By Mike Robinson Follow @mr_robinson42
Fantasy owners employing the Zero-RB strategy are interested in pass-catching running backs that see the most targets at the right price. As stated in my previous article on target hog wide receivers, targets mean opportunities for receptions, yards gained and touchdowns. The best pass catching running backs convert their targets into productive fantasy stats on a regular basis. Zero-RB strategists find themselves waiting on running backs until at least round four or five. In fact, per Shawn Siegle’s 2013 article, his “preferred lineup after five rounds is to own one tight end … and four wide receivers.” This means that owners employing this approach pass on the top 25+ RBs. The Zero-RB strategy at this point calls for selecting one of three different types of running backs: 1) RBs with breakout potential, 2) handcuffs to RBs in top performing offenses, and 3) pass-catching RBs in committee backfields.
Of the three types of RBs ranked outside the top 25, pass-catching RBs are probably the most reliable in terms of average production. While we all wish we could figure out the next breakout running back in advance or predict who’s going to get hurt any given week, Zero-RB owner’s goals are better served pursuing pass-catching RBs. This article brings attention to some target hog RBs (50+ targets) whose current ADP ranking may provide Zero-RB owners an opportunity fill out their rosters with better options at the running back position. Six of the top 10 most targeted running backs in the NFL are ranked outside the top 25 running backs in ADP. They are James White, Duke Johnson, Bilal Powell, TJ Yeldon, Theo Riddick, and Darren Sproles. These players are not the David Johnsons or Le’Veon Bells of the world, but if you need running back value with volume targets, these are names to keep in mind as you navigate your fantasy drafts outside the first four rounds.
All stats, rankings, and ADP used in this article are based on a PPR, 12 team format.
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Fun fact: For running backs who had at least 55 targets, no one had a higher catch rate (receptions/targets) than LeSean McCoy with 87.7% in 2016. Le’Veon Bell posted 79.8% while David Johnson posted only 66.3%.
James White, RB, NEP – 82 targets
(currently RB44, per fantasyfootballcalculator.com)
Most known for his historic performance in Super Bowl LI, including 14 receptions for 110 yards and a touchdown, James White scored three times including the game winner that capped off the best comeback in Super Bowl history. White’s role as the Patriots’ primary running back passing target was cemented that Sunday. During the off-season, he signed a three-year $12,000,000 contract and is set to earn a base salary of $690,000 and a signing bonus of $4,000,000 (salary data per spotrac.com). All this suggests that Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft appreciate what James White brings to the team and plan to keep him involved in the passing game for quite some time.
White was targeted 82 times during the 2016 regular season making him the 3rd most targeted RB in the NFL behind David Johnson (119 targets) and Le’Veon Bell (94 targets). Offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels has demonstrated tremendous faith in James White’s abilities to be effective in the passing game. Running backs coach, Ivan Fears, who is in his 27th season with the Patriots, was a wide receiver coach for the Chicago Bears for six years during the 90’s (per www.patriots.com). Coach Fears played an instrumental role in molding White into a fine receiving complement to one of the league’s most prolific offenses (ranked 6th in 2015 and 4th in 2016). Now, the Patriots have added Brandin Cooks and Dwayne Allen to their receiving corp of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and, of course, Rob Gronkowski. With so many weapons in the Patriots’ offense to defend, it’s easy to see that James White should still be able to attract plenty of targets. At RB No. 44, White can be picked up in the 9th round at this point. This is a great value for a proven RB target hog returning to the same offense, with the same QB (Tom Brady) and the same coaching staff.
Duke Johnson, RB, CLE – 74 targets
(currently RB47, per fantasyfootballcalculator.com)
Duke Johnson has been biding his time in Cleveland while they search for their next franchise quarterback. However, he hasn’t been idle by any stretch of the imagination. In 2016, he was targeted 74 times which was good enough to be the fourth most targeted RB in the NFL. It’s almost ironic that the “passing down” role has become Duke’s specialty since his 2015 NFL Draft Profile indicated that he had a “lack of pass protection skills that could force him into a committee situation” (per NFL.com). True that he is in a committee situation sharing time with Isaiah Crowell, but funny how he ended up on the passing side of things. This is a sure sign of his growth as a player in the NFL.
Duke is fortunate to be getting instruction by 19-year veteran Running Backs coach, Kirby Wilson who joined the Browns in January of 2016. To his credit, Coach Wilson coached five running backs who rank in the top 25 for career rushing yards (Emmitt Smith #1, Curtis Martin #4, Edgerrin James #12, Adrian Peterson #16 and Thomas Jones #25) and also two of the top four all-time reception leaders among running backs (Larry Centers #1 and Keith Byers #4). Trivia fact: Kirby Wilson spent the 2001 season in the collegiate ranks serving as the wide receivers coach under Seattle’s current Head Coach, Pete Carroll at Southern California (coaching bio information per www.clevelandbrowns.com).
When evaluating Duke Johnson, it’s important to note that Isaiah Crowell is firmly entrenched as the team’s primary running back and also had 49 targets in the passing game in 2016. Also, neither Crowell nor Johnson found the end zone on a passing play in 2016. With the departure of Terrelle Pryor (130 targets) and Gary Barnidge (76 targets) being answered by the addition of veteran WR Kenny Britt and rookie TE David Njoku, it’s difficult to see either Crowell or Johnson getting many red zone targets in 2017.
The QB situation in Cleveland is likely going the way of Cody Kessler to start the season with possible changes later in the year to DeShone Kizer or [gasp]Brock Osweiler. However, Duke Johnson has shown the ability to remain a viable option between the 20s regardless of the QB taking the snaps. This is evidenced by his steady receiving numbers over the past two seasons: 57-500-2TDs on 68 targets in 2015 and 53-514-0TDs on 74 targets in 2016. Duke should finish about 10 spots better than his current ADP (11th round) which is a good value to those Zero-RB owners.
Bilal Powell, RB, NYJ – 72 targets
(currently RB26, per fantasyfootballcalculator.com)
A fourth-round pick back in 2011, New York Jets’ Bilal Powell is entering his seventh year in the NFL and comes into 2017 as one of the most sought after Zero-RB targets. Powell finished 2016 as a top five target hog RB with 72 targets. Even with the likes of Matt Forte (who made a living as a three-down back in Chicago) joining the team in 2016, Powell still managed to outpace Forte by over 29 targets last season. In fact, the coaching staff was so impressed by Powell’s pass blocking and receiving skills that Forte was a rare participant on passing downs with only 16 3rd down plays for the season compared to Powell’s 31. Expectations are high for Powell to assume a larger piece of the rushing attempts as well in 2017. Running backs coach, Stump Mitchell states, “I expect those guys each to average 100 total yards a game” (per www.NJ.com).
We’ve heard rumors of a timeshare between Powell and Forte where each back may alternate series as opposed to the situational rotation we saw in 2016. If true, Powell may have more opportunities to add rushing stats and serve as a complete RB this season. At his current ranking, RB No. 26, Powell is going as early as Round 6, so be prepared to snag him early before less favorable options remain.
TJ Yeldon, RB, JAC – 68 targets
(currently unranked, per fantasyfootballcalculator.com)
Perhaps an unexpected name in this group of proven pass catching backs is Jacksonville’s TJ Yeldon. With 68 targets, Yeldon secured enough looks from Blake Bortles to land as the sixth most targeted RB in the NFL in 2016. At Alabama, TJ Yeldon served effectively as the pass catching back behind Derrick Henry. With the selection of Leonard Fournette in the first round of this year’s draft, Yeldon will yet again be paired with a powerful running back. The combination of Fournette’s power with Yeldon’s catching ability and perhaps the maturation of Bortles may help Jacksonville to convert third downs and short yardage situations at a better rate this season. This could provide Yeldon with ample opportunities to maintain his production in the passing game.
Entering the third year of his rookie deal, Yeldon needs to have a productive season. He finished above James White and just behind Duke Johnson and Theo Riddick in fantasy points last year. He is basically free in redraft leagues.
Theo Riddick, RB, DET – 67 targets
(currently RB35, per fantasyfootballcalculator.com)
In 2016, no one caught more touchdown passes as a running back than Detroit’s Theo Riddick and New England Patriots’ James White. They each caught five touchdown passes on the season. Riddick, who enjoyed 99 targets in 2015, saw his target share diminish to 67 in 2016 and yet he still finished seventh in RB targets. Ameer Abdullah is coming back from injury and figures to serve as the early-down back this season. If Abdullah were to suffer another injury, Riddick’s target share would get a significant boost. So, in addition to Riddick’s value as a pass catcher, he also has value as a handcuff. At his current rank of RB No. 35, he could be coming off the draft board as early as round seven.
Darren Sproles, RB, PHI – 66 targets
(currently RB55, per fantasyfootballcalculator.com)
One of the true trailblazers of the pass-catching RB role, Darren Sproles, enjoyed a significant role for several years with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Sproles, age 34 and currently with the Philadelphia Eagles, was targeted 66 times in 2016 which was good enough for a Top 10 finish in terms of running back targets. The off-season addition of LeGarrette Blount should really have no impact on Sproles’ target share in 2017. Even at his advanced age, Sproles has been a reliable and available player throughout his career. Sproles, a possible Top 25 back in fantasy scoring, can be had as late as round 13 at his current ADP of 147.0 and rank of RB55.
Danny Woodhead, RB, BAL – 60+ targets (projected)
(currently RB27, per fantasyfootballcalculator.com)
While many expect RB No. 27, Danny Woodhead, to excel in Baltimore with the vacancy left by Kyle Juszczyk, he is inheriting a meager 47 targets. This placed Juszcyk as the 22nd most targeted running back of 2016. That is three spots behind Mark Ingram and Isaiah Crowell who rely on receiving yards as only 23% and 27% (respectively) of their total yards gained. Woodhead, who is now 32 years old, is hoping to regain the form displayed in his last full season in San Diego (2015) when he was targeted 107 times. This would’ve made him the second most targeted player in 2016.
However, RB No. 43 Kenneth Dixon is still on the roster and had 30 receptions and 88 rushing attempts last year. Terrance West is still the lead back in Baltimore and had 34 receptions last season as well. With the injury to Dennis Pitta and the retirement of Steve Smith, there are 202 targets up for grabs. The signing of former Kansas City, WR, Jeremy Maclin will remedy some of that and there will probably be an uptick in Mike Wallace’s numbers as well. It’s a hard sell to expect Danny Woodhead to come anywhere close to 100 targets this season. That being said, at the price of his current ADP 62.9 (6th round), he is still a good value getting around 60+ targets this season, if he remains healthy.
Jeremy McNichols, RB, TBB – *<20 projected targets
(currently unranked, per fantasyfootballcalculator.com)
I’ve read a lot of hype on the pass catching ability Jeremy McNichols this offseason. The fifth round selection has been talked up by many in the fantasy community due to his production at Boise State (51 receptions for 460 yds. and six TDs). McNichols, like Jay Ajayi (also from Boise State) may have to be patient in his path to winning NFL starts. With Doug Martin, Charles Sims, and Jacquizz Rodgers squarely ahead of him on the roster, I see no clear path to fantasy relevant touches or targets in 2017. Running Backs Coach Tim Spencer is beginning his fourth year with the Buccaneers and had success with Martin, Sims, and Rodgers. The fact that Coach Spencer was the Chicago Bears running backs coach for nine seasons (2004-12) including a significant portion of Matt Forte’s career (per www.buccaneers.com) bodes well for McNichol’s future. Perhaps he is worth a stash in dynasty formats, but he’s a dart throw in redraft leagues this year.
Top 10 Target Hog RBs by ADP with 2016 Targets
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PPR ADP Rankings per fantasyfootballcalculator.com
*projected target values
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