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

By Anthony Haage in Fantasy Sports
| July 29, 2021 8:53 am PDT

Every fantasy football season brings you another chance to look smarter than your friends or co-workers. Maybe you’re even in a high stakes league and you’re just trying to secure a huge cash prize.

Whatever the case, finding a useful fantasy football draft strategy is key, and each year can dictate which approach may be best. For 2021, the Zero-WR strategy is at least one to consider.

The focus here is spending your early picks on running backs, a stud tight end, and perhaps one of the best fantasy football quarterbacks.

Due to the immense depth at wide receiver, you can wait numerous rounds before selecting one. Of course, you may wish for a little guidance when it comes to this method of drafting.

Here’s a closer look at the Zero-WR strategy for 2021 fantasy football, as I walk you through your draft with advice and top picks to target.

How to Spend Your 1st Round Pick

Of the top 15 ranked fantasy players in 2021, only two of them were wide receivers. Six of them were running backs, two were tight ends, and five of them were quarterbacks.

Even though we are in more of a passing NFL than 50 years ago, running backs always seem to dominate the early rounds in fantasy drafts. This fantasy strategy is within the same lines of thinking as that.

So, let’s take a look at which running backs you can get in the early rounds.

Of the first 8 picks in fantasy drafts so far, all 8 of them are running backs. Here is the order below.

  • 1. Christian McCaffrey – Panthers
  • 2. Dalvin Cook – Vikings
  • 3. Derrick Henry – Titans
  • 4. Alvin Kamara – Saints
  • 5. Saquon Barkley – Giants
  • 6. Jonathan Taylor – Colts
  • 7. Ezekiel Elliott – Cowboys
  • 8. Nick Chubb – Browns

If you hold a top-3 pick in your fantasy draft, you are in a good spot. Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, and Derrick Henry all are worth their high draft price.

All three of them are going to have dominant seasons if they are able to stay healthy and you should feel good taking one of the three.

After the first three, you could take any of the next five players. The next five players all have some questions around them and that is why they are being drafted lower than the top-3 guys.

Alvin Kamara will be without Drew Brees, which hurts his value in the receiving game and potentially the rushing game, too. You can read more about Kamara and the Saints in this breakdown of what New Orleans will do in the post-Brees era.

Saquon Barkley is coming off a season in which he only played two games. Jonathan Taylor is entering his second season and has a new quarterback in town. Ezekiel Elliott had a down year last season, mostly due to Dak Prescott’s injury.

Nick Chubb has one of the best backups in the league behind him in Kareem Hunt, and he is involved heavily in the offense. Chubb also isn’t as involved in the pass game as the other RBs on this list.

All these players touched on are among the consensus top fantasy football picks for 2021.

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Suffice to say, if you hold a pick in the range of 4-8, you can take whichever player you think is going to have the biggest season. If you can’t land on one of these top rushers, consider being the first person to select a top tight end.

At the end of round one, you can try to grab a top tier tight end in Travis Kelce.

Kelce ranked as the 4th overall fantasy player last season and ranked as fantasy’s TE1. He has been fantasy’s TE1 in 4 of the last 5 years, and the one year he wasn’t TE1, he was TE2.

He’s also been a top 13 overall fantasy player in each of the past 4 years. Kelce is worth a first-round pick or early second round pick, especially if you are using the zero-WR strategy.

Round one will ideally be about honing in on the best fantasy running back available, while Kelce is a fine pivot as the league’s best tight end.

Who Should You Draft in Rounds 2-3?

If you picked in the back half of round 1, your next pick is going to be coming right up in round 2.

The top players going in this round include the top tier wide receivers like Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, and DeAndre Hopkins. With Zero-WR strategy, you’ll be looking to avoid these top fantasy picks.

The first quarterback is being selected in this range, as well.

Patrick Mahomes is being selected as QB1, rightfully so, and this is likely the only spot in the draft where you can grab him.

You can do a lot of things at this point of the draft because of your roster flexibility. You can draw some serious attention from your fellow league mates if you grab one of the best QB-TE duos in the NFL in Mahomes and Kelce.

Or you can keep it clean by drafting another running back.

Someone I really like in the first half of the second round is Najee Harris. Najee Harris is only being drafted this low because of his lack of experience being a rookie.

With that said, Harris should be in for a big season. He is the starting running back now with the departure of James Conner, and the Steelers saw how important it was to have a run game late in the season.

Just keep in mind the league’s handling of vaccinated versus non-vaccinated players in 2021. For what it’s worth, Harris fits the latter category at the moment.

Still, he’s in for a huge role, and his talent is undeniable.

The Steelers started the 2020 season at an incredible record of 12-0 in the first 12 weeks of play. They were looking like a top Super Bowl contender at this point in the season, but they fell apart.

They ended up losing their next 3 games against Washington, Buffalo, and they really hit rock bottom when the Bengals beat them. They got back in the W column against Indianapolis in Week 16, but lost again in Week 17 (rested starters).

Their late season struggles did not stop there, the Browns destroyed the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs at a score of 48-37. The final score doesn’t look that bad, but after the first quarter, the Browns were up 28-0. The Steelers scored 27 of their final 37 points in the last 2 quarters, when they were already down big time.

Coming into this season, they should be looking to remodify their offense. They made their first move in the right direction with drafting Najee Harris with their first-round draft pick and the 24th overall pick.

He is coming off an immensely productive final season with Alabama. Check out his stats from 2020.

  • 13 games
  • 1,466 total yards
  • 43 receptions
  • 30 touchdowns

Harris has potential to be a dominant running back in the NFL and he could be a workhorse for the Steelers in his rookie season. He’s a great pick in the early part of round 2.

Other Players to Target in Round 2

Another workhorse you can grab in this range is Joe Mixon. Mixon only played the first six games last season and missed the rest of the season due to his foot injury.

Over the course of the first six games, Mixon got a lot of work. He had the second most carries in the league from Weeks 1-6, only four carries behind Derrick Henry during that span. He wasn’t very efficient, gaining just 3.6 yards per carry, but with Joe Burrow entering his second season, the Bengals offense can look even better.

They have a solid receiving core as well behind Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, and Tee Higgins. This offense could give Mixon a good amount of scoring opportunities.

Mixon was RB9 during his only six weeks of the season, with an average of 94 total yards per game. He also scored four touchdowns. The Bengals let Giovani Bernard go in free agency, so Mixon could be more involved in the passing game too.

Mixon could have a solid bounce back season and could be a nice grab at this point in the draft.

If you were lucky enough to grab one of the top 3 best players in the draft in McCaffrey, Cook, or Henry, your next two picks will be coming at the end of round 2 and the beginning of round 3.

You can go after the following players.

  • George Kittle (TE)
  • Darren Waller (TE)
  • Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB)
  • Miles Sanders (RB)
  • Chris Carson (RB)
  • Josh Allen (QB)

At this point in the draft, Travis Kelce is already going to be gone, that means you can look to grab the next best tight end. You can take your pick between George Kittle or Darren Waller.

Both tight ends are great and should be a cheaper version of Kelce, who is such an outlier at tight end that it makes him very valuable to have. Kittle and Waller should be able to have great seasons and you can grab them in this range.

I would love to see Clyde Edwards-Helaire on my board at this point in the draft. CEH is one of my favorite sleepers of the year and is looking to be primed for a great season. You can pair CEH with one of those top 3 guys and instantly have the best RB1 and RB2 combination in your league.

Other players I like in this range include Miles Sanders, Chris Carson, and Josh Allen. The first two are rock solid running backs that look good in round two. Allen would be a nice backup plan behind Mahomes in the event you want to get an elite passer, but Mahomes is gone.

In summary, round two is about getting a second stud running back, an elite tight end, or one of fantasy’s best passers.

Fantasy Draft Advice for Rounds 4-6

The next couple rounds are really where you can get some depth before having to grab a wide receiver. If you picked in the latter half of round one, your next pick will be in the early part of round 4.

You can grab another running back here to fill up your FLEX position and to have a nice backup just in case one of your starters gets hurt.

Some running backs in this range include the following.

  • Kareem Hunt – Browns
  • James Robinson – Jaguars
  • Myles Gaskin – Dolphins
  • Melvin Gordon – Broncos

I like picking Hunt in this range because of Cleveland’s heavy running attack and impressive offensive line.

The Browns are built to run the ball a lot and Kareem Hunt is more of a 1B to Nick Chubb’s 1A. Hunt also has the upper hand to Chubb in the receiving game.

Hunt should be a sneaky grab here because other owners will be worried about him not being the starter, but don’t worry, he will put up good numbers for you.

James Robinson was a big league-winner last year, as Leonard Fournette was shipped to Tampa Bay. Robinson had a very impressive season in his rookie year, despite bad QB play.

It makes me a little worried that the Jaguars drafting Travis Etienne so early in the draft, because he can take touches away from Robinson. Etienne has been rumored to be the utility/receiving back in a new look offense, though reports still suggest Robinson is the lead back.

Here’s what Jaguars reporter John Shipley had to say about his 2021 prospects.

“Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has shown a past tendency to give more of his offense’s rushing focus to backs with skill sets similar to Robinson in the past.”

Robinson does have high risk in this range, but he still is the starter for Jacksonville and should have a good season.

Myles Gaskin is an interesting player in this range, too.

Gaskin only played 10 games last season, but he still ranked as RB27. He got tons of touches when he played, averaging 18.3 touches per game. That is considered “workhorse,” and he could be a great pick in this part of the draft. The Dolphins brought in Malcolm Brown this year, but Gaskin should still get the most touches in that backfield.

Melvin Gordon is another running back who you could take between rounds 4-6. He has been one of fantasy’s best running backs in recent years and comes at a cheaper price than before.

He does have some new competition in the backfield with rookie Javonte Williams, who is undeniably one of the top NFL rookies to watch in 2021.

Wide Receivers to Draft in 2021

Alright, at this point in the draft it is time to take at least one wide receiver. Your roster should be looking pretty good outside of the WR category, filled with good RBs, a top tight end and/or quarterback.

This will be the range where 2021 fantasy football wide receiver sleepers have the best chance to make an impact right away

Some WR sleepers I really like in the middle rounds include Diontae Johnson, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and DeVonta Smith.

These four fantasy wide receivers all have a chance to get a good amount of targets. That means that they should be steady throughout the season. They come at this price obviously because of risk, but they also offer a lot of reward.

Smith is a rookie, but the other three receivers had sizable roles in 2020.

Player 2020 Targets
Diontae Johnson 144
Tyler Boyd 110
Tee Higgins 108

DeVonta Smith also has a great chance of 100+ targets this season with the lack of competition within his team.

Seeing Johnson’s 144 targets at this point in the draft would be phenomenal. He probably won’t be able to repeat that many targets with the Steelers vowing to run the ball more, but his target total should still be enough to have significant fantasy impact.

Boyd and Higgins are both in a pass happy offense in Cincinnati with Joe Burrow. They also added Ja’Marr Chase early in the 2021 NFL Draft. All three of these receivers could be in for big seasons as Burrow could feed them all 80+ targets each.

Some other underrated wide receivers you could target in the latter parts of your fantasy draft include the following.

  • Michael Gallup – Cowboys
  • Courtland Sutton – Broncos
  • Jerry Jeudy – Broncos
  • Curtis Samuel – Washington
  • John Brown – Raiders

These players could provide solid games week to week during the fantasy season.

They won’t be able to finish as the top players in fantasy or even in their position, but they provide great value in the later rounds of drafts.

Zero-WR Strategy Advice for 2021 Fantasy Football

This fantasy draft strategy won’t be for everyone, and you can always go the opposite way by reading my 2021 Zero-RB fantasy football strategy breakdown.

Not into fading running backs early in drafts? You can use this Zero-WR draft strategy instead. That, or you can just mix the two philosophies together as you gear up for your 2021 fantasy football draft.

One thing worth noting is that Zero-WR strategy is probably best for standard scoring leagues.

It can be used in all formats, but once you take the PPR scoring out of the equation, drafting receivers late makes even more sense.

If you’re deploying the Zero-WR fantasy football strategy in 2021 and it’s in a standard scoring leagues, you may want to double-down by avoiding specific running backs.

Guys like Austin Ekeler and Chase Edmonds are projected studs or sleepers at running back, but wouldn’t be a priority in non-PPR leagues.

It’s good to be flexible in most drafts, but if you think you can get away with not drafting wide receivers early, the Zero-WR strategy might be for you in 2021.

There is much more to consider as you prepare for 2021 fantasy football leagues. To help you get ready, here are some more advice columns.

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