Among the many (honest) misunderstandings about the Zero RB structural draft strategy is the idea that Zero RB adherents should be laser focused on pass-catching backs available in the later rounds.
It’s not exactly a ludicrous idea: A running back targets is worth an astounding 2.5 times more fantasy value than a rushing attempt in PPR formats. In standard scoring leagues (cavepeople formats), a running back target is worth 1.3 times more than a rush.
Why not, the thinking goes, pile up ancillary pass-catching specialists in the latter half of your draft?
Those running backs can provide some weekly usefulness, especially in deeper leagues with multiple flex spots, but they (almost always) lack the upside we’re chasing. Their role doesn’t change all that much if and when their team’s starting back misses time -- they remain the main pass catcher and might see a sprinkling of rushing attempts alongside another reserve back or two.
We seek the home run with our late-round running back selections. We want a back who, yes, might offer some weekly value, but most importantly, someone who would have little or no competition for backfield touches in the case of a starter’s injury. We want, in short, a later-round back who won’t just beat his ADP; we want a guy who will lay waste to it.
Sharp Football’s Rich Hribar -- aka Reebs, aka Richard Q. Hribar VII -- had some useful, research-rich nuggets in his recent look at RB scoring. He found NFL backs “accounted for their fewest number of overall offensive touches and lowest share of league touches” in 2020. It was touchdowns that kept 2020 from devolving into a running back apocalypse. RBs scored 487 touchdowns last season, an all-time high.
We’re seeing a steady drop in running back pass game involvement, per Hribar. RB targets and receptions -- as you’ll see below -- have fallen in each of the past three seasons after topping out in 2017. This could be the (not entirely unpredictable) result of more wide receivers being on the field for teams across the league, or rushing quarterbacks forgoing dump-off passes when they can just as easily escape the pocket and pick up a first down. Whatever the reason, a marked decrease in overall RB pass game involvement is a phenomenon that should be noted by fantasy managers, no matter your approach to the game. Another strong receiver rookie class funneling into the league probably won’t help matters for pass-catching backs.
Before we delve into the recent history of pass-catching running backs and how they may or may not fit into a Zero RB roster build, I’ll touch on some later-round backfield pass catchers who don’t quite fit the Zero RB prototype.
Nyheim Hines, IND
Positional ADP: RB40
Why, you ask through gritted teeth, would we not want last year’s RB16 in PPR formats? I’ll concede: Hines is hardly a hateful pick in the ninth round. His most concerning 2021 issue could be the loss of Philip Rivers, the master of the dump off, the screen pass extraordinaire. Running back targets are unfortunately a QB stat, after all.
Our sample size is miniscule but in Jonathan Taylor’s only missed game of 2020 -- a Thursday night blowout loss to Tennessee -- Hines started and led the team with ten carries. Jordan Wilkins saw seven carries. Perhaps game script was the culprit. Or maybe it wasn’t. The Colts clearly don’t see Hines as an every-down guy, evidenced by his 35 percent snap rate and his 5.56 carries per game in 2020. That snap rate slipped to 31 percent once Taylor took over the backfield in the season’s final month. He had more than seven totes in just four games. Wilkins, who missed a game in 2020, ended the season with five fewer carries than Hines.
There’s little indication Hines would be treated as anything close to a workhorse should Taylor miss time in 2021. Hines is a much better best ball target than he will be for season-long purposes at his current ADP. Grabbing him in the ninth or tenth and reaping the benefits of his blowup weeks (he had three in 2020) -- likely driven by game script that generates a glut of pass-catching opportunities for Hines -- would constitute reasonable process. He still falls short of the ideal Zero RB candidate.
J.D. McKissic, WFT
Positional ADP: RB45
Now to crack my knuckles, take a big sip of coffee, and make a case for why last year’s PPR RB15 isn’t an optimal Zero RB target in the 11th round. McKissic as the 45th running back off the board is, well, OK in best ball leagues. It’s (highly) unlikely an 11th rounder is going to sink your squad.
But wait! Like the aforementioned Hines, McKissic lost one of the NFL’s premiere dump off specialists this offseason when Washington parted ways with Alex Smith. McKissic had an elite 24.2 percent target share in games Smith started last season, dominating Washington’s backfield snap rate along the way. McKissic has a tremendous PPR floor with Smith under center. Probably he’s lost that floor with Ryan Fitzpatrick, or whoever gets the Football Team’s Week 1 starting gig.
It’s time for hindsight analysis. Antonio Gibson’s early exit from Week 13’s game against Pittsburgh led to a meager three carries for McKissic while Peyton Barber took over as the team’s primary rusher, totaling 14 totes and getting the goal line work. When Gibson sat out Washington’s Week 14 game against San Francisco, Peyton Barber led the Football Team with 12 rushing attempts; McKissic had 11. In their Week 15 game against Seattle -- another one Gibson missed -- McKissic had 12 of the team’s 16 rushing attempts.
McKissic in no way profiles as a back who would shoulder a starter’s workload should Gibson get dinged up again in 2021. And Smith’s departure looms large for the diminutive McKissic.
James White, NE
Positional ADP: RB50
White saw a massive usage decrease in Cam Newton’s first season as New England’s starter. He averaged 4.42 targets per game with Newton under center -- down from 7.1 targets per game the previous two seasons. He also saw his rushing attempts cut in half from 2019 to 2020.
Unless the Patriots move up in the draft and select a traditional pocket passer, there’s no way White will offer any kind of reliable fantasy output in 2021. My interest in White will remain locked in at zero even if his ADP drops in the coming months.
Tarik Cohen, CHI
Positional ADP: RB54
Coming off a 2020 season lost to an ACL tear, Cohen re-enters the fray as the presumed primary pass catcher in Andy Dalton’s backfield. Cohen’s return -- and the addition of Zero RB target Damien Williams -- ensures David Montgomery will be among the most over-drafted players in all of fantasy. But does Cohen’s return offer a viable Zero RB option?
The short of it: No. Cohen commanded a healthy 18.4 percent target share two short seasons ago and barely outperformed his eighth round ADP. The Bears are not going to use Cohen as a three-down guy. That much, thankfully, is clear. It’s Williams who profiles as the back with the best chance to take over Chicago’s backfield should Montgomery miss time in 2021. That a healthy Cohen would strip away some of Williams’ pass-catching luster shouldn’t prevent us from keeping a close eye on Williams in best ball and seasonal leagues.
Giovani Bernard, TB
Positional ADP: RB77
No. Just no.
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A Brief (Recent) History of Pass Catching Running Backs
Below are the top-10 most targeted backs from 2017-2020, along with their target share, their positional average draft position, and where they finished in PPR formats. I thought this might offer a clue or two about which later-round pass-catching specialists emerged as Zero RB darlings over the past four seasons.
- Mike Davis was the Zero RB deity in 2020, taking over for Christian McCaffrey and his various nagging injuries. Yes, Davis had a healthy 13.2 percent target share, but he also dominated carries for Carolina until later in the season. He fit the mold: A back who was always going to have little or no competition for touches if CMC were to miss time.
- Bernard’s finish just outside RB2 range was due largely to a late-season run as a workhorse in Joe Mixon’s absence. Mostly he shared the backfield with Samaje Perine, and was never going to be a one-for-one replacement for Mixon.
- Edmonds’ success as a complementary back was tough to see coming. Kenyan Drake didn’t miss a bunch of games; he just ceded almost all the backfield targets to Edmonds. It was a strange development considering Drake’s pass-catching usage in Miami. As the 27th RB off the draft board today, Edmonds is of course well outside Zero RB range.
- Cohen was useful for a while in 2019. He was heavily used in Chicago’s passing game early on but never got any sort of rushing opportunity, as expected. Hence, the RB3 fantasy finish.
- 2019 Ekeler was an intriguing case. He was the Bolts’ starter for the season’s first month while they waited for Melvin Gordon to return to the lineup. While Ekeler’s rushing usage all but vanished upon Gordon’s return, Philip Rivers kept peppering him with targets on his way to an elite fantasy campaign. Again, RB targets as a quarterback stat seem to be a recurring theme in identifying useful late-round backs.
- White, who had emerged as Tom Brady’s preferred checkdown recipient during the latter half of the 2017 season, was a sneaky pick in 2018 if you believed he would maintain a vice grip on the Pats’ backfield pass catching role. Nearly 79 percent of White’s fantasy production came via the pass in 2018, and he served as a vital pickup for Zero RB adherents the world over. White in 2018 was certainly an outlier. But if preseason tea leaves point toward a running back dominating pass catching opportunities -- and he’s available at a reasonable ADP -- there’s no reason to turn up our noses.
- Richard came out of nowhere in 2018 to gobble up 15.3 percent of the Raiders’ target share. He was never, however, used as a rusher, totaling 55 carries over 16 games. Richard, who continually benefited from negative game scripts that kept the Raiders throwing, was never a threat to become an every-down back. Even if he had, the 2018 Raiders -- who won all of four games -- were rarely in position to run the ball consistently. Herein lies a lesson: While we can’t be picky, we’d prefer Zero RB candidates on good teams who won’t have to abandon the run week in and week out.
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- The mainstream media won’t tell you that Alvin Kamara, before he was a perennial first round pick, was a Zero RB darling. Drew Brees’ usage of running backs in the passing game tipped off savvy fantasy managers who saw big potential in the elusive Kamara, even with Mark Ingram locked in as the team’s primary ball carrier. The Saints 2017 backfield was unique, but not unique enough to lack a valuable takeaway. If it becomes evident that a team will use two backs -- even if one is clearly going to lead the way -- we want that No. 2 guy. That goes doubly for No. 2 backs who have three-down potential.
- Duke Johnson in 2017 helped his cause in a bigly way by scoring four rushing touchdowns on a mere 82 carries (along with four receiving scores). The Browns never used him as a three-down guy -- he had double digit carries just once in 16 games. Johnson would not have been a typical Zero RB target. Of course, it worked out for those who took him as the 38th running back off the draft board. That strikes me as results-oriented analysis though.