What Fantasy Draft Strategy is Best in 2023?

By Gary Davenport
Gary Davenport

Not that long ago, there was essentially one fantasy draft strategy. Sure, sometimes people would draft a quarterback or wide receiver early. Maybe even a tight end if they were really feeling froggy. But the early rounds of drafts were all about one thing-banging the running back position. Running backs dominated the first round.

However, times have changed. Of the top-12 players in terms of ADP at Fantasy Pros, six are wide receivers. Five are running backs. And one is a tight end.

There were a number of reasons for this change. With most fantasy leagues now using PPR scoring, as a whole wide receivers score more points than running backs. They are also less volatile and more plentiful. The number of 100-catch wideouts is growing. The number of 320-carry running backs are not. Running backs are also more prone to injury due to the beating they take. Add all those factors together, and the bust rate among running backs is (again, as a whole) higher than at wideout. It just is.

That changing landscape has given rise to a number of draft strategies that all essentially try to do two things. The first is to address that volatility in the backfield. The second is to avoid a region of the draft that has come to be known as "The RB Dead Zone."


Where exactly the "Dead Zone" lies varies from site to site and year to year. But essentially there's a zone between approximately Round 4 and Round 7 where the gap between bust rates at running back and wide receiver is widest. Where running backs are that much more a gamble than usual. Pranav Rajaram of 4For4 explained it well.

"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 wrote. "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 reinforces the hit-and-miss nature of these middle-round running backs-the odds of picking one that even slightly outperforms their ADP is about as likely as a coin flip."

The chaos at running back in recent years has given rise to a few different draft strategies-including one that just says to blow off the position altogether.



"Zero RB" means exactly that-ignoring the running back position altogether in the early rounds. It advocates loading up on high-end wide receivers early. Adding an elite tight end if you're so inclined. Maybe even drafting a high-end quarterback like Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs. What you don't do is draft running backs. Not in Round 1. Or in Round 3. Or maybe even in Round 5. That position is ignored until later in the draft, when fantasy managers load up on upside plays, pass-catching backs and runners in committees with the potential to emerge as lead backs.

As Mario Puig wrote for Rotowire, the point of "Zero RB' is to pass on the "maybe" that is running back for surer bets at the other positions.

"Opting out of the running back market in the first five rounds makes it easy to nail it at WR, QB and TE, because you don't have to concern yourself with the 'sleepers' at such positions and instead can pick up the kind of players who reliably project for top-five upside at their positions," he said. "You're forfeiting the chance to acquire running backs of the same category in the meantime, but the Zero RB theory pushes back against this fact with the commitment to fading the running backs in that range because they are subjected to durability concerns that don't apply as much to the other three positions."

The upside, as Puig pointed out, is that your cadre of wide receivers and possibly your quarterback and tight end are going to be solid. If you can find those RB values later, you can build a team that's going to be hard to beat.

The downside is that finding those running backs can be easier said than done. If you target running back in Round 6 or 7, you are drafting the position smack in the "Dead Zone." If you wait even later-well then, you're into dart-throw territory, where the odds of hitting paydirt aren't great at any position. If you don't, then the advantage you built at other positions can easily be wiped out by the hole(s) on the roster at running back.

"Zero RB" has gained quite a bit of popularity in recent years. But of course, when a lot of people zig others will zag, and that has led to a resurgence in something of an "old school" strategy.



Where Zero RB drafters ignore running back over the first five rounds of a draft, "Robust RB" drafters attack it by drafting at least two (and sometimes three) in the early rounds-just like the old days. As Matt De Lima wrote for The Game Day, there are a couple reasons for doing this-the advantage gained at running back by rostering as many "workhorse" backs as possible, and the fact it's easier to find startable wide receivers later in drafts.

"Nearly 20 years ago, back in 2003, there were nine running backs who topped 1,700 all-purpose yards. In 2022, there were three: Derrick Henry, Christian McCaffrey, and Nick Chubb," he said. "Back in 2003, Holmes and Tomlinson scored 445 and 443.84 PPR points, respectively. A running back with 400-plus points has happened once in the last five years (McCaffrey in 2019). With fewer epic scorers at the running back position, the position's scoring scarcity creates point-differential advantages. For example, James Robinson, the RB50 last year, scored 88.6 fantasy points. Meanwhile, Richie James, the WR50 last year, scored 132.5. The takeaway being there are more potential points scored by the WR50 on draft day than the RB50. So, you want to secure the running back position earlier since the scoring decline occurs more rapidly as RBs are drafted in comparison to wide receivers."

The pros here are obvious. The bust rates for running backs and wide receivers over the first two rounds are relatively similar. Barring injury, odds are that early-round back will "hit"-and if he does, he'll afford your team an advantage over opponents. And there's no denying that the wide receiver position is deeper than running back, It's much easier to find capable players in Round 8 at wideout than in the backfield.

The cons are also obvious. Fantasy managers will need to find those startable wideouts in the middle rounds. If three of the first five picks are running backs and you don't really want a hole at wide receiver, than either an elite quarterback or tight end is probably out. And if those bellcow backs don't meet expectations or get hurt? Well, then-you're sunk.



There's also a compromise strategy of sorts-"Hero RB." It kind of combines "Robust RB" and "Zero RB." In "Hero RB," drafters use one of their first two picks on a high-end running back-an anchor in the backfield. Then they punt the position for several rounds while strengthening the wide receivers, tight ends and/or quarterbacks. That "anchor" has also earned the strategy the moniker "Anchor RB," and as Geoff Ulrich wrote for Fantasy Life, the point here is essentially having the best of both worlds.

"Anchor RB (also commonly referred to as Hero RB or modified Zero RB strategy) is an approach that has players build around one early-round RB (taken in the first or second round), before using the rest of their early-round picks on positions like WR or TE," he said. The idea works very similarly to the Zero RB method in that it limits us from overspending early draft capital on RBs and instead leaves us tons of open room to grab high-end receivers in rounds two through seven. The main difference between Anchor RB and Zero RB is that Anchor RB lineups allow us to "anchor" our team to what, in theory, should be an every-down "workhorse" at the position. The idea behind the Anchor RB method goes something like this, the RB position may be volatile-and better to approach with a draft method that focuses on late-round RBs-but there's also immense upside associated with the small number of true, every-down RBs in the NFL each year."

The advantages to "Hero RB" are twofold. First, you're mitigating the risk involved with going full "Zero RB" and having to hit the "Dead Zone" or drat throws to build your entire running back stable. Also, if fantasy managers can hit on that second starter at running back a little later in the draft, they are going to be strong at just about every position. Loaded. Ready to kick butt and take names.

The biggest pitfall with "Hero RB" should be obvious-if that anchor back drafted in the first round or two busts, you are in big trouble. You have a "Zero RB" team with weaker receivers. And that can be awfully hard to overcome.

There's one other strategy worth mentioning here. But it's not really a strategy. It's a guy.



There's nothing complicated about this "strategy." It involves one step-taking Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce with your first pick. It makes more sense the later you get into Round 1, but an argument can be made for taking him first overall-because the edge he provides at the position is ridiculous.

Since 2016, Kelce has finished as the top tight end every year but one-and he was second that season. Last year, he blew the doors off the position. Last year, Kelce outscored the No. 2 tight end (Minnesota's T.J. Hockenson) by a whopping 102.9 PPR points. That's over six fantasy points per game--every game. Bump back to the No. 5 tight end, Jacksonville's Evan Engram, and things get even more ludicrous--141.4 PPR points (over eight PPR points per game). The gap between Kelce and the No. 10 tight end (Cleveland's David Njoku) was almost laughable--172.3 PPR points (over 10 points per game).

Draft Kelce and (barring an injury) you are going to have a major advantage over every team you face at tight end. However, unless you relish cobbling together a wideout corps with chewing gum and duct tape, "Robust RB" is likely off the table. Going TE/RB/RB over the first three rounds is going mean some serious scrambling at receiver-and a potentially glaring weakness at that position.



Now, after almost 2,000 words about pluses and minuses and Heroes and Zeroes and whatnot, you no doubt want to know which of these draft day plans is best.

The answer? None of them. And all of them.

There are far too many variables involved to call a particular strategy "better" than another. For starters, there's the comfort level of the individual drafter. Some folks are going to be a lot more comfortable targeting wide receivers in Round 7 than running backs. Others will feel the opposite.

There's also the matter of the draft itself. If nine teams all go "Zero RB" and fade running backs, then there will be backs who fall into a position of value. The same could happen in everyone goes RB-crazy the first couple of rounds.

And that's the key, just as it always has been in fantasy football-value.

That isn't to say that going into a draft with a plan is a bad idea. But if you have to willing to alter the plan if need be. Maybe even abandon it altogether. Take what the draft gives you. Go where the value is.

Because flexibility always has been and always will be the best draft strategy in fantasy football.

Gary Davenport is a two-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association Football Writer of the Year.