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 7 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 has officially returned to bell-cow status since returning from a minor knee procedure a couple weeks ago. Giovani Bernard remains shelved with a lower-body injury of his own, leaving only Mark Walton to vulture work from the second-year pro.
Mixon has totaled 5.9 fantasy points over expectation over his last two games, averaging over 20 opportunities per game in the process. Mixon should be viewed as a RB1 going forward, and he’s a great option in both standard and PPR formats.
I’ve officially accepted the fact that this backfield is going to be a headache for the entire season. It only makes sense, with both Javorius Allen and Alex Collins warranting work on the ground and through the air.
Collins continues to prove himself as the better ball carrier, totaling 1.5 fantasy points over expectation as a rusher compared to Allen’s 4.8 fantasy points under expectation. Collins also scored two touchdowns in Week 6, which saved an otherwise underwhelming day from a real football perspective. He ran for just 54 yards on 19 carries, and he wasn’t utilized in the passing game.
Both backs should warrant a start in Week 7, as the Ravens face off against New Orleans outdoors in Baltimore. Vegas has this game shooting out, but it wouldn’t surprise me if BAL was able to force NO to play a pace-down game, resulting in fair game scripts for both backs.
What’s left to say about James Conner’s first six games as a starter?
Conner has had the same workload as Le’Veon Bell through the first six weeks of 2017, but the former is obliterating the latter in terms of efficiency. Conner has posted 10.4 fantasy points over expectation with his first 138 touches of the campaign, while Bell mustered 15.4 fantasy points under expectation with similar volume.
The Steelers are on a bye in Week 7, and we still don’t have a rock-solid confirmation that Bell will be returning, although some rumors have indicated that he, in fact, will return to the team. Until we hear otherwise, continue treating Conner like a top-five fantasy RB, with a boost in value in PPR leagues.
I spent longer than I’d ever admit debating on whether to write about how abysmal Carlos Hyde has been with the ball in his hands, or how effective both Duke Johnson and Nick Chubb have been at the same thing.
Chubb delivered arguably the most efficient rushing performance in history, turning three carries into over 100 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Johnson is finally getting involved as well, averaging four targets per game over his last three contests.
I say it every week, but this time I mean it; it’s not a matter of if, but when both Johnson and Chubb own this backfield. In hindsight, it makes sense that Hyde has been so heavily utilized through the first two months of the season. It’s as if the Browns were saving Chubb and Johnson for a second-half surge with Baker Mayfield under center and the defense established as a force.
Phillip Lindsay is finally starting to carve into the receiving role Devontae Booker had somehow earned, officially making him more valuable than Royce Freeman.
Both Freeman and Lindsay are playing great football, posting 6.9 and 4.0 fantasy points over expectation over the last three weeks. Both players should still be owned, but Lindsay is transforming into an every-week must-start.
If his receiving usage continues to grow, we could be looking at a potential league-winner.
Kansas City Chiefs
As arguably Kareem Hunt’s biggest truther going into the 2018 season, (I had him ranked as RB3 in PPR) nothing makes me happier than finally seeing him produce the way we all know he can.
An uptick in receiving usage and a healthy portion of his high-scoring teams touchdowns have propelled Hunt towards the head of the pack. He’s produced 20.7 fantasy points over expectation over the last three weeks, inching himself closer to Melvin Gordon territory, at least in regards to that metric.
Hunt’s now the RB8 in PPR, but he’s the RB4 since the start of Week 2. Spencer Ware and Damien Williams are afterthoughts, with the former being the ideal handcuff if that’s a strategy you believe in. Handcuffing has never been something I push strongly, but in a deeper league it makes sense given the role he’d have if Hunt were to go down.
Los Angeles Chargers
Hopefully that debate about whether or not Gordon was actually better at football than Austin Ekeler has been silenced. And that hurts me to say, because I’ve rostered Ekeler on more than a handful of dynasty leagues over the past year.
Gordon has been an absolute animal over his last three games, totaling 30.3 fantasy points over expectation on 70 opportunities. He’s scored five times over that same span, which has him on pace to score over 20 touchdowns this season.
Ekeler remains an interesting flex option week to week, but there’s no concern whatsoever that he’ll ever surpass Gordon on the depth chart.
Alas, Marshawn Lynch has suffered an injury that head coach Jon Gruden believes could be a long-term issue. With that in mind, there’s nobody in this offense I’d want more after hearing that information than Jalen Richard.
Richard leads the backfield with 19 targets over the last three games, and Lynch frees up 12 on his own. Richard could be looking at potentially eight looks a game through the air alone. Doug Martin is roster-worthy in most formats due to the Lynch news as well, but Richard is a guy I’d be willing to trade for given the circumstance.
The Raiders are an absolute mess right now. Positive Game scripts should be in a surplus for Richard, who is actually the only RB in this offense to post a positive fantasy point over expectation correlation over the last three games.
I want to complain about Kenyan Drake’s criminally low rushing usage over the last three weeks, but it’s hard to defend somebody that fumbles in arguably the highest leverage situation a football game can reach.
The good news is, Drake is garnering the extremely valuable receiving usage with 19 targets over his last three contests. Also good news; Ryan Tannehill will be shelved for at least another week, meaning Brock Osweiler will be under center again in Week 7. Osweiler threw for just 110 air-yards in Week 6, meaning check downs should flow Drakes way.
Frank Gore is somebody that needs to be owned in all formats, but he’s scarier to start, given he doesn’t see any receiving usage. He’s depended on strong rushing performances, which he is definitely capable of churning out.
New England Patriots
Sony Michel, despite being an adequate pass catcher in college, is looking more like LeGarrette Blount based on the way New England is using him. Michel is dominating the rushing load with 67 carries over his last three games. He’s turned over 20 carries per game into 5.4 fantasy points over expectation, not factoring in his two targets.
I still view James White as the more valuable commodity. His 31 targets over the last three games lead the position by a significant margin, and he’s not immune to goal line work either. Both Michel and White are viable RB2s, and it could remain that way through the end of the season.
Up next, the dynamic Patriots duo will take on the Chicago Bears, who just gave up nearly 200 yards of total offense to the Dolphins backfield in Week 6.
New York Jets
The New York Jets backfield can actually be considered a poor-mans Baltimore Ravens backfield.
Isaiah Crowell’s rushing stat line is still grossly inflated by that 200 rushing yard performance against the Denver Broncos in Week 5. Both him and Bilal Powell are two players I’d genuinely be scared to own, knowing I’d struggle every week on getting either of them right.
The Jets take on the Vikings in Week 7 in the Meadowlands, making both of these guys options I’d shy away from. The implied total for this game is actually pretty high at 47, so in a pinch one of these guys could have a strong shot at scoring a touchdown.
Are there still fantasy players starting guys on the Buffalo Bills? Oh goodness, I hope not.
LeSean McCoy is actually starting to produce, albeit at a RB3-level. You can’t really complain about nearly 60 opportunities over a three-week span. You can, however, complain about nearly 11 fantasy points under expectation with that workload.
Chris Ivory hasn’t been much better, and It’s unclear whether or not the Josh Allen injury will have a positive or negative effect on this backfield. McCoy should only be started in desperate situations, and Ivory doesn’t need to be rostered in anything smaller than 16-team leagues.
Jamaal Charles was brought in before the start of Week 6 to help ease some of the stress off T.J. Yeldon, who had been smashing more often than not since the Leonard Fournette injury.
Fournette is still expected to miss some time, and Yeldon is still very much this offenses best option at RB. Blake Bortles needs to play better for Yeldon to have any legitimate chance at scoring touchdowns, but his six targets per game over the last three weeks remain extremely valuable in PPR leagues. Yeldon has nearly 16 fantasy points over expectation on that receiving usage, meaning most of his volume shouldn’t be in jeopardy despite the Charles acquisition.
Jacksonville opens Week 7 as five-point home favorites against the Houston Texans. It wouldn’t shock me to see that line move upward, implying an uptick in scoring this coming Sunday. Start Yeldon as a high end RB2 in all formats, and don’t be afraid to go right back to him in DFS.
It’s borderline depressing to watch this backfield perform so poorly, and many of its problems can be linked to sub-par quarterback play from Marcus Mariota. Still, not even generous receiving usage can save Dion Lewis.
Derrick Henry has actually been more efficient on a per-opportunity basis since Week 4, but we have Lewis’ two yards per carry average to thank in that regard.
Neither of these backs should be in starting lineups until we see an ounce of consistency. They’re both notoriously game script dependent, and the offense as a whole is in a massive rut.
To the surprise of virtually nobody, Alfred Blue hasn’t been very good while Lamar Miller has been nursing an injury. Neither of these backs have produced at a high level this year, but the offensive line in front of them is a mess, and the unit as a whole flows through quarterback Deshaun Watson’s arm as is.
Both RBs weigh in under expectation over the last three games, with Blue being significantly less efficient despite drawing the lion’s share of the volume. HOU is another candidate for biggest backfield to avoid right now, but continue to keep an eye on D’Onta Foreman. He might still be out there on your waiver wire.
Marlon Mack saw a hefty dose of action in his first game in a month, drawing 14 opportunities. He was fairly efficient with the rushing work, running for 89 yards on 12 carries and coming in at a half-point over expectation in that regard. He turned his two targets into 3.1 fantasy points under expectation, meaning Nyheim Hines receiving work should be safe for at least the time being.
Jordan Wilkins is no longer worth a roster spot. With that in mind, Hines remains the back I’d most want to own based on his receiving usage and efficiency. T.Y. Hilton returning hurts, and obviously Mack will continue to carve into his workload as well.
IND gets Buffalo on the road, and they opened as 7.5-point favorites. This screams trap-game to me, even with Josh Allen being out. This could be a Mack-heavy game if he gets off to a strong start on the ground. Both him and Hines are startable this week, but keep expectations in check.