A couple weeks before the NFL season began, I put together a “roadmap” of the types of running backs available to fantasy owners on draft day. Some of that calculus has already changed after just one game (goodbye Jordan Howard, every-down back), but the main takeaway remains the same: Most NFL backfields present fantasy owners with a continually-evolving timeshare puzzle to sort through.
That’s where this column comes in. Every week of the season will present us with new variables to consider as we try to wrap our heads around the running back by committee (RBBC) situations that have become the new normal in the league. Whether due to injuries, shifting carries/snaps, changing goal-line responsibilities, emerging rookies, or countless other factors, few NFL backfields will remain perfectly stable all year.
So this weekly team-by-team roundup of the running back position will (hopefully) help clue you into buy-low/sell-high opportunities, starts/sits, high-upside lottery tickets, and other waiver wire pickups — or simply make you feel better (or worse) about your roster. Let’s begin!
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David Johnson’s wrist injury is nothing short of a disaster for fantasy owners (like myself) who took him with the No. 1 pick in drafts, and the simple truth is there’s nobody else on the Cardinals’ roster that is likely to come anywhere close to Johnson’s elite fantasy production.
Kerwynn Williams has averaged an impressive 5.4 yards per carry in his rare opportunities over the last three seasons, and he even managed a 100-yard game once — in his first career appearance in 2014. But Williams will need to compete for carries with two other RBs who had some big fantasy performances in the past: Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson, who the Cardinals are reportedly re-signing. Even if one of Williams, Ellington, or Chris Johnson manage to earn the bulk of the carries, they’re all much smaller in stature than David Johnson, which helps explain why the Cardinals could reportedly use Elijhaa Penny for short-yardage and goal-line work.
Williams, Ellington, and Chris Johnson are all worth picking up in standard 10- and 12-team leagues while we wait to see how this plays out, but owners need to keep their expectations in check. It’s highly unlikely any emerge as an every-down back. As for David Johnson, who’s out 2-3 months, I would try to hold onto him even in leagues without IR spots, in the hopes he returns for the fantasy playoffs. Obviously, things could change if you’re faced with a major roster crunch or it’s determined that he will miss the entire season, but he’s well worth holding for now if you can afford the roster spot.
Devonta Freeman (14 touches, 39 yards, 1 TD) and Tevin Coleman (12 touches, 58 yards) both had mildly disappointing performances on Sunday, but nothing has changed in this backfield and both remain solid fantasy assets moving forward. Freeman is not going to be a workhorse, but he remains one of the best bets in the league to cross the goal line. His lack of involvement in the passing game (two targets for two yards) hurt his numbers against the Bears, but it’s likely just an anomaly. Meanwhile, Coleman will continue to chip in rushing and receiving yardage and is still the most appealing “backup” RB to start in fantasy leagues.
If you had told Terrance West’s fantasy owners that he would get 19 carries for 80 yards and a touchdown in Week 1, most of them would have gladly taken it. But West’s grip on the Ravens’ starting job did not get firmer, despite Danny Woodhead suffering a significant injury. Buck Allen took Woodhead’s place, posting 21 carries for 71 yards and out-snapping West 33-to-27. With Woodhead set to miss 4-to-6 weeks, it’s very much up in the air how the Ravens will divvy up responsibilities between West and Allen, including passing down and goal line work. Both backs have some receiving skills and enough size to get the ball at the goal line. The next few weeks should tell us a lot more about this backfield, but Allen is certainly worth picking up as a committee member who could easily end up becoming the Ravens’ most valuable fantasy back.
Coming into the season, plenty of people wondered whether LeSean McCoy was worthy of an early first-round pick while playing for a Bills team that seemed to be heading in the wrong direction. But in Week 1, McCoy seemed just as dynamic a fantasy asset as ever, piling up 27 touches for 159 yards. Granted, the Bills were facing the Jets, and McCoy had a touchdown vultured by Mike Tolbert, who managed 13 touches of his own. Still, it’s clear that McCoy is one of the few true bell cows left in the league today, and that makes him an easy RB1. Tolbert may steal a touchdown here and there, but that shouldn’t seriously harm McCoy’s value.
Christian McCaffrey had a solid fantasy day on Sunday (18 touches for 85 yards), but the reasons for preferring fellow rookies Leonard Fournette and Kareem Hunt were apparent. Jonathan Stewart (20 touches for 82 yards) remains the slight favorite to out-touch McCaffrey most weeks, and Stewart and Cam Newton should remain the team’s main rushing threats at the goal line. Plus, coach Ron Rivera is already talking about limiting McCaffrey’s snaps to avoid wearing him out. McCaffrey’s ability to both run and catch the ball gives him a solid weekly floor, and his explosive talent gives him the potential for some big weeks, but Stewart is the slightly more appealing option for now in non-PPR leagues. Both are in the RB2 conversation.
Tarik Cohen will top many waiver pickup lists after exploding for 113 yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s loss to the Falcons, but fantasy owners should be cautious not to overreact in FAAB bidding. Cohen did have just three fewer touches and 10 fewer snaps than presumptive bell cow Jordan Howard, so there’s no question that Cohen is worthy of a pickup in all leagues, and Howard can no longer be considered an every-down back. Still, it’s worth remembering that 46 of Cohen’s 66 rushing yards came on a single play, and at 5’6” and 181 pounds, he simply doesn’t profile as a between-the-tackles workhorse. Passing down back Benny Cunningham will likely miss some time with a high-ankle sprain, so there’s a clear opening for Cohen to remain highly-involved in the passing game while receiving at least a handful of carries each week. But Howard is still the better bet for early-down and goal-line work and could be worth trying to buy low after a relatively quiet opening week.
Much of the conversation about the Bengals’ backfield heading into the season was about how long it would take talented rookie Joe Mixon to overtake presumptive starter Jeremy Hill. But in Week 1, forgotten man Giovani Bernard (79 yards) put up more fantasy points than Mixon (24 yards) and Hill (24 yards) combined.
That’s not to say that this RBBC has fundamentally changed. Despite making a couple big plays, Bernard remains primarily a passing-down specialist, which severely limits his value outside of PPR leagues. Mixon out-snapped Hill 22-to-10, but much of that came late in the fourth quarter with the game already out of reach. If fantasy owners could rely on either Mixon or Hill for the bulk of early-down and goal-line work, that back would be a rock-solid RB2, but for now they seem likely to continue to share the role. Hill is probably a slightly better fantasy start next week, while Mixon should be the better fantasy play by season’s end, with the upside for a huge season if Hill is injured or benched.
Isaiah Crowell could get nothing going on the ground against Pittsburgh (17 carries for just 33 yards), but he salvaged his fantasy day with 33 yards receiving and a two-point conversion. But the most promising sign for Crowell’s fantasy value is that Duke Johnson was exclusively deployed as a WR and did not receive a single carry. Even if Johnson returns to the backfield, it will only be as a passing-down specialist. Crowell remains the unquestioned lead back, but his value is capped by the Browns’ inability to move the football. If DeShone Kizer continues to improve as the season goes along, it will be a major plus for Crowell, because the heavy workload is certainly there. For now, he’s a mid-range RB2.
When Ezekiel Elliott plays, he’s a no-doubt RB1. Enough has been written already about his legal circumstances, but the important takeaway for fantasy owners is that Elliott is likely — but not guaranteed — to play the entire season without suspension. The other key takeaway is that Alfred Morris served as Elliott’s backup on Sunday, while Darren McFadden was inactive. If Elliott were to be suspended, Morris and McFadden would likely split carries, but it looks at least for now like Morris would get the bigger piece of the pie. Given the Cowboys’ impressive offensive line and the uncertainty surrounding Elliott’s status, Morris is worth adding not only for Elliott owners but for anyone who plays in leagues where high-upside backup RBs are worth stashing.
The final game of the week played out much as expected when it comes to the Broncos’ running back situation. C.J. Anderson is the undisputed lead back as long as he can remain healthy and effective. He reached the 20-carry mark on Monday and is worth firing up as an RB2 as long as that continues. Broncos beat reporter Mike Klis predicted that Jamaal Charles would be limited to about 10 touches in his return from a second knee injury, and that’s exactly what happened. Charles is best viewed as a handcuff who could challenge for more carries if he shows renewed burst and/or Anderson struggles. He’s worth keeping around in standard leagues to see if he begins to get a bigger opportunity as the season progresses. Remember also that Anderson is still looking for his first 1,000-yard season, so it’s entirely possible De’Angelo Henderson, Devontae Booker, or even Jonathan Williams become a hot fantasy pickup later in the year.
The Lions put up 35 points on a good Arizona defense, but Detroit’s cast of running backs had little to do with it. Theo Riddick did catch a touchdown pass, but he finished with just 26 yards and was a total non-factor in the running game. Ameer Abdullah received 18 touches, but that translated to just 41 yards. And Dwayne Washington, who has surpassed Zach Zenner for short-yardage and goal-line work, finished with six carries for 22 yards. With running back touches divided three ways on a team that seems unlikely to run the ball effectively, fantasy owners are left with an unappealing quagmire. Abdullah is the best of the bunch in standard leagues, but he’s not a trustworthy RB2 and will likely be outscored by Riddick or Washington many weeks.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers made a concerted effort to use Ty Montgomery as a bell cow back on Sunday. Montgomery out-carried the only other RB on the active roster, Jamaal Williams, 19-to-2. However, Montgomery averaged just 2.8 yards per carry and was much more successful as a pass catcher (four catches for 39 yards). Montgomery is worth utilizing as an RB2 for as long as the current scenario holds, but it’s fair to wonder whether he has the body type or skill set to hold up to this kind of workload all season. The Packers may have wondered the same thing when they drafted three running backs this spring. If the “Montgomery bell cow” experiment fails, the team’s trio of 2017 draft picks — Williams, Aaron Jones, and Devante Mays — could all get opportunities to seize the starting job. Williams was the highest draft pick and currently sits second on the Packers’ depth chart, so he’s the preferred stash for now for those who have doubts about Montgomery.
In Week 1, Lamar Miller looked a lot like the fantasy back he was throughout last season. He currently has very little competition for carries, but his productivity and team context are not ideal. Still, as long as Miller is getting about 20 touches per week, he’s a reliable if unsexy RB2 with low-end RB1 upside if things begin to click. With Alfred Blue suffering a high-ankle sprain, it appeared as though rookie D’Onta Foreman would get a chance to show what he could do and maybe eventually challenge Miller. Instead, Foreman played just two snaps and received a single carry. Coach Bill O’Brien seems to have little desire to play the rookie early in his career, so Foreman may not get the chance to establish himself before Blue returns. Foreman is even behind Tyler Ervin on the depth chart, so he’s not a must-stash player at the moment despite his upside.
Like the rest of the Colts’ skill position players, Frank Gore has to be missing Andrew Luck right now. Gore received just 11 touches on Sunday as the Colts were blown out by the Rams. Gore is tough to trust for however long Luck is out, but his expected volume still puts him in the RB2/3 mix. With the game essentially over by halftime, rookie Marlon Mack received a lot of run in the second half, finishing with 11 touches of his own (for 45 yards and a score). Mack is a better stash than Robert Turbin and could play a bigger role down the stretch if the Colts are eliminated early from the playoff picture, but he won’t be a reliable fantasy option as long as Gore is the lead back.
Leonard Fournette (29 touches, 124 yards, 1 TD) was given the bell cow role that fantasy owners were hoping for when they made him the first rookie selected in fantasy drafts. As long as he stays healthy, that should continue to be the case, although the Jaguars don’t figure to run the ball 39 times every week. With T.J. Yeldon out, Chris Ivory turned 10 touches into 53 yards. Ivory stands no chance of wrestling the starting job away from Fournette, but he does have some handcuff appeal as a proven performer behind an injury-prone starter.
Kansas City Chiefs
Kareem Hunt was as-advertised in the season-opener, setting the NFL record for most yards from scrimmage in a rookie debut (and scoring three times, too). Chiefs coach Andy Reid makes it easy on fantasy owners by preferring to use a clear bell cow, and that continued with Hunt, who saw 22 touches compared to just two for backup Charcandrick West. Hunt is an RB1 as long as he continues to see that kind of workload, while West is an appealing handcuff in deeper leagues.
Los Angeles Rams
Todd Gurley badly disappointed fantasy owners who were envisioning a big comeback season, at least for one week. Gurley salvaged his fantasy day by scoring and piling up receiving yards out of the backfield, but his 19 carries for 40 yards are a cause for concern after he averaged just 3.2 yards per carry last season. Still, Gurley should remain a workhorse, and that keeps him in the RB2 conversation. Backup Malcolm Brown is unlikely to challenge Gurley for playing time in the short-term, but it’s not inconceivable if Gurley continues to struggle. At the very least, Brown is worth keeping on your radar as a Gurley handcuff.
Los Angeles Chargers
Like their division rival Chiefs, the Chargers have a relatively simple backfield for fantasy purposes. Melvin Gordon is an unquestioned bell cow back, and even though his yards per carry often leave something to be desired, he gets the job done for fantasy owners with ample scoring opportunities and receiving yardage. Branden Oliver is the only other running back of note on the roster, so he makes sense as a handcuff or high-upside stash in some leagues.
The Dolphins’ game was canceled due to Hurricane Irma, so we didn’t learn anything new about this backfield this week. Jay Ajayi still looks set up for a bell cow role, much as he had last season. Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake are his backups, but neither will be an appealing handcuff or stash as long as it’s unclear which one would get the bulk of the workload in the event of an Ajayi injury.
Dalvin Cook certainly lived up to the preseason hype as an every-down back, delivering 25 touches for 137 yards on Monday night. It was fair to wonder whether Latavius Murray would be a thorn in Cook’s side on the goal line, or whether Jerick McKinnon would cap Cook’s involvement on passing downs, but for at least one week the answer to both those questions was “no.” It’s still worth watching how Murray is deployed as the season goes along, but Cook looks to be in the RB1 conversation at the moment, and neither Murray nor McKinnon looks like a particularly appealing stash.
New England Patriots
Mike Gillislee did his best LeGarrette Blount impersonation last Thursday, rushing 15 times for 45 yards and three touchdowns. In case you forgot, Blount rumbled for 18 TDs as the Patriots’ goal line back last season, so Gillislee is pretty much a must-start as long as he holds that role on the team. But this being the Patriots, that type of stable season-long role is hardly a guarantee. Rex Burkhead had a disappointing night, but he is still worth stashing for the possibility that he eventually gets a shot at early-down and goal-line work. James White is also worth owning (and considering as a flex) in standard leagues for his passing down role, although he’s a more desirable start in PPR leagues. Dion Lewis is a high-upside stash, but it looks like he would need several dominoes to fall in order to get significant playing time, so he isn’t must-own right now.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints had a night to forget on Monday against the Vikings, none more so than Adrian Peterson, who was a complete non-factor against his former team and appeared to let Sean Payton know he wasn’t happy about it. Peterson (six carries for 18 yards), Mark Ingram (6-17), and Alvin Kamara (7-18) all had near-identical rushing lines, but the difference was that Kamara and particularly Ingram were highly-involved in the passing game, while Peterson was not. The Saints’ defense did not look great, which is a cause for concern for Peterson owners who may see him benched whenever the team is in come-from-behind mode. Ingram may have a slight leg up on Peterson now because of his passing game usage, although it remains to be seen how the goal line work will be divided. Kamara is a dynamic talent, but he is unlikely to receive more touches than Ingram or Peterson most weeks, so he’ll need to make the most of limited opportunities.
New York Giants
The Giants weren’t able to effectively run the ball last season, and that was no different in Week 1. Lead back Paul Perkins had seven carries for just 16 yards, and he could begin to lose early-down work to Orleans Darkwa if the results don’t quickly improve. But it’s looking possible, if not downright likely, that the Giants’ most valuable RB for fantasy will be passing-down specialist Shane Vereen, who caught nine balls for 51 yards. Vereen is already the back to own in PPR leagues, and it’s beginning to look like this backfield may not provide a reliable fantasy starter all year in standard leagues.
New York Jets
The Jets evenly divided the carries in Week 1 between Bilal Powell and Matt Forte, and both backs were also involved in the passing game. Overall, neither looked particularly impressive on an offense that should struggle to consistently score points. Powell and Forte have similar skill sets, and neither will be more than a flex option in standard leagues as long as they are splitting both the rushing and receiving work evenly on a bad football team.
The demise of Marshawn Lynch may have been greatly exaggerated. While Lynch’s numbers don’t jump off the score sheet (19 touches for 92 yards), he more than held his own and dominated carries on a team that should run the ball effectively and score a lot of points. Given how many question marks there are throughout the league, that makes Lynch a high-end RB2 or even low-end RB1, at least for now. There are still legitimate questions about whether Lynch will hold up to a heavy workload all season, but there isn’t a clear backup in place to benefit from the situation. DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard evenly split the backup duties on Sunday, much as they did all of last season, and much like they would likely split the starting job if something happened to Lynch. The Raiders offense is good enough that both are worth stashing in deep formats, but neither is currently an absolute must-own player in 10- and 12-team leagues.
Coming into the season, it was widely believed that the Eagles had a three-way committee, with LeGarrette Blount handling short-yardage and goal-line work, Wendell Smallwood handling the bulk of work between the 20s, and Darren Sproles serving as the passing-down back. But Smallwood’s involvement appears to have been drastically overstated, at least based on what we saw in Week 1. Blount received 14 carries on Sunday compared to just four for Smallwood, who needs major volume to matter in standard leagues if he isn’t going to receive goal-line or third-down work.
As with the Giants, the Eagles best fantasy back may be its passing-down specialist (Sproles), and even he may only be worth using in PPR leagues. However, unlike the G-Men, the Eagles have an excellent offensive line, so it’s still possible Blount or Smallwood emerge as a reliable starter in standard leagues at some point.
Maybe Le’Veon Bell’s contract holdout did affect him after all. Bell’s 47 total yards against the Browns was a major disappointment for fantasy owners, but there’s no need to push the panic button. With David Johnson injured, Bell is now the best running back in fantasy football, as long as he doesn’t continue to put up duds. James Conner had a quiet debut as Bell’s backup, but he is still one of the more desirable pure handcuffs out there because of his clear role and the Steelers’ history of success running the football.
San Francisco 49ers
Carlos Hyde didn’t get enough touches on Sunday to have a big game, but he certainly was productive when he did handle the football (15 touches for 77 yards). Hyde should surely receive more carries in the coming weeks, but the 9-to-4 carry advantage he had over backup Matt Breida gives fantasy owners some sense of the division of labor to expect going forward. The only thing that could stand in the way of Hyde being a high-end RB2 is his ability to stay healthy, so Breida is a logical handcuff.
The Seahawks backfield looked to be a four-headed quagmire coming into the season, but then Thomas Rawls missed the season opener. Then Eddie Lacy struggled mightily as the lead back, rushing for just three yards on five carries, which opened the door for rookie Chris Carson to show what he could do. Carson’s seven touches for 49 yards don’t jump off the page, but it was enough to position Carson as the direct competition to Rawls for lead back duties. C.J. Prosise is generally considered to be a pass-catching specialist, although he wasn’t targeted in Sunday’s game. The Seahawks backfield is still very volatile, but as of now, Rawls is worth holding, Carson is worth adding, Prosise is worth holding in PPR, and Lacy is a drop candidate.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs’ game against Miami was canceled, but the team’s running back situation remains fairly stable for now. Jacquizz Rodgers is well-positioned to receive a heavy workload while Doug Martin is suspended for the next three games. Charles Sims should serve as the team’s third-down back but is only worth considering in PPR leagues. The big question is what will happen when Martin returns, especially if Rodgers performs well in his absence. But that’s a question for another day (in about three weeks).
DeMarco Murray surprisingly received just 12 carries on Sunday, after averaging over 18 carries per game last season. Still, Murray had 14 total touches to just six for backup Derrick Henry, so we can probably chalk up the Titans’ lack of rushing attempts to a one-game anomaly. Murray is still likely to receive around 20 touches per week on a team that should run the ball effectively, so he still belongs in the RB1 conversation going forward. Henry remains perhaps the highest-upside handcuff in the league and is worth owning everywhere, but he will not be a trustworthy flex option unless he’s able to turn the Titans’ backfield into more of a committee.
Washington’s offense struggled in Week 1, and part of the reason may be that they handed the ball off just 13 times. Rob Kelley is not known for his explosiveness, and he will need more than 10 touches to help fantasy teams. Thankfully for Kelley, the Redskins should run the ball more going forward, and his main competition for early-down work, Samaje Perine, didn’t touch the ball once. Passing-down specialist Chris Thompson caught four balls for 52 yards and a TD, but he’s unlikely to be a reliable week-to-week option outside of PPR leagues. In standard leagues, Kelley remains on the RB2/3 borderline, and Perine remains a worthwhile stash with upside.
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Andrew Seifter is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Andrew, check out his archive and follow him @andrew_seifter.