Welcome to the Ultimate Zero RB Watchlist. The goal of this piece is to help you find RB targets for your teams, before anyone else even knows about them. We know that startable RB weeks can come from almost anywhere in the NFL. By being aware of depth charts that could yield surprising weekly starters, we put ourselves in position to grab the next breakout RB before he breaks out.
Each week, we’ll take a close look at depth charts around the league in order to find the next-man-up situations that nobody is talking about . . . yet. Throughout the season we’ll monitor playing time and usage to identify exploitable, under-the-radar trends that have the potential to pay off with league-winning upside.
The prolific scoring and high octane offensive production from Week 1 carried over into Week 2. So far, we have a second-year quarterback with 10 touchdown passes through two games, a wide receiver on pace for over 200 receptions, and several running backs on pace to obliterate efficiency records.
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.
Joe Mixon owners had already began their victory lap after a 149 total yard-one touchdown performance in week 1 versus the Indianapolis Colts. Mixon was seeing heavy usage in week 2 versus the Ravens, despite leaving the game on more than one occasion with a knee injury.
We now know that Mixon needed to have a procedure done to clear up the issue and is expected to miss, at the very least, the next two games. Enter Giovani Bernard.
When Mixon was forced to miss time last season, Bernard saw RB1 usage (19 opportunities per game) and produced over 16 PPR points per contest.
Bernard is a must-add in all formats and should be viewed as a high-end RB2 with an RB1 ceiling so long as Mixon is sidelined.
The BAL backfield situation is, unfortunately, a little murkier than the one in Cincinnati.
Perceived lead-back Alex Collins actually ranks dead-even with teammate Javorius Allen. Each RB has handled 20 touches through two games, with 50 percent of Allen’s usage being in the receiving game. Collins, as the early-down commodity, has out-carried Allen 16-10.
While neither RB has necessarily blown his competition for touches out of the water, it’s been Allen who has garnished the heavier share of goal line work. Allen has converted both of his carries from inside the five-yard line for touchdowns, while Collins was unsuccessful in converting his lone carry in that section of the field. Collins did, however, manage to score a touchdown of his own in Week 1, albeit from outside the five-yard line. Allen has also controlled the vast majority of valuable receiving targets.
Because of his valuable role as the team’s goal-line and primary receiving back, Allen remains a low-end RB2 at worst that possesses plenty of PPR and touchdown-heavy league upside. If you’re a Collins owner, it might be time to accept the fact you may have overlooked Allen’s role in Baltimore’s backfield.
Carlos Hyde has dominated the work through Cleveland’s first two contests. With that being said, he has not improved on his lackluster efficiency from a season ago. Hyde has produced 3.7 total fantasy points under expectation on his 41 opportunities so far. Being that we haven’t seen a ton of pass-catching specialist Duke Johnson or 2018 second-round pick Nick Chubb yet, it appears as if it’s only a matter of time before that happens.
For reference, I included both Hyde’s and Johnson’s 2017 campaign metrics in the table to display their efficiency from last year. Johnson was remarkably efficient with his touches, while Hyde accumulated nearly 47 fantasy points under expectation last year. He’s nearly on pace to be that bad again this year.
Some interesting points regarding Cleveland’s offense, however, are the receiving unit being a bit shaken up compared to what it started the season with. Josh Gordon is now a New England Patriot, and Jarvis Landry is dealing with a knee ailment that could potentially hold him out of Thursday’s game against the New York Jets. With this in mind, some more room for receiving usage has opened up for Johnson by way of Gordon’s departure, and even more could be coming if Landry is forced to sit.
Now would be a perfect time to market Hyde’s usage as a selling point and unload him. At the same time, Johnson and Chubb can both be acquired for pennies on the dollar. It’s only a matter of time before they’re both given a shot based on how ineffective Hyde has been.
There’s not a ton to see for Pittsburgh’s backfield outside of second-year RB James Conner. Conner was declared the starter just a couple of days before kickoff, and he has not disappointed after inheriting Le’Veon Bell’s role.
Conner exploded in Week 1 with 192 total yards and two touchdowns on the back of 36 total touches. While he was significantly less effective on the ground in Week 2 (and to be honest, the running game was essentially game-scripted out of that entire contest for both teams), Conner still hauled in another five passes while finding the end-zone for a third time this season.
Conner is the only back worth owning on the Steelers, not counting any teams frantically clinging to Bell somewhere on their bench.
Considering how out of hand Royce Freeman’s average draft position got in September, it’s a bit demoralizing watching undrafted free-agent Phillip Lindsay smash the way he has through two games.
Those who invested third and fourth round draft equity in Freeman can’t be feeling good as they watch Lindsay out-carry, out-rush, and out-target him. Given that Freeman still possesses the bigger body, better fit for short yardage and goal-line work, he is still worth playing when the matchup is right. Lindsay, however, is developing into a legitimate every-week play.
Freeman owners should not hit the panic button just yet. Lindsay’s efficiency on the ground will be difficult to maintain going forward, meaning more opportunity for the big-bodied former Oregon Duck.
Kansas City Chiefs
Kareem Hunt was one of my favorite players to draft going into the 2018 season, and despite the slow start, that hasn’t changed.
Hunt has a dominating share of the carries over his backfield counterparts, out-carrying both Spencer Ware and Damien Williams by a combined 34-5. That being said, he is surprisingly not being utilized through the air nearly as much as he was in 2017. At this point last season, Hunt already had eight catches. He has just one through two games.
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is no joke, tossing 10 touchdowns and no picks through his first two meaningful games as a full-time starter (not counting Week 17 last year). While many are panicking with the hypothesis that Mahomes is a gunslinger, and therefore less likely to check the ball down to Hunt on a regular basis, I’m still extremely optimistic. Hunt is the lead back in one of the league’s most potent offenses. Production is coming, and this could actually be a great time to buy low if the Hunt owner in your league is panicking.
Los Angeles Chargers
Unlike Kansas City, there’s more than just the team’s bell cow that’s worth an investment in LACs backfield. Second-year UDFA Austin Ekeler was remarkably efficient last season before getting hurt, and he’s picking up right where he left off through eight quarters this year.
Ekeler has scored nearly 15 fantasy points over expectation on his 24 touches this season, thanks to some impeccable per touch efficiency in the yardage department. Ekeler should be owned in virtually all formats, but he receives a noticeable boost in PPR. He’s just one injury away from potential bellcow usage.
Melvin Gordon is by no means in danger of losing his job, either. He’s out-targeted Ekeler 20-8, and he’s warranted the majority of the team’s red-zone usage. Gordon scored three touchdowns in Week 2, with two of them coming through the air. Gordon is essentially a WR2 that also gets 15-plus carries a game.
Oakland possesses one of the only backfields throughout the entire NFL that I genuinely don’t want a piece of.
Marshawn Lynch leads the charge with 29 carries and 117 yards from scrimmage, while Jalen Richard leads the backfield in every receiving metric. Neither of those two, nor Doug Martin have necessarily torn the house down in terms of productivity, but Lynch does seem to have the goal-line role on lockdown. If you’re a Lynch owner, keep sliding him in as a RB2 or flex option until the touchdown production slows down.
If I were to throw a dart at anybody else in this backfield it would undoubtedly be Richard in PPR formats, knowing that on any given Sunday he could see between six and 10 targets in the right game script.
Doug Martin doesn’t belong on any rosters at this point.
Those of us who rostered Kenyan Drake in the fourth-round of PPR leagues this season had a pretty good idea of what we were getting into. Drake currently leads the backfield with 25 carries, but the ageless Frank Gore is hot on his trail with 18. Both RBs have run fairly well, but Drake continues to offer more big play potential and upside.
Where Drake breaks away from Gore is in the realm of receiving usage. Drake has caught seven of eight targets for 35 yards, while Gore has seen just a single target. He took that target for 19 yards, however. Regardless, Miami seems committed to using Drake as their primary back with Gore as something of a change of pace.
Gore should certainly be rostered in deeper leagues, given his upside if Drake were to go down. This backfield is going to be interesting to monitor in the coming weeks once 2018 fourth-round draft pick Kalen Ballage is healthy enough to suit up for action.
New England Patriots
New England was one of the most notorious backfields to target for zero-RB drafters over the summer, and it’s been every bit as frustrating as we anticipated.
First-round draft pick Sony Michel missed Week 1, but he was given a strong run in Week 2 with 10 carries and a target. He wasn’t incredibly efficient, but he wasn’t expected to be against the Jacksonville Jaguars defense.
Rex Burkhead has been dealing with a concussion, but he was also cleared to play in Week 2. Burkhead has underwhelmed so far, totaling 5.4 fantasy points under expectation through two weeks of work.
The lone bright spot for the Patriots has been James White, who has been one of the teams best pass catchers for nearly four years running. White is currently first on the team in targets, and second in both catches and receiving yards. He’s not an efficient runner, but he can be utilized as a receiver all over the field. He will continue to have standalone value in PPR leagues going forward.
Above all, I expect Michel to eventually emerge as the most fantasy-relevant RB in this offense. He’s a prime buy-low candidate, as is Burkhead.
New York Jets
It was the Isaiah Crowell show in Week 1 versus the Detroit Lions, as the fifth-year pro went off for 102 yards and two rushing touchdowns, with one of those being a 62-yard house call to ice the game. He was less effective in Week 2, tallying just 39 yards on 14 touches.
Week 2 was all about Bilal Powell, who caught five of six targets for 74 yards and a touchdown. Powell wasn’t very efficient on the ground, taking his five carries for six yards, however. We still love the receiving usage, however, as it’s most certainly something that can continue.
Crowell and Powell are both fantasy relevant for the time being, with the former being the RB you should play in a strong rush defense matchup. Powell will be best deployed against teams with weak linebacking cores that struggle to defend pass catching RBs.
Never, under any circumstances, should you ever roster any Buffalo Bills players.
But for the sake of discussion, let’s look at the data. The long and short of it is, the Bills backfield has been grossly unproductive. Even LeSean McCoy can’t appear to deliver a respectable return on investment in this league-worst offense. In fact, the lone goal-line carry this backfield has seen was put in the hands of Chris Ivory, who was able to convert it for a short touchdown.
As far as receiving usage goes, that still appears to be McCoy’s job for now. Teammate Marcus Murphy has also seen seven targets, but he’s produced 9.3 fantasy points under expectation due to the fact he’s caught just one of them.
McCoy was a player many in the industry were urging players not to draft at his early second-late third round ADP, and at the moment that is appearing to be spot on. This backfield is nearly impossible to trust week to week, and it wouldn’t shock me if McCoy ends up being droppable by Week 6 or 7.
Death, taxes, and Leonard Fournette popping up on the injury report and being labeled as a “game-time decision.”
Fournette was on his way to a nice stat line in Week 1 before leaving in the second quarter due to a hamstring injury. When Fournette is healthy, he is arguably the only RB worth rostering on this team. However, due to his constant injury issues, T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant are suddenly interesting bench options long term.
Both Yeldon and Grant have excelled as receivers, but it’s been Yeldon who’s handled the majority of the early-down work in Fournette’s absence. His versatility as both a runner and a pass catcher makes him a fantastic option in all formats whenever Fournette is forced to miss time.
With all of this in mind, Fournette is expected to play in Week 3.
It’s fair to assume the vast majority of us expected Dion Lewis to lead this backfield in targets and receptions, but not many had that same RB leading Tennessee in carries and rushing yards as well.
Thanks to a tremendous Week 1 debut, Lewis still leads the Titans’ backfield charge despite a pedestrian Week 2. Interestingly enough, it was also Lewis who got the call down near the goal line over the colossal King Derrick Henry.
What does all of this mean? Well, it most certainly isn’t good news for Henry owners. He’s a notoriously game-script-dependent back that needs the perfect situation to produce. Lewis has too much leverage on him due to his abilities as a receiver, and his equal capabilities as a runner.
Lewis is the RB to own in this backfield, but Henry is still getting too much work between the tackles to cut just yet.
Just when we thought we had a strong idea of what this backfield was going to look like, Marlon Mack decides to return from a hamstring injury in Week 2 and warrant his share of the work.
Despite being the least efficient as a runner, Nyheim Hines remains the only RB in this backfield that has found the end-zone in 2018. Hines has also been heavily utilized as a receiver as well, tallying eight catches on 10 targets so far this season.
Fellow rookie Jordan Wilkins currently leads the backfield in both carries and rushing yards, and he too is seeing a fair amount of receiving work with five targets in his first two games as a pro.
Going forward, it wouldn’t shock me if it ends up being Mack that gets phased out of this backfield. A lot will ride on this Week 3 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Despite Alfred Blue vulturing the lone goal-line opportunity this backfield has seen in 2018, this job is and has been Lamar Miller’s to lose.
Blue has yet to record any receiving work and is currently being out-carried by Miller 34-12. Miller has actually run significantly better than he has the past two years with Houston. He’s averaging just below five yards per carry at the moment, and his job appears as safe as anybody’s.
Ideally, we’d like to see Miller garner more receiving usage, and of course those valuable goal-line carries. Blue isn’t worth rostering, but Miller can be consistently fired up as an RB2 on volume alone.