ZEROED IN on Running Back: Tier-Based Targeting

Paul Ghiglieri (@FantasyGhigs) dishes on the Zero RB landscape and breaks candidates into tiers based on skillset and role.

In this little series, we will be exploring the best Zero RB candidates to zero in on (pun intended). The goal is to identify four types of running backs: safe starters to provide a decent floor, high upside plays stuck in committees, pass-catching specialists who can boom (especially in PPR leagues), and high-value handcuffs.

For those unfamiliar with the “Zero RB” strategy, check out Matt Dean’s strategy article here for a primer. In short, the strategy involves punting running back in the early rounds in favor of targeting elite options at other positions while the rest of the league gobbles up the top backs available – essentially, zigging while others zag.  Running backs have long been the lifeblood of fantasy football, but the nature of the position results in greater wear and tear, and thus, makes them greater injury risks than other positions. The key to making this strategy work is hitting on the lower tier backs later in the draft.

Rather than specific players to target, let’s breakdown the Zero RB candidates by skillset and role and separate them into tiers. There are four tiers of running backs to consider, and you want to draft at least one back from all four. The conservative Zero Rb approach involves waiting until after all the RB1 and RB2 backs, based on ADP, have been snatched up, while you gobble up top tier talent at other positions. Thus, we’re only going to look at running backs tracking after the third round (ADP of 37 overall or greater in 12 team PPR leagues) since the Zero RB strategy involves you emerging from at least Round 3 (or as far as Round 6 if you’re all in on Matt Dean’s strategy) with at least two elite wideouts and a top tier quarterback or tight end, possibly all four.

Let’s examine the four running back tiers now.

Floor Plays
(Boring But Safe Starters)

You need to make sure you have at least one solid starter you know will get the majority of touches in a backfield. You aren’t targeting the elite options with the Zero RB strategy. However, the following backs will give you a starter that will anchor your running back stable while you shuffle other options at the other running back spot. Remember, touches equal opportunity and volume is usually king. If you want to employ the Zero RB strategy more conservatively, you can pick two options from this tier, but you’ll be trading upside for a stable, but limited ceiling at the position. The following running backs are all safe but boring starters to give you a solid floor:

Phillip Lindsay (DEN) ADP 46.0
Sony Michel (NE) ADP46.8
Mark Ingram (BAL) ADP 49.8
Kenyan Drake (MIA) ADP 54.4
Chris Carson (SEA) ADP 57.6
Lamar Miller (HOU) ADP 76.0
Latavius Murray (NO) ADP 93.6
LeSean McCoy (BUF)  ADP 99.8
Peyton Barber (TB) ADP 127.8
Adrian Peterson (WAS) ADP 149.0

Any of those ten running backs are likely to garner the majority of touches in their respective backfields. Depending on how long you want to wait for a running back, the list above will shrink. Obviously, there are external factors such as coaching changes, the emergence of a possible committee to a respective player’s backfield, Training Camp injuries, etc. that could result in a change in role for all of the aforementioned names above, so continue to monitor all of them as the regular season approaches. It bears worth mentioning that Phillip Lindsay, Chris Carson, Adrian Peterson, Kenyan Drake, and Lamar Miller all finished inside the top 24 scoring backs according to Football Reference’s VBD, while Sony Michel and Peyton Barber finished just outside of it, and Michel did that despite starting only eight games last year. Mark Ingram’s stats last year in New Orleans could provide a window into Latavius Murray’s role this year.

That’s the kind of stable floor you’re looking for in this tier – a reliable RB 2 or stable RB3 play that will at least offer some consistent production, albeit in some cases (Barber) with limited upside.

 

Upside Plays
(High Impact Committee Players)

Once you have a safe volume play to stabilize the position, you can complement that player with some upside. You should be aiming to add as many backs from this tier as possible, as these are the types of impact players that have elite rushing traits and high impact ability, but they’re stuck in the lesser side of a committee for one reason or another. Usually, the reason is a lack of experience in pass protection, resulting in a veteran stealing more work, or a lack of a proven track record at the pro level, requiring the player to earn more touches going forward. Nonetheless, players in this tier have the requisite skills to emerge as an RB1 under the right circumstances, and you’re better off having players like that already on your roster than at the mercy of the waiver wire. Hitting on this tier is what truly makes the Zero RB strategy work. Phillip Lindsay was the poster boy for this last year.

Derrius Guice (WAS) ADP 63.2
Tevin Coleman (SF) ADP 73.4
Miles Sanders (PHI) ADP 75.8
Rashaad Penny (SEA) ADP 81.6
Jordan Howard (PHI) ADP 87.6
Ronald Jones II (TB) ADP 100.2
Royce Freeman (DEN) ADP 103.4
Jerick McKinnon (SF) ADP 112.2
D’Onta Foreman (HOU) ADP 122.8
Carlos Hyde (KC)  ADP 128.4

There are a lot of interesting names on this list, and the upside plays are where you find talents like Lindsay last season. The obvious candidate to target here is Derrius Guice, but he’s coming off a torn ACL and is already battling hamstring problems this offseason. Plus, he has Adrian Peterson to contend with, and Peterson has designs on keeping the starting gig all season long. Tevin Coleman will share time with Jerick McKinnon, but if they can recreate what Kyle Shanahan had in Atlanta, you’re looking at an RB1 (McKinnon) and RB2 (Coleman). Lindsay battled a wrist injury while DEN installed a new offense, allowing Royce Freeman to dominate first-team reps at OTAs and minicamp. Recent reports suggest Freeman could earn a 50-50 split of the work, and he’s the bigger back and better bet to stay healthy. Miles Sanders, whose image graces this article, is the first running back the Eagles have drafted higher than the first round since 2009. Chris Carson always seems to find himself hurt as well, and last year’s first-round pick Rashaad Penny shed weight this offseason. Tampa Bay brought back Peyton Barber on a one-year deal, likely because Ronald Jones II was an abject disaster last year; however, Jones did add weight and has stated his goal this year is to lead the team in rushing. Damien Williams has all the helium so far in Kansas City, but Carlos Hyde has a far better track record and could easily replicate what Spencer Ware did as a start under Andy Reid. I’m sure you see where I’m going with all this. Odds are good that this year’s breakout back is one (or more) of the aforementioned ten names on the list above.

 

 PPR Plays
(Scatbacks Who Rack Up Catches)

Backs in this tier represent a different kind of “floor,” as they hold the most value in PPR leagues. These players are unlikely to accrue much yardage on the ground via rushing attempts, but rather, they are generally heavily targeted in the passing game instead. Because they typically receive the ball in space while matched up against slower linebackers or D-linemen, scatbacks often end up with a handful of receptions that result in a high yardage total. Usually labeled “pass-catching backs” or “third-down specialists,” it’s a good idea to roster at least one or two players from this tier to provide a safe PPR floor generated from receptions rather than rushing attempts. Note that changes in scheme or offensive personnel can result in reduced roles for some of the names below, but that is also baked into their current ADPs.

James White (NE) ADP 56.0
Tarik Cohen (CHI) ADP 58.0
Nyheim Hines (IND) ADP 127.2
Jaylen Samuels (PIT) ADP 130.0
Dion Lewis (TEN) ADP 139.0
Matt Breida (SF) ADP 157.4
Duke Johnson (CLE) ADP 179.3
Jalen Richard (OAK) ADP 198.0
Elijah McGwire (NYJ) ADP 234.4
T.J. Yeldon (BUF) ADP 241.8
Theo Riddick (DET) ADP 280.5
Chris Thompson (WAS) ADP 290.4

Any one of these scatbacks can carry you on a given week with a seven or eight catch afternoon, 100 total yards and a score. None of them will consistently provide that output, but most have all proven to be reliable sources of double-digit points on a consistent basis. Should the starter in their respective backfield go down, almost none of them are capable of physically handling a full workload, though Matt Breida, Dion Lewis, Jaylen Samuels, and T.J. Yeldon have all logged double-digit carries before on more than one occasion and have operated as primary backs for brief stints of their career. Players like Tarik Cohen, Theo Riddick, and Chris Thompson have shown the ability to put up huge point spike weeks as well with their prowess in the receiving game.

 

High-Value Handcuffs
(Backups with Elite Starter Potential)

This is the well from which James Conner emerged last season. Those who stashed him believing Le’Veon Bell would not report by Week 1 were handsomely rewarded. Usually, these players may not play many snaps and generally only come into games to spell the starter. Some may burn a hold on your roster by being unusable for weeks on end. However, should the starting running back go down, they could easily emerge as RB2, or even RB1 candidates due to a combination of talent, opportunity, and scheme. A good Zero RB strategy involves rostering at least one high-value handcuff just in case you luck into a top-flight starter at a position notorious for injury. These players become especially valuable down the stretch of a season when teams often start resting their starters. Even if you only use the handcuff for a week or two while the starter is nursing an injury, you can replicate RB2 value or better during that short stint for the price of a late-round flier or preemptive waiver wire add. It’s not uncommon to rotate through these players throughout the year as well.

Darrell Henderson (LAR) ADP 81.6
Damien Harris (NE) ADP 134.8
Ito Smith (ATL) ADP 142.4
Kalen Ballage (MIA) ADP 166.4
Alexander Mattison (MIN) ADP 170.4
Justice Hill (BAL) ADP 176.8
Jamaal Williams (GB) ADP 192.0
C.J. Anderson (DET) ADP 204.8
Darwin Thompson (KC) ADP 206.2
Gio Bernard (CIN) ADP 218.0
Chase Edmonds (AZ) ADP 257.0
Tony Pollard (DAL) ADP 259.0
Doug Martin (OAK) ADP 299.0
Mike Davis (CHI) ADP 368.8
Wayne Gallman (NYG) ADP 537.0

 

… and other handcuffs yet to be named as official backups until after Training Camp. Many of the players above, particularly the handcuffs, will still be on waivers after most drafts are over. And many will almost certainly start some weeks this season, for that is the nature of the position. Rostering handcuffs is essential for that reason. You either inherit a starter due to the misfortune of others, or you have a trade chip you can move to the owner of a fallen back. Either way, there is value.

 

Final Take

If you can emerge from a draft rostering six or more running backs, with at least one from each of the tiers mentioned above, then you’ve constructed a Zero RB stable of rushers that complement each other well, giving you a blend of stability and upside, as well as a few fliers that could evolve into league winners. Make no mistake, the Zero RB strategy is equivalent to gambling. You’re betting on risky running backs, whether unproven, lacking a defined role, or lacking opportunity, to be given the chance to shine and deliver. Diversifying your portfolio of running backs mitigates some of the risks inherent in this strategy while still allowing you to bet big.

This list of running backs can, and likely will change as training camp battles ensue, players adapt or struggle to learn a new scheme, and potential injuries occur. The important thing to remember is that tiered-approach targeting, regardless of the exact names within each, allows you to have a balanced approach with the Zero RB strategy.

(Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire)

One response to “ZEROED IN on Running Back: Tier-Based Targeting”

  1. Nick says:

    Thank you for this, these tiers are extremely useful. Would be cool to perhaps get an update in August after preseason injuries happen and depth charts are more clear.

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