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Running Back Roundup: Week 4 (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Andrew Seifter | @andrew_seifter | Featured Writer
Sep 29, 2021
Chase Edmonds

The Week 3 slate was headlined by the unfortunate injury to the number one player in most fantasy drafts, Christian McCaffrey (RB – CAR). It’s always a bummer when we don’t get to see McCaffrey play, even if it only ends up being for a few games. The injury bug also bit the Patriots’ James White (RB – NE), an underrated fantasy contributor, and all-around good guy.

However, injuries were far from the only big story at the running back position. We had the fantasy revival of Ezekiel Elliott (RB – DAL), James Robinson (RB – JAX), and James Conner (RB – ARI), a week-winning performance from “backup” running back Kareem Hunt (RB – CLE), Alexander Mattison (RB – MIN) re-staking his claim as the top handcuff in fantasy, an improbable 140 yard game from Peyton Barber (RB – LV), and the latest twists and turns in Baltimore and San Francisco. Najee Harris (RB – PIT) had the ball thrown to him 19 times and the Eagles handed it off to their running backs three times. It was a crazy 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 the backfield hasn’t significantly shifted since I wrote about it in a previous Roundup. 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, weekly rankings, and rest-of-season player values by going over to ROSrankings.com and subscribing to the Rest of Season Rankings podcast.

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Arizona Cardinals
With the Cardinals heavily favored against a porous Jaguars defense, Week 3 was a perfect set-up for James Conner. That’s more or less how things played out. The game ended up being more competitive than expected, but the Cardinals eventually took control, setting the stage for Conner to score two short-yardage touchdowns in the second half. But Chase Edmonds (RB – ARI) maintained a sizable edge in snaps over Conner, who will remain very touchdown-dependent going forward. Edmonds will typically be the preferred fantasy option in all formats, including this week against the Rams.

Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons’ website reported last week that the team’s backfield could be trending towards a 60-40 split between lead-back Mike Davis (RB – ATL) and backup Cordarrelle Patterson (RB – ATL), and that’s pretty much what we saw on Sunday in terms of snaps. Davis had 16 touches to Patterson’s 13, but a higher proportion of Patterson’s came in the passing game, allowing him to edge Davis out in yardage 102-to-70. Atlanta does not project to be a team that puts up gaudy rushing totals, so Patterson’s big-play ability as a pass-catcher could make him the more productive fantasy player even if Davis maintains an edge in snaps.

Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens’ snap distribution at running back remained virtually unchanged in Week 3, with Ty’Son Williams (RB – BAL) handling 50 percent of the snaps, Latavius Murray (RB – BAL) 33 percent, and Devonta Freeman (RB – BAL) 16 percent. But Williams only touched the ball five times, two fewer than Murray. Baltimore is not a team that frequently utilizes its running backs as receivers out of the backfield, so neither Williams nor Murray will be a reliable RB2 without getting 15+ carries per game. Williams is still the better bet to eventually get there, but it won’t happen until the team definitively concludes that his explosiveness outweighs Murray’s experience factor.

Buffalo Bills
Zack Moss (RB – BUF) went from a surprise inactive in Week 1 to leading the Bills backfield in snaps in Week 3. That puts us basically back at Square One, with Moss and Devin Singletary (RB – BUF) splitting reps in a pass-first offense with a QB who often runs the ball himself at the goal line. One thing to keep an eye on is whether Moss continues to encroach upon Singletary’s passing down role. Moss ran only two fewer routes than Singletary last week and was targeted once more than Singletary. Moss is the better between-the-tackles rusher and goal-line back, so if he adds passing down duties to the portfolio, he could eventually approach RB2 territory.

Carolina Panthers
Christian McCaffrey’s hamstring injury on Thursday night was the most fantasy-relevant event of Week 3. The only good news is that the Panthers have declined to place McCaffrey on short-term IR, which suggests the team feels he has a chance to be back in less than three weeks. Rookie fourth-round pick Chuba Hubbard (RB – CAR) operated as the clear lead back once McCaffrey departed, handling 40 snaps to Royce Freeman’s (RB – CAR) 11. Hubbard looked decent and has a good shot to return RB2 value for the games that McCaffrey misses, but it’s also possible that Freeman infringes upon his workload more than he did last week. Hubbard will need to dominate touches over Freeman to provide the kind of weekly value that Mike Davis did last season.

Cleveland Browns
The Browns’ RB situation hasn’t changed, but this is a good time to reiterate that Kareem Hunt is an excellent fantasy back even if he is technically the team’s “backup.” Hunt finished second to Ezekiel Elliott in fantasy points among running backs last week, and both Hunt and Nick Chubb (RB – CLE) are now among the top-eight fantasy backs for the year. Both Chubb and Hunt belong in most fantasy lineups each and every week.

Dallas Cowboys
Tony Pollard’s (RB – DAL) snap share continued to grow in Week 3, but it hardly mattered for Ezekiel Elliott, who rumbled for 116 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. Elliott may not be quite what he used to be, but he’s still a powerful rusher and solid receiver in an excellent offensive environment, which adds up to RB1 value. Pollard looked great against the Eagles, too, and is a premium handcuff who is also capable of providing some RB3/flex value, even while only playing 35-40 percent of the snaps.

Denver Broncos
Many fantasy managers have visions of rookie Javonte Williams (RB – DEN) emerging as a league-winner, and while that still could happen eventually, it doesn’t look like he’ll be taking over the Denver backfield anytime soon. Williams and Melvin Gordon (RB – DEN) split snaps down the middle in Week 1, but since then, the committee seems to be shifting in Gordon’s direction. Moreover, 44 percent of Williams’ carries + targets have come in garbage time, suggesting the dynamic could shift even more in Gordon’s favor once the Broncos start playing some close games. Williams may be the more valuable player over the rest of the season, but it’s become pretty apparent that Gordon is the better RB2/3 right now.

Detroit Lions
The Lions have been an RB powerhouse through the season’s first three weeks. D’Andre Swift (RB – DET) is currently the RB3 (tied with Christian McCaffrey, who he’ll pass next week), while Jamaal Williams (RB – DEN) is the RB15. A good deal of both backs’ value has come as pass-catchers, and that should remain the case on a team that projects to be playing from behind more often than not. Swift, in particular, has a decent shot to lead all running backs in receiving yards this season, which could also him to join the ranks of Alvin Kamara (RB – NO) and Austin Ekeler (RB – LAC) as “passing catching specialists” who also happen to be RB1s.

Indianapolis Colts
Jonathan Taylor (RB – IND) ran the ball very well last week, but it was once again a disappointing performance for fantasy purposes thanks to a lack of touchdowns and receptions. Taylor’s 13 red zone carries leads in the NFL, but he’s yet to score a single touchdown. The “glass half full” take is that he is due for some positive touchdown regression; the “glass half empty” take is that he could soon lose red zone opportunities if he isn’t converting them. It’s likely the former, given that the Colts are content to shop Marlon Mack (RB – IND).

But Taylor has another problem, and that’s Nyheim Hines (RB – IND). Hines out-snapped and out-touched Taylor last week, in a game that was close throughout. While that won’t happen most weeks, Hines should continue to play roughly 40 percent of the snaps and provide quite a bit of value in PPR formats. While Taylor still has a shot at low-end RB1 value if he can manage to score some TDs, Hines’ presence saps his top-five potential.

Jacksonville Jaguars 
Last week in this space, I made the point that Week 2 was a promising one for James Robinson from a usage perspective despite his disappointing box score. One week later, that usage translated to 134 scrimmage yards and a touchdown. While Carlos Hyde (RB – JAX) will remain involved and the Jags’ offense will remain inconsistent, Robinson should continue to get a majority of the early-down work and nearly all of the passing-down opportunities, making him a weekly fantasy option as an RB2.

Kansas City Chiefs
One week after costing the Chiefs the game by fumbling, Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB – KC) dropped the ball again in Week 3. But rather than bench CEH, Andy Reid stuck with him, and Edwards-Helaire responded with his first 100-yard game of the young season. That being said, Darrel Williams’ (RB – KC) snap share has been steadily rising, and CEH may want to avoid any more fumbles if he wants to hold onto lead-back duties. In the meantime, Williams has become a pretty decent stash.

Las Vegas Raiders
When Jon Gruden announced prior to Week 2 that Peyton Barber — and not Kenyan Drake (RB – LV) — would serve as the Raiders’ primary ball carrier in the absence of Josh Jacobs (RB – LV), it was met with a collective eye roll, including from yours truly. Barber predictably struggled in that game, but it was an entirely different story last week when Barber miraculously handled 26 touches for 144 yards and a score against a solid Miami D.

Barber’s breakthrough officially puts the kibosh on any fantasy value that Drake may have had, but I still wouldn’t go blowing my FAAB budget on him. Jacobs may not return this week, but he shouldn’t be out much longer, and in the meantime, I wouldn’t get overconfident in a six-year veteran who has averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in his career.

Los Angeles Rams
With Darrell Henderson (RB – LAR) out due to a rib injury, Sony Michel (RB – LAR) was handed a heavy workload against Tampa Bay in Week 3. The Bucs are the best run defense in the entire NFL, so it should come as no surprise that Michel averaged a mere 3.4 yards per carry. Overall, though, Michel played decently enough to believe that he’ll maintain a role in the offense when Henderson returns, which could happen this week. It’s not inconceivable that Michel could outplay Henderson and eventually take the lead job, but even if he doesn’t, he should be rostered in the vast majority of leagues as the backup to an injury-prone starter in a fantasy-friendly offense.

Minnesota Vikings
Dalvin Cook (RB – MIN) misses at least a couple of games every year, and his first absence of 2021 came last week due to an ankle injury. In his place, Alexander Mattison handled nearly as many snaps as Cook typically plays. He provided Cook-like production, too, turning 32 touches into 171 scrimmage yards. It remains to be seen whether Cook returns in Week 1. Mattison isn’t likely to earn a regular role once Cook is back, but he will continue to have RB1 upside whenever Cook is unavailable.

New England Patriots
The Patriots lost James White to a hip subluxation on Sunday, and he will now be out indefinitely. White is one of the very best pass-catching backs in the league, so New England probably doesn’t have a player on the roster who can fill his shoes. Still, they will need somebody to catch more passes out of the backfield, and right now the top candidates appear to be veteran Brandon Bolden (RB – NE) and second-year back J.J. Taylor (RB – NE). Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson (RB – NE) also stands a better chance of being active on gamedays, but he is more suited to Damien Harris’ (RB – NE) early-down role than White’s. It could end up being tight ends Jonnu Smith (TE – NE) and/or Hunter Henry (TE – NE) who pick up most of White’s targets, as I mentioned on the latest episode of the Rest of Season Rankings podcast.

New York Giants
The big news out of New York is that Saquon Barkley (RB – NYG) is back to a near-every-down role. But a lesser tidbit that may have flown under the radar is that Devontae Booker (RB – NYG) was surprisingly inactive. That left only Elijah Penny and Gary Brightwell (RB – NYG) to soak up snaps behind Barkley against the Falcons. We’ll have to see if this was simply a one-off benching for Booker, but at this point, it seems like there is no viable Barkley handcuff.

Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles handed the ball off to their running backs a grand total of three times on Monday night, which is not what you want to see if you have Miles Sanders (RB – PHI) or Kenneth Gainwell (RB – PHI) on your fantasy roster. We shouldn’t freak out over one game, but Philadelphia’s RBs only ran the ball 19 times the previous week, which isn’t a huge number either. Sanders has enough pass-catching ability to remain on the RB2 radar, but his floor is going to be quite low if the Eagles don’t recommit to the running game.

Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers’ offense looks to be as broken as many feared it to be, but it hasn’t been a problem for Najee Harris, who is getting fed the ball just as often as many expected him to be. Just like last year, the Steelers’ inability to consistently run the football — and Ben Roethlisberger’s (QB – PIT) declining arm strength — has forced them to heavily rely on the short passing game. Harris was always going to be a big part of that, but with Pittsburgh receivers dropping like flies, he’s become a huge part of it. His 19 targets in Week 3 were the second-most on record for an RB going back to 1992.

San Francisco 49ers
If you had Kyle Juszczyk (RB – SF) in the 49ers running back lottery, come up and collect your prize! Yes, you read that right: San Francisco’s veteran fullback led the backfield in snaps and served as the team’s primary running back in passing situations. Rookie Trey Sermon (RB – SF) was the team’s lead back on early downs and salvaged his fantasy day with a 1-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. But overall his involvement was less than expected, which casts doubt on his value once Elijah Mitchell (RB – SF) is able to return from his shoulder injury. Trenton Cannon (RB – SF), Kerryon Johnson (RB – SF), and former XFLer Jacques Patrick (RB – SF) were all total non-factors.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Gio Bernard (RB – TB) got some preseason hype as “Tom Brady’s (QB – TB) new James White,” but he was hardly used over the first two games. That changed in a big way in Week 3, as the Bucs fell behind the Rams and were forced to run their two-minute offense for large chunks of the game. Bernard led the team in snaps and caught nine passes for 51 yards and a touchdown. Unfortunately, he also suffered a “slight MCL sprain.” Bernard’s status for Week 4 is up in the air, but even when healthy he is going to be an inconsistent PPR option considering how rarely the Bucs are likely to be playing from behind this season. Leonard Fournette (RB – TB) remains the best bet for fantasy value in Tampa, with all the usual caveats.

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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.

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