This weekend, we closed the chapter on the NFL preseason and opened Pandora’s box with a flurry of roster cuts and transactions. Among running backs that saw preseason action, over half of them were waived, released, or placed on Injured Reserve on Sunday.
For many players, Sunday’s roster cuts marked the end of their 2019 NFL seasons (practice squad action notwithstanding). However, a few fortunate players found new NFL homes, including LeSean McCoy (Kansas City Chiefs), Devine Ozigbo (Jacksonville Jaguars), and Wendell Smallwood (Washington). Now that the weekend’s madness has (mostly) settled down, let’s take a look at the biggest winners from the preseason and final NFL roster cuts.
In this article, I will highlight fantasy RBs that are mostly unknown commodities or that do not report high redraft ADPs. Accordingly, I’m excluding RBs like Tony Pollard and Darwin Thompson from my analysis, because the fantasy public already knows about their high upside.
The players included in this article should be available near the end of your late-summer redrafts or on the waiver wire for Week 1. You may view this article as a “Zero RB Watchlist” for Week 0.
My RB Criteria and Methods
In order to put together this list of players, I used the following judgment criteria:
- Previous NFL production (as applicable).
- Career college statistics.
- Preseason production.
- Depth chart outlook following NFL roster cuts.
- Team’s projected season-long game script.
My NFL Passing Revolution series prescribes fantasy RB archetypes based on a player’s PPR points distribution (rushing vs. receiving). Players with high PPR (Rec) percentages offer elite upside if they inherit substantial opportunity. Nonetheless, players with high PPR (Rush) percentages may also carve out roles as fantasy RB2s. I utilized this research to project each player’s “super-ceiling” if the metaphorical Red Sea parts and ushers them to an elite team opportunity share.
After evaluating each player’s PPR ceiling, I then used my RB Game Script research to evaluate each player’s potential season-long game script. In short summary, a team’s preseason Vegas win total may be used as a statistically significant predictor for season-long game script. Certain teams’ win totals favor high-volume rushers and others favor high-volume receiving backs. But, most game script conditions favor players with a balanced skillset — a finding that is further reinforced by research from my Passing Revolution series.
Key Metric Definitions
I encourage you to read both of those series in order to better understand my analysis for each of the following players. Nonetheless, below I’ve provided quick definitions for three of the key metrics I will be citing in this article:
PPR (Rec) % — The percentage of a player’s PPR production that comes solely from receiving statistics.
Opps% (Tar) — The percentage of a player’s total opportunities (rush attempts plus targets) that are receiving targets.
Touch% (Rec) — The percentage of a player’s total touches (rush attempts plus receptions) that are receptions. This metric is used as an imperfect proxy for Opps% (Tar) when referencing players’ collegiate production (for which target data is severely limited).
Without further ado, here are my top RB targets entering Week 1.
Tier 1 RB Targets
Benny Snell, Pittsburgh Steelers
I’ll admit: I was skeptical about Benny Snell at first. His collegiate profile does not suggest strong receiving acumen, and I remain concerned about his longterm health due to his bruising running style. However, after a strong preseason showing, I’m sold.
Snell only rushed for 54 yards during the preseason, but he added six receptions for 53 yards on nine targets. That stat-line translates to a PPR (Rec) percentage of 67.7% and an Opps% (Tar) of 24.3%. Both of those metrics are marked improvements over his collegiate production. For context, over his career at Kentucky, Snell recorded a Touch% (Rec) of just 3.8% and a PPR% (Rec) of just 7.0% — both of which are incredibly low.
Snell’s profile as a prolific college rusher and limited pass-catcher mirrors fellow Steelers RB James Conner. Like Snell, Conner amassed over 650 carries and 3,500 rushing yards in college, and he also reported poor receiving metrics: 4.3% Touch (Rec) and 12.2% PPR (Rec). In fact, Conner pops up as one of Snell’s top comparables in our Prospect Box Score Scout.
Also like Snell, Conner’s 2018 preseason stat-line demonstrated Pittsburgh’s faith in his abilities as a receiver. During the 2018 preseason, Conner rushed 19 times for 100 yards and a touchdown and added seven receptions for 61 yards on seven targets. That stat-line translates to an Opps% (Tar) of 26.9% and a PPR% (Rec) of 45.0%.
During the regular season, Conner’s Opps% splits and PPR% splits held true to his preseason form, and he finished the 2018 regular season with an Opps% (Tar) of 24.8% and a PPR% (Rec) of 39.5%.
The similarity between Snell’s and Conner’s statistical and physical profiles is uncanny. And based on both player’s recent preseason campaigns, it is clear that the Steelers are grooming Snell to be a one-for-one replacement for Conner if needed.
I still believe that Snell fits best as an early-down rusher — and the presence of Jaylen Samuels also muddies the waters in Pittsburgh — but I cannot deny the incredible parallels between Snell and Conner. As a result, Snell is the No. 1 RB on my Week 1 watchlist.
Dare Ogunbowale, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Dare Ogunbowale has been the darling of the preseason and has generated plenty of Twitter love over the last month. Now that the Buccaneers have parted ways with Bruce Anderson and Andre Ellington, Ogunbowale’s fandom may turn into a frenzy.
The real question is: Does Ogunbowale’s skill and opportunity warrant all that love? In my opinion, the answer is: Yes.
To recap — for those of you who have rich lives and don’t have time to watch preseason action — Ogunbowale seemingly came out of nowhere to dominate Tampa Bay’s backfield in touches during the preseason. He logged 38 carries for 99 yards and two TDs, and he also hauled in seven catches for 90 yards on nine targets.
His 42.2% preseason PPR (Rec) is in the perfect range for a fantasy RB3. And, given the glaring red flags for Peyton Barber1 and Ronald Jones,2 Ogunbowale has a real shot at meaningful touches this season.
Neil Dutton already wrote up a fantastic piece on Ogunbowale a few weeks ago that examines Ogunbowale’s fantasy upside in far greater depth. Click away from this article for the time being and go read his analysis, because it’s excellent. Ogunbowale’s combination of pass-blocking and pass-catching prowess grant him a clear path to third-down work and beyond in Bruce Arians’ pass-happy offense.
But, since you’re here for my take, I’ll add one statistical nugget for you. Ogunbowale attended college at Wisconsin, which is not a program known for its endearing love of the passing game. So, when a Badgers RB posts meaningful receiving numbers, it’s pretty noteworthy.
Ogunbowale amassed 60 career receptions in his two years as a Badgers RB.3 The only other Wisconsin RB to total at least 60 career receptions over the last 18 years is James White4 — and he turned out pretty okay.
Tier 2 RB Targets
Devine Ozigbo, Jacksonville Jaguars
Devine Ozigbo began his NFL journey as an undrafted free agent for the Saints. Then, after New Orleans waived him on Sunday, Jacksonville quickly snatched him up, along with Tyler Ervin. The Jaguars had previously waived Benny Cunningham, Elijah Hood, and Thomas Rawls, and Alfred Blue was placed on Injured Reserve (ankle).5
Based on his career usage, Ervin seems like a special teams addition rather than a threat to the RB pecking order. That leaves Leonard Fournette, rookie Ryquell Armstead and Ozigbo as the team’s three RBs to start the season. Fournette is the obvious bell cow in the offense, but he also has a notorious injury history. So, Armstead or Ozigbo likely have an above-average shot at intermittent lead-back status contingent on Fournette’s health. Of the two, Ozigbo offers the higher PPR ceiling.
This one comes down to fairly simple math. Through the preseason, Armstead and Ozigbo were neck-and-neck in rushing production. Ozigbo rushed 21 times for 92 yards, and Armstead logged 22 carries for 80 yards. No clear separation there.
But, Ozigbo stands out as a moderate-to-strong receiving option, while the jury is still out on Armstead. Ozigbo earned 10 passing targets through the preseason and caught nine of those passes for 61 yards and a touchdown. Armstead earned five receptions for 15 yards and failed to score on his five targets.
However, the preseason offers us a very limited sample size, so let’s turn to their college production. Armstead recorded a 4.8% Touch (Rec) and 8.7% PPR (Rec) as a Temple Owl. Contrast that with Ozigbo’s 10.5% Touch (Rec) and 22.1% PPR (Rec) at Nebraska. Once again, Ozigbo comes out on top.
Jacksonville parted ways with T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant this offseason, which liberates plenty of RB targets for the Jacksonville backfield. Given Ozigbo’s collegiate pedigree, I’d wager that he factors into the Jaguars passing game over Armstead. And, if — or when — Fournette misses time due to another injury, Ozigbo would offer the more tantalizing fantasy value, even operating in a committee.
T.J. Yeldon, Buffalo Bills
Earlier this offseason, I highlighted Yeldon as my favorite unheralded backup RB entering 2019. So, I’m not gonna lie: It was pretty vindicating to see the Bills part ways with LeSean McCoy this weekend.
On the surface, the Bills’ decision to move on from the six-time Pro-Bowler seems like Buffalo is ready to usher in a new era with rookie Devin Singletary. However, Singletary does not necessarily profile as a franchise workhorse RB. Importantly, he does not boast a strong receiving profile from his college career at Florida Atlantic. In his final collegiate season, he totaled just six receptions in 12 games.
But, I must admit that Singletary showed well in his limited preseason action. He only earned 20 total opportunities, but eight of those were receiving targets. He translated those eight targets into six receptions for 46 yards, earning a very strong 51.0% PPR (Rec) in the process. So, I’m willing to concede that perhaps Singletary was underutilized in college, and he may offer more three-down viability than I initially suspected.
Nonetheless, my original take on Yeldon stands — and moreover is strengthened by McCoy’s release. Below, I’ve reproduced part of my argument from the aforementioned staff article wherein I discuss Buffalo’s backfield situation and Yeldon’s potential upside:
“In four years in the NFL, Yeldon has never recorded less than 40 targets and 30 receptions in a season. And last year – with Leonard Fournette battling hamstring injuries – he set career highs for targets (78), receptions (55), receiving yards (487), and PPR points (173.1). Some may think his sudden increase in PPR value was due to increased carries in relief of Fournette. But, that’s not the case. Instead, 73.0% of Yeldon’s PPR production came via receiving statistics.
In fact, Yeldon’s current backfield committee eerily reminds me of the Dolphins last season with Kenyan Drake, Frank Gore,6 and Kalen Ballage. Drake failed to earn early-down touches, but he was electric as a receiving back and was the only Dolphins RB who offered meaningful fantasy value (PPR RB14).”
Singletary’s preseason receiving usage is concerning, which is why Yeldon is in Tier 2 rather than the top tier. Still, despite Singletary’s presumed RB1 status, the Bills RB room feels pretty open to competition. Yeldon likely offers standalone value due to his excellent receiving skillset — and he’s one injury away from being this season’s version of 2018 Drake. For Zero RB rosters, finding borderline RB2 value off waivers is everything you could hope for.
Tier 3 RB Targets
Dalyn Dawkins, Tennessee Titans
Dalyn Dawkins received extended preseason opportunity to win over the Titans coaching staff, and he was rewarded with a final roster spot over Alex Barnes, Akeem Hunt, and RotoViz-favorite Jeremy McNichols. Dawkins is now competing with incumbent David Fluellen as Tennessee’s RB3. But, Dawkins may have already won that job.
Fluellen reportedly gained weight this offseason in order to rotate at FB, and he also underwent knee surgery in the offseason for an undisclosed injury. So, Fluellen must first achieve a full bill of health, and even then, he may not factor into the backfield as a HB.
Meanwhile, Dawkins thoroughly impressed throughout the preseason as both a rusher and pass-catcher. He ranked seventh among RBs in rushing yards (152) and was third in yards per carry (6.6) among RBs with at least 10 carries. He also added six receptions for 35 yards on eight targets, resulting in a healthy 25.8% Opps (Tar).
The Titans are a Quartile 3 team this season, and the projected season-long game script for Q3 RBs benefits players with a strong receiving skillset. Of course, that projected game script primarily amplifies Dion Lewis’ fantasy projection. However, due to Derrick Henry’s poor career receiving usage, game script could also favor Dawkins if Lewis is sidelined this season.
I’ll admit, Dawkins is a deep stash, but a stash nonetheless. I would’ve been even higher on Barnes or McNichols had they made the team. But if Tennessee prefers Dawkins, I’m willing to offer him similar standing that I would have for Barnes: He’s a Tier 3 Zero RB watch list candidate this season.
DeAndre Washington, Oakland Raiders
Okay, I know that DeAndre Washington isn’t exactly the sexiest name on this list. But, he performed aptly during the preseason — pushing Doug Martin off the team in the process — and is the RB2/RB3 on one of the league’s most rush-happy offenses. On top of that, his career 28.4% Opps (Tar) and 46.3% PPR (Rec) both profile him as a fantasy RB3 if given sufficient volume.
Washington’s college profile also draws some unique player comparables. The list of players with career college stats that are similar to Washington’s7 is relatively short:
Among the players in that list, Mewelde Moore may be the most apt comparison. After a mediocre early career from 2004 to 2007, Moore found new life as a Pittsburgh Steeler in 2008. Running as the RB2 to Willie Parker at the time, Moore amassed 588 rushing yards, 320 receiving yards, and six total TDs en route to PPR RB29 status.
Moore’s 27.5% Opps (Tar) and 46.8% PPR (Rec) that season are almost dead-on for Washington’s career splits. And Moore’s breakout season came at age 26 — which also happens to be Washington’s age entering the 2019 season.
Washington faces stiff competition for touches with rookie Josh Jacobs and veteran Jalen Richard. But, Washington’s profile suggests that he would provide starting fantasy value if either of the Raiders’ other RBs miss time. His Opps% splits are perfect for his projected game script as a Quartile 4 RB. And his PPR% splits are also perfect for his potential workload.
Like I said in my opening line, Washington is not sexy; but, it’s impossible for me to ignore how perfectly his profile matches up with his team situation. So, he remains a low-level target for me.
Reggie Bonnafon, Carolina Panthers
Rookie Jordan Scarlett may be Carolina’s presumed RB2, but it’s difficult to overlook Reggie Bonnafon’s stellar preseason campaign. Against all odds, the undrafted free agent made the Panthers’ 53-man roster, beating out veteran Cameron Artis-Payne and fellow rookie Elijah Holyfield.
Okay, so he made the roster. But what makes him special?
During preseason action, Bonnafon ranked first among all RBs in receptions (13) and receiving yards (139).8 Over half of all of Bonnafon’s opportunities came through the air. His 57.7% Opps (Tar) ranked first among all preseason RBs with at least 15 total opportunities. Meanwhile, Scarlett managed just 17.1% in the same metric.
Sure, these are small sample sizes, but we must often make player judgments on small samples in fantasy football. Furthermore, Bonnafon’s college career supports his viability as a receiving back. At Louisville, he boasted a 17.0% Touch (Rec) and a 45.0% PPR (Rec). Both of those metrics rank in the top-10th percentile in my 267-player sample. For context, Scarlett managed a Touch (Rec) percentage of 4.2% and a PPR (Rec) percentage of 9.1% during his time at Florida.
If, God forbid, Christian McCaffrey suffers injury, Bonnafon’s collegiate profile and preseason production suggests that he will be the chief inheritor of McCaffrey’s receiving volume — not Scarlett. And, as a Quartile 3 RB, receiving aptitude figures prominently into his projected season-long game script. As a result, Bonnafon projects as the preferred McCaffrey handcuff during the season.
Thankfully, most fantasy players will assume that Scarlett will inherit a full workload if McCaffrey is injured, which should enable you to grab Bonnafon off waivers without much competition.
The following players nearly made this list but either have depth chart or game script concerns that weigh down their short-term fantasy outlook. They are still worth monitoring, but only in very deep leagues:
- D’Ernest Johnson, Cleveland Browns
- Dontrell Hilliard, Cleveland Browns
- Dwayne Washington, New Orleans Saints
- Mark Walton, Miami Dolphins
- Mike Boone, Minnesota Vikings
- Qadree Ollison, Atlanta Falcons
- Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers
- Trenton Cannon, New York Jets
- Wendell Smallwood, Washington
Image Credit: Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Dare Ogunbowale.
- Poor efficiency and lack of receiving upside. (back)
- Do I even need to remark on this? (back)
- He began his career as a DB and transitioned to RB towards the end of his sophomore season. (back)
- Who achieved this over four seasons to Ogunbowale’s two. (back)
- Blue is eligible to return after Week 8. (back)
- It is both ironic and hilarious that Gore is included in this comparison. (back)
- At least: 600 rush attempts; 3,000 rushing yards; 120 receptions; and 1,000 receiving yards (back)
- Those totals also ranked ninth and 22nd respectively among all players. (back)