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The Week 3 Ultimate Zero RB Watch List: NFC Edition

Welcome to Week 3 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.

Week 3 NFC RB Injury Report

Current as of September 18, 2019.

PlayerTeamInjuryStatus
David JohnsonARIWristProbable
D.J. FosterARIKneeOut
Javorius AllenNORUndisclosedOut
Corey ClementPHIShoulderOut
Adam ChoiceSEALower BodyInjured Reserve
Tevin ColemanSFOAnkleOut
Jerick McKinnonSFOKneeInjured Reserve
Derrius GuiceWASKneeInjured Reserve
Bryce LoveWASKneeInjured Reserve
Shaun WilsonWASKneeInjured Reserve

Top-Performing NFC 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.”

Dallas Cowboys

After a 50-50 touch split in Week 1, Ezekiel Elliott reclaimed his role as the Cowboys’ workhorse this week, rushing 23 times for 111 yards and a TD. Elliott’s snap-rate increased from 59.7% to 82.8%, while Pollard’s fell from 35.5% to 26.6%. Elliott’s 7.0 ruFPOE aptly demonstrates his elite rushing acumen, but his poor receiving usage could be cause for concern.

Last year, Elliott totaled 95 targets in 15 games (6.3 targets per game). Through two weeks this season, he’s only been targeted four times, and his backfield-mate Pollard has only drawn one target. New offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has simply failed to utilize his RBs in the passing game like his predecessor Scott Linehan.1

If this trend continues, it would have a strongly negative effect on Elliott’s season-long outlook. He may be one of the best rushers in football, but PPR formats are not kind to RBs without receiving upside. Of course, his overall volume and TD upside could offset that concern, but he would still be at greater risk of not returning top-three value. I am not advising you to sell high already, but keep this trend in mind over the coming weeks.

Behind Elliott, Pollard remains locked in as the Cowboys No. 2 RB and is still worth holding onto for his replacement-level value if Elliott suffers injury. Fullback Jamize Olawale has seen limited action as Moore has opted for a healthy dose of 11 personnel this season. Rookie Mike Weber Jr. is also on the team’s practice squad.

New York Giants

Saquon Barkley has had a hot start to 2019, rushing for 227 yards on a blistering 7.8 yards per carry. His 13 targets are encouraging, but he’s only managed seven receptions for 47 yards on those receiving opportunities. But don’t worry: He’ll regain form in short-order. His poor receiving efficiency this season (by Barkley’s standard, at least) is almost certainly due to variance rather than skill.

The Giants recently announced Daniel Jones as their starting quarterback for Week 3, which creates some ambiguity regarding New York’s game plan for the remainder of the season. Jones reports a 6.4 college career YPA, which is extremely low. He profiles as a west coast-style game manager with an average arm but solid accuracy. The Giants coaching staff will likely ask Jones to keep it simple early, which could create more opportunities for Barkley as a check-down option.

Alternatively, Barkley could also be called upon in an increased rushing role in an attempt to stabilize the offense. Regardless, defenses likely won’t respect Jones’ deep ball as much as they did Eli Manning’s, which could lead to more stacked boxes and lower efficiency for Barkley. At this point, there are too many variables to declare with certainty whether or not Jones’ depth chart ascension meaningfully affects Barkley’s fantasy outlook.

Wayne Gallman has established himself as the clear No. 2 RB in the offense, as Elijhaa Penny drew zero snaps in Week 2. New York also waived Paul Perkins (now with the Lions) and Rod Smith (previously on injured reserve).

Gallman is not a particularly sexy name on waivers this time of year, but he is a high-upside handcuff option nonetheless. He boasts an ideal 52.6% PPR (Rec) split for his career, along with a strong 31.1% Opps (Tar). Contrast those metrics with Barkley’s career 46.9% PPR (Rec) and 31.6% Opps (Tar). Both players have earned an eerily similar distribution of touches and PPR points in their careers, which makes Gallman a legitimate one-for-one schematic replacement if Barkley suffers injury.

Barkley owners should strongly consider adding Gallman as a security blanket, and everyone should flag him as a high priority on their watch lists in case Barkley misses time.

Philadelphia Eagles

Early in the offseason, Miles Sanders’ fantasy outlook remained mostly a mystery. Two philosophical camps quickly emerged: One group believed that Doug Pederson’s track record strongly suggested that he would utilize Sanders in a RB committee. The other group rebutted that claim by pointing to Sanders’ excellent collegiate production. The optimists asserted that Pederson has never had a workhorse RB1 talent before and that Philadelphia did not spend a second round pick on just another committee contributor. At first, the pessimistic group led the charge. But in the end, the optimistic group won out and Sanders’ ADP skyrocketed over the summer.

Through two games, it appears the optimists were wrong. Sanders has earned about a 50% snap rate, which leads all Eagles RBs. Darren Sproles comes in at 36.7%, and Jordan Howard rounds off the committee at 25.2%. On the plus side, Sanders is indeed leading the backfield, which is great for fantasy owners. However, he has been shockingly inefficient with his opportunities, managing only 64 total yards on 27 opportunities and -12.0 FPOE.

Could Sanders seize control of the backfield if he improves his efficiency? Sure. But he’s done nothing to earn that so far. Until further notice, Sproles should continue to limit Sanders’ receiving usage, and Howard will challenge Sanders’ rushing share. None of the Eagles RBs are viable fantasy starters until one of them clearly separates from the pack — which may not occur this season.

Corey Clement has been the odd man out of the rotation and is now sidelined with a shoulder injury for the next one to two weeks.

Washington

Derrius Guice’s injury reopened the door for veteran Adrian Peterson to assume lead-back duties in Washington. Guice underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus and has been placed on Injured Reserve. He will be available to return in Week 11, but Washington may elect to keep him out the entire regular season to ensure a full recovery.

Peterson’s Week 2 efficiency was abysmal, rushing 10 times for just 25 yards. However, he salvaged his fantasy day by vulturing one TD. With Guice out of commission until at least Week 11, Peterson could be worth a speculative add. However, be advised: Peterson has been wildly inconsistent since joining Washington in 2018.

As you can see in our NFL Stat Explorer, Peterson has recorded three RB1 performances, three RB2 performances, and 10 RB3-or-worse performances in his 16 active games since 2018. He undoubtedly boasts strong upside, but he also carries above-average risk to bust in any given week.

If you’re looking for a consistent Flex option, don’t target Peterson. Instead, pick up Chris Thompson immediately. Last week, I characterized Thompson as Tarik Cohen arbitrage. He held up to that comparison in Week 2 by hauling in five receptions for 48 yards and 11.1 PPR points. In fact, Thompson has been one of the more prolific receiving backs to start 2019.

Here’s how Thompson’s two-week receiving production stacks up among RBs this season:

  • First in targets (18)
  • Tied for second in receptions (12)
  • Second in receiving yards (111)
  • Third in PPR (Rec) scoring (23.6)
  • 22nd in Total PPR scoring (24.9)

Sure, Peterson is likely to absorb nearly all of Guice’s vacated rushing share, but Thompson doesn’t necessarily need rushing production to be effective. Since 2016, he has averaged 3.7 receptions and 32.7 receiving yards on 5.0 targets per game. Those per-game averages translate to 11.1 PPR points per game. And, let’s also not forget that as recently as 2017, Thompson ranked 11th among RBs in PPR points per game (15.1). His only downside is his injury history, but if you’re streaming him from your bench from week to week, his injury risk doesn’t outweigh your minimal opportunity cost.

Wendell Smallwood also boasts a strong receiving history and is the most balanced RB on Washington’s roster. But he’s also a newcomer to the offense and may struggle to earn consistent snaps over the coming weeks. Keep Smallwood filed away in the back of your mind if Thompson bites the injury bug again, but otherwise dismiss him as a meaningful fantasy contributor.

Chicago Bears

After a frustrating Week 1 snap share, the Bears backfield mercifully established some order in Week 2. Rookie David Montgomery carried the ball 18 times for 62 yards and a TD and also drew three receiving targets. No other Bears RB eclipsed four rush attempts. Mike Davis surprised everyone as Chicago’s Week 1 starter, but he only managed three rush attempts for one yard against the Broncos. Utility piece Tarik Cohen had a down day, parlaying his nine opportunities into just 25 total yards and 4.5 PPR points.

Like fellow rookie Miles Sanders, Montgomery has been inefficient to start the season. But Montgomery’s Week 2 usage suggests that he has earned Matt Nagy’s trust as the lead back in the offense. Davis likely suffers the most from this development, but it remains to be seen how Montgomery’s workload will affect Cohen’s season-long production. Cohen has always been a streaky fantasy contributor, so it’s hard to tell if his Week 2 stat-line is due to variance or due to Montgomery’s ascension.

Kerrith Whyte Jr. remains wholly uninvolved in the offense, and Cordarrelle Patterson is little more than a frustrating gadget to disrupt an already confusing backfield situation.

Detroit Lions

Ty Johnson worked his way into the Lions game plan this week, rushing five times for 30 yards and snaring two passes for six yards. Johnson’s Week 2 production is particularly notable, because on Tuesday the Lions waived C.J. Anderson and picked up Paul Perkins (recently waived by the Giants). Perkins likely doesn’t factor into Detroit’s game plan moving forward, but Anderson’s departure opens the door for Johnson to be a more regular contributor. J.D. McKissic and Nick Bawden can be easily dismissed as viable backfield competitors, which leaves only Kerryon Johnson and Ty Johnson as Detroit’s two-man “Johnson & Johnson” rushing tandem.

Kerryon Johnson obviously stands to gain the most from this recent roster shakeup. Anderson cut into Johnson’s rushing workload for two consecutive weeks, and his departure could mean more early-down work and overall usage for Johnson. He boasts a strong 64.0% PPR (Rec) for the season and would benefit greatly from more consolidated opportunity.

But, we are talking about Matt Patricia here. He has a track record of being cute with his snap rotations in the spirit of his mentor Bill Belichick. So, perhaps Ty Johnson will earn a larger role than expected. Johnson is an athletic freak, recording a 4.26-second unofficial forty time at his pro day along with a 34-inch vertical. He also notched two return TDs at Maryland, which further demonstrates his athleticism. Ty Johnson is likely worth a speculative add, but don’t go overboard with your FAAB budget: This is still Kerryon Johnson’s backfield.

Green Bay Packers

Alright, so the first six team breakdowns were a bit longer than usual. But to be fair, each team had significant usage trends or roster news that warranted in-depth analysis. Now we get to catch our breath a bit for the next two teams.

Aaron Jones popped off for 150 total yards on 29 opportunities this week, which goes a long way in alleviating fantasy owner’s Week 1 anxieties. Jamaal Williams also drew 13 total opportunities and added a receiving TD. The Packers backfield will remain a committee indefinitely, with Jones garnering about 60% to 70% of the rushing volume and both players operating in a 50-50 split for receiving targets.

Jones is an explosive play-maker that can break off a huge run on any down and distance, but his career in Green Bay has proven him to be a very game script-dependent contributor. Williams’ production is less contingent on game script, but he doesn’t boast Jones’ upside. Williams should remain waiver fodder for most of this season, but he would be a priority waiver claim if Jones misses time. He’s proven to be a viable fantasy starter when Jones is out of the lineup over the past two seasons.

Minnesota Vikings

Business as usual in Minnesota. Dalvin Cook has looked like a stud to open the 2019 season, rushing for 265 yards and three TDs. He has logged exactly 23 opportunities in each of his two games and ranks second among RBs with 54.1 PPR points. The Vikings executed a much more balanced offensive game plan in Week 2, but Cook still racked up 191 total yards despite an increase in passing plays.

Alexander Mattison has also impressed as Cook’s backup, rushing 13 times for 74 yards. He doesn’t possess standalone value, but he is the clear-cut heir to Cook’s audaciously large workload in one of the league’s strongest rushing offense. Ameer Abdullah and Mike Boone round out the Vikings RB depth chart, but neither has a strong probability for meaningful fantasy production this season.

Atlanta Falcons

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.” – William Shakespeare

After a brief hiatus, we now return to another volatile backfield situation in Atlanta. Devonta Freeman has been horribly inefficient through two games and has done little to stem concerns over his 2017 MCL and PCL sprains. Ito Smith has slid into Tevin Coleman’s former No. 2 role and has thoroughly outproduced Freeman relative to his opportunity. Nonetheless, Smith is only garnering a 34.1% share of the Falcons’ backfield opportunities despite operating in a near 50-50 snap split with Freeman.

It’s highly unlikely that Smith will usurp Freeman outright in Atlanta’s pecking order barring injury. However, he certainly has plenty of headroom to expand his role as Freeman flounders. But, let me be clear: Smith’s fantasy viability hinges on his ability to wrestle away week to week opportunity. An injury setback for Freeman would not necessarily vault Smith into the echelon of fantasy RB2s. Just take a look at Coleman’s previous game splits with and without Freeman over the past four seasons:

Coleman’s rushing usage improved markedly, but his receiving volume lagged behind, resulting in only a modest improvement in PPR scoring. Contrast those splits with the reverse scenario: When Freeman has played without Coleman.

As you can see, Freeman is the back that has historically benefited most when presented with greater opportunity.

Nevertheless, both backs have a bigger hurdle to jump this season: Atlanta’s rush aversion. The Falcons rank sixth in pass-rate (73.4%) and 29th in total backfield opportunities (41). The Falcons ranked third in pass-rate (65.3%) last season, which suggests that their current pass-happy mentality is more of a philosophical shift rather than a vestigial product of game script. If Atlanta continues to pass the ball this much, neither Freeman nor Smith projects as a strong fantasy producer this year.

Brian HillQadree Ollison, and Kenjon Barner have yet to record any offensive statistics this season.

Carolina Panthers

Christian McCaffrey remains one of the only true RB workhorses in the league and faces zero competition for touches from Jordan Scarlett or Reggie Bonnafon. But, he may face a different kind of adversity: Offensive ineptitude. McCaffrey followed up his epic 42.9-point Week 1 performance with a 7.3-point dud in Week 2. He earned ample opportunities (22), but only managed 53 total yards in a frustrating Thursday night game.

QB Cam Newton was glaringly inaccurate as a passer and uncharacteristically immobile in the pocket. Speculation raged post-game regarding Newton’s physical health, and Carolina confirmed those suspicions by reporting that Newton reaggravated his preseason foot sprain and is out indefinitely.

Newton has already endured two shoulder surgeries to repair a torn rotator cuff, and now he’s playing (or rather, not playing) on a bum foot. Without Newton’s rushing ability, the Panthers offense becomes much easier to stop for opposing defenses. Not only will McCaffrey have to cope with backup QB play, but he may also face more loaded boxes and tighter coverage without a QB spy in the middle of the field.

All that said, McCaffrey should still deliver top-five fantasy RB production despite his poor team situation. He’s simply too talented to defensively scheme out of a game. I would be shocked if his production falls off dramatically, but it’s fair to question his week to week ceiling projections moving forward.

New Orleans Saints

See: Panthers, Carolina. New Orleans also lost its starting QB in Week 2, as Drew Brees suffered what is presumed to be a ligament tear in his throwing hand. Brees will undergo surgery immediately, and some reports indicate a soft time table for Brees’ return in six weeks. However, we know relatively little about the severity of the injury or how competently Brees will be able to grip a football six weeks from now. Unlike other extremity injuries, a soft tissue injury in the hand drastically restricts one’s ability to train other muscle groups in the arm.

In a worst-case scenario, Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray may have to operate with Teddy Bridgewater as their starting QB — with Taysom Hill also potentially rotating into the picture. It remains to be seen how much — if any — effect Brees’ absence will have on the Saints’ offensive game plan. Intuitively, we may expect New Orleans to favor the run or operate more horizontally to get its RBs the ball in space. But, again, that’s mostly speculation.

Murray has failed to reproduce Mark Ingram’s former touch volume thus far in 2019. The next few weeks bear strongly on his season-long outlook. He may earn extended usage in a more rush-heavy Saints offense, or he may fall out of favor if New Orleans trusts Kamara to handle the load. Either way, New Orleans is an intriguing spot for Zero-RB teams. It may behoove you to test the market waters in a trade for Murray, so long as you accept his relatively wide range of outcomes.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Well, this one’s a hard pill to swallow. Ronald Jones finally delivered a solid fantasy showing in Week 1, and he was rewarded with … four total opportunities in Week 2. Peyton Barber reasserted himself as the premier RB in the Buccaneers backfield, rushing 23 times for 82 yards and a TD. Even Dare Ogunbowale took a back-seat despite his five-target, 31-yard outing last week.

In Week 1, Barber commanded a 40.3% snap share, Jones received 35.5% of the snaps, and Ogunbowale paced the backfield with a 43.6% snap share. In Week 2, the entire formula shifted. Barber’s snap share swelled to 75.0%, Jones’ plumetted to 14.3%, and Ogunbowale only saw 28.6% of the team’s offensive snaps.

Frankly, it’s hard to make heads or tails of this. Tampa Bay seemed committed to a fairly even timeshare last week but completely abandoned that idea in Week 2. There’s little evidence to suggest that each player’s skillset or coach’s favor has changed drastically, but we can’t ignore this usage shift. Barber somehow earned the lion’s share of backfield opportunities last season, which adds weight to his 24-touch performance in Week 2. Then again, maybe Bruce Arians is playing mad scientist and still in the evaluation phase.

I would offer a very, very soft recommendation to go pick up Barber if he’s available in your leagues. If you’re a Jones or Ogunbowale owner, don’t panic. Now is not the time to drop either player. Let’s wait and see how this shakes out for one or two more weeks.

Arizona Cardinals

David Johnson suffered a wrist injury in Sunday’s game against Baltimore, and he missed well over a quarter of action before making his return. The fact that he returned to the game suggests that the injury is minor, and Johnson is probable to play in Week 3 without a pitch count.

Even despite missing time this week due to that injury, Johnson has still amassed RB1-style touches through two games. He is the unquestioned bell cow in the Cardinals offense and still has room to improve on his current volume. Arizona has averaged 47 pass attempts to open the season, which is clearly unsustainable. Johnson’s eight targets seem low given that extreme passing volume, but his elite receiving history suggests that his team target share should improve over the season. Of greater import, Arizona will undoubtedly improve its week to week rushing attempts, which would help buoy Johnson’s floor projections each week.

Chase Edmonds is still the best insurance policy in fantasy football. But, as with all insurance policies, you collect nothing until tragedy strikes. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury clearly has little interest in involving Edmonds into Arizona’s week to week game plan.

Los Angeles Rams

Todd Gurley’s 2019 pitch count was a highly debated topic during the offseason, and we’re finally beginning to get some answers early in the season. Gurley is averaging 17.0 opportunities per game and 13.4 PPR points, both of which fall well short of his average first two game production from either of the past two seasons.

From 2017 to 2018, Gurley averaged 22.0 opportunities and 25.3 PPR points per game through Week 2. The most concerning facet to Gurley’s revised expected opportunity is his low receiving production. He’s averaged 3.5 receptions for 43.5 yards on 4.5 targets through Week 2 over the last two seasons. This year, he’s averaging 2.0 receptions for 4.0 yards on 2.5 targets per game.

Gurley’s current workload and production could just be noise. After all, we’re dealing with tiny sample sizes here. But, we did witness his volume wane during the season last year, and his offseason knee arthritis diagnosis lends probable cause to his decreased workload. Gurley is averaging a 76.7% snap rate this season, while backup Malcolm Brown sits at 35.7%.

Brown remains a strong buy and hold option given the fragility of Gurley’s knee. But to his credit, Gurley has not appeared hampered or slowed to start the season, so it seems his reduced workload is mostly precautionary. Darrell Henderson continues to look like the biggest draft bust of 2019.

San Francisco 49ers

Matt Breida shined in Week 2 action, rushing for 121 yards on just 12 carries and delivering fantasy owners 14.2 PPR points. Jeff Wilson Jr. also snuck into the mix with 34 inefficient rushing yards but two TDs.

Still, the biggest development was Raheem Mostert’s all-purpose performance. Mostert logged 13 rush attempts for 83 yards, bringing his rushing total up to 123 yards for the season. He also added three receptions for 68 yards and a TD, bringing his PPR total to a whopping 24.1 points.

Mostert now has five targets through two games, which leads the 49ers backfield, and may be poised to take over Coleman’s former role as San Francisco’s receiving-oriented back. He doesn’t have a strong NFL receiving history, but he did begin his college career as a WR at Purdue. Breida’s 2.2 targets per game last season does not inspire confidence that he’ll suddenly develop into a strong receiving option, and Mostert’s 7.8 reFPOE is outstanding. He is likely worth a flier for his receiving upside and excellent efficiency to start the season.

Seattle Seahawks

People’s eyes will be drawn to Rashaad Penny’s 10-62-1 rushing stat line in this game, but the more important takeaway is Chris Carson’s continued receiving production. To give Penny his due credit, he broke off a very impressive 37-yard touchdown on a vicious highlight-reel cutback against the Steelers. However, Pittsburgh’s defense is laughably bad, and when Penny cut back, there was nobody in position to challenge his path to the end zone. Penny gained just 25 yards on his other nine rush attempts and still has just one target this season.

Meanwhile, Carson is building a strong case for fantasy RB1 status. His 56.1% PPR (Rec) and 25.0% Opps (Tar) metrics both fit perfectly with historical data on fantasy RB1s, and he currently ranks ninth among RBs in PPR scoring through Week 2. We knew entering the season that Carson would command a strong rushing workload, but his new receiving usage elevates his fantasy profile dramatically. Not only is he earning receiving targets, but he’s also been incredibly efficient with those opportunities, boasting a 7.4 reFPOE. I don’t want to overreact early in the season, but I can’t help myself: Carson is a budding fantasy darling, and you should actively pursue a trade to acquire him if the price is right.

C.J. Prosise also got into the mix in Week 2, but he is not a viable fantasy commodity.

Be sure to check out the AFC 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: Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Chris Carson.

  1. Yes, I fully understand the irony in framing Linehan as a progressive play-caller.  (back)

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