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Fantasy Football: Draft Targets For The Zero Wide Receiver Approach

C.D. Carter

C.D. Carter is a reporter, author of zombie stories, writer for The Fake Football and XN Sports. Fantasy Sports Writers Association member. His work  has been featured in the New York Times.
Greg Jennings
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Roster imbalance is the stuff of nightmares for fantasy footballers, most of whom strive for a nice, tidy collection of players that constitute balance in every sense of the word.

We want a couple safe running backs, a runner with some serious upside, a pair of solid receivers, a tight end who won’t post that doughnut every fourth Sunday, and a quarterback who doesn’t cost too much, but offers a fantasy floor high enough to make him an every week starter.

Shawn Siegele, a high-stakes fantasy football champion and writer for RotoViz, last year penned the definitive take-down of the value-based drafting (VBD) approach that had become unquestioned fake football orthodoxy. Your draft strategy will change — and change for good — if you read it.

A part of Siegele’s systematic deconstruction of the VBD approach includes the Zero RB strategy, which seems to have resonated with fantasy owners who have been drafting their teams the same way for most of their fake football lives.

Read more on XN Sports:

A comprehensive list of wide receiver equity scores
Three (very) late-round quarterbacks to target
Matt Ryan and questioning fantasy equity scores

Zero RB, as the name indicates, almost totally de-emphasizes the running back position. It’s an incredibly uncomfortable approach for anyone who finds great comfort in investing early and often in the game’s premiere ball carriers. It can also be incredibly effective.

The Zero RB adherent will end up with a stockpile of elite wide receivers and tight ends, along with a few running backs primed to benefit from randomness — from injuries, roster changes, and the like. Zero RB icons in 2013 included Zac Stacy, Rashad Jennings, Fred Jackson, Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead, Pierre Thomas, and Knowshon Moreno. It can work, as you see.

It’s not surprising — and maybe it’s not even wrong — that fantasy owners are largely flocking to the game’s most stable, reliable running backs in the first couple rounds of their drafts. Seven of the first 12 players — and 13 of the first 20 — off the draft board are now running backs. Some runners, like Arian Foster and Montee Ball, have had the draft equity vacuumed from their valuations over the past 30 days.

I don’t think that’ll sway a whole lot of people though. (From the archives of the anecdotal: I employed the Zero RB approach in a recent mock draft and ended up with Brandon Marshall, Julio Jones, Andre Johnson and Roddy White. My running backs: Lamar Miller, Ryan Mathews, Toby Gerhart, and Roy Helu)

If you’re still keen on piling on the running backs with the first few picks of your drafts this summer, you’re essentially taking the Zero WR approach, and you’re going to need to know which middle and late-round wide receivers might make this approach a viable one.

Below are four receivers you’ll need to prioritize if you’re going to roll with anything close to the Zero WR strategy. Their inclusion in this list is based on my fantasy equity analysis, which uses median and high projections as a way to spot guys who could outperform their average draft positions (ADP) by the largest margins.

Greg Jennings, WR, Minnesota Vikings

The former fantasy stud Jennings, the 16th highest scoring receiver over the 2013 season’s final five weeks, took full advantage of slot coverage while showing good rapport with Matt Cassel, of all people. Jennings saw 7.2 targets per game over that five-game stretch. In fact, Jennings averaged 12.1 fantasy points per game with Cassel under center, and a meager 5.9 points in his seven games without Cassel as Minnesota’s quarterback.

I don’t think Jennings’ value hinges on the Vikings rolling with Cassel over Teddy Bridgewater, however. Jennings is being drafted at the end of the 13th round as the 58th receiver off the board. His high projection — which is really all that should matter for a player going that late — would put him at WR25, just outside of WR2 range. Jennings will find his way on my roster much more frequently than teammate Cordarrelle Patterson.

Brian Hartline, WR, Miami Dolphins

He doesn’t catch touchdowns, he’s a dirt cheap 100-target receiver, and everyone hates him, except those who love him. Hartline’s high projections are the stuff of triple takes — putting him in top-15 receiver territory — while even his median equity score would make him a preeminent value.

Fifty-six receivers are being drafted ahead of the guy who has averaged 122 targets over the past couple seasons. Hartline sees more looks than Mike Wallace when Miami’s offense is on script, as Rich Hribar has shown. He’s not anything close to a locked-and-loaded fantasy starter, but that’s rarely what you’ll get with guys taken just before kickers and defenses.

Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis Colts

Wayne’s recovery from last year’s ACL injury seems to be right on target, though it’s worth monitoring as the summer wears on. Old guys with major injuries should give us night terrors. Andrew Luck, for what it’s worth, has called his elderly receiver freakish during his ACL recovery.

He’s being drafted at the end of the seventh round as the 34th receiver off the board. His median equity score would put him inside the top-30 receivers — proving a small value — while Wayne’s best case scenario would put him at WR18. Wayne has averaged 11 targets, 6.3 receptions, 81 yards, and .3 touchdowns during his 23 games with Luck under center in Indy. If you’ve burned two or three of your first five or six picks on runners, you could do a whole lot worse than Wayne, assuming health.

Jarrett Boykin, WR, Green Bay Packers

The fantasy community that once tapped Boykin as a clear and present 2014 value largely jumped ship when the Packers drafted Devonte Adams, Jared Abbrederis, and metrics freak Jeff Janis. Maybe Green Bay is the real Team Big WR, and maybe — unlike many NFL teams — they like drafting receivers who catch touchdowns.

Boykin passes a blind taste test of wide receivers with flying colors, he’s consistently drawn praise from Green Bay coaches, and he’s still in line to start the year as Aaron Rodgers‘ No. 3 receiver — a good thing to be. This is a guy who averaged 10.2 fantasy points with Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien throwing the rock in Rodgers’ absence. Boykin is also one Randall Cobb or Jordy Nelson injury from being a secondary target in an elite NFL offense. He’s an equity score all-star who should be targeted by anyone drafting runners early and often.