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.
Week 10 brought with it a few unfortunate injuries. However, these injuries have potentially opened up pathways to playing time for a few of our favorite backups. Some other backfields have interesting usage changes worth noting as well. I’ll go through each of these situations in detail to give you some early guidance on how to approach them as we near the fantasy playoffs. For ease of use, I’ve broken the data tables out into two—one for Week 10, and one for the entire season. Find them at the end of the article.
Adrian Peterson barely edged Andre Ellington in total workload value, with 12.3 total expected points to Ellington’s 12.1. Ellington, however, both out-snapped and outplayed Peterson, despite catching only three of his six targets. As long as Ellington is getting the receiving work in this backfield, we should expect him to have a higher weekly floor than Peterson.
Devonta Freeman suffered a concussion after playing only two snaps—his second concussion of the season. It looks unlikely that he will play in Week 11. In his absence, Tevin Coleman carried the ball 20 times, rushing for 83 yards and a touchdown, adding one catch. Coleman is a must start in all formats, as he will be thrust immediately into a workhorse role. Terron Ward also rushed nine times but managed only 23 yards.
Coleman was only targeted once, but in a game the Falcons won easily, Matt Ryan only dropped back to pass 30 times. While the Falcons are talented enough to find themselves in favorable game scripts, that’s significantly lower than Ryan’s season-long average of almost 35 dropbacks per game. Expect Coleman to be targeted more frequently next week and going forward, as long as Freeman has to be sidelined.
Say what you will about whether John Fox was wise to ask for the review that ultimately led to a Bears turnover and probably cost them a touchdown.1 The most egregious thing he’s doing is not getting the ball in the hands of his most dynamic player. Tarik Cohen has touched the ball on offense only eight times since he lost his second fumble of the season in Week 6. In case you need a reminder, we’re now in Week 11. Whether the fumble is what ultimately got Cohen into Fox’s doghouse is unclear. But unlike Benny Cunningham’s most recent lost fumble, it is clear that Cohen’s fumble wasn’t at all John Fox’s fault.
Ezekiel Elliott began serving his suspension last weekend. Although I had been hoping (well, more than hoping) that Darren McFadden would step into Elliott’s role despite his lack of usage up to that point, it didn’t quite play out that way. McFadden was on the field for only one offensive snap—not enough to even register as one percent of Dallas’ season-long snaps. In other words, I was very wrong.
Alfred Morris handled the bulk of the rushing load with 11 carries, but it was Rod Smith who had the most snaps, the most total opportunities, and the most expected points. If Smith is not owned in your fantasy league, he should be. As long as he is getting the receiving work, he is likely to be the most valuable back in what appears to be a timeshare. I should cut my losses, but I still expect McFadden to get more involved, which makes this situation even messier. Smith is my preferred option, but nobody is going to replace Elliott’s workload, and nobody looks like a weekly fantasy starter.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Jones left Sunday’s game with a sprained MCL, and is expected to miss three to six weeks. Ty Montgomery also left Sunday’s game after aggravating his rib injury. Jamaal Williams is the next man up and should get the lion’s share of the RB opportunity if Montgomery has to miss time. He carried the ball 20 times in Week 10 and is worth picking up if available. But there are a few other names to watch here. First, it’s possible Randall Cobb could see some work out of the backfield. He rushed the ball four times on Sunday, though he only gained eight yards. He’s likely already owned, except in very shallow leagues.
The more interesting and potentially actionable name to monitor is Devante Mays, who has yet to play an offensive snap in 2017. Mays rushed for nearly 1,000 yards as a junior at Utah State. In his first game as a senior he rushed for 208 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries. He suffered a leg injury in his second game, which more or less sidelined him for the rest of the season. With a 4.52 forty and a 40.5-inch vertical at 233 pounds, Mays has impressive explosiveness, and he’s shown flashes of production in college. In very deep leagues he could be worth a speculative add, depending on Montgomery’s availability.
Los Angeles Rams
Todd Gurley only carried the ball 11 times on Sunday as coach Sean McVay opted not to lean on his star RB in a blowout game. Lance Dunbar carried the ball five times in his first NFL action of the season. With Malcolm Brown’s injury, Dunbar becomes the primary beneficiary of a Gurley injury, although he will likely be in a timeshare with Justin Davis.
Gurley owners should not be too worried about his low carry total. As mentioned, he was used sparingly once the game was well in hand—the carries he lost to Dunbar were garbage-time carries. The other thing to note is that he still had seven targets for 10.7 receiving expected points, the fourth-highest RB mark of the week. With Elliott’s suspension taking effect, Gurley is one of the few true workhorses left in the NFC.
New Orleans Saints
Both Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara are top-10 RBs on the season so far. The Saints’ recent signing of pre-season Zero-RB darling Jonathan Williams should do little to change that, as he is expected to replace Daniel Lasco on special teams. You can continue to start both Ingram and Kamara with confidence, even in the same lineup.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Doug Martin returned to top of the Tampa Bay depth chart after being benched for nearly the entire second half of the Bucs’ Week 9 game. Only Peterson, Le’Veon Bell, and Mark Ingram carried the ball more times than Martin. Charles Sims paced the Bucs in targets, though Martin’s total workload was still more valuable. Martin should get most of the backfield opportunity going forward, but on a team with offensive struggles like Tampa Bay has, that opportunity might not be worth as much as you would think.
Rob Kelley suffered a high-ankle sprain and an MCL sprain on Sunday. He is expected to miss multiple weeks, and possibly the remainder of the season. Samaje Perine should pick up some work in his absence, though after Kelley’s injury, he only carried the ball nine times to Chris Thompson’s six.2 Thompson’s work in the passing game still ensures that he has the most valuable weekly workload and is still the back to own. If you’re desperate for a RB, Perine is worth adding, but know that he comes with a terrifyingly low floor and a lower-than-expected probability of reaching his ceiling due to Thompson’s presence.
Week 10 Data
|Player||Team||Snaps||Snap Share||Carries||ruEP||Targets||reEP||Total EP||PPR|
|Player||Team||Games||Snaps||Snap Share||Carries||ruEP||Targets||reEP||Total EP||PPR|
- The call probably should not have been reversed—yet another questionable replay ruling in 2017, this one going against the Bears for the second time in as many weeks. It’s probably meaningless, but it’s interesting to note that the officiating crew assigned to this Bears-Packers game was the same crew that ruled that Austin Sefarian-Jenkins’ apparent Week 6 touchdown was a fumble through the end zone, turning what looked very much like six points into a game-changing turnover. Of course, the problem here isn’t necessarily the interpretation of the replays—it’s the inscrutable and illogical NFL rulebook. (back)
- Thompson added another three carries prior to Kelley’s injury. (back)