Running Back Roundup: Week 6 (Fantasy Football)
There is no shortage of intrigue at the running back position this week. Jay Ajayi has been lost for the season to a torn ACL, turning Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement into popular waiver wire adds this week. James Conner had a huge performance against Atlanta as Le’Veon Bell inches ever closer to a return to the black and gold. Mark Ingram’s return from suspension has sent Alvin Kamara owners into a frenzy after Kamara was nowhere to be found on Monday night. Oh yeah, and Isaiah Crowell had the biggest rushing performance of the season to date.
We’ll break down all those situations and much more in this week’s Running Back Roundup. As always, if you have a question not addressed here, just shoot me a message on Twitter, @andrew_seifter. Let’s rock and roll.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman split the snaps and touches just about evenly in Freeman’s first game back, with Ito Smith remaining lightly involved as well. Game flow prevented the Falcons from running the ball as much as they probably would have liked — Atlanta fell behind Pittsburgh by multiple scores in both the first and third quarter — so we should get a better feel for this backfield after this week’s matchup with Tampa Bay. For now, it’s reasonable to expect a similar arrangement to what we’ve seen the last couple years, meaning Freeman should see about 55-60 percent of the snaps and Coleman should get most of the rest.
Week 5 proved that LeSean McCoy is still a fantasy factor, as I explained in this week’s “10 Things We Learned” column. McCoy’s upside is severely capped by the Bills’ offense, and there will surely be games where Buffalo has to abandon the running game, but McCoy showed good burst against the Titans and had the kind of high-volume usage he’ll need to provide reliable low-end RB2 value in fantasy leagues.
The Bears were on bye in Week 5, and there haven’t been any recent reports that shed light on their backfield. But there is a lot of uncertainty at the moment about how the workload will be split up between Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen going forward — check out last week’s Running Back Report for my thoughts on the matter.
For at least the second time this season, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis scared fantasy owners with talk of a committee approach at running back only to give the vast majority of work to a single back. In Week 5, that back was Joe Mixon, who handled 25 touches for 115 yards and a touchdown after missing two games due to a knee scope. Meanwhile, rookie Mark Walton saw a grand total of two touches, both receptions.
We learned prior to the game that Gio Bernard would miss 2-4 weeks with an MCL sprain, so Mixon should be locked into a heavy workload for the rest of October and perhaps beyond. He’s firmly on the RB1 radar for favorable matchups.
Browns coach Hue Jackson pledged that rookie Nick Chubb would “get some” opportunities going forward after he broke off two long touchdown runs in Week 4. Well, Chubb’s snap count did increase in Week 5, but to just 14 percent, which isn’t nearly enough to make him a viable flex option as his measly three Week 5 touches demonstrate.
Duke Johnson, who Jackson previously promised more work, saw a far bigger jump in snaps in Week 5, but it was likely game plan-specific and only resulted in six touches for 42 yards. Carlos Hyde remains the undoubted workhorse in the Cleveland backfield, so much so that he will be a low-end RB1 in favorable matchups.
Kerryon Johnson handled 14 touches for 85 yards in Week 5, but he watched LeGarrette Blount vulture two short touchdowns and then departed in the second half with an ankle injury. The Lions are on bye in Week 6, and it sounds like there’s a good chance Johnson will be ready to go in time for Detroit’s next game. But Lions coach Matt Patricia is not interested in using Johnson as an every-down back, meaning Blount and Theo Riddick will continue to steal short yardage and passing down work, respectively.
Until the Lions change their approach to using Johnson, his value will be capped as a borderline RB2/3. Neither Blount nor Riddick have much standalone value, although they could be considered bye week flex plays if Johnson were to miss Week 7 (Blount more so in non-PPR, Riddick in PPR).
Lamar Miller was active for Week 5 but only in case of emergency. In his place, Alfred Blue rushed 20 times for just 46 yards but bailed out fantasy owners who were forced to start him by adding 73 receiving yards.
Texans coach Bill O’Brien expects Miller to return in Week 6, and he’ll likely resume lead back duties with Blue reverting to a complementary role. It will be worth watching whether Blue eats into Miller’s workload as much as he did in Week 4 when Miller was given 14 carries and Blue got 13.
However, the bigger question is what role sophomore running back D’Onta Foreman will play if he returns from the PUP list in Week 7, as expected. Miller has churned out low-end RB2 value based on volume, but he hasn’t done much to show he deserves to hold onto the role. Foreman is coming back from an Achilles tear, so his health status can’t be taken for granted, but the opportunity is certainly there to stake his claim to this backfield.
Marlon Mack stands a decent chance of finally returning in Week 6, but he’ll likely have to share between-the-tackles work with Jordan Wilkins and Robert Turbin. The best bet for fantasy value in this backfield continues to be Nyheim Hines, who can keep piling up receiving yards week-in and week-out for a pass-happy offense that simply can’t run the ball effectively.
Leonard Fournette has already been ruled out for Week 6, which isn’t a great sign for his Week 7 availability either. T.J. Yeldon will continue to fill in as a weekly RB2 in fantasy leagues (and low-end RB1 in plus matchups).
Third-stringer Corey Grant was lost for the season in Week 5 with a lisfranc injury, prompting the Jaguars to sign Jamaal Charles for running back depth. Charles wasn’t bad in limited opportunities last season but is unlikely to earn a meaningful role in Jacksonville. He is not a priority pickup despite his past glory.
Los Angeles Chargers
Melvin Gordon is proving that his late-first round ADP was a bargain, but the much bigger surprise in this backfield is the emergence of Austin Ekeler as an enticing weekly flex option.
Ekeler isn’t seeing a ton of touches — he’s only exceeded 10 in one game this year — but he has been highly productive nonetheless, especially in the passing game. Ekeler has at least 56 yards from scrimmage in every game this season and has already scored three times. The odds are still against Ekeler maintaining RB2 value all season without an injury to Gordon, but he’s become a legit RB3/flex option.
After being MIA for two games (see what I did there?), Kenyan Drake had a nice fantasy day in Week 5, collecting 13 touches for 115 yards and a touchdown. But while it was encouraging to see Drake’s snap count rise, he still only had one more touch than Frank Gore.
Drake will be back on the weekly RB2 radar if he continues to see the kind of heavy passing game usage like he had against Cincinnati, but it’s not clear that will be the case. For now, it’s safer to view him as an RB3/flex with RB2 upside while Gore can serve as a desperation bye week fill-in.
Dalvin Cook sat out for the second time in three games in Week 5, and he is no sure thing to return in Week 6. Latavius Murray again hogged the snaps in Cook’s absence but did little with the opportunity.
Given the fact that Cook re-aggravated his hamstring injury in his first game back, the Vikings may choose to bring him along slowly this time around and not thrust him into a workhorse role when he does return. That could leave both Cook and Murray as dicey boom-or-bust flex options for a while, although Cook does still stand a good chance of eventually becoming a weekly RB2 — if not RB1 — if he can just get healthy.
New Orleans Saints
Many Alvin Kamara owners are probably freaking out after Monday night’s game, in which Mark Ingram returned from suspension to out-touch Kamara 18-to-9 and out-touchdown him (if that’s a word) 2-to-0.
Ingram’s high usage rate in his first game back was certainly surprising, but a bit of perspective is necessary here. Last season, Ingram played all 16 games and Kamara still finished as the number four RB in non-PPR formats and number three RB in PPR.
With Ingram back, Kamara isn’t going to get 13-19 carries like he did in Weeks 2-4, but so what? He didn’t get 13 carries in a single game last year. Kamara derives almost half of his fantasy value as a receiver, and that’s what makes him a high-end RB1 in all formats. Ingram isn’t going to change that.
As for Ingram, his huge stat line in his first game back is a very encouraging sign that he can at least come close to last season’s production, when he finished as the overall RB6 in non-PPR formats and RB5 in PPR. The Saints produced two high-end RB1s last season, and it is at least plausible — if not likely — that they can do it again.
New York Jets
Isaiah Crowell is fast-becoming the Amari Cooper of running backs, the ultimate boom-or-bust RB2. After averaging 31 yards from scrimmage from Weeks 2-4, Crowell exploded for 231 total yards and a score against the Broncos in Week 5.
Crowell now has three games this season where he has put up at least 17 points in standard non-PPR formats, and two games where he has scored less than four fantasy points. It is going to be hard to predict when he’s going to go off, but his penchant for big plays and touchdowns will make it very hard to sit him in neutral-to-favorable matchups like next week’s home game against Indianapolis.
Lost in Crowell’s heroics was the fact that Bilal Powell also had a very nice game against Denver, falling just a yard shy of the century mark. While Crowell clearly has more upside, Powell is the one with the higher weekly floor. You could do worse as a flex option.
Jay Ajayi was announced as having a knee injury during Sunday’s game, but he played through it. One day later, we shockingly learned that Ajayi tore his ACL.
With Ajayi lost for the season, Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement, Darren Sproles, and Josh Adams could all eventually factor into the Eagles’ running back equation. Adams would appear to be a distant fourth on the depth chart, and Sproles is currently hurt himself, so Smallwood and Clement are the two main competitors for carries at the moment.
The Eagles were dedicated to employing a committee approach at running back even before Ajayi’s injury, so don’t expect any of Philadelphia’s other backs to emerge as a true bell cow. And unlike other teams that use a relatively fantasy-friendly two back committee, Eagles coach Doug Pederson seems intent on using a three-back rotation on game day — provided he has three healthy backs available.
In other words, this is a messy situation. If all these backs were available on the waiver wire, my first choice would be to pick up Smallwood, simply because he has been the most effective rusher and receiver of the group thus far. Smallwood and Clement would appear to have the best shot at rest-of-season RB2 value, but it’s entirely possible that the best of the bunch tops out at RB3/flex status.
As I predicted last week, James Conner got back on track in a big way in Week 5 with 185 total yards and two touchdowns against a woeful Falcons defense. There were no major updates in the Le’Veon Bell Watch over the last week other than some speculation from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s Ed Bouchette and some Steelers offensive linemen that Bell and Conner could split the workload relatively evenly when Bell returns.
Were that to happen, it could pose a conundrum for fantasy owners who own Bell, Conner, or both. Conner would likely be the better fantasy play in the early going, with Bell eventually overtaking him. But it’s possible both backs would be worthy of starting every week if the touch distribution is split closely.
It’s also still possible that Bell never makes it back to Pittsburgh. Jay Ajayi’s injury led to a wave of speculation that Bell could end up in Philadelphia, but the Eagles reportedly have “no plans” to pursue Bell in trade. In any event, Conner’s big Week 5 should restore confidence among the Steelers’ brass that they can get by just fine without Bell, should they feel he isn’t worth the headache.
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco skill players continue to drop like flies. First, it was Jerick McKinnon, then Marquise Goodwin, then Jimmy Garoppolo, and now Matt Breida. Breida, who was already playing through a knee injury, suffered a mid-ankle sprain in Week 5 that will almost certainly cost him at least one game and perhaps more.
Prior to the injury, Breida was establishing himself as one of the better value picks at the running back position. Despite missing portions of multiple games due to injury, Breida has averaged over 90 yards from scrimmage per game and is well worth holding onto during his absence. He should be a weekly RB2 once he returns, as long as he can get back to his pre-injury form.
In Breida’s absence, Alfred Morris will step in as a legitimate RB2 option. Morris lacks Breida’s dynamic skills at this point in his career, but he remains a solid runner on a team that creates a lot of fantasy value for its running backs. Raheem Mostert should also get a bit of run behind Morris, but his costly Week 5 fumble doesn’t help his chances of turning this into a true committee while Breida is out.
The Seahawks have now produced a 100-yard rusher for three consecutive weeks, making them the only team in the league to accomplish that feat. Two of those three weeks, that back was Chris Carson, and in the game Carson missed, it was Mike Davis. In Seattle’s Week 5 loss to the Rams, Carson posted 127 yards from scrimmage on 20 touches, while Davis chipped in 75 yards and a touchdown.
It’s still a bit unclear how this backfield will ultimately shake out — for now it looks like Carson is the 1A and Davis the 1B. But the bottom line is that both Carson and Davis should be owned everywhere. Rashaad Penny didn’t play a single snap in Week 5 and is waiver wire fodder in standard-sized leagues.
Whereas Seattle struggled in recent years to produce one fantasy-viable running back, they now have two. Consider Carson a high-end RB2 and Davis a reasonable flex play for their juicy matchup with Oakland next week.
Washington has featured a fairly predictable timeshare between Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson, in which both backs are capable of huge games depending on game flow. In games where Washington is playing with a lead, Peterson tends to feast. In games where they trail or need to keep up with a high-scoring opponent, Thompson is usually the better play.
It’s been one of the more fantasy-friendly committees in the league, but unfortunately both Washington backs are now banged up, casting a bit of uncertainty over the arrangement. Peterson is confident that he can play through his strained shoulder, but his owners will have to hold their breath until we get more concrete details. Meanwhile, Thompson is battling a rib injury. His status is also unclear.
If one of Peterson or Thompson misses time, it would provide a boost to the other’s fantasy value, but only to a limited degree. They have entirely different skills sets. Thompson won’t likely be asked to churn out a lot of yards between the tackles and in short yardage, and Peterson won’t likely be asked to become a high-volume receiver out of the backfield.
Kapri Bibbs would almost certainly see an expanded role if either Peterson or Thompson misses Week 6, but he wouldn’t be a recommended flex option unless both of them sit out.