Welcome to Week 2 of the Ultimate Zero RB Watchlist: NFC 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 NFC 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 NFC RBs in this list, Malcolm Brown and Ronald Jones report the highest ruEP, which signals that each of their teams utilized them in high-value rushing situations. Brown also ranks highest in ruFPOE (7.4) with Latavius Murray close behind at 7.3.
Chris Thompson and Tarik Cohen stand out due to their high target volumes and receiving proficiency. Cohen is likely rostered in every redraft league, but Thompson may still be available as an arbitrage version of Cohen.
Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard each earned 13 carries in Week 1, but we should not expect a 50-50 split to be the norm in Dallas. Instead, the Cowboys likely wanted an extended look at Pollard due to the team’s poor RB depth. Elliott and Pollard are the only active RBs on the roster. Beyond them, fullback Jamize Olawale would be the de facto RB3.
Surprisingly, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore failed to target Pollard in the passing game. This is a bit odd considering Pollard’s elite college receiving profile. As the season progresses, I expect Elliott to regain his stranglehold on the team’s rushing share, but I’m taking a “wait and see” approach to the distribution of passing targets. Pollard should find value as a Chris Thompson-like rotational player, but it’s hard to project usage in Moore’s new offensive system. Nonetheless, due to the shallowness of Dallas’ depth chart, Pollard remains a priority hold on Zero-RB squads.
New York Giants
Saquon Barkley did Saquon Barkley-like things in Week 1, amassing 139 total yards on just 15 touches. Though his rushing volume was subpar in Week 1, he is still the Giants’ primary offensive weapon and should command an exorbitant share of the team’s rushing and receiving shares.
Of course, due to the high value of Barkley’s role and the limited skill position weapons around him, New York’s backup situation is of great interest to Zero-RB teams. Wayne Gallman, Elijhaa Penny, and Paul Perkins are battling for RB2 duties in New York, and historical data suggests that Gallman is the back to own.
Though Gallman’s career sample size is still very small, his career 49.3% PPR (Rec) is a dead-ringer for Barkley (48.7%). His notable player comps include Ronald Jones (49.8%), Elijah McGuire (49.3%), Chase Edmonds (48.0%), and Justin Jackson (46.6%). He also helped his case in Week 1 by posting positive FPOE marks both rushing and receiving.
As speculated during the offseason, Miles Sanders is the back to own in Philadelphia. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he has an inside track to full-time work. Head coach Doug Pederson has a long track record of employing a committee backfield approach, and he held true to form in Week 1.
But, it wasn’t a “typical” committee wherein one RB dominated early-down work while another rotated in on third downs. Instead, Sanders, Darren Sproles, and Jordan Howard each factored into both facets of the offensive game plan. At the moment, it seems Corey Clement is the odd man out of the rotation.
Sanders and Howard are likely unavailable in your leagues, but Sproles is a priority add given his pedigree and Week 1 usage.
Entering the season, it was difficult to imagine that many Washington players would project as viable fantasy producers. After Washington put up 408 total yards and 27 points against the Eagles, perhaps we need to reconsider.
Adrian Peterson was a healthy scratch, starter Derrius Guice suffered a meniscus injury,1 and newcomer Wendell Smallwood failed to register an offensive statistic. So, whether by design or by necessity, Chris Thompson logged 13 touches for 78 yards and a team-high 10 targets. Thompson’s receiving performance should already raise eyebrows, and Guice’s knee injury seals the deal: Thompson should be added in all leagues.
Chicago’s backfield situation is about as messy as Philadelphia’s — minus the proficiency. And if you think that’s a bit harsh, you clearly didn’t watch Thursday night’s game against the Packers. Mike Davis shocked everyone by earning the Week 1 start, Tarik Cohen didn’t record a single rush attempt,2 and Cordarrelle Patterson even got into the mix. To the malign of fantasy owners, David Montgomery only recorded seven total opportunities. Like the rest of the Bears offense, he did very little with those touches.
Davis and Cohen combined for a staggering 17 targets, which raises concern about Montgomery’s potential receiving workload. Then again, maybe Week 1 was simply a weird game, and those 17 targets could hint at ample receiving targets for the entire backfield this season. Either way, Davis appears to have earned a stable role in the offense and likely deserves a speculative add. If Montgomery suffers injury, Davis would be first in line to absorb Chicago’s rushing volume. Kerrith Whyte Jr. remains buried on the team’s depth chart.
Kerryon Johnson logged an above-average 18 opportunities, which is encouraging for his season-long usage. However, backup C.J. Anderson also commanded a 34% rushing share. Anderson proved last season in Los Angeles that he can be an effective fill-in option, and he is clearly more than just a footnote in Detroit’s offensive game plan. He lacks receiving upside, which stunts his overall potential, but nonetheless could pose a meaningful threat to Johnson’s sophomore breakout campaign. This is a situation worth closely monitoring over the coming weeks.
Green Bay Packers
Throughout the offseason, head coach Matt LaFleur has emphasized that he wants to run the football more than Green Bay has over the past few seasons. But in the Packers’ first two drives, the team rushed twice, threw two incompletions, and QB Aaron Rodgers was sacked twice. Each of Green Bay’s first three drives ended in a three-and-out punt.
Green Bay’s poor offensive showing against the Bears may have gotten its offensive script off-schedule. Perhaps there is still guarded optimism that Aaron Jones could receive strong rushing opportunity this season. Nonetheless, backup Jamaal Williams clearly isn’t going away, and Green Bay has not yet shown evidence that they intends to feed their RBs more receiving targets.
That said, Williams has proven his effectiveness as the team’s No. 1 rusher in the past. He’s likely worth monitoring on your watch list in case Jones suffers injury. Rookie Dexter Williams has been unimpressive through the preseason and faces an uphill climb to usurp Williams this season.
Like Green Bay, Minnesota also professed its intention to emphasize the running game this season. However, unlike the Packers, the Vikings followed through, rushing 38 times versus just 10 pass attempts. Dalvin Cook was obviously the main beneficiary of that game plan, earning 23 total opportunities and 26.0 PPR points. Rookie Alexander Mattison also logged nine carries for 49 yards and seems to have won the No. 2 RB job over Ameer Abdullah and Mike Boone. If Mattison is available in your league, grab him.
After Mattison, neither Abdullah nor Boone inspires much excitement. Abdullah boasts an above-average receiving profile but mediocre career efficiency. And Boone has showed explosiveness through two straight preseasons but has failed to assert himself as a regular season contributor.
Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison saw extended run during the preseason but did not sniff playing time in Week 1. Instead, Ito Smith secured his role as Atlanta’s RB2, easily slotting into Tevin Coleman’s old role. Smith actually out-gained Devonta Freeman 31 to 19, and he also earned higher-value rushing attempts, as demonstrated by his 4.7 ruEP.
Neither Hill nor Ollison report strong receiving acumen from their college careers, while Smith was an elite receiver at Southern Miss. Smith’s statistical profile already made him a stronger fantasy option to begin with, and his Week 1 performance further improves his season-long outlook. Given Freeman’s recent injury history, Smith remains the priority Zero RB target in Atlanta due to his present opportunity and advantageous receiving profile.
Despite offseason reports of Carolina’s intention to limit Christian McCaffrey’s snap count, McCaffrey put up one of the most impressive Week 1 stat-lines, logging 30 total opportunities. The only other Panthers RB to receive any work at all was FB Alex Armah, and he only received one rush attempt.
Carolina’s backup RBs likely won’t see much playing time this season barring a McCaffrey injury. However, if McCaffrey is forced to miss time, Reggie Bonnafon projects as a better one-for-one replacement than Jordan Scarlett. I discussed Bonnafon’s receiving potential in my Week 0 Watchlist recommendations:
“During preseason action, Bonnafon ranked first among all RBs in receptions (13) and receiving yards (139). 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.”
New Orleans Saints
Alvin Kamara still owns this backfield, but his opportunity share is not as consolidated as McCaffrey’s in Carolina. Latavius Murray immediately jumped into Mark Ingram’s old role. Murray may have only received nine total opportunities, but he boasted an excellent 7.3 ruFPOE. Meanwhile, reserve Dwayne Washington failed to record a single touch.
Murray is still the backup to own in New Orleans. He offers high-upside if Kamara suffers injury while still providing standalone Flex value as the Saints’ No. 2 RB.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ronald Jones has been a divisive figure during the NFL offseason. His profile suggests breakout potential, but his disappointing rookie season did not inspire much optimism. To the delight of RotoViz readers, he burst out of the gates in Week 1 to lead the Buccaneers backfield in rush attempts (13) and rushing yards (75). He only drew one target, which is somewhat concerning, but his 7.1 ruEP easily eclipsed Peyton Barber and Dare Ogunbowale.
Ogunbowale failed to record a rush attempt, but his five receiving targets confirmed his role as the team’s go-to third-down back. Ogunbowale is worth picking up due to his receiving acumen and relatively easy path to depth chart ascension. Barber likely remains Tampa Bay’s starter for Week 2, but he currently resides in no man’s land. He no longer commands the dominant share of early-down rush attempts, and he does not project as a strong receiving option.
David Johnson looked like the 2016 version of himself in Week 1, gaining 137 total yards and earning seven receiving targets. Backup Chase Edmonds remains the sole backup worth monitoring in Arizona, but he only received two total opportunities in Week 1. Johnson’s resurgence likely removes any standalone value Edmonds might have otherwise had, but he is still among the premier fantasy RB handcuffs due to his excellent statistical profile.
Edmonds’ career 48.0% PPR (Rec) draws comparisons to his backfield-mate in Johnson, as well as Tevin Coleman, Alvin Kamara, and Corey Clement. If Johnson suffers injury, Edmonds may not inherit Johnson’s full rushing volume, but he should come close to replicating his receiving production. As a result, Edmonds remains a strong stash in redraft — especially for Johnson owners.
Los Angeles Rams
Malcolm Brown easily outplayed rookie Darrell Henderson, out-touching him 11 to one. Brown even outperformed starter Todd Gurley in both ruEP and ruFPOE (due in large part to Brown’s two TD runs). For now, it seems Brown has locked up the No. 2 RB spot in Los Angeles, and he is a must-add in all leagues due to Gurley’s injury concerns. I would not necessarily advise dropping Henderson, but he doesn’t currently possess meaningful standalone value in the Rams offense.
San Francisco 49ers
Matt Breida earned a starting designation for Week 1 and dominated the backfield in rush attempts (15). Tevin Coleman suffered a high ankle sprain and is without a timetable for his return. Coleman’s injury pushed Raheem Mostert back into the 49ers backfield spotlight, and he rushed nine times for 40 yards.
Coleman’s injury amplifies Breida’s median projection in the short term, but don’t overlook Mostert either. Breida has notoriously suffered from a litany of injuries in his NFL career and already sustained a concussion in Week 1. With Coleman sidelined for the forseeable future, Jerick McKinnon on injured reserve, and Breida’s injury history, Mostert’s path to RB1 duties is easy to envision.
Rashaad Penny’s Week 1 performance raises concern for fantasy owners everywhere. He received only six rush attempts — and zero receiving targets — for 18 total yards. Meanwhile, starter Chris Carson not only dominated rush attempts (15) but also added six receptions for 35 yards and a touchdown.
Carson’s career profile lacks strong receiving upside, but his Week 1 target share suggests this season could be different. That would depress Penny’s standalone value but could amplify his replacement-level value if Carson suffers injury. Notably, Travis Homer, C.J. Prosise, and Adam Choice failed to register offensive stats for Week 1, which further cements Penny’s stranglehold on the No. 2 spot.
Be sure to check out the AFC 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.