Welcome to Week 2 of the Ultimate Zero RB Watchlist: AFC Edition. The Watch List helps you find running back targets for your Zero RB teams before anyone else even knows about them. 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.
Top-Performing AFC Backups from Week 1
In my forthcoming discussion, I’ll be utilizing the RotoViz Screener to report volume and efficiency metrics for each player, including ruEP, ruFPOE, reEP, and reFPOE. My colleague Hasan Rahim explains these metrics excellently in his Week 1 Ultimate Zero RB Watchlist from last season, so I’ve reproduced his comments below:
“Note that I’ll be utilizing rushing expected points (ruEP) and receiving expected points (reEP) as a way to measure the value of a player’s workload. Expected points is a metric derived from the average fantasy point total a carry or target would be worth based on down, distance, and field position.
Fantasy points over expectation (FPOE) is a measure of efficiency. The metric takes the player’s actual fantasy points, and subtracts out the expected points, in essence leaving us with an indication of how efficient or inefficient a player was with his touches.
Keep in mind that we’ve only seen one week of action, and the sample sizes are tiny.”
Among the AFC RBs in this list, Gus Edwards earned the most rush attempts and by far the highest ruEP. But he earned those carries in garbage time as the Ravens blew out the Dolphins. Nonetheless, the value of his attempts raises his profile as a strong backup option. Carlos Hyde and LeSean McCoy also stand out as strong rushing contributors, while Rex Burkhead and James White impressed as receiving backs.
Frank Gore may be the Bills’ current starter, but it’s going to be difficult to hold off Devin Singletary for very long. I was initially concerned about Singletary’s fantasy potential due to his poor college receiving profile. But he earned eight preseason targets out of 20 total opportunities and doubled down in Week 1 with six more targets. The Buffalo coaching staff clearly values him as a receiving option, which elevates his fantasy profile exponentially. His current 53.4% PPR (Rec) from preseason and Week 1 action is precisely in line with a future fantasy RB1.
Gore’s at the end of his career and should fad down the stretch. The only potential threat to Singletary’s workload would be T.J. Yeldon, but he failed to record an offensive statistic in Week 1.
It’s totally possible that the Dolphins simply do not have an NFL-caliber starting RB on their roster. Alternatively, Miami may not have an offensive line unit capable of sustaining viable fantasy production for its RBs. Either way, Miami’s RB situation is a mess. Kalen Ballage rushed for negative one yard on five attempts, and Kenyan Drake delivered mediocre efficiency on his seven opportunities.
The Dolphins’ preseason game logs suggest that Mark Walton has the inside track to RB3 status, which was at least partially confirmed by his single carry in Week 1. Myles Gaskin and Patrick Laird also lurk deeper down the depth chart, and both players have strong receiving profiles from their college careers at Washington and California respectively.
New England Patriots
Sony Michel’s Week 1 performance exemplifies why I highlighted him as a “sell” candidate for 2019. His inefficiency notwithstanding, Michel is too receiving-averse to sustain elite production in a Quartile 1 game script. Meanwhile, Rex Burkhead came out of nowhere to deliver 85 total yards on 16 opportunities, and James White delivered a typical receiving-heavy performance. Brandon Bolden and Damien Harris appear to be depth chart fodder for the time being, and White is the only Patriots RB I trust on a game to game basis.
Nonetheless, Burkhead’s performance is strong enough to warrant a speculative add. If Michel suffers injury, Burkhead is poised to take over early-down duties, and his goal-line and receiving acumen would make him a strong fantasy starter.
New York Jets
Le’Veon Bell looked like the 2017 version of himself in Week 1, garnering 26 total opportunities and nine receiving targets. The Jets offense will flow through him barring injury. Behind Bell, Ty Montgomery has locked up his role as the team’s No. 2, effectively driving Elijah McGuire off the team through preseason play. Trenton Cannon possesses a strong PPR (Rec) profile and collegiate receiving acumen, but he’s likely most valuable as a special teams player.
Mark Ingram performed excellently as the new Ravens starter, rushing 14 times for 107 yards and two TDs. Edwards replaced Ingram in garbage time and was horribly inefficient by comparison. Rookie Justice Hill managed just seven carries to Edwards’ 17, which is disconcerting for those hoping for Hill’s rookie breakout.
Baltimore’s RBs racked up huge rushing yardage but failed to record a single receiving target. That lack of receiving upside makes this backfield extremely game script dependent. Edwards projects as a viable fill-in starter, but don’t expect elite upside from any Ravens RBs this season.
Joe Mixon suffered a left ankle sprain against the Seahawks, which is the last thing Cincinnati needed to start their 2019 season. The Bengals RB room was already painfully thin, having lost rookies Rodney Anderson and Trayveon Williams to preseason injuries. Now, ol’ reliable Giovani Bernard once again takes the reins, and he has historically performed well without Mixon in the lineup.
Cincinnati has been notorious in recent years for abandoning the running game, which could hamper Bernard’s short term upside. Nonetheless, Samaje Perine likely poses limited threat to Bernard’s opportunity share, so fire him up at your flex spot until Mixon is cleared to return.
Those who invested in Nick Chubb were relieved to see him command 20 opportunities (and four targets) against the Titans. He may not have put up a stellar PPR performance, but Cleveland was also trailing for most of the game. What’s important here is that Chubb stayed on the field, only conceding seven total opportunities to D’Ernest Johnson and Dontrell Hilliard.
The two Browns backups failed to differentiate themselves through preseason play, and they once again split work in Week 1. Both have relatively similar collegiate profiles as strong receiving options, so choosing between them is likely splitting hairs. They should continue to operate as a committee reserve unit until Kareem Hunt returns from suspension.
James Conner was woefully inefficient against the Patriots, but he did draw four targets and converted them into 44 yards. Jaylen Samuels has not yet made a second-year leap and did not factor into the Pittsburgh passing game as much as I hoped. Benny Snell Jr. did not contribute on offense, but he still projects as the top replacement option if Conner suffers injury. Samuels will likely maintain volatile week to week value as a standalone option, but he’s more of an H-back than a true RB. For Zero RB purposes, Snell is still the player to stash on your bench.
Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson operated in a 50-50 rushing split, but Johnson dominated backfield receiving targets. Altogether, that workload distribution benefits Johnson. We already know his value as a receiving back, but we’ve yet to witness his abilities as a go-to rusher. A 50% rushing split is better than he ever received in Cleveland, so Johnson owners should rejoice.
Hyde has a stronger receiving history than people give him credit for, but he’s also rather inefficient as a pass-catcher. The presence of Johnson on the roster likely relegates Hyde to early-down duties, which caps his weekly potential. Continue to ride Johnson, but keep Hyde on your watch list due to Houston’s rush-heavy offensive scheme.
Marlon Mack exploded with a 25-174-1 rushing performance against the Chargers stout defense. Nyheim Hines chipped in 17 total yards on eight opportunities, but Jordan Wilkins failed to see action. Mack will continue to be the Colts’ workhorse, but Hines is a standalone option that would inherit tremendous opportunity if Mack suffers injury. Indianapolis’ RB room is already thin after injuries to Jonathan Williams and Spencer Ware, which further elevates Hines’ ceiling as a replacement option.
Leonard Fournette was inefficient with his 19 Week 1 opportunities, but there is still cause for optimism. His six receiving targets are encouraging, and the injury to Nick Foles may result in a more run-heavy game plan for the rest of the season. Moreover, Ryquell Armstead was underwhelming in preseason action and does not possess a strong collegiate receiving profile.
Of course, Fournette has a notoriously injury-filled playing history. If — or when — he misses time this season, Devine Ozigbo is the back I want to own due to his receiving acumen. As I discussed in my preseason Week 0 watchlist:
“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.
[..] 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.”
Derrick Henry achieved a 75% share of the Titans backfield opportunities, which is a grand departure from the near 50-50 split Henry and Dion Lewis achieved last season.1 Lewis still managed four receiving targets, but he only translated those opportunities into six yards.
David Fluellen and Daryl Dawkins do not pose much threat as competition for Lewis’ role, but Henry’s swelling volume limits Lewis’ standalone value. Lewis proved in 2017 in New England that he can handle a full workload, so he remains an excellent stash on Zero RB teams. Nonetheless, his current season outlook is not as enticing as years past.
Royce Freeman out-gained Philip Lindsay 56 to 43 on the ground and received more efficient rushing opportunities. However, Lindsay dominated receiving targets (6) and reEP (9.5). Despite Freeman’s NFL usage, he does possess serviceable value as a pass-catcher. During his four-year career at Oregon, Freeman caught 79 passes for 814 yards and four TDs. Lindsay may own the backfield receiving targets for now, but if he suffers injury, Freeman should be able to replicate that production.
Be advised that Theo Riddick returns from Injured Reserve in Week 10, which could shake up the RB rotation.
Kansas City Chiefs
To my dismay, LeSean McCoy firmly asserted himself as the Chief’s No. 2 RB in Week 1, thereby relegating Darwin Thompson to reserve duty. Damien Williams achieved 18.5 PPR points despite only rushing for 26 yards, proving his value as an electric receiver and playmaker. McCoy and Williams should continue to work in a backfield committee, and Thompson may only attain fantasy relevance if either of Kansas City’s top RBs suffer injury. Despite Andy Reid’s offseason commendations to the contrary, Darrel Williams remains a non-factor.
Los Angeles Chargers
This offseason I explained why Austin Ekeler’s statistical profile is stunningly similar to Alvin Kamara’s. His 144-yard, three TD performance in Week 1 is no fluke.
We shouldn’t expect Ekeler to put up 39.4 PPR points each week, but his Week 1 opportunity share is squarely in line with our projections. Justin Jackson remains a viable standalone option in the offense, but Ekeler should command higher-value receiving work in the offense. However, after Jackson, the Chargers really don’t have any RB depth. Troymaine Pope is mostly a special teams player, and Derek Watt is a dedicated fullback.
If you were lucky enough to draft Ekeler, congratulations. But if you didn’t, then be sure to pick up Jackson this week.
In one game, Jacobs dispelled all doubts over his potential workload, rushing 23 times for 85 yards and two TDs. Backups DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard barely saw the field, and neither recorded a receiving target. The Raiders backfield is somewhat similar to the Browns, featuring an elite workhorse RB1 and two reserve RBs fighting for fantasy viability as pass-catchers. Richard still projects as the stronger Zero-RB prospect due to his historical receiving usage, but the emergence of Darren Waller raises concerns over Richard’s potential usage this season.
Be sure to check out the NFC Edition for Week 2, as well as my Week 0 Watchlist from preseason action. My NFL Week 1 RB Market Share Report also provides advanced metrics for all NFL running backs and may serve as a helpful companion piece to this Watchlist.
Image Credit: Russell Lansford/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Royce Freeman.
- Henry earned 233 opportunities to Lewis’ 222 in 2018. (back)