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The Week 3 Ultimate Zero RB Watch List: AFC Edition

Welcome to Week 3 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.

Week 3 AFC RB Injury Report

Current as of September 18, 2019.

Mark IngramBALKidneyProbable
Devin SingletaryBUFHamstringQuestionable
Joe MixonCINAnkleProbable
Trayveon WilliamsCINFootQuestionable
Rodney AndersonCINKneeInjured Reserve
Dontrell HilliardCLEConcussionQuestionable
Kareem HuntCLESuspensionOut
Theo RiddickDENShoulderInjured Reserve
Taiwan JonesHOUElbow, HamstringQuestionable
Lamar MillerHOUKneeInjured Reserve
Jonathan WilliamsINDRibsOut
Spencer WareINDAnklePUP
Taj McGowanJAXKneeInjured Reserve
Devante MaysJAXAnkleInjured Reserve
Alfred BlueJAXAnkleInjured Reserve
LeSean McCoyKANAnkleProbable
Damien WilliamsKANKneeProbable
Melvin GordonLACHoldoutOut
Brandon BoldenNWEHamstringQuestionable
Le'Veon BellNYJShoulderProbable
Jalin MooreNYJAnkleInjured Reserve
Isaiah CrowellOAKAchillesInjured Reserve
Josh JacobsOAKGroinQuestionable
James ConnerPITKneeProbable
David FluellenTENHamstringQuestionable

Top-Performing AFC Backups through Week 2

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.”

Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills are essentially a knockoff version of the Ravens. Josh Allen is a poor man’s Lamar Jackson, and Frank Gore is an older, lesser-version of Mark Ingram. Like Baltimore, Buffalo is not utilizing its RBs in the passing game, which limits upside for all Bills RBs. The Buffalo backfield’s 69.5% Team Rush percentage is the worst in the NFL.

The one RB that has proven his viability as a receiving back is rookie Devin Singletary, who has impressed with his efficiency and explosiveness. Nonetheless, Gore has out-touched him two-to-one despite a 50-50 split in snap percentage. Singletary also exited early against the Giants with an apparent hamstring injury. His availability is questionable for Week 3.

T.J. Yeldon still has not factored into the mix whatsoever, suggesting that perhaps Singletary is locked into the change-of-pace role, as crazy as that sounds. If Singletary misses the next game due to his hamstring injury and Yeldon does not play, you can summarily dismiss his fantasy value for the rest of the season.

Miami Dolphins

It’s really hard for me to write anything positive about this team or this backfield. I’m a publicly-professed Kenyan Drake apologist, but Miami’s offense is so terrible that I’m forced to jump ship. Kalen Ballage has totaled a whopping five rushing yards on nine carries this season, and Mark Walton ranks second on the team with only 16 rushing yards!

In fairness, Drake does share the team lead in receptions (7) and ranks third in receiving yards (44), but that still doesn’t make him a viable fantasy asset. If Drake were a Patriot, he might be a fantasy RB2 given his dynamic skill set. But instead, he’s shackled to a tanking team with horrible QB play and a patchwork offensive line. Ballage may be an excellent athlete, but he’s a terrible football player, and I can’t even begin to understand why Walton has earned touches for two straight games.

Here’s hoping Miami ungracefully and unabashedly commits to their regular season tank job by rolling out Myles Gaskin and Patrick Laird over the coming weeks. But truthfully, this entire backfield just depresses me.

New England Patriots

Sony Michel delivered a solid 21-85-1 rushing performance in Week 2, but that production only amounts to 14.5 PPR points. Meanwhile, Rex Burkhead and James White combined for 20.7 PPR points on seven fewer opportunities and 97 total yards. This is yet another textbook example of why receiving ability is so vital in fantasy football, and I will continue to beat that dead horse into the ground until people stop buying the Michel hype.

Let’s return to Burkhead and White for a moment. Burkhead figured prominently in Week 1, and doubled-down with an efficient 68-yard performance in Week 2. He does not appear to be challenging Michel’s rushing workload, but instead is operating in a timeshare with White as New England’s No. 2 RB. White has still outproduced Burkhead in total fantasy points due to a Week 2 receiving TD. But Burkhead boasts more total opportunities and total yards despite a slightly lower snap rate.

Burkhead is an obvious add candidate in deeper leagues, but I’m still skeptical regarding his early-season resurgence. Nonetheless, his usage is substantial enough to lower White’s fantasy floor. In the offseason, I had wild dreams of White producing a mid-RB2 style fantasy season. Unfortunately, he now appears to be only a strong Flex play until further notice.

New York Jets

Le’Veon Bell ranks first among RBs in receiving targets (19), receptions (16), and total opportunities (57). Though he plays in a poor Jets offense, his sheer volume has elevated him to RB5 through two weeks. No other New York RB has any chance to eat into Bell’s workload, but Ty Montgomery remains the most likely candidate to step into Bell’s shoes if he suffers injury.

Bell’s -5.5 ruFPOE is less than ideal, but he has more than made up for it with a strong 8.6 reFPOE mark this season. If Bell’s body can endure the physical toll from 25-plus touches per game, he should be able to maintain RB1 value from opportunity alone. However, that extreme opportunity share also likely exposes him to greater injury risk and physical fatigue. He’s already underperforming rushing expectation, so any hiccup in his physical health would result in dire fantasy consequences.

Baltimore Ravens

Ingram may only lead Edwards by seven rush attempts this season, but after Week 2 there is no doubt that Edwards is a fraud. He managed only three rushes for 11 yards against the Cardinals, thereby confirming that his 17-56-0 performance in Week 1 was entirely due to garbage time production. Edwards may have provided decent stats down the stretch last season, but he is not a strong fantasy option if Ingram suffers injury.

More importantly, this week we got to see how the Ravens backfield shakes out against reasonable competition. Of course Ingram and Edwards went off against the Dolphins, but the game was well out of reach early. Against Arizona in Week 2, Jackson rushed 16 times for a staggering 120 yards, leaving only crumbs left on the table for Baltimore’s RBs to clean up. That Week 2 performance is more indicative of Ingram’s median expectation this season.

As I discussed last week, Baltimore’s RB corps also suffers from nearly nonexistent target volume. The combination of a strong running quarterback and low receiving expectation is a nightmare scenario for RB fantasy value. Many people still hold out hope that Justice Hill could break that mold. But even if Hill does earn the starting job mid-season, I’m not convinced that he would receive sufficient volume to overcome his offense’s schematic aversion to targeting RBs in the passing game.

Avoid Baltimore RBs at all costs, and sell high on Ingram if he manages another strong game in the coming weeks.

Cincinnati Bengals

Joe Mixon’s high-ankle sprain has definitely affected his early-season production, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Mixon and Giovani Bernard have operated as interchangeable pieces rather than complementary ones, which is not an ideal committee style for fantasy.

Additionally, the Bengals are dealing with massive injuries to their offensive line. Rookie first-rounder Jonah Williams was drafted to improve Cincinnati’s weak offensive line unit, but Williams is out for the season due to a torn labrum. Starter Cordy Glenn (concussion) has not played for two consecutive weeks, and starter Alex Redman is serving a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use. To cap it off, Michael Jordan (knee) exited the Bengals Week 2 game and is questionable for Week 3, and Andre Smith is nursing an injured groin.

The Bengals offensive line ranks dead-last in adjusted line yards (2.22) and stuffed-rate (40.0%).1 Given Cincinnati’s litany of injuries at the position, that poor performance is pretty understandable. To compensate for those offensive line struggles, the Bengals have opted for a pass-heavy offensive approach. Cincinnati ranks first in pass-rate (75.6%) and 27th in total backfield opportunities (44). As a result, neither Mixon nor Bernard projects as strong fantasy starts for the foreseeable future.

Cleveland Browns

Dontrell Hilliard (concussion) was ruled out for Cleveland’s Week 2 tilt against the Jets. Hilliard’s absence provided extended run for backup D’Ernest Johnson, who posted a mediocre fantasy performance but succeeded in capping Nick Chubb’s receiving upside. Neither Johnson nor Hilliard possesses meaningful standalone value, but they’ve combined for eight targets through two games.

Chubb has hauled in seven receptions for 46 yards, which confirms his value as a receiver. But, Cleveland’s insistence in employing Hilliard and Johnson for third-down work has limited Chubb’s fantasy upside. For the time being, Chubb is still a low-end RB1 due to his sub-par 37.1% PPR (Rec) and his frustrating backfield committee.

Pittsburgh Steelers

James Conner has dominated the Steelers backfield, but Pittsburgh has not delivered sufficient rushing volume for their lead back. The Steelers rank fourth in pass-rate (74.1%) and dead-last in total backfield opportunities (38). Conner has been inefficient as a rusher to start the season (2.6 YPC) but has been a solid contributor as a receiver. He suffered a knee injury in Week 2, the severity of which is unknown. Conner is reportedly optimistic that he will play in Week 3, but he is officially listed as questionable.

If Conner does indeed sit out Pittsburgh’s next game — or even if he’s limited to a pitch count — that would elevate Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell Jr. into fantasy relevance. Both face an uphill battle in Pittsburgh’s pass-happy offense, but that trend could reverse course following news of Ben Roethlisberger’s season-ending elbow injury.

Samuels would be first in line for an expanded workload due to his previous aptitude filling in for Conner last season.

I still believe that Snell makes more sense as a long term replacement for Conner, but he has only played two snaps this season. If word breaks that Conner is out this week, start Samuels with confidence.

Houston Texans

#FreeDukeJohnson should be trending again soon — if it’s not already. Duke Johnson is officially listed as the Texans’ starting RB, but he only rushed six times and was targeted once in Week 2. Meanwhile, “backup” Carlos Hyde carried the rock 20 times for 90 yards.

This is a frustrating situation for fantasy owners, because nobody wants to roster Hyde, but the Texans insist on feeding him the ball. Johnson is the prized fantasy asset in Houston, but he lacks a clear path to stable usage. The Texans boast WR weapons like DeAndre HopkinsWill FullerKeke Coutee, and Kenny Stills — all of whom combine together to depress Johnson’s weekly target share. Plus, not only is Hyde earning rush attempts, but QB Deshaun Watson has also rushed for 45 yards and vultured two TDs already.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to envision a path for Johnson to claim sufficient opportunity to be a regular fantasy starter. Hold on to him for the time being, but don’t expect a breakout performance any time soon.

Indianapolis Colts

Marlon Mack continues to dominate the Colts backfield, and he’s logged at least 20 rush attempts in both games this season. His statistical profile closely mirrors Derrick Henry or Dalvin Cook, but Mack may actually boast less receiving upside than either of those player comparables.

That poor receiving upside makes him fairly TD-dependent, as exemplified by his Week 2 stat-line. Mack rushed 20 times for 51 yards and added two receptions for 12 yards. His 8.3 PPR point total falls well below expectation for a 22-touch outing like that. Indianapolis has proven its commitment to the run with QB Jacoby Brissett at the helm, so Mack still earns a hold recommendation even in PPR formats. But be advised that he may throw up a few clunkers from time to time if he’s not finding the end zone.

Jordan Wilkins finally returned to the field in Week 2, and he continued his efficient rushing production from his rookie season with 82 yards on just five carries. Given the Colts’ strong rushing volume so far this season, Wilkins’ explosiveness would make him a strong replacement-level fantasy play if Mack suffers injury.

Meanwhile, Nyheim Hines continues to underperform expectation, managing only 31 total yards on 12 opportunities this year. It’s possible that Hines’ role in the offense is no longer rich in fantasy upside without Andrew Luck distributing passes. Hines likely deserves a couple more weeks to correct his slow start, but things do not bode well for a strong sophomore breakout campaign.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars and Jets share a lot in common. Both teams are playing without their starting QBs and feature an unquestioned RB1 to lead their offense. So, it may come as no surprise that Leonard Fournette profiles as Le’Veon Bell arbitrage, both of whom report similar PPR% (Rec) metrics and pock-marked injury histories.

Believe it or not, Fournette ranks eighth among RBs in targets (12), and his 16.2 reEP is closely in line with Bell’s reEP per target. Fournette has yet to find the end zone this season, but he has maintained starting value on the strength of his diverse statistical production. If he inherits greater opportunity but maintains his current receiving pace, he could realistically flirt with low-end RB1 status this season.

Ryquell Armstead is an extreme afterthought in the Jacksonville offense, and Devine Ozigbo has yet to record any offensive statistics. The Jaguars are going to ride Fournette until his legs give out, rendering all other Jacksonville RBs valueless barring injury.

Tennessee Titans

Another week, another solid fantasy performance by Derrick Henry. Henry-truthers have been campaigning for two years to see him in a true bell-cow role, and the fantasy gods have finally delivered in spades. His 75-yard receiving TD from Week 1 may be a bit fluky, but his rushing production definitely isn’t. Henry ranks 10th in rush attempts (34), seventh in rushing yards (165), and fourth in PPR points (46.2) among RBs.

The lone Titans RB to sniff any playing time is Dion Lewis, but he’s only earned 11 total opportunities in two games. Lewis no longer holds meaningful fantasy value and should be dropped in most leagues. David Fluellen and Dalyn Dawkins have not contributed any offensive statistics so far this season.

Denver Broncos

Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay may not knock your socks off with their PPR production, but they have been remarkably consistent. Both players report excellent PPR% (Rec) and Opps% (Tar) metrics to complement their solid usage and EP.

They are averaging precisely the same snap rate (57.0%). Freeman has been the more efficient fantasy producer, but Lindsay has earned a greater opportunity share. Theo Riddick could wind up being a non-factor when he returns from Injured Reserve in Week 11. But if Riddick does contribute to the Broncos’ game plan, his receiving acumen could disproportionately stunt Lindsay’s fantasy upside, leaving Freeman as the preferred fantasy play due to his improved efficiency. Devontae Booker no longer has a role in the offense.

Kansas City Chiefs

Damien Williams (knee) and LeSean McCoy (ankle) both suffered injuries in the Chiefs Week 2 matchup at Oakland. Both injuries appear to be minor, and all signs point to Williams and McCoy playing in full for Week 3.

Williams has been a bit of a mixed back to start the season. He has rushed 22 times for only 34 yards (yikes) but has added nine receptions for 87 yards (nice). His 27.1 PPR point total ranks 17th among RBs, but his week to week usage has already proven volatile. McCoy has outperformed expectation in a backup role, but he also bit the inefficiency bug in Week 2, rushing 11 times for 23 yards.

McCoy’s poor receiving usage does not inspire confidence in his ability to regularly deliver Flex value from week to week. Meanwhile, Williams’ horrible inefficiency and relatively low volume (for a lead back) make him an equally volatile fantasy starter. Hopefully this backfield will stabilize over the coming weeks. But there’s a non-zero chance that Williams and McCoy will continue to cannibalize the Chiefs backfield, which may start to resemble New England’s in terms of week-to-week unpredictability.

If either player is ruled out for Week 3, Darwin Thompson is the only viable replacement player worth considering. But even he would be a high-risk Flex play at best.

Los Angeles Chargers

Austin Ekeler continues to crush it as the Charger’s de facto lead back. In Melvin Gordon’s absence, Ekeler has amassed 287 total yards and four TDs for a staggering 64.7 PPR points. He leads all RBs in receiving yardage (163) and has looked electric as a split-out receiver. Many expected Justin Jackson to put up more of a fight for usage, but Ekeler’s stellar play has kept Jackson at bay. Gordon is still expected to return — or to be traded — at some point this season. But until then, continue to ride Ekeler into fantasy nirvana.

Oakland Raiders

Josh Jacobs has had an excellent start to his rookie campaign, rushing 35 times for 184 yards and two TDs. As expected, Jacobs’ low receiving volume remains a concern, but neither DeAndre Washington nor Jalen Richard has laid claim to a strong team target share either. Instead, TE Darren Waller has absorbed all of Jared Cook’s former target share and then some.

Jacobs is questionable for Week 3 with a groin injury, which creates an opportunity for Washington or Richard to play themselves into a larger role in the offense. Between the two, Richard is the preferred PPR option due to his exceptional receiving acumen. However, Oakland has not yet demonstrated its willingness to target RBs out of the backfield. So, Washington may actually be the stronger short term option to assume substantial rushing volume.

Jacobs never had to handle a full workload during his time at Alabama, so his early-season groin injury is somewhat concerning for his season-long durability. Stake your claim on Washington or Richard off waivers just in case Jacobs’ injury becomes a chronic nuisance.

Be sure to check out the NFC Edition for Week 2, as well as my NFL Week 2 RB Market Share Report, which provides advanced metrics for all NFL running backs and may serve as a helpful companion piece to this Watchlist.

Image Credit: Larry Placido/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Josh Jacobs.

  1. Per Football Outsiders.  (back)

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