Zero RB Universe: How the Early Results Interact With Our Evolving View of RB Tactics in Fantasy
Image Credit: Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Joshua Kelley.

Shawn Siegele examines the evolving running back landscape and breaks down some of the important tactical decisions in redraft and dynasty.

The Zero RB Watch list will become the Zero RB Universe and be both the same and different in 2023. It’ll include enough RB peripherals from the Advanced Stat Explorer, Stealing Signals tool, SOS Streamer, Weekly Stat Explorer, NFL Pace tool, Game Splits, FFPC Waiver Report, and Advanced Team Explorer to choke you with stats. But it will also be more whimsical, or at least move as much in that direction as works for a column about fantasy football running backs.

Every Week Is Different — Thursday Night Helps Illustrate the Talent Thesis

Thursday night’s D’Andre Swift eruption was a great result for Zero RB Countdown adherents, but it’s a good example of:

  • The value in being patient after Week 1.
  • The fantasy upside in contingency-based drafting.
  • The importance of selecting for elite talents in high-powered offenses over limited talents (especially if they’re also in poor offenses).

I’ll come back to this graphic, because I don’t want to suggest that this is in any way a finished conversation when it comes to value.

The shift in the RB Dead Zone was one of our main topics for conversation on Stealing Bananas this offseason. Skyrocketing WR prices essentially created several dynamics.

First, we began to see a WR Dead Zone in a much clearer way. These would be WRs who lack the talent to be drafted early, but were pushed up by a combination of market + workload. Regardless of position, those types of selections are weighted very heavily to the land mine side of things.

Second, the lack of early-round RBs created several echelons of Dead Zone. You have the Elite Dead Zone in Rounds 4 and 5, where stars-with-flags go off the board in the same range as lesser talents who also have flags.

RB Dead Zone — Elite Echelon (FFPC Main Event ADP — September)

It’s probably not difficult to pick out the three backs who don’t belong.

When you have a range of exciting RB talents overlaid on a WR landscape that suddenly has its own Dead Zone, then you have a decision to make. You can actually give up points by selecting WRs — something we never had to deal with before — or you can take on the injury risk at RB.

That’s what made 2023 drafting so fascinating. Taking the points doesn’t solve all of the problems, as the J.K. Dobbins injury and the Kyren Williams/Joshua Kelley explosions illustrate. You’re still going to layer in more antifragility with the traditional Zero/Hero builds.

Of course, the one thing that I’ll take over Zero RB is when you give me an intoxicating points/talent combination. It’s hard to top the thrill of watching Breece Hall and Travis Etienne run wild as fourth-round picks. It also means finding another avenue for WR scoring. In 2023 that meant leaning into the true contingent plays at WR — many of whom didn’t hit in Week 1 — and bidding absolutely through the roof on Puka Nacua. The WR position may not give you as many true home run options, but when it does (or appears to) you have to be all-in.

* Hall and Nacua were discussed in Blood is Compulsory earlier in the week.

Then we have a second Dead Zone echelon where the talent gaps widen further.

RB Dead Zone — The Dead Echelon

We have a variety of tier breaks here:

Tier 1 — The PUP/Hold In/Feud/Superstar Tier

  • Jonathan Taylor

Tier 2 — The Borderline Star w Massive Offensive-Context Upside Tier

  • Javonte Williams
  • D’Andre Swift

Tier 3 — The Suspension/Offensive Concerns/Cliff Tier

  • Alvin Kamara

Tier 4 — The Touchdown Tier

  • David Montgomery

Tier 5 — The Solid Talent/Offensive Concerns Tier

  • Miles Sanders

Tier 6 — The Hope with Volume (Bounceback/Breakout) Tier

  • Cam Akers
  • Rachaad White

Tier 7 — The No-Backups Tier

  • James Conner

My exposure to this echelon is exclusively limited to the top two tiers. Although we’ve got a wide variety of theses for the remaining backs, they do mostly come down to workload (although the situation with Kamara is fairly complicated).

Although several of these backs either scored well (Montgomery) or generated playable EP (Sanders), Week 1 was not particularly kind to these selections. That doesn’t mean Week 2 won’t be better. Obviously Week 1 was pretty close to unmitigated disaster for Swift, and yet we all feel much better about him now.

When we think about drafting elite talents, we have several things going for us.

  • Elite skill/talent is something that is generally static in relatively healthy, young backs. This is the part that drafters miss when they focus on the lack of stability in stats like yards per carry, and end up fading the part you can actually count on in an RB’s profile. (Elements like speed, previous volume and production, evasion rate, pre- and post-contact explosiveness and more all give us a relatively clear view of RB talent.)
  • Workload is not intrinsic to the RB (except as it relates to talent) and is fluid. Backs with less talent have a narrower moat around their touches. This forms the foundation for the (healthy) contingency-based element of Zero RB and is the main throughline for Blair’s Wrong Read series over the years.

When I talk about not drafting the above backs with a “true Dead Zone profile” and discuss how this is supported by Week 1 results, it’s not a matter of thinking the matter is decided or that the above backs are certain to have bad seasons. It’s precisely because I cannot tell the future that I take the humility-based approach.

Let’s return to the backs from the original graphic, those drafted around Swift in the weeks leading up to the season.

It’s not all bad news by any stretch. Sanders generated an elite workload, and all four backs offered at least a solid mix of rushing and receiving EP. Unfortunately, they all underperformed. Again, not something we would expect every week, but a real risk when we combine these talent profiles with poor offensive contexts.

The Advanced Stats Explorer gives us another way to look at it.

Player Att YdsB4Contact YdsAfterContact Yds/Att BrokenTackle% MissedTackle% Evasion%
Miles Sanders 18 2.3 1.7 4.0 0 0 0
Rachaad White 17 0.8 1.5 2.3 5.9 0 6
James Conner 14 2.1 2.4 4.4 0 0 0
Isiah Pacheco 8 1.2 1.6 2.9 0 0 0

Sanders brought his signature yards-before-contact skills to the table — although the Panthers did have one of the best Week 1 matchups — but the quartet was credited with only a single broken or forced missed tackle on 57 attempts (White).

Contrast this with the top performers at the position.

Player Att Brkn Tkls Missed Tkls
Jahmyr Gibbs 7 5 1
Breece Hall 10 3 2
Josh Jacobs 19 3 3
Dalvin Cook 13 3 1
Christian McCaffrey 22 2 1
Nick Chubb 18 2 5
Tyler Allgeier 15 2 2
Chuba Hubbard 9 2 1
  • Jahmyr Gibbs was credited with six tackles evaded on a mere seven carries.
  • Breece Hall avoided five tackles on 10 carries.
  • Nick Chubb defeated seven different tackles on 18 carries.
  • Sanders’ backup, Chuba Hubbard, continued the trend of his bounceback second season with three tackles evaded on nine carries.

When we talk about the RB position being fungible, we’re really talking about two completely different categories of back. Whether or not you can replace the production at the position is directly related to a back’s ability to defeat tacklers and to create chunk plays as a result. This is why a back like Joe Mixon can be replaced by Samaje Perine in the playoffs with little difference (or even an upgrade), but backs like Christian McCaffrey, Hall, and Taylor fundamentally change offenses.

One frustrating but fascinating offseason storyline focused on the teams pursuing backs like Dalvin Cook and Taylor. When the mystery team was announced in the Taylor sweepstakes, we discovered that Miami was joined by Green Bay.

The immediate reaction was a mix of scorn and disbelief. Both of these teams have already sunk serious assets into the position. Aaron Jones is one of the highest-paid RBs in the NFL, has consistently posted an elite mix of production and peripherals, and added 85 yards after the catch in Week 1 to make Jordan Love’s performance appear much more impressive than it actually was.

Here’s the flipside: these teams are both coached by Shanahan disciples, and joined the 49ers with unstoppable game plans in Week 1. McCaffrey’s 65-yard TD run instantly slammed the door on any hopes of a second-half surge by the Steelers. Jones’ play did the same in Chicago.

The offseason didn’t just bring us a (superficially) head-scratching selection in De’Von Achane to a pick-strapped Dolphins squad. Several other flourishing run offenses from 2022 doubled-down on the approach by trying to add talent in the offseason. Detroit (No. 1), Atlanta (No. 3), and Philadelphia (No. 7) were all among the league-leaders in rushing EP to the backs, and they all made upgrades.

  •  Detroit selects Jahmyr Gibbs No. 12 overall and signs David Montgomery to a three-year $18 million contract. The Lions created a lot of value for their backs last season but ranked No. 22 in points above average per play and No. 29 in evasion rate.
  • Atlanta selects Bijan Robinson No. 8 overall. The Falcons already ranked No. 4 in stuff rate and No. 2 in rushing WAR.
  • Philadelphia trades for D’Andre Swift and signs Rashaad Penny. (If you’ve read the Countdown, you know why Swift projects as an upgrade on Sanders.) Behind Jalen Hurts, the Eagles already ranked No. 1 in positive percentage and tied for No. 1 in boom percentage.

Ben and I spent a lot of the offseason discussing the evolution of defense and how offenses would react. How do offenses counterpunch against defensive philosophies that want to eliminate the big play and extend the number of total plays (where a mistake can happen) and third downs (where a team could fail and opt to turn the ball over voluntarily through punting)?

Our conjecture yesterday: the brightest young minds and the most dynamic offenses appear to be placing a bigger emphasis on difference-making backs than the coaching/GM fraternity at large.

It’s important to be clear about my thesis. I’m not saying that running will become more valuable than passing (it won’t), or that teams like Atlanta will thrive or Kansas City will struggle (neither of those things are likely to happen). I certainly still believe in the research on the value of RBs in reality that began with the Fantasy Douche at the birth of RotoViz. But in 2023 you ignore RB talent at your increasing peril.

The Zero RB Universe

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Shawn Siegele

Author of the original Zero RB article and 2013 NFFC Primetime Grand Champion. 11-time main event league winner. 2015, 2017, 2018 titles in MFL10 of Death.

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