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Ultimate Zero RB Watchlist: AFC Week 3

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.

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 three weeks and project for the coming week.

Be sure to check out Hasan Rahim’s companion piece on the NFC.

AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals 

Giovani Bernard did everything that was expected of him in Week 3. Joe Mixon was sidelined after having minor knee surgery, and he is expected to miss at least another week.

Bernard handled 21 total opportunities (including nine targets) and averaged a respectable 5.1 yards per carry. While he hasn’t been quite as efficient a pass-catcher as Mixon (7.3 receiving fantasy points under expectation), he’s actually been a better rusher.

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Bernard is currently battling a thigh injury, but he is expected to be ready for Sunday’s matchup against the Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta has been the worst team in the NFL at covering receiving backs over the last two years. Bernard is a lock in all formats and could even be a game breaker in DFS this week.

Baltimore Ravens

Control-C on Baltimore’s section of the Week 2 RB report, then Control-P.

Nothing has really changed. Javorius Allen scored another touchdown. Alex Collins did as well. This backfield is still a mess and will be incredibly difficult to predict from week to week. Collins did, however, log his highest total touch count of the season this past week, shouldering 18 carries to go along with three catches.

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Unfortunately for Collins-truthers, Allen isn’t going away. Allen continues to carve generously into Collins’ workload, and he consistently vultures those ever-important goal-line touches.

Up next for the Ravens is a divisional game versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. There will be plenty of scoring chances for these two RBs to score, but I actually think the game script favors Allen.

Cleveland Browns

Carlos Hyde blew up in last week’s comeback win against the New York Jets. Unfortunately for Hyde, his quarterback Baker Mayfield stole the show in the second half by leading the charge.

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It’s actually pretty remarkable to me that Hyde still hasn’t mustered a positive FPoE in the rushing department despite already scoring four touchdowns on the ground so far. The fact of the matter is, 3.3 yards per carry is not going to get it done, and it’s not like Hyde is flashing some form of elite pass-catching ability.

I still believe Duke Johnson and Nick Chubb have been criminally underused, and it’s only a matter of time before they begin to carve generously into Hyde’s workload. I recommended selling high on Hyde and buying the other two low in last week’s column, and I want to reiterate that point again. Hyde’s value after a 23-carry, multi-touchdown performance will never be higher.

Pittsburgh Steelers

After two weeks of Le’Veon Bell-esque usage for James Conner, we finally saw Stevan Ridley get some actual work last Monday night. He made the most of it too, but it was nowhere ear enough to remove Conner from his his throne in this backfield.

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Conner is still the only player worth owning, and it’s looking more and more like he could be a hard-nosed RB1 for the rest of this season. The second-year pro is on pace for 365 total touches this season, with 80 of them being from receptions.

Conner is most certainly a player worth investing in, but it’s going to be tough to acquire him at this point.

AFC West

Denver Broncos

Phillip Lindsay was ejected from Denver’s Week 3 contest versus the Ravens, and Royce Freeman (somewhat) took advantage of the opportunity to lead the charge.

Freeman averaged 4.1 yards per carry and scored a touchdown, but Denver couldn’t pull themselves out of the hole. The offense clearly sputtered with Lindsay off the field, and that should be a massive concern for Freeman-owners.

Neither player is a sell at this point in time, with Lindsay looking like a genuine zero-RB mascot. Freeman can’t be sold solely because you will not get what a player of his caliber is worth in return. Be patient, and let’s see how this backfield plays out in the coming weeks.

Up next is a primetime contest versus the Kansas City Chiefs. Vegas expects a ton of scoring in this one, and I agree, so it’s more than possible that both Lindsay and Freeman can find the end zone in Week 4.

Kansas City Chiefs

Incredible as it is, I’m still not panicking on Kareem Hunt. He’s out carried his backfield-mates 52-6, and he’s the only one of the three to find the end zone (which he’s done three times so far).

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My argument last week was that Patrick Mahomes can’t possibly throw for four touchdowns every single game. The good news is, he only threw three last week, and Hunt just so happened to score twice in that game. I think it’s time for a victory lap, eh fellas?

In all seriousness, there’s cause for concern with Hunt’s receiving usage. He’s only been targeted three times through three games, and he’s nowhere near a pace where he could meet or surpass his 53 receptions from a season ago.

I still don’t think we know what this offense with Mahomes under center is, and neither does the rest of the NFL. Be patient with Hunt. He’ll come through for you down the line.

Los Angeles Chargers

What if I told you that Austin Ekeler only has nine fewer rushing yards than Melvin Gordon this season, and on 19 fewer carries?

The good news is, Gordon is warranting what is essentially WR2-like usage in the passing game. He’s out-targeted Ekeler by 13 through the first three weeks, and the red-zone usage has been all Gordon.

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Gordon actually has four total touchdowns through three games, and he weighs in as the RB3 in PPR behind just Alvin Kamara and Todd Gurley. Gordon is unbenchable, and Ekeler is actually productive and efficient enough to garner flex-appeal in most formats. Both players have performed well above expectation.1

Up next is a home-tilt versus the San Fransisco 49ers, and I expect both backs to be featured heavily in this game.

Oakland Raiders

Finally, an easy backfield to decode.

Oakland has been deploying their RBs almost exactly how we expected them to, with Marshawn Lynch shouldering the heaviest load of work. Lynch has also been the most efficient from a fantasy perspective, mainly because of his touchdown production. He’s the only RB on the team with a positive RuFPOE so far.

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Jalen Richard is the clear-cut pass catcher, with 15 catches on 18 targets through the first three weeks. Doug Martin has served as a change of pace, with 23 total opportunities. Both Lynch and Richard need to be rostered, with Martin being the odd man out.

I said it last week, and I’ll say it again: Martin does not need to be owned in 12-team leagues.

AFC East

Miami Dolphins

While Kenyan Drake continues to lead the charge in terms of rushing attempts, the ghost of Frank Gore is hot on his trail. Drake currently paces Gore by six carries, but neither has done enough to warrant a larger share of the work. The best news for this backfield is that Drake continues to dominate receiving work, garnering 12 total targets to Gore’s one through three weeks.

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The bad news? Kalen Ballage is trending closer and closer towards his NFL debut after being diagnosed with a concussion before the season began. He’s a big RB who caught 83 passes in college. He’s bound to gash into both backs’ workloads upon his return.

I’m still keeping my hopes up for Drake to lead this charge and eventually run away with the job. It could even happen this week against the New England Patriots. Until then, both Gore and Drake should still be owned in all leagues, and it’s almost time to put Ballage on your radar in deeper PPR-leagues.

New England Patriots

Rex Burkhead being placed on injured reserve was one of the most surprising moves going into Week 4. James White can now be viewed as an every-week flex option in virtually all formats, but he receives the largest boost in PPR. With that in mind, White isn’t the RB I’m most excited about in this offense.

Sony SZN. It’s always Sony. The path to volume for Sony is shining bright.

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Okay, that last one was pretty lame. But New England’s first-round pick Sony Michel is ready to rock, and the Patriots have not exactly eased him into the workload. Michel has 29 total opportunities on 36 snaps through the two games he’s been active. With Burkhead now out of the mix, we can only assume he’s being groomed for an even larger chunk of work.

You can start Michel as early as Week 4 against the Dolphins and expect RB2-volume going forward.

New York Jets

Isaiah Crowell being tied for the league-lead in rushing touchdowns with Todd Gurley and Carlos Hyde has to be the biggest fantasy troll of the season so far. The gross production is bound to cool down at some point, considering he is being out-played by Bilal Powell in virtually every other aspect of football.

They distributed the rushing work damn-near even, with Powell being significantly more efficient with 73 yards to Crowell’s 34 in Week 3. Crowell surpassed Powell in the receiving game, but I don’t expect that to be a regular occurrence.

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Both players are worthy of flex consideration week to week while their volume remains steady, but the game script for Week 4 definitely favors Powell. The Jaguars should manhandle Sam Darnold and the Jets, meaning the better pass catcher of the two should win out the snap-share.

Buffalo Bills

Despite their Week 3 routing of the heavily-favored Minnesota Vikings, the Buffalo Bills still have a pretty ugly backfield for fantasy purposes. In LeSean McCoy’s absence, both Chris Ivory and Marcus Murphy got work. It was Ivory that ultimately emerged, taking four catches for 100 yards. Ivory is the only back on the team posting fantasy points over expectation this year, based on his workload.

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McCoy is expected to return in Week 4, which means none of these RBs, save for maybe McCoy in a PPR-league, are playable. Keep expectations low.

AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars

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T.J. Yeldon has dominated the touches since Leonard Fournette went down in the second-quarter of Week 1. Fournette was getting crazy usage in that game, so the second he’s ruled active you can go back to benching Yeldon as you normally would. Don’t drop him, however. Fournette cannot be trusted to stay healthy at this point in time.

Unfortunately for Jacksonville, none of their RBs have blown the doors off in terms of efficiency, with all three relevant backs (the third being Corey Grant) posting negative FPOE totals. Even with that in mind, Fournette was actually garnering tremendous receiving usage in his first game, seeing a fair amount of the third-down work before his departure.

If Fournette plays in Week 4, you start him. He’s matchup-proof, and he could be trending towards the line of game-script proof if JAC continues to utilize him through the air.

Tennessee Titans

The season started three weeks ago, and I’m already reading horror stories about Derrick Henry being dropped. I think that’s an over-reaction, given that Henry has nearly 50 opportunities to start the year. He’s nearly paced Dion Lewis in total volume, although he can’t seem to keep up with his backfield-mate’s efficiency.

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Neither RB — like seemingly every other backfield in the AFC — has managed to post a positive FPOE metric, relative to their workload. Touchdowns have been few and far between for the entire offense, and the team as a whole can’t produce a positive game-script for either Lewis or Henry.

Don’t drop either one. If anything, now could be a good time to buy low. After this week’s matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles, their prices could be the lowest we’ll see them. For what it’s worth, I’ve wanted Lewis over Henry all offseason, and that hasn’t changed as we ascend into Week 4.

Indianapolis Colts

The public may not like it. They may not want to hear it. They may not even care. But Nyheim Hines is on pace for nearly 70 receptions so far, and he’s the only member of the Colts backfield that’s mustering to score above expectation so far this year.

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Jordan Wilkins is looking to be a valuable asset to Indianapolis from a genuine football perspective, but his fantasy numbers are growing more and more discouraging by the second. The upside here is, Marlon Mack is struggling to make his way back onto the field. He was absent in Week 3 after playing the week prior, but he was inefficient (3.4 yards per carry) and only saw two targets in the passing game.

Hines remains a firm buy in PPR leagues, while Wilkins is a hold, because his value is extremely difficult to gauge right now. There is probably a player on the waiver wire with more upside than Mack at this point. If you decided to drop him altogether, I couldn’t blame you.

Houston Texans

It really doesn’t matter if Lamar Miller is overweight, underweight, or whether or not he has his quarterback. He’s going to quietly produce a respectable floor every week, while disappointing his owners with a notoriously low ceiling, relative to volume.

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Alfred Blue has actually been more efficient with his rushing work than Miller has, but at least Miller is shining as a pass catcher. He hasn’t done this in some time, even though it was an ability we aw him flash a ton as a Miami Dolphin.

D’onta Foreman is still on the PUP list and will not be eligible to return until at least Week 7, meaning Miller should be a lock for strong volume every week. The lack of touchdown upside caps his ceiling, but he’s still on pace for over 275 touches in 2018.

  1. Gordon because of touchdowns, and Ekeler because of yardage gained per touch efficiency.  (back)

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