Football season is officially closing in with teams starting up training camps and the Hall of Fame Game just days away. You know what that means? Its fantasy football prep time. Every year as we near August, fans begin their fantasy football research and strategizing. For long-time players, this has become routine while first-timers might be a step or two behind. Have no fear, this article applies to all players, from experts to amateurs. Today I want to discuss the “zero running back” strategy and whether or not 2019 is the right year to use this philosophy.
2019 Outlook: Zero Running Back
For anyone who has never heard of the zero running back strategy, it’s pretty simple. The idea is that you spend your first four or five picks on wide receivers and a tight end and then begin to stock up on running back in the mid to late rounds. It’s a bold strategy but it can be highly effective if done correctly.
Before we get into any specifics, I would like to say that if you’re picking inside the top five or playing in a non-PPR league then the zero running back strategy probably isn’t for you.
For everyone else picking near the end of Round One and using PPR, I’m going to show you why 2019 might just be the perfect year to give zero running back a try.
In case anyone hasn’t gotten the memo, the NFL is a passing league and it has been for some time. The running game will always be a factor but with most teams opting for a running back by committee approach, there are fewer and fewer workhorse guys you can rely on early in drafts.
If you take a look at this year’s consensus first-round guys, you’ll see mostly running backs, you know what else you’ll see? A lot of question marks. Starting at the very top of the draft, we have Ezekiel Elliott threatening a holdout if he doesn’t get a new contract. Moving down a few picks, Melvin Gordon is in the same boat, he will not play without a new contract. Those are two of the top five backs in fantasy with huge question marks hanging over their heads.
My running back concerns are not limited to first-round guys either. Whether it be injuries or rust, I have real concerns about Le’Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, Dalvin Cook, and Leonard Fournette. These guys will cost you a low first or high second-round pick and there is a very real chance that they could ride your bench most of the year with their respective injuries flaring up. Too much risk for me in this top group of backs. I feel a lot better about the wide receivers in that range while opting for mid-round running backs.
Most years I would not recommend going zero running back, but 2019 has a ton of high upside backs in the fourth-sixth rounds that make it very appealing. We have Kerryon Johnson, Phillip Lindsay, Sony Michel, Kenyan Drake, James White, David Montgomery, Tarik Cohen and more all available at the start of round 4. So, if you were to go zero running back early and then decided it was time to start targeting backs, any of the guys listed above would be great options.
The Wide Receivers You’re Getting
Now, let’s turn our attention to the wide receivers. While I do think it’s a very deep group, there is also a major drop-off once you are nearing round four. The first three rounds of this year’s draft are stacked with top wide receivers while the middle rounds have upside, but not a lot of excitement. I think you’ll get better value with near the same upside if you are taking your backups in the double-digit rounds.
If you were to start your draft for instance with Julio Jones, Michael Thomas and Keenan Allen (something I’ve done in many mocks), you could afford to be a little weaker at running back because you’ll have a huge advantage at wide receiver.
While predicting the health of any player is a fool’s errand, no doubt running backs are the most vulnerable to injury amongst all fantasy positions. The idea of investing a late first or early second-round pick on a back that has had injury issues (almost all of them do) seems irresponsible to me.
Wide receivers are historically easier to predict and more consistent on a year to year basis than running backs making them a little bit safer even if it might not feel that way. Most fantasy owners would get queasy if they were in round four without yet taking a running back but you must fight that urge. The value you can get with wide receivers in the early parts of drafts will be what carries your team throughout the season.
I want to share a quick example of someone I know who used the zero running back strategy to perfection back in 2017. We were in two leagues together and he went zero running back in both, getting Julio Jones, Michael Thomas, Keenan Allen, and A.J. Green. How he got all 4 of those guys in two different leagues is still a mystery but needless to say he won both titles fairly easily. If you’re dominating your wide receiver and flex spots by such a wide margin than losing a couple of points at running back isn’t going to make much of a difference.
Now, you must remember that each draft is different, and you can’t have any strategy set in stone. If you see huge a run on running backs early, then don’t be afraid to grab a running back in the third. The same applies if you were looking to go running back heavy and the receivers are flying off the board you must be open to changing your plans and securing a top pass catcher.
If you’ve made it this far, I want to give you a quick outline of how you could best use this strategy for your drafts. Assuming your picking from the bottom of the first round, your first two picks should be some combination of Davante Adams, Deandre Hopkins, Michael Thomas, Julio Jones, Juju Smith-Schuster and Travis Kelce. From there, it will depend on how the rest of guys drafted, but usually you’ll be looking at Keenan Allen, T.Y. Hilton, and Adam Thielen all as third wide receiver options. Having this kind of a start will put you lightyears ahead of everyone else at the wide receiver position.
Once you’ve reached the fourth round, I’d start considering some of the running backs I mentioned earlier, stacking high upside guys in good offenses. Because you addressed wide receiver early, you now have the opportunity to stock up on backs throughout the rest of your draft. Some late round, high upside guys to consider are Darrell Henderson, Latavius Murray, Miles Sanders, Rashaad Penny, Jaylen Samuels, and Ronald Jones.
For anyone who is not yet convinced that this can be a viable strategy please give it a try in a couple of mock drafts and see for yourself. I think you will be very pleasantly surprised with the roster you can put together even while passing on the top-end running back talent.
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