Saquon Barkley's unfortunate high-ankle sprain last week got me
to thinking about one of the more important qualities of successful
fantasy football owners when it comes to getting through the tough
times at the running back position: digging a bit deeper to find
value where seemingly none exists. To begin this exercise, I came
up with a quick list of three different types of backfields.
One-back backfields with a high degree of clarity (16):
Arizona, Atlanta, Baltimore, Carolina, Cincinnati Cleveland, Dallas,
Indianapolis, Jacksonville, LA Rams, Minnesota, New Orleans, NY
Jets, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Tennessee
Potential one-back backfields that should/may be approaching
clarity soon (4): Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Tampa Bay
Backfields becoming less clear after three weeks or about
to become less clear (12): Buffalo, Denver, Green Bay,
Houston, Kansas City, LA Chargers, New England, NY Giants, Philadelphia,
San Francisco, Seattle, Washington
As with just about everything in fantasy football, the above
list is highly subjective. In this case, I spent about five minutes
categorizing the teams in order to set the table for this week's
topic. The idea being I didn't want to spend too much time talking
about the 50 percent or so of teams who seem to be moving toward
a primary/featured back or are already doing so and focus on finding
value in the 12 or so other teams.
I have chosen to rank the backfield in terms of the amount of
potential fantasy upside I believe they possess. Some of the summaries
below may provide context, while others may seem like rambling
because, quite frankly, it's hard to understand why some coaches
believe their method is working.
Thoughts: There is little debate this is McCoy's backfield to
lead for as long as he can stay healthy, but there within lies
the problem. He's handled 36 touches (29 runs, seven catches)
and already reportedly injured his ankle twice. He was hurt most
of last year in Buffalo even though he managed to play 14 games.
He's also not Frank Gore, so expecting him to hold up for the
long-term this season at 31 years of age - even sharing touches
- makes him risky to trust much longer.
Damien Williams is still technically the starter. His passing-game
role in this offense feels secure, so he's unlikely to go away
- even if his knee injury has his fantasy owners going crazy at
the moment. But he probably brings the least amount of upside
as a runner, so he's probably going to be sharing touches regardless
of whether McCoy stays healthy or not.
I was impressed by what I saw from Darrel Williams in Week 3.
He did not strike me as anything more than "just a guy"
last season, but he ran with some good power versus the Ravens.
His 41-yard stroll down the right sideline midway through the
fourth quarter showed me a gear I didn't know he had. Perhaps
more telling, CBS play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle said HC Andy
Reid told him during the week he "trusts Darrel Williams."
(For all the analytics that help owners understand the game better
and predict certain outcomes, we never really know for sure who
a coach trusts the most at that particular moment. It can change
from week-to-week or even day-to-day. Maybe he went off-script
to pick up a block on a game-winning touchdown pass. Maybe there
was a moment or two in practice earlier that particular week he
stood out.) Darrel Williams is probably the most likely to find
his way to back of the depth chart when all is said and done,
but not if he keeps putting good film on tape like he did in Week
A few words about Thompson. I still think he is the back to stash
in Kansas City. Do with that opinion what you will. I realize
most readers don't have the luxury of sitting on a lottery ticket
for more than a few weeks that sits fourth on his own team's depth
chart at the moment. I also think that the three men in front
of him already have had the time to earn the one thing that probably
matters most with coaches: trust. Good luck guessing when that
day will come, but I saw enough even in his limited time in Week
3 to remind me why I believe Thompson is the best back in Kansas
Rest-of-season prediction: McCoy leads the backfield before missing
multiple weeks in late October/early November. Thompson steps
into the "McCoy role" shortly thereafter while Damien
Williams complements him. McCoy returns to lead a three-headed
backfield assuming his injury isn't overly serious, making this
a highly productive backfield but one that doesn't allow for any
of them to be more than a fantasy RB2.
Thoughts: There's probably not much here to discuss until Gordon
actually reports (apparently this is happening sooner than later)
since his holdout is/was the only reason why the Chargers are
included here. Fantasy owners have known from the moment they
drafted Ekeler he was going to be on borrowed time in regards
to being the lead back. With that said, it's unlikely to be as
simple as Gordon reports and returns to his old role in two weeks.
Ekeler has obviously performed well enough in Gordon's absence
to remain the lead back until the Chargers are 100 percent confident
in Gordon's fitness and readiness in terms of any offensive adjustments
that have been made since he has been away from the team. Ekeler
also has no business seeing fewer than 8-10 touches once the torch
Rest-of-season prediction: Gordon steps back into 15 touches per
game around Week 7. At that point, Ekeler falls back into his
rich man's Danny Woodhead role. Gordon will sit on the low-end
RB1 borderline, while Ekeler remains a strong flex option.
Thoughts: By now, most readers have likely heard the Pro Football
Focus stat that Michel has forced one missed tackle on 45 rushing
attempts. (Just for the sake of comparison, Alvin Kamara has forced
14 on 42 carries and Mark Ingram had 13 on 43 rushing attempts.)
He also lost a fumble in Week 2 and did not catch his first and
only target of the season in Week 3. At this point, it's fair
to wonder if Michel's knee is bothering him again. Making matters
worse this week was FB James Develin being placed on IR. Without
him, the Patriots' heavy use of two-back formations will take
a significant hit. That's not to say Michel needs a fullback to
succeed, but losing Develin isn't going to make him better. If
Michel can't contribute (or isn't trusted) in the passing game,
then his presence in one-back sets becomes an obvious clue for
the defense as to what is coming.
Talent has not been an issue for Burkhead throughout his career,
but durability has. While we've seen flashes of brilliance throughout
his pro career, he's been limited to 10 games or fewer in five
of his seven seasons. Fantasy owners can ride the wave for as
long as they want - and it certainly will help his chances of
staying on the field if he is capped at around 10 touches per
game - but history suggests the 29-year-old will succumb to injury
at some point (his single-season career-high in touches is 94).
White was always a likely regression candidate based on the fact
his 12 touchdowns last season were two fewer than he had the previous
three years combined. With that said, his start to the 2019 season
is a bit slower than most could have imagined; 15 touches through
the first three games of the season probably wasn't what his fantasy
owners had in mind (he missed last week due to the birth of his
child). Regardless, I'm buying where I can. New England's first
three opponents are a combined 0-9, and the Patriots haven't remotely
come close to trailing in a game yet, meaning there hasn't been
a ton of demand for his services as the two-minute back and one
of Tom Brady's most trusted check-down options. While Burkhead
offers similar skills in a bigger body in theory, we've already
discussed why he's probably not the best long-term play. If Michel
can't pick it up, Burkhead may be needed even more on early downs.
Harris is much like Darwin Thompson above, although I am more
optimistic about the latter's long-term future in the NFL. With
that said, I think he's still very much in the process of building
trust with the coaching staff. In Harris' case, he missed a lot
of time this summer due to injury. Assuming Michel continues to
struggle, Harris is going to get his opportunity sooner or later
- since Michel's durability issues were likely a key reason why
Harris was drafted this spring in the first place.
Rest-of-season prediction: I believe White and Harris - in that
order - end up being the backs to own out of this backfield at
the end of this season. The Patriots have a ridiculously easy
first-half schedule, so it may take a while to play out that way.
Michel is clearly not right - be it due to confidence or injury
- and Burkhead has not proven he can stay healthy. It's doubtful
he'll do so in his age-29 season.
Thoughts: Fantasy owners should strive for consistency but not
necessarily expect it; that responsibility falls on play-callers
to give the backs we count on the most enough of the right opportunities
to be consistent. It is then up to the players to reward their
play-caller's faith enough in order to be consistent for his fantasy
I mention this because Carson might be at a crossroads; he has
done virtually nothing but reward the faith of his coaching staff
for over a year but has fumbled three times in as many games this
season. Feeding into recency bias and draft capital, many believe
it is time to sound the alarm on Carson and start buying on Penny.
(Penny may have actually seen his fantasy value increase in the
eyes of many owners last week despite missing the game. It's an
interesting phenomenon considering Penny has yet to handle more
than 12 touches in a game in his pro career and been unable to
overtake Carson on multiple occasions.) It might surprise readers
to know Carson's three-week production in 2019 is almost the same
as it was at the same point last year. Does Penny offer huge upside?
You bet he does. (Check out my preseason articles.) But let's
imagine for a second that Carson takes advantage of a potential
blow-up spot in Week 4 - assuming Penny misses another week -
and goes off for 120 total yards and two touchdowns against the
Cardinals. Does that mean Carson isn't "cooked" anymore
- as I've heard others say - or did he just take advantage of
a soft matchup? Or did he reassert his place atop the depth chart
until his next fumble? Frankly, it's hard to keep up with all
the narratives that people seem to buy into these days. All I
know is my eyes tell me that Carson is the better back in this
backfield more often than not.
Rest-of-season prediction: Carson takes advantage of his soft
matchup in Week 4 and buys himself a bit of time. He ultimately
misses time later in the year due to injury and Penny performs
well, but not so well he overtakes Carson. In games in which Seattle
should face positive game script, expect the workload split from
Week 2 to be a blueprint. In negative game scripts, it could be
a bit more C.J. Prosise than most expected.
Thoughts: The good news: the 49ers are averaging nearly 40 rushing
attempts. The bad news: HC Kyle Shanahan has split up the workload
in such a way that none of the three backs - at least since Coleman
has been sidelined - that none of them can be considered a dependable
fantasy RB2. How much that changes when Coleman returns is another
story, but there is hope for him at the very least. Why is that?
Shanahan mentioned over the summer that Coleman would likely be
the favorite for goal-line duties. Unlike current TD vulture Jeff
Wilson, Coleman is likely going to be able to do a little more
with his 10-12 touches per week since he is technically a big-play
It's hard to imagine Breida hasn't done enough in the first three
weeks to remain the lead back in this backfield. However, Mostert
has also made a compelling case to stay highly involved as well.
Keep in mind this offense is also not the 2018 Ravens. San Francisco
is not going to continue running the ball 39 times per game and
executing 72-plus offensive plays. In other words, not all three
backs are going to get their 10-12 touches as has seemingly been
the case so far.
But let's circle back to Coleman for a second. If he essentially
takes over Wilson's current role and gets an average of 12 touches,
then there is a recipe for decent upside. While getting two short-yardage
touchdowns per week like Wilson has done the last two games is
unsustainable, this offense is probably good enough to get him
a goal-line chance or two in 10 of the last 13 games. Can he convert
seven or eight of those? If he can, he becomes a Breida clone
in fantasy but with touchdown (and low-end RB2) upside.
Rest-of-season prediction: The results have been good enough
so far that Shanahan might not feel the need to abandon the three-man
committee. Breida maintains the lead role in theory but Coleman
steals his thunder at the goal line. While everyone gets a small
slice of the pie in the passing game, Mostert operates as the
top option in negative game scripts.
Thoughts: Much like fantasy owners tend to complain about Kenyan
Drake's lack of consistent usage despite multiple coaching staffs
running through Miami, this is the second regime that seems to
think Jones and Williams are better in tandem. Again, much like
Drake's situations, it's pretty clear which player is the most
talented. Is there a lack of trust in Jones' dependability? Availability?
Durability? (You may also be noticing right about this moment
how often "trust" is appearing in this piece.) We can't
quantify trust before the fact, which makes predicting what is
going to happen even more difficult.
Another thing to keep in mind is coaches don't look at the season
in the same way fantasy owners do, especially when it comes to
running backs. More and more coaches seem to view the first four
weeks of the season as the preseason and the last eight games
of the season as "crunch time." In other words, this
suggests surviving the first half of the season before injuries
and/or production dictate one player plays over the other. If
the fantasy owner of Jones in your league is sweating the possibility
that Jones isn't going to get 15 touches on a regular basis moving
forward - and especially down the stretch - or scared off by last
week's lack of yardage, don't hesitate to start a conversation.
None of this is meant to discount or dismiss Williams, but the
best games throughout his brief career have always come when he's
had voluminous workloads. On the other hand, Jones has repeatedly
shown he doesn't need a lot of touches to come through for his
fantasy owners. It's only a working theory on my end, but I'm
willing to believe at least some of the new staff's motivation
in splitting touches now is trying to save Jones for the second
half of the season.
Rest-of-season prediction: As I just alluded to, Jones asserts
himself as the clear lead back in "important" games
in the first half before getting a more steady and consistent
workload over the second half of the season. Of course, this assumes
Jones can play more than 12 games for the first time in his career.
If he can't, we might see Williams deliver for his fantasy owners
in the playoffs for the third time in as many seasons.
Thoughts: A lot of people talk about split-committee backfields,
but the Broncos very much seem committed to theirs. This backfield
hasn't quite been a 50/50 timeshare, but it's been much closer
to that than probably anyone anticipated. After nearly leading
all running backs in the percentage of times he faced eight men
in the box last season (36.15 percent), Freeman ranks third in
terms of seeing the fewest stacked boxes through three games in
2019 (2.78). It should not be considered overly surprising he
is averaging 4.8 YPC so far this season as opposed to 4.0 as a
rookie - and not against a trio of soft run defenses. Freeman
has also been allowed to contribute in the passing game this season,
as his 10 catches so far are four shy of what he had in 14 games
Lindsay has seen slightly more work (55 touches to Freeman's
46), but most of that difference came as a result of last week's
25-touch effort. The former undrafted free agent has yet to break
a run of longer than nine yards, unsurprisingly contributing to
his disappointing 3.6 YPC. Lindsay isn't seeing more defenders
in the box either, as this year's 8.89 percent is lower than last
year's 14.06. Browsing over the play-by-play account of their
games so far, I don't detect a consistent pattern in their usage
either (one player gets one series, the other gets the next, etc.).
Freeman actually has one more first-down carry than Lindsay (24-23),
while the latter owns an 18-10 advantage on second-down carries.
(Neither one has more than three third-down rushing attempts.)
Coaches can say Lindsay is running determined - and there is plenty
of proof of that - but the fact is Freeman has found a way to
average more than four yards per carry in every game while Lindsay
has yet to do it once.
Rest-of-season prediction: This has all the makings of remaining
a split backfield for the rest of the season, but based simply
on the fact the Freeman and Lindsay account for 81 of the team's
85 carries suggests there is some value here to be had. The near-complete
absence of Devontae Booker suggests we have a potential feature
back in this backfield if the other gets hurt. The Broncos are
running enough where that back would easily be in the RB2 conversation
if/when it happens. If both stay healthy, it's hard to imagine
Lindsay will be anything less than the lead back in this offense
(in terms of touches), but it probably won't be by a significant
Thoughts: So you think you have a read on this backfield? In
the order listed above, here are the game-by-game snap counts
for all three players: 36-17-23; 35-18-28; 26-25-27. No matter
how big of a Sanders' supporter you are, it is less than ideal
that Sproles has only 12 fewer snaps AND Howard fell one play
shy of matching the rookie last week. Sanders' two fumbles in
that game certainly didn't help his cause in that regard. So what
Sanders has actually led the backfield (or tied for the lead)
in touches all three games. He was much more productive in Week
3 than he had been over the first two games. If Week 3 was any
indication, Howard appears to be the favorite for goal-line work
- as many close to the team believed this summer. Sproles has
been an afterthought in terms in each of the last two weeks in
terms of touches (two apiece) after recording 12 in the opener.
Does that mean Sproles is getting phased out, especially considering
he should have been more involved in games in which they were
trailing late and lost?
The reality of the situation is the injuries to Alshon Jeffery
and DeSean Jackson probably resulted in HC Doug Pederson going
into survival mode for the last two weeks. As much as teams talk
about "next man up," there's an expectation that a team
won't lose both of its starting receivers in the first two games
of the season, much less early in the second game.
Rest-of-season prediction: It's difficult to predict how Pederson
is going to handle Sanders' two fumbles, but I have to believe
he isn't going to get punished much unless it happens again. Unfortunately
for fantasy owners, Pederson has struggled to stick with a lead
back at any point during his tenure, and I don't think that changes
this year either. Sanders is talented enough to overcome a lack
of touches occasionally and provide flex value, but I'm not optimistic
about him becoming an RB2 in 2019. Howard's value will almost
certainly be predicated on his ability to score a touchdown, while
one would think the Eagles won't try to overwork 36-year-old Sproles
at any point. If injury strikes any one of them, it's likely Pederson
will simply ask Corey Clement to fill that player's role in the
Thoughts: There's not much to discuss here as long as Singletary
remains sidelined with a hamstring injury. It's an ominous sign
he's already dealing with such an issue 15 touches into his pro
career, but there's no question he brings electricity to a backfield
that needs it. In Buffalo's perfect world, I believe the Bills
want Gore averaging 12 carries and Singletary taking just about
everything else that OC Brian Daboll wants his running backs to
handle. Yeldon saw a total of seven snaps in the first two games,
indicating he won't have much of a role when Singletary returns.
Rest-of-season prediction: Singletary becomes the clear touch
leader in the backfield. But as was the case in Indianapolis with
Marlon Mack and Miami with Kenyan Drake, Gore steals enough work
to keep the rookie in flex territory most weeks.
Thoughts: This is crazy enough to be true. The Texans traded
a conditional fourth-round pick that can become a third-rounder
to snag Johnson before Lamar Miller got hurt. They later traded
an offensive lineman they were going to cut for Hyde, who was
reportedly headed out in Kansas City. Touch count through three
games: Hyde 41, Johnson 23. Hyde may be running as well now as
he did in San Francisco, but that doesn't make this right. Even
if we disallow the subjective "eye test," Houston's
offense is now all about what needs to be done in order to allow
Deshaun Watson to do his job as well as possible. Giving him another
threat as a receiver out of the backfield - even if Watson doesn't
utilize his backs as receivers as often as he should - helps him
do his job better and likely prevents another potential pass-rusher
from coming after Watson. As a back averaging over five yards
per carry and more than nine yards per catch, the push should
be to get him more touches. It's truly sad that in his fifth year
in the league, he still hasn't been given a chance to lead a backfield.
Speaking as someone who does not own Johnson in any league, he
has seemingly fallen into the same trap as Kenyan Drake. Every
coach wants someone like him, but no one seems to know what to
do with him once he's on the team. Perhaps all he is going to
be in Houston is a negative game-script back. Houston also made
an interesting choice to bring in C.J. Anderson for a workout
earlier this week, and there is supposedly mutual interest. Anderson
is obviously not interested in backing up Hyde nor does he offer
the skills Johnson does, so are the Texans wanting Anderson and
Hyde to split the early-down role or looking for an upgrade on
the latter (which would be admitting giving Hyde this much work
was the wrong thing to do in the first place).
Rest-of-season prediction: As much as owners want Johnson to
be a thing, I'm not sure it happens anytime soon. And honestly,
I don't know what it will take for it to happen. Multiple teams
have decided Hyde offers little in the passing game, so this is
shaping up to be a situation in which one back will be flex-worthy
in positive game scripts and the other will like by flex-worth
in negative game scripts. It doesn't need to be that way, but
that's the way this is headed.
Thoughts: Of course, this became an issue the moment Saquon Barkley
went down. Veteran owners remember Gallman had a nice little run
near the end of the 2017 season, but it goes without saying fantasy
owners - much less the Giants - are not going to find someone
who can give them anything close to what Barkley did for however
long he is sidelined. A player like Anderson would likely be added
with the idea of splitting carries, while someone like Whittaker
or Artis-Payne would be used only in case of an emergency.
On a related subject, my mind has been blown by some of the FAAB
bids I've already seen for Gallman, some of which have been made
by non-Barkley owners. If the going rate for a replacement-level
back who may only have his job for a little over a month on a
below-average offense is 75-95 percent of my budget, I'm going
to pass. I think most owners should do the same. There will be
another waiver-wire back in the near future more worthy of that
kind of coin.
Rest-of-season prediction: Assuming Anderson isn't the back signed,
Gallman should be a serviceable flex, especially now since Daniel
Jones provides a bit of a run threat. If Anderson chooses New
York, then I think he becomes the better fantasy option of the
Thoughts: I'm not a big fan of terms like "dumpster fire,"
but this is just a bad team at the moment. Washington plays the
Giants and Dolphins in two of the next three weeks, giving Peterson
a shot at being relevant. The Redskins are averaging 48 yards
rushing, and Peterson's 37 yards on the ground in Week 3 was the
best by any of the team's backs in a game this season. In virtually
just about every other game, Thompson will probably lead the team
in snaps - until he succumbs to yet another injury.
Rest-of-season prediction: Even if OT Trent Williams reports
at some point this season, I'm not sure how this situation gets
much better. Maybe a healthy Derrius Guice gives this offense
what Peterson did last year, but we are a long ways away from
that. Thompson may be worth using as an RB2 in games in which
Washington is a clear underdog. As for Peterson, he may be worth
using as a low-end flex maybe only two times before the Week 10
Doug Orth has written for FF
Today since 2006 and been featured in USA Today’s Fantasy
Football Preview magazine since 2010. He hosted USA Today’s
hour-long, pre-kickoff fantasy football internet chat every Sunday
in 2012-13 and appears as a guest analyst on a number of national
sports radio shows, including Sirius XM’s “Fantasy Drive”.
Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.