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Zero RB Watch List: AFC Week 9 – Will the Real Duke Johnson Please Stand Up (and Stay on the Field)?

Blair Andrews examines the running back workloads for every AFC backfield ahead of Week 9.

Almost every fantasy team can use a breakout RB, whether they were drafted as a Zero-RB squad or not. The Zero RB Watch List helps to find these breakout stars before they hit. But it also helps you understand which of the high-profile backs you should be buying and selling based on workload shifts.

We’ll use the RotoViz Screener and the NFL Stat Explorer to dive into the Week 8 advanced stats for every backfield, focusing on expected points (EP), fantasy points over expectations (FPOE), and opportunity (targets and carries).

Buffalo Bills

I wrote two weeks ago that T.J. Yeldon looked like a decent speculative add in deep leagues. But in the two games since then, Yeldon has not even seen the field. If you did pick him up, feel free to drop him.

Devin Singletary inherited Yeldon’s role as the receiving back, and he continues to prove doubters wrong, logging his third RB2 performance in four active games. Singletary has generated at least 4.4 FPOE in every game but one, and now ranks sixth among RBs in FPOE per game.

Frank Gore and Josh Allen split the meager rushing work down the middle. Gore should not be rostered in most leagues.

Cincinnati Bengals

Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard both, somehow, finished in the black in FPOE. Alas, it wasn’t enough to save Andy Dalton’s job, and the Bengals now go into Week 9 with even more uncertainty. In this case, the uncertainty is probably a good thing. Here’s the beginning of the list of the least efficient flex players in the NFL:

Cleveland Browns

Nick Chubb is one of the lone bright spots for the Browns in 2019 — he’s the only player on the team with positive efficiency on at least 30 EP. Unfortunately Week 8 was his worst in terms of opportunity, as the Browns fell behind to the Patriots by 17 points in the first quarter, and the Patriots led by at least seven for the remainder of the game. Chubb still had 20 carries, but only amassed 8.9 rushing EP — he never touched the ball inside New England’s 17-yard line.

Chubb also ceded most of the receiving work to Dontrell Hilliard, which is not a good sign for his rest-of-season outlook, and could make it difficult to sustain his current RB5 ranking. Chubb has predictably exploited favorable matchups and struggled in difficult ones. This makes him an attractive playoff option — if you can stomach some potentially poor games in the interim. Kareem Hunt’s eventual return, along with the difficult games in the upcoming schedule, might present a small buying window.

Denver Broncos

Phillip Lindsay edged out Royce Freeman in total EP in Week 8, though because he slightly underperformed, and Freeman beat expectations, their fantasy totals were much closer.1

Freeman continues to make a case to be more involved, with his third straight positive-efficiency game.

Freeman’s 2.0 FPOE per game over the last two weeks make a good counterpoint to Lindsay’s -2.1 FPOE per game in that span. Denver may decide to lean on their running game more than usual as they enter Week 9 without Joe Flacco and with a favorable RB matchup against Cleveland. This is probably good news for Freeman. If you haven’t been able to acquire him yet, the next three weeks may present some opportunities.

Houston Texans

The EP split in Houston finally started to look a little more sensible in Week 8, as Duke Johnson matched Carlos Hyde’s workload value exactly. The outcomes were predictable mirror images, with the real Duke Johnson eclipsing his opportunity by 2.7 points, and bizarro Duke Johnson underperforming by 2.4 points.

Indianapolis Colts

I predicted two weeks ago that Marlon Mack might not have another good game until Week 10, and although that was not quite right (he scored 16 points in what appeared to be a somewhat difficult matchup against Denver), the fact that 16 points is a good game for Mack speaks to how disappointing his 2019 has been. He ranks 20th in PPR scoring, but because he was drafted inside the first three rounds, his win rate is well below average.

He actually now sports a lower win rate than teammate Nyheim Hines, whose best game this season saw him score only 10.5 points, and whose win rate has yet to exceed the 8.3% threshold once in 2019.

Jacksonville Jaguars

With his 26.7 total EP in Week 8, Leonard Fournette became the league-leader in total EP among non-quarterbacks.2 Fournette fell a tenth of an expected point short of the EP double-double in Week 8 — the third time in the last four weeks he’s been within 0.3 points of achieving it.

The thing that separates Fournette most from Christian McCaffrey is that he’s been unable to play up to those expectations, as he’s had only one positive-efficiency game all season.

Kansas City Chiefs

Darwin Thompson was targeted in Week 8! And he caught that target! And he didn’t gain zero yards! Unfortunately, he lost one yard, making his fantasy owners (what’s left of us) grateful for any points at all, while making real-life Chiefs fans wish he had just dropped the pass. They might also wish he’d get more touches after LeSean McCoy fumbled on another crucial possession.

Fantasy owners just wish anyone would command consistent volume in this backfield — since Week 5, no Kansas City RB is averaging even eight total EP per game, and only McCoy has been efficient in that time.

Los Angeles Chargers

Austin Ekeler is really good. Melvin Gordon probably is too (at least he was). The Chargers, however, have not scored more than 20 points in four straight games, which has meant opportunities for these backs aren’t always abundant. They just parted with their offensive coordinator as a result. In any event, the workload split is fairly clear, with Gordon leading the way in the rushing game and Ekeler getting more of the receiving touches. If that situation persists, Ekeler is the back to own.

Miami Dolphins

Kenyan Drake was traded to the Cardinals, leaving Mark Walton and Kalen Ballage to divide backfield duties. Walton’s 13.9 total EP are the most of his career. He saw six targets, but only one RB was less efficient in the receiving game. Just 14 players were worse as rushers. Ballage wasn’t one of those 14, but that’s only because he didn’t get enough carries. Miami is too serious about tanking to give an offensive snap to Myles Gaskin or Patrick Laird.

New England Patriots

After two RB1 performances in the previous three weeks, Sony Michel came back down to Earth in Week 8. And based on his previous performances, the matchup coming up in Baltimore is not ideal:

In fact, the only Patriot who appears to perform better in lower-total games in which the Patriots are small favorites is James White. White has been the model of consistency in 2019.

On the surface, a close game is the perfect time for White to explode, but Baltimore has been stingy against pass-catching RBs — they’ve allowed an opposing RB to amass 30 or more receiving yards only once in the last five games.

New York Jets

When what little dust there was finally settled after Tuesday’s trade deadline, Le’Veon Bell remained a Jet. That’s too bad, as he’s not been the Le’Veon Bell we came to know in Pittsburgh. His expected points have begun to nosedive and were not that close to 2017 levels to begin with.

But the starker contrast is Bell’s efficiency: he’s underperformed expectations in five straight games.

Even though he wasn’t traded before the deadline, many signs indicate that Bell’s time with the Jets may be shorter than expected. For fantasy owners, an end to this unhappy marriage can’t come soon enough.

Oakland Raiders

For about three weeks it looked as though Jacobs was entering the RB1 realm in terms of his total EP. The fact that nearly 75% of his expected points in that time came via the rushing game should have been a signal of his overall workload’s fragility. Jacobs ranks just 38th among RBs in targets and has not yet had more than six receiving EP in a game, with both Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington stealing passing game work.

Oakland has an enviable schedule coming up, but gamescript may still keep Jacobs from taking advantage of it.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Jaylen Samuels has apparently fully recovered from his knee injury, and just in time, as both James Conner and Benny Snell suffered injuries in Monday night’s game.

If Conner and Snell can’t suit up, Samuels will get a full workload against a Colts team that just surrendered eight catches to opposing RBs. Samuels has been here before too, as he closed out 2018 with four straight games of at least 12 EP, including three RB2 performances.

Tennessee Titans

Tennessee has certainly not been worse with Ryan Tannehill than with Marcus Mariota under center. They’ve won each of their last two games while scoring an average of 25 points. In Week 8 the RBs had less than 11 EP between them, but much of that had to do with the difficulty of the matchup.

But now Derrick Henry gets to face off against a team that just allowed over 25 FPOE to Tevin Coleman a week before getting the team that allowed over 16 FPOE to Aaron Jones. If someone in your league will let you rent Henry for two weeks, you could put your team in a good position to make a playoff run. Just don’t forget to return him after Week 10.

Image Credit: Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Duke Johnson.

  1. Lindsay led in PPR formats while Freeman led in half-PPR and standard scoring.  (back)
  2. Christian McCaffrey still leads in EP per game.  (back)

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