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The Week 4 Ultimate Zero RB Watch List: AFC Edition

Welcome to Week 4 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 4 AFC RB Injury Report

Current as of September 25, 2019.

Devin SingletaryBUFHamstringQuestionable
Rodney AndersonCINKneeInjured Reserve
Kareem HuntCLESuspensionOut
Theo RiddickDENShoulderInjured Reserve
Andy JanovichDENPectoralQuestionable
Lamar MillerHOUKneeInjured Reserve
Taiwan JonesHOUHamstringQuestionable
Jonathan WilliamsINDRibsQuestionable
Alfred BlueJAXAnkleInjured Reserve
Taj McGowanJAXAnkleInjured Reserve
Devante MaysJAXAnkleInjured Reserve
LeSean McCoyKANAnkleQuestionable
Damien WilliamsKANKneeQuestionable
Melvin GordonLACHoldoutQuestionable
James WhiteNEPPersonalProbable
James DevelinNEPNeckInjured Reserve
Jalin MooreNYJAnkleInjured Reserve
Isaiah CrowellOAKAchillesInjured Reserve
Roosevelt NixPITKneeDoubtful
David FluellenTENHamstringDoubtful

Top-Performing AFC Backups through Week 3

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.

Baltimore Ravens

Mark Ingram continues to defy my expectations through three weeks of action. His career profile suggests limited receiving acumen, which is reflected in his game logs and in the Screener. So, I at least have one thing to hang my hat on. However, he’s more than made up for his receiving deficiencies by racking up 257 efficient rushing yards and five TDs already this season.

Frankly, I’m at a loss. Ingram’s TD production is clearly unsustainable, and I still believe that his rushing volume is also inflated. But he’s doing everything he can to make me look like a fool — and he is generously rewarding fantasy drafters bold enough to draft him this season. I’m tentatively still in the “Fade Ingram” camp, but I’ll wait a couple more weeks before proclaiming any more outlandish opinions on Ingram; his performance has silenced me.

Gus Edwards continues to mix into the Ravens’ snap counts each week, which is a confusing and frustrating development. Edwards has been woefully inefficient this season, and he possesses even less receiving upside than Ingram. But somehow he’s staved off a potential rookie breakout from Justice Hill, who remains glued to the bench. I’m about one week away from dropping Hill in redraft leagues.

Buffalo Bills

Devin Singletary did not play this week due to the hamstring injury he suffered in Week 2. Singletary’s absence is frustrating, because he’s already flashed explosive rushing potential this season along with an unexpectedly high target volume. I’m itching to see more of him, but his injury has denied me that privilege.

In the meantime, veteran Frank Gore has asserted dominant control of the backfield. Nonetheless, he has failed to deliver starting PPR value — and his efficiency metrics are somewhat inflated by his two scores this season. He’s averaging less than four yards per carry versus Singletary’s unsustainable but thoroughly impressive 12.7 YPC mark.

With Singletary out, T.J. Yeldon finally took the field and delivered a mediocre fantasy outing. He wasn’t bad in any respects, but his volume simply did not support any bid for fantasy Flex status as a replacement-level player.

Singletary remains the only Buffalo RB that I’m holding onto for the long haul.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Good News

Joe Mixon finally delivered a decent fantasy performance this week, delivering much-needed respite for fantasy owners. He totaled 95 yards and a receiving TD, and he translated that production into 17.5 PPR points.

The Bad News

Literally everything else.

The offensive line is still horrid — perhaps even worse than Miami’s. And to make matters worse, the Bengals are actively deploying their RBs as pass-blocking support to help that injured patchwork offensive line. Mixon required 17 opportunities and 95 yards to deliver meaningful fantasy production — and even a third of that came from his lone TD of the season.

I have a hard time remaining optimistic on Mixon’s rest-of-season potential given Cincinnati’s extreme passing volume — of which Mixon has a limited claim to targets. You can’t bench him, but you can’t feel good about starting him either.

The same conditions working against Mixon affect the rest of the Bengals backfield — which, for now, only includes Giovani Bernard. He does not deserve any waiver consideration whatsoever; it’s Mixon or bust in Cincinnati. And unfortunately, it’s looking like “bust” so far.

Cleveland Browns

Mixon may be a mixed bag (haha, get it?), but Nick Chubb is in full ascension mode after a strong Week 3 performance. He enjoyed the highest target volume (7) of his career and hauled in four of those targets for 35 receiving yards. His week-to-week rushing volume already provides him with one of the highest fantasy floors in the NFL. If he can sustain his improved receiving usage, the sky’s the limit — especially because an increased target share would be the nail in the coffin for D’Ernest Johnson and Dontrell Hilliard (if they’re not already dead on arrival).

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, allow me to rehash some of my preseason concerns for Chubb. All offseason, I advocated fading him at an inflated draft cost due to his poor historical receiving usage. His seven Week 3 targets is the highest of his career — and his resultant Week 3 reEP towers above any previous performance in his young career.

He has a very low historical receiving floor, which calls into question the legitimacy of this Week 3 explosion (keep in mind that by “explosion” I mean four receptions for 35 yards). Chubb simply has no previous record of this kind of target volume. Is it encouraging? Absolutely. Am I sold yet? Hardly.

For now, I’m still judging this performance as an aberrant variance performance in an otherwise tepid profile. Chubb owners, feel free to root against my take — and moreover to rub it in if he sustains this reEP over the coming weeks.

Denver Broncos

Phillip Lindsay delivered a fantastic fantasy showing against the Packers, converting 26 opportunities into 130 total yards and two TDs. This is obviously fantastic for Lindsay owners, but don’t assume that Lindsay is edging out Royce Freeman by any stretch of the imagination. Even in a game when Lindsay exploded for 29 fantasy points, Freeman still earned 20 opportunities of his own and matched Lindsay’s five targets. Furthermore, Lindsay and Freeman have operated in a true 50-50 split in each game despite varying game script conditions each week.

Each player’s individual performance this season is somewhat unspectacular, but their combined workload and production is off the charts. If you’re a Lindsay owner, celebrate owning the more lucrative of the Broncos RB duo so far. But if you’re a Freeman owner, remain content with Freeman’s high-floor outings to start the season, and salivate over his prospects as a lead back if Lindsay suffers injury.

Houston Texans

#FreeDukeJohnson is now in full force. Twitter, make it happen. Post videos of candlelight vigils for the fantasy season that could have been. Rip open your tunic in righteous solidarity. Phone your local representatives to beckon the ears of Texans general management … because it doesn’t look like Houston knows Johnson is still on their roster.

In fairness, Johnson is not the only casualty in Houston’s diffuse offense. Wide Receiver Keke Coutee can’t find the field either, and the rest of the Texans WR corps has been forced to watch below-average tight ends vulture away precious TDs through three weeks.

The point is: Houston’s offense cannot sustain a stable or lucrative workload for any of its receiving weapons — which includes Johnson. Carlos Hyde continues to dominate rushing work, but even his rushing volume is likely too low to provide viable Flex value. Like a childhood dream forlorn and forgotten, this backfield situation was once promising, but now it has descended into obscurity at best and enmity at worst.

Indianapolis Colts

Marlon Mack’s 16.8-point Week 3 PPR total approximates his median projection for the rest of the season but may indeed be a bit high. Mack controls the Colts backfield as dominantly and securely as does any lead back in the league, but his persistently low receiving volume does him no favors. There will be weeks like last week when he underperforms expectation in a scoreless outing. There also may be weeks when he paces weekly RB leaders in a multi-score outburst. But despite that potential volatility, he remains a relatively safe and consistent option in all formats.

Mack’s fantasy security is further amplified by Nyheim Hines’ abysmal efficiency and subpar opportunity this season. As I remarked in my RB market share column this week, Hines may be droppable in shallower fantasy leagues.

Jacksonville Jaguars

If you didn’t watch the Jaguars and Titans on Thursday night football last week, you may look at Leonard Fournette’s Week 3 box score, shrug your shoulders and say, “Business as usual, I guess.” However, what Fournette’s game log doesn’t reveal is that he amassed 69 of his 66 rushing yards in a single rush. No, that wasn’t a typo: He rushed for 69 yards on a single explosive rush attempt and delivered negative three yards on his 14 other carries.

This is clearly cause for concern. Fournette has never been known as a particularly efficient RB, but he’s also not necessarily a boom-or-bust player. Some of the blame must lie with him, but the Jaguars offensive line did him little favors against a very beatable Titans rush defense. Through three weeks, he has maintained a strong fantasy profile due to his extraordinary and unprecedented receiving volume, but that may not be enough if he doesn’t kick into another gear on the ground. Furthermore, he has failed to find the end zone this year, which will likely remain an issue the entire season due to Jacksonville’s poor offensive scoring potential.

I’m cautiously optimistic that Fournette will improve over the coming weeks. And he better deliver, because Jacksonville offers no hidden RB gems buried in its depth chart.

Kansas City Chiefs

Missing from this Screener output is Darrel Williams’ Week 3 performance filling. He rushed nine times for 62 yards and caught all five of his receiving targets for 47 yards.

Williams received that increased workload due to injuries to Damien Williams and LeSean McCoy. Williams was ruled inactive due to a nagging knee contusion, but McCoy overcame his ankle injury to make his first start as a Chiefs player. He delivered an 11-touch, 80-yard, two-TD performance before reaggravating that ankle injury and making an early exit.

The Chiefs’ injury woes in Week 3 offered a best-case scenario for Darwin Thompson to rise to the occasion, but he once again failed to deliver on his preseason hype. Thompson rushed four times for eight yards as Darrel Williams dusted off a wholly unexpected 109-yard day.

Darrel Williams’ Week 3 usage sends a clear message that Andy Reid either does not trust or does not value Thompson as a team contributor. If you haven’t done so already, be encouraged to drop Thompson in favor of another RB will a clearer path to success.

Los Angeles Chargers

Los Angeles is home to by far the most riveting headline among AFC backfields. On Wednesday morning, rumors began circulating suggesting that Melvin Gordon may finally end his holdout this week and return to the team. These rumors have not been corroborated by any team sources, but if true would be huge news.

Should Gordon return this week, it’s uncertain whether or not he would play immediately in Week 4. My best guess is that Austin Ekeler would still draw the start, but that Gordon would replace Justin Jackson as the rotational RB in a near-even split. Then, beginning in Week 5, Gordon should regain his lead-back status, thereby demoting Ekeler into his former 2018 role and banishing Jackson to the fantasy outlands.

Ekeler has been phenomenal filling in for Gordon — perhaps even exceeding expectations we may have had for Gordon himself if he never held out to begin with. As a result, Ekeler may have impressed enough to factor in more heavily into the Chargers weekly game plan moving forward. Nonetheless, given Gordon’s severely depressed draft capital,1 it would be difficult for Gordon not to return fair value for fantasy owners.

So, what might we expect in a RB-by-committee approach in Los Angeles? Well, that conversation likely begins by examining how the Chargers RB duo functioned together in 2018.

Ekeler’s game splits with and without Gordon strongly suggest that he may not experience too much statistical falloff. A 14- to 16-point median expected outcome feels fairly reasonable given his elite performance to start 2019 and his strong floor as a rotational player last season. If Ekeler does manage around 15 average points per game, he would deliver high-end RB3 value for the remainder of the season with potential for a receiving explosion in any given week.

So, the big takeaway here is that there’s no need to panic if you drafted Ekeler in Round 7 or earlier this offseason. He should remain a strong fantasy contributor on your team.

Miami Dolphins

I have expressed for several weeks my disgust and frustration with the Dolphins backfield situation. Even despite a 78-yard performance by Kenyan Drake in Week 3, my opinion has not changed. This team is toxic for fantasy viability, and it is wasting Drake’s peak years as a dynamic play-maker. Drake would need meaningful TD upside to challenge for starting fantasy status in a given week, but Miami affords him little if any probability for red zone success.

Kalen Ballage is a colossal disappointment, rushing 16 times for 16 yards through three games. Ballage and the rest of the backfield is largely irrelevant for fantasy purposes, and Drake remains the only Dolphins RB worth rostering on your bench. Even then, it’s doubtful he ever ascends to your starting lineup.

New England Patriots

Matthew Freedman and I had a field day breaking down the Patriots backfield situation in this week’s Week 3 Breakdown on RotoViz Radio. Of particular note, I compared Sony Michel to Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde, Stevan Ridley, and LeGarrette Blount — which should aptly convey my pessimistic view of Michel’s fantasy or actual football acumen.

I loved him at Georgia, but his professional usage does not remotely mirror his collegiate skillset. Through his 16-game career, he has delivered RB3-style fantasy value or worse in 62% of his games. When you examine his fantasy game log, it’s difficult to build a strong argument that he should still be locked into your starting fantasy lineups.

James White was inactive this week as he and his wife expectantly awaited the birth of their child. Judge his 2019 statistics based on a two-game sample.

Rex Burkhead aptly filled in for White as the Patriots’ receiving back, hauling in six of his seven targets for 22 yards. He also contributed 47 yards and a TD as a rusher to offset Michel’s abysmal 9-11-1 rushing performance. This marks the second week that Burkhead has delivered RB2-style production or better, which should make him a hot commodity on the waiver wire. If you pulled the trigger on him last week, congratulations: You likely just picked up a situational Flex play for the rest of the season.

Burkhead’s increased role diminishes the hopes of seeing rookie Damien Harris earn substantial snaps this season. If ever there was a week when he might make an appearance, it would have been this week without White and as a huge home favorite against the hapless Jets. You can still hold onto him in deep leagues, but he should remain waiver wire fodder in most redraft leagues.

New York Jets

See: Fournette, Leonard. See also: Jaguars, Jacksonville.

Le’Veon Bell boasts improved rushing volume and PPR production to Fournette, but he suffers from a similar cataclysm of challenging team conditions. With QB Sam Darnold sidelined, Luke Falk led the offense into hostile territory in New England, and the Jets looked anemic at best under his leadership. Bell too suffered, rushing 18 times for 35 inefficient yards and adding four receptions for 28 yards (which is actually low for him).

If you remove Bell’s Week 1 receiving TD, Fournette’s and his season PPR totals would only report a 7.1-point difference through three games. Perhaps most tellingly, Bell’s longest rush this season is 12 yards, and he is averaging a career-low 2.9 YPC.

Frankly, the only thing sustaining his fantasy production is his exceptional receiving volume. Encouragingly, I think he should be able to keep pace as a pass-catcher throughout the season. He may not deliver top-six RB value as many had hoped, but he could still realistically vie for low-end RB1 or high-end RB2 status at worst.

Ty Montgomery is an excellent one-for-one schematic replacement for Bell, but I shutter to think how inefficient Montgomery’s production would be in this offense. Keep Montgomery tucked away deep in the recesses of your mind, but only reach for him off waivers if you’re in dire straits.

Oakland Raiders

Josh Jacobs experienced a depressed workload this week, likely as a precautionary measure as he nurses an injured groin. Prior to Week 3, Jacobs had asserted a strangle-hold on the Raiders’ backfield touches. But his temporary injury enabled DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard to feature more prominently this week.

Unfortunately, neither player clearly differentiated himself as the preferred Raiders RB2. Washington absorbed six carries for 22 yards while Richard only rushed twice for 15 yards. Richard did also add three receptions for 14 yards.

Between the two, Richard’s receiving history and weekly snap share offers a bit more promise if Jacobs suffers a more major injury down the line. Nonetheless, the emergence and subsequent dominance by TE Darren Waller severely caps receiving upside for the entire backfield. Keep Richard on your radar just in case, but Oakland’s backfield is likely not a viable source for fantasy value unless Jacobs is leading it.

Pittsburgh Steelers

I’ll appeal to R&B singer Omarion in order to convey my feelings about Pittsburgh’s RBs this season. From his time with B2K in the early 2000s — off their debut smash hit “Take It to the Floor,” — “This track obviously don’t need no talkin’ on it, but I gotta do it.”

In all seriousness, I’m at a loss for what to say about the Steelers backfield. James Conner has valiantly attempted to overcome both a knee injury and poor overall volume, but his fantasy production nonetheless lags behind expectation. And it’s not as if Conner is ceding carries to anyone else; he is undoubtedly Pittsburgh’s workhorse RB. But, for whatever reason, Mike Tomlin has stubbornly refused to utilize Jaylen Samuels or Benny Snell Jr. to meaningful effect.

I haven’t given up on either player, but much like Cincinnati’s backfield situation, it’s difficult to hold on to my offseason optimism regarding the Pittsburgh offense. Ben Roethlisberger’s injury lowers the scoring upside for the entire offense, and Mason Rudolph’s usurpation of starting QB duties likely also lowers the teams per-touch efficiency.

For Conner’s sake, I hope he keeps Samuels and Snell at bay, because his volume is already unconducive for RB1 fantasy production. But ideally, I hope against all odds that Samuels regains a foothold as a pass-catcher at minimum in order to return some of the draft capital that fantasy players invested this offseason.

Tennessee Titans

David Fluellen has officially returned to practice after nursing a hamstring injury from training camp and the preseason. He likely will not factor into the Titans offensive game plan, but given Dion Lewis’ poor usage through three weeks, the Titans backfield may be fertile ground for disruption.

Regardless, it seems nothing is going to stand in the way of Derrick Henry’s long overdue breakout season. He had an off day this week, rushing 17 times for 44 yards and only hauling in one reception, but he salvaged his fantasy performance with a rushing TD. He is averaging 19.3 PPR points per game to begin the season and has delivered excellent value for fantasy drafters that placed their faith in him.

However, much like Marlon Mack or Josh Jacobs, Henry’s fantasy status hinges on his rushing efficiency. The volume will be there, but he must maintain a positive ruFPOE in order to offset his receiving limitations. So far, he’s been up to the challenge. Here’s hoping he can sustain it for 13 more games.

Be sure to check out the NFC Edition for Week 4, as well as my NFL Week 3 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: Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Melvin Gordon.

  1. In late offseason drafts, he routinely fell to Round 4 — sometimes even lower.  (back)

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