Running Back Roundup: Week 2 (2021 Fantasy Football)
Week 1 of the NFL season is always full of surprises, especially at the running back position, but this year’s opening week was more surprising than most. If you had Zack Moss and Trey Sermon being inactive on your bingo card, you should go buy some lottery tickets immediately.
But that’s not all! Top backs like Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott, and Aaron Jones got off to very discouraging starts, another RB bit the dust (we’ll miss you, Raheem Mostert), emerging talents Damien Harris and Ty’Son Williams had ball security/pass blocking issues that could affect their playing time, and fantasy retreads Mark Ingram and Carlos Hyde forced their way back into our lives again.
We’ll cover all that and a whole lot more in this week’s RB Roundup. If you just can’t get enough and want to talk backfields with me directly, drop me a line on Twitter @andrew_seifter. My office hours are 12:01 am to 12:00 am Monday through Sunday. Make sure to also check out rosrankings.com for my updated rest of season player rankings and subscribe to the Rest of Season Rankings podcast for my weekly game recaps, waiver wire recommendations, and start/sit thoughts.
Note: If you don’t see a team mentioned below, it just means my thoughts on that backfield haven’t drastically changed since the Week 1 Roundup.
The Cardinals jumped out to a big lead over the Titans in Week 1 and never looked back, which would seem to be a game script that would favor James Conner. That’s not quite how it played out, though, as Chase Edmonds matched Conner’s 16 touches and played a few more snaps than the former Steeler. Edmonds was also much more productive with his touches, which should continue to be the case considering he is the main pass-catching threat of the two. Conner should continue to see double-digit touches most weeks and probably has an edge in goal-line situations, but Edmonds is the preferred fantasy option right now, especially in PPR formats.
Mike Davis had a very Mike Davis-like stat line in Week 1, gobbling up 18 touches but not doing a whole lot with them. That could be a common theme for an average back running behind an offensive line that won’t open up many holes. It doesn’t help matters that the Falcons’ defense looks as porous as ever, which could force Atlanta to quickly abandon the running game more often than not going forward. For now, Cordarrelle Patterson is second on the depth chart ahead of Wayne Gallman, who was a healthy scratch. Patterson picked up nine touches (including seven rushes) and offers a little bit of intrigue in non-PPR leagues where he has WR eligibility.
Undrafted rookie Ty’Son Williams had a great start to his NFL career, busting out a 35-yard touchdown run in the first quarter on Monday night. Things got a little rockier from there, however. Williams botched a handoff from Lamar Jackson and then whiffed on a block in overtime, directly leading to a Jackson fumble that cost the Ravens the game. Williams did show more burst than Latavius Murray, who scored a touchdown but did little else. But Williams is likely to lose playing time if he can’t hold onto the football and pass block, and it was already possible that Murray and/or Le’Veon Bell would be given a chance to take hold of this backfield. Williams looks like the best fantasy bet for the time being, but all three should be rostered until we get more clarity on the situation.
Zack Moss was a shock inactive in Week 1, opening the door for Devin Singletary to dominate snaps in Buffalo’s backfield, with backup Matt Brieda only making a brief cameo. Singletary averaged a healthy 6.5 yards per carry against a tough Steelers defense, but he did fumble twice. Still, if he continues to stay on the field for roughly 75 percent of the snaps, he’ll be on the RB2 radar most weeks, especially in PPR formats.
David Montgomery played really well against an extremely tough Rams defense, cementing his status as an every-week RB2 with RB1 upside. Just realize that he is not about to become an every-down back. With Tarik Cohen on injured reserve, Damien Williams stepped right into Cohen’s passing down role and played only 11 fewer snaps than Montgomery in a game the Bears predictably trailed throughout. Montgomery’s edge over Williams will be greater in games where the Bears play with a lead, but that may not happen very often — at least until Justin Fields earns the starting QB job.
Ezekiel Elliott’s meager Week 1 stat line gave fantasy managers bad flashbacks to 2020, but let’s not overreact here. Elliott was facing a Tampa Bay defense that was far and away the toughest against the run last season. While Tony Pollard‘s role in the offense is growing a little, it’s often with both backs on the field, and Zeke’s snap share remains very high. It’s fair to downgrade Elliott a little based on concerns he’s lost a half-step and the likelihood the Cowboys’ D will create negative game scripts, but he still has a decent chance to finish as an RB1 when all is said and done.
D’Andre Swift looked plenty healthy in Week 1, particularly on a screen pass that he took 43 yards to the house. Swift played almost twice as many snaps as Jamaal Williams, but that is almost certainly a result of game flow as Detroit attempted to fight all the way back from a 38-10 deficit. Williams was very good himself, handling 17 touches and, like Swift, going over 100 yards from scrimmage. Expect the snap counts to be split fairly evenly when games are close, but considering the state of Detroit’s defense, Swift should be the better fantasy producer most weeks.
Aaron Jones touched the ball just seven times in Week 1 and ceded a lot of snaps to A.J. Dillon and Kylin Hill. But that only happened because the Packers were blown out early by Jameis Winston and the Saints. All of the reasons to like Jones heading into 2021 still apply, so expect him to get right in a big way next week against Detroit.
If you were certifiable enough to start three Texans RBs in the season opener, you probably had a decent week. Mark Ingram, David Johnson, and Phillip Lindsay all found the end zone against the Jaguars’ lowly D, with Ingram handling a whopping 26 carries. It would be unwise to buy into Tyrod Taylor and the Texans’ offense after one game against Jacksonville, but it does certainly look like Ingram is the back to roster in this backfield, in a low-upside, RB3/flex kind of way. His 26 carries were three times as many as any other Houston back.
Fantasy managers’ worst fears about Urban Meyer were seemingly confirmed when he gave OSU alum Carlos Hyde more touches (11) than James Robinson (8) in Week 1. I’d normally say that we shouldn’t rush to conclusions from a game where Jacksonville fell behind by two scores in the first quarter, but negative game scripts may be a common occurrence for the Jags this year. The good news for Robinson is that he is clearly the preferred passing game target of the two, so he still has a shot at RB2 value even if rushing attempts are split much more evenly than they ought to be.
Kansas City Chiefs
Clyde Edwards-Helaire had a relatively quiet Week 1 box score (17 touches, 72 yards), but at least he dominated touches over Darrel Williams and newcomer Jerick McKinnon. Make no mistake, he is an ancillary piece of an offense that runs through Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be a total dud. Yes, he may never be the elite top-five fantasy back that managers were hoping for at the beginning of last season, but any back playing this many snaps in an offense this good is firmly planted in RB2 territory at the very least.
Los Angeles Chargers
Week 1 brought a couple of big surprises when it comes to the Bolts. Austin Ekeler comfortably led the backfield in snaps and touches — no surprise there — but he somehow did not get a single target in the passing game. QB Justin Herbert seemed to indicate after the game that he may try to check down to Ekeler less often this year, but it’s too early to make much of that. While Justin Jackson was listed as the Chargers’ number two back all preseason, it was rookie Larry Rountree who clearly played that role on Sunday. Rountree will struggle to reach RB3/flex value if Ekeler is going to see 15 carries each week, but the rookie is now an interesting stash as the back who would see the biggest value spike in the event of an Ekeler injury.
Los Angeles Rams
Darrell Henderson had a pretty solid Week 1 stat line (17 touches, 87 yards, 1 TD), but the more important news from a fantasy perspective was that he operated as a true bell-cow back, playing 49 snaps to just 3 for Sony Michel. Michel was reportedly in a rush against time to learn the playbook heading into the game, so his role should grow in the coming weeks, it’s just a question of how much. I considered Henderson a risky use of a draft pick heading into the season, but did expect he’d have the upper hand over Michel in Week 1. Michel is still a threat to eventually steal the lead job, but Henderson could build up some job security with a couple more solid performances.
New England Patriots
Damien Harris had a great game against a tough Dolphins defense on Sunday, piling up 25 touches for 117 yards. It was great, that is, until the very end, when he coughed up the football and cost the Patriots a victory in Mac Jones‘ debut. If Harris can maintain that kind of usage all year he can be a weekly RB2 in fantasy leagues, but rumors are swirling that Harris could see his workload reduced as a result of the fumble. It’s hardly hypothetical, either, since rookie Rhamondre Stevenson was apparently benched himself after fumbling earlier in the game.
Regardless of whether Bill Belichick decides to give Harris less work as a form of punishment or simply to keep him fresh and more likely to hold onto the ball, it would put a dent in his fantasy value. If it does happen and Stevenson is still in the doghouse, J.J. Taylor could be the main beneficiary. For all we know Harris could go right back to being the main man, but let this serve as a reminder that rostering Patriots running backs other than James White is not for the faint of heart.
New York Giants
Ian Rapoport reported heading into Sunday’s game that the Giants would use Saquon Barkley “sparingly,” and that’s more or less what happened. Barkley out-snapped Devontae Booker 29-to-24 and handled just 11 touches for 28 yards against a swarming Broncos defense. We can safely expect Barkley’s usage to grow from here, but it may be gradual, particularly with the quick turnaround for Thursday’s game in Washington. He may also continue to be held back by the limitations of the Giants’ offense, which looked as dysfunctional as feared against Denver.
New York Jets
The Jets’ three-man committee did little to resolve itself in Week 1. “Starter” Tevin Coleman led the team with nine carries, while Ty Johnson played the most snaps, and rookie Michael Carter edged out Johnson for the most receiving yards. None of the three are currently viable as flex options outside of the deepest of leagues, but Johnson and Carter both have a little intrigue as backs whose roles could conceivably grow as the year progresses. Coleman, conversely, should see his role gradually decline, making him the least compelling of the trio to roster.
The Eagles’ Week 1 running back usage was excellent news for Miles Sanders, good news for rookie Kenneth Gainwell, and a death knell for Boston Scott, who never saw the field. Sanders out-snapped Gainwell roughly 2-to-1 and was quite effective, accumulating 19 touches for 113 scrimmage yards. He’s looking like a solid RB2 going forward. As for Gainwell, the absence of Scott from the equation vaults the rookie onto the radar in most fantasy leagues. He’s an enticing handcuff for Sanders who could offer a bit of standalone value as well.
San Francisco 49ers
Under Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers running back situation is always a roller coaster, but it’s usually worth the price of admission. The ride got wild right from the get-go this year, with preseason fantasy favorite Trey Sermon shockingly declared inactive and lead back Raheem Mostert suffering a season-ending knee injury after only two carries. But someone always steps up in San Francisco, and this time that someone was sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell, who ran 19 times for 104 yards and a score.
With a similar style of play to Mostert, Mitchell is decidedly the top waiver wire add for Week 2, but whether he will be the lead back all year — or even in Week 2 — isn’t certain. Sermon and JaMycal Hasty, who scored on his only Week 1 touch, could enter the equation going forward. Jeff Wilson, who posted two 100-yard rushing performances last year, is currently on the PUP list with a torn meniscus but could be a factor in the second half, too. And finally, Lions castaway Kerryon Johnson was signed to the practice squad following Mostert’s injury, making him a deep darkhorse to eventually see work in San Fran.
Chris Carson looked as productive as usual in Week 1, but the depth chart behind him is in flux. Rashaad Penny held onto the number two job over Alex Collins heading into the game, but Penny exited with a calf injury and has already been declared out for Week 2. Carson has never made it through a full season unscathed, so his direct backup is always worth keeping tabs on. Collins rushed 11 times for 41 yards and a TD when called into action last November, and he would be an RB3/flex option — if not an RB2 — were both Carson and Penny unavailable at any point.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I expected chaos in the Bucs’ backfield, and that’s exactly what we got in the opening week. Ronald Jones was not heard from after an early fumble on Thursday night, with head coach Bruce Arians stating after the game that Jones was benched because he “struggled mentally” to get over the miscue. Shortly after Jones’ fumble, Leonard Fournette had a pass bounce off him for an interception, but he remained the primary ball carrier the rest of the night anyway, with newcomer Gio Bernard playing roughly a quarter of the snaps.
Following that series of unfortunate events, Fournette seemed destined to get the “start” this week and then lose the job back to Jones. Instead, Arians says Jones will start again. What happens during the game itself is anyone’s guess.
Tennessee had a game to forget against Arizona. The Titans had to largely abandon their game plan after falling behind 17-0 early in the second quarter, which resulted in Derrick Henry getting just 17 carries, fewer than he had in all but one game last season. It’s fair to wonder if the Titans’ atrocious defense will create more negative game scripts for Henry, but then again this unit was poor last year too, and Henry still feasted. He should be fine. When Tennessee is in obvious passing situations, expect to see a lot of Jeremy McNichols, who played far more snaps than Khari Blasingame and Mekhi Sargent.
Washington Football Team
Antonio Gibson put in a solid Week 1 performance, but the most interesting takeaway from it was that he was targeted five times in the passing game while J.D. McKissic was targeted only once. If that usage continues, Gibson could be in line for a massive season, but it remains to be seen. McKissic handled the ball just once, but Gibson only out-snapped him 36-to-20. Another potential variable is the Football Team’s QB situation. Ryan Fitzpatrick is due to miss 6-8 weeks with a hip injury, meaning Taylor Heinicke will take over under center. In three games between 2020 and 2021, Heinicke has targeted Gibson six times and McKissic five. I wouldn’t go dropping McKissic just yet.
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