Everyone knows the common sentiment that you can’t win your fantasy league in the first three rounds, but you can lose it. The importance of those early rounds can’t be overstated. When choosing a player in that range you’re hoping to find a high-end, consistent contributor, with some upside. But what if, in an attempt to create the most productive roster, you pass on those early running backs, loading up on wide receiver and filling your quarterback and tight end positions before ever taking your first running back? Can the season still prove successful if you adopt the zero RB strategy? There are varying opinions on this but it’s at least worth examining and seeing how it might work. Having elite talent at other positions is becoming more and more important, especially in half and full PPR, pushing running backs down the board, which, in turn, provides a lot of value at the position in later rounds. But knowing what later round running backs to target can be difficult. Here are a few names to look for in later rounds if you do decide to adopt this strategy.
James Cook, RB, Buffalo Bills
Cook is currently being drafted near the middle of the seventh round, as the 30th running back off the board. This means he’s being drafted as an RB3, which is much closer to his floor than his ceiling. This is largely due to the presence of Damien Harris and the fact that we have yet to see Cook, in his very short career, take on anything resembling a true three down role. But between the two, Cook is better suited for that role because catching passes out of the backfield has never been a big part of Harris’ game (compiling just 40 receptions in four seasons), while it has been a major means of contribution for Cook. Last year, Cook was extremely involved in the passing game when on the field, finishing with a 27% target rate per route run. This was good for top five amongst all running backs, and after a season ending injury to receiving specialist Nyheim Hines early in the offseason, Cook should have the pass catching role locked up. This should be highly productive in a Bills offense led by Josh Allen who was top 10 in pass attempts last year. While Harris will vulture some goal-line touches from Cook, Cook doesn’t require those touches to return value at his current ADP. His involvement in the passing game and ability to break away for a touchdown at any given moment should keep him firmly on the RB2 radar, and that’s assuming something close to a true 50-50 split with Harris. But if there’s an injury to Harris (something very possible seeing as how he has missed 28% of his contests over the last three seasons) or Cook earns a bigger piece of the pie in the Bills’ backfield simply by being better at football than Harris, he could easily propel himself into the top 12 conversation, especially in PPR. There may not be a better late round target than Cook. It’s hard to identify any other back going in this range that provides the same level of talent, potential, and opportunity that Cook does. He’s an easy selection in the seventh round.
David Montgomery, RB, Detroit Lions
Montgomery is another player you can currently get in the sixth or seventh round depending on format. While never considered a fantasy superstar, Montgomery has been a consistent RB2 over the last several seasons, even while being saddled with bottom tier offenses in Chicago. Last year, while splitting the backfield with both Khalil Herbert and Justin Fields, Montgomery finished in the top 24 at the position in all formats, and has never finished lower than the RB25 in any season. However, he now finds himself on a much more prolific offense, in a clearly defined role that led to Jamaal Williams leading the NFL in touchdowns and finishing second in goal line touches on his way to a top 10 finish in both half and full PPR. Yet, he is being drafted as a mid to low RB3. That makes no sense to me, but if you can snag him in that range, you should do so. The reason for the lack of excitement surrounding Montgomery is most likely due to the addition of rookie Jahmyr Gibbs. An exciting and electric prospect to be sure. As a first round selection, Gibbs has the draft capital and skillset to be an instant contributor on the field, and will most certainly get a fair amount of work. No one is debating that Gibbs is the superior athlete and talent. But while the Lions are clearly looking forward to a future with Gibbs, they also signed Montgomery to a three year, $18 million contract with $11 million guaranteed. Anyone who thinks he will not be heavily involved is fooling themselves. If anything the addition of Gibbs should provide more confidence to anyone drafting Montgomery because it is clear what his role will be. As the bigger back, Montgomery is more suited to run between the tackles and as such will take the a lot of early down work. He will also handle the majority of short yardage and valuable goal line carries. Gibbs will handle third down and obvious passing situations. It would not be surprising to see both of them on the field at the same time a lot this season since they are very different backs. And as a team that projects to score a lot of points this season there should be plenty of touches to go around. And it’s not like Gibbs will get 100% of the pass catching role. Montgomery can take a piece of that as well. In the last three seasons he has had at least 30 receptions (which is about what I would project this year.) The Lions also get the benefit of having what is projected to be the #1 easiest strength of schedule for running backs this season, so production should not be hard to come by for both Montgomery and Gibbs. The difference is you’re able to get Montgomery three to four rounds later, and I simply don’t see them finishing the season far apart enough to justify that discrepancy in ADP. Drafting Montgomery is certainly boring and may not win you any popularity contests amongst your leaguemates, but Montgomery provides that often hard to find late round value of consistent floor and potential upside you’re looking for in a zero RB build. Besides managing at least 67 scrimmage yards per game in each of his first four seasons, he has also ended up in the top 14 at his position in evaded tackles in each season since 2019 (his rookie year.) Montgomery should easily return RB2 value for a RB3 cost. And if Gibbs gets hurt, or simply struggles in his rookie season, Montgomery could easily find himself in a role that would be as beneficial to his fantasy finish as it was for Jamaal Williams.
A.J. Dillon, RB, Green Bay Packers
A.J. Dillon is a player that since coming into the league has flown under the fantasy radar. While no one denies the ability of the player, it’s impossible to overstate the impact of Aaron Jones, the 1A to Dillon’s 1B. This timeshare often makes fantasy managers avoid the backfield altogether, but that’s a mistake. Last year, Dillon started out strong in week one with a 20 point game in PPR formats. Unfortunately, he proceeded to follow it up with a 10 game stretch that saw him fail to hit double digits in a single game. But in his final six games Dillon seemed to hit his stride, averaging over 60 total yards per game and scoring six touchdowns. All this while playing second fiddle on a team that was very pass heavy. Why wouldn’t you be when you have a future Hall of Famer under center? But with Aaron Rodgers departing for quite literally much greener pastures we could see the team shift to a more run centric offensive in order to take some of the pressure off of fourth year signal caller, and first time starter, Jordan Love. While it’s true that Love has looked much more poised and accomplished in preseason than many may have expected, it’s still hard to see head coach Matt LaFleur putting as much faith in him as he did in Rodgers. And if they do pump the breaks, even a little, on the passing game, Dillon figures to benefit even if he remains clearly behind Jones on the depth chart. In zero RB it’s important to look for players that can be consistent contributors with upside for more if things fall their way. Dillon is one such player. If there are simply more carries to go around then we could see a career year in carries and yards for Dillon. And as their preferred goal line back, playing with a mobile QB who can help open lanes for him, we could also see an uptick in touchdowns. And that’s if Jones stays healthy and they stay in what amounts to a 60/40 split. If Jones were to miss time, Dillon would carry with him the league winning upside that is extremely rare to find in later rounds. So in Dillon you’re getting a player with RB2 upside even if Jones plays an entire season finishing as an RB1, as he has in the past. But you’re also getting a guy that can help carry your team if called on to be more than just the 1B in a timeshare, and you’re not having to pay a premium price to obtain his services.
Antonio Gibson, RB, Washington Commander
Admittedly, this one was a bit of a tough choice. Gibson’s teammate, Brian Robinson, holds a similar ADP, but I see Gibson as the more desirable target in a zero-RB build due to his prowess as a pass catcher. Last season, Gibson posted 1.66 yards per route run. This rate was good for ninth among all running backs. This was with pass catching specialist J.D. McKissic on the team siphoning targets away from Gibson. McKissic is now gone and Washington should figure to be more pass heavy with new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy taking the reins. As a running back who tends to accumulate most of his production through the air, this shift should only serve to benefit Gibson. Last season there were only four running backs with a higher yards per route run and targets per route run than Gibson; Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler, D’Andre Swift, and Alvin Kamara. In this offensive scheme, Gibson could truly thrive. Bieniemy is the same person who turned Jerick McKinnon into a low-end RB2, and this in spite of McKinnon only getting 72 rushing attempts. How did he do it? By employing him in the passing game leading to 56 receptions and nine receiving touchdowns. These were both career highs and he achieved them at the age of 30. I don’t think anyone would argue against the fact that at this point in their careers the 25 year old Gibson is the superior athlete and talent with both a higher floor and much more upside. Gibson has always seemed a bit out of place as a true workhorse running back . Having played wide receiver as well in college it was always a bit of a head scratcher that no one could truly unlock his clear pass catching ability. But he may now have the right offensive coordinator to do just that. If the offense does look different under Bieniemy, a true breakout season could be on the horizon for Gibson, making him a great value in the later rounds.
Khalil Herbert, RB, Chicago Bears
The first rule of preseason is we should not make too much of preseason, but it’s hard to completely overlook what the new starting running back for the Chicago Bears did in their first exhibition game. Showing good speed and tackle breaking ability Herbert took what was essentially a screen pass from QB Justin Fields 56 yards for a touchdown. Herbert does have competition in free agent acquisition D’Onta Foreman and rookie Roschon Johnson, but as the running back most familiar with the system, Herbert will get first crack at the lead role, and there is no reason to believe he won’t be successful. Last year, only the Falcons ran the ball more than the Bears. Fields will eat into Herbert’s share of the carries and Foreman and Johnson will get some work, but Herbert should be the lead back for one of last year’s most run heavy teams. It is likely that the Bears become a bit more balanced this year after trading for D.J. Moore and beefing up their offensive line - both things that scream they’re trying to develop Fields and give him all the tools he needs to succeed in improving as a passer. But the run game will still be a major part of this offense and Herbert has a five yard per carry career average. And when given the chance he has proven he can be explosive. In fact, last season, despite ranking 36th at the position in carries, Herbert was one of eight backs with multiple 50 yard runs, and only Derrick Henry and Travis Etienne (you may have heard of them) had more runs of 35 yards than Herbert. Now that he seems destined to begin the season as the starter there’s no reason he can’t continue to display some of that explosiveness and provide a good return on the investment you’d be making to get him. There is some risk with Herbert. But anyone who decides to go zero RB is not afraid of a little risk. The Bears still have three backs on the roster and a true committee is possible. There’s also the chance that as Johnson acclimates to the NFL and the Bears’ system he slowly takes over as the lead running back on this team. But I think that’s more likely to happen next year than this season. Even if others slowly earn a bigger piece of the pie, I don’t see Herbert going away completely and there should be enough volume here for him to out perform his ADP.
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