Wild Card weekend was wildly wonderful, and the joy of playing daily fantasy football is once again upon us. The divisional round of the playoffs brings a star-studded four-game slate that kicks off on Saturday at 4:35 p.m. ET.
In this positional breakdown, I’m looking at two running backs at the top of the individual Pro Models that Jonathan Bales, Peter Jennings (CSURAM88), Adam Levitan, Sean Koerner, Chris Raybon, Kevin McClelland (SportsGeek) and I have constructed.
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Model Running Backs
- Todd Gurley: $8,000 DraftKings; $9,000 FanDuel
- James White: $4,900 DraftKings; $7,400 FanDuel
Todd Gurley: Los Angeles Rams (-7) vs. Dallas Cowboys, 48.5 Over/Under
UPDATE (1/12): Gurley practiced fully on Friday. Cowboys defensive tackle David Irving (ankle) is out.
For the first half of the season, Gurley was a psuedo-fashionable MVP candidate for the then-undefeated Rams, but for the past two months Gurley has been something of a ghost.
Gurley struggled in the team’s 54-51 Week 11 victory over the Chiefs because of an ankle injury. He emerged from the Week 12 bye fully healthy and put up 30 FanDuel points against the Lions in Week 13, but he had his worst game of the season on the road against the Bears in Week 14, and in Week 15 he suffered a knee injury, which caused him to miss Weeks 16-17.
Only once in the past eight weeks has Gurley been on the main slate.
But now the rested Gurley is ready to return to fantasy relevance. After practicing this week, Gurley is no longer on the injury report. It’s impossible to know whether Gurley will be functioning at 100% capacity after his long layoff, but his postseason availability was never in doubt even as he sat out Weeks 16-17.
Head coach Sean McVay said that Gurley looks like himself, but that might just be coach-speak mumbo jumbo, which makes Gurley a little hard to trust, especially since the team could give some work to backup C.J. Anderson after he looked like a generational talent with 299 yards rushing and two touchdowns over his past two games.
As we mentioned on the Wednesday edition of The Action Network NFL Podcast, Gurley probably carries more than the usual amount of risk this weekend. If you opt to steer clear of Gurley in cash games, I can’t blame you.
But our Models like him. When healthy this season, he had a 92.6% snap rate (per the RotoViz Player Usage App). On DraftKings, he hasn’t been this cheap all season. On FanDuel, he hasn’t been this discounted since Week 2. It’s hard not to roster Gurley when he’s priced down in a must-win game.
Even with all the concerns surrounding Gurley, he’s still the undisputed lead back on a team that has hit its implied Vegas total in an NFL-high 22 games under McVay since last season. The Rams averaged a league-high 29.9 points per game last season, and this season they have improved to 32.9. Their offense is as good as any unit in the league, and this week the Rams are implied for a respectable 28.75 points.
In the McVay era, Gurley has easily been the best running back in football, leading the position with 23.9 FanDuel points per game, 3,924 yards and 40 touchdowns from scrimmage. He has 18-plus opportunities (rushes and targets) in every game with McVay except in his injury-impacted Week 11.
Last season, Gurley led the league (in 15 games) with 37 opportunities inside the 10-yard line, and he shattered that mark in 2018 (in 14 games) with 36 carries and eight targets inside the 10. And that doesn’t take into account his three successful two-point conversions. With his goal-line opportunities and scoring prowess, Gurley is always in consideration.
Gurley has something of a mixed matchup against the Cowboys. He has a fantastic offensive line.
Todd Gurley = amazing
CJ Anderson = apparently still good
Rams offensive line = historically great
Most adjusted line yards per rush since 1996 (when Football Outsiders began tracking):
1. 2018 Rams (5.49) 👀
2. 2018 Saints (5.19)
3. 2002 Broncos (5.13)
4. 2000 Rams (5.09)
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) January 2, 2019
But the Cowboys are fifth against the run in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, thanks primarily to breakout linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, who are top-six at their positions with respective Pro Football Focus grades of 84.9 and 84.4. The linebackers are the strength of the Dallas defense, and that defense is pretty good: Only once this season did a team score more than 28 points against the Cowboys, and that was in Week 17, when some of the defensive starters played limited snaps in a meaningless game.
The matchup, though, might not matter for Gurley because of the focused way in which the Rams use him. Of all backs with 10-plus carries per game, Gurley has faced fronts of eight or more defenders on a league-low 8.2% of his runs (Next Gen Stats). When the box is loaded, the Rams audible to the pass. As a result, Gurley tends to get the ball in matchup-neutralizing situations: When a team runs primarily against advantageous fronts, the overall strength of the run defense matters less.
Plus, Gurley is an integral part of the passing game with his 81 targets, 59 receptions, 580 yards receiving, 556 yards after the catch and four receiving touchdowns. As a receiver, Gurley’s in a good spot: The Cowboys are 26th in pass DVOA against running backs. For all his virtues, the rookie Vander Esch has been targeted in pass coverage 87 times (the second-highest total among linebackers), and he’s allowed an 82.8% catch rate, 381 yards after the catch and three touchdowns receiving.
One way or another, Gurley is likely to get his touches.
But there are a couple of spot-based drawbacks to rostering Gurley. While most players tend to over-perform at home and as favorites, Gurley has exhibited significant reverse home/away and favorite/underdog splits with McVay.
- Home (13 games): 21.3 FanDuel points, +4.74 Plus/Minus
- Away (15 games): 26.3 FanDuel points, +9.79 Plus/Minus
- Favorite (24 games): 23.6 FanDuel points, +6.81 Plus/Minus
- Underdog (five games): 25.4 FanDuel points, +10.7 Plus/Minus
As a result, the McVay-era Gurley has been at his worst as a home favorite, averaging “just” 20.8 FanDuel points per game with a +4.13 Plus/Minus.
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that only Giants running back Saquon Barkley has outscored Gurley as a home favorite over the past two seasons, and he’s played in only two such games. And regardless of circumstances, most backs don’t come close to providing the salary-adjusted efficiency that Gurley affords.
It’s not great for Gurley that he’s playing outdoors. Over the past 15 seasons, outdoor postseason games have a 53-72-4 over/under record, giving under bettors an 11.5% return on investment (per Bet Labs).
For comparison, domed postseason games are 29-10. Although the temperature in Los Angeles is forecast to be 57 degrees Fahrenheit at kickoff, the outdoor trend of postseason underperformance has historically been increasingly extreme in progressively warmer weather.
- 0-32 degrees: 22-25-2 over/under record, 3.2% ROI for under bettors
- 50-78 degrees: 9-24 over/under record, 41.5% ROI for under bettors
The Rams are 10-7 to the over in their home games with McVay, but this game could have fewer points than generally anticipated.
Even so, Gurley is unlikely to have a poor game, given that he has position-high median, ceiling and floor projections in our Models, and the Cowboys this season have been much less defensively potent on the road.
- Cowboys on road (eight games): 22 points allowed, 29 carries, 118.8 yards and 0.88 touchdowns rushing
- Cowboys at home (nine games): 18.9 points allowed, 21.3 carries, 70.7 yards and 0.67 touchdowns rushing
On Saturday I will probably bet the over on Gurley’s touchdown prop. In 29 McVay games, Gurley has 40 touchdowns. He led the league last season with 19 and this season with 21. This season, he has scored a touchdown in all but two games: One was his injury-impacted Week 11, and the other was in Week 13 against the Bears. The Cowboys are stout against the run, but they aren’t the Bears.
To find the best bets in the props market, use our Player Props Tool, which is powered by our industry-leading projections. Since Week 1, the props with a bet quality of 10 have gone 227-113-12, good for a 64% win rate. Without question, you should supplement your DFS action with player props.
With his high usage, three-down ability and multi-touchdown upside, Gurley has position-high marks with 14 Pro Trends and a +3.94 Plus Minus on FanDuel, where he’s the No. 1 back in all our Pro Models.
James White: New England (-4) vs. Los Angeles Chargers, 47.5 O/U
White leads the Patriots with 123 targets, 87 receptions, 596 yards after the catch and seven touchdowns receiving. He’s not especially dynamic on the ground (4.1 yards per carry for his career), but he has chipped in as a runner this season with a career-best 94-425-5 rushing stat line. With 1,176 yards and 12 touchdowns from scrimmage on top of his high reception total, White has been one of the season’s best backs in point-per-reception (PPR) scoring.
Running backs Sony Michel (knee) and Rex Burkhead (neck) respectively returned from injury in Weeks 10 and 13, so White is highly unlikely to see the majority of the backfield workload.
Patriots committee backfield since Rex Burkhead returned in Week 13
James White: 41% snaps, 24 rushes, 29 targets
Sony Michel: 37% snaps, 82 rushes, 1 target
Burkhead: 26% snaps, 33 rushes, 14 targets
(James Develin and Cordarrelle Patterson also had five rush attempts each)
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) January 7, 2019
But given the different ways in which they’re deployed and his key role in the passing game, White should still be able to put up points even if Michel and Burkhead get a significant portion of the rushing and goal-line work.
Since returning from injury, Burkhead has played more than 30% of the snaps in just one game, so Michel is really the teammate whose workload will impact White’s production. Although White has had a bigger role without Michel, it’s not as if he hasn’t produced with Michel in the lineup.
- With Michel (13 games): 16.0 DraftKings points, 5.3 carries, 7.2 targets, 5.1 receptions, 71 yards and 0.62 touchdowns from scrimmage
- Without Michel (three games): 23.1 DraftKings points, 8.3 carries, 9.7 targets, 6.7 receptions, 84.3 yards and 1.33 touchdowns from scrimmage
White has always gotten his production within the confines of a committee, averaging 13.6 DraftKings points per game in quarterback Tom Brady’s 48 starts (including playoffs) since 2016. In that time, White has an average of 16.4 DraftKings points in 31 games with eight-plus opportunities, which he has gotten in every game this season but one.
The Patriots have a tough matchup with their wide receivers and tight ends. They are without Josh Gordon (suspension). The aging Julian Edelman will be challenged in the slot against first-team All-Pro cornerback Desmond King. On the outside, Chris Hogan could be treated to the shadow coverage of shutdown cornerback Casey Hayward.
The human husk of Rob Gronkowski will face the staunch defense of first-team All-Pro safety Derwin James, who has almost singlehandedly made the Chargers No. 1 in pass DVOA against tight ends.
Because of these matchups, the Patriots could funnel the ball to White more than they usually do. The Chargers are just 23rd in pass DVOA against running backs, and they are without linebackers Denzel Perryman (knee), Kyzir White (knee) and Jatavis Brown (ankle), all of whom are on injured reserve.
Additionally, the Chargers are better against the pass than the run, ranking 26th with their 75.4 run-defense grade. They are without run-stuffing nose tackle Corey Liuget (quad, IR). Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane (personal) missed the wildcard game last week with a private matter, and he’s not certain to play this week. If the Patriots choose to attack the Chargers defense with their running backs, White could see more than his usual allotment of carries.
A strong source of salary savings, White has a position-high 99% Bargain Rating on DraftKings, where he’s the No. 1 back in the Bales, CSURAM88, Levitan, Koerner, SportsGeek and Freedman Models.
Divisional Round Positional Breakdowns
Be sure to read the other divisional round positional breakdowns.
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Pictured above: Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley (30)
Photo credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports