Running Back Roundup: Week 7 (2021 Fantasy Football)
It’s no secret that there have been a lot of significant injuries at the running back position this year, but there have also been a lot of ambiguous injury situations. The demise of the “probable” tag favoring everyone with a hangnail labeled “questionable” has added to the confusion.
This article runs on Wednesdays, and I write it on Tuesdays. You’d think that by Tuesday, we’d have a decent sense of the injuries suffered on Sunday, but not so much this year. This week, Antonio Gibson, Latavius Murray, and Alex Collins are among the players whose status for Week 7 and beyond is up in the air as we approach mid-week. And that’s before you even consider the murky status of players on the Covid list, particularly those like Damien Williams who have tested positive.
Trying to read the tea leaves has become more critical than ever. Many RBs are “limited” in practice throughout the week, and it’s often hard to tell whether a player missing practice is a severe matter or simply a veteran maintenance day. With the extensive use of the “questionable” tag, we often won’t know a player’s status until Friday afternoon, Saturday, or, as has become increasingly common, 90 minutes before kickoff. For players in the late games, that creates some tough lineup decisions for fantasy managers.
I guess you could say it’s all part of playing fantasy football in 2021, at least until they bring that “probable” tag back!
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 to ROSrankings.com and subscribing to the Rest of Season Rankings podcast.
A matchup with Cleveland didn’t necessarily look like it would be a “James Conner game,” but that situation is what transpired after the Cardinals quickly jumped out to a two-score lead. Conner ultimately out-touched Chase Edmonds 17-to-7, which is par for the course in contests where Arizona plays with a sizable lead. Expect more of the same thing week against the lowly Texans.
The Ravens turned back the clock to 2015 in a big way in Week 6, as Latavius Murray, Devonta Freeman, and Le’Veon Bell all found the end zone in Baltimore’s demolition of the Chargers. Meanwhile, the only Ravens’ back who isn’t getting ready to collect Social Security, Ty’Son Williams, was inactive for the second time in three weeks. Murray left the game with an ankle injury, which could partly explain the increased usage for Freeman and Bell. If the d
amage turns out to be minor, Murray will remain on low-end RB2 radar. If not, Bell appears in a prime position to capitalize, although that’s hardly a given.
After garnering nearly three-quarters of the RB snaps in Week 5, Zack Moss‘s arrow appeared to be pointing up. But Moss only played seven more snaps than Devin Singletary on Monday night. That 55 percent-to-45 percent split resembles what we saw in Weeks 3 and 4 and should be our expectation when the Bills come out of their Week 7 bye.
For the second year in a row, the Panthers seem to be mishandling a Christian McCaffrey injury. Rather than shut McCaffrey down when he first tweaked his hamstring, Carolina allowed him to continue to practice to make a quick return. Panthers coach Matt Rhule refused to acknowledge that McCaffrey had a setback, but it’s hard to deny after the team placed their star running back on injured reserve.
Rookie Chuba Hubbard has now made three starts in McCaffrey’s place, and he’ll make at least two more. While he doesn’t possess McCaffrey’s explosive upside — few do — Hubbard has proven capable of grinding out 70 yards or so each week while occasionally blowing up for 100+ and a score. He can confidently be started as an RB2 until McCaffrey finally returns to total health.
If, like me, you blew a lot of FAAB on Damien Williams, you had to scramble when Williams landed on the Covid list late last week. Williams tested positive for Covid, which is always concerning, so hopefully, he makes a quick recovery.
Rookie Khalil Herbert, who had already turned this backfield into something of a committee in Week 5, played a whopping 89 percent of the snaps in Williams’ absence in Week 6. The production was good, too, as Herbert compiled 112 scrimmage yards and a score on 21 touches. We can’t assume that Williams will be back in Week 7, and we can’t assume he’ll get the lead job back when he does. Herbert will be a strong RB2 candidate for however long Williams remains sidelined, but perhaps not this week against the Bucs’ unmovable defensive front. Starter David Montgomery is at least a few more weeks away after landing on IR with a knee injury.
Joe Mixon played limited snaps in Week 5 due to an ankle injury, but we were promised a “full workload” from Mixon in Week 6, and that situation transpired. Mixon piled up 153 yards and a touchdown in the Bengals’ rout of the Lions, leading Cincinnati in both carries (18) and receptions (5). With Samaje Perine out, rookie Chris Evans got the first meaningful action of his career, including hauling in a 24-yard touchdown catch midway through the first quarter. Trayveon Williams also handled six carries due to the lop-sided nature of the scoreline. Once Perine returns, it will be interesting to see whether he or Evans serves as the primary backup to Mixon, but neither is likely to have any standalone value.
The Browns had the luxury of having two top-tier running backs, but RBs across the league continue to drop like flies; now they suddenly have none. Nick Chubb appeared to come out of Week 5 without any issues, but then he didn’t show up at practice on Wednesday due to a calf injury, and after two more DNPs, he did not play. Chubb will miss a second straight game with the Browns having a short turnaround to their Thursday night contest with the Broncos. Perhaps the 10-day layoff after that will give Chubb enough time to return for a divisional clash with Pittsburgh on Halloween.
The Browns better hope that’s the case because it’s clear Kareem Hunt won’t be available by then. Hunt received lead-back duties in Week 6, posted 78 yards on 17 touches before exiting the game with a calf injury. Hunt was placed on IR, meaning he’ll miss at least three games but more likely four-to-six.
That leaves only D’Ernest Johnson, Demetric Felton, and new addition John Kelly remain on the depth chart. Felton is more of a wide receiver/gadget player than a running back, so look for primary rushing duties on Thursday to go to Johnson. Johnson did pop off for 95 yards on 13 carries in a game against Dallas last October. Still, we probably shouldn’t expect a repeat against a Broncos defense that has allowed the ninth-fewest adjusted fantasy points to running backs. The potential volume is appealing, but he’s a very low-end RB2 at best this week.
It’s tough to get excited about any Texans running back for fantasy purposes, but Mark Ingram is doing his best to at least stay in the RB3/flex conversation in non-PPR formats. Ingram’s 26 carries in Week 1 always seemed like they would go down as his high mark for the season, but he’s now handled at least 14 carries in four of six games, including 34 carries over the last two weeks. That hasn’t exactly translated into big fantasy production — he hasn’t scored since Week 1, and Week 6 was his first time topping 41 yards since then — but he’s at least become a viable option in deeper leagues or if you’re scrambling at the position.
Jonathan Taylor still isn’t quite a bell cow, but his 65 percent snap share in Week 6 represented a season-high. The matchup with the Texans was a glaring smash spot, and Taylor more than delivered, putting up 145 rushing yards (also a season-high) and two touchdowns. Taylor has now topped the century mark in yardage three straight weeks and is quickly vaulting towards top-5 RB status, even if he continues to cede more snaps to Nyheim Hines and Marlon Mack than he probably should.
Speaking of Hines, his snap share was down to a season-low 23 percent against Houston. It isn’t overly surprising that Hines would see limited action in a Colts blowout, but he’s now posted 22 scrimmage yards or fewer in three straight games and is looking like a very dicey hold in fantasy leagues. He’ll probably have a few more five or six catch games this season, but it’ll be hard to predict when they’ll come.
Mack, meanwhile, continues to see his name swirling in trade rumors. That makes him a decent stash for the RB-needy, but he’ll need a prime landing spot to matter in fantasy. Rumors of a potential trade to Kansas City were somewhat overblown. The ESPN article that generated all the commotion did report that the Chiefs had “looked into” Mack, but it actually mentioned the Eagles first and also noted that “there is not much interest” in Mack yet.
Kansas City Chiefs
In his first start in place of Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Darrel Williams scored more fantasy points than CEH in any game in his career. Williams is hardly a unique talent — he averaged 3.0 ypc on Sunday — but his situation is ideal for fantasy production. He played 72 percent of the snaps in Week 6, cashed in two short-yardage rushing scores, and caught three passes for good measure. Playing in one of the league’s top offenses, Williams will always be a decent bet to reach paydirt, and the role in the passing game boosts his floor, too. He’s a highly desirable RB2 until Edwards-Helaire returns, and if things continue to go well, he may hold onto lead-back duties even after CEH is back in the fold.
Las Vegas Raiders
Kenyan Drake emerged from obscurity to find the end zone twice against a tough Broncos defense. Given that it happened right after Jon Gruden’s departure, it’s tempting to believe the Raiders have finally decided to make good use of their $11 million offseason addition. Don’t be fooled. Drake did all his damage on just six touches, and his 21 percent snap share was less than he had in Weeks 1-4. Maybe this performance will earn him a few more touches in the future, but until we see it, Josh Jacobs remains the only viable play in this backfield.
Los Angeles Rams
When last we checked on the Rams, coach Sean McVay dropped hints that the team’s backfield could be trending towards a committee. Well, so much for that. Darrell Henderson played 54 snaps in Week 6 compared to just 12 for Sony Michel. The touches mirrored the snaps in Henderson’s favor 23-to-9, and the disparity may have been even more significant if the Rams hadn’t been up by five touchdowns on the Giants. This season, it sure looks like this is Henderson’s backfield, which means he has legitimate top-10 fantasy upside, if not top-5. That leaves Michel as little more than a shot-in-the-dark flex option — and one of the top handcuffs in the league.
Welp, it was another annoying week in the Dolphins’ backfield, as snaps were nearly even between Myles Gaskin, Malcolm Brown, and Salvon Ahmed. To be fair to the Miami coaching staff, Gaskin didn’t deserve the lion’s share of the snaps in this one after dropping several passes that could have gone for significant gains. Still, he remains the team’s most dynamic back, and he’s topped 50 percent of the snaps in four-of-six contests.
Gaskin isn’t the kind of back who is going to get 20 carries — he’s only reached ten once this year — but does have 16 targets over the last two weeks. That is more than enough looks to make a fantasy impact if he plays better. He will be very boom-or-bust at this rate, but he still doesn’t belong on the waiver wire.
Dalvin Cook triumphantly returned from his ankle injury on Sunday, and it’s safe to say he was fully back, cruising to 143 yards and a touchdown on 31 touches. While terrific in Cook’s absence, Alexander Mattison reverted to his usual role as lightly-used backup, playing just 13 percent of the snaps and touching the ball three times. The Vikings’ aversion to any committee is perfect for fantasy, ensuring that Cook will be a high-end RB1 whenever he takes the field, and Mattison will be one whenever Cook is absent.
New England Patriots
Damien Harris was on the injury report last week with a rib injury, and at one point, it looked like he might miss Sunday’s matchup with the Cowboys. But Harris was active and appeared just fine on game day, racking up over 100 rushing yards for the first time since Week 1. While Harris dominated early-down work, rookie Rhamondre Stevenson appeared to usurp veteran Brandon Bolden for the team’s passing-down role, out-touching Bolden eight-to-two. The Patriots seem to like what they see from Stevenson as a receiver, but he also possesses the skills to eat into Harris’ early-down role if asked to do so. Roster him in all leagues as the situation continues to evolve.
Just when it looked like the time to panic about Miles Sanders, he’s registered snap shares of 75 percent and 83 percent over the last two weeks, while rookie Kenneth Gainwell has seen his playing time drop. Sanders hasn’t done much with the increased playing time, which isn’t all that surprising when you consider how infrequently the Eagles run the ball. Philadelphia’s 132 rushing attempts through six games are the fifth-fewest in the NFL, and when you take away QB Jalen Hurts‘ 53 rushing attempts, they’re dead last. Still, Sanders’ current level of playing time at least creates a plausible scenario where the Eagles play with a lead and run the ball, which could allow Sanders to have a blowup game at some point.
In the latest installment of “As Najee Harris’ backup turns,” Kalen Ballage played 16 percent of the snaps on Sunday night while Benny Snell saw himself relegated to Special Teams. It’s hard to say how Mike Tomlin would handle things if Harris were to go down, but for now, Ballage is the better handcuff in deeper leagues.
Despite Pete Carroll’s unfounded optimism last week, Chris Carson has landed on injured reserve with a neck condition that’s been bothering him for quite some time. Alex Collins seamlessly stepped into the leading role on Sunday night, rushing 20 times for 101 yards and a score. Unfortunately, Collins also left the game late in the fourth quarter with glute and hip injuries. Given Carroll’s history of rosy injury prognostications, it’s going to be challenging to get a read on the severity of Collins’ ailments. Rashaad Penny, who expects to return from IR this week, could step right into a massive role if Collins can’t go. Carroll says Penny won’t have “any restrictions” once he’s back, so he should immediately leapfrog Travis Homer and DeeJay Dallas.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Little has changed since we last checked in on the Bucs’ backfield. Leonard Fournette keeps getting better and better, vaulting towards high-end RB2 territory. But one thing that has changed is that Ronald Jones’ name has come up in trade rumors. The extent of the rumor is that “other teams are monitoring” Jones’ potential availability — not that Tampa Bay is actively shopping him –. Still, it’s something for fantasy managers to monitor, too. With all the running back carnage across the league, it’s not unthinkable that Jones could land somewhere where he’d see significantly more opportunity than he’s getting right now.
It seems quaint to think back to a time where people were discounting Derrick Henry because he didn’t catch passes or was due to break down physically. I had him ranked as my number two RB behind only Christian McCaffrey, but it turns out even that was too low. Henry’s 27 fantasy points per game in half PPR formats is nearly 1.5 times the production of the second-best RB, Austin Ekeler. Expect to see a lot of championship teams with Henry on their rosters.
Washington Football Team
Antonio Gibson may have relieved fantasy managers by handling a heavy workload in Week 5, but that relief was short-lived. We already knew he was dealing with a stress fracture in his shin that was unlikely to improve all year, so this had all the makings of a ticking time bomb situation. Gibson departed Sunday’s game when the shin flared up and underwent an MRI on Monday, the results of which have not yet been public. It’s looking increasingly likely that he’ll miss time.
Should that happen, J.D. McKissic and Jaret Patterson both become interesting for fantasy purposes. McKissic was already a viable RB3/flex option in PPR formats, but he also took on the lion’s share of playing time on all downs after Gibson departed. If that continues, it’ll be huge for his fantasy value. But it just as quickly could have been because the Football Team trailed by multiple scores in the fourth quarter or that Washington wasn’t in a situation to shift Patterson into a significant role in the middle of a game. McKissic doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a pass-catching back, but the fact remains that Patterson profiles as the better fill-in for Gibson on early downs. Roster both players while we await word on Gibson’s health status.
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