The Zero RB Target Fantasy Football List
Even if you do not buy the conceit that ZeroRB (or modified Hybrid ZeroRB, where you select a running back in the first round and then wait until the mid-rounds to build on the position), identifying potential breakout running backs and runners who stand to gain the most from an injury in front of them is part of the skeleton key to winning your leagues.
Generally speaking, what we are looking for in Zero RB candidates are 1) pass-catching upside even without a full-time role and 2) a potential workhorse situation if the running back at the top of the depth chart was to get injured. This list will use ADP in the Football Guys Players Championship as of June 9th, 2020 with data courtesy of FantasyMojo.com.
15. Trayveon Williams/Giovani Bernard
While a large chunk of Zero RB targets should be players who have some standalone value (read: you can start them in Week Eight when you are in bye week hell) there are always going to be exceptions. With the reporting that it is at least possible that Joe Mixon may hold out to start the 2020 season, Bernard and Trayveon are both rather attractive for ZeroRB purposes.
In 20 career games without Jeremy Hill or Joe Mixon active, Bernard has averaged a shade over 15 PPR points and has been targeted 4.8 times per game. Even getting two or three games of Gio as a starter with Mixon holding out would make him a slam dunk at current cost especially if those games come early in the year and have you starting with a 3-0 record.
Williams is likely a better dynasty target as he was a true workhorse in college, however there is some chance that if Mixon was truly deadset on holding out, the team would turn to Trayveon as the starter and keep Gio in his satellite role. Both Bernard and Williams are appropriate targets at cost (virtually free) and have the added benefit of being able to be your first roster cuts if Mixon simply reports to training camp on time. This is an underrated element of Zero RB targets. You do not want too many “roster clogging” players that you will be unable to drop in season.
14. Ito Smith/Brian Hill
Todd Gurley is no longer an impeachable starting running back. I have no doubts that the Falcons were disappointed with Brian Hill’s performance in 2020 and also don’t think they can count on Ito Smith as he has continued to struggle with injuries through his short career. However, Gurley is nothing close to the picture of health and was coming off a season so bad that the Rams ate millions of dead salary cap dollars just to cut him.
Hill is more typically NFL-starter sized at 6’1 and 220 pounds while Smith is more of a classic pass-catching back at 5’9, 195 pounds. If Gurley were to get injured or simply play as poorly as he did last year (3.8 yards per carry, 4.2 yards per target), Hill can be the facsimile of “workhorse” NFL running back and Ito projects as a player who can handle passing downs. This really is not all that dissimilar to projecting the Falcons in 2019 when we didn’t believe in Devonta Freeman’s skill or health.
Hill and Smith both had opportunities and did not make the most of them in 2019, I do not want to sugarcoat that. This plays into why the team signed Gurley and is why these two are still so far down on this list. However, running back scoring is *LARGELY* a function of opportunity (not entirely, of course).
13. Nyheim Hines
Hines is sort of the quintessential ZeroRB target. By himself, he has almost no league-winning upside. He would have to go full 2019 Austin Ekeler with efficiency and touchdown luck to find himself as a true winrate stud. The far more likely outcome is that Hines will be useful to teams that embrace anti-fragility at the RB position. In his short career, Hines has racked up 139 targets in 32 games (5.9 per game).
Frank Reich himself seems to believe in this role for Hines. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there is a game this year that Nyheim Hines has 10 catches. You guys know from even just talking to Nick (Sirianni) last week, Philip (Rivers) has an uncanny ability to get the ball to the backs and checkdowns and using him like that. Nyheim will be very much integrated into the game plan on all three downs,” Reich said on May 18. “I wouldn’t anticipate he is going to play as many snaps as Marlon (Mack) and Jonathan (Taylor), but there are still enough snaps for him to be very, very productive this year – very productive.”
Over the last three seasons, Phil Rivers has targeted RBs 163 times (2019), 119 times (2018), and 118 times (2017). The supposition here is that even if Jonathan Taylor has a full-time role as the lead back for the Colts, there should be enough room leftover for 60-75 targets for Hines. With a little bit of touchdown luck, that could turn into a backend RB3 season for Hines and someone who glues together your roster as you wait for other ZeroRB breakouts.
Using the Rotoviz Player Usage tool, we can see that Hines’ had a really consistent market share of the RB opportunities in what was a bad Colts offense last season. The spiked weeks are great for best ball and for the weeks you are forced to start him but the chart also shows some upside if/when the starting Colts RB was to miss time.
12. Darrynton Evans
Evans is walking into one of the best ZeroRB spots in all of fantasy football. There is only one other capable running back on the roster, the Tennessee Titans are a super run-heavy team and the aforementioned Derrick Henry has not been a consistent pass catcher in his NFL career. Henry played over 68% of the snaps for the Titans only six times in his breakout 2019 season and ceded 79 touches to Dion Lewis, though Lewis had 214 in 2018. Clearly, there is some small role left for another talented runner.
Titan’s beat report Jim Wyatt reported that “How much will we see of Evans right out of the gate? Well, OC Arthur Smith said during a conference call this week a lot really depends on Evans and how much he can handle. But you could tell by the way he talked he’s excited about him. I like having Derrick Henry on the field as much as possible, but the guy needs a break. The Titans will use Evans to give him some rest, and I think the team will get more playmaking ability from him.”
However, that is not why we would be drafting Evans. Evans falls more in line with the Alexander Mattison/Tony Pollard/Latavius Murray cadre where he immediately becomes a fantasy RB1 if there was an injury ahead of him. Evans rushed for over 1,110 twice in two seasons at Appalachian State and caught 21 passes as a junior. There is at least supporting evidence that he could be a lead NFL running back and is a hamstring pull away from getting an audition at that job for the Titans. If you believe there is a chance that Evans gets anything like Lewis’ 2018 role in the Titans offense, there is even more reason to roster him.
11. Latavius Murray
The worst fantasy player you know understands why Latavius is a good ZeroRB candidate. In best-ball formats, you’ll run into a few weeks where he vultures Alvin Kamara the goal line, and even in games where Kamara was active last season, he still had a small role. In the games that Kamara missed entirely, Murray averaged 34.35 PPR points. No, that isn’t a typo. 34.35 PPR points.
We aren’t drafting Murray for breakout purposes, the way that we would treat a younger player in ambiguous circumstances where the target and rushing shares are cloudy. We drafting Murray and simply applying base-level injury rates for starting running backs to Alvin Kamara and profiting if/when he is forced to miss time. There isn’t much to say as it relates to Murray, we know what we are getting. When he starts games for the Saints, you’ll want to have him though there is some roster-clogging potential as you will likely not want to cut him even with Kamara healthy.
10. Justin Jackson/Joshua Kelley
We all love Austin Ekeler and were rewarded by his astounding efficiency last season. Even in an 11 touchdown + 108 target season, Ekeler still only recorded 132 rushes while the Chargers as a whole ran 366 times. Melvin Gordon himself 55 targets and 162 rushes in only 11 games. Clearly, there is a role for one other productive back in the Chargers backfield. The problem that could arise would be that Kelley and Jackson end up splitting that role which would leave them both useless for fantasy.
#Chargers OC Shane Steichen says the offense will feature more than just two running backs as in past season.
“All three of those guys are going to share the load. They all bring something unique.”
— Jason B. Hirschhorn (@by_JBH) April 29, 2020
While Jackson was a true workhorse at Northwestern (four straight 1,000+ yard rushing season), he fits more in the NFL as a passing-down back as he is just under 200 pounds. Joshua Kelley, on the other hand, is 5’11, 212 pounds, and handled back to back 220+ carry seasons at UCLA. There is a chance that the franchise views Justin Jackson as the Ekeler replacement/backup and Kelley as the early-down and goalline back. It is a viable strategy in best-ball and redraft leagues to select both of the Chargers’ tertiary backs and wait to see if there is a winner.
9. Chase Edmonds
Chase Edmonds was a trendy ZeroRB selection last year and was very close to being a league-winner. In-season trades are so random and rare in the NFL that the Kenyan Drake trade really can’t be counted as a strike against the strategy. Had the Cardinals not traded for Drake, Edmonds would have for certain had a role as the lead back for a team that produced amazing results for a decrepit David Johnson and RB1 numbers for Drake.
In the game that David Johnson left early with injury, Edmonds had 27 rushes for 126 yards and added four targets for 24 yards with, wait for it, three touchdowns! Then in the Cardinals next game, Edmonds was injured and in turn, Arizona then traded for Kenyan Drake. Had Edmonds himself never been hurt, there is a chance that it would be Edmonds we are taking in the back end of the first round and not Kenyan Drake.
My supposition is not that Edmonds will start over Drake but that 1) he could carve out some sort of complementary role in an offense that projects to run the most plays of any team in the NFL and 2) his competition if Drake were to be injured is seventh-round selection Eno Benajmin, which would likely mean Edmonds would get a massive lion’s share of the work with Drake off the field.
8. Duke Johnson
There is a very real possibility that no matter what the Texans want out of David Johnson, he just won’t be capable of being a 250+ touch running back in 2020. I love David Johnson, I thought he was one of the best prospects of the last decade when he came out of UNI but his efficiency has been startling. He has averaged 3.6 and 3.7 yards per rush attempt the last two seasons and was effectively benched last year after returning from injury for Chase Edmonds and Kenyan Drake.
Duke, on the other hand, was a massive disappointment last season for volume reasons. He recorded only 83 rushes and 62 targets in 16 healthy games. Carlos Hyde tallied 245 rushes and Johnson was out-targeted on a per-game basis by Kenny Stills, Will Fuller and Keke Coutee. He just straight up was not a part of the Texans offense.
For their part, the Texans coaching staff are saying the right things about using both Duke and David as pass-catchers and having them on the field at the same time. This could end up playing out similarly to how the Browns used Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb in 2019. The reason why Duke makes the list is that we can reasonably project a target share increase with the departure of DeAndre Hopkins and perhaps a carry increase with Carlos Hyde not re-joining the team. Duke’s current cost treats him as a lotto ticket but he should have some sort of week-to-week role that makes him startable in a pinch. In the event of a David Johnson injury, Duke has no competition on the roster and he may simply prove to be the more effective player in 2020 with no injury to David Johnson.
7. Phillip Lindsay
Why the Broncos ever thought it was a good idea to sign Melvin Gordon is beyond me. Gordon has been a slogging, inefficient player every year of his career except for 2018 and has done nothing to show that he is a better player than Phillip Lindsay (or even Royce Freeman for that matter). Lindsay is positioned very similarly to Austin Ekeler was beyond Gordon, as a back who can catch passes and stands to benefit enormously from a Gordon injury.
Lindsay’s closest career comps through two seasons of playing in the NFL are Arian Foster (also an undrafted free agent) and Frank Gore, using a search for players with over 2,400 yards from scrimmage + 4.8 yards per carry or greater + 65 or more receptions + 300 fantasy points or more in their first two seasons in the NFL.
Now this is not to say that Lindsay is as talented as any of those players (he likely isn’t) but he has proven that he can be a capable lead back in the NFL despite his smaller stature. Were Melvin Gordon to revert to his plodding ways and struggle as a pass-catcher, Lindsay would have no trouble taking the reigns from Gordon. In fact, Lindsay can succeed as a ZeroRB candidate in multiple ways. Gordon can get injured, or Lindsay can simply outplay him on limited opportunities.
I am sure that all of you intelligent readers are starting to pick up on a common trend amongst many of these running backs. All of these players have demonstrated the ability to catch passes, play in a backfield with other running backs who have either struggled with health or who would massively benefit from an injury ahead of them. Lindsay meets all of these criteria. This great article from JJ Zachariason explains these trends that we use to spot breakout RBs.
6. Tarik Cohen
Tarik Cohen was just a catastrophically bad pick last season. Drafting satellite backs at their ceiling projection is almost always going to be bad business. This is why Kareem Hunt is not a ZeroRB building block (though there is a school of thought that his ceiling is high enough to justify him in the fifth/sixth rounds) and also why we are skipping on Devin Singeltary, Derrius Guice and James White on this list.
While Cohen will have some week-to-week usability, that is not really why he is on this list. There is not much of a gap between Nyheim Hines’ weekly projection and Cohen’s. However, Cohen possesses an exponential upside. Much like Lindsay, he would become something close to a lead back if David Montgomery were to be injured due to a complete lack of competition behind him (Ryan Nall is currently the Bears’ third RB). The upside would come in the form of improved efficiency on the touches Cohen already is penciled in for in addition to injury upside.
Cohen was targeted 104 times last season but averaged only 4.4 yards per target. In 2018, however, he averaged 8.0 yards per target and scored eight times including touchdowns of 70 and 21 yards (we would credit those as efficiency plays as the expected TD rates would be very low on an average play from those distances). Running backs who get a large amount of their volume via passes (and play with a shaky backfield partner) simply have better fantasy utility than players who generate most of their points from the ground.
A reason we can believe this efficiency might improve is that unlike many other running backs, Cohen is actually targeted further down the field than many of his compatriots. A look at his route tree from 2018 using NFL Next Gen Stats shows us this.
5. Matt Brieda
While it feels disrespectful to Our Laird to admit it, Matt Brieda is the most explosive running back on the Dolphins roster. Jordan Howard is on his third team in three years and only caught 10 passes before being sidelined by injury in 2019. In Breida’s career, he has scored 14 or more PPR points in eight of his 25 games with 10 or more touches. His career yards per rush attempt is 5.0 and five of his 10 career touchdowns have come from 20 yards out or further.
In fact, per NFL Next Gen Stats, Brieda was the fastest ball-carrier in the NFL last season, topping out at 22.3 miles per hour. Pretty simply, if betting on upside candidates in an offense that we expect to be ascending instead of descending in 2020, you want to bet on Brieda instead of Howard. For his 381 career rushes, Brieda has 89 targets compared to Howard who has 897 career rushes and 122 targets. Brieda profiles as the most explosive back in the backfield and as the primary pass-catcher. Buy cheaply while you can.
4. Ronald Jones
Yes, that Ronald Jones. The same Jones who reportedly had “odd hand positioning” when trying to catch the ball. The Ronald Jones who is sharing a backfield with third-round pick Ke’Shawn Vaugh, who lost passing-down work to Dare Ogunbowale and goalline work to Peyton Barber. That same Ronald Jones, however, had over 1,000 yards from scrimmage last season with 40 targets and six touchdowns.
Is Ke’Shawn Vaughn a threat? Absolutely. It is entirely possible that Bruce Arians and Tom Brady just want a “steady” running back who won’t fumble (Jones fumbled three times last year) and is more natural at catching the ball than RoJo who caught only 32 passes his entire time at USC while Vaughn caught 28 passes in his senior season. The outcomes for Jones are more binary than many other players on this list. With Vaughn and Raymond Calais added to the Bucs roster (and Ogunbowale still there), Jones will either end losing out to Vaughn and being in the wrong-end of a timeshare or beat the rookie out entirely. Even in the event of an injury to Vaughn, I would be surprised if a benching at the beginning of the season turned into a role later on in the season for Jones with Calais and Dare holding on to roster spots.
However, if Tom Brady is going to go in the top 100 picks, Godwin and Evans are both gone by the end of the third round and Rob Gronkowski is selected as a top-10 tight end, the market has decided that the Buccaneers are going to score a lot of points. It should stand to reason that IF there is a winner in this backfield, that player is likely to score a usable-amount of fantasy points and if that winner is Jones, a league-winning season is in his potential range of outcomes (contingent on him working as a receiver in 2020).
Jones was the only running back who finished producing a positive amount of fantasy points over expectation in 2019 and those results should be duplicatable in 2020. Despite his flaws, Jones has demonstrated the ability to generate fantasy points in a way that his teammates haven’t and that is why he is on this list.
3. Damien Williams
All of us (who are good at fantasy sports) were Charlie Brown while Lucy pulled the football away with Damien last year. While Carlos Hyde was his only competition in the backfield, he was obviously one of the best values of any running back in draft season. Then Hyde was cut and Andy Reid favorite LeSean McCoy was signed to ding Williams’ fantasy football value. Injuries played a big part in Williams’ down year as he got hurt in Week Two and Week 11.
In games that McCoy did not play in 2019, Williams averaged 21.83 PPR points which doesn’t count his 20-target, six touchdown postseason for the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs. Simply put, Damien Williams is an extremely good fit for this pass-heavy Chiefs offense and there is room for both he and Clyde Edwards-Helaire to score PPR points in 2020. Williams starting out the season playing well would not preclude CEH from having a Miles Sanders-esque second half of the year and in 90th percentile scenarios, both Williams and CEH could pay off their ADP’s.
As GM Brett Veach explains the situation: “I certainly think it’s going to be a shared load. Damien has been in this offense for a long time and certainly has shown what he can do on that playoff run. The guy’s a really good pass protector [and] can catch the football. I mean, both these guys can run and catch and certainly Damien will come in as the starting running back and Clyde will have to come in here and compete for playing time, which we think he’ll do. But I think it will be a one-two punch.”
Is Damien going to be a league-winner in 2020? Only if CEH gets injured or starts out much slower than expected. The Chiefs spent a first-round pick on him and they intend to get their money’s worth from that pick. However, it appears that Damien is going to be the Week One starter and the starting RB for the Chiefs (especially one who can catch passes proficiently) is a fantasy commodity you want. In fact, if the Chiefs only play two RBs and don’t give meaningful snaps to Darwin Thompson or DeAndre Washington, Williams might pay off even in a 50/50 timeshare with Edwards-Helaire.
Lucy, put the football back. This time we’re gonna kick it.
2. Tony Pollard
Tony Pollard is the best handcuff in football. There is not one other situation where you can point to where an injury would create an instant RB1. Just for example, were Ezekiel Elliot to retire from pro football tomorrow, Pollard would go third in a majority of fantasy football drafts after CMC and Barkley. There might even be an argument to put him ahead of Barkley in that event.
Dallas lead the NFL in yards per play last season, kept the same OC, hired a (theoretically) better head coach, and upgraded Jason Witten/Randall Cobb targets to Blake Jarwin and CeeDee Lamb. Pollard averaged 5.3 yards per carry last season and scored three touchdowns on 101 touches. Situationally speaking, things couldn’t be better for Pollard. His backups are Jordan Chunn and Rico Dowdle; both are UDFA’s and neither will be in the Cowboy’s plan in a meaningful way.
Sooner rather than later, the Cowboys are going to be forced to use Tony Pollard like a real part of the offense pic.twitter.com/sj8YePRjcB
— Davis Mattek (@DavisMattek) January 28, 2020
Pollard is 1) efficient dating back to college 2) has no competition in the event of an injury 3) plays for one of the three best offenses in the NFL and is being selected outside of the top-100. Generally, we like to have multiple “outs” to production but the upside for Pollard in a starting role makes him a legitimate priority in every draft and fantasy football format.
1. Cam Akers
I do not expect Akers to be a very popular selection amongst ZeroRB drafters. The market seems to prefer Jonathan Taylor, D’Andre Swift, and J.K Dobbins by a significant margin. There are arguments for Swift and Dobbins being league-winning players and I think they are fine picks at their current cost (though both have uphill climbs to both full playing time and reception ceilings). Akers, on the other hand, might already be on top of the Los Angeles Rams depth chart that turned the corpse of Todd Gurley into a player who scored 14 touchdowns last year.
The Rams traded up to select Darrell Henderson last season and proceeded to give him only 39 rushes and six targets after spending the offseason stating that they wanted to use him “like Chris Thompson”. Henderson was out-rushed by Malcolm Brown and Robert Woods had more rushing touchdowns than Henderson. For a team that is in salary cap hell to spend a second-round pick on a running back the year after spending a third-round pick on Henderson they either 1) have to believe that Henderson is not capable of being a lead back or 2) not understand the caponomics of the modern NFL. Malcolm Brown is still in the mixed but the UDFA has been in the NFL for five seasons and recorded only 197 rushes. I am not optimistic about his sixth-year breakout.
So this takes us to Akers’ chance of being a legit workhorse. Todd Gurley played 787 snaps last season (including one missed game) and it seems from the outside that Sean McVay does prefer using one back when it is possible (Gurley had 300+ touches in two of his three McVay seasons). The weird C.J Anderson run of the 2018 playoffs aside, the Rams have mostly been one-back offense while McVay has been the coach.
Of course, another elephant in the room is that starting RB of the Rams is not as attractive as a job in 2020 as we may have thought at the end of the 2018 season. Jared Goff averaged 8.4 YPA in 2018 and then dropped to 7.4 YPA with 16 interceptions in 2019. For Akers to be a league-winning player he needs to essentially earn Todd Gurley’s vacated role and for the Rams offense to be closer to second-best-in-the-league form from 2018 than the mediocre 2019 product.
While we don’t like to bet too much on running back talent, for what it is worth, Akers does seem to be talented. He ran a 4.47 40 at 217 pounds, caught 53 passes his final two seasons at Florida State and his sim scores from the Rotoviz Box Score Scout are mostly impressive.
Compared to many of the other rookies (Taylor, Swift, Dobbins, Vaughn), there is just a much clearer path to an actual breakout for Akers. Historically, the Rams offense has funneled targets to running backs but likely didn’t last season due to knee issues for Gurley (who fell from 81 to 49 targets year over year) and also provided plenty of scoring opportunities for their starting running backs. The available evidence seems to suggest Henderson might just be one of those guys who never quite makes it happen at the NFL level and in that event, Akers might be the cheapest workhorse back in fantasy football drafts this offseason. In handicapping running backs with 300+ touch upside and who play in offenses we expect to score a reasonable amount of points, Akers is available at the most generous discount to the large amount of uncertainty surrounding the Rams.