We are just three weeks away from the end of the regular season, and the NFL is still on pace for a record-breaking campaign with an average of 23.8 points per game per team. The action continues with an 11-game main slate that kicks off on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.
In this positional breakdown, I’m looking at four 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
- Ezekiel Elliott: $9,000 DraftKings; $8,800 FanDuel
- Joe Mixon: $6,100 DraftKings; $7,800 FanDuel
- Gus Edwards: $4,400 DraftKings; $6,300 FanDuel
- Tevin Coleman: $4,200 DraftKings; $6,100 FanDuel
Ezekiel Elliott: Dallas Cowboys (+3) vs. Indianapolis Colts, 47 Over/Under
UPDATE (12/16): Right guard Zack Martin (knee) and tight end Geoff Swaim (wrist) are out. Left tackle Tyron Smith (neck) and wide receiver Tavon Austin (groin) are questionable after limited practice sessions all week. Smith seems likely to play. Austin has been out since Week 7.
Colts safety Malik Hooker (hip) and defensive tackle Margus Hunt (knee) are in. Safety Clayton Geathers (knee) is questionable but tentatively expected to play after limited practices on Thursday and Friday.
I will probably die believing that the Cowboys shouldn’t have drafted Elliott No. 4 overall in the 2016 draft, but as a fantasy producer, he’s elite. Since he entered the league in 2016, only Saquon Barkley (22.6) and Le’Veon Bell (21.6) have averaged more FanDuel points per game than Zeke’s 20.0.
On the season, Zeke leads the league with 333 touches and 1,764 yards from scrimmage. Not once this season has Zeke failed to get 18 touches in a game. Since his rookie campaign, Zeke is the only back to average more than 100 yards rushing per game with his mark of 102.0. Although Barkley and a few other backs have been more productive this season, Zeke has gotten touches on an NFL-high 39.7% of his team’s plays.
Zeke doesn’t have a great matchup against the Colts, who rank fourth in the league with a 90.6 Pro Football Focus (PFF) run-defense grade. Dynamic rookie off-ball linebacker Darius Leonard leads the league with 135 tackles, and the Colts are yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season.
Even so, the Colts have allowed the best running backs to face them to put up points …
- Joe Mixon (Bengals, Week 1): 23.4 FanDuel points, 17-95-1 rushing, 5-54-0 receiving on seven targets
- Leonard Fournette (Jaguars, Week 10): 25.4 FanDuel points, 24-53-1 rushing, 5-56-1 receiving on five targets
… and the Colts are 26th in pass defense against running backs with a 12.7% mark in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. With his usage, Zeke is still likely to produce despite the matchup.
While it’s obviously less than ideal for Zeke to be a road underdog, his increased receiving workload is likely to insulate him from a game script-based letdown. Each NFL season, Zeke has enhanced his value as a receiver on a per-game basis (per the RotoViz Screener).
- 2016: 2.7 targets, 2.1 receptions, 24.2 yards receiving, 4.0 receiving fantasy points expected
- 2017: 3.8 targets, 2.6 receptions, 24.9 yards receiving, 5.0 receiving fantasy points expected
- 2018: 6.2 targets, 5.0 receptions, 38.6 yards receiving, 9.8 receiving fantasy points expected
With 81 targets and 65 receptions, Zeke has team-high marks in both categories.
Of course, since wide receiver Amari Cooper joined the Cowboys in the Week 8 bye, Zeke hasn’t been the team’s leading receiver, but he has seen a significant increase in overall per-game production with Cooper.
- With Cooper (six games): 24.5 FanDuel points, 83.3% Consistency Rating, 22.7 carries, 7.5 targets, 6.7 receptions, 161.7 and 0.83 touchdowns from scrimmage
- Without Cooper (seven games): 16.3 FanDuel points, 57.1% Consistency Rating, 18.9 carries, 5.1 targets, 3.6 receptions, 113.4 and 0.57 touchdowns from scrimmage
Although he’s expensive, Zeke has provided an abundance of value over the past six weeks with his +9.36 Plus/Minus. On Wednesday’s edition of The Action Network NFL Podcast, we highlighted Zeke as a strong cash-game candidate. Elliott had one of the main slate’s highest ownership rates last week, and we’re expecting him to be popular once again as the cheaper of the two high-priced backfield options available.
One potential drawback of rostering Zeke is that the Cowboys have tended to hit the under with quarterback Dak Prescott, especially against non-divisional opponents, on the road and finally against non-divisional opponents on the road. Under bettors have done well with Dak under center since 2016 (per our data at Bet Labs).
- Over/under: 27-18 (60%), +2.92 Margin, 15.6% ROI
- Over/under outside division: 18-10 (64.3%), +2.16 Margin, 24.2% ROI
- Over/under on the road: 16-6 (72.7%), +5.39 Margin, 39.7% ROI
- Over/under outside division on the road: 11-3 (78.6%), +3.86 Margin, 50.6% ROI
Even though the Colts play at a fast situation-neutral pace, and even though Colts-Cowboys has the slate’s second-highest over/under at 47.5 points (see live odds here), history suggests it could be a low-scoring contest.
Even so, Zeke should get his fantasy points: He has top-two median, ceiling and floor projections in our Models. Although Elliott (shoulder) is dealing with an injury and didn’t practice on Wednesday, he practiced in full on Thursday and is entirely expected to play this weekend.
I’ll probably look to bet the over on Elliott’s yardage props on Sunday morning. With Cooper, Elliot has had more than 110 yards rushing in four of six games. He’s also had at least 50 yards receiving in four of six. And not once since Week 8 has Zeke had fewer than 112 yards from scrimmage.
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 212-96-11, good for a 66% win rate. Without question, you should supplement your DFS action with player props.
Elliott has a position-high 98% Bargain Rating on FanDuel, where he’s the No. 1 running back in the CSURAM88, Levitan and Raybon Models.
Joe Mixon: Cincinnati Bengals (-3) vs. Oakland Raiders, 46 O/U
UPDATE (12/16): Raiders defensive tackle Maurice Hurst (ankle) is questionable but expected to play.
Mixon hasn’t had an elite season by any means, but with just three weeks to go he’s the No. 10 fantasy running back with 18.3 DraftKings points per game. On the strength of 16.4 carries, 4.4 targets and 3.5 receptions per game, Mixon has averaged 104.5 yards and 0.64 touchdowns from scrimmage across his 11 starts this season. Not once in 2018 has he had fewer than 11 carries, and in eight of his games he’s had at least 18 opportunities (carries plus targets).
With quarterback Andy Dalton (thumb, injured reserve) and wide receiver A.J. Green (foot, IR) out of the lineup, the Bengals could choose to rely heavily on Mixon, as they did last week when he had 138 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, six targets and five receptions.
Given that the Bengals stayed competitive with the Chargers in Week 14, losing only 26-21, it’s possible that they could employ a similar game plan. Against the Chargers, Mixon actually had more total attempts than quarterback Jeff Driskel.
While the Bengals haven’t been favored in many games this season, they’re amazingly favorites this week, which benefits Mixon: He could see a lot of opportunities in a run-heavy game script, and this season he’s exhibited notable favorite/dog splits.
- As favorite (five games): 21.3 DraftKings points, +5.60 Plus/Minus, 17.8 carries, 4.6 targets, 3.6 receptions, 115.8 yards and 0.8 touchdowns from scrimmage
- As underdog (six games): 15.8 DraftKings points, -0.78 Plus/Minus, 15.2 carries, 4.2 targets, 3.3 receptions, 95 yards and 0.5 touchdowns from scrimmage
Although the presence of Driskel does lower the upside of all the team’s skill-position players, the Bengals have the week’s best offensive vs. defensive line matchup in terms of quarterback pressure: Driskel should have plenty of time to survey the field and progress through his reads, as the Raiders have pressured opposing quarterbacks on a league-low 27% of dropbacks.
If Driskel is able to approximate the production of a league-average passer and help the offense sustain drives, Mixon could have a higher ceiling than expected. Mixon’s matchup is undeniably great: It has to be for the Bengals to be favored.
The Raiders are 27th in rush defense (0.9% DVOA), and just last week they allowed third-string Steelers running backs Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley to combine for 22.6 DraftKings points on 23 opportunities. If Mixon gets a similar number of opportunities, he could have a GPP-winning week.
We’re expecting Mixon to be the slate’s most-rostered player on DraftKings, where he has a season-low salary. He’s also tied with Zeke for a position-high nine Pro Trends and ranks as the No. 1 running back in the Bales, Koerner and Raybon Models.
Gus Edwards: Baltimore Ravens (-9) vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 46.5 O/U
UPDATE (12/16): Left guard Alex Lewis (shoulder) is doubtful after not practicing on Thursday and Friday.
Bucs safety Justin Evans (toe) is out. Safety Isaiah Johnson (concussion) is questionable. Cornerback Carlton Davis (knee) is questionable but seems likely to play after getting in limited practice sessions all week. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (knee, hip) didn’t practice on Thursday and Friday, but he’s been playing through questionable tags for weeks.
The spread opened at -8.5, but it’s moved toward the Bucs even though they have gotten only 42% of the tickets. This reverse line movement suggests that some sharp money is betting against the Ravens, which theoretically doesn’t bode well for Edward, but he’s in a good spot as a significant home favorite.
Edwards is a total nonentity as a receiver — he has literally zero targets in his four lead-back games — so he could lose some work to Kenneth Dixon, who has gotten 16 carries and two targets over the past two weeks. But Edwards is still likely to see the bulk of the backfield work this weekend, and with the dynamic Lamar Jackson at quarterback, Edwards should enjoy open running lanes.
In Jackson’s four starts, the Ravens own a 3-1 record and have looked like the AFC North version of Tim Tebow’s 2011 Broncos. With a run-heavy, ball-control offense and top three DVOA defense, the Ravens have transformed themselves into a hard team to beat.
It’s likely that they will continue to do this week what they’ve done in the past month: Give Edwards the ball.
- Week 11 (vs. Bengals): 22.5 DraftKings points, 17-115-1 rushing, one 2-point conversion
- Week 12 (vs. Raiders): 14.8 DraftKings points, 23-118-0 rushing
- Week 13 (at Falcons): 8.2 DraftKings points, 21-82-0 rushing
- Week 14 (at Chiefs): 6.7 DraftKings points, 16-67-0 rushing
While Edwards’ fantasy production has declined each week, he’s gotten 16-plus touches in every game. With that type of usage, he has significant upside in this glorious matchup. The Bucs rank dead last in the league with a 61.2 PFF rush-defense grade, and they’ve been especially poor on the road.
#Bucs point totals allowed:
At home: 28 + 17 + 9 + 16 + 23 + 30 + 21 = 20.6-point average.
On road: 40 + 48 + 34 + 37 + 42 + 38 = 39.8-point average.
— Evan Silva (@evansilva) December 12, 2018
The Bucs have allowed a top five mark of 30.8 DraftKings points per game to opposing backfields.
And they are incredibly injured.
Middle linebacker Kwon Alexander (knee, injured reserve) is out, as is backup middle linebacker Jack Cichy (ankle, IR). Edge defender Jason Pierre-Paul (knee, hip) missed practice on Thursday after getting in a limited session on Wednesday: Generally, midweek downgrades don’t bode well for a player’s game-day availability.
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (shoulder, IR) is out. Rookie cornerback Carlton Davis (knee) exited Week 12 early and missed Weeks 13 and 14. Strong safety Chris Conte (knee, IR) is out. Free safety Justin Evans (toe) missed Weeks 11 and 12, tried to play in Week 13 and managed only 35.7% of the defensive snaps: He sat out last week and is uncertain for this week. And backup free safety Isaiah Johnson (concussion) suffered a head injury in Week 13 and missed Week 14. He might not clear the league’s protocol in time to play on Sunday.
Against such a defense, Edwards could have a big game with a single-digit ownership rate.
Edwards is the No. 1 DraftKings back in the SportsGeek Model.
Tevin Coleman: Atlanta Falcons (-10) vs. Arizona Cardinals, 44 O/U
UPDATE (12/16): Wide receiver Julio Jones (foot, calf) and tight end Austin Hooper (knee) did not practice this week, but both will play on Sunday. Running back Ito Smith (neck) is probably to play after practicing in full on Thursday and Friday.
Cardinals slot cornerback Budda Baker (knee) and linebacker Deone Bucannon (chest) are officially questionable but expected to play after getting in limited practices on Thursday and Friday.
This has been a lost season for Coleman, but he could find some Samson-like redemption near the end of it with a strong matchup against the Cardinals, who are 29th with a 69.4 PFF run-defense grade and have allowed a top three mark of 31.1 DraftKings points per game to opposing backfields. The Cardinals have allowed a league-high 361 carries and 16 rushing touchdowns to running backs.
As a double-digit home favorite, Coleman is in a #SmashSpot and could benefit from a run-heavy game script.
Although rookie running back Ito Smith has certainly managed to siphon off a significant portion of the Falcons’ backfield production, Coleman is still the lead back in the committee. And without starter Devonta Freeman (groin, IR), Coleman has been at his best throughout his career.
- Without Freeman (14 games): 12.0 DraftKings points, 12.8 carries, 2.9 targets, 2.1 receptions, 72.6 yards and 0.64 touchdowns from scrimmage
- With Freeman (39 games): 8.8 DraftKings points, 8.2 carries, 2.3 targets, 1.6 receptions, 53.5 yards and 0.46 touchdowns from scrimmage
Even if Smith steals touches, Coleman has a big opportunity to produce.
It probably helps Coleman that the Cardinals have something of a funnel defense: They actually rank 10th in pass defense (0.6% DVOA), and wide receiver Julio Jones is likely to see a lot of Patrick Peterson, who has allowed a catch rate of just 54.3% and a 25-279-2 receiving line on 510 coverage snaps.
If the Falcons get an early lead, it’s easy to envision them opting for the running game instead of challenging Peterson or throwing to someone who isn’t their top receiver.
Of course, the Falcons are a disappointing 4-9 and have struggled to put teams away this season. If you think Falcons-Cardinals will stay relatively close, you can use our Lineup Builder to stack Coleman with quarterback Matt Ryan in tournaments. Over the past year, Coleman and Ryan have had a 0.45 correlation, slightly higher than the league-average 0.43 mark typically seen between a No. 1 running back and quarterback. Last week, Coleman and Ryan had a shared ownership rate of just 0.24% in the DraftKings Millionaire Maker.
With the lowest salary he’s had since Week 14 of 2016, Coleman is the No. 1 DraftKings back in the CSURAM88 and Freedman Models.
Positional Breakdowns & News
Be sure to read the other Week 15 positional breakdowns.
For more in-depth NFL analysis information, check out The Action Network.
Pictured above: Ezekiel Elliott
Photo credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports