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Zero RB Watch List: AFC Week 12 – Making Sense of Cluttered Backfields and Why You Can’t Stop Austin Ekeler

Shawn Siegele looks at a rare receiving explosion from Mark Ingram, a clockwork receiving explosion from Austin Ekeler, and emerging opportunity in Indianapolis as he details the running back workloads for every AFC backfield ahead of Week 12.

Our goal with the Zero RB Watch List is to help you locate RB breakouts and waiver adds before they happen, but this column isn’t just for Zero RB owners. We’re just as focused on the high-profile backs. Understanding workloads is key to making tough redraft and dynasty trades.

The RotoViz Screener and NFL Stat Explorer provide a smorgasbord of data as we dive into the advanced stats for every team. Much of the focus is on how RBs score their points. We use expected points (EP) and fantasy points over expectation (FPOE) along with carries and targets to better understand each player’s workload.

Baltimore Ravens

Even with Lamar Jackson averaging 9.1 ruEP on the season, the Baltimore RBs are among the league leaders in rushing value. The team ranks No. 1 in ruEP (24.7) by more than 4.0 PPG. Remove Jackson and they still rank No. 4 and trail only high-volume rushing attacks from the Vikings, Patriots, and 49ers.

In that context, Mark Ingram’s big Week 11 came from an odd place.

Ingram just set a career high in reFPOE and crested 10.0 for only the second time in 116 career games. Prior to his two receiving TDs against the Texans, Ingram was averaging 0.0 reFPOE/G for his career, and that’s with Drew Brees.

Buffalo Bills

It’s frustrating to see Frank Gore entrusted with 13 opportunities to a predictable end (-3.3 ruFPOE, -2.4 reFPOE), but Devin Singletary fans should be just as concerned about the three total targets to the RB position. The Bills are one of eight NFL teams below 8.0 reEP per game to their RBs.

 

Cincinnati Bengals

Joe Mixon scored a touchdown!

Mixon has been the surprising beneficiary since the Bengals gave up any pretense of competing during the 2019 season.

Cleveland Browns

Despite the 28-14 edge in opportunities, Nick Chubb held only the slightest lead in total Expected Points. Chubb has now racked up an astonishing -30.3 total FPOE over the last three weeks, and his small-sample splits with Kareem Hunt are disconcerting despite the healthy rushing totals.

Denver Broncos

The Broncos promised a Phillip Lindsay-centric offense down the stretch, but Devontae Booker’s inclusion as a receiver is the scariest development for Royce Freeman. Through Week 7 he looked ready to emerge as Le’Veon Bell-lite. His value has cratered over the last month instead.

 

Houston Texans

Before the bye, I encouraged you to use Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson as secondary pieces in trade discussions. The opportunity was limited against Baltimore and the matchup doesn’t get better against a Colts squad that just bottled up Leonard Fournette.

Indianapolis Colts

You won’t see too many games in which all three protagonists rush for 2.5 ruFPOE or more. The Colts steamrolled the Jaguars for 264 rushing yards, but fantasy owners are more concerned about a hand injury to Marlon Mack. Jonathan Williams did the heavy lifting in his absence, but the situation gets murkier with the potential return of Jordan Wilkins.

Although Nyheim Hines becomes a more palatable RB2 play for owners who are thin at the position, the majority of his value remains in the receiving game.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Fournette was another recent schedule-based sell before Week 9, and he’s only averaged 12.5 PPG in his two contests since. On the plus side, his seven targets continue to underline a workload that trails only Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook.

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs haven’t made it easy on fantasy owners. I started Damien Williams in a big FakedGoods matchup this week, his first appearance in my lineup since Week 2. That backfired spectacularly in a four-point loss, a fate shared by thousands of owners.

LeSean McCoy didn’t make his role any clearer by showing his best lateral explosion of the season and earning six targets, yet again suffering an egregious red zone fumble. He recovered it this time, but played little subsequently, losing 14 touches to Darrel Williams.

The lesser D. Williams has been Kansas City’s most reliable back and has flexibility in all phases. He’d be my choice until Darwin Thompson is ready, but this story could encounter numerous plot twists over the bye.

Los Angeles Chargers

Austin Ekeler’s rushing value has plummeted since the return of Melvin Gordon, but even losing 11 PPG off of his total only takes him to RB13. And that’s RB13 since the advent of Week 5.

Despite sharing with a strong receiving back – Gordon averaged a healthy 7.5 reEP/G from 2016 to 2018 – Ekeler continues to establish himself in the Darren Sproles-plus category.

Miami Dolphins

Sometimes you just have to quad-own a team. If you’re one of the other members of this quartet and get an opportunity to share a captaincy with Blair Andrews, Hasan Rahim, Patrick Kerrane, and Pete Overzet, you just have to do it.

And they obviously didn’t draft RBs – to the point they were taunted during the draft.

So you can imagine how it felt when they triumphed in their win-and-in Week 11 battle. You can also imagine Blair’s elation when a player he mentions in this space every week – a player who has barely seen the field – provides the final margin of victory.

 

New England Patriots

Sony Michel and James White are frustrating weekly plays even without eight opportunities going to Rex Burkhead.

There are several silver linings here. The Patriots rank No. 3 in ruEP and No. 1 in reEP to the RB position, providing plenty of total value even if it’s spread three ways. White accrued 14.5 total EP, a good value for his draft cost, and Michel continued an encouraging trend as a receiver.

This isn’t much consolation on a week the two of them combined for -7.8 reFPOE, but they look to bounce back against Dallas before a very soft stretch in the fantasy playoffs.

New York Jets

Should Le’Veon Bell’s nagging injuries catch up with him, the workload split suggests a congested backfield. Bilal Powell, Josh Adams, and Ty Montgomery all earned at least three touches. Powell appears the favorite, but it wouldn’t hurt to explore Adams a little more in a lost season.

Oakland Raiders

Josh Jacobs is a monster. He now has 20-plus opportunities in four of his last five games and even led the RBs in targets.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Jaylen Samuels has been on fire as a receiver over the last three weeks. He’s bested McCaffrey in reEP and trails only Alvin Kamara. That’s quite a group.

James Conner wasn’t healthy in this one, and his availability is back in question going forward. Trey Edmunds out-touched Tony Brooks-James 6-1 on Thursday night, but neither back is expected to have much of a role upon Benny Snell’s return.

I’m constantly impressed at the depth and breadth of the information in tools built by Mike Beers, Dave Caban, and Anthony Shook. If you enjoyed some of the visualizations used in this piece, make sure to check out the NFL Stat Explorer, the Strength of Schedule Streaming tool, the Best Ball Win Rates tool, the Game Splits app, the RotoViz Screener, and the Weekly Stats tool.

Image Credit: Tom Walko/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Austin Ekeler.

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