This article is intended to find the rookies for proponents of the “Zero Running Back” strategy. The “Zero RB” strategy is built around the idea of taking wide receivers (or Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas, or Rob Gronkowski) early because they score the most points in PPR formats, leaving RB2 as your weakest starting position.
There are lots of good options for running backs even if you draft other positions early. Guys like Pierre Thomas, Toby Gerhart, Shane Vereen, even Bishop Sankey. But all of these guys are well-known – I’m here to discuss some rookies that are currently below the radar in redraft leagues.
A favorite of Zero RB drafting creator Shawn Siegele, Jeremy Hill has already over-taken incumbent power-back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. We can agree that the Bengals probably don’t view Gio Bernard as a true bell-cow and that they would like to keep a power back to carry some of the load. Hill will also likely be the favorite for goal-line work. It doesn’t hurt that the Bengals look to be transitioning from a pass-heavy offense (OC Jay Gruden) to a run heavy offense (OC Hue Jackson).
Despite fantasy experts repeating this for years, Frank Gore will run out of gas soon. It’s a sad reality for running backs, but few make it past the age of 30 without experiencing significant decline. Gore, a career 4.6 yards per carry rusher, ran for his fewest yards per carry as a pro last season: 4.1. He will be 31 years of age this season, and 49ers Beat Writer Matt Maiocco has already predicted that rookie Carlos Hyde will have more carries than Kendall Hunter and Marcus Lattimore this season. He’s well worth a late-round flier in redraft.
Judging by early quotes out of Tampa Bay, it appears obvious that offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford would prefer to use multiple running backs. Here’s his quote from the Tampa Bay Times:
“I don’t believe that one back can carry the load. It’s just too physical. I think you probably need to have two to three guys to bring different things to the table.”
Obviously this hurts the value of Doug Martin, but it appears that Tedford would like to have a pass-game back. Unsurprisingly, the Bucs added pass-catching specialist Charles Sims in the draft. Sims caught 203 passes in his NCAA career and Tedford has already indicated that he views Sims as a complete back. “He’s a bigger back who can run between the tackles,” Tedford said of Sims. “He runs with a low pad level and catches the ball really, really well. … (And) it looks on tape like he can pass protect.” As a possible 3rd down back and likely handcuff, Sims has some redraft appeal.
Similar to Carlos Hyde, Devonta Freeman plays behind Steven Jackson, who is currently the active leader in career carries with 2,552 (Gore is 2nd). Playing in a career-low 12 games and rushing for a career-low 3.5 yards per carry last season, the Steven Jackson break down is inevitable. Although he isn’t my favorite prospect from a metric standpoint, Rotoworld draft guru Josh Norris has pegged Freeman as this year’s Andre Ellington. If that’s not enough for you, GM Thomas Dimitroff recently suggested that Atlanta sees Freeman as a future “lead back.” He’s a Shane Vereen-type talent that could prove to be a good fit for Atlanta’s pass-heavy attack.
After lacking a starting-caliber running back for the entirety of last season, the Browns went out and signed Ben Tate, and drafted Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell. With a rookie quarterback likely at the helm and the looming suspension of Josh Gordon, the Browns are going to need to run. A lot. Good thing their coach is from a family of run blocking gurus: the Shanahans. Kyle Shanahan and his father Mike drafted Alfred Morris in the 6th round and oversaw him rush for 2,885 yards in his first two seasons as a pro. The Shanahans have a history of doing this with guys like Selvin Young, Tatum Bell, Mike Bell, and Mike Anderson. After trading up to select Terrance West, it appears the Browns may have found a back they like and he fits the Shanahan mold. The Cleveland Plain Dealer says the Browns “absolutely love” West and believe he’s “perhaps the most important player drafted by the Browns.” Either way, we know that the Browns are going to run the ball a lot this season. With Ben Tate being historically fragile, you won’t want to miss out on the Terrance West train.
James White isn’t quite as popular as the other running back I’ve mentioned but he’s an interesting guy that few are talking about. Not only did he rush for 6.5 yards per carry in college, but Bill Belichick has already likened him to Shane Vereen, calling him “an elusive back who is dynamic in the passing game.” He could be a useful late round handcuff in PPR leagues to the often-injured Shane Vereen.