Mock Draft Strategies: The Frustrating Journey of Zero RB

Charles Herrmann (@HermsNFL)
The Lateral Chief Editor
Malcolm McMillan (@McLateralFF)
The Lateral Writer

[EDITOR'S NOTE: These mocks were done prior to the news LeSean McCoy would be joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Only makes a couple things mentioned outdated.]

Each week at The Lateral, our writers tackle the mock draft strategies that could make the difference between a championship roster, and a waiver wire makeover candidate. This week, the focus is on the "Zero RB" draft strategy.

What is the Zero RB strategy and why should I try it?

Fairly simple: don't take a running back in the first 4-5 rounds of your draft.

Why on earth would anyone do that? That sounds like ruining a perfectly good filet mignon dinner by dunking the meat in ketchup. Everyone knows that is not how you eat a filet!

Sure, that definitely sounds terrible. But imagine the filet mignon is overcooked. At that point, you're left with a pricey investment turning into a glorified burger patty. Blame the cook, tell your waiter, do whatever it is that feels necessary, but the fact of the matter is that you paid up for a big boy dinner and something beyond your control went wrong.

A stud, top-tier RB is like a fantasy filet mignon. They require a high pick to get, they are great when they are out there and putting up monster points, but if they get hurt, you're shit out of luck. Unfortunately, in fantasy football, you don't have the option to have the fantasy kitchen whip you up a new top-tier RB if something goes wrong. Much like filet mignon, those stud RBs don't grow on trees.

What do Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook all have in common? They have each missed a significant portion of time in their short careers due to injury. Massive workloads running and catching the ball lead to an increased risk of injury. Only Cook has a lengthy history of injuries to his name, but if you had invested in any one of them last season, there came a time where you were left to panic and find the nearest bottle of ketchup to make up for their absence.

Another thing they have in common is that they are all consensus top 5 RBs. 3 out of the consensus top 5 RBs all came back to bite you at some point last season. For those keeping track at home, that's 60% of them. Granted, this is a very small example of the larger point, but I think the point stands. If your filet ends up not being what you wanted it to be, you might have resort to dunking it in ketchup to make up for it. But what if you'd had paid up for a fancy lobster dinner instead? Seafood is a lot harder to screw up cooking and in many ways is just as good as a filet mignon. In this example, a good lobster is a stud WR.

Zero RB takes away the risk of investing heavily at the RB position and presents you with the opportunity to load up at WR, a position less prone to the wear and tear that comes with running the football, and seeing where that takes you.

This strategy really intrigued The Lateral, particularly because it gave us an opportunity to see what it's like to stray away from beef and break out the lobster bibs. So our intrepid duo decided to dive headfirst into the dark waters of mock drafting in July, and test the theory.

Here were our parameters:
  • 12-Team
  • PPR
  • 2 WR
  • No RBs drafted in the first 5 rounds
  • 5 drafts on ESPN
    • Charles Herrmann did all the ESPN Mock Drafts
  • 5 drafts on Yahoo
    • Malcolm McMillan did all the Yahoo Mock Drafts
Unfortunately, the mock draft platforms have their limits, so doing things such as deeper benches, or 3 WR rosters were off the table. Obviously, this strategy has more benefits in a 3 WR roster, as the WRs are at a premium in those leagues, and more RBs will remain in the pool come Round 6.

Players left on the board most often using this strategy:

CH: Well... uhhh... you'll find that a rather sizable portion of top RBs are going to be off the board by waiting until the 6th round to take one. On ESPN, that basically amount to ≈1-24 coming off before you pick which means everyone from Christian McCaffrey to D'Andre Swift are going to be gone. Occasionally, someone will fall to you like Kareem Hunt or Jonathan Taylor if you're lucky, but generally you're throwing yourself deep into position before you start taking anyone for your roster.

This also means the bench WRs you're going to take after playing catchup are going to come from the WR45-60 range. Those guys on ESPN are the rookies from Ruggs III to Reagor and a few low-end vets Breshad Perriman or Larry Fitzgerald. This year, I don't particularly hate some of the late-round WR options, so by starting WR heavy to begin with, it's not going to screw you up all that much thankfully.

MM: So let us get the obvious out of the way from the get-go. You leave a lot of RBs on the board. Especially in the early rounds. There was only one draft (5th Mock Draft; drafting from 7th position) where I did not leave an RB on the board in the first two rounds. Occasionally this was a real tough pill to swallow, like when I had to draft Michael Thomas instead of Cowboy's workhorse, Ezekiel Elliot (4th Mock Draft; drafting from the 3rd position), but even then I am still getting Michael Thomas, which is awesome.

The two biggest areas where players felt left on the board were rounds 3-4 and 7-8. In Round 3, I was forced to pass up on Melvin Gordon III, Chris Carson, and James Conner, but I was at least still taking a starter at this point. In Round 4 though, I would already have at least 2 WRs and so I was passing on a starting RB such as Jonathan Taylor, Raheem Mostert, or Leonard Fournette for what was going to be a FLEX at best.

Similarly, in rounds 7-8, I had to take RBs because I had gone so heavy at WR up until that point. This meant having to take a lot of Jordan Howard as a starting RB, instead of picking up Julian Edelman or Jarvis Landry as a FLEX or for WR depth. Michael Gallup and Darrius Slayton were regularly available in these rounds too, so you were not left feeling great about hoping to have the Miami and Tampa Bay backfield drop to you for your starting RBs when you could be shoring up WR depth.

Players acquired to compensate for not drafting any RBs until Round 6:

CH: By going zero RB, I had it in my head that 2 things absolutely needed to happen with my roster:
  • Have a top-end TE
  • Have a QB who possesses upside with his legs
I think the logic here is pretty sound. Obviously, this strategy means you're sacrificing having any semblance of a reliable floor from the RB spot, so it is imperative that you ensure and solidify it at the other positions. My top 3 TEs for this upcoming season are Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Darren Waller. One of those 3 players was on every single team I mock drafted. The difference between a high volume TE and the rest of the pack is fairly obvious. Plenty of TEs have 3 for 35 and maybe a TD in them week-to-week, but there are only a small hand full that can give you somewhat reliable production over the field. If you're going to pass up RB early, take a premium TE.

The other thing to consider is that if you're not going to have a steady batch of RBs, take a QB who can supplement some of that rushing in addition to the passing numbers they provide. We know the guys who can give that to you. Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Kyler Murray, and to a degree Russell Wilson can provide that, and if you want to wait a little longer, Josh Allen is there too. By no means will that totally make up for passing on a top 24 RB, but the combination of a middling RB2 and the rushing numbers of a mobile QB can amount to something a little stronger. Hell, Lamar Jackson by himself would've been a top 24 RB if you took away his passing from last season.

As far as the RBs I did take, I tried to look at 3 types of guys:
  • Solid pass-catching PPR guys
  • Pieces of RBBC situations in flux
  • Cam Akers
Head Coach Sean McVay did suggest recently that the Los Angeles Rams backfield could look a lot like the 49ers backfield in 2020, but that isn't something that particularly scares me. With Todd Gurley moving onto Atlanta, I don't think anyone was surprised by McVay saying he wants to spread the ball around a bit. It's tough to replace a workhorse, so the combination of Cam Akers, 2019 preseason darling and colossal waste of time Darrell Henderson Jr., and Malcolm Brown sharing the ball doesn't shock me. Of the 3, Akers is best suited for handling a majority of the touches and goal-line work, and he's no stranger to running behind a less-than-stellar offensive line having come from Florida State University. He may not be sexy or have high-RB1 upside this year, but Akers should be a steady contributor.

I put Jordan Howard in the same category as Akers. He also shares a backfield with Matt Breida, a guy who when healthy has shown he's worth a roster spot. Whether you want the horse on the ground or the pass-catching PPR guy or maybe even both, the Miami backfield is a good one to target in this strategy. Same with the Tampa Bay backfield. Ronald Jones II is not that great in pass protection, which cost him playing time in 2019, but as of now he is projected to be the starter lined up behind Tom Brady. Rookie Ke'Shawn Vaughn is also a very interesting guy who could overtake the shaky third-year player in front of him. Take a stab on either one and hope you're right.

A quick rundown of the other players I targeted includes some familiar names:

Mark Ingram (if he was lucky enough to fall) and Marlon Mack: Both guys have talented rookies waiting in the wings to take over for them. It's reasonable to expect that the best value you're going to get out of them is in the early season. Going zero RB means you're likely going to have to ride the waiver wire long-term anyway, so why not give yourself a cushion for a few weeks to figure it out? Let that pair run their course and hopefully you'll have a viable transition plan by the time it comes to it. And while you're at it, take JK Dobbins in Baltimore, especially in a dynasty or keeper format.

James White: This one speaks for itself.

Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman: The 49ers backfield is annoying, but beggars can't be choosers in zero RB.

Zack Moss and Joshua Kelley: A pair of rookies running behind talented pass-catching starters, Devin Singletary and Austin Ekeler respectively, who could feasibly overtake the team's RB1 in goal-line situations and provide flex value.

Boston Scott, Antonio Gibson and Damien Harris: Scott should have a good PPR role behind Miles Sanders, and the same goes for Gibson behind ... whoever the Washington lead RB is. Hell, it could be him. We have no idea. As for Harris, Sony Michel could very well start the year on the PUP list. He's already on the training camp PUP list recovering from foot surgery, and while this isn't exactly news at this point, it is something to carefully monitor. Harris is virtually free in ESPN drafts, so there's no harm in taking a stab.

MM: I really hope you love Jordan Howard and Ronald Jones II.

Seriously though, as I alluded to earlier, in rounds 6-8 you will need to be picking up your starting RBs here, which meant a lot of trying to stack Jordan Howard and Matt Breida from the Miami backfield, and Ronald Jones II and Ke'Shawn Vaughn from the Tampa Bay backfield. You could still find some FLEX value in Phillip Lindsay or J.K. Dobbins in Rounds 9-10, but unless Devin Singletary got lucky enough to fall to you (1st Mock Draft; drafting from the 9th position), you had to rely on those two backfields.

One important note here though: you can find some value if you get risky. Vaughn is now likely to be a firm 3rd on the Tampa Bay RB depth chart, which means you could pass on him if you needed to as your 4th RB. This leaves you open to take Devonta Freeman, who you have to just pray at this point ends up on a roster. It is high risk but given you can get Freeman in rounds 10-13, it is also potentially high reward.

Another important compensation was after my first draft I also made a quick determination to not take 5 WRs in the first five rounds ever again. So I started taking top tier TEs and QBs instead. My favorite strategies that I landed on were to take Travis Kelce or George Kittle in Round 2 and then Dak Prescott or Russell Wilson in Round 5 or to take Lamar Jackson in Round 3, and Darren Waller in Round 5. This left me with a much more balanced lineup and gave me more positions I could punt on in favor of drafting RBs only in rounds 6-9.

General roster strengths:

CH: The overall floor of the starting lineup is fairly solid using this strategy. Having a top-tier QB and TE combo along with a strong WR like a DJ Chark or Robert Woods or Calvin Ridley in your flex spot is nice. While the RB depth isn't ideal, you'll have a lot of guys that only need a thing or two to break their way and blossom into greater value than what you initially invested. Having a strong ROI is always fun.

MM: Once I retooled my strategy to be 3 WRs, 1 QB, and 1 TE in the first five rounds, my roster became much more balanced. Usually, the FantasyPros Report Card and Yahoo Projected standings had me strong at QB, WR, and TE, with an occasional strong bench and DST. FantasyPros does not like the Tampa Bay DST, but does like the New Orleans DST, so it really depended on which defense I drafted if I was rated strong or weak at DST.

General roster weaknesses:

CH: I don't have much to say that isn't glaringly obvious. It's easier to piecemeal a backfield in real-life football than it is in fantasy football.

You're going to have to hope that everything breaks your way or else you're kind of screwed at RB.

MM: Your starting RBs are going to suck.

There really is no getting around that. If your first RB is drafted in Round 6, you are officially in RB2/FLEX territory. There are not potential RB1s left at this point. You can try and try to get as many RB2s as possible, but that is your best-case scenario.

The bench is tricky. On the one hand, this strategy gives you higher-end WRs in the beginning, so your 4th WR may be a Devante Parker or Julian Edelman, rather than your FLEX. However, your bench RBs are now J.K. Dobbins and Phillip Lindsay at best. That is not terrible, but that is also at best. If you get unlucky, you could be looking at some genuine bench players on the bench. Also, if you draft Devonta Freeman or Cam Newton, FantasyPros dings your bench a little at the moment, so do not worry too much about it.

Overall conclusions:

CH: To be perfectly honest, I don't hate this. The overarching trend in fantasy football for 2020 to this point is the remarkable overcorrection for the frustrating 2019 season a lot of us had with our RBs, and while it is going to be painful for you in the early part of the year in 2020 by passing up the top 24 guys, there's a good chance you'll be fine.

Every year, there are players who come off the waiver wire that become league-winners for your squad, and in a time in which a global pandemic is taking place and every player is at risk for contracting the COVID-19 virus, the odds of being able to find a way to make it through by riding the waiver wire goes up. This strategy dictates that you're going to have to make absolutely sure that the RBs you pick up hit because the room for error is evaporated, but it is possible to make this turn out to be wise.

Would I recommend doing this? No, not really. I'm more in favor of the augmented version of zero RB in which you take one in the 1st round and then don't go for it again until the middle. If you're going to do this, do the augmented version. You're still going to rely on waivers to help you, but at the very least you'll have someone to fall back on. But if you are going to do this, take guys like Ingram, Mack, and potentially Damien Harris who will have early season value and then fizzle out. Give yourself a cushion and have an arsenal of guys who can catch the ball and give your PPR floor a bit of a boost that way.

MM: If you go "Zero RB" you should take advantage of the draft capital to shore up your QB and/or TE spots. I cannot advocate under any circumstances you draft 5 WRs in a row in a 12-man 2 WR league. However, the strategy has some value and was definitely an enlightening exercise. Based on the two mock draft strategies we have tested so far, a viable strategy would be:
  • Round 1 WR (Julio Jones)
  • Round 2 WR (Allen Robinson II)
  • Round 3 WR (A.J. Brown)
  • Round 4 RB (Jonathan Taylor)
  • Round 5 TE (Darren Waller)
  • Round 6 QB (Deshaun Watson)
That still gives you the best WRs in your league but allows you to still get someone in the Melvin Gordon III to Raheem Mostert range as your starting RB. Pairing that with a Ronald Jones II or Jordan Howard, while still a bit week at RB, would be significantly more viable than having those RBs as your RB1.

And there you have it, folks. Another session of Mock Draft Series in the bag. Next week, The Lateral duo is going to take a look at the "Zero WR" draft strategy.

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