Ultimate Zero RB Watch List – Ranking the AFC Contenders

The picture isn’t complete, but we know the players and the plot. Some situations have yet to fully reveal themselves, but there is enough information available to allow us some pretty good guesses at how the rest of the seasons will shake out.

To that point, my co-author in the Zero RB series, Blair Andrews, and I discussed the idea of creating projections this week for the rest of the season. I sent Blair down to the RotoViz labs with the directive to use his best regression models to predict the point totals of every running back for the remaining 10 fantasy weeks, and he returned with the following proclamation: season-to-date PPR point totals are just about as predictive as anything we have.1 For more on how accurate the projections are, check out Blair’s NFC companion piece.

So if you want to know how things are going to shake out, sorting the following table by PPR points is just about as good as any method.

With that out of the way, this week will mark our first attempt at ranking the Zero RB targets within the context of these constantly changing landscapes.

PLAYERRush AttRush YdsRush TDsRush Expected PtsReceptionsRec TargetsRec YardsRec Expected PtsPPR Points
Kareem Hunt106630456.6212325531.9145.5
Leonard Fournette130596679.2152013627130.2
Melvin Gordon99356355.4283922261.2127.8
Le'Veon Bell134550480.3303915658.7124.6
Duke Johnson21117215.2263626947.582.6
Lamar Miller98372149.1151817525.681.7
Javorius Allen76281145.3232811440.874.5
LeSean McCoy87279045.5273218944.173.8
James White2399013.5334225259.368.1
C.J. Anderson73330144.310126720.261.7
Bilal Powell51240228.113187227.756.2
Mike Gillislee79290454.4000053
Chris Ivory40162020.5162114330.552.5
Frank Gore85288244.8101410019.460.8
Jay Ajayi102391049.77122316.548.4
DeMarco Murray68313235.114178623.765.9
Giovani Bernard209109.9101415622.446.7
Marshawn Lynch70257241.94103814.245.5
Joe Mixon67187136.311117814.343.5
Isaiah Crowell74252037.29137218.941.4
Charcandrick West52311.911117219.638.5
Matt Forte32116018.4151711723.538.3
Dion Lewis3015121977429.838.3
Jalen Richard26127112.281110815.237.5
Elijah McGuire44198124.3575511.436.3
Alex Collins52339024.50202.733.9
D'Onta Foreman5020702634685.530.5
Terrance West39139221.524234.930.2
Marlon Mack27127219.435346.931.1
Jamaal Charles33175120.734215.928.6
Mike Tolbert37135124.4563210.127.7
Austin Ekeler63614.69138318.326.9
Derrick Henry62318233.222243.148.2
Kyle Juszczyk31102.28128017.223.1
DeAndre Washington142006.511136718.319.7
Robert Turbin2050118.956197.617.9
Rex Burkhead51802.347499.216.7
Jeremy Hill2998014.544164.415.4
Corey Grant997052313413
Tyler Ervin41201.88113815.413
Branden Oliver175807.8582012.812.8
Tommy Bohanon1003.5482314.212.3
Damien Williams103004.658331011.3
James Conner146906.50101.46.9
Danny Woodhead1400.733333.96.7
Mack Brown82903.711111.45

The rankings are tiered instead of hard numbered. Tiers are grouped by players in similar situations. Within individual tiers, I’ll attempt to list players in general order of preference rest of season, but the differences may be very small and come down to roster construction and personal preference.

I encourage all of you to provide your feedback on these rankings on the message board, or hit me up on Twitter.

Tier 1 – Three-Down Studs

Le’Veon Bell 

Kareem Hunt

Leonard Fournette

Melvin Gordon

  • Not much to see here. These guys are getting the workloads we were promised and paying off with fantasy points.2 Just hope for health.

Tier 2 – Three-Down Underachievers

LeSean McCoy 

Jay Ajayi

Lamar Miller

Joe Mixon

  • McCoy and Ajayi are getting the work. Both are among the top nine in rushing Expected Points (ruEP) in the AFC and have already had their byes. With low efficiency so far, they present buy-low opportunities.
  • Miller controls the Houston backfield, rendering D’Onta Foreman a handcuff for now.
  • Mixon hasn’t been cashing in on the work he’s seen so far, but neither Jeremy Hill nor Giovani Bernard is a threat to steal his rushing load.

Tier 3 – Time Share Leaders

C.J. Anderson

Javorius Allen

DeMarco Murray

  • Anderson may have landed somewhere between the first two tiers if we did this list last week, but now that Devontae Booker is back and healthy, it looks like a potential three-way time share with the starter losing high-value touches. Anderson had 23 snaps, while his teammates split 20 snaps and combined to out-touch the starter against the Giants.
  • Allen’s rushing work is clearly going to fluctuate week to week with Alex Collins now having led the team in carries in three of the past four outings, but he gets everything in the passing game and is now the seventh-highest scoring PPR RB in the AFC.
  • I placed Murray here because he is still technically leading the time share in Tennessee, mostly based on his edge in the passing game. Even Monday night, Murray still saw about two thirds of the total snaps, despite getting out-touched and out-produced by Henry. However, there is no question which of the two backs I would rather own.

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Tier 4 – The Cream of the Zero RB Crop

Derrick Henry

Duke Johnson

D’Onta Foreman

Rex Burkhead

Marlon Mack

  • Lat week, the Titans promised to get Henry more involved. They delivered, and so did Henry. He had 19 carries to Murray’s 12, including an epic 72-yard gallop where the 247-pound speed demon outran the entire Colts defense to seal the victory. It was almost comical to watch such a large individual blow by everyone on the field. By the eyeball test and by the numbers, Henry looks like the better back, and just like he was in the pre-season, he’s still at the top of our Zero RB Watch List.


  • It’s time to give Duke Johnson his due. He’s the overall RB12 in PPR leagues. He’s not in a higher group because the Browns are steadfast in their refusal to feed Johnson any more rushing work, leaving me doubtful they’ll do so at any point this year. He’s a very useful RB2/Flex, but this is likely his ceiling.
  • You can bicker about Burkhead’s place here — and I encourage you to in the comments — but the point I hope to make is that Burkhead is still a stash. All the factors that made him a top Zero RB target in the preseason are still present. Mike Gillislee is in the doghouse after a fumble against the Jets, and Burkhead is expected back next week against the Falcons.
  • Despite his Week 5 breakout, we warned you last week to be wary of Marlon Mack, and this is why. The Colts promisied to get him more involved but inexplicably gave him just two carries. Still, Mack has a workhorse profile and could yet provide value this season.

Tier 5 – Limited Pass Catchers

James White

Giovani Bernard

  • These two are in much the same situation as Duke Johnson, but White gets ranked behind the Browns back because he is so game-script dependent and won’t be playing from behind as often as Johnson and the 0-6 Browns will be.
  • Bernard holds less value than both because his offense is not as good as White’s, and he’s not a threat to steal any rushing work from Mixon.

Tier 6 – Old and Ineffective

Frank Gore

Marshawn Lynch 

  • Frank Gore did more Frank Gore things, which apparently enough to stave off Marlon Mack for now.
  • Lynch’s situation is a disaster, but if you’re a true Zero RB believer, chances are he was never on your roster anyway.

Tier 7 – I Can’t Quit You

Bilal Powell 

Devontae Booker

Jamaal Chalres

Matt Forte

  • While I’m ready to be wrong, I’m treating Bilal Powell as the lead back for the New York Jets based on his 40 touches in the two games before he was injured. But this is a very fluid situation, and I wouldn’t blame you if you’d rather roster someone else instead. Powell is listed as week to week.
  • Booker’s return was a reminder that he was one of the best receiving backs in the country in his time at Utah, as he tallied four catches for 78 yards, while Charles had one catch for two yards. I’m reluctant to take too much away from such a brutal and bizarre game for the Broncos, but Booker looked like their best back Sunday and needs to be rostered, especially in PPR leagues.
  • All that can’t be good news for Charles, but if Denver’s meltdown against the Giants on Sunday was the start of a tailspin, I could see scenarios where they feel the need to get the veteran more involved.
  • Given his propensity to rack up catches, plus the potential for a heavy workload if/when Powell is out, I’m holding Forte for now.

Tier 8 – Two-Down Thumpers

Mike Gillislee

Alex Collins

Isaiah Crowell

  • A quick note on the thumpers — they could easily be placed in a higher tier based on their actual production so far, but we’re looking for upside.
  • Gillislee was on the field for a season-low 13 snaps and now hasn’t scored a TD in his last four games.
  • We already mentioned that Collins has led the Ravens in carries three of the past four weeks. However, he has zero passing chops and a low ceiling overall.
  • Crowell’s head coach is still a believer. He’ll score at some point, but like the others in this tier, he’s almost impossible to start.

Tier 9 – Top Handcuffs

Chris Ivory 

James Conner

Austin Ekeler 

Charcandrick West

Mike Tolbert

Damien Williams 

  • Ivory is atop the list of handcuffs because he has the best chance of sliding straight into his starter’s shoes in the case of injury. He’s also beginning to show borderline flex appeal, as he is an RB3 — now the RB29 overall in PPR scoring.
  • James Conner will see the majority of the rushing work if Le’Veon Bell is injured, but without a single catch all year, he’s certainly no direct replacement.
  • The Buffalo Bills wouldn’t give a full workload to Tolbert in the absence of McCoy, would they? Really? Nah. Maybe?
  • Shawn Siegele provides this note on the LA Chargers handcuff situation:

 Since Branden Oliver has missed two games with a hamstring injury and the Chargers seem fairly high on Ekeler (who would almost certainly take some of the all-important passing down work), Oliver might be more of an also-ran-tier player.

  • West flashed in Week 5 with two scores but left their most recent matchup with a concussion.

Tier 10 – The Also Rans

Branden Oliver

Jalen Richard

DeAndre Washington

Dion Lewis 

Elijah McGuire

Robert Turbin 

Jeremy Hill

Terrance West 

  • The way Marshawn Lynch is playing, it’s possible we see more from Richard and Washington, but the Raiders have given no indications as to who would lead the time share. Also, neither have looked much more effective than Lynch.
  • Dion Lewis looked great starting for Patriots and providing a spark while working ahead of Gillislee, but with Burkhead returning, I’m not buying him just yet.
  • We were promised plenty of McGuire against the Patriots on Sunday, but with Forte back in the fold, he was relegated to a bit role, where I expect he’ll stay.
  • Turbin ran ahead of Mack on Monday night but left the game with an injury.



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  1. You can play with the linear regression tool in the RotoViz Screener to explore the relevance of different RB stats.  (back)
  2. Bell, Fournette, and Gordon do hold a solid lead over Hunt in Expected Points.  (back)
By Cort Smith | @cortnall | Archive

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