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The Week 5 Ultimate Zero RB Watch List: AFC Edition

Welcome to Week 5 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 5 AFC RB Injury Report

Current as of October 2, 2019.

Devin SingletaryBUFHamstringQuestionable
Rodney AndersonCINKneeInjured Reserve
Kareem HuntCLESuspensionOut
Theo RiddickDENShoulderInjured Reserve
Lamar MillerHOUKneeInjured Reserve
Marlon MackINDAnkleProbable
Alfred BlueJAXAnkleInjured Reserve
Devante MaysJAXAnkleInjured Reserve
Taj McGowanJAXKneeInjured Reserve
Damien WilliamsKANKneeDoubtful
Justin JacksonLACCalfDoubtful
James DevelinNWENeckInjured Reserve
Jalin MooreNYJAnkleInjured Reserve
Isaiah CrowellOAKAchillesInjured Reserve
James ConnerPITAnkleQuestionable
Roosevelt NixPITKneeOut

Top-Performing AFC Backups through Week 4

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.

My Top 10 AFC Watch List Players

Over the past five weeks, I’ve pumped out team-by-team breakdowns for each NFL backfield. But I’ve neglected to highlight precisely which players should be monitored with highest priority. So, allow me to do so now. Among RBs rostered in less than 50% of ESPN leagues, here are the top 10 players on my AFC watch list.

  1. Rex Burkhead, New England Patriots (37.0%)
  2. Darrel Williams, Kansas City Chiefs (44.8%)
  3. Jaylen Samuels, Pittsburgh Steelers (30.4%)
  4. Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts (38.7%)
  5. Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals (25.6%)
  6. T.J. Yeldon, Buffalo Bills (1.7%)
  7. Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans (21.2%)
  8. Ty Montgomery, New York Jets (6.4%)
  9. Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens (3.6%)
  10. DeAndre Washington, Oakland Raiders (0.2%)

Deep Cuts

In more competitive leagues, I’m also monitoring the following players buried on team depth charts, listed in descending order of ESPN ownership.

  1. Jalen Richard, Oakland Raiders (23.7%)
  2. Justin Jackson, Los Angeles Chargers (17.1%)
  3. Darwin Thompson, Kansas City Chiefs (13.0%)
  4. Kalen Ballage, Miami Dolphins (12.3%)
  5. Justice Hill, Baltimore Ravens (7.4%)
  6. Damien Harris, New England Patriots (3.9%)
  7. Ryquell Armstead, Jacksonville Jaguars (2.2%)
  8. Dontrell Hilliard, Cleveland Browns (1.6%)
  9. Benny Snell Jr., Pittsburgh Steelers (1.1%)
  10. Jordan Wilkins, Indianapolis Colts (1.0%)
  11. Theo Riddick, Denver Broncos (0.5%)
  12. Mark Walton, Miami Dolphins (0.4%)
  13. Devine Ozigbo, Jacksonville Jaguars (0.1%)

Baltimore Ravens

Well, I guess Mark Ingram’s four targets in Week 3 were a mirage, because he once again returned to his previous low-reception expectation this week. He earned a season-low 13 opportunities, ceding 35% of the backfield touches to Gus Edwards for the second straight week. I don’t understand why Edwards is still poaching touches, but it’s no longer just a theme: It’s substantial evidence of a befuddling backfield committee.

Edwards remains a low-priority target to his inefficiency and poor receiving upside, but Baltimore has also proven that it’s likely going to score a lot of points this season. Ingram already has five TDs on the season, so Edwards may be able to match that TD upside in a hypothetical lead role.

Justice Hill has been completely phased out of the Ravens’ player rotations and does not deserve waiver consideration until further notice.

Buffalo Bills

Devin Singletary is still questionable with a hamstring injury, and my patience is growing thin. As a Leonard Fournette owner last season, this lingering hamstring issue is starting to bother me. I expect Singletary to make a full recovery, but soft tissue injuries are notoriously difficult for elite athletes, and they also report an elevated rate of recurrence or peripheral injury to supporting muscle groups. In short, I’m somewhat irrationally anxious that Singletary has not yet returned to the field.

But in the meantime, T.J. Yeldon is actually putting up reasonable fantasy value. Yeldon ranks 35th among RBs in fantasy scoring since Week 3. His workload is mostly limited to receiving work, and his overall usage isn’t particularly exciting, but he could provide streaming fantasy value for teams in a bind this week.

Frank Gore still controls the backfield, rushing 17 times for 109 yards in Week 4. He now boasts a commanding share of the team’s RB opportunities, which suppresses optimism that Singletary will definitively usurp Gore this year.

Cincinnati Bengals

If you watched Cincinnati’s Monday night thrashing at the hands of the Steelers, then you finally witnessed what I’ve been writing about for weeks. The Bengals offensive line is horrible — perhaps the worst in the league. Joe Mixon valiantly fought through those offensive line struggles to deliver 63 disappointing yards on 20 opportunities.

Unfortunately for Mixon owners, I believe his Week 4 performance is closer to his median expectation than his weekly floor. He’s in a horrible situation, and I empathize with those of you who hoped for another RB1 season this year. I don’t see any realistic scenario where Mixon can still achieve that lofty expectation.

Backup Giovani Bernard has faded severely over the last two weeks, logging just four carries for eight yards and six receptions for 23 yards. Bernard is only a viable fantasy asset when Mixon is injured — and even that, he may only provide borderline starting production and would be heavily game script dependent.

Cleveland Browns

Nick Chubb just keeps making me look foolish. Every time I offer any criticism of Chubb, he goes out and defies my expectation. This week, he earned 24 opportunities, gained 183 total yards, and scored three TDs, delivering fantasy owners another exceptional 39.3-point fantasy performance.

He didn’t replicate his seven-target performance from Week 3, but he did add three receptions for 18 yards. His 2019 PPR% (Rec) is 27.3%, which is within 3.2% of his 2018 metric. That profile historically does not achieve season-long RB1 status, but as I mentioned in my opening sentence, Chubb is defying that paradigm. Kareem Hunt could conceivably make a dent into his workload when he returns this season, but Dontrell Hilliard and D’Ernest Johnson have utterly failed that task.

At this point, I just have to take the “L” on Chubb. I missed in my preseason analysis on him, and he has far exceeded even bullish expectations this season. It’s fair to include him among the league’s elite group of unchallenged workhorses.

Denver Broncos

Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman evenly split 20 Week 4 touches. Lindsay rushed for 53 yards to Freeman’s 16, while Freeman caught four passes for 34 yards to Lindsay’s lone seven-yard reception. Both players put up underwhelming performances in a negative game script that favored the pass. But despite that lackluster Week 4 production, each player still ranks in the top 30 in fantasy points at the position — with Lindsay ranking 14th and Freeman coming in at 28th.

Neither player reports positive FPOE either rushing or receiving, but both lay claim to robust raw opportunity. Moreover, Freeman has actually been the more efficient rusher in yards per carry, but his failure to find the end zone has hampered his fantasy output. If you remove Lindsay’s two rushing TDs from Week 3, the Denver duo would only report a 2.6-point discrepancy in their fantasy totals for the season.

As long as both players stay healthy, they should each deliver mid-to-low end RB2 production for the rest of the season. But if either player suffers injury, watch out: The remaining healthy back would inherit one of the largest RB workloads in football.

Houston Texans

For the past few weeks, my analysis on the Texans has been vitriolic and pessimistic. My negative opinion of Houston’s backfield situation has not changed, but I’m going to try to bring some levity back into the equation this week.

My chief complaint against the Texans has been they’re stubborn insistence to feed Carlos Hyde touches over Duke Johnson. And in fairness to me — and other like-minded analysts and fans — all I had ever hoped for was a 50-50 split. I’m not even clamoring for Johnson to be the lead-back (though he should be). All I’m asking for is that they prioritize him as an offensive weapon. Give me six Flex-worthy Johnson fantasy performances out of 16 regular season games. That would be enough.

But before I start ranting again, allow me to reverse course. If I eliminate all preseason expectations from my mind, and I dismiss entirely Houston’s trade to obtain Johnson, and I just look at his metrics, his situation really isn’t terrible. It’s disappointing based on my Bayesian prior, but that’s a “me” problem — not Johnson’s. So, here’s an alternative way to frame Johnson’s team situation:

  • No. 2 RB in an above-average offense.
  • Strong career receiving metrics that support an above-average workload expectation.
  • Excellent year-over-year per-touch efficiency.
  • Despite a poor opportunity share, he has still achieved 10.1 fantasy points per game.
  • Lead-back has been on three teams in three years and reports marginal efficiency metrics over that span.
  • Team has little to no depth to challenge Johnson as a full-time replacement.

When you think of him this way, then it’s a no-brainer that you want that player on your roster. Johnson has underperformed expectation only in terms of his opportunity — not in terms of his efficiency. He still boasts 2.2 FPOE and has achieved nearly the same fantasy total as Hyde with 39.7% fewer opportunities. I don’t wish for Hyde to incur any physical ailment or harm, but if he ever does miss time, Johnson is still in a promising situation to succeed.

Indianapolis Colts

I discussed Marlon Mack at length in my RB Market Share column on Tuesday, so I won’t rehash all of that analysis here. But in summary, Mack’s rushing volume has waned substantially over the past three weeks, and he is increasingly ceding backfield opportunities to Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines in negative game script situations.

Wilkins profiles as a direct backup to Mack, which makes him a low-priority waiver target. If Mack is struggling to command a large workload in poor game scripts, then Wilkins would likely do the same. Instead, Hines is actually the Colts RB in which I’m most interested. After three mediocre performances to open the season, he finally delivered a solid six-catch, 45-yard performance in Week 4 — during a game in which Indianapolis trailed throughout.

The Colts’ looming schedule is foreboding, featuring matchups against Kansas City, Houston, Denver, Pittsburgh, and Jacksonville over the next seven weeks. If — as expected — Indianapolis resorts to heavier passing attacks in those matchups, Hines could provide a couple Flex-worthy fantasy outputs. But, if you’re not yet sold, then reevaluate Hines following his performance against the Chiefs this week, and pick him up during the team’s Week 6 bye.

Jacksonville Jaguars

As I discussed in my new Monday column, The Jump CutLeonard Fournette finally put up an explosive stat-line in Week 4, garnering 32 opportunities and gaining 245 total yards.

Does his performance surprise me? Not really. For weeks, I’ve harped on his impressive workload metrics, even comparing him to players like Christian McCaffrey and Le’Veon Bell. His elite usage was a predictive precursor for this kind of explosive performance. He’ll still have games where he manages three yards per carry, and he’ll likely post at least one more game with over 150 total yards. But his greatest asset for fantasy purposes is his impressive receiving volume, which could carry him to RB1 status by season’s end. However, to achieve that feat, he’ll need to find the end zone. He has yet to score a TD this season, and Ryquell Armstead poached Jacksonville’s loan RB TD of the season last week on a seven-yard reception.

Given Jacksonville’s stalwart commitment to Fournette, (and, by extension, its RB corps) Armstead may deserve a speculative add off waivers. He offers little standalone value, but he does profile as a strong replacement to Fournette if he suffers injury. Armstead is in a similar situation to players like Ty Montgomery and Chase Edmonds as the next man up in a lucrative fantasy spot, but Jacksonville may actually be the best team situation of them all.

Kansas City Chiefs

Damien Williams still has not returned to practice since his Week 2 knee injury, and LeSean McCoy and Darrel Williams have excelled in his absence. Darrel Williams will likely get at least one more opportunity as the team’s No. 2 RB this week, and he’s a solid Flex option if you need one. He has averaged 18.3 points per game since Week 3 and is somehow still available on waivers in over 50% of ESPN leagues.

Head coach Andy Reid has proven his commitment to a two-player backfield committee, which elevates Darrel Williams in the short term but crushes his fantasy value in the long term. Once Damien Williams returns, Darrel Williams’ fantasy viability will vanish. However, he has still proven himself as the No. 3 option in the RB pecking order, and Kansas City has proven that it can sustain two fantasy RB2s on a per-game basis. So, even when Damien Williams returns, Darrel Williams should never leave your watch list.

Darwin Thompson, on the other hand, is completely devoid of fantasy appeal. Release him back into the waiver pool with similar perturbation as you would a one-pound bass after six hours of idle lake fishing.

Los Angeles Chargers

We got one more week of the Austin Ekeler show against Miami, and he yet again delivered a stellar 122-yards, two-TD performance. But Melvin Gordon is likely to return in Week 5, which unfortunately means that the Ekeler show will not receive its deserved curtain call.

Instead, Gordon and Ekeler will operate in some form of a committee, and I expect Gordon to dominate early-down rushes while Ekeler retains a strong percentage of his current target share. Gordon is no slouch as a receiver either, so I’m not suggesting that Ekeler has stolen that role from him entirely.

Instead, I believe Ekeler could harness a new role as a Nyheim Hines- or Jaylen Samuels-like split-out option. Wide receiver Mike Williams is dealing with a persistent back issue, Travis Benjamin has a hip injury, and tight end Hunter Henry will not return for the foreseeable future. The Chargers’ thin receiving corps likely affords Ekeler and Gordon sufficient target volume to sustain both backs as viable fantasy assets.

So, if you’re an Ekeler owner, don’t lose heart: He should still provide starting fantasy value this season. And if you’re a Gordon owner, don’t expect last season’s workload, but also don’t be overly concerned that Ekeler will steal Gordon’s target share: There’s plenty of targets to go around.

Miami Dolphins

Kenyan Drake put up another run-of-the-mill 10.4-point PPR performance, totaling 74 yards on 12 touches. He paces the backfield in total workload, but no Miami RB reports a positive FPOE this season. Kalen Ballage’s opportunity share has decreased in consecutive weeks, and Mark Walton recorded a season-high eight opportunities and 34 yards in Week 4. Neither Dolphins backup deserves roster consideration, but it appears that Ballage’s short leash is tightening even further.

New England Patriots

James White returned to the team after missing Week 3 action due to the birth of his child. He celebrated that incredible life event by drawing a season-high 10 targets and hauling in eight of them for 57 yards. After a slow early-season start, White now ranks 25th among RBs with 12.97 fantasy points per game.

Sony Michel yet again posted an inefficient but volume-heavy rushing performance. He failed to score a TD for the second straight week, which predictably tanked his weekly fantasy value. His team role is one of my least favorite in the entire NFL, and I will refrain to discuss him further unless he either breaks through with a perspective-altering performance or falls out of favor in the New England RB rotations.

Rex Burkhead surprisingly only earned one opportunity in the game — a seven-yard reception. His low usage is confusing given his previous production but somewhat expected given White’s return to action. White remains the only reliable Patriots RB on a week to week basis, but Burkhead still deserves to ride your fantasy bench. He possesses a unique combination of rushing and receiving aptitude, which uniquely positions him as a high-upside replacement for both White and Michel if either player suffers injury. Burkhead’s week to week fantasy production has been highly variable, but he arguably also possesses a modicum of standalone value in the offense.

New York Jets

New York was on bye in Week 3, so there’s little news and no statistical developments to report. Le’Veon Bell still owns the most dominant opportunity share in the league (Although Christian McCaffrey is trying to give him a run for his money), but he plays in one of the worst offenses. The downstream confluence of those two dynamics has resulted in low-end RB1 production, very low TD upside, and highly variable rushing outputs. He maintains elite status on the strength of his receiving aptitude alone and must avoid injury in order to deliver on his offseason draft capital.

Ty Montgomery is ever-poised to take over if Bell does suffer injury, but I’m not certain that he would provide starting fantasy value even as the lead-back. If we consider Cincinnati and Miami comparably poor offenses to New York, then Montgomery’s lead-back upside would likely approximate Giovani Bernard’s or Kenyan Drake’s. Drake is a low-end RB3 so far, with similarly high receiving usage to Bell but improved rushing efficiency compared to Montgomery’s career history. Bernard is perhaps a better player comp for Montgomery, but his outlook is even worse than Drake’s.

Montgomery does not deserve to be on your bench, but he may warrant watch list consideration in case Bell misses time during the regular season. But even then, Sam Darnold’s return would have to paradigmatically shift the Jets’ offensive identity in order to sustain Montgomery as a viable fantasy asset. It’s not impossible, but it is unlikely.

Oakland Raiders

Josh Jacobs appears fully recovered from his Week 2 groin injury, as he rushed 17 times for 79 yards and added two receptions for 29 yards this week. His fantasy production has waned following his excellent Week 1 performance, but he still projects as a solid RB2 for the rest of the season. Nothing about his statistical profile is particularly remarkable, but his workload is fairly consistent, and his 10.7 FPOE are excellent.

Interestingly, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard have increasingly mixed into the backfield rotation over the past two weeks. Between the two, Washington is my preferred backup to Jacobs due to his ability to contributor as a rusher and as a receiver. Richard’s target volume has plummeted due to Darren Waller’s emergence, rendering Richard low-priority waiver wire fodder.

Pittsburgh Steelers

For the first time this season, we witnessed James Conner and Jaylen Samuels operate as complementary backs in an even backfield split in Week 4. The result? Samuels amassed 83 total yards and a TD for 23.5 fantasy points, and Conner achieved his highest fantasy output of the season with 26.5 points, 125 total yards and a TD. Of course, this “backfield split” was fairly atypical. Samuels operated as the team’s wildcat quarterback in multiple series, achieving 33 passing yards and generating his lone rushing TD. So, maybe we shouldn’t read too much into Samuels’ rushing output this week.

However, both backs drew eight targets each, and both achieved 100% catch rates. They combined to command a 53.3% target share and 53.8% receiving yards share. Pittsburgh’s wildcat gimmick notwithstanding, if the Steelers’ Week 4 game plan is indicative of their future backfield usage, then both RBs are in for a huge fantasy ascension.

There’s certainly cause for optimism, but I’m tempering my expectations due to this week’s extreme departure from Pittsburgh’s early-season game plan. Week 5 should provide much-needed clarity as Pittsburgh hosts an exceptional Baltimore squad. Let’s see if Pittsburgh continues its focus on RBs in a more competitive game script — especially in a game where the Steelers may trail most of the game.

Unfortunately, James Conner yet again draws a questionable designation after tweaking his ankle late in the fourth-quarter on Monday. He returned to the game, which is encouraging for his Week 5 status, but his mounting list of injury designations is disconcerting. Given Samuels’ Week 4 explosion and Conner’s persistent ailments, Samuels is as hot a fantasy commodity as ever.

Benny Snell Jr. remains mostly an afterthought in the offense, but his collegiate pedigree still supports his candidacy as a replacement for Conner if needed. Keep him on your watch list and in the back of your mind, but don’t feel compelled to roster him until Pittsburgh entrusts him with more substantial touches as a rotational player — which we could witness this week if Conner is limited.

Tennessee Titans

Derrick Henry delivered another 100-yard performance last week, but he required 27 carries to get there. Over the last two weeks, his rushing efficiency has bottomed-out, but his rushing volume has been sufficient to maintain starting-caliber fantasy production. However, if you remove Henry’s fluky 75-yard receiving TD from Week 1, his resultant 55.1-point PPR total would rank 18th among RBs. That’s RB2-level production — even with his three rushing TDs included.

Depending on your particular point of view, you can either view that as his floor projection or as his ceiling. The floor argument hinges on Henry’s ability to reproduce meaningful receiving usage and improve his rushing efficiency for the rest of the season — both of which are possible but relatively improbable.

The median argument is a stronger one, because he has already achieved maximum opportunity this season. Henry is tied with Nick Chubb for second in the NFL with 78 rush attempts, but Chubb has outscored Henry by 18 fantasy points due to his improved efficiency and budding receiving usage.

Dion Lewis has delivered mediocre statistics as Henry’s backup, but he boasts an advantageous career PPR% (Rec) profile and ideal receiving acumen. In the event that Henry incurs injury, Lewis would be a phenomenal replacement option in the offense and would immediately inherit a lucrative workload for fantasy purposes. For those reasons, I advise holding onto Lewis on your bench despite his poor standalone value.

Be sure to check out the NFC Edition for Week 5 as well as each of my other two RB columns, both of which serve as helpful companions to this Watchlist. The Jump Cut reviews all RB performances from the previous weekend, and the NFL Week 4 RB Market Share Report provides advanced metrics for all NFL RBs and breaks down key position battles.

Image Credit: Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: James Conner.

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