Welcome to the Ultimate Zero RB Watchlist. The goal of this piece is to help you find RB targets for your Zero-RB teams before anyone else even knows about them. We know that startable RB weeks can come from almost anywhere in the NFL. By being aware of depth charts that could yield surprising weekly starters, we put ourselves in position to grab the next breakout RB before he breaks out.
We’ll take a close look at depth charts around the league in order to find the next-man-up situations that nobody is talking about . . . yet. Throughout the season we’ll monitor playing time and usage to identify exploitable, under-the-radar trends that have the potential to pay off with league-winning upside.
Be sure to check out Cort Smith’s companion piece on the AFC.
As mentioned in this space last week, now is about the time that rest-of-season projections could be useful. We have a pretty good idea of how usage battles will shake out, which teams want to run the ball, which offensive lines allow their teams to run the ball, and which defenses we want to target when choosing which RBs to start. In fact, we have such a good idea about those factors, that attempting to significantly improve on season-to-date PPR points for making projections is usually a losing battle.1
So we’re skipping projections and just going for tiered rankings, which in many cases can deal with certain nuanced and unpredictable situations better than projections anyway. What follows is a rest-of-season tiered ranking of every RB in the NFC. As before, pay more attention to the tiers themselves than to the individual rankings within tiers. All of the snap, expected point (EP), and scoring stats can be found after the tiers.
Tier 1: Script-Independent Workhorses
- Ezekiel Elliott
- Todd Gurley
- Carlos Hyde
With a 14-carry, eight-target game in which he saw 77 percent of the snaps, Hyde moves into Tier 1. Tier-1 players are on the field in all game scripts and get work in all parts of the offense. Only four RBs had a higher snap share than Hyde in Week 7.
The Cowboys are sure to lean on Elliott until they can’t any longer, which may be as early as next week. But in the meantime he is an elite workhorse playing with a quarterback who’s good enough to get him into favorable situations near the goal line. Plus, as we saw on Sunday, he is always a threat to break off a long play.
Tier 2: Script-Dependent Workhorses
- Devonta Freeman
- Jordan Howard
- Ameer Abdullah
- Doug Martin
Although Tier 2 backs will often get workhorse-level opportunity in favorable game scripts, they do not command enough of the passing-down or goal-line work to qualify as true workhorses, like backs in Tier 1 do.
In a game in which Mitchell Trubisky attempted only seven passes, Howard handled what would appear to be an elite-level workload. However, the script was unusually favorable for the Bears, who scored two defensive touchdowns and won the game without many offensive possessions. Consider that Howard’s 34 offensive snaps made for a 90 percent snap share. In closer contests, we should expect the Bears to rely less on Howard.
Freeman, on the other hand, did not handle a workload you would expect from a Tier-2 back. The Falcons were unable to get their offense to work against what appears to be an improved New England defense. As a result, they ran few offensive plays and were forced to throw on a higher percentage of them than normal. Freeman still held a clear lead over Tevin Coleman in total opportunities, 15 to seven.
Martin easily led Tampa Bay RBs in total opportunities with 23. Charles Sims was second with five. Martin is on the verge of moving into Tier 1, especially if this touch advantage continues. I want to see one more week like this before I make it official.
Tier 3: Pass-Catching Committee Backs with Workhorse Upside
- Christian McCaffrey
- Aaron Jones
- Mark Ingram
- Jerick McKinnon
- Alvin Kamara
- Ty Montgomery
Tier 3 backs are, in a way, more valuable than Tier 2 backs. Whereas Tier 2 backs (with the exception of Freeman) are not likely to become true Workhorses without multiple injuries to teammates, Tier-3 backs become Tier-1 workhorses with just one teammate injury or even a prolonged slump. We can already see some of the backs above trending this way.
Jones is the most obvious candidate for a higher ranking than what I have given him. I hesitate to move him much higher, however, as it’s distinctly possible that Montgomery was only limited by a lingering rib injury. That said, Jones has looked excellent, notching consecutive 100-yard games and flashing some exciting big play potential that we never saw from Montgomery. If the distribution on Sunday carries forward—Jones edged Montgomery in touches 20 to five, and in snaps 44 to seven—then Jones will likely move into Tier 1.
Ingram still handles the bulk of the carries in the New Orleans backfield, carrying the ball 22 times while also catching four of his five targets. But he only got a 55 percent snap share on Sunday, while Kamara himself was on the field for 49 percent of the offensive snaps and also handled 16 total opportunities. Whereas last week he was a Tier-2 back, Ingram’s advantage over Kamara in terms of snaps and opportunities is shrinking.
Tier 4: Pass-Catching Committee Backs with Limited Upside
- Chris Thompson
- Andre Ellington
- Shane Vereen
- Theo Riddick
- Tarik Cohen
- C.J. Prosise
- Wayne Gallman
- Wendell Smallwood
- J.D. McKissic
Tier-4 RBs do not benefit from injuries or slumps the same way Tier-3 RBs do. A single injury would not vault them into workhorse status. Instead, other backs on the depth chart would see an increased workload as a result of those injuries, no matter how much the backs in Tier 4 might appear to deserve something close to workhorse status.
Nowhere is this more true than with Thompson. Jonathan Bales says what we’re all thinking about the Washington RB situation:
Why does anyone other than Chris Thompson get snaps at RB for Washington?
— Jonathan Bales (@BalesFootball) October 24, 2017
Thompson rushed for 38 yards on only seven carries and caught all five of his targets for 26 yards and a score. Rob Kelley averaged barely more than two yards per carry. We rightly wonder why Thompson’s touch lead in this backfield isn’t more drastic.
The Cardinals’ Week 7 game in London turned into what would have been a perfect Ellington game, as he’s seen most of his opportunity when Arizona has been trailing. Unfortunately he was not cleared to play by game time. After losing Carson Palmer to injury, the Cardinals are likely to face more negative game scripts, which should set up well for Ellington going forward.
Tier 5: Non-Pass-Catching Committee Backs
- Jonathan Stewart
- Latavius Murray
- Orleans Darkwa
- Adrian Peterson
- Rob Kelley
- LeGarrette Blount
- Thomas Rawls
- Eddie Lacy
- Paul Perkins
No backs in this tier made significant moves. The ability to catch passes out of the backfield is an increasingly important skill in today’s NFL. Pro Football Focus tweeted out this graphic prior to Week 7, which illustrates the point nicely:
As this trend continues, RBs who lack pass-catching skills also lack significant upside, and are unlikely make moves up these rankings without consistently displaying the ability to catch passes in the NFL.
Tier 6: Pure Handcuffs with Workhorse Upside
- Malcolm Brown
- Matt Breida
- Darren McFadden
The biggest change from last week is that I switched Tiers 6 and 7, and renamed Tier 7 (formerly Tier 6) for improved precision. The upside that Tier-6 RBs have by virtue of being a clear handcuff to a Tier-1 workhorse gives them more value than backs who may at present see more playing time but who lack that same upside.
Breida moves up (formerly down) a tier to correspond with Hyde’s move into Tier 1. Hyde’s been the subject of rumors since the offseason, and he’s also dealt with some injuries. Breida still has a little standalone value and should be owned in any league with a reasonably deep bench. But he’s not startable yet.
Until (or unless) we see how the Dallas backfield actually shakes out when (or if) Elliott serves his suspension this season, placing McFadden in this tier is little more than speculation on my part. My guess all along has been that they’ve been saving him for when they need him. Therefore it is in the nature of the case that the continuing streak of inactives can only count as confirming evidence. This means my theory is not exactly falsifiable (until after the fact) or rigorous. All that is to say, use this ranking cautiously. It could be the case (though I think it’s unlikely) that he’s been inactive because the Cowboys actually don’t ever want him on the field.
Tier 7: Backups with Minimal Standalone Value
- Benny Cunningham
- Zach Zenner
- Samaje Perine
- Kenjon Barner
- Jacquizz Rodgers
Rodgers, Barner, and Perine were all non-factors this weekend, and all are in danger of moving down to Tier 8, as it’s becoming extremely difficult to justify rostering them, even in deep leagues (all should probably be unowned in shallow leagues). Cunningham was injured and Zenner was on a bye, so we don’t have any new information on them.
Tier 8: Backups with No Standalone Value and Little Upside
- Alfred Morris
- Kerwynn Williams
- Corey Clement
- Jamaal Williams
- Raheem Mostert
- Mack Brown
- Rod Smith
- Elijhaa Penny
- Justin Davis
Try not to put these RBs in your lineups, or even on your rosters, if you can help it.2
Week 7 Data
|Player||Team||Week 7 Snap %||Week 7 ruEP||Week 7 reEP||Week 7 Total EP||Week 7 PPR||2017 ruEP||2017 reEP||2017 Total EP||2017 PPR|