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Zero RB Watch List: AFC Week 15 – He’s No Austin Ekeler, But Can Darwin Thompson Be the Guy for KC?

Blair Andrews examines the running back workloads for the most contentious AFC backfields ahead of Week 15.

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 14 advanced stats for the AFC backfields that still feature committees and competitions, focusing on expected points (EP), fantasy points over expectations (FPOE), and opportunity (targets and carries).

Baltimore Ravens

What has looked like a committee for many weeks has proven not to be over the last two as the Ravens find themselves in competitive games. Mark Ingram was the only RB who was targeted and handled nearly 85% of the Ravens’ backfield EP.

Buffalo Bills

I mentioned earlier this week that Devin Singletary had his first game with over 20 EP and is pushing Frank Gore out of this backfield. But the most encouraging part of Singletary’s “breakout” game is that he had eight targets. That’s a new career high, but it’s not actually too far above the workload he was seeing earlier in the season.

If Singletary can continue to command about 20 total EP per game, he would immediately enter the RB1 conversation. Only Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette are averaging more total EP in 2019.

Denver Broncos

Although it looked for a while like Phillip Lindsay was going to run away with this backfield, Royce Freeman managed an almost even split in terms of total EP. Although Freeman and Lindsay had the same number of targets, one of Freeman’s targets came at the 3-yard line, and he turned it into a touchdown. This was an encouraging outcome for those of us who were projecting a Freeman breakout over the offseason. Still, Freeman will need an attending bump in raw opportunities to truly force a committee.

Houston Texans

The Houston backfield was split predictably in Week 14, with Carlos Hyde dominating the rushing touches and Duke Johnson leading the way in targets. Neither player was efficient, as the entire offense struggled to keep pace with the suddenly explosive Broncos.

Indianapolis Colts

Marlon Mack returned from injury to retake his hold on the rushing touches in Indianapolis. But Nyheim Hines’ five targets gave him the lead in total EP. Even with that EP lead, Hines produced only 6.5 PPR points. On the season, he has been an RB2 in only one week, with the rest of his games falling outside the top 24.

Nevertheless, this was an encouraging outing for Hines owners, as it marked only the second time since Week 5 that he’s had at least five targets. One can hope it’s a sign of more work coming his way, but there is little that gives one confidence in that hope.

Kansas City Chiefs

With Damien Williams nursing a rib injury, LeSean McCoy led the way in the KC backfield. What’s especially worth noting though is that Darwin Thompson was a close second, leading the backfield in targets and receiving EP. He’s averaging 10 total opportunities over the last two weeks, and his total EP are trending upward.

Los Angeles Chargers

Melvin Gordon continues to play the lead role in the Chargers’ backfield, though Austin Ekeler continues to look like the better player. Ekeler leads all RBs in receiving yards, and only Derrick Henry is averaging more FPOE per game. No player at any position has more receiving FPOE than Ekeler.

Not surprisingly, Ekeler is Philip Rivers’ most efficient receiver.

This level of efficiency is a step above Ekeler’s past performances to this point, but he’s been among the most efficient RBs in the league for his entire career.

Gordon’s strategy of holding out early in the season appeared to have backfired after Ekeler got off to a fast start. But the truth is it might not have mattered anyway. Ekeler doesn’t need a Gordon holdout to show that he’s more than capable of replacing Gordon’s production (and more).

Miami Dolphins

Kalen Ballage’s season ended with an Achilles injury, which means the Miami backfield has turned into the all-RotoViz-favorite-sleeper backfield. Myles Gaskin is someone we pegged as the next Phillip Lindsay, and Patrick Laird makes a good next-Phillip-Lindsay case of his own.

Laird continues to be the first next man up in Miami, and as neither player beat expectations in Week 14, that looks like it will continue to be the case going forward.

New England Patriots

With New England struggling against Kansas City, James White was the leader in both rushing and receiving EP. Although Rex Burkhead had more carries, White was the back on the field for New England’s lone rushing attempt from inside the 10-yard line.1 Sony Michel touched the ball only six times.

Even though New England’s upcoming RB schedule isn’t the easiest, their next game at Cincinnati figures to be an easy win, which may mean more involvement for Michel.

New York Jets and Oakland Raiders

I’m treating the Jets and Raiders together because they faced similar situations on Sunday, with dominant starters missing the game and being replaced largely by committees. Once the starters are healthy they should regain lead back status. The difference is that Josh Jacobs continues to lose receiving work both to DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, while Le’Veon Bell loses receiving work to the ether.

Pittsburgh Steelers

James Conner is expected to return in Week 15, which likely means Benny Snell’s time as the leading rusher in Pittsburgh is likely over. Unfortunately for Snell enthusiasts, Conner’s return comes at just the right time for Pittsburgh. Snell struggled with efficiency throughout the season, culminating in a negative 6.3 FPOE performance in Week 14.

By contrast, Kerrith Whyte has been a (very) minor revelation.

It’s unlikely Whyte has much of a role with Conner’s return either, but he’s quietly succeeded in areas where Snell has not, so there’s a chance we see him hang around and gain relevance in case Conner has to miss time again.

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

  1. Brandon Bolden took a carry from the 10-yard line into the end zone to score the Patriots only rushing TD.  (back)

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