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Building a Successful Zero-RB Roster

Bryan builds a fantasy football team by waiting to draft RBs later in the draft.

Bryan builds a fantasy football team by waiting to draft RBs later in the draft.

I’m a firm believer in drafting running backs early and often. With more snap counts, committees and specialized roles at the position than ever before, finding a halfback that gets the ball often can be a chore. That makes the league’s few remaining three-down RBs rare commodities. However, those very reasons are enough to turn some fantasy managers off the position entirely, giving way to the Zero-RB draft method. 

Rather than bank an entire season on the health of your RB1’s legs, Zero-RB prioritizes taking a maximum of one ‘back early, or none at all, then using the rest of the early-to-middle rounds to fill out the rest of the roster. This can be risky, but it also ensures that managers can have a top-five quality talent at wide receiver, quarterback and tight end, depending on their approach to the draft. While a far departure from normal fantasy football strategy, this season presents a prime opportunity to ditch the bellcow and go all-in on everyone else. Here’s a 12-team, PPR league Zero-RB draft that can compete for a championship.

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1.08 – WR Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals

There is a lot to like about Chase entering next season. Still just 22 years old, Chase ended last season with a bang, finishing as the WR3 over the final three weeks of the fantasy season. That kind of production could be just the beginning. With a high-powered offense in Cincinnati and other offensive threats to keep defenses busy, this deep-ball threat should continue to rack up touchdowns and yardage. With Cooper Kupp and Justin Jefferson off the board, he’s the clear-cut best non-RB left on the board. 

2.05 – WR CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys

Sometimes, fantasy is simple. CeeDee Lamb has always been better than his career statistics due to the nature of the Cowboys’ offense, which prioritized running the ball and distributing passes evenly between him and Amari Cooper. Cooper is now a Cleveland Brown, Michael Gallup is still recovering from an ACL tear and solid slot receiver Cedrick Wilson is in Miami. That leaves just Lamb and tight end Dalton Schultz as the only targets Dak Prescott has any real familiarity with. I don’t expect there to be a major drop-off in offensive production in Dallas, which means Lamb has the chance to put up top-five numbers entering his third season.

3.08 – TE Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons

We’ve now passed the range of truly ‘elite’ running backs, but there are still some options at tight end, an even scarcer talent pool than RB this year. Pitts, the most hyped tight end prospect in league history, didn’t disappoint as a rookie; he had over 1,000 yards receiving on an otherwise mediocre Atlanta offense. However, he reached the end zone just once. Imagine if he can bump that number up by four or five touchdowns while maintaining his high volume of receptions. The downgrade at quarterback from Matt Ryan to Marcus Mariota is real, but the latter’s short-passing tendencies, coupled with the season-long absence of Calvin Ridley, makes Pitts an enticing option in the third round. 

4.05 – QB Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

So much went wrong for the Ravens in 2021, including the play, and health of their star quarterback. Preseason injuries to running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards forced Baltimore into a pass-heavy approach for most of the year. While seeing Jackson show off his improving passing abilities wasn’t the worst thing from a fantasy point of view, he’s unquestionably at his best when the Ravens are keeping the ball on the ground. With Dobbins and Edwards ready to go this year, some of the pressure should be off Lamar to make every play. Last season was not ideal, and Baltimore did trade away Marquise Brown, but Jackson is still a special talent that can do things no other quarterbacks can. In the fourth round, he’s a value pick for managers.

5.08 – WR Marquise Brown, Arizona Cardinals

Speaking of Marquise, Baltimore shocked many when they decided to trade Brown to the Cardinals for a first-round pick. Hollywood was coming off his first 1,000-yard season and appeared to have finally tapped into his high potential. However, for fantasy purposes, the move to Arizona appears to be an upgrade. Instead of playing in the Ravens’ run-heavy scheme, Brown will now act as a de-facto replacement for DeAndre Hopkins, who will miss the first six games of the season after violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. While that could make Marquise a sell-high before D-Hop returns, he also has the potential to help carry a Zero-RB roster while managers sift through waivers to try and find stability at the position. 

6.05 – WR Rashod Bateman, Baltimore Ravens

Back to Baltimore, this time for Brown’s replacement as the Ravens’ top wideout. Bateman showed flashes in his rookie year, reaching over 10 fantasy points in five out of the 12 games he played. However, he could also go missing for an entire game on any given week, making him a frustrating flex option for managers. Things should now change with so many targets to go around; the Ravens’ front office has confidence in Bateman, and that should show in the team’s offense this year. It would be wishful thinking to assume Rashod can immediately become a WR1, but something akin to Brown’s WR17 campaign last year is a reasonable projection. 

7.08 – RB Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco 49ers

Finally, at long last, we draft some running backs. Conventional Zero-RB wisdom says to take a running back at Round Seven, but going for it one round earlier could make sense if the value is there. Mitchell isn’t someone I’d be dying to draft; the 49ers are notoriously unpredictable with their running backs, and they just selected Tyrion Davis-Price in the third round of the draft. However, in the seventh round, getting the RB18 in terms of fantasy points per game could be a steal. There’s plenty of downside, but since the Zero-RB strategy is all about gambling at running back, this opportunity is too hard to pass up.

8.05 – RB Chase Edmonds, Miami Dolphins

Edmonds is a sneaky pick in the eighth round and could emerge as a legitimate RB2 by the end of the year. His receiving skills have never been in question; over the past two seasons, he’s 10th amongst running backs in receptions while splitting duties with the likes of James Conner and Kenyan Drake. There are plenty of ‘names’ in Miami, like Raheem Mostert, Myles Gaskin and Sony Michel, but are any as talented as Edmonds? Similarly, none have his elite receiving skills. Without James Conner in the lineup last year from Week 16 to 17, Edmonds was the PPR RB9. Much like Mitchell, we have to chase (pun intended) that kind of upside in the middle rounds of the draft.

9.08 – RB Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos

We end our 10-round mock with two talented backups that could carve out sizeable roles on their offenses. Gordon is the ultimate boring pick, but managers might be overlooking him due to Javonte Williams‘ massive talent. Since coming to Denver two years ago, he’s rushed for a minimum of 900 yards and eight touchdowns. New head coach Nathaniel Hackett, who oversaw the A.J. DillonAaron Jones backfield, is no stranger to committees. The reliable Gordon has a surprisingly solid floor in this Russell Wilson-led offense.

10.05 – RB Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts

Another number two, this time behind consensus number-one pick Jonathan Taylor. Why you might ask, should anyone draft a backup to a three-down back in the middle rounds? Answer: receptions. Hines has averaged 52.5 catches per season over his four-year career, and the arrival of Matt Ryan should only help; the aging Matty Ice helped support Cordarelle Patterson’s breakout RB9 campaign last season thanks to a healthy diet of dump-offs and screen passes. Increased work on the ground could even be in store for Hines; Colts head coach Frank Reich has alluded to a more balanced rushing attack this season in order to limit Taylor’s wear-and-tear. With or without the extra carries, Hines should get plenty of work this year, making him a prime target for Zero-RB teams late in drafts.