Zero RB, Breakout Stars, and Having More Fun Drafting


The Dude: I don’t see any connection to Vietnam, Walter.
Walter Sobchak: Well, there isn’t a literal connection, Dude.
The Dude: Walter, face it, there isn’t any connection.

There isn’t a literal connection between the Big Lebowski and this post either, but if you stay with me, I’ll explain why I prefer to draft into the wind, and, possibly, give you permission to have more fun playing fantasy football.

Zero RB and Opportunity

Although I vary my strategies by league and on an occasional whim – it doesn’t make sense to become too predictable when drafting against the same elite players over and over – Zero RB is my favorite approach for high stakes formats. It really struck a chord with readers both because the idea of antifragility offered something of a respite from the bludgeoning of VBD and because the 2013 first round was a running back minefield.

Now that the dust has settled, restraint and common sense seem to be prevailing. A lot of my favorite writers have penned compelling arguments for drafting at least one running back early. The NFL is becoming a receiving league, but this arguably makes the handful of impact running backs more valuable not less. If you examine the results from a macro level, it’s difficult to make the case for swinging for the fences every year in every league.

Zero RB successfully thwarts convention because it anticipates the necessity of treating the Flex as your most important position instead of an afterthought. As one of our astute commenters pointed out, VBD only really works at all if you create your baselines with the premise that fantasy is a Race to Fill the Flex. But an all-or-nothing strategy isn’t imperative. You can target at least one runner early and still attack your Flex position, so that in and of itself doesn’t force you into Zero RB.

Many believe the most important factor in determining RB value is opportunity. Justin Winn has convincingly argued for passing on Andre Williams in rookie drafts because projected draft slot could destroy his value.

Can you consistently dominate your league by drafting directly into the face of this singular premise? Can you do it every year?

My Highest Profile Zero RB Targets

Year Player RV Proj Experience RB ADP Overall ADP Timeshare w/ Finish
2008 Chris Johnson 78 Rookie RB32 102 LenDale White RB11
2009 Ray Rice 89 Y2 RB29 67 Willis McGahee RB3
Rashard Mendenhall 94 Y2 RB42 119 Fast Willie Parker RB16
Jamaal Charles 71 Y2 RB53 157 Larry Johnson RB11
2010 Darren McFadden 98 Y3 RB39 115 Michael Bush RB8*
2011 Roy Helu 59 Rookie RB47 144 Tim Hightower RB24*
Kevin Smith 95 Vet UD UD Jahvid Best RB40*
2012 C.J. Spiller 65 Y3 RB31 92 Fred Jackson RB6
Doug Martin 76 Rookie RB20 46 LeGarrette Blount RB2
Alfred Morris 40 Rookie RB55 161 Roy Helu/Tim Hightower RB7
2013 LeVeon Bell 94 Rookie RB27 78 Injury RB15*
Zac Stacy 51 Rookie RB54 162 Daryl Richardson RB20

And then consider two guys I missed.

Year Player RV Proj Experience RB ADP Overall ADP Finish
2008 Matt Forte 97 Rookie RB28 75 RB1
2010 LeSean McCoy 78 Y2 RB16 39 RB3


If you run the numbers without any framework for how to target breakout runners, then you’ll be pretty demoralized by the fairly low rate of RB breakouts. It doesn’t seem like the percentage play. Even with a year like 2013 where a lot of the early round RBs busted, you’ll still find that most startable running backs are selected early in fantasy drafts.

But if you start with the premise that you should ignore opportunity, ignore scouting reports, and ignore important-but-fully-valued metrics like size, then selecting breakout running backs looks as regular as clockwork.

How Do You Do It?

Well, you can start by targeting rookies in redraft. Arguably my most actionable post of the spring focused on why our NFL Draft coverage might be the most important fantasy content you read all year. To be sure, rookies tend to be overvalued in redraft, but that’s because the NFL Draft is very inefficient and the wrong players tend to generate the most hype.

Second, you can target players who do well in the Fantasy Douche’s RB Projection Algorithm. With the possible exception of Darren McFadden, most of the players on the above list were liked better by the formula than by scouts. (Of course, some of that is tautological since they trained the algorithm.)

Third, you can target players who appear to be in bad situations. Opportunity may be important, but you frequently win fantasy leagues by ignoring opportunity and targeting players who are more talented than the starter. The upside is huge and downside can be covered by spreading these selections across a basket of “high vol” players.

Fourth, you can target players with great comps from my Profile 2. You can target the Agility Score stars. Big, fast players like Adrian Peterson project extremely well to the NFL, but that usually makes them too expensive. Meanwhile, the smaller, shiftier players are usually tagged with “bounces too many runs to the outside” and “fails to break arm tackles” or even “lacks second level vision.” One of the cool things about FD’s recent stroll through the RB projection landscape was the way in which he offered multiple projection systems, including the Giovani Bernard Award winners.

Who Should You Select in 2014?

You could start by selecting this year’s Agility Score superstar, Bishop Sankey. He receives the highest grade in this year’s Matt Forte Award for All Around Fantasy Excellence category, but is only a good-not-great prospect by the algorithm. Here’s your impending hyperbole warning, but I think his astounding comp list would move him even higher for me. He might be the best RB prospect since Jamaal Charles.

Or you could take the hype-less Profile 1 star. I don’t draft the big, punishing, yardage machines very often because I don’t want to pay the high price and lose the receptions in the process, but Andre Williams is just staggeringly underrated. It’s important to know that Jeremy Hill is a much better prospect than Carlos Hyde, but both of them pale in comparison to Williams.

Or you just select Tyler Gaffney. The Cardinal star is hilariously more athletic than guys who are going to go rounds ahead of him. His comps suggest an All Pro future.

Or if all of those guys are either too expensive or simply unappealing, try the 4-Pack of Explosive Rookie Sleepers.

Others . . . my Top 10 Sleepers article is centered around high upside backups. These guys don’t necessarily have high profile RV projection scores, but there are compelling reasons why they could emerge. Or better, you could check out the Top 20 Deep Sleepers. That list isn’t as tailored to Zero RB but features a handful of runners you can get for nothing.

But, more than that, I’d check out the Post-Hype Super Sleepers.  The No. 4 player on that list is going to be the Poster Child for Zero RB. Will he break out? Not necessarily. Most fantasy owners hate him right now. Maybe as much as they hated Darren McFadden before he ripped off his monster third year campaign. But this guy scored an 81 in the Official RotoViz Projection System, a better score than any runner from the 2014 Draft.


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Shawn Siegele is the creator of the contrarian sports website Money in the Banana Stand and Lead Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy.

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