to get excited about any Buffalo running back. Both Moss and Devin Singletary had shots to take over the Bills backfield in 2020 and neither did. The Bills will remain one of the pass-heaviest offenses in the league, leaving an exceptionally narrow path to real volume for Moss. Still, his depressed ADP and his likely role as the team’s goal line back makes him hard to pass up. Buffalo fading RB in the NFL Draft can only be interpreted as a positive for Moss, and to a lesser extent, Singletary.
- Dillon plunges into the third tier because he’ll probably be used far less than Jamaal Williams was in the Green Bay offense. The team clearly doesn’t see him as a pass catching complement to Aaron Jones. I suppose they could use the big-bodied Dillon as a battering ram near the goal line in 2021 but that’s a volatile role on which to bank with his seven round ADP. I’m out on Dillon until his ADP gets into the ninth or tenth round.
- Try not to vomit when you think about drafting a Houston running back. OK, good. Now consider picking up Lindsay in the 14th as someone who can capture some cheap PPR production in case of a David Johnson injury. Don’t make me write anymore about the Texans backfield. Please.
- RIP Mike Boone szn. It was a glorious 30-day run -- no one can deny that. Denver taking Javonte Williams -- a back favored by some draft evaluators as the best in the class -- sinks Boone into the fourth tier. Even that might be generous now that it's clearly the Melvin Gordon-Williams show in Denver. Boone, an athletic freak with a 100th percentile burst score who had 148 yards and a touchdown in his only pro start, would now require Williams or Gordon to miss time in 2021 if he's going to provide any fantasy usefulness. Editor's note: Williams is not a Zero RB candidate because, quite unbelievably, he's going in the fourth round.
- No one in the fourth tier is going to inspire tremendous confidence. In fact, I could end up in a labor camp for touting these guys. So it goes. We’re targeting Michel for the same reason we’re targeting Williams. The Patriots are primed to establish the run so hard they open up a wormhole to 1969, and Michel could (maybe) be a beneficiary. In the 22nd round, you don’t have a whole lot to lose.
- Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer mentioned Hyde along with James Robinson as the team's early-down bangers. Apparently the Jags drafted Travis Etienne as a third-down back. We'll see if that plays out. Count me deeply skeptical. For now, Meyer (supposedly) sees Hyde as a runner who will get weekly usage. Of course, we're drafting him in the case of Etienne and/or Robinson injuries.
- Derrick Henry is 27 years old and has 718 touches over the past two seasons. Evans, with an 86th percentile speed score and an 81st percentile burst score at the 2020 NFL combine, looks to be the heir to the Titans’ starting role if anything befalls the Big Dog. Please stop sending me the video of Henry doing pushups with a 500-pound chain around his neck.
- Samaje Perine has zero standalone value. In fact, he doesn't make much sense in best ball -- even in the deepest formats. I'll be far more interested in him for redraft purposes. Perine would only see usage in the Bengals backfield if Joe Mixon's injury struggles persisted in 2021. Bengals coaches reportedly want Mixon to retake his every-down role this season, as one might expect.
- The Jets' backfield holds considerable intrigue for Zero RB truthers. Newly drafted RB Michael Carter should being considered the favorite to take on lead back duties shouldn't eliminate the other New York backs from late-round consideration. Perine is just as good a Zero RB target as Ty Johnson. Johnson was indeed impressive in (very) limited opportunity last season, turning 24 Week 11 touches into 117 yards and a score. I am aware Tevin Coleman is a Jet. I have reached the point in my life where I'm fine betting against Coleman as anything close to a long-term answer in any NFL backfield. At least one of the veterans in the Jets' backfield won't be on the team's Week 1 roster.
- Production monster Kylin Hill has been removed from the fourth tier. Drafted by the Packers in the final round of the draft, he has (almost) no path to playing time in Green Bay barring a string of backfield injuries. Hill, who piled up 1,350 rushing yards for Mississippi State while commanding a 24 percent target share in 2019, would then be interesting.