Zero Running Back (commonly known as Zero RB) is a draft strategy that attempts to take advantage of the fragility of the running back position by utilizing early draft capital on non-running back positions, and it’s become en vogue over the last couple of seasons. We put together a brief overview of what Zero RB is and why it can be so powerful here.
With the rise of massive Best Ball tournaments on sites like Underdog, DraftKings and Drafters, the fantasy market has gotten much more efficient and really started to push down some the running back position as a whole while pushing up positions like wide receiver. It may seem like that trend would lend itself more away from Zero RB because some of the top backs are pushed down further than past years. However, the opposite is mostly true.
Because wide receivers have been pushed up so far, you cannot afford to steer away from the position too much early in drafts or you risk getting “locked out” of the position, meaning you simply don’t have enough firepower and upside at WR to be able to win a best ball tournament.
The other perk of Zero RB is with WRs pushed up more in 2023, that leaves much, much stronger running backs available in the mid to late rounds than ever before. So even though we are foregoing the very top RBs in the draft, we are still getting very strong running back rooms on our teams, and we are not losing out on the necessary WR juice needed to win these massive contests.
With that being said, if you’re diving into some Zero RB drafts in 2023, here are the top 5 running back options for you in the mid to late rounds to use to build out a killer Zero RB squad.
Zero RB Targets for 2023 Fantasy Football & Best Ball
It has certainly been a roller coaster ride for Akers with the Rams. He was drafted in the 2nd round to replace Todd Gurley in 2020. After coming on strong down the stretch of his rookie year, Akers tore his achilles in the offseason heading into 2021 and missed most of the year. He miraculously came back for the Rams playoff run, but he looked like a shell of his former self, which is not surprising given the severity of that injury.
Healthy heading into 2022, he started off slow and supposedly in the doghouse, which resulted in Akers taking time away from the team during the middle of the season. But when he returned for the stretch run, despite the Rams being out of the playoff hunt and without both Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp, Akers was a fantasy star. Despite running for one of the least talented offenses in the league, Akers closed the year with 3 straight 100 yard games. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry over the final four games while playing at least 75% of snaps in every game, and even popped up for a 3 TD game in Week 15.
Akers was drafted in the 3rd run of fantasy drafts in 2022, but despite that stretch run and the fact the Rams cut Darrell Henderson last year and only brought in 6th round rookie Zach Evans, Akers is now going in the early 7th round of Underdog drafts. The Rams bring back a healthy Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp and are giving it another go with this offense that was elite just two years ago. Sure, there is some risk with Stafford’s health, but both Stafford and Kupp were out during Akers’ best stretch of his career last year. And Sean McVay has always had a preference to lean on a workhorse RB.
Full disclosure, the Dame Train is my flag plant for 2023. In a recent show on our YouTube channel, one of my 2023 Hot Takes was that Damien Harris scores 20 TDs this season. Clearly that’s a stretch, but using our Spike Week rankings, he’s the most undervalued RB on the entire board. Here’s why:
Harris comes over from the Patriots off a down year where he missed 6 games, but his no nonsense in between the tackles running style is the perfect missing ingredient for the Bills offense. He had a very efficient (5 YPC) in 2020 as a member of a huge committee for the Patriots alongside James White, Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel. He followed that up with a monster 2021 where he took over a bigger role as the 1a to Rhamondre Stevenson’s 1b. Harris took 202 carries for 929 yards and an insane 15 TDs. Those two seasons were not just putting up numbers either, as PFF graded him as the 17th best RB in the NFL.
With Zack Moss not working out, the Bills have operated with smaller backs for the last few years, namely Devin Singletary and James Cook. Singletary is now gone, and Cook, while talented, is just 190 pounds or more of a passing down weapon and change of pace back. Also notable, Harris and Cook are essentially the same age with Harris turning 24 in June and Cook turning 24 in September.
Harris should be effective in whatever role he is used in the elite Bills offense given his talent, but as the only bigger, pure runner on the roster, he is set up especially well this year. Josh Allen has been vocal about the fact that he can’t continue to run as often or as physically as he has up until this point of his career. We know Allen has been used frequently on the ground for the Bills, but especially near the goal line. In the regular season with the Bills looking to save the hits on Allen, it makes too much sense to use Harris in that role. We know he’s a hyper effective between the tackles runner and goal line runner, as evidenced by his 2021 season with the Patriots. Plus, the Bills aren’t going to use Cook or Nyheim Hines in that role. This all comes together to give Harris a monster ceiling in 2023 at an almost unfathomably cheap price of 117 overall on Underdog.
Let’s start at the end. Yes, I know the Eagles traded for D’Andre Swift. Yes, I know Penny is making very little money in 2023.
But the former first round pick for the Seahawks has done nothing but produce monster results when on the field in his NFL career. Obviously, the trouble for Penny has been that “on the field” part. Injuries are the reason he took this deal with the Eagles. NFL teams don’t want to pay you if you can’t stay on the field, so this is very much a “prove it” deal for Penny, and it’s the dream spot for a running talent like him to prove it to the rest of the league.
Penny has averaged 5.7 YPC for his career. 5.7! In 15 games over the last two years in Seattle, he has averaged more than 6 YPC. He has also scored 8 TDs in those 15 games. In 2021, no Seattle RB averaged more than 4.3 YPC. In 2022, even Ken Walker only averaged 4.6 YPC despite a great rookie season. Penny is as elite as they come in efficiency on the ground as a runner. And now he is in the most critical year of his career… on the single greatest team in the league for running back efficiency.
The Eagles elite offensive line and Jalen Hurts’ dual threat ability have enabled Miles Sanders to average more than 5 YPC over the last few years. Sanders is a fine runner, but he’s not on the same level as Penny. If Penny can wrap up the role of early down runner for the Eagles, it’s within his range of outcomes to lead the entire NFL in rushing yards. He’s that efficient and the Eagles are that good in the run game. It doesn’t hurt the Eagles play from ahead so much that they are running a ton in many second halves.
Of course there is a general uncertainty to Penny with the Eagles acquiring Swift, but we largely know that Swift is more of an explosive weapon on the outside and in the pass game. He can have his own value, but the clear best fit for the Miles Sanders role is Penny. The upside FAR outweighs the risk for Penny at an adp of 114 on Underdog, especially on Zero RB teams.
Warren came out of nowhere to carve out a very real role for the Steelers in 2022. Najee Harris will play his role, but Warren frankly outplayed Najee in 2022. We saw Warren take anywhere from 20-50% of snaps from Najee last year, and he notably carved out a pass game role, finishing with just 13 less catches than Najee. He averaged nearly 5 YPC compared to Najee’s 3.8 YPC, so even if Najee was a bit banged up in 2022, we shouldn’t expect Warren’s role to go away.
It’s incredibly valuable to have a player at this price in Zero RB teams who has shown he can be efficient as a runner, carved out a passing game role and also is the clear handcuff to the starter. That combination of standalone value thanks to the role and efficiency can be helpful at all times, while the clear and obvious handcuff is something that is not so straightforward in most backfields. If something were to happen to Najee, Warren would be a top 15 RB easily. The Steelers offense is also a very reasonable bet to take a significant step forward in 2022, and Warren could be a helpful piece in that progress.
I mentioned my love for Damien Harris above, but I think you could argue that Chuba is actually the most mis-priced back in the player pool. Relegated to minimal duty with Christian McCaffrey in town, Hubbard stepped into a split backfield with D’Onta Foreman after CMC was traded to San Francisco. He was quite effective in that stretch, despite a really talent deficient Panthers offense. On the season, he finished averaging 4.9 YPC and added 14 catches for 171 yards.
CMC is long gone and Foreman is gone to Chicago. The Panthers brought in Miles Sanders, but Hubbard is not only the clear handcuff to Sanders but projects to have at least some form of standalone value. Those are really valuable characteristics of running backs, especially early in the draft season, and especially for players being drafted around pick 190 on Underdog.
We saw elite efficiency from Hubbard in 2022, which is exactly what we hope for in our running back bets. All you need to do is add some volume onto the efficiency, and you have a home run draft pick. If the Panthers can take a step forward by finally having a real talent at QB, Chuba can be a total steal at this price in a part time role, and he can be an absolute home run if something happens to Miles Sanders.