Ultimate Zero RB Watchlist: AFC Week 5

I don’t want to waste a ton of time here. We have a metric ton of data to dig through, and with Week 2 merely hours away, and we need to be as prepared as humanly possible if this incredible display of offense is going to continue.

I’m going to reference many forms of data in this column, such as rushing and receiving expected fantasy points. Coupled with that will be several references to ruFPOE and reFPOE (rushing and receiving fantasy points over expectation).

Division by division. Team by team. Let’s break down every single backfield in the AFC conference through the first two weeks and project for the coming week.

Be sure to check out Hasan Rahim’s companion piece on the NFC.

AFC NORTH

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Marvin Lewis was lying through his teeth when he told the media Mark Walton was going to be involved in Week 5 against the Miami Dolphins. Joe Mixon, returning from a minor knee procedure, handled 26 opportunities en route to a nice stat line in PPR leagues. Mixon is making the most of his receiving usage, leading the team with 5.2 fantasy points over expectation in that department over the last three weeks.

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Giovani Bernard missed last week, so it’s still unclear how much he’ll be involved once he’s healthy. I would assume they’ll utilize both to keep Mixon healthy, but it’s extremely difficult to project with Mixon handling as much work as he has in two full games healthy.

Mixon should see RB1 usage in Week 6 against the Steelers with extra work in the receiving game as A.J. Green is locked up by Joe Haden, who has manhandled him in coverage historically.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

The Ravens just can’t quit Javorius Allen, and I’m slowly beginning to see why. Now that both players are getting involved both on the ground and through the air, their offense is becoming multi-dimensional.

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Alex Collins still leads the charge in rushing attempts, despite posting 2.3 fantasy points under expectation over the last three weeks. He also paces Allen in total opportunities 50 to 38. Collins is the superior rusher, but he’s extremely game script dependent, while his teammate is closer to the game script proof side of the spectrum.

Both players should still be owned in all formats. It’s a tough matchup this week against the Tennessee Titans, and I actually think it’ll favor Allen more than Collins. Baltimore should come out slinging the ball against Tennessee’s struggling secondary, which will create more opportunities for Allen through the air.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

James Conner has been all alone in his backfield, so I actually get more enjoyment out of comparing his usage and production to Le’Veon Bell’s in 2017. Seriously, take a look. It’s extremely shocking.

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Conner hasn’t quite seen the volume that Bell had, but he’s still averaged well over 20 opportunities per game through the first five weeks, and he’s obliterating Bell’s start to 2017 in terms of efficiency. His 11.3 fantasy points over expectation are very impressive, but it’s even more eye-popping when you see that Bell only had 29 more rushing yards at this point last year on 18 more carries.

Conner remains an every-week RB1 until Bell returns, which is still just a rumor at this point.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Not even a large portion of the team’s touchdowns can save Carlos Hyde’s efficiency as both a receiver and a ball carrier. I’ve been pounding the table for weeks to sell him as high as you can, especially now that he leads all RBs in carries through five weeks.

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I’m beginning to lose hope in Duke Johnson. His usage is criminal, and he’s becoming notoriously game script dependent as a receiver. Hopefully the Rashard Higgins injury will open up some receiving volume for one of the positions best pass catchers.

Nick Chubb posted a stinker last week with three carries for two yards, but this rookie still deserves a significant uptick in work. He’s still the only RB on the team posting a positive fantasy points over expectation metric, thanks to his elusiveness and all-around superior athleticism. He remains a buy in all formats for the second-half of the fantasy season.

AFC WEST

DENVER BRONCOS

I’m still far from convinced that Phillip Lindsay is better at football than Royce Freeman, and the metrics very much back that up. Freeman’s 11.8 fantasy points over expectation lead the backfield by a significant margin. Lindsay is still a very good player, and he’s definitely a bit more exciting to watch with the ball in his hands. Nevertheless, Freeman is getting the job done on limited opportunity, and he’s the team primary short yardage runner.

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Let’s hope that Devontae Booker’s time as the backfield’s primary pass catcher is coming to a close. None of the three have been extremely good in that area, but it would make sense to give those targets to one of the two players who have shown the ability to pick up yards with the football in their hands.

Lower expectations in Week 6 as the team squares off against the Los Angeles Rams at home. Denver will need to throw the football a lot to keep up with the Rams.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

It felt great to see Kareem Hunt garner some receiving usage in Week 4, but that game could easily become an outlier in that department. Patrick Mahomes continues to push the ball downfield with success, so we can’t really blame him for how he’s conducting the offense.

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Regardless, nobody in this backfield, apart from Hunt, is worth rostering. Spencer Ware is the clear handcuff, and he has actually been pretty good with the limited receiving usage he’s seen.

Up next for Hunt is a primetime showdown against the Patriots; a team he demolished in his first career game for 49 PPR points in 2017.

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

What can I say about this backfield? Both RBs are playing tremendous football, demonstrated by their positive fantasy point over expectation metrics. Melvin Gordon has posted 15.2 FPOE over the last three weeks, while Austin Ekeler weighs in at 13.9.

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Gordon is a rock-solid RB1 whose status is only surpassed by Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara. But Ekeler has officially become an every-week flex play thanks to some generous usage despite having one of the league’s premier bellcows in front of him.

I haven’t been in love with the Cleveland Browns matchup for RBs this season, but Gordon is matchup proof, and I believe Ekeler could still be a very important part of this offense.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Marshawn Lynch continues to dominate the rushing load for the Oakland Raiders, but you also have to recognize those 10 targets over his last three games. He still trails Jalen Richard by eight looks over that span, but even a slight uptick in receiving usage for a bruiser like Lynch is worth recognizing.

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Richard is locked in as the teams primary passing down back, and he’s actually seen six targets per game over the last three weeks. That’s great usage for a RB that could still be available for free in PPR formats. If Richard is still out there, pick him up as soon as possible.

Oakland gets the Seahawks in Week 6, and that game could easily shoot out, or be extremely paced down with both teams spending the first three quarters trying to establish the run. I’m leaning towards the former, because I’m optimistic and would like to see it play out that way.

AFC EAST

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Here’s to hoping Kenyan Drake did enough in Week 5 to force Adam Gase to give him the football more often. Drake turned 11 targets into 69 receiving yards and a touchdown, despite only seeing six touches as a rusher. He actually took those six carries for 46 yards, giving him his first 100 scrimmage yard performance of the season.

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Frank Gore has supplanted him as the team’s first option as a rusher, which I still don’t believe makes any sense. Drake is younger, faster, more elusive, and gives the offense a significant boost in upside when he’s on the field.

Rookie Kalen Ballage still hasn’t been given much of a chance, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Gore isn’t anywhere near startable, and I’d be very hesitant to play Drake against the stingy Bears defense in Week 6.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

As excited as I am that Sony Michel is dominating his team’s rushing work, I refuse to ignore what James White is doing as Tom Brady’s primary pass catcher. And no, I don’t mean primary pass catching RB; he’s been Brady’s best receiver on the entire offense.

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White has established more than 20 fantasy points over expectation over the last three weeks, while Michel has mustered 2.9 fantasy points under expectation. Michel is another example of a game script dependent RB given that he’s an afterthought as a receiver right now. White, on the other hand, is a massive part of the offense and is a must-start until he slows down.

Both are in play this week when NE does battle with the Chiefs. There should be a ridiculous amount of scoring in this game, which could bode well for both RBs.

NEW YORK JETS

Isaiah Crowell has *checks notes* 23.2 fantasy points over expectation over the last three weeks. I’m literally just as surprised as you probably are, and about twice as salty considering I labeled Crowell the RB2 in that offense just a week ago in the Week 4 edition of this column.

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I actually wasn’t far off, to be fair. Bilal Powell paced the backfield with 20 touches in Week 5, albeit all of it was rushing work as the game was well in hand going into halftime. Crowell has definitely earned himself more work now after his 200-plus rushing yard performance, and he’s actually been more efficient as a pass catcher on a per-target basis than Powell.

BUFFALO BILLS

LeSean McCoy has fallen so far off the fantasy football cliff that he’s being out-touched by Chris Ivory.

Alright, I know, McCoy missed time due to a rib injury and he’s probably still feeling that injury right now. Regardless, both RBs have posted negative FPoE correlations over the last three weeks in an offense that’s desperate for a legitimate playmaker.

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Even if you’re undefeated and just a couple games from clinching a playoff spot, both McCoy and Ivory are unplayable right now. And please don’t get cute and roster them in DFS. I went down that road in Week 1 this year and am still disgusted with myself for letting McCoy ruin an otherwise nuts lineup.

AFC SOUTH

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

It’s entirely possible we don’t see Leonard Fournette in pads again until November, and Corey Grant is on IR as of this past week. That leaves just T.J. Yeldon to lead the charge. Just as well, as he’s seeing close to 20 opportunities a game as the lead back and he has not disappointed, scoring 15.7 fantasy points over expectation on that volume.

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I wish I would’ve hung on to Yeldon in more leagues, now that I know he’ll essentially be a top-12 option over the next two to four weeks. He’s a matchup-proof must-start based on the fact he’s essentially all alone in that offense (not counting the recently acquired Jamaal Charles), and he sees far too much volume as a pass catcher to bench right now.

I think the matchup against Dallas could be paced down, but you still have to play Yeldon. You can do so with confidence, also.

TENNESSEE TITANS

Who would’ve guessed that regardless of who you chose in this backfield this season, you’d be wrong. Neither player is meeting ADP value as a top 50 pick in PPR leagues, but at least Dion Lewis is seeing over five targets a game as a receiver. Derrick Henry is disgustingly game script dependent, relying on significant leads and soft defensive matchups to be any sort of fantasy relevant.

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Lewis is in flex consideration from week to week in PPR, but Henry is borderline droppable at this point.

HOUSTON TEXANS

Neither player on this team can seem to get the motor running behind Houston’s abysmal offensive line, but both have proven at least somewhat useful as pass catchers. Alfred Blue was the feature back in Week 5 with Lamar Miller nursing a rib injury, and he managed to muster a pretty respectable stat line despite not looking genuinely impressive with the ball in his hands.

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Still, Miller has been the more efficient player with the ball in his hands, posting 3.7 fantasy points under expectation compared to Blue’s 11.6 under expectation. D’Onta Foreman is extremely talented, and he’s eligible to return in Week 7 after a six-week stint on the PUP list. Keep your eye on him moving forward. He could be worth a stash as early as right now with both of these backs underwhelming this much.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

I’m here for the Nyheim Hines emergence. I was a huge fan of Hines when the Colts drafted him, and I thought he had a clear path to volume with no established WR2 or full-time running back on this team at that point. I haven’t been disappointed, especially now that he’s averaging close to nine targets per game and even garnering a hefty chunk of rushing work.

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Even when he returns, it’ll be tough for Marlon Mack to take a large portion of work away from Hines. Hines is too dangerous as a pass catcher to take off the field. Both Mack and Jordan Wilkins don’t need to be rostered in most leagues and formats at this point.

Hines should be considered an every-week flex play with RB2 upside in PPR formats going forward.