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. In Part 2, we revealed No. 10 to No. 6. Today, we unveil the final five.
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.
No. 5 Tarik Cohen
The Human Joystick is tricky. On one hand, we can name quite a few compelling discount plays – runners who are similarly fast, similarly explosive, and similarly agile.
On the other hand, few teams with this type of player have been as up front about their intended usage. The hype and the profile could make it a good time to sell or the right moment to go all-in.
Matt Nagy perhaps gets too much credit for Kansas City’s 2017 offense, but he’s steeped in an offensive philosophy that manufactures high-value receiving touches for the RB.1 The new Bears coach established himself in the potential genius category by crafting a Chiefs offense that coaxed a career season from Alex Smith and found a way to unlock the blazing speed of Tyreek Hill through a mixture of bubble screens and go routes that didn’t require sophisticated route-running.
All of this is positive for Cohen as he attempts to redeem the wasted potential of a rookie season with John Fox. In locating a couple of other high-upside and inexpensive receiving backs, Mark Wemken points out that Cohen underperformed his touches last season (-8.6 reFPOE). We can tie this inefficiency to a broken and unimaginative offense.
The Bears appeared to realize what they had early. Cohen lassoed eight passes in each of the first two weeks on the way to an overall RB2 finish in his very first game. But the rookie never eclipsed four catches again until a bizarre 6-14-0 line in Week 17.
On an offseason episode of the RotoViz Report, I discussed why the offensive changes could allow Cohen to outscore Jordan Howard, and Dave Caban’s NFC North projections give him the slightest edge as well.
No. 4 Kerryon Johnson
Johnson has become a trendier pick in the last week after he flashed in the Lions’ first preseason game, which is odd, because it suggests that drafters are prioritizing that tiny, tiny sample over what was already a very good resume.
To be sure, I’m like everyone else and am comforted by the splash plays and what it says about his potential usage. And those covering camp have suggested he’s been the absolute star of those festivities.
So why was Kerryon Johnson surprisingly unpopular before?
These summer ADPs are difficult to square with the evidence. Derrius Guice will no longer be drafted after the ACL tear, but his previous status was optimistic. Sony Michel’s stock is plummeting as the knee cleanup helps to highlight what was already a bleak touch situation.
Johnson was selected in the reality draft ahead of Guice and ahead of Royce Freeman, and the Lions traded up to make that pick, suggesting their personal board may have had a sizable gap between Johnson and the other two backs. So the only possible explanation is that Detroit made an awful pick – which is possible, NFL teams make head-scratching mistakes all the time – or that he’s heading into a horrible situation.
But neither appears to be true.
Johnson’s profile is just short of excellent.
- He’s a similar athlete to those going ahead of him.2
- His raw college numbers aren’t as gaudy as those of Guice and Freeman, but he excelled in the best conference in the country in 2017, winning the SEC offensive player of the year.
- And he’s entering the NFL at a very young age,3 which has historically been an excellent sign.
Johnson’s ADP would make sense if he faced Nick Chubb’s horrible situation, but Johnson is both a better receiving back – thus more likely to rip receiving touches away from Theo Riddick – and much more likely to toss aside his veteran early-down challenger.4
Fantasy owners just didn’t believe in Johnson, which is surprising when you consider that his size/speed/agility/production comps include players like Melvin Gordon, Dalvin Cook, and Marshawn Lynch.5
No. 3 Ronald Jones
I drafted Jones at No. 2 overall in Ben Gretch’s dynasty best-ball league, and it wasn’t a difficult decision. He’s young, fast, and productive. He was selected early in the NFL draft and enters a great opportunity.
- With a final college age of 20.3, he was the youngest back in the draft.
- Injured at the combine, we don’t have an official time, but his track results suggest elite speed.
- He gained over 3,900 yards from scrimmage and scored 42 TDs at USC, including 1,737 and 20 last year. This helped him to the top Backfield Dominator Rating among elite prospects.
- The No. 38 overall pick, he went three spots after Chubb and five ahead of Johnson.
- He enters a team with the third-best RB Opportunity Score.7
You can try to create more boxes or you could avoid him because of Peyton Barber,8 but . . .
No. 2 Royce Freeman
Freeman landed a spot on my favorite list: The One Player Poised to Crush ADP in Every Round. I’ve comped him to Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson throughout the offseason, and while I don’t expect him to be a 25 PPG fantasy back anytime soon, that wasn’t the consensus on those players either. Bell joined the league with the “plodder” label, a tag that stuck with him another year after poor rookie numbers in yards per carry. Johnson’s elite mix of size, athleticism, and receiving ability had pundits miscasting him as an H-back.
You don’t see a lot of 225-pound backs with elite agility, and you don’t see a lot of guys post 3,700 yards from scrimmage over their first two college seasons, even in stat-inflating systems like Oregon ran at the time.
The Duck was such a force during his sophomore season that he went ahead of Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley in one of my 2016 devy drafts with some of the industry’s top college experts.9 Then Freeman injured his leg early in his junior campaign. He played through it to moderate success, but a month of bad performances mid-season stalled the buzz. Scouts started to compare him to more grinding runners.
Freeman was able to rehab his value to an extent in 2017, but even an impressive combine – where he distanced himself physically from some of the slower, straight-line comps – didn’t pull him back ahead of borderline first-rounders like Michel or Rashaad Penny. Some scouts continued to claim that he wasn’t as explosive as before the injury, but the numbers do not bear this out with Freeman authoring more breakaway plays than ever.
The Broncos will try to employ a committee with Devontae Booker and impressive UDFA Phillip Lindsay earning some third-down touches, but Freeman has bellcow ability early in his Denver tenure.
No. 1 Tevin Coleman
I’ve been making the Tevin-Coleman-is-the-most-undervalued-player-in-fantasy argument all offseason, but he’s not going anywhere because it’s so difficult psychologically to draft a No. 2 any earlier.10
That was the case last season when Coleman was coming off of a RB13 finish but fell to 30th in drafts. Of course, Kyle Shanahan was leaving and Coleman’s efficiency probably wasn’t sustainable. That did make a difference.
Coleman’s total expected points remained steady in 2017, but his rushing efficiency collapsed back to average. As a result, his scoring fell – all the way to RB2111 – and he was only a good value instead of a great one.
Coleman’s also a player who should appeal to both risk-taking and risk-averse players. His number of games with 15-plus points fell in 2017, but his weekly top-24 finishes stayed the same, He even increased his number of top-36 weeks.12
But Coleman is the best value in the NFL because you get a key scenario for free. When Coleman went down with broken ribs during his rookie season of 2015, Freeman scored 21.4 PPG and finished as the overall RB1.
Not every RB would have been able to do that, of course. Freeman has proved himself a big-time talent, and his presence is what keeps Coleman in a timeshare. But the former Indiana runner is no slouch.
Despite splitting carries, he ranked No. 6 at the position in 20-plus plays.
This breakaway ability helps explain his extreme efficiency the year prior and stretches all the way back to college where he crushed Gordon and Todd Gurley in highlight yards. Athleticism is the most important attribute a RB can have, and with sub-4.4 speed, those explosive plays will just keep coming.
And Coleman isn’t just fast. A plus receiver, he’s also siphoned a large number of goal-line looks, punching in eight red zone scores each of the last two seasons.
Check in on the countdown in the Zero RB candidates thread, and good luck to everyone in your drafts this weekend!
- It exchanges a number of low-value runs for high-value short passes to the RB, and, in part as a result of this, usually creates a lot of goal line opportunities. (back)
- He packs similar speed and more explosion with a 40-inch vertical. His 7.07 three-cone is solid. (back)
- He finished college at 20.5 and will be a 21-year-old as a rookie, along with Guice, Ronald Jones, and Saquon Barkley. (back)
- Overall, the ADPs are tough to understand when you consider that Guice and Michel also likely had more standing in the way of high-value touches. (back)
- They also include red flag guys like Montee Ball. (back)
- I own Johnson in Faked Goods and Kitchen Sink 4 and wish I had even more ownership in dynasty. I selected him at 6.04 in the recent Apex Experts draft. (back)
- Technically fourth, but the Cardinals are getting back David Johnson. (back)
- Although, really, the whole point of Zero RB is that we’re overconfident about what’s going to happen, and Jon Moore used to love Barber. (back)
- I selected JuJu Smith-Schuster at 1.02 behind Dalvin Cook. I was able to trade for Freeman last year. (back)
- And that’s true even though targeting elite No. 2s is one of the best draft approaches. (back)
- Overall and in PPG. (back)
- Fantasy-eligible weeks. (back)