Welcome to the Ultimate Zero RB Watchlist. The goal of this piece is to help you find RB targets for your 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.
Each week, 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.
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-Beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gates. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
— David Johnson fantasy owners, probably.
Week 2 raised more questions than it provided answers, so let’s dive right in.
Note that I’ll be utilizing rushing expected points (ruEP) and receiving expected points (reEP) as a way to measure the value of a player’s workload. Expected points are a metric point derived from the average fantasy point total a carry or target would be worth based on down, distance, and field position.
Fantasy points over expectation (FPOE) are measures of efficiency. The metric takes the player’s actual fantasy points, and subtracts out the expected points, in essence leaving us with an indication of how efficient or inefficient a player was.
Wide receiver Jamison Crowder led the Washington backfield in rushing yards, which sums up all you need to know regarding how the rest of the backfield fared. Washington was unable to get anything going on the ground against the Indianapolis Colts, who allowed the Cincinnati Bengals to rush for 101 yards and a score on one carry.
Despite the poor results, Adrian Peterson led the backfield in touches and rushing expected points. Interestingly, Peterson was targeted thrice and caught two of his passes for 30 yards. Peterson has historically not been utilized heavily in the receiving game, so it’ll be interesting to see if he continues to see opportunity as a receiver. Peterson’s opportunity indicates that he’s a locked-in RB2 going forward.
After the first two weeks, Chris Thompson leads the team in:
- Receiving Yards
- Receiving Expected Points
Although we should expect Thompson’s reFPOE to regress, he will continue to post eye popping numbers provided he is still heavily utilized as a receiver. After all, targets are the lifeblood of fantasy scoring.
Rob Kelley lands on injured reserve with a toe injury, and must sit at least eight games before he can return. Samaje Perine slides in as Peterson’s handcuff.
Darren Sproles popped up on the Wednesday injury report with a hamstring injury, and was inactive for the Eagles’ Week 2 game. Jay Ajayi suffered a back injury on his first carry, and missed most of the first half. Ajayi returned in the third quarter and finished the game with a 7-23-1 rushing line. He also converted his lone target for a four yard gain.
Corey Clement and Wendell Smallwood stepped up in Ajayi’s absence. Clement is the RB to own behind Ajayi in this backfield, but Smallwood should be rostered in deeper dynasty leagues.1
Note that carries were split almost evenly between the three RBs. The Eagles never led, and it’s likely that the negative game script forced the Eagles to abandon their run game.
Carson Wentz has been cleared to play Week 3 against the Indianapolis Colts. I’ll be tracking to see how the backfield’s usage shapes up once their starting quarterback is under center. There’s a good chance Ajayi sits this weekend, so ensure that you own either Clement or Smallwood.
The Dallas Cowboys seem determined to run their entire offense through Ezekiel Elliott.
Not only does Elliott hog all the rushing work, he’s seen a healthy bump in his target share. Elliott’s final receiving line of 5-9-0 on six targets is nothing to write home about, but it does indicate that his floor is higher than it currently appears. Currently Cole Beasley leads the Cowboys with 11 targets, and both Deonte Thompson and Elliott have seen 10 targets each.
New York Giants
The Giants attempted a meager 17 rushing attempts against the Cowboys in Week 2 before abandoning the run. Saquon Barkley was ineffective as a rusher, and he posted a disappointing 11-28-0 rushing line. Don’t let the rushing line fool you, considering that Barkley managed to post 100 yards from scrimmage.
Barkley ranked fourth among all NFL players in reEP. He parlayed 16 targets into a 14-80-0 stat line, and finished as the RB5 for Week 2.
Neither Wayne Gallman, nor Jonathan Stewart played much. Both players were out-gained by Eli Manning on the ground.
Green Bay Packers
Jamaal Williams continues to see the bulk of opportunity in the backfield.
Although Ty Montgomery saw more work, he trails Williams in rushing and receiving opportunity. Williams has been disappointing given his workload, but was always expected to struggle against both Chicago and Minnesota.
Aaron Jones is eligible to return from his two-game suspension, and I’ll be monitoring if Jones’ return impacts Williams’ usage. If Jones is available on your waiver wire, he makes for a terrific speculative add.
Not only is Jordan Howard currently dominating the rushing workload,2 he holds an edge over Tarik Cohen in the receiving game as well.
Howard’s usage as a true three-down bellcow RB should be a heartening sight for those who drafted him.
Both LeGarrette Blount and Kerryon Johnson split carries in their Week 2 game against the San Francisco 49ers. Blount posted an 8-38-0 line before being ejected in the fourth quarter.
Johnson posted a similar 8-43-0 rushing line, but saw some run in the receiving game. He parlayed six of his targets into a 5-23-0 line, and his receiving production is a good sign for his prospects of emerging as a three down RB.
Theo Riddick was the most productive Lions RB in Week 2. The Lions trailed for the entirety of the second half and Riddick saw plenty of run.
The upside for any of the above RBs is capped. Note that if either Johnson or Blount were to miss time with injury, it’s possible they opt to utilize Ameer Abdullah heavily.
The Vikings’ ground game was unable to get going against the Packers, but Dalvin Cook continues to lead the team in rushing and receiving opportunity.
Do not let Cook’s lack of fantasy production scare you into selling low on him. Cook has a stranglehold on the Vikings’ backfield and hopefully he will have several big weeks soon.
Cook was forced to exit in overtime and is currently day-to-day with a hamstring injury. Although Latavius Murray hasn’t provided any standalone value, he should soak up the bulk of the workload if Cook had to miss time.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With Ryan Fitzpatrick under center, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have defeated two Super Bowl contenders and are currently 2-0. The Buccaneers’ new offensive coordinator Todd Monken has deployed plenty of play-action, and as we all know, you need a talented RB to sell the fake.
In actuality, you don’t need a talented RB to sell the fake. A warm body with a pulse will be fine.
After two weeks Peyton Barber ranks eighth in the league in ruEP, but is next to dead last in the league in ruFPOE. The lack of receiving work leaves Barber with a worrisome floor. Jacquizz Rodgers carried the ball five times for 13 yards. He also caught all three of his targets for 23 yards.
Neither of the Buccaneers’ RBs are startable right now, and I doubt either of them will have an impact in Week 3.
Ronald Jones was once again inactive on game day. I expect that the coaches will continue to declare Jones as a healthy inactive unless they’re forced to reconsider their roster decisions.3
After two weeks, Christian McCaffrey’s market target share is a robust 34 percent and he’s ostensibly the WR1 on the Panthers.
McCaffrey’s robust receiving workload is in line with that of several alpha WRs, it should be noted that he quietly leads the Panthers in ruEP as well.
C.J. Anderson retains his role as a change-of-pace option for the Panthers, and should benefit if McCaffrey gets hurt.
New Orleans Saints
Over the first two weeks of the season, Alvin Kamara has struggled to gain yards on the ground. Kamara managed 46 yards on 13 carries, and his -5.2 ruFPOE in Week 2 was among the worst rushing efficiency scores posted.
Luckily, you didn’t draft Kamara for his rushing ability. Kamara caught all six of his targets, and posted a top eight reFPOE among all RBs in Week 2.
Mike Gillislee saw some additional rushing work in Week 2, but he’s simply keeping the seat warm for Mark Ingram.
On Monday, head coach Dan Quinn noted that the Falcons are unsure about Devonta Freeman’s return timeline. Freeman is expected to miss 2-3 weeks and is a situation to monitor going forward.
Looks like it’s going to be Tevin Coleman’s backfield for the foreseeable future. As previously mentioned, Coleman soaks up a significant chunk of the opportunity in Freeman’s absence.
Note that Coleman will not have the backfield to himself in the coming weeks. The Falcons worked rookie RB Ito Smith into their game plan, and he did not disappoint. Smith was utilized primarily as a rusher, but he also was successful in converting his lone target into an eight yard gain.
Consider adding Smith if you’re in the need for a desperation play at RB. If Smith has a bigger role than anticipated in the coming weeks, you’ll be glad you picked him up while his price was depressed.
Los Angeles Rams
What happens when an unstoppable force meets a very movable object? Just ask Todd Gurley, who posted three touchdowns and 73 yards from scrimmage against the Arizona Cardinals. Gurley exited the game due to cramping, but one can only surmise he had no interest in wasting more energy against the Cardinals.
Malcolm Brown was serviceable in Gurley’s absence. Brown looks like he’s the handcuff to own, especially since John Kelly was inactive for a second straight week. Hopefully we never have to find out, and Gurley continues to dominate all available opportunity in the Rams’ backfield.
San Francisco 49ers
Alfred Morris continues to lead this backfield in ruEP, but Matt Breida isn’t too far behind. In Week 2, Breida broke off a 66-yard TD run and as a result his reFPOE is significantly better than Morris’. After two weeks, Morris has the worst ruFPOE among all RBs. It’s quite likely that Kyle Shanahan opts to give Breida extended run in higher leverage situations over Morris going forward.
Kyle Juszczyk continues to steal targets from both players in this backfield. Juszczyk’s presence caps both Breida’s and Morris’ receiving upside.
Over the last two weeks, the Cardinals have run no more than 30 plays through the first three quarters before picking up the pace in the fourth. Last week the Cardinals ran 24 plays in the fourth quarter, but this week they only ran 13 plays. In Week 2, the Cardinals crossed the midfield mark for the first time in the final minute of the game.
I’d like to be the first to congratulate the Cardinals in their quest to actively not play football.
The slug-like pace coupled with insipid playcalling has crushed David Johnson’s fantasy value over the first two weeks. Take a look at Johnson’s production over the first three quarters.
Now take a gander at his fourth quarter splits.
Mike McCoy appears to be deploying Johnson as a prototypical two-down RB and appears to be unaware of Johnson’s receiving prowess.4 Chase Edmonds has seen plenty of run in the fourth quarter, most notably as a receiver. He makes for a good pickup in leagues with very deep benches, in the event that the current usage split holds going forward.
On the bright side, head coach Steve Wilks has promised that Johnson will see increased usage going forward. Johnson continues to dominate the rushing workload, and hopefully sees an uptick in his receiving game usage. Try and buy low on Johnson, before the Cardinals figure out how to deploy him.
Remember when Pete Carroll said that Chris Carson “really took the lead” as the starter, and that Rashaad Penny “looked a little rusty.” Well that situation changed in a hurry.
Despite Carroll publicly backing Carson, Penny saw the bulk of the workload. Neither RB was particularly efficient, and it looks like Chicago is going to be an imposing matchup for opposing RBs all season. C.J. Prosise saw some extended run as a receiver and thankfully has not wound up on injured reserve. Hopefully this turns into a Penny/Prosise RBBC before too long.
- Smallwood may have lost a fumble, but the Eagles’ backfield is banged up and he might see more run going forward. (back)
- Howard’s 14.3 ruEP is 12th among all NFL RBs (back)
- It might happen if the Buccaneers lose the next two games in convincing fashion. Given that Dirk Koetter is unwilling to commit to Jameis Winston as the team’s QB, once Winston comes off suspension in Week 4, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he’s willing to light draft capital on fire in order to ensure that the team continues winning. Considering that Fitzpatrick has completed almost 79 percent of his passes coupled with a 13.1 percent touchdown rate, the inevitable regression to the mean could be an absolutely spectacular meltdown is on the horizon. (back)
- Not particularly shocking considering that McCoy refused to use Melvin Gordon as a receiver back in 2015. (back)