There are many different theories and strategies for how to draft a fantasy football team. Waiting for a late-round quarterback, stockpiling tight ends, patiently snagging mid-round running backs. Some work, some don’t. Being a numbers guy, there’s only one tried and true method that works and makes sense for me: the Zero Wide Receiver strategy. For those unfamiliar, the “zero wide receiver” draft strategy means not drafting any wide receivers in the first four rounds.
Disclaimer: Before you keep reading, this is specifically in regards to redraft leagues. Running backs, due to their lack of longevity, do not have the same value in dynasty leagues.
Why should I draft with this “zero wide receiver” strategy?
A few years ago there weren’t 10,000 fantasy football websites. There wasn’t a rabid fantasy football community on Twitter. There weren’t high-level analysts breaking down data to help everyone get the most value out of each pick. People shot from the hip and drafted players they liked that offered a lot of points. More often than not, those were quarterbacks and wide receivers.
Now, in 2020, there are much more analytics that go into drafting. Risk, opportunity, and positional scarcity are the biggest factors in that data. A trend I have noticed over the years is that the running back pool is becoming extremely top-heavy. Gone are the days of most teams having a 200-carry back. Coaches are becoming savvy to the benefits of having a “running back by committee” out of their backfield; keeping legs fresh, lowering injury risk, showcasing different strengths, and extending their players’ careers.
This chart shows how many running backs reached a certain carry threshold over the last 30 years.
|250+ carries||300+ carries||350+ carries|
Those outliers with 350-or-more carries each season have changed dramatically over time. Top talents on explosive offenses like Larry Johnson, Jamal Anderson, Eddie George, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Derrick Henry are going to be relentlessly fed the rock, but not like they used to. The biggest change over the last 30 years has been to the backs that are seeing between 250 and 350 carries. Simply put, those late-round running backs that were a lock for 250-plus carries per season no longer exist.
The days of bellcow backs faded away quickly. Over the last five seasons, an average of 8.3 running backs per year hit the 250-carry mark. If you want to win your league it’s almost necessary to grab one of those guys.
So, who are the most likely guys to get that many carries this season?
Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, Jonathan Taylor, Ezekiel Elliott, Josh Jacobs, Joe Mixon, Austin Ekeler, Cam Akers, and D’Andre Swift will have a chance at 250 carries this year, barring injury. After that, you’re looking at running backs that are splitting carries, touchdown-dependent, or third-down backs that will lack consistency week-to-week. I would strongly recommend trying to grab two of these running backs in the first two rounds as opportunity often outweighs talent in fantasy football. These are the guys that will have plenty of opportunity.
The third round is when you can have fun with this draft strategy. There are three moves that I like to make after securing a pair of top running backs.
1.) Draft a top quarterback. In the past there are usually a small handful of quarterbacks that I’d be content reaching for here. In 2021, I’m not taking any quarterback at this spot unless Patrick Mahomes falls.
2.) Draft a top tight end. Travis Kelce and George Kittle should be in a tier of their own this year with Mark Andrews and Darren Waller closely behind them. Grab a top tight end that you can start every week if there are any available. Locking in a positional advantage at tight end is less stressful than playing the waiver wire game all season.
3.) Draft another running back. Sounds crazy? Well, if you’re going to commit to having a running back-heavy team, might as well go all-in. There is a strong argument to draft a third consecutive running back here. You’ll be covered through bye weeks. You’ll be able to withstand injury. And, while these guys hold a bit more risk than the backs I mentioned previously, Aaron Jones, Antonio Gibson, David Montgomery, Kareem Hunt, and Ronald Jones will be great RB3/flex options and can also make for interesting trade bait later in the season.
So, what about receivers? Of course, the zero wide receiver draft strategy will keep you from getting Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, D.K. Metcalf, and DeAndre Hopkins but that doesn’t mean you can’t have good wide receivers.
This chart shows how many players averaged scoring in certain thresholds in 2020
|10+ PPG||15+ PPG||20+ PPG|
Although the pool of running backs and wide receivers that will score 15-plus are very similar, you have a much better option of locking in a serviceable wide receiver that’ll get you 10-15 points per week than finding a running back that will do so. Craziest yet, 90.2 percent of the wide receivers that scored between 10-15 points per game were drafted after the fourth round.
Now that you’ve got a great corps of running backs and possibly a top quarterback or tight end, it’s time to stockpile wide receivers. Last year guys like Stefon Diggs, Calvin Ridley, D.K. Metcalf, and Adam Thielen all had Average Draft Positions outside of the fourth round. As a matter of fact, five of the top-10 wide receivers in fantasy last year were drafted after the fourth round!
While you’re sacrificing your ability to get a top wide receiver with this strategy, the discrepancy between the top wide receivers and the next 20 is dramatically lower than the top running back and the next 20.
In 2020, the difference between the top-three running backs’ average (26.5 points per game) and Mike Davis (RB20) was 12.7 points.
The difference between the top-three wide receivers’ average (23.0 points per game) and Diontae Johnson (WR20) was just 8.1 points.
In summary, bellcow running backs are a dying breed. Use your early picks to lock in safe running backs to give yourself a positional advantage. Don’t feel bad about reaching for a top quarterback or tight end. Most importantly, stockpile mid-round wide receivers to build a sustainable and consistent team.