Fantasy Football Zero RB Backfield Report: NFC North
Zero RB has been one of the more popular contrarian strategies of the past half-decade in fantasy football. However, something that Davis Mattek has mentioned on the SportsGrid podcast is a potential lack of viable Zero RB candidates in today’s NFL. Essentially, the number of backfields that would produce a full-time starter or high-upside player with an injury may be more limited than they once were.
The Zero RB Backfield Report will look to dive into that hypothesis. I’ll take a look at each division in the NFL, breaking down the backfield of each team, and how viable it is for them to contain a Zero RB candidate.
Here are the divisions studied so far:
Today the series continues with the NFC North.
Depth Chart: D’Andre Swift, Kerryon Johnson, Bo Scarbrough
Detroit also has Ty Johnson still on the roster, and spent a fifth-round pick on Jason Huntley. Both Johnson and Swift were second-round picks under this regime, and it is easy to see head coach Matt Patricia’s Patriots roots here with the addition of Huntley, who caught 126 passes in his final three seasons at New Mexico State. This has the look of a pretty messy committee. Sometimes, Zero RB options can emerge from such situations, but I don’t think that is the case here. Detroit clearly doesn’t trust Johnson as a receiver after scaling back his 2019 workload in that area and drafting two pass-catching backs in the 2020 NFL Draft. An injury to Johnson would likely pave the way for Swift to hit his rushing ceiling, but he is already an early fifth-round pick, and likely a solid fourth-rounder in leagues that are not TE premium.
Verdict: No Zero RB candidates
Green Bay Packers
Depth Chart: Aaron Jones, A.J. Dillon, Jamaal Williams
Jones is coming off of a monster season in which he scored 19 total touchdowns and finished as the RB2. However, for the second consecutive year (and under a different coaching staff), Jones saw far less work with Williams active and available to play. If we remove the Weeks 4 and 16 games in which Williams left early, as well as the two games he missed outright, Jones averaged 13 carries and 3.7 targets. Then they drafted Dillon in the second round. This looks like a true split to open the year, with Dillon having the edge in TD equity and Jones being the preferred pass-catcher. However, the ADPs of these two players are widely separated, with Jones still coming off the board in Round 2, and Dillon lasting all the way until the 12th. An injury to Jones would free Dillon up to have the kind of elite scoring we saw from Jones in 2019, and don’t sleep on his receiving skills as a bigger back after mustering an 8% reception share his final year at Boston College.
Verdict: A.J. Dillon (FFPC ADP RB53) is a Zero RB candidate
Depth Chart: Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Mike Boone
Cook is another one of the league’s best workhorses, having seen over 20 opportunities per game as a part of Mike Zimmer’s conservative offensive approach. Mattison saw 7.7 carries and 0.9 targets per game playing behind Cook in 2019, after being selected in the third round of the 2019 draft. Boone was excellent with both players injured late in the year but then was relegated back to the bench for the post-season. Mattison is likely seeing a relatively full workload in the event of a Cook injury. Cook has missed 19 games through three seasons. He is being drafted a little higher than the handcuff-type of Zero RB targets but has some stand-alone value without an injury.
Verdict: Alexander Mattison (FFPC ADP RB42) is a Zero RB candidate
Depth Chart: David Montgomery, Tarik Cohen, Ryan Nall
The Bears relied a ton on Montgomery from Week 8 on in 2019, as he averaged 17.1 carries and two targets. Cohen was still a major factor in the receiving game over that time, seeing 6.1 targets to go along with his 4.4 rush attempts. Third-stringer Ryan Nall is a pre-season hero, but a non-factor once the games count. There is some intrigue here for both backs. Montgomery is a fifth-rounder that could ascend to a three-down workload should anything happen to Cohen. Cohen, meanwhile, could lead the backfield in PPR scoring outright, goes later, and was a collegiate workhorse. He could certainly be in for a large uptick in volume if Montgomery went down. Cohen is my preferred target, but I could see the case for Montgomery as well as your first RB in a Zero RB setting.
Verdict: David Montgomery (FFPC ADP RB27) is a fringe Zero RB candidate; Tarik Cohen (FFPC ADP RB43) is a Zero RB candidate