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Top 15 Zero RB Candidates for 2016: No. 5 to No. 1

The list of Top 15 Zero RB candidates had a big year in 2015. The Top 5 included league-winners Devonta Freeman and Doug Martin. It also contained serviceable pass-catching backs Duke Johnson and Charles SimsDavid Johnson clocked in at No. 7.

As we talked about in 2014’s Zero RB, Breakout Stars, and Having More Fun Drafting and the recent Fantasyland episode, it’s important to think in terms of contingencies and plan for misses. Just because we had great success last year, that doesn’t mean we’ll automatically do so again. Fortunately, the evidence-based methodologies used to pick our targets continues to improve.

We recently covered No. 11 through 15 and No. 6 through No. 10. Today we count down from No. 5 to No. 1.

5. Theo Riddick

A few days ago, I explained why Danny Woodhead could be a trap player by looking at a simple model for projecting RB receptions.

Theo Riddick201199248055.28
Devonta Freeman206103237352.33
Danny Woodhead200329308151.94
Duke Johnson20777226246.88
Shane Vereen20356265944.02
Darren Sproles185130325540.12
Giovani Bernard20237244939.7
Charles Sims21469255138.87
Mark Ingram21528265038.17
Lamar Miller21897244736.45
Bilal Powell204126274736.17
Javorius Allen221125244534.78
James White204130234034.08
DeMarco Murray21571274433.99
Matt Forte21844304432.61
Darren McFadden2104284032.48
Dion Lewis193149253631.86
Latavius Murray223181244131.83
Dexter McCluster17036273131.55
Chris Thompson192154253531.36
T.J. Yeldon22636223631.12
James Starks218193294331.04
Melvin Gordon21515223330.74
C.J. Spiller1969283430.49
David Johnson22486243629.92
DeAngelo Williams21727324029.76
Kyle Juszczyk248130244029.35
LeSean McCoy19853273229.21
Doug Martin22331263328
Ameer Abdullah20554222526.92
Frank Gore21765323426.08
Ronnie Hillman20067242425.83
Justin Forsett198233303125.53
Adrian Peterson2177303025.35
De'Anthony Thomas174124221724.84
Todd Gurley22210212123.95
Jeremy Langford208106242223.56
Le'Veon Bell23048232423.55
Jerick McKinnon20996232123.47
Jonathan Grimes201329262623.35
Denard Robinson199135252123.15
Chris Ivory222329273023.06
Benny Cunningham212329252622.73
Tre Mason20775221822.67
Lance Dunbar191329252122.02
Jamaal Charles19973292121.95
Fred Jackson215329343221.68
C.J. Anderson224329242521.47
Eddie Lacy23061242020.77
Matt Jones23195221920.69
Rashad Jennings235250302920.67
Shaun Draughn225329282720.66
Ryan Mathews21812282020.6
Charcandrick West205329242020.56
Bishop Sankey20954231420.02
Marcel Reece240329303019.95
Damien Williams222329232119.91
Antonio Andrews225329242119.17
Isaiah Crowell224329221919.07
Andre Ellington199187261518.88
Brandon Bolden215329251918.59
Jeremy Hill23355231518.23
Joique Bell220329292217.94
Arian Foster224329292217.56
Travaris Cadet210329261717.52
Alfred Blue223181241517.51
Mike Davis19712622717.08
Joseph Randle204151241016.9
Jonathan Stewart23513281616.74
Marshawn Lynch21512291316.59
Khiry Robinson220329261716.55
Branden Oliver208329241316.41
Kenjon Barner19618226915.92
Carlos Hyde23057241115.85
Chris Polk222329261615.8
Karlos Williams230155221115.79
Akeem Hunt18532922615.7
Fozzy Whittaker202329261215.54
Matt Asiata234329281915.38
Terron Ward20332923915.15
Taiwan Jones19412527715.12
Josh Robinson19920523615.11
Rex Burkhead214190251015.09
Zac Stacy21616024915.09
Donald Brown2102728814.63
Jay Ajayi22114922714.52
Chris Johnson1912430614.5
Roy Helu21910527913.99
Dan Herron21519126913.98
Tevin Coleman2067322213.97
Thomas Rawls22032922913.95
Alfred Morris219173271013.87
Mike Gillislee20816425613.73
Tim Hightower226149291213.62
Ka'Deem Carey20711723313.54
DuJuan Harris20332927913.34
Mike Tolbert243329301813.05
Robert Turbin22210626713.04
Ahmad Bradshaw214250291012.69
Cameron Artis-Payne21217425512.69
Kerwynn Williams19523024212.59
Reggie Bush203230412.44
Patrick DiMarco240329261312.4
Jacquizz Rodgers19614525112.33
Isaiah Pead1975026012.16
Terrance West2259424412.11
Spencer Ware22819424611.94
Christine Michael2206225311.91
Bernard Pierce2188425311.89
Lorenzo Taliaferro22913824511.84
Trey Williams19032923011.46
Stevan Ridley2257326411.42
Juwan Thompson22532923611.36
Mike Burton24216823611.29
Jordan Todman19818325011.21
Marcus Murphy19823024011.2
Orleans Darkwa21032923311.16
Stepfan Taylor21414024111.08
Corey Grant20132924211.04
Jonas Gray22532925711
Malcolm Johnson23119523410.99
Kendall Hunter19911527010.88
Knile Davis2279624210.8
David Cobb22913822110.54
Jamize Olawale23832926910.39
Pierre Thomas21532931910.37
Kendall Gaskins23832925810.29
Andre Williams23011323110.24
Bruce Miller248211281010.22
Terrence Magee21332922110.22
Anthony Dixon2331732869.85
Zach Line2323292569.77
Zurlon Tipton2233292659.65
Toby Gerhart231512839.59
Fitzgerald Toussaint2003292509.58
Tyler Varga2223292219.35
Cierre Wood2133292419.32
Jalston Fowler2541082559.25
Malcolm Brown2243292219.15
Zach Zenner2233292428.9
John Crockett2173292308.83
Bryce Brown2232292408.78
Bobby Rainey2123292838.71
Anthony Sherman2421362748.69
Aaron Ripkowski2382062318.55
Marcus Thigpen1933292908.45
Tommy Bohanon2462152548.43
Antone Smith1903293008.29
Rod Smith2313292318.02
George Winn2183292507.83
Alonzo Harris2323292307.37
Glenn Winston2203292607.18
Darrel Young2453292867.15
LeGarrette Blount2413292967.09
Derrick Coleman2333292516.92
Steven Jackson236243216.46
Joey Iosefa2472312406.42
Jay Prosch2542112306.39
Will Johnson2423292725.69
Jerome Felton2481462915.45
John Kuhn2503293364.4
Jorvorskie Lane2583292823.68
Tyler Clutts2603293111.58

The eight runners with the highest 2016 reception projections all make solid fantasy picks, but Riddick, Woodhead, and Shane Vereen have the least rushing value. There are few scenarios in which they’d earn a meaningful early down workload. Vereen is a player I’m targeting for MFL10s, but the selection of Paul Perkins further squeezes his already-low chances for a big workload.

When choosing between Riddick and Woodhead, the primary concern is cost. Riddick’s availability at No. 91 overall makes him palatable even if rumors that he’ll carve out a rushing role prove untrue. Woodhead is your prototypical chase-the-points player and has only downside at his ADP. Moreover, Riddick could even play slot receiver for Detroit, which gives him added insulation for his receiving numbers in the unlikely event of an Ameer Abdullah explosion.

4. Charles Sims

Highest Receiving Efficiency 2015 (Min. 40 Targets)

James White 54 0.116 72.76 32.24 0.60
Charles Sims 70 0.133 91.52 39.58 0.57
James Starks 53 0.094 69.93 30.27 0.57
David Johnson 57 0.103 78.89 26.81 0.47
Danny Woodhead 107 0.162 145.24 47.36 0.44
Dion Lewis 50 0.183 65.46 21.34 0.43
Lamar Miller 57 0.098 76.06 22.64 0.40
Duke Johnson 75 0.125 99.64 27.86 0.37
Fred Jackson 41 0.092 55.38 14.32 0.35
Theo Riddick 99 0.159 133.65 34.05 0.34

We can glean two separate pieces of information from this list, items that point in different directions.

  • Sims was heavily targeted and ridiculously efficient. This goes to role and to talent. Sims will be utilized heavily, and he’s flashed big time playmaking ability.
  • Sims finished at the realistic upper edge of the efficiency spectrum and probably won’t be that efficient again.

Dirk Koetter is a big fan of the rejuvenated Doug Martin, and their 2015 bell cow will likely continue to earn the lion’s share of the early down carries. Sims could still see his role grow. Tampa Bay is probably at least a year away from being a good football team. Firing Lovie Smith made little sense . . . unless you assume the Buccaneers organization wanted to get more aggressive and pass-happy on offense. Game script and coaching philosophy favor a high floor for Sims in the passing game.

Finally, while Sims is a low-end RB2 with Martin healthy, he would instantly join the Top 5 discussion with a Martin injury.

3. Melvin Gordon

I was very high on Gordon as a prospect due to his combination of production and agility. His top comp according to the Box Score Scout is LaDainian Tomlinson. Matt Forte is No. 4.

Melvin Gordon SP

Of course, Gordon was not efficient as a rookie and didn’t score a single touchdown. Have we already seen proof that Gordon was just the beneficiary of elite Wisconsin blocking?

Josh Hermsmeyer writes persuasively about efficiency stats and their lack of predictive ability. When using the Screener to pull out high draft picks with poor rookie YPC, we find evidence of collapses (Trent Richardson), continued mediocrity (Thomas Jones, Knowshon Moreno), and mega-breakouts (Tomlinson, Le’Veon Bell, Ray Rice, Travis Henry.)

2000-2015 Top 60 Pick, YPC 3.0-4.0, 20-Plus Rec

Reggie Bush20062883.6264.7733.6207.6
Trent Richardson20123513.6254.7353146.9
LaDainian Tomlinson20015593.6278.6794.5387.1
Cadillac Williams20055204181.5303.5135.4
Thomas Jones20007323.3102.1213.4103.7
Knowshon Moreno200912283.8197.6374.3200.1
Willis McGahee200423223.9225.3283.9201.8
Michael Bennett200127293.9137.8375.1237.7
Jahvid Best201030583.2198.7274.6112.7
DeShaun Foster200334263.9102.494.353.1
Giovani Bernard201337564223.5434187.9
Matt Forte200844643.9307.5573.6220.3
Le'Veon Bell201348453.5219.5834.7370.5
Ray Rice200855334103.4785.3330.1
Travis Henry200158223.4136.8434.4301.8

Because his rushing numbers were poor, it’s easy to overlook that Gordon had a strong 2016 broken tackle rate. His biggest problem was the failure to create big plays, a staple of his collegiate tour de force. Gordon’s previous production and his lofty NFL draft status help explain why I’m drafting Gordon everywhere but can’t pull the trigger on the similarly inefficient Matt Jones.

Offseason microfracture surgery is the other big elephant in the room. Brian Malone points out that his ADP continues to plunge and may continue to do so unabated. FD argues that he’s already running and that the discount seems to go overboard. In fact, the microfracture may be much ado about nothing.

I recently traded for Gordon during the RDL rookie draft and selected him during the Scott Fish Bowl, the 2016 MFL10 of Death, and the Rummy100. Since I’m not sure how long this window will be open, I’m not worried about timing the market at these prices.

2. Jeremy Langford

Jeremy Langford was awful last year – so awful that former PFF Fantasy editor and new ESPN stats guru Mike Clay has an apology to him in his twitter bio. After all, it’s not personal.

Langford dropped a bunch of passes and went basically the entire season without breaking a tackle. This led to a low yards per carry average, a number which may place him at risk for a quick hook in 2016.

On the other hand, Langford still finished as RB30, even though he was a rookie playing behind Matt Forte. And Forte appeared in 13 games. When Forte didn’t play, Langford was a monster.1

Langford splits

Even once Forte returned, Langford averaged a boring-but-playable 8.3 ppg over the final month of the fantasy season. And that was without scoring a TD. His pace as a committee back during that span would have given him almost 1,100 yards from scrimmage on the season.

Langford ran a 4.42 at the Combine, the fastest back from the 2015 class. Speed matters. It helps explain why Langford was both drafted earlier than Jordan Howard and had a better success score.

In a must-read piece, Malone has argued against “false certainty” in evaluating Langford. FD follows with surprise at the Howard enthusiasm. Howard’s success score sits at a lowly 0.04 and reflects the fact that a big, slow, fifth-round rookie is unlikely to be immediately relevant.

In his last two years in college, Langford went for over 3,000 yards from scrimmage, scored 41 touchdowns, and caught 39 passes. He’s probably not as bad as his 2015 peripherals suggest, yet he’s now priced as though he won’t break a tackle this season either. We all assume Langford isn’t very good, but what if he finds himself in an Eli Cash novel?

  1. Gio Bernard

When I began this series, Bernard’s ADP was outside the first five rounds,2 but he’s since climbed into late Round 5. Fortunately, his average ADP of 56.3 allows him to slide in immediately after John Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Greg Olsen.3 ADP gives Bernard a big advantage on fellow perfect-profile candidate Duke Johnson.

After all, Bernard is the easiest pick in the fantasy universe:

  • Despite three Top 20 finishes in three seasons, Bernard is being selected at RB21.
  • Bernard has never finished with fewer than 59 targets, and his receiving value gives him a high floor. Since his points come on fewer total touches, his injury risk is also lower than many similarly-priced backs.
  • Bernard shared touches with BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2013 and Jeremy Hill the last few seasons. An injury to Hill would immediately place Bernard into the top echelon of backs.

In this countdown I’ve provided 15 RB targets currently being drafted outside the first five rounds. I’ll publish supplementary pieces as training camps progress and we move toward autumn. Already a few intriguing backs have seen their buzz deteriorate. They could move into target range shortly. Until then, here’s a look at the ADP for our final five.

Top Zero RB ADP


Part 1: Undervalued Pass-Catching Backs Headline No. 15 to No. 11
Part 2: The Hyper-Handcuffs Make Their Debut as We Count Down from No. 10 to No. 6

For more information: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Zero RB Universe

  1. Langford didn’t have touch in Week 3.  (back)
  2. and was thus eligible for my cutoff  (back)
  3. This represents a tier break at the receiving positions with a huge collapse in value to the Allen HurnsKevin WhiteMichael Crabtree group in the mid-60s.  (back)

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