Running Back Roundup: Week 10 (2021 Fantasy Football)
This column took last week off, and whoa boy, is there a lot to catch up on this week. Fantasy mainstays Christian McCaffrey and David Montgomery returned to action, and fellow every-week starters Chris Carson, James Robinson, and Saquon Barkley could be about to join them. Adrian Peterson is baaaaaaaack. Javonte Williams had the big game his fantasy managers have been waiting for. James Conner is miraculously trending towards RB1 status, while Jonathan Taylor makes his case as the overall RB1.
On the flip side, Nick Chubb has Covid, Chase Edmonds has a high-ankle sprain, Alvin Kamara might be “banged up,” and Dalvin Cook is embroiled in an ugly legal battle. In addition, Zack Moss, Damien Harris, and Rhamondre Stevenson are all in the concussion protocol.
What am I forgetting? (takes a deep breath) Ok, let’s jump into it!
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.
James Conner already had an impactful fantasy campaign thanks to his nose for the end zone in a high-scoring offense, but his fantasy stock took off for the moon in Week 9. Conner did not play more than 55 percent of the snaps in any of the Cardinals’ first eight games, but that changed suddenly on Sunday when Chase Edmonds sprained his ankle on Arizona’s first offensive play. The early word is that Edmonds could miss 4-6 weeks.
Conner took full advantage of the increased playing time, setting season-highs in carries (21), rushing yards (96), catches (5), and receiving yards (77). He also scored three combined touchdowns, marking his fourth (!) multi-score game of the year. It was a week-winning performance for fantasy managers.
Conner has the skill set to play on all three downs, but don’t expect him to be utilized as a genuine bell cow like he was during his time in Pittsburgh. That usage took a physical toll on Conner, who missed at least three games each of the last three seasons and was banged up for many more. As a result, Conner ceded roughly a quarter of the snaps last week to second-year pro Eno Benjamin, and Benjamin’s role should grow a bit moving forward. He was used exclusively as a rusher in Week 9, carrying the ball nine times for 39 yards and a score, but he profiles as a pass-catching back in the mold of Duke Johnson. Consider Conner a high-end RB2 moving forward, with Benjamin a worthwhile pickup while seeing how the situation evolves.
The ankle injury suffered by Latavius Murray in Week 6 was pretty severe. He not only missed Week 7 but was still not ready to return to action coming out of the Ravens’ Week 8 bye, opening the door for Devonta Freeman to again lead the backfield against Minnesota on Sunday. Freeman set season-highs in carries (13) and rushing yards (79) and found the end zone on a short catch. Perhaps more importantly, his snap share jumped from 40 percent in Week 7 to 58 percent in Week 9.
With a quick turnaround to a Thursday night game against Miami, Murray is unlikely to be active, and he may have fallen behind Freeman on the depth chart anyway. Le’Veon Bell and Ty’Son Williams will continue to mix in here and there, but the Baltimore backfield has not been productive enough to warrant interest in multiple running backs. So Freeman is the guy for now, and that means he’ll be a solid RB3/flex option at worst against a porous Dolphins run D.
A series of favorable matchups against Kansas City, Tennessee, Miami, and Jacksonville has not translated into big fantasy numbers for the Bills’ running back duo of Zack Moss and Devin Singletary. Moss, who has been operating as the lead back since Week 3, hadn’t scored since Week 4 and has seen his weekly rushing yardage totals decline from 61 to 37 to 24 to 19 to just six on Sunday when he exited early with a concussion. In his absence, Singletary played his most snaps since Week 1 and caught a season-high seven passes but otherwise did very little in Buffalo’s unfathomable loss to the Jags.
With Moss’s status for Week 10 up in the air, Singletary could become an intriguing fantasy option by default. The Bills will face a Jets defense that gives up far and away the most adjusted fantasy points to running backs. Matt Breida would also likely see the field for the first time since Week 2 but would be difficult to trust as a flex option even in the dream spot.
After a five-week hiatus that included a setback with his ailing hamstring and an IR stint, consensus number one overall fantasy pick Christian McCaffrey finally returned to action on Sunday, and the results were encouraging. CMC only played 49 percent of the snaps, but he handled 18 of the Panthers’ 27 backfield touches and topped the century mark in yards from scrimmage.
By all accounts — including McCaffrey’s own — he emerged from the game unscathed, so we can probably expect his snap share to grow in the coming weeks. That said, the Panthers may not play McCaffrey every single down as they did in the past. Given his injury history, that’s probably a good thing.
McCaffrey wasn’t the only running back to make a much-anticipated return in Week 9. David Montgomery, who had been sidelined since spraining his knee in Week 4, was also back in action even though the Bears’ bye was only a week away. However, unlike McCaffrey, Montgomery jumped right back into bell-cow usage, playing 85 percent of the snaps. Rookie Khalil Herbert, who excelled in Montgomery’s absence, was surprisingly left in the cold, playing just ten snaps and carrying the ball only four times.
Montgomery’s 80 scoreless scrimmage yards don’t jump off the page, but the usage is incredibly promising for his fantasy prospects going forward. With one of the league’s more favorable remaining schedules for running backs, it’s not hard to imagine that Montgomery could be a league-winner down the stretch, just like he was last year.
Fresh off his best fantasy performance of the season (163 scrimmage yards and 2 TDs), Nick Chubb tested positive for Covid on Tuesday. The good news is that he’s vaccinated, meaning he can still be cleared in time for next week’s matchup with the Patriots if he can get two negative tests 24 hours apart.
If Chubb were to miss the contest, D’Ernest Johnson would be a high-end RB2, if not an RB1. Johnson had a major coming-out party in Week 7 against Denver, but he’s taken a back seat to Chubb since handling a total of just 12 carries over the last two games, even with Kareem Hunt sidelined. Hunt is unlikely to return from his calf injury for at least a couple more weeks.
Speaking of Chubb, Broncos rookie Javonte Williams is tied with the Browns’ back for the most forced missed tackles in the league (35). It also happens to be more than 19 teams’ entire backfields. Simply put, it is only a matter of time before Williams emerges as an elite fantasy option.
Williams posted the first 100-yard rushing day of his young career against the Cowboys in Week 9, so it’s tempting to think that the breakout is upon us. Not so fast. While Williams’ 17 carries and 111 rushing yards were both season-highs, Melvin Gordon had a season-high 21 carries against Dallas, too, and it was once again Gordon who got the touchdown and led the backfield in snaps. The Broncos jumped out to a 30-0 lead on the Cowboys in this one, so it’s no surprise that both backs got a lot of work.
Green Bay Packers
AJ Dillon has been coming on strong in the Packers’ backfield for a while now. Still, the interesting thing about last week is that he outpaced Aaron Jones in the passing game four catches-to-zero after Dillon had caught just one pass in the previous three games combined. Dillon’s enhanced passing game role will likely go down as an anomaly, perhaps one related to his practice field rapport with backup QB Jordan Love, who got the start in place of a Covid-stricken Aaron Rodgers. However, Dillon did prove he can make plays as a receiver if called upon to do so, which is good news for his fantasy value long-term.
If you roster Jones, there is no need to panic. He put up nice fantasy numbers in a committee with Jamaal Williams, and he can also put up nice numbers in a committee with Dillon. Once Rodgers is back under center, the potential for a Jones blowup game will be there each week.
The Colts showcased Marlon Mack here and there heading into the trade deadline, hoping to drum up some interest for the veteran back. Ultimately, they didn’t get any bites, and now Mack is no longer active on game days, which is excellent news for Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines.
Taylor was already a borderline RB1 even when Colts coach Frank Reich was limiting his playing time. Still, now that Taylor is playing 70-75 percent of the snaps each week, he is making a case to be the single most valuable running back in fantasy football. It’s no surprise that Taylor went wild on the Jets’ leaky run D last week, but the colossal performance was nothing new. He has at least 110 yards from scrimmage in six straight games and has scored nine touchdowns over that span.
Meanwhile, Hines had his best game of the season easily against the Jets, piling up 108 yards from scrimmage and a score of his own. Of course, it’s going to be difficult to predict when Hines’ boom games will come. Still, the absence of Mack does help his outlook, and he’s a reasonable RB3/flex option in PPR leagues, especially for favorable matchups like this week’s contest with Jacksonville.
James Robinson missed the Jaguars’ surprising Week 9 victory over the Bills with a bruised heel, but coach Urban Meyer has already indicated that he expects Robinson to be back for this week’s matchup with the Colts. Carlos Hyde put in a workmanlike performance against the Bills. Still, with 22 touches for 73 scrimmage yards and a lost fumble, the result was as pedestrian as you’d expect it to be for a journeyman back against an unrelenting defense.
Meyer flirted with the idea of Hyde as a true committee partner to Robinson early in the season but thankfully came to his senses and realized he needs to feature Robinson, who he recognizes as the “most productive player on offense.” So expect Robinson to go back to dominating the backfield snaps immediately.
Kansas City Chiefs
Undrafted rookie Derrick Gore came out of nowhere to split the rushing attempts nearly down the middle with Darrel Williams in a Week 8 victory over the Giants, carrying the ball 11 times for 48 yards and a score. It was a mirage. Gore only played 20 percent of the snaps in that contest, and sure enough, he only managed four touches for 19 yards on a similar snap share in Week 9.
Even if Gore indeed were a factor on the ground, Williams would be the better fantasy option since he’s the one who’s catching passes, too. The Chiefs’ offense is in a deep funk right now, but it hasn’t completely sunk Williams, the RB23, in four full games since Clyde Edwards-Helaire injured his knee. Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s latest update on CEH was that he is “closer” to returning, but that “We’ll have to see how time handles it here in the next couple of weeks.” In other words, it does not sound like a return is imminent. As a result, Williams remains an every-week RB2 in the meantime.
Las Vegas Raiders
This season, there have been times when it seemed like the Raiders had little interest in making use of Kenyan Drake, their pricy off-season free-agent addition. However, that may be changing since Jon Gruden has left the building.
Drake stepped in for Josh Jacobs after Jacobs suffered a chest injury in the Raiders’ Week 7 victory over Philadelphia, while Peyton Barber was a healthy scratch. Jacobs healed up over the team’s bye week, but Drake remained a key part of the game plan in a Week 9 loss to the Giants. Drake was on the field for only three fewer snaps than Jacobs, and he played an integral role in the passing game while Jacobs served as the team’s primary rusher. Drake finished with 100 yards from scrimmage, while Jacobs had 95. Altogether, Drake has now posted three strong fantasy performances in a row.
Jacobs is still the preferred fantasy asset, but there’s no question it is trending towards more of a committee or a “1-2 punch,” as offensive coordinator Greg Olson puts it. For his part, Jacobs doesn’t seem to mind, saying he’s told the coaches to incorporate Drake more and that he doesn’t “want this to be a one-man show.”
Los Angeles Rams
Darrell Henderson is unquestionably still the Rams’ lead back. Still, the Los Angeles backfield is starting to look more like a 60-40 committee between Henderson and Sony Michel, rather than the 90-10 split it was at times early in the year. The vast majority of Michel’s snaps have been coming in the two-minute offense package at the end of each half.
Henderson managers may not be thrilled to see him losing so many snaps to Michel. Still, it also may help keep Henderson healthy and effective after suffering a series of bumps and bruises earlier in the year. He still has RB1 potential in plus matchups. As for Michel, while he’s tough to trust as a standalone flex option right now, he is one of the highest-upside handcuffs in fantasy football and should be universally rostered.
With a yard-per-carry average of 1.7 against Houston, it’s safe to say that Myles Gaskin wasn’t particularly effective in his first opportunity this season to serve as a bell-cow back. He did catch six passes and scored a rushing TD, though, so it wasn’t all bad from a fantasy perspective. Gaskin has always been better-suited to make plays in the passing game, but with Malcolm Brown on injured reserve and Salvon Ahmed seemingly glued to the bench, Gaskin could see more heavy usage in the weeks ahead. He certainly looks the part of a volume-based RB2, at least until Brown returns.
News broke late Tuesday that Vikings star Dalvin Cook is embroiled in a legal battle with an ex-girlfriend, with each accusing the other of physical assault. I won’t get into the details of the accusations here — click through to the Star Tribune link if you’re so inclined — but suffice it to say that Cook’s status with the Vikings is suddenly very much up in the air. Alexander Mattison is Cook’s direct backup and has typically provided RB1-type fantasy numbers in games that Cook has missed.
New England Patriots
Things are rarely simple with the Patriots’ backfield, but one thing that has gone relatively smoothly this season has been Damien Harris’ stranglehold on lead-back duties. Until last weekend, that is. Then, rookie Rhamondre Stevenson had a mini-breakout against the Panthers, posting season-highs in rushing (62) and receiving (44) yards. Stevenson almost single-handedly moved the Patriots down the field on one second-quarter drive, only for Harris to swoop in and vulture the touchdown.
Whether Stevenson showed enough to carve into Harris’ role on early downs meaningfully is unclear, but an added wrinkle is that both players had to depart the game and are now in the concussion protocol. If healthy, Harris should still be treated as an every-week RB2 until proven otherwise, but if Stevenson can clear the protocol more quickly than Harris, it could create another opportunity for the rookie to close the gap.
Veteran third-down back and special teams ace Brandon Bolden got increased run after Harris and Stevenson left Sunday’s contest, and he seems likely to play an ancillary role in the offense whether or not the other two backs can play this week. If both Harris and Stevenson were to sit, it could also open the door for J.J. Taylor to get back on the field in a substantial way.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints seemed to be perilously dependent on Alvin Kamara over the first two months, and they addressed that issue at the trade deadline by acquiring Mark Ingram from the Texans. Ingram had most of the best years of his career under Sean Payton in New Orleans, and it took little time for the Saints to incorporate Ingram into the game plan.
Kamara has seen his snap share drop from the 85 percent range to around 67 percent since Ingram arrived, while Ingram has been on the field for 30-35 percent of the snaps. Should Ingram’s usage continue to grow, he could have some decent RB3/flex appeal in favorable matchups while also serving as a premier handcuff (similar to Latavius Murray’s last couple of years). That handcuff status could already be relevant as reports are percolating that Kamara may have gotten a bit banged up in last week’s game. Stay tuned.
New York Giants
After getting cleared from a false positive Covid test, Saquon Barkley nonetheless missed a fourth consecutive game in Week 9 as he continued to rehab his injured ankle. Barkley will presumably be ready to roll following the Giants’ Week 10 bye, although his health status can never be taken for granted at this point.
Barkley’s lengthy medical history is all the more reason that Devontae Booker is worth holding on fantasy rosters even if he reverts to a lightly-used backup. In Barkley’s absence, Booker has been surprisingly effective, dominating backfield snaps and ranking as a top-18 fantasy RB over the last five games.
The Eagles’ backfield has been the ultimate fantasy tease in 2021. First, lead back Miles Sanders was underutilized for almost two months, and then right as the team was making a renewed commitment to featuring him, he rolled his ankle and landed on IR.
Rookie Kenneth Gainwell, who had been the only other back to see significant snaps up to that point, was widely presumed to be the best fantasy option in Sanders’ absence. Instead, Boston Scott has played the most snaps since Sanders went down, and Jordan Howard has provided the most fantasy production. That makes the backfield quite challenging to decipher, but it’s probably worth taking a shot on Howard and Scott in fantasy leagues as long as you realize more surprises could be in store. Philadelphia has gone from one of the most pass-happy offenses in the league to the single-most run-heavy, so the upside is certainly there.
San Francisco 49ers
Elijah Mitchell‘s status was up in the air for much of last week as he battled a rib injury, and when the 49ers activated Jeff Wilson off of the PUP list, fantasy managers who roster Mitchell feared the worst. Thankfully, word came before the 1 pm ET kickoffs that Mitchell would indeed play, and he ended up handling his usual allotment of snaps while Wilson never set foot on the field. Of course, Wilson may eventually work his way into a role and is an interesting lotto ticket to stash. Still, for now, it certainly appears as though Mitchell will handle roughly two-thirds of the snaps each week while JaMycal Hasty gets the rest.
Mitchell did not have a huge box score in Week 9, but it was encouraging to see that he did a good deal of his damage in the passing game. His five catches were a career-high and his first catches since October 10. His rushing prowess alone is enough to make Mitchell an every-week RB2, but if he also takes on an increasing role as a receiver, RB1 production is not out of the question.
The Seahawks were off last week, but coach Pete Carroll vowed on Monday that running back Chris Carson would participate in practice on Wednesday. Carson’s neck condition is one of the most difficult injuries to assess, but Carroll noted that the team’s doctors cleared Carson to return to practice and that the team would “see how that goes.” Carson may return to action this week, but it’s also possible he doesn’t feel right and gets shut down for the rest of the season. Until we know more, Alex Collins needs to remain on fantasy rosters in all leagues. Whoever starts in Seattle is a plug-and-play RB2, especially now that Russell Wilson is making his return.
The Titans first game without Derrick Henry resulted in a rousing road victory over the powerhouse LA Rams, but it wasn’t because the Titans had Henry-like production in the ground game. Jeremy McNichols led the backfield with 45 percent of the snaps, while newcomers Adrian Peterson (33 percent) and D’Onta Foreman (21 percent) were also involved. None of the three topped 30 rushing yards, although Peterson did find his way into the end zone late.
Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing has made clear that Tennessee is going to try to stick to a run-first offense without Henry, and the team is reportedly impressed enough with the 36-year old Peterson that they believe he can take on 15+ touches each week and allow the Titans to continue to play smash-mouth football. Whether that is sustainable remains to be seen, but in the meantime, Peterson can be viewed as a volume-based RB2 who is best suited to non-PPR formats. His playing time will likely grow now that he’s had more than a week to acclimate to the offense.
McNichols, meanwhile, is a reasonable stash while we see how the situation evolves, and he could easily match or exceed Peterson’s numbers in full PPR formats.
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