Mock Draft Strategies: Run It Up The Middle Going Zero WR

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

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 WR" draft strategy.

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

Simply put, you don't take a WR in the first 4-5 rounds. A top RB is just more of a premium piece than a top WR.

"Wait... so I should not take Michael Thomas and snag Joe Mixon instead?"

No. Michael Thomas is likely the best WR in fantasy, and the best-case scenario for Joe Mixon is a Top-5 finish. So just to get it out of the way, let us be very clear here:

Do not get cute in Round 1.

However, the numbers do show that the drop off from RB1 to RB2 is much worse than the drop off from WR1 to WR2. Luckily, ESPN's Matthew Berry already did the work on that breakdown, so check that out here in his Fantasy Football Draft-Day Manifesto from 2019. To summarize though, the drop off in points between a Top-5 RB and a Top-10 RB is more than twice that of the drop off in points between Top-5 and Top-10 WRs. That is not a small difference.

So why not get as many opportunities at a Top-5 RB as possible?

That is the real point of Zero WR: it gives a fantasy manager as many opportunities to draft the most premium position in the game. Think of it like a race, where the teams can have a wide range of cars to choose from and all race multiple cars to find a winner. Would it not be best to have as many Ferraris going as possible so you are not relying on a bunch of Ford Focuses? A Ford Focus may greatly exceed your expectations (as both writers drive Mazdas, I promise this is not sponsored content), but ultimately the Ferrari is simply better, and one of the Ferrari is going to win.

So, let the race begin. To the mocks!

Here were our parameters:
  • 12-Team
  • PPR
  • 2 WR
  • No WRs 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 disadvantages 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: In my 5 ESPN mocks, waiting till the 6th round usually meant ≈WR1-WR27 were off the board. I enjoy drafting from 1.02, 1.04, 1.06, 1.08, and 1.12 in all 5 so I have an idea of how the strategies pan out depending on draft slot. The earlier the 1st round pick, the more WRs are gone when your 6th round pick snakes back to you. In that case, it's more like the top 30 WRs are gone. The later your 1st round pick, it's more like the top 25 WRs. Either way, that amounts to everyone from Michael Thomas to about DJ Chark or even through the pair of Bengals WRs A.J. Green/Tyler Boyd. One WR in the top 30 would somehow always fall out no matter what, and that player is someone I found myself getting a lot, but that's for the next section.

As an aside, with the Damien Williams news that has caused Clyde Edwards-Helaire to shoot up the draft board, Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins routinely fell to the 2nd round where it would've been nice to pair them with my RB from the 1st, but obviously I couldn't do that for the purposes of this exercise. Be on the lookout for that though. Lots of people have seemingly determined in their hearts that the colloquially known CEH will be their ride-or-die RB pick for 2020. If you're in that camp, start thinking about that commitment now or else CEH will not be there for you. If you're not, be advised of the value now falling to the 2nd in ESPN drafts.

MM: Ok, so I know in the introduction I said do not get cute in Round 1, and I still 100% mean that, but I have to admit one time I took Kenyan Drake in Round 1 instead of Michael Thomas (Mock Draft #5, drafting from the 9th position). It was an RB heavy draft in general, so the fact that Michael Thomas fell to the 9th pick is absurd in itself. So let me just state for the record, unless you are doing a mock draft for a Fantasy Football website, do not pass on Michael Thomas if he falls to you towards the end of Round 1.

Now that the legal stuff is out of the way and I cannot be sued by our readers for malpractice, there is definitely a tier of WR you are passing on with this strategy. Everyone from Michael Thomas to DeVante Parker you can just forget about. Your best hope is that Keenan Allen falls to you in Round 6 (Mock Draft #1, drafting 6th; Mock Draft #5, drafting 9th). Otherwise, you are looking at Stefon Diggs and below for your available WRs if you do not draft a WR until Round 6.

This is why most people alternate between Round 1 and Round 2. Normally I could take advantage of Michael Thomas being available, and then hope Kenyan Drake or Nick Chubb would be available in Round 2. Or, I could have paired my Kenyan Drake pick (I had a lot of Kenyan Drake during these mocks, but usually in Round 2 as my RB2 rather than as my RB1) with someone like Julio Jones or DeAndre Hopkins, whom I was constantly leaving on the board in Round 2.

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

CH: Much like the last exercise, a solid top-tier TE was always a priority for the same reasons as last time. No need for me rehash that again.

The 3 WRs who most frequently appeared on my roster are as follows:
  • Stefon Diggs
  • Marvin Jones Jr.
  • Jameson Crowder
The difference in production going from Kirk Cousins' #2 option in Minnesota to being Josh Allen's #1 option in Buffalo is relatively minuscule in my eyes. Yes, Allen is less accurate than Cousins, but the slight bump in targets Diggs will see as the focal point of a passing offense should offset the downgrade in efficiency and accuracy of the targets he'll see from Allen. I can't imagine Diggs being any more or less useful than he has been in the past, but his ranking has certainly indicated otherwise. I'm not saying there is tremendous value here, but what I am saying is you know what you're getting.

The same goes for the the aforementioned top 30 WR that consistently fell down to me: Detroit's Marvin Jones Jr. Per the outlook blurb that appears when clicking on Jones Jr.'s ESPN profile, he and Kenny Golladay had nearly identical target shares in the 12 games they played together last season. Yes, Golladay is the younger, more talented player, but Jones Jr. has had fabulous performances at times in recent years when he's healthy. If his opportunity continues to be on par with Golladay's, he's worth a stab.

As for Crowder, it's much simpler. As stated in my previous piece, the Adam Gase offense has historically been very boring and runs through the slot WR. As evidenced by Jarvis Landry's entire career in Miami under Gase and Crowder's 2019 statistics, volume volume volume. He may not be the most exciting player, but Crowder is a solid bet.

Other players of note include Marquise Brown (a favorite of mine discussed in the first edition of this series), Jalen Reagor/Henry Ruggs III (honestly, who's really standing in their way in Philly and Las Vegas respectively other than the TEs?), Golden Tate (look at how solid his floor was after returning from his suspension), and N'Keal Harry (could be a Devin Funchess clone for Cam Newton to have as a red zone guy in New England).

I felt compelled to take Will Fuller V several times, but even in this exercise it never felt right. That's not a game I want to play. If you're going to invest in Houston, maybe take Cooks but definitely wait for Randall Cobb. If Fuller V and Brandin Cooks are healthy at the same time and running deep downfield, who's the first look if the pass seems to dangerous for Deshaun Watson? Cobb. If it turns out to be wrong, at least you spent a double-digit round pick on that guy over the other two oft-injured guys.

MM: Get ready for the Julian Edelman Express!

But seriously, Julian Edelman was constantly my Round 8 WR pick, making him my WR3/FLEX. Not too bad in a vacuum to be fair, but when my WR2 was Will Fuller V, it was a little less ideal. Also lots of Will Fuller V as your WR2. If you do this "Zero WR" strategy, your WRs will be guaranteed to look like this:
  • WR1 Keenan Allen or Stefon Diggs
  • WR2 Will Fuller V
  • WR3 Julian Edelman
The one thing I did was to capitalize on taking a TE or a QB, but especially TE. Lots of George Kittle, Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, and Darren Waller. I initially tried to also get Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson in the first couple of mock drafts but transitioned to taking risks at QB so I could ensure having a better FLEX pool to choose from. So lots of Joe Burrow paired with Tua Tagovailoa in the final two drafts I did. I also took a lot of rookie WRs (Jeudy/Reagor/Aiyuk) for my WR4. This was partially due to needing to take more of a flyer at WR due to the strategy, but it also allowed to get a better DST or a better Kicker.

General roster strengths:

CH: Well, the RBs were always pretty good.

I got me some Josh Jacobs, a lot of Joe Mixon, a lot of Nick Chubb and a lot of Jonathan Taylor. I prefer to go with the younger RBs using this strategy and tend to fade the guys like Le'Veon Bell, Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley, and David Johnson who have all likely seen their best days already. I would often pass them up for my TE being Zack Ertz or Mark Andrews. The same could be said about Ertz as well, but the position scarcity doesn't leave you many options. If you are going to load up at RB, pick the guys who have more left in the tank.

I did not find myself taking a QB as one of my first 5 picks in this exercise, but the TE and RB strength were consistent.

MM: To nobody's surprise, my RB corps was usually pretty strong. So was my FLEX due to taking someone like Cam Akers or Kareem Hunt usually as my RB3/FLEX. Choosing between Akers, Hunt, or Edelman is not the worst for a FLEX.

QB depended on whether or not I took a Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson as my starter, or if I took Joe Burrow as my starter. I felt fine either way, but the FantasyPros report card had some very strong opinions.

Overall, I would say that getting as many strong RBs translates to having safer FLEX options just due to the safer floor for the RB position compared to the WR position in general.

General roster weaknesses:

CH: The WR ceiling is limited and in some cases, even the floor is volatile. Aside from Diggs, Crowder, and Tate, every other WR I mentioned and some additional guys I took later because what the hell why not (Corey Davis, Sammy Watkins, etc.) have plenty of things going against them and would need a lot to break right for week-to-week consistency to occur.

I much preferred the zero RB approach because of the marginally more predictable nature of the hierarchies of each NFL backfield. At the very least we can somewhat more reliably guess what an RB2 in x offense can do as opposed to the WR3 in y offense.

MM: WR is an obvious weakness, but it actually gets a little more nuanced than that. Much like the RBs in Rounds 6-8 from the "Zero RB" strategy [LINK NEEDED] having a lot of question marks due to being in a split backfield or a competition for the starting position, the WRs have a couple distinct weakness.

First, there is just a very low ceiling. Keenan Allen with a new QB and an offense reliant on RB? The talent is there, but the volume is not comparable to someone like Michael Thomas, or even Odell Beckham Jr. Stefon Diggs is in a new system in Buffalo, with a more mistake-prone QB (not a ton, but enough) and will certainly get a fair amount of coverage from opposing defenses (I think John Brown will benefit from this and I have been taking him as a WR3/WR4 on occasion). Julian Edelman is always reliable and lacks a ton of competition, but with Cam Newton behind center, who knows what will happen.

Then come the players with injury risks. Will Fuller V could be massive in Houston with no DeAndre Hopkins taking touches and his rapport with DeShaun Watson. He could also continue to struggle to stay on the field due to nagging injury problems, and with no DeAndre Hopkins there to draw the top Cornerback, he may not be up to the WR1 task. Brandin Cooks will also be there, along with his multiple concussions, and could suffer if Fuller stays healthy. The dynamic between those two WRs screams boom/bust potential. Marquise Brown is another WR available in the 6th with WR1 potential, but he has some injury concerns and is on the run-heaviest offense in the NFL.

Overall conclusions:

CH: I view the zero RB approach to be more beneficial than this one, but neither are particularly great. As alluded to early, I would err more toward the slightly more predictable nature of the backfield hierarchies than I would toward the WR corps with more players involved, but they both kind of suck when attempting to prognosticate.

To reiterate, if you are going to do this, make sure that the RBs you invest in are on the younger side and have less mileage on them. I think this strategy is likelier to bite you in the ass if you have a pair from the Bell/Gordon/Gurley/David Johnson area. Having one of them is fine, but even then I would hope they are your flex player rather than your RB2. That's why my TE was never George Kittle. I would also advise against Aaron Jones, a highly likely regression candidate, and Kenyan Drake, a guy who couldn't even beat out Damien Williams or Frank Gore in the past.

As alluded to in the last piece, I understand the value of loading up at RB this year, but the overcorrection for the woes of 2019 leaves a lot of RBs with inflated value. Make sure you select the right ones.

MM: Zero WR is much more viable than Zero RB, but I could not in good conscience advocate for either. I think the WRs are significantly better in Rounds 6-8 (Keenan Allen vs Ronald Jones is not exactly a difficult choice), so if you were to load up on a position in the earlier rounds, it would need to be RB. That being said, I would still probably try and snag a Julio Jones or DeAndre Hopkins in Round 2, or a Kenny Golladay or Allen Robinson II in Round 3 to ensure I had a high ceiling WR.

After the three Mock Draft Series articles we have done, this would be the type of lineup I would personally advocate going for. This is not me saying draft these exact players, but based on the evidence I currently have from 15 mock drafts, this lineup could easily be created and win:
  • Round 1: Dalvin Cook/Joe Mixon
  • Round 2: Kenyan Drake
  • Round 3: Allen Robinson II/Kenny Golladay
  • Round 4: Leonard Fournette
  • Round 5: Darren Waller
  • Round 6: Deshaun Watson
I know that lineup looks ridiculous, but as of writing this article, I guarantee you that it is a totally feasible lineup that could win you a championship. I fully expect Fournette to rise if I am being honest, but he is still very available in Round 4, so that is why I wanted to make sure to mention him. Even if he is not available, James Conner, Le'Veon Bell, Mark Ingram II, and Raheem Mostert are also all still available in Round 4.

And there you have it, folks. Another session of Mock Draft Series in the bag. In the coming days, The Lateral duo is going to take a look at Charles' and Malcolm's overall draft strategies.

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