The Running Back Breakdown offers data-driven analysis for each week’s main NFL slate. For more of our weekly football content, visit the NFL homepage.
Wild Card weekend is in the books and with it goes this season’s RB1, RB5, and RB9. Be sure to check out our Vegas Lines and Outliers articles, as well as our Market Share report, to stay on top of the latest Vegas and workload related trends heading into the divisional round. Let’s get it.
As always, this breakdown is explicitly for the four-game main slate although it has wider applicability.
The Big One
The one player in the league who could theoretically earn a long-term contract as either a running back or wide receiver …
- Le’Veon Bell ($9,600 DraftKings, $9,400 FanDuel)
Seriously, how does a defense even begin to slow down the second coming of Boobie Miles?
The MilLe’Veon Falcon
It’s tough to overstate just how ridiculous Bell’s workload had become by the end of the season. He and Jarvis Landry were the only players to catch at least five passes in Weeks 10-16, while Bell was one of just 11 players to rack up 60-plus targets during that stretch and one of just three backs to see at least 125 carries. The expected return of Antonio Brown (calf, probable) could conceivably curtail Bell’s receiving workload, although he still saw 10 targets in Week 5 against the Jaguars despite Brown getting a season-high 19 looks.
Bell racked up 59 rush attempts in the only two playoff games he’s been healthy for, although it’s fair to question how effective the Steelers’ seventh-ranked offensive line in adjusted line yards will be against the Jaguars’ league-best defense in overall DVOA that has dominated the line of scrimmage since adding run-stuffer Marcell Dareus in Week 9:
- Jaguars Weeks 1-7: 15.7 PPG, 138.6 rush yards, 10.4 DraftKings PPG, 3 RBs with 19+ DraftKings points
- Weeks 9-Wild Card: 16.1 PPG, 102 rush yards, 9.5 DraftKings PPG, 1 RB with 19+ DraftKings points
Despite the tough matchup, Bell’s extraterrestrial workload leaves him with the highest projected ceiling, projected floor, and projected ownership among all running backs via our Pro Models. His status as a 7.5-point home favorite certainly doesn’t hurt, as he’s posted a +2.3 Plus/Minus and 66.7 percent Consistency Rating when favored at home by at least a touchdown since 2014 (per our Trends Tool).
Up the Gut
Alvin Kamara ($7,800 DraftKings, $8,900 FanDuel) and Mark Ingram ($5,600 DraftKings, $8,200 FanDuel): Kamara’s 2017 season shouldn’t simply be seen as a great rookie campaign; his average of 6.07 yards per carry was the fourth-highest mark among all running backs since the 1970 merger (minimum 100 rush attempts). He received more carries than Ingram during the Saints’ wild card win over the Panthers for the first time since Week 1 and has more-or-less worked as the offense’s featured back since returning from his concussion in Week 15:
- Weeks 6-13: Ingram 17.3 carries, 4.9 targets. Kamara 8.9 carries, 5.8 targets.
- Weeks 15-18: Ingram 11.8 carries, 3.5 targets. Kamara 10.8 carries, 6.5 targets.
Ingram has maintained a vice-like grip on the team’s red-zone role, but the previous usage differential between the two backs has all but evaporated. Ingram still offers plenty of value on DraftKings, where he has a position high 98 percent Bargain Rating and the second highest projected ceiling/floor combination among all backs priced under $6,000. Kamara has a negative Projected Plus/Minus on both DraftKings and FanDuel for his matchup against a Vikings defense that has allowed 3.7 points below salary-based expectation to running backs over the past 12 months – the second lowest mark in the divisional round.
Derrick Henry ($7,300 DraftKings, $6,700 FanDuel): The Titans have fed Henry a combined 51 carries over the past two weeks with their season on the line. He tore apart the Chiefs to the tune of 156 yards and a touchdown, but will now have to deal with life as the offense’s focal point against Bill Belichick in the playoffs. The Patriots’ 31st-ranked defensive line in adjusted line yards has hardly shut down every adversary they’ve faced, but the expected return of 6’6″ 325-pound run-stuffer Alan Branch (knee, questionable) is bad news for a Titans’ offensive line that could be without starting guard Quinton Spain (back, questionable). Be sure to monitor our Injury Dashboard to view daily practice participation and estimated game statuses for all fantasy relevant players. Henry has finally demonstrated his Heisman-winning ability thanks in large part to his newfound massive workload, but he’s in a tough spot considering road running backs who have been at least 13-point underdogs have posted a -1.3 Plus/Minus and 31 percent Consistency Rating on DraftKings since 2014. Exposure to Henry should be focused on FanDuel, where he has a position-high 99 percent Bargain Rating and +4.15 Projected Plus/Minus. DeMarco Murray (knee) has already been ruled out.
Dion Lewis ($6,600 DraftKings, $7,600 FanDuel), Rex Burkhead ($5,700 DraftKings, $6,400 FanDuel), and James White ($4,300 DraftKings, $4,800 FanDuel): White (ankle) and Burkhead (knee) have each practiced all week, but Burkhead is reportedly expected to be limited if active due to his lingering knee injury. Whoever is able to suit up will have their work cut out on the ground against the Titans’ seventh-ranked defense in rush DVOA that has only allowed Todd Gurley to rush for more than 80 yards this season, but the Titans’ league-worst defense in DVOA against receiving backs will be put to the test:
- Todd Gurley: 13 tgts, 10/158/2
- Leonard Fournette: 5 tgts, 4/67/0
- C.J. Prosise: 5 tgts, 3/65/0
- Lamar Miller: 5 tgts, 4/56/1
- Duke Johnson: 7 tgts, 6/45/0
- Buck Allen: 8 tgts, 7/44/1
With all three backs healthy in Weeks 7-15, Lewis led the way with 14.3 touches per game, but Burkhead’s plethora of fantasy-friendly touches resulted in him averaging 0.9 touchdowns per game over that span. Burkhead’s 3.6 targets per game are in line with Lewis’ average of 3.8 targets over that span, although Burkhead’s seven rushes inside the 10-yard line surpass Lewis’ season-long mark of four-such rushes. Lewis and White averaged an additional 3.1 and 1.7 touches, respectively, with Burkhead sidelined this season and are each set up well as 13.5-point home favorites with the week’s highest implied total.
Devonta Freeman ($5,900 DraftKings, $7,200 FanDuel) and Tevin Coleman ($4,400 DraftKings, $5,800 FanDuel): Coleman has received a slight increase above his regular season averages in carries and targets per game during his four career playoff games, but Freeman has still been the featured back. Freeman has averaged an additional 3.5 carries and 0.75 targets compared to Coleman in their four career playoff matchups. Up next is the Eagles’ league-best defensive line in adjusted line yards that didn’t allow a running back to surpass 100 yards this season until Ezekiel Elliott got there in Week 17 (on 27 carries against mostly backups). Despite the tough matchup, both backs offer value thanks to their reduced price tags, as Freeman has the highest projected floor among all backs other than Bell, while Coleman has the second-highest projected ceiling among backs priced under $4,500 on DraftKings.
Latavius Murray ($5,400 DraftKings, $6,800 FanDuel) and Jerick McKinnon ($4,900 DraftKings, $6,500 FanDuel): Murray’s usage has never been higher, as he’s racked up at least 15 carries in all but one game since Week 5 – including three-straight games with 20-plus carries to end the season. McKinnon has remained involved with an average of 11.7 carries and 4.7 targets in 12 games with Dalvin Cook sidelined, but his only two games with fewer than double-digit touches have come in the last four weeks. Both backs are set up well against the Saints’ run-funnel defense that ranks 23rd in DVOA against the rush. The Saints defense has lost several starters in the front seven since the teams last met in the season opener, but perhaps none bigger than defensive end Alex Okafor. The Saints have allowed 100-plus rushing yards in six of eight games since PFF’s No. 23 overall edge defender was lost for the season. McKinnon and Murray each rank among the top four highest-rated backs in the Levitan Model. Be sure to utilize our Matchups tool to break down each week’s battles at the line of scrimmage.
The Model Running Backs
There are several running backs atop the Pro Models built by Jonathan Bales, Peter Jennings (CSURAM88), Adam Levitan, and Kevin McClelland (SportsGeek), with the following two backs standing out among multiple models:
- Leonard Fournette ($6,900 DraftKings, $7,900 FanDuel)
- Jay Ajayi ($4,600 DraftKings, $6,900 FanDuel)
Fournette has had a rough time finding daylight as of late, but it’s not all his fault. He’s faced a stacked box on the third-highest rate of his carries among all backs (PlayerProfiler), as defenses would simply rather let Blake Bortles attempt to beat them with the season on the line. The Steelers failed miserably at this during the team’s first encounter in Week 4, as Bortles attempted a season-low 14 passes and Fournette converted a season-high 28 carries into 181 yards and two touchdowns. He’ll now face off against a lesser version of the defense he last saw, as the Steelers have failed to provide the same level of consistency without Ryan Shazier roaming the middle:
- Steelers defense with Shazier since 2015 (37 games): 20 PPG, 94.5 rush yards, 3 games with 150+ rush yards
- Without Shazier since 2015 (11 games): 19.5 PPG, 114.3 rush yards, 4 games with 150+ rush yards.
Even if the Steelers have better luck containing Fournette on the ground this time around, his elevated passing game role has accordingly helped his fantasy floor. He’s averaged 4.1 targets per game in addition to his 19.9 carries since returning from his ankle injury in Week 10. Fournette has the second-highest projected ceiling on DraftKings and the lowest projected ownership among backs priced over $7,000.
Ajayi’s implementation into the Eagles backfield hasn’t been seamless, but his average of 5.8 yards per carry demonstrates his ceiling without Jay Cutler under center. Corey Clement and LeGarrette Blount are expected to continue to remain involved, but they took a backseat down the stretch as neither back reached double-digit touches in Weeks 14-16. The Eagles appear ready to feature one of just four backs to ever notch three or more games of 200-plus rushing yards in a single season:
- Weeks 8-13: 20.8 snaps, 7.3 carries, 1.8 targets
- Weeks 14-16: 34.7 snaps, 13.7 carries, 2.3 targets
Despite the increase in usage, Ajayi’s price tag on DraftKings is at its second-lowest mark of the season. There’s certainly concern about the number of fantasy-friendly touches he’ll receive with Nick Foles instead of Carson Wentz under center, but it’d behoove the Eagles to attempt to move the ball on the ground against the Falcons’ 20th-ranked defense in rush DVOA. Ajayi has the second-highest Projected Plus/Minus among all running backs on DraftKings.
Positional Breakdowns & Tools
Be sure to research the running backs for yourself with our tools and read the other NFL Wild Card Round positional breakdowns:
Good luck this week!
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Photo via Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports