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Ultimate Zero RB Watchlist: AFC Week 4

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.

For two weeks now I’ve been suggesting to buy low on both Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson in this weekly column. Well, the door to acquire Chubb on the cheap has just closed. Time is running out. You should probably go trade for Johnson while you still can, because there’s no way Carlos Hyde can keep a grip on that backfield for much longer.

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.

AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals

Death, taxes, and Giovani Bernard smash-games when Joe Mixon is out of the lineup.

Bernard had himself a day once again against the Atlanta Falcons, who have struggled immensely versus running backs that resemble the six-year veteran scat back.

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Of course, these metrics are so lopsided because Mixon has missed the last two contests, and he was rushed in and out of the Week 2 matchup against Baltimore. Bernard has still played great football on the ground, regardless. Three touchdowns and a respectable 4.5 yards per carry have accrued to 11.5 fantasy points over expectation for Bernard. Astonishingly, Bernard hasn’t been efficient as a pass-catcher, totaling 5.6 fantasy points under expectation through four games. Receiving was an aspect Mixon was off to a strong start in.

Mixon is back at practice this week, so it appears our fun with Bernard is over. Mixon was warranting bell-cow usage before he was forced out three weeks ago, meaning Bernard can assume his regular spot back on your bench.

Baltimore Ravens

There might not be a more equally distributed load of RB work than what we have up in Baltimore. Both Javorius Allen and Alex Collins continue to split work. Our eye-test might suggest that Collins is the far superior back, but to suggest Allen isn’t playing some of the best football of his career would be misguided.

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Allen continues to pace Collins in efficiency, totaling 6.5 fantasy points over expectation thanks to his extremely valuable red-zone usage. Collins is right behind him at 3.9 fantasy points over expectation, with touchdowns being the outlier factor. Collins is smoking Allen on a per opportunity basis, averaging 4.1 yards per opportunity compared to Allen’s 3.3.

Allen has nearly double the targets that Collins has, but Collins has the clear edge as a ball carrier between the tackles. Continue starting these players as you normally would, but view them as a flex option. Neither appear to have the ceiling of a RB2 at the moment.

Pittsburgh Steelers

James Conner has a clear stranglehold on the RB usage in this backfield. Because of his gross volume through the first month of the season, I’d actually like to compare what he’s done to Le’Veon Bell’s first four weeks of the 2017 season.

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Whether or not the Steelers genuinely miss Bell is an interesting topic of discussion. On the surface, and upon diving deeper into the data, I’d say no. Conner has played well for a second-year player that barely touched the football his rookie year. He’s been every bit as efficient with his touches as Bell was over the same span last year, and he’s actually been better from a fantasy perspective. At this point last year, Bell was posting a 13.3 fantasy points under expectation stat line, while Conner is flashing a half-point above expectation.

Rumors are circulating that Bell could be returning after Pittsburgh’s Week 7 bye. Whether he does or not, I’m currently holding Conner wherever I have him. This is still by no means a pretty situation, and I’m more than willing to take the chance on potentially having Conner’s insane usage in my lineups come November and December.

Cleveland Browns

This is the piece of the article I’ve been ecstatic to write about since Sunday. Nick Chubb flashed some of that stellar elusiveness that made him a worthy-second round draft pick for Cleveland this past April. Chubb ran for 105 yards and two touchdowns on just three carries.

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Whether or not this incredible performance on limited volume is an indicative of future usage for Chubb, one thing is for certain: if you didn’t invest in Chubb before Week 4, you’ve officially missed the opportunity.

Hyde currently leads the NFL in carries, but I’m still considering him a hard sell right now. Despite his 90 touches and five touchdowns, Hyde is still dead last on his team in total efficiency, mustering a despicable 10.8 fantasy points under expectation. Chubb gives the entire unit more upside, and it would be a disservice to Baker Mayfield to force him to keep handing the ball off to an inferior runner when they have one of the 2018 draft classes best pure runners standing on the sidelines.

One more thing: Duke Johnson is still a buy-low. He posted season-highs in both catches and receiving yards in Week 4, and he also connected with Mayfield on a two-point conversion.

AFC West

Denver Broncos

I may have written this before, but Phillip Lindsay continues to get all the attention while Royce Freeman continues to play great football.

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Lindsay has been better, and I’m not denying that. There’s no reason to believe these two can’t continue to dominate the rushing load going forward. What I can’t seem to figure out, however, is why Vance Joseph is so insistent on using Devontae Booker as the primary passing down back. Booker leaders the backfield with nine targets, despite ranking dead-last in efficiency at 1.8 receiving fantasy points under expectation.

Both Freeman and Lindsay have been good enough with the ball in their hands to warrant that chunk of pass-catching work. I know we’d all appreciate it as fantasy owners, but it actually makes sense for the team’s per-touch efficiency and production.

Kansas City Chiefs

The Kareem Hunt smash-game I’ve been patiently waiting for finally happened, and I’ll be victory lapping about this for the next several weeks. If you follow me on Twitter, I suggest unfollowing.

Just kidding. But it sure was great to see Hunt set a season-high in targets (he saw four) and completely take over the game to the tune of 175 yards from scrimmage and a score on 23 touches. Hunt now has four touchdowns over his last three games.

Oh ya, I almost forgot there were other players in this backfield. Spencer Ware and Damien Williams continue to be afterthoughts, logging a combined two touches between them last Monday. Interestingly enough, the two did cut into Hunt’s snap share, but that could be related to the fact KC ran close to 90 plays on MNF.

Hunt is the RB4 since the start of Week 2, and he’s the only RB on this team worth rostering. If you insist on rostering a handcuff, Ware is your man.

Los Angeles Chargers

There’s a gross amount of opportunity in this backfield, ladies and gentlemen.

Austin Ekeler is molding into an every-week play, while Melvin Gordon is using his WR2-esque receiving usage on top of his bell-cow rushing work to put together one of the best fantasy seasons we’ve seen in a while. If it weren’t for Alvin Kamara’s genuinely historic start to his 2018 campaign, Gordon would certainly be all the rage.

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Both Ekeler and Gordon are making cases for themselves explaining why they can’t be taken off the field. They’re both totaling more than 20 fantasy points over expectation this season, which is ridiculous since they’re on the same team. Gordon’s fantasy efficiency is due in part with his wild red-zone conversion rate, while Ekeler is scoring fantasy points by being virtually impossible to take down with the ball in his hands.

These two are in for another glorious showing against the Raiders, who can’t keep opposing RBs out of their end zone.

Oakland Raiders

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Marshawn Lynch continues to dominate the rushing work, and he quietly weighs in as the RB8 in PPR despite only seeing 12 targets through September. Jalen Richard has nearly doubled that usage with 23, and he’s been more efficient with the aerial work he’s season. Doug Martin remains this backfields black sheep.

What I find interesting about Week 4, however, is the fact this game script versus the Cleveland Browns should have favored Richard. Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 10.41.36 PM

Lynch saw a season-high five targets on top of his 20 carries, which he took for an additional 130 yards. Lynch is playing as well has he ever has, and it’ll take an injury to relinquish his grip on workhorse duties in Oakland.

AFC East

Miami Dolphins

Fellow Kenyan Drake owners, there’s only one thing to do right now, since Frank Gore has paced him in usage over the last two weeks: first, panic. Then try not to cry. Finally, cry. A lot.

Gore has surpassed Drake in usage since the start of Week 3, totaling 20 opportunities to Drakes 14. Kalen Ballage has officially been added to the mix as well, but he’s clearly being eased into action.

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This backfield is getting uglier by the day. Drake cannot be relied on by any means, even in PPR. Gore can’t either. Fade the entire offense until head coach Adam Gase realizes that 14 opportunities in two games for your most talented player is unacceptable.

New England Patriots

#SonySZN is in full swing. And no, I will not apologize for using SZN in an article. Let people enjoy things.

Naturally, we’d love to see more receiving work from a RB we know can handle a hefty dose of it. Sony Michel was one of the best pass-catchers in his class, but he simply can’t surpass James White in efficiency. White, himself, has totaled a whopping 21 fantasy points over expectation over the last two games. Michel clearly trails him in efficiency, posting 5.6 fantasy points under expectation based on his usage.

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Interestingly, it doesn’t appear as if Julian Edelman’s return will effect White’s receiving usage. Over the last two seasons, White’s still seen close to 5.5 targets per game with Edelman in the lineup, compared to just over 5.5 with Edelman off the field. This is great news.Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 11.07.10 PM

White could actually be a great buy-low candidate if he lays an egg on Thursday versus the Colts. The masses could panic, thinking Edelman’s presence caused the regression. Knowing what you know from this column, don’t hesitate to trade for him.

New York Jets

In regards to per-touch efficiency, these two backs aren’t even close to each other.

Bilal Powell is dominating from a yardage perspective, posting 125 total yards on his last 30 opportunities. Isaiah Crowell’s 54 total yards on 24 opportunities are . . . underwhelming to say the least.

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Crowell has kept his fantasy value afloat by falling into the end zone. He’s scored four times on the season, with a pair of multi-TD performances. Crowell is notoriously TD-dependent, but Powell can actually be relied on as a potential PPR commodity in deeper leagues.

Regardless, it’s not a backfield I’m jumping to invest in. Quarterback Sam Darnold’s development is this offense’s priority right now, and genuine opportunity for the backfield as a whole will be hard to come by based on that.

Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo backfield is in a similar position as the Jets’, only about 100 times uglier. If you’re a LeSean McCoy owner, you’re likely sick to your stomach over that late-second or early-third round pick you invested to acquire him, assuming his elite usage would correlate with fantasy production this year. You were, unfortunately, misled. Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 11.18.48 PM

McCoy saw more targets than he did carries in Week 4. He was actually out-carried by Chris Ivory. More targets sounds nice on paper, but he produced close to six fantasy points under expectation on those opportunities.

Rookie quarterback Josh Allen continues to develop, and he’s going to have some excruciatingly ugly games to watch during his process. This will correlate with the success (or lack thereof) for the Bills backfield. I actually view their Week 5 matchup as something of a trap-game for the Titans. I still wouldn’t start any player on this team unless I was tear-jerkingly desperate, but you really could do worse than a RB that should see another 4 to 6 targets.

AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars

Leonard Fournette has been ruled out for Week 5, and he’s not out of the woods for the following week either. This is another great opportunity for T.J. Yeldon to prove he’s the more complete back. There’s just something poetic and beautiful about Blake Bortles setting defenses on fire whenever Fournette is out of the lineup, and I believe Yeldon’s presence and prowess as a pass-catcher is partly responsible.Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 11.27.44 PM

Is there anything better than hearing the words ‘fire up Bortles in cash games’ during the week? Not for me.

Anyway, The gap between Yeldon and Corey Grant continues to grow. There’s an argument to be made for Yeldon being this teams best running back, and it start with how great he is as a receiver. Yeldon comes into Week 5 just barely above expectation, totaling 0.4 points in that category. Grant has totaled 4.4 fantasy points under expectation on 24 opportunities. Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 11.30.42 PM

Will Fournette ever be 100-percent healthy? Nobody actually knows. But we do know this Week 5 matchup against the Chiefs could easily shoot out. Fire up Yeldon as you normally would. Bortles, Keelan Cole, and Dede Westbrook are all in play as well.

Tennessee Titans

What was once expected to be a productive backfield has slowed to a screeching halt. While Dion Lewis continues to see valuable receiving usage, Derrick Henry dominates the rushing work. He’s been the better ball carrier as we’ll, although neither has been noticeably good over the last two weeks.

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I still expect Lewis to lead this backfield in fantasy points by seasons end, but it’s hard to say. There’s just not a lot of opportunity to go around for one back, let alone two.

Houston Texans

Oh look. Another backfield with virtually no fantasy opportunity to divvy out.

Lamar Miller leads the charge with 31 opportunities over the last two weeks, but Alfred Blue is hot on his trail with 20 of his own. Blue has actually been the better rusher with 3.3 fantasy points under expectation. That says a lot about Miller, given that Blue is pacing him despite being negative in the category himself.

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Miller has been the far better pass catcher, but there’s only been ten total targets directed at RBs between the two of them. Deshaun Watson is insistent on pushing the ball downfield, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The young quarterback is playing good football, and he doesn’t need his RBs to make an impact.

Blue was never worthy of a roster spot, but it’s time to bench Miller. Keep an eye on D’Onta Foreman. He’ll have a role in this offense as soon as he’s activated.

Indianapolis Colts

Nyheim Hines now has games of 5, 7, and 9 catches to start the season, and he’s also found his way into the end zone three times. Jordan Wilkins isn’t having such luck, totaling 5.7 fantasy points under expectation to start his career.

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Marlon Mack continues to struggle his way back onto the field. He’s already ruled out for Week 5, and his status for Week 6 is still very much in question. The only back worth playing on this team is Hines, who’s averaged 12.5 opportunities per game over his last two contests. The receiving usage is worth its weight in gold for a back drafted as low as Hines was. Fire him up in Week 5, but keep some flexibility and avoid locking his Thursday night performance into your flex position.

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