Welcome to the 2018 Zero RB candidates countdown where we help you find inexpensive RBs to destroy your league. You can use the list to fill out your Zero RB squad or build Flex upside into a RB-heavy start.
In Part 1, we looked back at some of the great Zero RB content from earlier in the offseason and counted down the backs from No. 15 to No. 11. If you’re considering Zero RB in 2018 but worried that you’ll have to give up too much RB value, the list has been extremely successful at nailing top runners, not just roster filler.
- 2015 – The target list included Devonta Freeman and Doug Martin. Martin went off the board at RB17 but finished as RB4. Freeman was selected outside the first 100 picks at RB29 but finished as the overall RB1.
- 2016 – Melvin Gordon was my top breakout candidate and highest-owned player.
- 2017 – Long before the Spencer Ware injury, we urged you to buy Kareem Hunt when he was still going outside the top 100. We also recommended Alvin Kamara, thus helping owners buy the No. 3 and No. 4 fantasy RBs on the season. With those results, the inclusion of Duke Johnson (RB11) and Chris Thompson (RB10 in PPG) almost seem like afterthoughts.
THE 2018 LIST
Today we jump in with a player trending in the wrong direction, two players who have seen their values already skyrocket due to teammate injuries, an elite receiving back, and perhaps my favorite value for league-winning upside.
No. 10 Nyheim Hines
Hines is a temporary laughingstock after struggling in one of his specialties during the Colts’ first preseason game. After notching over 2,000 return yards with three touchdowns at N.C. State, he could barely catch the ball in his NFL debut.
He’s still the same game guy he was a week ago, an undervalued runner whose 185 all-purpose yards per game trailed only Rashaad Penny among college backs. He’s still one of the fastest players in the class, and while many of his comps are discouraging, he’s also the closest back to Jamaal Charles that we’ve seen in a while.
The Colts open the 2018 season with one of the least decorated RB depth charts in recent memory. They entered the offseason with the second-most opportunity at the position.1
Indianapolis also has a bleak WR depth chart once you move beyond T.Y. Hilton.2 Combine that with a QB who both moves the ball and throws to the RB position . . . and you have a lot of potential.
Hines’ NFL projection pops because he brings a lot of tools to the table. Far from being a mirage crafted from the summer hype machines, he’s a player who was undervalued before the buzz set in. Now you can use his poor performance against Seattle to get a bargain. At least for a few days. His ADP should tick northward again once drafters realize Marlon Mack’s hamstring injury won’t allow him to solidify a position atop the depth chart.
With an extensive pass-catching background and the perfect offense for his skills, Hines could be the next rookie RB to earn 100-plus targets after Christian McCaffrey (113) and Alvin Kamara (101) were two of the three runners to reach that threshold a year ago.
No. 9 Chris Carson
Author’s note: What a difference a couple of months makes. I had to talk myself into taking Carson in the 20th round of the MFL10 of Death just two months ago. Now Carson threatens to move out of the value range with news of Penny’s surgery hitting the industry.
The Seattle offense wasn’t a RB paradise a season ago. With the offensive line auditioning for that old David Carr commercial, Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy ranked No. 1 and No. 4 in negative FPOE per opportunity. Translated, that means they were two of the four least efficient backs in the NFL in creating fantasy points based on the expected value of their touches.
Efficiency is notoriously misleading, but Carson’s numbers help explain why Pete Carroll and company were so devastated when the rookie went down in Week 4. To that point, Carson was operating at the same efficiency level (0.05 FPOE/Opp) as Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry.
Of course, there are plenty of red flags when it comes to Carson. We’d be silly to trust a four-game sample, and the Oklahoma State prospect wasn’t exactly a star in college, gaining just over 1,000 rushing yards during his 21-game tenure with the Cowboys.
He followed that up with a mediocre speed at the combine, running a 4.58 forty at 218 pounds. The lackluster profile helps explain why he fell to the 249th pick of last year’s draft and should provide some context for why fantasy owners were so enthralled with the rookie out of San Diego State.
But Carson has enjoyed a meteoric rise after impressing so completely during the offseason that he was on the verge of relegating Penny to second string even before the injury. He also provides some sneaky receiving value, catching a TD pass in Seattle’s recent scrimmage game. Carson caught seven passes a season ago – compared to only 21 for Rawls, Lacy, and C.J. Prosise combined – after 30 catches at Oklahoma State.
Carson started and played with the first-team offense in Seattle’s first preseason game and again looked powerful with 26 yards on four carries.
Moving In Different Directions
No. 8 Jamaal Williams
When my favorite Green Bay RB, Aaron Jones, was torching the NFL for two top-five finishes in a three-week span early last season, Williams wasn’t the runner I expected to be writing about in this column.
But things change quickly at the RB position. A few weeks later Jones was injured, and seven months after that he was facing a two-game suspension to start the NFL season. Williams isn’t the dazzling talent his teammate still might prove to be, but we have plenty of indicators that he could take the job and run with it during that time.
Williams wasn’t a college stat-compiler in the Royce Freeman mold, but he did turn in three 1,000-yard seasons and offer a well-rounded profile with 27 catches his freshman year. He finished with 3,901 yards, 60 receptions, and 36 TDs.
A minus athlete at the combine,3 he fell to pick 134 in last year’s draft but was the favorite to back up Ty Montgomery before his own injury opened the door for Jones. When the door swung the other way later in the season, his results were impressive if not explosive.
Despite playing limited full-season snaps, Williams scored four red zone TDs and caught 25 passes, 23 of which came on the first two downs. He notched three consecutive top-10 RB finishes from Weeks 12-14. This gave the Packers seven top-10 finishes on the season, split between three different players. Even in a committee – and playing much of the season with a backup QB – the upside in this offense is obvious.
Williams’ situation holds some resemblance to that of Arian Foster and Devonta Freeman before they exploded for the No. 1 overall RB finishes in 2010 and 2015 respectively. They weren’t great tested athletes, but they inspired palpable belief in their coaches that summer before the jumps. Each had a plum opportunity in an elite offense there for the taking.
It’s highly unlikely that Williams gets anywhere close to No. 1 overall in 2018, but we want exposure to this type of situation.
No. 7 Duke Johnson
I’ve recommended avoiding three-headed committees, but now find myself hammering them in Part 2 of the Candidates.
In this case, we have three players with mouthwatering upside being held down by legitimate concerns about volume, but concerns that would probably require better-than-expected health to wipe out the value at these ADPs.
Johnson is likely more expensive than Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb,4 but he’s also safer, with the high-value receiving touches locked in. Hyde did yeoman’s work hauling in 56 passes last year, but he’s not really a receiving back. He’d never done it before, and he was so inefficient in the role (-31.1 reFPOE) that the 49ers went in a different direction over the offseason.
Moreover, Johnson earns routes out of the slot, further insulating him against traditional competition. Those WR-centric routes could expand this season on a team that suddenly lacks starting-caliber bodies.5
Johnson has averaged 60-plus receptions since entering the NFL with LeSean McCoy comps occasionally attached to his name. He finished at RB11 last year and went off the board as RB33 in the Apex draft. Although he likely won’t catch 74 passes again, he even has hidden upside in a Todd Haley offense.
No. 6 Rex Burkhead
Only Alvin Kamara, Austin Ekeler, Corey Grant, and Chris Thompson rolled up more FPOE/Opp than Burkhead last year.6
It’s easy to remember the goal line TDs for Burkhead late in the season, but we don’t want to forget that he also scored on all three of his red zone receptions. A whopping 45 percent of his fantasy points came from those red zone touches.
This is the type of resume that urges restraint, but it would be easier to exercise the requisite caution if LeGarrette Blount hadn’t scored 18 TDs in this offense just one year before. LeGarrette Blount. The same back who was unceremoniously dumped by the Steelers in 2014 and scored two rushing TDs during the regular season for last year’s Super Bowl champions. This is an offense that creates a lot of RB value.
The Patriots were No. 2 in RB points (549.8) with a big gap down to Jacksonville in third.7 They create that value in a lot of different ways with a profile that was consistent across the board: No. 3 in ruEP,8 No. 3 in reEP,9 No. 2 in total expected points (487), and No. 2 in points over expectation (62.7).
Of course, in some ways, that just makes it worse. Mike Gillislee scored three TDs in the first game last season and was barely heard from again. This is an offense that creates heroes and just as quickly discards them. Do we really want to pay the post-Sony Michel-surgery price for a five-year NFL veteran with 151 career rushing attempts?
There are some extenuating circumstances around Burkhead. For one thing, he’s a goal line back who catches passes. We tend to forget it now because it happened quite a long time ago, but he has the athletic profile for this. Burkhead zigzagged his way to a 6.85 three-cone and jumped 39 inches at the 2013 combine. He posted a 1,534-yard, 17-TD, 21-catch season as a junior at Nebraska.10
For a veteran with limited professional touches, he’s not totally devoid of credentials. And perhaps the most important signal might be his new contract. After signing him to a prove-it deal in 2017, the Patriots re-signed him to a three-year, $9.75 million deal in the offseason.11
Be careful about reaching for Burkhead – even in Michel’s absence, which could be short-lived, he faces a squeeze on the highest-value touches – but don’t hesitate to grab a few shares when he falls to you in the RB25 range.
Stay tuned for the top five as we count down to No. 1 and catch up with us in the Zero RB Candidates thread.
- Once you remove the Cardinals who have David Johnson returning. (back)
- The presence of two potential pass-catching tight ends balances it out a bit. (back)
- 4.59 forty, 30-inch vertical, 7.25 three-cone (back)
- This is not what some ADP sources show, but I expect it to be the case in competitive leagues, as it was in the Apex Experts draft. (back)
- If fellow drafters are selling Johnson due to the potential for him and Jarvis Landry to cannibalize each other, take the bargain and run. (back)
- Reporting it that way benefits catch-heavy players with smaller workloads, but Kamara, Ekeler, and Grant were also in the top four just as rushers. (back)
- I included the Steelers and Rams here to give a sense of the Gurley and Bell-driven offenses in addition to the top-three overall. (back)
- Trailing Jackonville and Minnesota. (back)
- Trailing New Orleans and San Francisco. (back)
- Before splitting snaps with Ameer Abdullah his senior yar. (back)
- They re-signed him despite his injury-riddled debut and despite the clear intention to add other weapons to a depth chart that already featured a plus receiving back in James White. (back)