The NFL fantasy football season is almost upon us now that the vast majority of major acquisitions have been completed. The offseason window to improve the roster is over and we have a better idea of how the season will play out.
Choosing a strategy for your fantasy draft is critical. You must have a game plan entering the selection process or else the season can be lost as soon as the draft is over.
Pivoting from the normal strategy of taking a high-impact running back began years ago. Drafters began embracing the "zero-running back" strategy years ago as receivers started to put up a significant amount of points. This meant fading the position until the fifth or sixth round in order to stack other skill positions.
The argument for this is clear: just 14 backs played in every game over the last two seasons. Running backs often suffer sudden drop-offs or injuries, and missing on an early-round pick is catastrophic. Zero-RB helps curtail the impact.
We have scoured the late-round names and found five backs who must be considered as key targets for this strategy. Some will have easier pathways to starting while others are bigger projections as everything stands today.
5. Chuba Hubbard, Carolina Panthers
However, McCaffrey's health is not given after several dings cost him time in 2020. Mike Davis was a serviceable zero-RB in his absence. We can be sure Hubbard, who is a 14th-rounder this year, would benefit if history repeats itself this year.
Hubbard was explosive and extremely productive at Oklahoma State. His agility was tremendous until ankle surgeries zapped some of his spring, but he was still taken in the fourth round. That means Carolina clearly sees him as a valued rotational back and potential starter, and we'd benefit tremendously if he's elevated.
4. Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams
Flashback to a time before Cam Akers was suddenly given the keys to the Rams' running back position at the end of the season. Henderson was a solid flex option for a Rams' offense with an elite run-blocking offensive line. The second-year pro would've eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards if his workload continued in the second half of the season.
Akers has stripped Henderson of the job and Matthew Stafford's arrival will take some opportunities away as well. But we're looking for late-round value with a big upside, and any step back from Akers means Henderson is in one of the most enviable positions in the league.
There's not a legitimate third option on the roster to take carries from Henderson, either. I'll happily draft him in the 11th round and try to hit a home run.
3. James Conner, Arizona Cardinals
Full disclosure: James Conner is one of my least favorite backs to watch in the league right now. His giant body lacks wiggle and the next defender he eludes will be the first. However, the 26-year-old is in a great situation to produce.
Conner is at his best when asked to take what's in front of him and push forward. He's in for a perfect role in Arizona and doesn't need an injury to find himself as a legitimate fantasy starter. Arizona will feed him as a reliever for Chase Edmonds.
He hasn't played in more than 13 games before, but he's good for a respectable yards per carry average and red zone touches. Arizona gave Kenyan Drake the most touches inside the 10-yard line last year, and Conner can be much better in that role.
He's worth the eighth-round price just for the touchdown potential alone.
2. Damien Harris, New England Patriots
The Patriots' backfield rarely makes sense because they rotate guys more than any team in the NFL. Predicting their rotation is impossible. However, this year's iteration of the Patriots may have more clarity than usual.
Sony Michel is an afterthought after a slow start to his career. Rhamondre Stevenson may carve a role but has a lot to prove as a rookie. And James White is purely a pass-catcher at this point in his career.
The best pure runner is clearly 24-year-old Damien Harris. His vision is solid, he has impressive balance through contact, and his burst upfield is surprising for his size. Harris should again be the most productive back, and Cam Newton won't steal as many carries since the offense is more built to throw the ball around.
Harris is a reasonable eighth-round value. The best case is Stevenson fails to catch on this year and Harris gets more red-zone touches. A healthy passing game would also help create more scoring opportunities for him.
1. Jamaal Williams, Detroit Lions
It's absolutely wild that Jamaal Williams is falling to the 12th round in fantasy football drafts. I'm buying D'Andre Swift as well, since the Lions' offensive line is one of the better groups in the league. The Lions also know Jared Goff must have a healthy run game to be effective.
Williams will see manufactured touches as a third-down back on a team lacking quality receivers. Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn loves using a two-back system, and Williams is an overqualified backup. It's surprising the Dolphins, Cardinals, Bills or Jets didn't sign Williams as a starter this offseason.
The worst case for Williams is replicating his 2020 stat line from Green Bay. Swift's injury history and the likeliness of Detroit's need to milk the game clock with the run game enhances Williams' potential of carrying a championship-winning fantasy team that much more.
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