By Gary Davenport
Gary Davenport

Why Fantasy Draft Strategy is More Wide-Open Than Ever

Not that long ago, there was one prevailing fantasy draft strategy. Fantasy managers hammered away at the running back position early. It wasn't at all unusual to see nine or even 10 backs selected in the first round.

But the NFL is constantly changing. As the number of true "workhorse" running backs decreased and more teams went to pass-heavy offensive schemes, fantasy managers started to gravitate away from the position. Sure, some fantasy managers stuck to the old-school "Robust RB" strategy (don't look at me, I didn't name it.), But other strategies were formulated that veered away from the position.

There's "Hero RB," where managers draft one back early and then hammer at the other positions. There's "Zero RB," where managers fade the position altogether until the later rounds. Some fantasy analysts advocate drafting Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce in the first round. Others still are fans of drafting a high-end quarterback early. There are more fantasy draft strategies than ever before -- and man oh man do pundits enjoy arguing about them.

Here's the thing about fantasy draft strategies. All of them can work like a charm. All can fail miserably. All have their benefits. And their drawbacks.

Let's take a look at some of the more popular fantasy draft strategies in 2023. How they can succeed. How they can fail. And a player who should absolutely be on your draft-day radar if you decide that strategy is the plan for you this year.

However, before we move on to the strategy carousel that is 2023, a word on one thing that many of these strategies share in common -- a desire to avoid the "RB Dead Zone."


"The RB Dead Zone"

In news that should surprise absolutely no one, fantasy pundits can't quite agree on when the "Dead Zone" begins or ends. But one thing can't be denied -- running backs drafted in an area from around Round 3-4 to say Round 6-7 are much more likely to fail to meet expectations than their counterparts at wide receiver.

As Pranav Rajaram wrote for 4For4, "We can see that there's a significant drop-off in running back points per game between Rounds 2 and 3, and an even steeper decline after Round 5," Rajaram said. "In fact, running backs taken in Round 12 averaged more fantasy points per game than those in Round 6, which is a perfect encapsulation of the dead zone -- selecting running backs in the middle rounds has been incredibly unpredictable and feels impossible to get right. Last season, for example, just 6 of 13 running backs taken in the dead zone outperformed their ADP."

This isn't to say that no "Dead Zone" backs ever hit (Josh Jacobs of the Raiders was drafted in that range last year, and he did just fine), but for the most part the fantasy community has soured on these mid-round backs.




A "Robust RB" strategy is rocking fantasy football old-school. The running position is the focus of the early rounds of the draft. Fantasy managers employing the strategy prioritize the ever-dwindling supply of high-touch, every-down workhorse running backs. Many "Robust RB" managers will try to avoid the "RB Dead Zone" by taking a back with each of their first three picks. It's not at all unusual for "Robust RB" managers to have secured four backs by the end of the sixth round.

Why It Works
Scarcity is the name of the game at running back nowadays. There just aren't that many dependable fantasy options we know will procure 300+ carries this season. In 2010, seven running backs had 300 carries. Last year, that number fell all the way to three. If you can procure a backfield filled with steady weekly producers at the position, it could mean a sizable edge over your competition. The gap in bust rate between backs and receivers is also highest in the middle rounds -- having a backfield framed out by then hedges against it.

Why It Doesn't
There's just no way to sugarcoat this -- the running back position has the highest bust rate in fantasy football. The gap is narrower in the early rounds, but it's still there. There's also no denying that running backs are more prone to getting hurt than wide receivers. Going "Robust RB" necessitates hitting on some mid and late-round wide receivers as well. Loading up on so many running backs early also means punting on either a high-end quarterback, an elite tight end, or both. Essentially, you are betting your season on the most volatile position in fantasy football.



ROBUST RB TARGET: Brandin Cooks -- WR, Dallas Cowboys (Round 7-8)

Cooks is on his fifth team after being traded for the fourth time, and he'll play second-fiddle to CeeDee Lamb in Dallas. But Cooks is still just 29 years old, he topped 1,000 receiving yards two years ago on a terrible Texans team, and Cooks has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark six times.

The "Zero RB" draft strategy is the polar opposite of the "Robust RB" strategy and exactly what it sounds like. Fantasy managers fade the running back position -- period, They load up on elite wide receivers. Grab a high-end tight end. Maybe draft an elite quarterback like Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs. But do not draft a running back before the sixth round or so -- if not later. It's an admittedly risky strategy -- but one that can pay major dividends if executed properly.

Why It Works
Full disclosure time -- this fantasy analyst is not a proponent of "Zero RB." So I'll let Alex Johnson of Underdog Fantasy explain the goal of a successful "Zero RB" draft.
"When the Zero RB Draft strategy was first coined by Shawn Siegele, the forefront of his argument was that running backs are far more fragile and have a high bust rate compared to the other positions," he wrote. "The basis of the strategy then became to load up on WRs early with at least one QB or TE in the first five rounds, then find running backs with upside for high scoring weeks without paying high draft capital. The ultimate goal is that by the end of the season, we are just as strong at RB as our leaguemates. The difference is, we also have stud wide receivers and tight ends because we drafted top-tier guys early."

Why It Doesn't
There are a few potential pitfalls with "Zero RB." The first is the assumption that fantasy managers will be able to hit on quality starters at running back on the back end of the "Dead Zone," beyond it or even on the waiver wire. There's no guarantee that will happen -- especially given the high demand for RB talent on the wire. If you don't hit on a lottery ticket running back, the hole at the position could be too much for even a stellar WR corps to overcome. Also, while the bust rate of running backs remains higher than at wide receiver overall, per Matt Dunleavy of Player Profiler, from 2015 to 2020 the bust rate among receivers drafted in Rounds 1-4 was actually higher than at running back. That data may be a few years old, but it emphasizes that "Zero RB" is not a strategy for the faint of heart.



ZERO RB TARGET: A.J. Dillon -- RB, GBP (Round 8-9)

Dillon wasn't as productive as fantasy managers hoped a year ago. But he still flirted with 1,000 total yards, scored seven times and finished just outside the top-25 in PPR points. Dillon is also just one Aaron Jones injury away from being exactly the kind of lottery ticket "Zero RB" drafters covet.

"Hero RB" (also known as "Anchor RB" and "Modified Zero RB," because fantasy pundits can't even agree on what to name things) is a compromise of sorts between "Robust RB" and "Zero RB." The running back position isn't attacked as aggressively in the early rounds as in "Robust RB," but the position isn't ignored completely. Instead, fantasy managers use one of their first couple of picks on a high-end running back to anchor the position, then hold off on drafting a RB2 until later in the draft while loading up at wide receiver, tight end and/or quarterback.

Why It Works
There's a reason why "Hero RB" has gained in popularity in the fantasy community in recent years. As Christian Williams wrote for Footballguys, when implemented properly it can offer something of a "best of both worlds" scenario.
"The Hero-RB strategy is one I often implement, depending on my position in the draft," he said. "The idea of drafting a stud at the position with the most scarcity (running back) while also attacking the value of the early-round receiver is appealing. Hitting on a solid RB2 is essential, but this strategy promotes a strong wide receiver group and a positional advantage over the folks that select running backs early. On the contrary, the positional depth of WR makes landing on the early-round receiver selections more vital, as there's a good chance the teams that went Robust-RB could find value receivers and, thus, have the positional advantage over you."

Why It Doesn't
"Hero RB" is a less risky draft strategy than "Zero RB," as drafters only have to (theoretically) hit on one late-round running back as their RB2. So, you'll usually see drafters draft 3-4 backs relatively close together in the hopes that one hits. If one doesn't, there's trouble afoot. Also, just as fantasy managers who employ "Robust RB" have to hit on their early picks in the backfield, "Hero RB" drafters have to be prudent with their early picks at receiver. And as we already mentioned, the gap in bust rates between early-round backs and receivers isn't what many expect.



HERO-RB TARGET: Nick Chubb -- RB, CLE (Round 2)

If you're going to go down the "Hero RB" path, you might as well do it right. Chubb carries a second-round ADP, but with Kareem Hunt and D'Ernest Johnson gone there's top-5 upside present with the 27-year-old.

For many years, many fantasy analysts have advised against using an early pick on a quarterback -- any quarterback. But last year was a particularly awful season for late-round quarterback picks. Seattle's Geno Smith finished inside the top-5 in fantasy points in many scoring systems, but a number of lower-end QB1 options face planted. The gap between the elite options and even values like Smith was also much wider than usual. And that has led some to wonder if maybe taking a signal-caller early might not be a good idea after all.

Why It Works
According to Colin McTamany of Fantrax, fantasy managers need to get right with a changing landscape under center in fantasy -- a landscape that leaves fewer reliable weekly starters and a bigger gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots."
"In 2021, every quarterback inside the top-12 averaged more than 20.0 points per game," he said. "A turnover of starting quarterbacks across the league on rebuilding and retooling franchises lessens the probability of having a large number of the position averaging 20.0 or more fantasy points per game. In 2023, there is a large gap between obvious studs who win fantasy matchups and starters you can get by with week-to-week. Don't wait to draft a stud quarterback."

Why It Doesn't
This all boils down to whether you believe that last season was an aberration or a trend. If you believe the landscape really has shifted significantly at quarterback and that the depth isn't what it used to be, making that early investment at the position makes sense. But if last year was a fluke and things return to "normal" in 2023, then quarterback will once again be the deepest position in fantasy. A position where the gap in scoring between the No. 1 option and No. 12 quarterback isn't as large as the gap between the "best" and "worst" weekly starters at running back or wide receiver. And if that's the case, high-end quarterbacks will go back to not being worth their lofty price tags.



EARLY QB TARGET: Lamar Jackson -- QB, BAL (Round 3-4)

Is Jackson's missed time the past two seasons a concern? Yes. But he has the best receiving corps of his career at his disposal this year, Jackson has 1,000-plus yard rushing upside and $260 million reasons to play well. If healthy, he could be fantasy football's No. 1 QB overall -- with a QB5 ADP.

This draft strategy (also known as "QB Chicken") is another old-school plan ala "Robust RB." It's simple, really -- wait to draft a quarterback. Like, really wait to draft a quarterback. Be the last team in your league to take a starter at the position -- sometimes even after a team or two has taken a backup. Then select two signal-callers (sometimes in rapid succession) in the hopes that either one will beat expectations or that you can platoon the pair when the matchups are right.

Why It Works
JJ Zachariason of LateRoundQB has literally made a career of being a proponent of waiting at quarterback, so it's only fair that he explain why it's a wise draft strategy,
"We can't forget that fantasy football isn't just about the players you draft, but the players you don't draft as well," he said. "When it's your turn to make a choice in the second round, and you opt to get (an elite quarterback), you're missing out on high-end running backs and receivers. And while you're avoiding those positions because of their perceived bust rates, I'll remind you again -- the bust rates of these positions early in your draft are far more favorable than what you'll find even in Round 5."

Why It Doesn't Work
As a long-time fan of Zachariason's work and a believer in his philosophy of patience at quarterback, there's really only one thing that could louse this all up -- if 2023 looks like 2022, and we really are seeing an increase in the gap between high-end quarterbacks, middling weekly starters and low-end streaming options. Two years ago, the gap between the No. 1 quarterback and No. 14 passer was 9.6 points per game. That gap jumped to 11.8 points in 2022. Maybe it was a fluke. But if the trend continues, the "Late QB" philosophy is going to lose much of its appeal.
LATE QB TARGET: Anthony Richardson -- QB, IND (Round 13-14): As we move through the summer, Richardson's ADP is likely going to climb. But if he starts for the Colts from Week 1, his ability to gain yards with his legs will be a huge boost to his fantasy prospects.




This one isn't even a little bit complicated. Unless you can land 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson or Bengals wideout Ja'Marr Chase with your first pick, take Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce with your first pick. That's it. That's the strategy.

Why It Works
Simply put, where tight ends are concerned, it's Kelce's world and everyone else is just living in it. Last year, Kelce outscored the No. 2 tight end by almost 102 PPR points. That's a full six fantasy points per game. He had over twice as many points as the No. 6 tight end. And while Kelce is 33, Michael Salfino of the Athletic isn't sweating his age.
"I did the research. I looked at top TEs in age 33 and age 34 scoring," he said. "How did the 33-year-old top scorers hold up at age 34? Takeaway: Two improved. Gonzalez declined by 17 percent. That would put Kelce at about 262 points in PPR. But again, two top age-33 guys got better, so you can't ding him really. Kelce has to be a top-8 pick again. There is no getting around it. He could be the No. 1 pick, value-wise, even given the massive edge he provides."

Why It Doesn't Work
Kelce's age is a legitimate concern, although he showed zero signs of slowing down last year. But he's not the only first-round pick with age or injury concerns.
The bigger issue (potentially) is the ripples that spread across a draft after using a first-rounder on Kelce. Odds are, if you take Kelce with your first pick, "Robust RB" is out as a strategy -- unless you feel really good about finding value at wide receiver later in the draft. Since that sets you down the "Zero RB" or "Hero RB" path, it's going to become critical to hit on some running backs later -- maybe in the "Dead Zone." Pulling off drafting Kelce and say his quarterback (Patrick Mahomes) will take more than a little dancing at other positions.



OPERATION: KELCE TARGET: Chris Godwin -- WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Round 5-6)

It's possible to draft Kelce, grab at least one reliable running back and still assemble a solid wideout corps -- if you can land a value or two. Godwin has the makings of one in 2023 if it turns out concerns about Tampa's QB situation or overblown.




This is the part where fantasy managers want to know which of these strategies is best. There are proponents for all who will swear theirs is, but the real answer is all of them. And none of them.
The easiest way to ruin a draft is to rigidly adhere to a strategy no matter what. If seven teams all go "Zero RB" early, then the smartest play could be grabbing value in the backfield. Strategies can be merged and altered as well. Dial back "Robust RB" a bit in favor of better receivers. Pull a "Zero RB"/"Operation: Kelce" two-fer. The possibilities are endless.
Having a plan is great. But the best draft strategy in fantasy football is flexibility -- in the willingness to change strategies. Combine them. Abandon one for another.
Let the draft come to you. Take value as it comes each round.
That's the best plan for a successful fantasy draft in 2023.

Gary Davenport is a two-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association Football Writer of the Year. Follow Gary on Twitter at @IDPSharks.