Welcome to the 2018 Zero RB target list where we help you find inexpensive RBs to destroy your league. You can use the list to fill out your Zero RB squad or to build Flex upside into a RB-heavy start.
We’ve had a lot of great Zero RB content this offseason, including how to use contingency-based drafting to build a monster1 and why Zero RB will reward drafters with many of the big $100,000-plus prizes in 2018.
But now it’s time to answer the question everyone really cares about: Who are the next RB stars for the approach?
The Zero RB target list has been extremely successful at nailing these players. In 2014 I explained the methodology I used from 2008-2013 to create outsized gains in high stakes formats. If you then used the list in 2015, 2016, and 2017, your returns would have been excellent.
- 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
We begin the countdown with a closer look at targets with ADPs in the late rounds.2
15. Trenton Cannon
Fantasy experts talk a lot about efficiency not being sticky, but it certainly has an impact on team evaluations. My favorite efficiency measure is fantasy points over expectation (FPOE) because it helps you translate what a back did on the field into what we care about – fantasy points.
Only nine backs came up more than 20 points short of expectation in 2017. Eight of those players changed teams,3 and the other, Wayne Gallman, saw his franchise add a veteran back4 and draft an RB with the No. 2 overall pick.
Of the eight players that changed teams, only two managed double-digit negative points in both the run and pass games. They also happen to be the only two who enter 2018 as the nominal starter on their new squads.
Isaiah Crowell isn’t an NFL starter, and the 30-year Bilal Powell is barely a No. 2. A competent space back earlier in his career, Powell earned a paltry 33 targets in 2017, only 13 of which came on third down.
Elijah McGuire would have been an intriguing late-round pick before a fractured foot knocked him out of training camp and threatened to cost him an early-season role. This opens the door for Trenton Cannon.
If you’re looking for the 2018 version of Austin Ekeler or Matt Breida, start with the 204th pick from this year’s draft. Over the last three seasons, the Virginia State prospect rolled up over 4,000 yards rushing, 48 receptions, and 51 TDs. His pro day confirmed the NFL athleticism with a 4.4 forty and 38-inch vertical at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds.
Training camp reports have been glowing, especially after his 50-yard, two-catch performance in the Green and White scrimmage. In the first preseason game, Cannon muffed a punt but rushed 11 times for 40 yards and caught three passes. Grab the Jets’ new Ferrari with your final pick or place him atop your watch list.
14. Javorius Allen
Last year’s RB24 is going outside the first 200 picks, despite a depth chart that remains barren behind Alex Collins. Kenneth Dixon has struggled with his health early in camp and otherwise performed at a level that has people wondering if he’ll even make the roster.
Meanwhile, Allen performed admirably in a backup role, showing why the Fantasy Douche once argued he was the most similar back to Le’Veon Bell in the 2015 draft and exactly the type of back NFL teams should be drafting. Although a much lower ceiling version, Allen fits the Bell/Johnson template as a 221-pound back with elite agility.5 He’s parlayed those attributes into a pass-catching resume with 45-plus receptions in two of his three professional seasons. Reach back to his final year at USC, and he’s grabbed 40-plus in his last three healthy seasons.
Allen posted some intriguing peripherals in 2017 that paint the picture of an undervalued and well-rounded back.
Allen scored six times on 38 red zone opportunities and lassoed 26 receptions on second down. Those aren’t the numbers of a niche back. In the trivia department, he also converted all five of his fourth-down touches, a stat that is fun if not meaningful.
The Fantasy Douche might as well have been reaching three years into the future and telling us this is exactly the type of back fantasy owners should draft. With Baltimore’s barren roster at RB after Allen, there’s a lot more upside than downside, even before you factor the inconsequential cost.
13. Austin Ekeler
Eight RBs finished with more than 30 fantasy points above expectation a season ago, and they tend to be the names you expect. Breakout rookie stars Alvin Kamara (103) and Kareem Hunt (59) finished first and third, while league-winner extraordinaire Todd Gurley came in second at 68. But only one player managed to accumulate that much surplus value with fewer than 100 opportunities.
The Chargers rookie reached that threshold by averaging 0.38 FPOE/Opportunity. Only Kamara was better (0.47), and only Corey Grant (0.37) and Chris Thompson (0.37) were anywhere close.6
The 5-foot-9, 195-pound newcomer from Division II Western State opened eyes at Colorado’s 2017 pro day with a 40-inch vertical and 6.85 three-cone to go with a 4.43 forty. Before the workout, you might have been tempted to see his video game numbers as the result of weak competition. The clear NFL athleticism casts his prolific college production in a different light.
In four college seasons, Ekeler accumulated more than 7,000 yards from scrimmage in just 40 games. He caught 115 passes, found pay dirt 63 times, and twice gained more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage. In 2015 he averaged over 200 yards per game.
To be clear, competition surely juiced the numbers to an extent, but skeptics learned to discount lower-level numbers when they scoffed at David Johnson’s insane production at Northern Iowa. When you pair Ekeler’s athleticism with his on-field production and then add on a rookie season with explosive playmaking, there’s little reason to think anything about Ekeler is a fluke.
Of course, just like Kamara will find it impossible to match his 2017 efficiency, Ekeler will as well. If he wants to match or exceed a rookie season where he scored double-digit fantasy points five times, he’ll need to increase his workload. But this is also where the league-winning upside comes in. Melvin Gordon has struggled with health at the NFL level, and Ekeler’s only competition in the case of injury comes from Justin Jackson.7
While Tarik Cohen makes for an exciting play in the middle rounds, Ekeler continues to fly under the radar yet offers similar upside at a fraction of the price.
12. Matt Breida
Note: Breida injured his shoulder in the first preseason game but reports suggest he avoided structural damage. He’s likely to miss the rest of the preseason, which should help from an ADP perspective.
If you were a scout hoping to find Ekeler’s doppleganger, all you had to do was go to Georgia Southern’s pro day and watch as Matt Breida turned in a 4.39 forty, 42-inch vertical, and 6.85 three-cone. With identical height/weight measurements, that’s slightly more athletic than the already freakish Ekeler. And just like Ekeler, his college production jumps off the page.
After accumulating more than 3,000 yards and 35 TDs over his sophomore and junior seasons, an injury-plagued senior season knocked him off draft boards. But the 49ers were still interested and their undrafted gem quickly dispatched the trendy Joe Williams.
Several times during his rookie year, the 49ers staff hinted at moving Breida ahead of Carlos Hyde, and while that never happened, he developed a well-rounded profile that was far more than third-down duties.
Breida remains the No. 2 in San Francisco after the offseason acquisition of Jerick McKinnon, but he’s one of the few NFL backs with athleticism to look good standing next to one of the league’s most otherworldly athletes. And while McKinnon’s ADP is justifiably in the Round 3 range, the gap overstates the likely difference in points.
Breida has bulked up 10 pounds and continues to turn heads during his second training camp in the offense. Writers are even wondering whether he might force a 50-50 workload split. Although that’s unlikely, there should be plenty of RB value in this offense.
Many fantasy owners remember the 2016 season where Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman finished as RB7 and RB13 in PPG. Over the 96 individual team-seasons from 2015 to 2017, Kyle Shanahan’s offenses ranked seventh, 13th, and 17th in expected points at the RB position.8
While Coleman is more athletic and talented than many realize,9 Breida’s ability also stands out. You could make a convincing argument that their ADPs should be much closer together than they stand now.
11. Latavius Murray
A big time physical talent who finished as a low-end RB1 in 2015 and 2016, the argument for selecting Latavius Murray anywhere outside the first 150 picks is easy.
With the skill position players the Vikings have stockpiled in Minnesota, this team is going to score points. Dalvin Cook will be the obvious beneficiary, but Murray becomes an elite handcuff for several reasons. A season ago, his numbers skyrocketed after Cook’s injury.
But handcuffs tend to go earlier than they should the year after a starter’s injury. When that starter stays healthy, the backup falls back off the radar. Murray is different, not just because he should eke out a few points as a breather back, but because his situation is much better in 2018 without McKinnon.
Murray caught 74 passes between 2015 and 2016, but that fell to 15 in 2017 even with Cook’s absence. This is a clear example of the reason we target players with high-value touches and emphasize backfields with two legitimate players as opposed to those with three or more.
With 23 red zone TDs over the last three seasons, Murray has demonstrated plenty of ability in the key areas of the field. He would be among the NFL leaders in high-value touches should anything happen to Cook.
Average Draft Position
Use the MFL10 ADP app to keep up with all of the ADP changes as you plot your late-round picks.
Stay tuned for backs No. 10 through No. 6, and weigh in on the first set of targets in the Zero RB candidates thread.
- The approach that led to first-, second-, and first-place finishes in the MFL10 of Death over the last three years (back)
- I should also mention that from a roster-construction perspective, I like to buy pass-catching backs in the late rounds. This occasionally means that I pass on a Darren Sproles or Danny Woodhead after they finish a RB1 season and are still being drafted relatively late, but it offers protection against overpaying for a pure back pass-catching back when the next Melvin Gordon or Kareem Hunt is still available. (back)
- This includes Adrian Peterson who is currently out of the league (back)
- One of the eight players who changed teams (back)
- Sub-7.0 three-cone. (back)
- Minimum 10 rushes. (back)
- Jackson is an intriguing deep stash in his own right. (back)
- Last year’s team ranked seventh despite spending the year playing from behind. (back)
- I’ve argued that Coleman is the most undervalued player in fantasy. (back)