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The Week 4 Ultimate Zero RB Watch List: NFC Edition

Welcome to Week 4 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 4 NFC RB Injury Report

Current as of September 25, 2019.

PlayerTeamInjuryStatus
DJ FosterARIKneeOut (PUP)
Ito SmithATLConcussionQuestionable
Kenjon BarnerATLConcussionQuestionable
Aaron JonesGNBShoulderProbable
Jamaal WilliamsGNBNeckProbable
Saquon BarkleyNYGAnkleOut
Corey ClementPHIShoulderQuestionable
Rashaad PennySEAHamstringQuestionable
Adam ChoiceSEALower BodyInjured Reserve
Tevin ColemanSFOAnkleQuestionable
Jerick McKinnonSFOKneeInjured Reserve
Derrius GuiceWASKneeInjured Reserve
Bryce LoveWASKneeOut (PUP)
Shaun WilsonWASAnkleInjured Reserve

Top-Performing NFC 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.

Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals offense has proven insufficient in sustaining an elite workload for its RBs. David Johnson has been efficient with his touches — especially as a receiver — but the volume of those touches more closely resembles David Montgomery than Christian McCaffrey. As a result, Arizona is a slightly suboptimal backfield to target for Zero RB teams.

Chase Edmonds has logged around a 12-15% snap-rate this season and still does not project as anything more than a handcuff option. However, Edmonds’ career PPR% (Rec) and Opps% (Tar) metrics do bode well for his possible production if Johnson misses time this season. Much like Wayne GallmanTy Montgomery, or Alexander Mattison, Edmonds’ career profile projects him as a legitimate one-for-one schematic replacement as a starting RB.

Of greater concern to both backs is QB Kyler Murray’s recent rushing production. He rushed eight times for 69 yards against the Panthers this week after totaling 17 rushing yards in Weeks 1 and 2. Of course, we knew Murray’s rush attempts were coming. What we didn’t know, however, is that Murray would average 45.7 pass attempts through three games. The combination of his extremely high passing volume and his rushing potential may continue to stunt usage for Johnson and Edmonds.

Atlanta Falcons

Both Ito Smith and Kenjon Barner suffered concussions in Week 3, calling their availability into question for Week 4. Neither player has reported to practice this week, and in their place, Qadree Ollison and Brian Hill have been rotating with the RB group — in that order.

We haven’t yet seen either Ollison or Hill outside of preseason action, so I’m doubtful that either player would factor in heavily this week. Furthermore, Smith’s vacated opportunity share was already minimal to begin with. If Ollison and Hill further split that between themselves, neither would project highly in terms of fantasy production.

However, Zero RB teams are built for precisely this kind of scenario. If you’re going to take a flier on one of the Falcons backup RBs this week, I’d target Ollison off waivers. Ollison rushed inefficiently during the preseason but demonstrated the ability to perform on all four downs. In goal-line situations in particular, I would expect Ollison to earn those red zone opportunities.

All that said, Atlanta has not provided strong evidence that it is willing to consider an expanded RB rotation. With Smith and Barner sidelined in Week 3, Devonta Freeman earned a season-high 90.2% snap-rate. He rushed 16 times for 88 yards and also contributed three receptions for seven yards. So, if Smith and Barner are unavailable next week, the most likely scenario is that Freeman inherits yet another highly consolidated workload.

On top of all of that, Atlanta has not delivered strong usage for its RBs this season. The Falcons’ pass-happy offense ranks 31st in backfield opportunities, 28th in RB yards, and 30th in RB PPR points this season. Unlike San Francisco or New England, Atlanta is not a rich source of “next man up”-style fantasy value.

Carolina Panthers

Christian McCaffrey dispelled all doubts regarding his fantasy upside without QB Cam Newton with an impressive Week 3 performance. He fielded 28 opportunities for 188 total yards and a score on his way to 27.8 PPR points. McCaffrey has wrestled the Panthers backfield into full submission, leaving little fodder left for Zero RB squads looking for a sneaky target window.

However, rookie Reggie Bonnafon did make an appearance this week, rushing twice for five yards. That performance is unimpressive, but his playing time is very notable. As I noted in my NFL Roster Cuts Fallout article during the preseason, Bonnafon seemed to hold an edge over Jordan Scarlett for the Panthers’ backup RB job. His limited snaps in Week 3 seem to support that assessment.

As a reminder, Bonnafon ranked first among all RBs in receptions (13) and receiving yards (139) during the preseason. If McCaffrey misses time this year, I would expect Bonnafon and Scarlett to split work with fullback Alex Armah in a committee. But I would also expect Bonnafon to receive the more valuable receiving work in the offense.

Chicago Bears

The Minnesota Vikings notwithstanding, the rest of the NFC North is full of coaches who can’t seem to get out of their own way as play-callers. Chief among them is Matt Nagy of the Chicago Bears, who is doing everything he can to outrage fantasy owners this season.

In Week 2, David Montgomery earned a dominant share of the team’s backfield opportunities, which provided some relief for fantasy owners. Montgomery’s early-down usage also freed up Tarik Cohen for five targets, which was also encouraging for those hoping to see Cohen more engaged in the passing game.

But then in Week 3, Nagy got cute again. Cordarrelle Patterson inexplicably earned the first rush attempt of the game, and through two quarters of action, he and Montgomery were tied for the team lead with four carries each.

Mercifully, Montgomery earned nine second-half rush attempts and 81 total yards for the game, but Nagy’s personnel rotations are exceedingly frustrating. And after winning by two scores last week, he likely has little incentive to change course for Week 4.

Montgomery has earned an increased snap share in each of his three games, which provides some much-needed optimism. And Mike Davis has gracefully exited Chicago’s backfield picture after a mind-numbing Week 1 starting designation.

Patterson still does not deserve any waiver consideration, but Cohen could actually offer some leverage here. Montgomery is fighting against Nagy’s play-calling and is also exposed to greater injury risk as an early-down back. Cohen has disappointed so far, but he is precisely the kind of gadget player that Nagy apparently likes to target, and his role in the offense is more impervious to game script or play-calling issues. Montgomery owners should not lose faith just yet, but I would advise Zero RB squads to consider buying low on Cohen as a leverage play.

Dallas Cowboys

Both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard rushed for over 100 yards against the Dolphins, which is relatively unsurprising considering Miami’s early-season ineptitude. What is surprising, however, is that Pollard’s opportunities did not come strictly from garbage time production. Instead, Dallas utilized a systematic RB rotation throughout the game, with Elliott as the clear lead-back and Pollard as the change-of-pace mid-drive replacement.

Pollard was inefficient in his first two games as a Cowboy, but his Week 3 performance has stabilized his season-long efficiency. Through three weeks, Pollard now reports a 4.97 YPC versus Elliott’s 5.25 mark. The Cowboys’ RB duo also reports an incredibly similar distribution of touches for both players. Elliott boasts an Opps% (Tar) of 11.3% versus Pollard’s 11.8% mark.

What does all that mean, exactly? Perhaps not much; after all, this is clearly still Elliott’s backfield — and the Cowboys have yet to face a strong defensive opponent. We’ve already witnessed the Rams and Browns consolidate their backfield workloads in a competitive matchup in Week 3. The same could happen for Elliott against the Saints in primetime this Sunday night.

Alternatively, the similarity between Elliott’s and Pollard’s workloads could suggest that Dallas views Pollard as a legitimate secondary contributor in the offense. If so, then Pollard’s Week 3 performance could signify meaningful standalone value for the rest of the season. Week 4’s matchup against the Saints should be telling.

Detroit Lions

Matt Patricia finally delivered a 20-plus touch workload for Kerryon Johnson this week, but Johnson did not reward his head coach with a strong performance. He only gained 43 total yards on 21 opportunities for a lack-luster 11.3 PPR points. However, he did keep Ty Johnson at bay for now, who only earned six opportunities for five total yards.

Kerryon Johnson’s -11.0 ruFPOE will undoubtedly improve; after all, he was one of the more efficient rushers in the league as a rookie. But that efficiency may only be realized in a much larger season sample. He’s at risk for these inefficient showings from week to week, especially due to his poor target volume this season.

Johnson was a relatively consistent receiving threat as a rookie, with his usage peaking mid-season before spraining his knee in Week 11. This year, Matt Patricia and Co. has not delivered him a similar target share, which drastically affects his season-long upside and week-to-week consistency.

Given Kerryon Johnson’s injury history and the departure of former early-down vulture C.J. Anderson, Ty Johnson remains a strong hold for Zero RB rosters. But my optimism for this backfield remains low until Detroit proves its recommitment to utilizing its backs as pass-catchers.

Green Bay Packers

Aaron Jones’ fantasy owners have to be outraged at Green Bay’s stubborn backfield timeshare. In Week 2, Jones earned 20 total opportunities and gained 150 total yards — which, by the way, is precisely the kind of explosive production we’ve come to expect from Jones when he’s given a strong workload. After that Week 2 performance, Matt LaFleur publicly commented on Jamaal Williams’ poor touch volume and asserted his commitment to feeding Williams more opportunities moving forward.

Like … what?!

To be clear: I have zero allegiance to the Green Bay Packers, but even I’m angry about that. Jones gains 150 total yards, and in the postgame press conference, his head coach talks up his backup? That’s disconcerting to say the least.

Worst of all, LaFleur was not blowing smoke. In Week 3, Williams earned 12 carries for 59 yards and added two receptions for 27 yards. Meanwhile, Jones logged his lowest opportunity total (11) of the season and gained just 23 total yards (though he did add two rushing TDs).

Williams has to be a high-value waiver target at this point, but it’s hit-or-miss whether or not he’ll be available in your league. It’s clear that Green Bay wants a 50-50 split in its backfield, which is frustrating but unsurprising considering how LaFleur utilized Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis in Tennessee last year.

Los Angeles Rams

I wrote up a lengthy breakdown of the Rams’ backfield in my RB Market Share report this week, and Matthew Freedman and I also discussed Los Angeles’ offensive situation on RotoViz Radio on Monday. The key takeaways from those discussions are as follows:

  1. The Rams offense is not operating at full capacity. QB Jared Goff has been inefficient, especially on down-field throws.
  2. Despite these passing issues, Todd Gurley has not been utilized as a receiving safety net. Sean McVay has failed to deliver Gurley his typical diet of receiving work — even though Goff could probably use the help. This is a troubling development for Gurley’s fantasy outlook, which has steadily been buoyed by a strong target share in previous seasons.
  3. Gurley has one TD this season and scored only 4.3 PPR points in Week 3. Gurley himself is not necessarily the problem here. Instead, the offense’s inefficiency has not provided Gurley with his typical red zone usage, thereby limiting his scoring capability.
  4. Malcolm Brown’s usage and snap-rate has waned in successive weeks. He’s still worth holding onto due to Gurley’s perceived physical fragility, but he also seems to be falling out of rotational favor as the season progresses.

Minnesota Vikings

Dalvin Cook once again eclipsed 100 yards rushing with a 24.3-point PPR performance. He earned a season-low 16 carries, but also drew a season-high receiving targets (for four receptions and 33 yards). Alexander Mattison added 12 carries of his own for 58 yards and his first NFL TD.

But don’t assume Cooks’ and Mattison’s 16-to-12 carry-split is indicative of any meaningful timeshare. Minnesota jumped out to a 21-0 first-half lead against the Raiders, which enabled the team to expand its RB rotation. Furthermore, the vast majority of Mattison’s rush attempts and PPR points have come during garbage time this season.

He’s averaging nine rush attempts 8.1 PPR points per game when Minnesota leads by at least two TDs versus 3.5 rush attempts and 1.5 PPR points in all other game conditions.

Also of note, the Vikings seem to be experimenting with Mike Boone as their RB3 over Ameer Abdullah. Boone rushed three times for 28 yards this week, once again flashing his explosive open-field capabilities from preseason action. Abdullah still earned playing time but failed to record a rush attempt. This is a low-level position battle given Mattison’s security as Minnesota’s RB2, but it’s worth monitoring nonetheless.

New Orleans Saints

I jokingly remarked last week that the Saints and Panthers seem to be matching one another step-for-step this season. Both teams share a division, feature an All-Pro dual-threat talent at RB, and suffered Week 2 injuries to their starting QBs.

Even more uncannily, Alvin Kamara exploded for 161 total yards in Week 4 versus 188 yards for McCaffrey in Carolina. Kamara logged his best fantasy game of the season, complete with 10 targets, two TDs, and 37.1 PPR points. With Teddy Bridgewater now commanding the offense, it seems New Orleans is prepared to deliver Kamara a similar bell-cow workload he saw early last season.

Meanwhile, Latavius Murray has failed to fill Mark Ingram’s shoes as the Saints’ RB2. Murray has rushed for 52 yards this season and only received two rush attempts in Week 3. He’s still intriguing as an elite replacement-level player if Kamara suffers injury, but he has demonstrated little, if any, value as a standalone player this year.

New York Giants

At this point in the week, all waiver claims for Wayne Gallman have likely already processed. Here’s hoping you took my advice and stashed him on your bench in Week 2, because otherwise you likely had to fork out a pretty penny to obtain him.

Now the real question is what to expect from Gallman over the next four to eight weeks with Saquon Barkley sidelined. For answers, we first turn to the NFL Stat Explorer.

The above chart reports Gallman’s per-game PPR scoring during his 2017 campaign (before the team drafted Barkley). It’s a fairly interesting distribution, capped on either end by promising scoring outputs, but featuring a deafening gulf during the heart of the regular season.

This chart reports Gallman’s expected points via receiving targets (reEP/game). Once again, we observe a mire of inefficiency but promising production towards the latter quarter of 2017.

These two PPR reports suggest strong variability in Gallman’s range of outcomes, and his advanced metrics further reinforce the wide breadth of his possible outcomes. For his career, Gallman reports a 49.2% PPR (Rec) and 30.2% Opps (Tar). Here is a list of players reporting similar career PPR% (Rec) and Opps% (Tar) metrics within plus/minus five percent:

  • Ronald Jones: 49.8% PPR (Rec); 28.1% Opps (Tar)
  • Saquon Barkley: 48.7% PPR (Rec); 31.7% Opps (Tar)
  • Chase Edmonds: 48.0% PPR (Rec); 27.7% Opps (Tar)
  • Justin Jackson: 46.6% PPR (Rec); 27.5% Opps (Tar)
  • David Johnson: 45.3% PPR (Rec); 27.5% Opps (Tar)

That’s it. That’s the entire list of players with comparable career metrics. Two of them — Barkley and Johnson — are unquestioned PPR RB1s. The other three — Jones, Edmonds, and Jackson — are perennial high-upside handcuffs. All five players drew optimistic fantasy assessments this offseason.

Altogether, my fairest assessment on Gallman is that he will be somewhat game script dependent but should provide a constellation of RB2 and RB3 performances until Barkley returns. His scoring output benefits the most from receiving work — so fantasy owners should not be rooting for 20-plus rush attempts against Washington. Instead, judge Gallman based on his receiving targets and red zone usage this week.

If you attempt to stream him tactically at your Flex spot, start him against other pass-heavy teams like Washington in Week 4, Arizona in Week 7, and Detroit in Week 8.

Philadelphia Eagles

Week 3 delivered more mixed news for Miles Sanders owners, though there is also increased cause for optimism. Sanders and Jordan Howard continued their early-down rushing split, with Sanders rushing 13 times for 53 yards and Howard rushing 11 times for 37 yards. For the season, the two players’ rushing yards totals are only separated by seven yards — and Howard has earned the backfield’s sole TD this season.

A quick look at the Player Usage App clearly illustrates how committed Philadelphia has been to a RB committee this season. The week-over-week stability in each RB’s snap share inspires little hope for Sanders to break through as a true lead-back barring injuries to other players.

However, while Sanders may not be consolidating backfield work, he has nonetheless increased his fantasy stock via improved efficiency. It is also encouraging to observe Sanders earning more targets in the passing game. In Week 3, he caught two of his four receiving targets for an impressive 73 yards (gains of 40 and 33 yards).

This is particularly notable not just because it amplifies his value in PPR formats, but also because it demonstrates the coaching staff’s commitment to him over veteran Darren Sproles. Sproles’ snap count has remained stable, but his usage has waned in consecutive weeks. He likely no longer poses a meaningful threat to Sanders’ or Howard’s week-to-week volume.

San Francisco 49ers

San Francisco continues to be a frustrating backfield for fantasy. The 49ers’ rushing attack has produced lucrative statistics, but those fantasy points have been nearly evenly distributed among Matt BreidaRaheem Mostert, and Jeff Wilson Jr. Wilson’s inclusion in the committee is particularly frustrating; he has rushed 18 times for 52 yards (yuck) but has vultured four rushing TDs away from Breida and Mostert over the last two weeks.

Tevin Coleman’s availability for Week 5 is officially questionable, but he and head coach Kyle Shanahan have both publicly professed their optimism that Coleman will indeed return to the field following the team’s Week 4 bye.

The timing of San Francisco’s bye this week, combined with Coleman’s potential return, creates a unique opportunity to hedge your stakes in the 49ers backfield. Breida and Coleman have likely secured spots on most fantasy rosters, but Mostert and Wilson may still be available via waivers.

Mostert profiles as a one-for-one Coleman replacement, and his value may suffer the most upon Coleman’s return. However, his advanced metrics profile is also the strongest of any San Francisco RB, so he’s the one player I’d most prefer to keep.

Wilson’s “TD Vulture” status makes him a high-variance dart throw option in any given week, and he may be able to sustain that offensive role despite Coleman’s return. Consider making a sneaky play for either player off waivers this week while the team is on bye. And absolutely scoop up Coleman or Breida if either player is dropped during the Week 4 bye week.

Seattle Seahawks

Chris Carson not only delivered a disappointing 4.1-point PPR performance last week, but he also coughed up another costly fumble. His ball security issues have become a major concern after fumbling in each of Seattle’s three games.

Whether by consequence or not, his snap share has also fallen in two consecutive outings even with Rashaad Penny inactive for Week 3. Meanwhile, C.J. Prosise has ascended to a strong snap share and target share over the Seahawks’ last two games. Prosise has hauled in eight receptions for 51 yards over that span while Carson has managed only four receptions for 25 yards.

Penny is questionable to return this week as he nurses an injured hamstring that kept him out of Week 3 action. If he does return, he could claim a larger share of the team’s rushing work due to Carson’s costly ball security issues this season. However, if Penny’s injury persists — or Seattle doubles-down in their commitment to Carson to mitigate public criticism — it would negatively affect his Year 2 breakout bid. Penny still offers ideal leverage in Seattle’s rush-heavy offense, but this isn’t exactly the start fantasy owners had hoped for this season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay’s RB snap counts continue to fluctuate wildly, but it seems like Peyton Barber’s Week 2 explosion may be an anomaly. Barber has now rushed for 163 yards versus 164 for Ronald Jones, and the duo yet again split rushing work in Week 3. Barber rushed 13 times for 48 yards while Jones put up a more-efficient 80 yards on 14 carries.

The biggest issue here is not that Barber and Jones are splitting the load. The Broncos have already proven this season that a team can sustain two viable fantasy rushers. The difference, however, is that Broncos RBs Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman have combined for 31 receiving targets. Jones and Barber have only nine, and even third-down specialist Dare Ogunbowale only reports nine himself.

Jones still profiles as the more explosive rushing threat in Tampa Bay’s backfield. So we can only hope head coach Bruce Arians recognizes his utility and elevates his snap share over the coming weeks. But without receiving upside to augment that profile, Jones still only projects as an RB2 fantasy asset even with full control of backfield touches.

Barber once again finds himself in no man’s land with an outlook devoid of both security and upside.

Washington

In Tuesday’s RB Market Share report, I dubbed Thompson the “true and better version of Tarik Cohen.” Allow me to elaborate on that by comparing Thompson’s 2019 per-game statistics against other pass-catching RBs from the past two seasons:

Among the player comparables in the list above, Thompson’s 2019 usage most closely resembles James White from last season and Duke Johnson from 2017. Each of those comps finished as the PPR RB7 and RB11 in their respective seasons. Altogether, this list of comps reports a range of PPR finishes from RB7 to RB27, and Thompson is trending towards the middle of that distribution at worst.

Adrian Peterson has performed poorly in Year 2 in Washington, but it’s not entirely his fault. Washington ranks 28th in RB rush attempts (45) and fourth in pass attempts (124). It closely resembles Atlanta’s offense — minus competition for RB targets. Unlike the Falcons with Freeman, Smith, and Co., Thompson is the clearly defined passing option in a low-competition committee. Frankly, it doesn’t get much better than that for Zero RB squads.

If you’ve been on the fence on Thompson so far, I hope I’ve swayed your opinion over the last two weeks. If he’s somehow still available in your league, scoop him up immediately. Otherwise, it still may behoove you to trade for him, because I doubt he would command an exorbitant price.

Be sure to check out the AFC 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: Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Saquon Barkley.

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