How to Use a Zero-RB Strategy in 2021 Fantasy Football

By Anthony Haage in Fantasy Sports
| July 22, 2021 6:37 am PDT

Running backs used to be held in high regard in fantasy football. They still are, but there is a fantasy draft strategy gaining more steam by the year. And that would be the zero-RB strategy.

This fantasy football strategy is all about taking the road less traveled. Most fantasy teams are going to be targeting running backs early in fantasy drafts. This strategy does not totally go against the running backs in fantasy football. It just prioritizes other positions and getting running backs who will provide just enough to win you some fantasy matchups.

A bonus from this strategy is that not many people in your league will be trying it, meaning you can get first dibs on the non-running backs.

The fantasy running back position is tough to deal with, as many of them get hurt due to the physical nature of their position. This strategy relies on running backs drafted at cheap prices and waiver wire fill-ins throughout the season.

You must be very active on the waiver wire and trade market throughout the season to make it work, of course. This is not recommended for traditional types of fantasy players. With that being said, let’s take a look at the best way to execute the zero-RB strategy.

Early Round Zero-RB Draft Strategy

The early rounds are obviously the most important in fantasy football drafts. These are the rounds where you pick the core of your fantasy team.

When deploying the zero-running back strategy, that means you can grab a top wide receiver, tight end, or even quarterback in the early rounds.

This can get tricky in the first round if you have a top 3 pick or so. If you have a top 3 pick, you might be better off grabbing a high-end RB and either trading him or doing the zero-RB strategy to a lesser scale.

Here’s a list of players going early at the QB, WR, and TE positions.

Quarterback Wide Receiver Tight End
Patrick Mahomes Tyreek Hill Travis Kelce
Josh Allen Davante Adams George Kittle
Kyler Murray Stefon Diggs Darren Waller
Lamar Jackson Calvin Ridley Mark Andrews
Dak Prescott D.K. Metcalf T.J. Hockenson
Russell Wilson DeAndre Hopkins Dallas Goedert
Justin Herbert A.J. Brown Kyle Pitts
Aaron Rodgers Justin Jefferson Noah Flint
Jalen Hurts Terry McLaurin Robert Tonyan
Ryan Tannehill Michael Thomas Logan Thomas

In the first round, it would make the most sense to try and grab at least one of the killer combos in Kansas City. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are the best of the best when it comes to their positions.

Kelce specifically sets himself apart from the rest of the pack. He’s been the best tight end in the league for the past 5 years or so, and this year should be no different. Kelce was the 4th ranked player in fantasy leagues last season, out of all positions.

The next highest TE was Darren Waller, the 14th ranked player. The gap is obviously potentially massive.

Besides Kelce and Waller, the next highest-ranked tight end last season was Robert Tonyan, all the way down at the 39th ranked player.

If you have a player like Kelce, who is an outlier, he should be on the top of your list for this draft strategy. Look to grab Kelce as early as the 4th pick and no later than the 10th pick if you want to employ the zero-RB strategy.

As for Tyreek Hill and the wide receiver position goes, Hill isn’t as much of an outlier as Kelce. If the Aaron Rodgers situation in Green Bay gets better and he plays for them this season, Davante Adams should overtake him for the first receiver drafted.

As for now, though, it’s Hill’s spot to lose.

The best “big play” player in the league should be in for another great season. He doesn’t need a ton of touches to have a big game, either.

Last season, Hill caught 87 passes but had 1,276 yards with 17 all-purpose touchdowns. The Chiefs know how to get in the end zone, and Hill is one of their best scorers. If your draft happens before the Aaron Rodgers deal is handled, look for Hill to be your top guy for wide receivers.

Now for the main guy in Kansas City.

Patrick Mahomes should be your number one quarterback taken in your draft. Mahomes has the potential to be one of the most dominant quarterbacks in NFL history. He can easily put up a season of over 4,500+ yards and 35+ touchdowns, especially since there are 17 games this season and not 16.

You can probably grab Mahomes in the 15-25 overall pick range in fantasy drafts. Whether you want Mahomes or not, here are the other fantasy passers you’ll want to consider early when deploying the zero-RB strategy.

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Back to the tight ends.

The only other tight ends that could even possibly outscore Kelce this season are Darren Waller and George Kittle. Both are big parts of their offenses and should be your next targets if someone snags Kelce from your grasp.

Waller has revitalized his career over the past 2 seasons, ranking as fantasy TE4 in 2019 and TE2 in 2020. Waller should be in for another top 3 TE season as he is a huge part of the Jon Gruden offense in Las Vegas.

Kittle wasn’t able to stay healthy last season, as he only played half the season. In his 8 games, he caught 48 passes for 634 yards and 2 touchdowns. If he had been able to play a full 16 game season at that pace, he would’ve had a stat line of 96 receptions, 1,268 yards, and 4 touchdowns.

That would’ve been good for one of the best tight ends in football last year. His touchdown numbers aren’t as high as the other two tight ends, but that’s because he is a dominant run blocker in the red zone and he loves to block.

Here are some great wide receiver picks in the first couple of rounds.

  • Stefon Diggs – Bills
  • Calvin Ridley – Falcons
  • DeAndre Hopkins – Cardinals
  • J. Brown – Titans

Diggs had himself a huge year last year for Buffalo. Diggs led the entire league in targets, receptions, and yards in 2020. Those three categories are the money makers for wide receivers, and Diggs is golden in them.

Diggs and Josh Allen have a great connection, and this year should be more of that. The Bills look to have made the correct decision when they traded for him.

Calvin Ridley is due for a big season with the departure of Julio Jones. Ridley becomes the new number one receiver in Atlanta, and Kyle Pitts moves into the number 2 role in that offense. Ridley should be able to get a bunch of targets, receptions, yards, and hopefully touchdowns this season in his new role.

DeAndre Hopkins is always in the conversation of “best WR in the NFL” but isn’t drafted like that. Hopkins has fallen in fantasy drafts in the past couple of years, as he used to be the first guy to pick as a wide receiver.

Now might be the best year to grab him at the best price. Hopkins can be picked as late as the third round in some drafts, and that would be perfect if you’re using the zero-RB draft strategy.

Hopkins was second in the league in targets with 160, just 6 behind Diggs. His touchdown totals didn’t look like his usual numbers at just 6, his lowest total since 2016. He had 1,407 yards on 115 catches as well and finished as WR10.

Hopkins has the potential to be the overall WR1 every season, and this season is no different. He’s a great early-round pick.

A.J. Brown could also be another receiver in for a big year.

The arrival of Julio Jones should be helpful to him as defenses will struggle to guard both. The downfall of picking Brown comes to the Titans’ offensive playstyle. The Titans offense runs through Derrick Henry, but that means Brown will have big-play potential off play-action.

Brown had over 1,000 yards on 70 catches, with 11 touchdowns. He can have an even bigger year this year.

Top 5 Picks to Target in Early Rounds

Here’s a list of my 5 favorite picks for the zero-RB strategy in the early rounds.

These players can be among the very top fantasy players this season and should be your favorite targets when employing this draft style.

Player Pick Range
Travis Kelce 4-10
Tyreek Hill 5-10
Patrick Mahomes 15-25
Stefon Diggs 10-20
DeAndre Hopkins 15-25

Kelce is the top tight end to target, while fellow Chiefs like Mahomes and Hill are worth considering, as well. Nuk stands out as a viable option early, too, while Diggs is one of the better early-round options at wide receiver.

The idea here is you’d land the game’s top tight end and follow up with Mahomes and one of the best receivers available.

Picks to Target in Middle Rounds

Let’s say you absolutely nail the first 3 rounds of your draft. Let’s say you are in a 10-team league with a pick in the 5-8 range.

Your roster could look like this so far.

  • QB: Patrick Mahomes (Round 2)
  • WR: DeAndre Hopkins (Round 3)
  • TE: Travis Kelce (Round 1)

At this point in the draft, you should be thrilled. You grabbed the outlier tight end who is due for another big season. You grab his quarterback in the next round, which means every time Kelce catches a touchdown you get between 10-12 fantasy points (depending on league scoring) from Mahomes’ and Kelce’s touchdown combo.

Some people don’t like to stack in a yearlong league, but Mahomes and Kelce are going to be one of the best stacks of the season.

The next couple rounds are where you can start to shape the rest of your roster. You can put off drafting a running back still and get some good depth in your other positions.

The middle rounds are a little too early to grab a second quarterback or tight end, as most fantasy leagues only employ one starter per team.

That leaves us the wide receiver position to fill out. You can grab another 2-3 receivers in this range, especially if you have 2 WR roster spots and the FLEX. That should give you some good depth to help with potential injuries and bye week problems, or even some great trade potential throughout the season.

You could also pick and choose who you want to pick based on who has a more favorable matchup by week. Some great middle-round WRs include the following.

Player Pick Range
Justin Jefferson 20-35
Michael Thomas 22-38
Terry McLaurin 30-45
Mike Evans 30-45
Allen Robinson 32-45
Keenan Allen 32-45
Julio Jones 35-50
Chris Godwin 35-50
Amari Cooper 38-55
Robert Woods 40-60
Adam Thielen 40-60
CeeDee Lamb 45-65

Continuing the zero-RB strategy in the middle rounds means grabbing at least two more of these players. If you didn’t get to grab Kelce in the first round, this would be where you can grab Waller or Kittle, too.

As far as the list goes, my favorite picks are Michael Thomas, Mike Evans, Allen Robinson, Keenan Allen, Amari Cooper, Robert Woods, and Adam Thielen. I would love to have any of these players as my WR2, WR3, and/or FLEX.

Michael Thomas has been one of the best fantasy players ever since coming into the league in 2016. He has never had a season where he played at least 15 games and ranked outside the top 10 fantasy wide receivers.

Just look at what he did in his last full season.

  • 149 receptions
  • 1,725 yards
  • 9 touchdowns

I would love to see Jameis Winston as quarterback for the Saints from a fantasy perspective. Yes, he throws a ton of interceptions. But he also throws for a lot of yards and a lot of touchdowns.

If Winston is named the starter, I love Michael Thomas here in the middle rounds. If Taysom Hill is named the starter, I’m probably avoiding Thomas, as Hill is more of a physical quarterback.

Top 5 Picks for the Middle Rounds

You can go in any number of directions after the first few picks in fantasy football drafts, but you should have a shot at some of these guys.

Here are my top five picks to target in the middle rounds when using the zero-RB strategy in 2021.

Player Pick Range
Michael Thomas (If Winston named starter) 22-38
Keenan Allen 32-45
Allen Robinson 32-45
Amari Cooper 38-55
Robert Woods 40-60

All of these wide receivers have a great shot at being available after the first 3-4 rounds, and they’ll all be worth targeting.

Keenan Allen should have a great season, with Justin Herbert entering his second season. Allen Robinson should have improved quarterback play and even better numbers.

Amari Cooper is an excellent option in a pass-heavy offense with potential for high-scoring games. Robert Woods gets a way better quarterback in Matthew Stafford this season, too.

After the middle rounds, your team could look like this.

  • QB: Patrick Mahomes (Round 2)
  • WR1: DeAndre Hopkins (Round 3)
  • WR2: Allen Robinson (Round 4)
  • TE: Travis Kelce (Round 1)
  • WR3/FLEX: Amari Cooper (Round 5)
  • BENCH: Robert Woods (Round 6)

Instead of spending early picks on the running back position, you invested in a stud QB, the top tight end in fantasy football, and a slew of explosive fantasy receivers.

Every draft won’t go exactly this well – and you’ll still need to hit on your running backs – but this gives you an idea of a rock-solid roster that can be built using the zero-RB fantasy draft strategy.

Best Running Backs for Zero-RB Strategy

Now that you have a solid starting lineup without any RBs, you can start to look at the ones you want to invest in.

The point of doing a draft this way is to get cheap, interchangeable RBs. At this point in the draft, you are not going to be able to grab someone who has a proven record and a clear starting job.

You have to spend a good amount of research on who you want to grab here and draft on talent and opportunity, rather than past performance.

I would recommend spending a good amount of your final picks on long-shot RBs because most of them won’t have a breakout season.

One of the very best running backs in the league was on the waiver wire to begin the season, but he turned out to be one of the most valuable players in the entire fantasy season. James Robinson was that guy; this year, there might be another James Robinson scenario.

With Robinson in mind, consider some of the top fantasy football sleepers for 2021, and where they factor into my top backs to target when using zero-RB strategy.

Some great, cheap running backs to draft at the back end of your draft include the following.

Player Pick Range
Mike Davis 60-75
Damien Harris 60-75
Raheem Mostert 60-75
Javonte Williams 65-75
James Robinson 70-80
Chase Edmonds 75-85
Gus Edwards 75-85
A.J Dillon 80-100

Mike Davis is a great option here. He should slide right into the starting job in Atlanta after Todd Gurley’s departure. Davis had a great year filling in for Christian McCaffrey, and he should be able to continue his newfound success in Atlanta. He might be the only person in this range who can get the most volume.

Damien Harris has been praised by Bill Belichick and could see some quality touches this season. Harris should be able to win the starting job with Belichick’s vote of approval. He could be a sneaky good running back in this part of the draft.

Raheem Mostert is in a prime position to be one of the best picks in the draft. His only problem is health. His yards per carry have been north of 5.0 in his past 3 seasons with the 49ers. If he can stay healthy, Mostert can be a league winner.

Gus Edwards has a chance to get some more work this season with Mark Ingram leaving Baltimore. Edwards, J.K Dobbins, and Lamar Jackson will lead the Baltimore run game, with Edwards being the physical runner. He could beat his previous total of touchdowns (6) in great fashion. He could be a great fill in and backup for your fantasy team.

Top 3 RBs to Target with Zero-RB Strategy

All in all, it is very hard to say who is the most likely to be this year’s James Robinson, so I’m only going to provide my favorite 3 picks.

These 3 running backs should be very valuable picks at this point in the draft and fill out your RB positions on your fantasy team.

Player Pick Range
Mike Davis 60-75
Damien Harris 60-75
Raheem Mostert 60-75

Getting all three of these running backs using this strategy wouldn’t be a guarantee, but they all look like fantastic values at their current ADP.

Davis, Harris, and Mostert are rock solid talents and presently have the inside track on the starting gig on their respective teams. If you can somehow manage to snag all three, you’d be in amazing shape.

To finish out your zero-RB team, it should look something along the lines of this.

  • QB: Patrick Mahomes (Round 2)
  • WR1: DeAndre Hopkins (Round 3)
  • WR2: Allen Robinson (Round 4)
  • RB1: Mike Davis (Round 7)
  • RB2: Damien Harris (Round 8)
  • TE: Travis Kelce (Round 1)
  • WR3/FLEX: Amari Cooper (Round 5)
  • BENCH: Robert Woods (Round 6)
  • BENCH: Chase Edmonds
  • BENCH: Gus Edwards
  • BENCH: Javonte Williams

If you can implement a zero-RB strategy and close out your draft with other high upside options like Edmonds, Edwards, and Williams on your bench, you’re doing it right.

As you can see, this hypothetical lineup doesn’t include Mostert, which shows you that the players you want won’t always be the players you get.

However, with a zero-RB strategy, you’re checking off most of your boxes early.

This strategy lands you guaranteed producers at multiple positions and affords you numerous cracks and filling out your running back depth chart throughout the remainder of your draft.

Zero-RB Strategy Advice for 2021 Fantasy Football

The zero-RB strategy – and any other draft strategy – won’t single-handedly win you a draft.

This could be a very effective way to win your draft, but the work continues. On top of (hopefully) perfectly executing the zero-RB fantasy draft strategy, you’ll also want to be ready to do the following.

  • Pull off trades
  • Dominate the waiver wire

Trades are a great way to acquire some top-tier players. If someone needs WR depth, this strategy gives you a ton of it, and you can flip for big-name players later in the year.

The waiver wire is where you need to spend most of your time, too. Every week somebody gets hurt or traded. These occasions open opportunities for more players and potential league winners.

You need to keep an eye on who gets injured and who could miss time, even if it’s only for one week. If someone is out for one week, his backup may put up a solid game, and you don’t want to miss out on that.

DO NOT waste your waiver wire spot on a kicker for one week, especially if you are doing zero-RB.

You need to have a high priority on the waiver wire order in the chance of grabbing one of those potential waiver wire league winners.

This draft strategy requires constant updates and attention, so make sure to make your way back to our website and get the latest news!

For more assistance with your 2021 fantasy football draft, check out the content below.

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