Running Back Roundup: Week 3 (2021 Fantasy Football)
Every year, there are certain backfields that are a constant headache, requiring endless amounts of care and attention. Sometimes these backfields are worth the effort, other times they aren’t.
So far this year, the biggest fantasy headaches are the Ravens and 49ers. As someone who is heavily invested in both backfields, I know first hand. We’ve already had to cycle through J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and Raheem Mostert. We’ve had to endure ball security issues from Ty’Son Williams. We’ve tried to decipher whether Latavius Murray, Le’Veon Bell, or Devonta Freeman is the once-great rusher with the most juice left in the tank — and whether John Harbaugh agrees with us. We’ve seen Trey Sermon shockingly be inactive, seemingly struck gold with Elijah Mitchell, and then seen Mitchell, Sermon, and JaMycal Hasty all go down in the span of a single quarter.
It’s been non-stop drama and not the good kind. But there’s a reason we keep chasing players from these teams: they are arguably the two best rushing teams in the entire league, with RB-friendly systems that can instantly turn a waiver wire pickup into a fantasy difference-maker. That’s why we need to continue to keep tabs on the Jacques Patricks of the world — and whoever emerges next.
Week 2 also reminded what an elite, bell-cow back can do for your fantasy team. If you had Derrick Henry or Aaron Jones on your roster, you probably won your matchup. If you were facing Henry or Jones, you probably lost. If you had Jones and faced Henry (or vice versa), it was likely an epic battle and the highest-scoring contest in your league last week.
As always, this week’s Roundup will break down all of the fantasy-relevant happenings in backfields across the NFL. If you don’t see a backfield listed here, it just means that backfield hasn’t significantly shifted since I wrote about it in the Week 1 or Week 2 Roundup. But I’m always happy to talk about any backfield situation or anything else fantasy-related on Twitter @andrew_seifter. You can also get my thoughts on waiver wire pickups, Week 3 rankings, and rest-of-season player values by going over to ROSrankings.com and subscribing to the Rest of Season Rankings podcast.
The Falcons predictably fell behind the Bucs by two touchdowns early in Sunday’s contest, which predictably led to Atlanta abandoning the run game. With a poor offensive line and atrocious defense, we can’t expect Falcons running backs to effectively run the ball this season. Any fantasy value they’ll have will come in the passing game. While Mike Davis has been operating as the team’s clear lead back, Cordarrelle Patterson looks like the more dynamic big-play threat. Both backs are capable pass-catchers, but for now, they’re both best viewed as RB3/flex types who are more desirable in PPR formats.
The Ravens backfield didn’t shift dramatically in Week 2, but it’s worth keeping a close eye on in the coming weeks. Right now, Ty’Son Williams is playing about half of the snaps, while Latavius Murray is on the field about a third of the time. They’ve also been splitting red zone carries down the middle. For now, Williams is a serviceable, low-end RB2 while Murray is on the RB3/flex radar if the matchup is favorable enough.
Devonta Freeman was active in Week 2, but he essentially inherited the minimal role that Trent Cannon had in Week 1. Le’Veon Bell is reportedly still working his way into game shape, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him surpass Freeman once he’s ready.
One week after being a healthy scratch, Zack Moss found the end zone twice in Week 2 against Miami. It’s nice to see that Moss has regained the number two job from Matt Breida, but Devin Singletary once again was the Bills’ clear lead back. As long as Singletary is playing 65-75 percent of the snaps, he’ll have some RB2 appeal, even in non-PPR formats.
That said, Moss and Singletary are a logical thunder and lightning duo, so it would only make sense for this backfield to gradually trend toward the even split we saw last season. Unfortunately, that might make both dicey RB3/flex options in fantasy leagues since the Bills remain a pass-first team, and Josh Allen often likes to call his own number at the goal line.
After a disappointing start to his season against a tough Bucs defense, Ezekiel Elliott was decidedly more productive against the Chargers in Week 2, piling up 97 total yards and a touchdown on 18 touches. That’s the good news for those rostering Zeke. The bad news is that Tony Pollard clearly outplayed Elliott, posting a whopping 140 scrimmage yards and a score on his 16 touches. Pollard passed the eye test, too, displaying more burst than the Cowboys’ starter.
None of this is to say that Pollard is about to run away with this backfield. Elliott played more than twice as many snaps as Pollard and should still see the majority of touches going forward. But the gap in playing time narrowed significantly last week, and it will continue to narrow if Pollard remains the more dynamic back.
Green Bay Packers
I’m mostly including a Packers’ blurb this week as an excuse to take a victory lap on Aaron Jones, who I had ranked as my number four overall player heading into the season. Last week, I predicted that Jones would “get right in a big way” against Detroit, and I think it’s fair to say that happened!
You couldn’t read much into the Packers’ snap counts in Week 1 because they were blown out, but last week’s snap count gives a good indication of why Jones should be a top-five fantasy back this season. AJ Dillon is simply not the same threat to Jones’ workload that Jamaal Williams was, especially in the passing game.
Mark Ingram once again led the Texans in carries by a sizable margin, but both his touch total and snap count dropped significantly from Week 1 when Houston played with a big lead. Ingram is the back Houston wants to lean on when they are seeking to establish the run, but this is simply not a team that will be able to run the ball 30-40 times against most opponents. David Johnson, Phillip Lindsay, and Rex Burkhead are all more adept pass-catchers than Ingram, and with all four back seeing playing time, this remains a situation to avoid if at all possible.
Jonathan Taylor had a disappointing day at the office in Week 2, but his fantasy upside remains very high. He just needs to start cashing in on some of his many red zone opportunities. While Nyheim Hines remains the team’s designated passing down back, we did get some clarity on Taylor’s direct backup. Jordan Wilkins was rumored to have jumped Marlon Mack on the depth chart, but after neither back saw the field in Week 1, Mack — not Wilkins — spelled Taylor in Week 2.
Week 2 was a disappointment for James Robinson in the box score, but not from a usage perspective. After handling fewer touches than Carlos Hyde in a lopsided Week 1 defeat, Robinson dominated both touches and snaps over Hyde in Week 2. It seems even Urban Meyer recognizes that Robinson is the far superior player. We probably haven’t seen the last of Hyde, but Robinson should get a majority of the early-down work and nearly all of the passing-down opportunities. He’s still got a decent shot to return RB2 value this year despite the limitations of his offense and coaching staff.
Kansas City Chiefs
It’s been a rough start to the season for Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who ranks near the bottom in most rushing metrics through the season’s first two weeks. He also happened to lose a fumble that cost the Chiefs the game against Baltimore on Sunday night.
It was already long past time to reset our expectations for CEH from a high-end RB1 to a boring, volume-driven RB2. Now the question becomes whether he could fall even further. His performance thus far might merit a demotion, but Kansas City does not exactly have a backup who is nipping at Edwards-Helaire’s heels. Darrel Williams is next up on the depth chart, but he’s rushed for just 356 yards in 3+ NFL seasons. Jerick McKinnon is also around, but he’s yet to handle a single carry this season and is likely viewed as a gadget player by Andy Reid at this stage of his career. Still, there’s no harm in rostering Williams and/or McKinnon while we wait to see if CEH’s playing time declines at all.
Los Angeles Chargers
Austin Ekeler may not be an every-down back, but he is getting all the high-value touches a back needs in order to return a top-10 fantasy season. After strangely catching zero passes in Week 1, Ekeler made up for it in a big way with nine catches in Week 2. He is also serving as the Chargers’ preferred back in goal line situations, a rare role for a back who is first and foremost known for his pass-catching abilities.
Behind Ekeler, there is still a lot to be sorted out. In Week 1, the second man up was rookie Larry Rountree, but in Week 2, it was Justin Jackson, who was thought to be second on the depth chart heading into the season. Neither one put up big fantasy stats in the backup role, but it is worth keeping an eye on this situation to determine who would be the biggest beneficiary if something were to happen to Ekeler.
Los Angeles Rams
After operating as a true bell-cow back in Week 1, Darrell Henderson remained in that role in Week 2 until departing with a rib injury in the fourth quarter. Before the game, Rams coach Sean McVay indicated that he has big plans for Henderson and is in no hurry to adopt a committee approach involving Sony Michel. On Monday, McVay expressed optimism that Henderson will be able to play through the injury, but time will tell. Michel ran effectively (10 carries for 46 yards) after stepping in for Henderson and could get a chance to earn more playing time if Henderson is absent or limited in Week 3.
Las Vegas Raiders
Jon Gruden doesn’t care about your fantasy stats. With Josh Jacobs out for Week 2 with foot and ankle injuries, the assumption was that Kenyan Drake would step in and serve as the Raiders’ primary back against Pittsburgh. Instead, Gruden revealed that we would get a heavy dose of Peyton Barber. That’s precisely what happened, with Barber plodding his way to 32 yards on 13 carries while Drake’s role remained essentially unchanged.
Gruden says Jacobs is “very questionable” for Week 3, but given last week’s usage, it’s difficult to call either Drake or Barber a great fantasy option against a solid Miami D. However, Barber has never been an effective runner in his five years in the NFL, so if I’m starting one of them, it’s Drake, even in non-PPR.
Dalvin Cook had one of his typically excellent performances in Week 2, handling the ball 24 times for 148 scrimmage yards, but he also suffered an ankle injury in the contest. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer called it a “little ankle sprain” and reportedly “didn’t seem too worried” about it, but it still bears watching this week. If Cook missed this week’s matchup with the Seahawks, Alexander Mattison would be a plug-and-play RB2.
New England Patriots
Damien Harris was potentially at risk of losing some playing time after costing the Patriots a victory with a late-game fumble in Week 1. Harris did get fewer touches and snaps in Week 2, but he remained the clear lead back for New England on running downs, to the relief of his fantasy managers. However, James White was on the field more than Harris and had the better overall fantasy performance, including cashing in a red zone score. For now, Harris is the preferred play in non-PPR formats, with White the better bet in PPR.
Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson also fumbled in Week 1, but he didn’t get the same benefit of the doubt as Harris. Stevenson was inactive, opening the door for J.J. Taylor to get some snaps as the team’s third back.
New York Jets
The Jets’ three-man committee looked more like a two-man committee in Week 2, with Tevin Coleman’s snaps decreasing, rookie Michael Carter’s increasing, and Ty Johnson’s staying the same. This is great news for fantasy purposes, as both Carter and Johnson have far more left in the tank than Coleman, who was initially named the starter because he is a veteran player with extensive knowledge of the system. It will still be tough to trust either Carter or Johnson if they continue to split snaps right down the middle, but we may finally have something here if one of the two emerges in the next few weeks.
Chris Carson is dominating touches in this backfield again this season, with no other Seahawks back seeing more than 1 or 2 carries per week. However, with Rashaad Penny inactive in Week 2, it was interesting to note that Travis Homer saw a noticeable uptick in snaps. Alex Collins is still the best pure handcuff to Carson right now, but perhaps this is a sign that Collins and Homer would form a committee if Carson missed time.
San Francisco 49ers
What more can I say about the 49ers than I mentioned up top? Elijah Mitchell was given the opportunity to be the team’s primary rusher in Week 2, but he ran into a brick wall known as the Eagles’ defensive front. Mitchell eventually departed with a shoulder injury and was quickly joined on the sidelines by Trey Sermon (concussion) and JaMycal Hasty (high ankle sprain).
The fact that Mitchell was able to return to the game is promising for his Week 3 outlook. If he is able to start against Green Bay, he should once again be treated as a solid RB2. Hasty is looking at an extended absence of at least three weeks, while Sermon has a shot to play this week if he can pass through the league’s concussion protocol quickly. The team also signed former XFLer Jacques Patrick, who could be thrust into an immediate role if Mitchell and/or Sermon can’t go.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After getting benched for a fumble in Week 1, Ronald Jones was named the Bucs’ starter in Week 2, only to once again get out-snapped by Leonard Fournette. It’s almost like Bucs coach Bruce Arians relishes in driving fantasy managers to madness. At any rate, the Bucs are a pass-first team, especially at the goal line. Fournette is the preferred RB3/flex option in this backfield, but he’s still awfully hard to trust from week to week.
Washington Football Team
There was a lot of angst on social media on Thursday night when it came to the use of Washington’s lead back, Antonio Gibson. As he did last year, Gibson ceded a lot of snaps and targets in the passing game to J.D. McKissic, who stepped up for the Football Team with a huge performance against the Giants. Although Gibson managers felt particularly aggrieved by McKissic’s goal-line score, that was a byproduct of Washington running its two-minute offense heading into the half.
The reality that Gibson managers must accept is that McKissic has become a key part of this team. Washington is lacking playmakers at receiver outside of Terry McLaurin, especially with Curtis Samuel sidelined. However, it’s also true that Gibson’s role is growing from last year, albeit slowly. He isn’t going to get the “Christian McCaffrey usage” anytime soon, but he should still see enough opportunities as both a rusher and receiver to have a shot at RB1 value.
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