Welcome to Week 5 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 5 NFC RB Injury Report
Current as of October 2, 2019.
|Jerick McKinnon||SFO||Knee||Injured Reserve|
|Derrius Guice||WAS||Knee||Injured Reserve|
|Shaun Wilson||WAS||Ankle||Injured Reserve|
Top-Performing NFC 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 NFC Watch List Players
Over the past five weeks, I’ve pumped out team-by-team breakdowns for each NFL backfield (which I will continue to do indefinitely). 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 NFC watch list.
- Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings (16.0%)
- Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys (22.5%)
- Malcolm Brown, Los Angeles Rams (29.9%)
- Jamaal Williams, Green Bay Packers (25.0%)
- Ito Smith, Atlanta Falcons (9.3%)
- Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers (27.5%)
- Jeff Wilson Jr., San Francisco 49ers (7.5%)
- Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals (2.8%)
- Ty Johnson, Detroit Lions (2.2%)
- Dexter Williams, Green Bay Packers (0.6%)
In more competitive leagues, I’m also monitoring the following players buried on team depth charts, listed in descending order of ESPN ownership.
- Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams (22.7%)
- Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles (3.2%)
- Dare Ogunbowale, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2.0%)
- C.J. Prosise, Seattle Seahawks (1.3%)
- Jonathan Hilliman, New York Giants (0.9%)
- Cordarrelle Patterson, Chicago Bears (0.4%)
- Reggie Bonnafon, Carolina Panthers (0.1%)
- Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota Vikings (0.1%)
- J.D. McKissic, Chicago Bears (0.1%)
- Wendell Smallwood, Washington (0.1%)
- Kenjon Barner, Atlanta Falcons (0.0%)
David Johnson only logged 11 rush attempts in Week 4 but exploded for eight receptions and 99 receiving yards on 11 targets. Though his ruEP is very low for a lead-back, his phenomenal receiving usage has more than made up for those rushing shortcomings.
Backup Chase Edmonds uncharacteristically earned six rush attempts for 37 yards in Week 4 but failed to record a receiving target. Edmonds’ workload is minimal, but through four games his 48.2% PPR (rec) and 31.3% Opps (Tar) metrics are still squarely in line with his career averages. More importantly, those metrics still support his candidacy as an apt replacement for Johnson.
Despite Edmonds’ nonexistent standalone value, he retains a hold recommendation as a high-profile handcuff. His team situation and usage distribution closely mirror Wayne Gallman’s relationship with Saquon Barkley in New York.
Devonta Freeman continues to improve as the season progresses, though his ruEP and ruFPOE lag well behind preseason expectation. In many ways, Freeman is an arbitrage version of David Johnson in Arizona. Neither player boasts a high rushing floor, but each reports high receiving usage that buoys their fantasy value. Freeman’s comparison to Johnson is particularly apropos this week, as Freeman also exploded with an eight-catch, 72-yard receiving line and under 30 rushing yards.
Ito Smith returned from a concussion in Week 3 and immediately regained his change-of-pace role in the offense. Smith remains the sole Falcons reserve worth rostering in most leagues. His team situation, multifaceted skillset, and minimal competition coalesce to form a strong Zero-RB profile.
I didn’t think it was possible for Christian McCaffrey to command an even larger workload than he had through three weeks, but boy was I wrong. The Panthers stud RB earned a whopping 37 opportunities in Week 4, amassed 179 total yards, and scored 33.9 fantasy points. Despite Dalvin Cook’s and Nick Chubb’s breakout efforts through four weeks, McCaffrey still ranks as the PPR RB1 by a wide margin.
Per usual, McCaffrey’s exceptional usage leaves little left for the rest of the Panthers backfield. Reggie Bonnafon has earned his stripes as a special-teamer and outplayed Jordan Scarlett during preseason action. If McCaffrey suffers injury, I’d be interested in both players, but Bonnafon would be my strong preference between the two.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve dedicated well over 1,000 words in analyzing the Chicago backfield — which yet again provided frustrating usage and disappointing overall results in Week 4. Rather than rehashing the analysis from my Week 4 RB Market Share Report, instead allow me to entertain a hypothetical.
David Montgomery has clearly asserted himself as Chicago’s primary back (though his production has been underwhelming in that role). But, what if Montgomery suffers injury or falls out of favor? Who’s the next man up in this backfield?
Based on depth chart and weekly usage, the answer seems to be Mike Davis, but I’m not sold. My intuition is that if you subtract Montgomery from the Bears backfield, neither Davis nor Cordarrelle Patterson would earn sufficient rushing usage to warrant strong fantasy consideration.
Instead, I think the correct answer is Tarik Cohen, whose receiving-oriented workload insulates him from game script and depth chart disruption. He has been disappointing in 2019, and Montgomery has succeeded in siphoning away many of his receiving targets from previous seasons. But, if you have the opportunity to trade for him at a depressed market value, I would pull the trigger.
Cohen still ranks among the very few fantasy RBs that possesses both standalone value and antifragility. Those kinds of players benefit the most from chaos, and Chicago’s offense is prime territory for disruption.
Ezekiel Elliott posted a poor 65-yard performance against the Saints’ elite rush defense on Monday night, but his seven receiving targets doubled his previous target total from the past three weeks. Despite his poor efficiency and production, Elliott’s increased receiving usage is very promising for his rest-of-season outlook.
Moreover, backup Tony Pollard failed to earn a single touch. As a result, Pollard may only be streamable against weak opponents this season, with Dallas opting to consolidate Elliott’s workload in more competitive game scripts. Luckily for Pollard owners, Dallas reports the No. 1 softest schedule for RBs over the next seven weeks.
Kerryon Johnson was one of the featured players in my RB Market Share Report this week due to his ever-growing opportunity share. He earned a career-high 29 opportunities in Week 4, parlaying those touches into 157 total yards and 17.7 PPR points.
His rushing efficiency has been abysmal (negative 16.0 ruFPOE), but I actually think that’s a positive for his rest-of-season outlook. Johnson may be a streaky player, but he does not report a career profile rife with inefficient performances. His 2019 ruFPOE is too low to be sustainable, and his swelling workload offers him increased opportunity to break off big plays via his elite short-field acceleration. He hasn’t even approached his fantasy ceiling yet and is a prime candidate for positive regression.
Ty Johnson and J.D. McKissic continue to operate as a reserve tandem in relief of Kerryon Johnson, and neither player boasts a strong edge over the other for dedicated backup duties. Between the two, Ty Johnson’s collegiate profile suggests he would be the more explosive option if handed lead-back duties. But with head coach Matt Patricia, anything could happen.
Green Bay Packers
Jamaal Williams suffered a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit early in the game against Philadelphia and exited with head/neck injuries and a concussion. His status for Week 5 is doubtful, which may be generous given his preexisting neck injury entering Week 4 action.
Without Williams to compete for backfield usage, Aaron Jones logged 20 total opportunities for 68 yards and a TD. His 2019 production has been streaky and disappointing, but his workload next week should be sufficient to carry another RB2-level fantasy performance.
Williams’ injury also elevates rookie Dexter Williams out of the shadows and likely onto the field this week. Dexter Williams has failed to earn any touches this season but now steps in as Green Bay’s No. 2 RB. Head coach Matt LaFleur has professed his intention to established a true 50-50 backfield committee, so it will be interesting to see if he still holds that position without Jamaal Williams as his No. 2.
If ever there was a week to start Dexter Williams at your Flex, this is likely the time to do so. But, I’m not convinced that he’s worth the risk given the relative strength of his opponent. The Cowboys defense ranks ninth in rushing yards allowed per game (77.5) but is more vulnerable against the pass. Jones profiles as the stronger receiving option between the two, which may only afford Dexter Williams moderate rushing production with low scoring upside. Nonetheless, whether you roll the dice on Dexter Williams or not, his Week 5 usage is definitely worth monitoring this week.
Los Angeles Rams
Todd Gurley erupted for seven receptions for 54 yards and two rushing TDs against the Buccaneers, but he only rushed five times for 16 yards. The game quickly turned into an offensive shootout, and both teams combined for 95 total points in the contest. Los Angeles passed 68 times for 517 yards, which enabled Gurley to finally break through with a vintage receiving performance.
However, it is worth emphasizing that this occurred in a 95-point shootout. Gurley only reported four receptions for 12 yards entering Week 4. So, while Gurley’s performance is encouraging, it may also be a product of extreme game script. His touch distribution in Week 5 should be rather telling.
Backup Malcolm Brown matched Gurley with five carries but has not factored into the Rams passing game whatsoever. His usage and production has waned since his stellar 53-yard, two-TD performance in Week 1, and he now profiles as only a high-profile handcuff — not as a Flex-worthy standalone contributor.
Dalvin Cook finally put up a “dud” performance in Week 4, but I use dud in quotations, because he still put up 19 fantasy points despite his inefficient production. Cook logged 22 opportunities for 70 total yards and a late-game TD against the Bears’ excellent defense. Much like Elliott in Dallas, Cook managed a mediocre rushing performance but boasted a season-high eight targets and six receptions. His increased role as a receiver is critical for his season-long fantasy outlook, because it largely insulates him from game script-related falloffs.
Also like the Cowboys, Minnesota elected to consolidated backfield touches in the hands of its lead-back, to the detriment of its other RBs in the committee. Alexander Mattison only recorded three touches for 13 yards, and Ameer Abdullah only served as an infrequent third-down option, catching two passes for 14 yards.
New Orleans Saints
Alvin Kamara’s 2019 statistical profile and fantasy production perfectly splits the difference between Christian McCaffrey and David Johnson. He recorded a season-low three receptions for 20 yards in Week 4, but that uncharacteristically low usage is not cause for alarm. He racked up nine receptions for 92 yards in Week 3 with Teddy Bridgewater at the helm, so his Week 4 usage may be summarily excused as an innocuous pockmark in an otherwise stellar receiving resume.
Much like Malcolm Brown in Los Angeles, Latavius Murray’s Week 1 performance promoted optimism for his fantasy potential, but he has failed to replicate — or indeed even approach — that potential over the last three weeks. Since Week 2, Murray reports a dreadfully low 7.3 total EP and only 6.5 actual fantasy points. He still holds one of the most lucrative backup roles in the NFL, so he’s not droppable, per se. But it’s hard to maintain optimism given his marginal fantasy value through four games.
New York Giants
Wayne Gallman achieved everything I had hoped for him in Week 4 filling in for injured starter Saquon Barkley. Gallman gained 118 total yards, scored two TDs, and racked up 29.8 PPR points on 25 total opportunities. Importantly, his 58.7% PPR (Rec) and 28.0% Opps (Tar) in Week 4 perfectly reflect his career usage. His TD scoring may not be sustainable, but his receiving usage is. This is one of the rare situations where every piece of the puzzle lines up perfectly:
- Identify a backup RB with fantasy upside based on his historical usage and efficiency metrics.
- Corroborate that upside potential based on comparable historical precedent.
- Roster said player while he’s still under the radar on the strength of his profile and projected opportunity.
- Starting RB suffers injury.
- You start his backup, whom you scooped up the previous week.
- Player goes off for a huge performance and his weekly metrics reflect the career metrics you used as justification for rostering him to begin with.
That’s as good as it gets in fantasy. Gallman projects as a strong starting option with a Flex floor and RB2 median expectation while Barkley is sidelined.
Reserves Jonathan Hilliman (activated from practice squad) and Elijhaa Penny also combined for 13 carries and 45 yards, but most of their production came in the second-half with a substantial lead. Neither recorded a receiving target. Hilliman and Penny do not profile as meaningful competition to Gallman’s opportunity share over the coming weeks.
I’m just going to throw this out there: Collectively as a fantasy community, we need to consider the possibility that the 2019 RB draft class simply isn’t that good. Miles Sanders has failed to wrestle away full-time usage from Jordan Howard, David Montgomery has underperformed in Chicago, Josh Jacobs ranks as the RB21 and reports marginal receiving statistics, and Darrell Henderson and Justice Hill do little more than keep their benches warm.
Look, I get it. It’s only been four games. But by nearly any measure, this particular RB class has severely underperformed expectation — and perhaps none more so than Sanders. He and Howard have amassed comparable rushing and receiving shares over the past four weeks, but Howard has out-scored Sanders by 18.1 fantasy points on six fewer touches. Howard’s Week 4 performance solidified his standing as a legitimate fantasy contributor as he earned 19 opportunities for 115 yards, three TDs, and 32.5 fantasy points.
Howard is receiving more valuable rushing opportunities, out-pacing Sanders by 2.6 ruEP on five fewer carries. He also boasts 10.5 total FPOE versus Sanders’ 8.2 points below expectation. For those keeping score at home, that’s an 18.7-point differential in their season-long efficiencies.
Yet despite all my ranting to the contrary, I still like Sanders. The data paints a very poor portrait for him, but my eyes don’t corroborate the evidence from my spreadsheets. At this point, I’m thoroughly convinced that he and Howard will continue to operate in a 50-50 split for the rest of the season. That workload distribution alone will likely take Sanders out of consideration for fantasy RB2 status by season’s end. But I remain stalwart in my assertion that Sanders is the better overall player, so he retains a hold recommendation.
Nonetheless, he is not the every-week fantasy starter many fantasy analysts had hoped he would be. Instead, we need to recalibrate our expectations based on Philadelphia’s actual game planning rather than anchoring our opinion too strongly to preseason projections. From now on, I choose to view Sanders as a high-upside committee back with an above-average receiving profile but limited standalone value.
San Francisco 49ers
Speculating for Gold
Brace yourself for a tenuously-built and over-extended gold-mining motif throughout this section.
In appealing to the 49ers’ nickname history, I liken San Francisco’s backfield to a promising gold-mining excavation site that offers supreme value to those brave enough to metaphorically “head West to seek their fortune.” It is unequivocally the most convoluted RB committee in league, but it has also been the most productive. San Francisco ranks first in RB opportunities per game, rushing yards per game, and Team RB fantasy points per game. The opportunity is clearly there, but which of San Francisco’s five RBs is the diamond in the rough?1
Dredging Pay Dirt and Sifting for Answers
Let’s move through the backfield by process of elimination, starting with fullback Kyle Juszczyk. First off, he’s a FB: Strike one. Second, he reports almost nonexistent rushing upside: Strike two. And finally, we have years of career game logs for Juszczyk, and he’s proven capable of an occasional hot week but never any degree of sustained fantasy production: Strike three, you’re out.
Next up: Matt Breida. Likely the most athletic 49ers RB, Breida earned a starting designation to begin the season. He also reports the top rushing share and opportunity share among all San Francisco RBs. However, he has yet to find the end zone and trails Jeff Wilson Jr. in ruEP despite more than doubling Wilson’s rushing volume.
Raheem Mostert offers a similar level of usage to Breida — with improved reEP and fantasy production — but he was not a Week 1 starter for a reason: Tevin Coleman exists. Coleman is questionable to return for Week 5, but reports indicate that he and head coach Kyle Shanahan are optimistic for his return. Whether Coleman reenters the lineup in Week 5, Week 6, or Week 7, he should swiftly reclaim his former role as the co-starter.
Whenever that occurs, Mostert will be relegated to reserve duty, and his weekly opportunity share may plummet even if his efficiency holds up. Meanwhile, it’s somewhat difficult to project Coleman’s fantasy upside as Mostert’s replacement due to Coleman’s tiny sample size from Week 1. Theoretically, he should excel in Shanahan’s offensive system, but his wide range of outcomes increases his risk profile.
Following the Vein of Gold
Then there’s Wilson. At first blush, his 18 carries for 52 yards are laughable. Indeed, I’d forgive you if you dismissed him from consideration altogether due to the frailty of his opportunity share. Then again, are we sure his workload is insufficient to sustain fantasy relevance? Wilson boasts four rushing TDs on 18 touches while the rest of the backfield reports one TD on 95 touches. Doesn’t that feel a bit hinky to you?
Breida, Mostert, and Coleman each report similar career statistical profiles, advanced metrics, and athleticism.2 Their 2019 usage suggests that each player is more-or-less interchangeable in the offense. We have witnessed little if any division of labor between early-down rushers and third-down receiving specialists. Instead, all three players do a little bit of everything.
But Wilson is different. He is deployed solely in the service of scoring TDs, and to that end he has been remarkably effective. I’m not suggesting he’s a better player or fantasy asset than Breida or Coleman, but I do believe his role is the most stable of any 49ers RB. If you have Breida or Coleman, obviously hold on to those players. But if you’re speculating on waivers, Wilson may be the ideal pick for Zero-RB squads due to his highly-insulated, clearly-defined niche role.
Rashaad Penny was inactive for the second consecutive week as he nurses a hamstring injury. In his place, C.J. Prosise has experienced an uptick in usage, logging 14 opportunities over the previous two weeks. Prosise’s skillset as a receiving back severely cut into Chris Carson’s receiving workload, culminating in a disappointing single-target performance in Week 3.
This week, that backfield split changed. Prosise only recorded three rush attempts and did not receive a single target in the game. Carson reclaimed his previous receiving workload, snaring all four of his targets for 41 yards. He also dominated as a rusher, notching 22 carries and 104 yards on the ground. This is the version of Carson that I praised so highly after Week 2. It’s good to see that he’s back.
Well, sort of. Penny is probable to return from injury in Week 5, which may affect Carson’s present bell-cow status. Penny has rushed 16 times for 80 yards and a TD this season, but he has failed to harness any additional receiving work. His career profile suggests that he should only be expected to contribute in the running game, which actually may not be a bad thing for Carson.
Sure, it may stunt Carson’s rushing upside, but Penny logging rushing usage is far better than Prosise siphoning away receiving targets. Assuming Prosise returns to the bench in Week 5, Carson should retain his high backfield target share, which is encouraging for his rest-of-season fantasy outlook.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The season-long statistics suggest that Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones are locked in a 50-50 committee, but the eye test proves differently. Jones has been electric over the past two weeks, and put up 82 total yards and a TD in Week 4 against the Rams. Jones also had multiple big runs negated by penalties, which underscores how deceiving season-long box scores can be. Since Week 3, Jones ranks 20th among RBs in fantasy points and 10th in FPOE. He out-snapped Barber 36-to-19 and out-touched Barber 20-to-9 in Week 4.
The Jones breakout narrative is gaining legs, but the hype train is already full-up on coattail passengers. If you invested in Jones this offseason, congratulations: It seems that your gamble may pay off.
Adrian Peterson is old, and his offensive skillset is built for a version of the NFL from 10 years ago. Through three weeks as a starter, he’s only managed 90 rushing yards on 33 carries. His production is underwhelming, and his current athleticism matches the mediocrity of his performance. Washington ranks third in pass-rate (69.1%) this season and ranks dead-last in rush attempts per game. Peterson’s physical profile and team situation do not offer him any path to maintain viable fantasy production. Drop him.
The only Washington RB worth rostering is Chris Thompson, for whom I’ve strongly advocated over the past three weeks. Yet, despite ranking as the PPR RB22, somehow he is owned in only 62.6% of ESPN leagues. He’s a receiving specialist on one of the most pass-happy teams in the league, the Week 1 starter is likely out for the season, and the replacement early-down rusher is 34-years old.
Thompson is already producing healthy fantasy statistics with a remarkably high floor, and I’d wager his rushing share in the offense will increase over the rest of the season. If you haven’t rostered Thompson yet, what are you waiting for?
In fact, I’ll go one step further. Peterson has logged so many carries and taken so many hits throughout his career that he is likely at above-average risk for physical injury. If, God forbid, Peterson does bite the injury bug, Thompson would be a cheat code in all fantasy formats. Those circumstances may even create conditions for Wendell Smallwood to regain a modest fantasy floor.
Be sure to check out the AFC 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.