We are just two 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 23.4 points per game per team. But scoring has dropped precipitously as injuries have mounted, game tape has accumulated, weather conditions have worsened, pace of play has slowed and divisional opponents have rematched.
For example: In Weeks 10-12, NFL teams scored 24.3, 25.8 and 23.7 points per game. In Weeks 13-15, however, they managed just 21.4, 21.8 and 19.3 points, which are the three lowest-scoring weekly averages for the season. Year over year, scoring is up, but within 2018, we’ve seen a very notable downward trend.
Will scoring continue to decline in Week 16? Or will teams put up more points in the last “real” week of the NFL season?
The action continues with a 12-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.
After this piece is published, FantasyLabs is likely to provide news updates on a number of players. Stay ahead of your competition with our industry-leading DFS-focused news feed.
For updates on Vegas spreads and over/unders, check out The Action Network Live Odds page.
>> Sign up for The Action Network’s daily newsletter to get the smartest NFL conversation delivered into your inbox each morning.
Model Running Backs
- Ezekiel Elliott: $9,000 DraftKings; $8,800 FanDuel
- Marlon Mack: $5,500 DraftKings; $7,000 FanDuel
- Tevin Coleman: $4,800 DraftKings; $6,400 FanDuel
- Peyton Barber: $3,600 DraftKings; $5,600 FanDuel
Ezekiel Elliott: Dallas Cowboys (-7) vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 48 Over/Under
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 (21.6) and Le’Veon Bell (21.6) have averaged more FanDuel points per game than Zeke’s 19.9.
On the season, Zeke leads the league with 358 touches and 1,892 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 101.6. In fact, Elliott is second all time with his per-game rushing average, trailing only Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown, who has 104.3.
Elliott has a great matchup against the Bucs, who rank dead last with a 61.3 Pro Football Focus (PFF) run-defense grade. The Bucs have allowed a top-five mark of 26.1 FanDuel points per game to opposing backfields.
Since they fired defensive coordinator Mike Smith, the Bucs have been better.
- Weeks 7-15: 22.6 points, 357 scrimmage yards
- Weeks 1-6: 28.2 points, 440 scrimmage yards
But they still aren’t good, and on the road, they’ve been horrible.
- On road (seven games): 28 points, 416.1 scrimmage yards
- At home (seven games): 21.1 points, 357.1 scrimmage yards
As Anthony Amico points out in his excellent analysis of the matchup between Elliott and the Bucs run defense, since Smith’s dismissal the team has increased its use of a dime defense with six defensive backs. As a result, the Bucs have been much better against the pass but also significantly worse against the run.
- Weeks 7-15: 204.4 yards passing, 1.56 passing touchdowns, 152.6 yards rushing, 1.33 rushing touchdowns
- Weeks 1-6: 355.8 yards passing, 3.2 passing touchdowns, 84.2 yards rushing, one rushing touchdown
Dimebacker Andrew Adams has been particularly exploitable this season with his 30.6 PFF run-defense grade.
On top of that, the Bucs defense is incredibly injured.
Linebackers Kwon Alexander (knee), Jack Cichy (ankle) and Kendell Beckwith (ankle) are all on injured reserve. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (knee) has been playing through injury tags all year, but he sat out practice on Wednesday and Thursday: His availability is uncertain. In the secondary, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (shoulder, IR) is out, as are strong safety Chris Conte (knee, IR) and free safety Justin Evans (toe, IR).
Against such a defense, Zeke should eat, especially as a home favorite.
And even if the Cowboys find themselves in a tough game, Elliott’s 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: 6.4 targets, 5.1 receptions, 38.8 yards receiving, 9.8 receiving fantasy points expected
With 89 targets and 72 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 (seven games): 23.3 FanDuel points, 85.7% Consistency Rating, 22 carries, 7.6 targets, 6.7 receptions, 156.9 and 0.71 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 seven weeks with his +8.11 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.
One potential drawback of rostering Elliott is that the Cowboys have an 18-28 over/under record with quarterback Dak Prescott, gifting under bettors with a 17.3% return on investment since 2016 (per Bet Labs). Even if the Cowboys win, they still might not have a big game.
Even so, Zeke should get his fantasy points: He leads all backs in our Models with his median, ceiling and floor projections. After missing last week, All-Pro right guard Zack Martin (knee) returned to a limited practice on Thursday, which puts him on track to play against the Bucs. With Martin’s return, we should see peak Zeke.
I’ll probably look to bet the over on Elliott’s yardage prop on Sunday morning. With Cooper, Elliot has had at least 112 yards from scrimmage in each game.
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 214-100-12, good for a 66% win rate. Without question, you should supplement your DFS action with player props.
Elliott has position-high marks with a 98% Bargain Rating and 15 Pro Trends on FanDuel, where he’s the No. 1 running back in the Bales, CSURAM88, Levitan, Koerner and Raybon Models.
Marlon Mack: Indianapolis Colts (-10) vs. New York Giants, 48 O/U
UPDATE (12/23): Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (ankle) is a game-time decision after sitting on Wednesday and Thursday and getting in a limited practice on Friday.
Mack struggled through the first half of the season with hamstring, ankle and foot injuries that resulted in four missed games, and he was forced from Week 12 with a concussion, but when healthy he’s been the explosive lead back for a team that’s won seven of its past eight games.
Mack has played at least 40% of the Colts’ offensive snaps in seven games this year. In those contests, he’s been plenty productive, averaging 19.9 DraftKings points, 99 yards and 1.14 touchdowns on the strength of 18.3 carries, 2.14 targets and 1.4 receptions per game.
Although the Giants are a middle-of-the-road-ish 19th against the run in Football Outsiders’ DVOA with a -4.5% mark, they are more exploitable than that ranking might suggest. For the season, they’ve allowed a top-eight mark of 29.1 DraftKings points per game to opposing backfield, and since trading away run-stuffing nose tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison in Week 8, the Giants have been dominated by a variety of running backs.
- Adrian Peterson (Redskins, Week 8): 30.6 DraftKings points, 26-149-1 rushing, 1-7-1 receiving on one target
- Week 9 (bye)
- Matt Breida (49ers, Week 10): 31.2 DraftKings points, 17-101-1 rushing, 3-31-1 receiving on four targets
- Peyton Barber (Bucs, Week 11): 22.0 DraftKings points, 18-106-1 rushing, 2-4-0 receiving on two targets
- Josh Adams (Eagles, Week 12): 16.4 DraftKings points, 22-84-1 rushing, 0-0-0 receiving on one target
- Tarik Cohen (Bears, Week 13): 37.6 DraftKings points, 8-30-0 rushing, 12-156-0 receiving on 14 targets
- Derrick Henry (Giants, Week 15): 33.2 DraftKings points, 33-170-2 rushing, 1-0-0 receiving on one target
The only lead back not to have his way with the Giants since the Harrison trade was Adrian Peterson in Week 14, and that’s understandable: Third-string quarterback Mark Sanchez started the game, and he was quickly benched in favor of fresh-off-the-street fourth-stringer Josh Johnson.
If Mack gets his full allotment of opportunities — and there’s little reason to believe he won’t as a big home favorite — he could have a massive performance. It helps that the Colts-Giants game has the slate’s fastest-paced situation-neutral matchup.
The Colts have a 21-10 record to the under as home favorites with quarterback Andrew Luck. Since 2012, under bettors have enjoyed a 32.7% ROI when the Luck-led Colts have been favored in Indianapolis. Even if the Colts win, they still might not put up a lot of points: Just last week, they scored only 23 against the Cowboys, despite winning convincingly as three-point favorites at Lucas Oil Stadium.
But even in a low-scoring game, Mack could produce. In Week 14, he scored 29.9 DraftKings points thanks to a 28-touch, 149-yard, two-touchdown performance. In his seven games this year as a favorite, Mack has averaged 19.2 DraftKings points with a +8.01 Plus/Minus.
Mack is the No. 1 DraftKings back in the Bales and SportsGeek Models.
Tevin Coleman: Atlanta Falcons (-2.5) at Carolina Panthers, 44.5 O/U
UPDATE (12/23): Wide receiver Julio Jones (hip, ribs) is a game-time decision after sitting on Wednesday and Thursday and getting in a limited practice on Friday. Given that the Falcons are out of contention for the playoffs, there’s a non-zero albeit small chance he won’t suit up.
This has been a lost season for Coleman, but last week he found some Samson-like redemption against the Cardinals, scoring 23.5 DraftKings points on the strength of 145 yards and a touchdown rushing. His matchup this week isn’t nearly as good — the Panthers have held opposing backfields to a bottom-six mark of 21.2 DraftKings points per game — but Coleman still has the potential to put up points in a run-heavy game script.
While Coleman has shared touches and snaps with rookie running back Ito Smith for much of the year, Smith (knee, IR) suffered a season-ending injury last week, so Coleman should truly have the backfield to himself.
And without starter Devonta Freeman (groin, IR), Coleman has been at his best throughout his career.
- Without Freeman (15 games): 12.6 DraftKings points, 12.7 carries, 2.8 targets, 1.9 receptions, 77.4 yards and 0.67 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
Although the Panthers rank 10th with an 85.7 PFF run-defense grade, it’s likely that they will struggle to play a complementary style of football in this game.
On the offensive side of the ball, they will be without quarterback Cam Newton (shoulder), whom the team has decided to rest for the final two games of the season. In his place, the Panthers will rely on backup Taylor Heinicke, who entered the league in 2015 as an undrafted player out of Old Dominion. Although Heinicke has a non-zero chance of turning into a modern-day Tony Romo — he started four years in college, he won the Walter Payton Award as a sophomore, and he helped the ODU program transition from the Football Championship Subdivision to Conference USA in his final season — he’s making his first NFL start. The Panthers could struggle to sustain drives.
And on defense, the Panthers could decide to rest some of their starters in a meaningless game. They placed linebacker Shaq Thompson (shoulder) on IR earlier this week, and defensive tackle Kawann Short (calf), who has played every game this year, missed the Wednesday and Thursday practices.
Wide receiver Julio Jones (hip) is dealing with an injury, and he sat out practice on Wednesday and Thursday. He’s expected to play, and he’s more than capable of producing in suboptimal circumstances as the league leader with 1,511 yards receiving, but the Panthers are fourth in pass-defense DVOA (-15.2%) against No. 1 wide receivers. Cornerback James Bradberry is likely to shadow Jones, and he hasn’t been entirely ethered by Julio in their past few matchups.
If the Falcons get an early lead, it’s easy to envision them opting for the running game instead of funneling targets to their hampered No. 1 receiver.
Of course, the Falcons are a disappointing 5-9 and have struggled to put teams away this season. If you think this game 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 respectable 0.44 correlation, and last week, Coleman and Ryan had a shared ownership rate of just 0.67% in the DraftKings Millionaire Maker.
Endowed with a position-high projected Plus/Minus, Coleman is the No. 1 DraftKings back in the Koerner Model.
Peyton Barber: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+7) at Dallas Cowboys, 48 O/U
I still can’t quit Barber.
Despite being the starting running back for an offense that ranks third in the league with 5,832 scrimmage yards and 339 first downs, Barber has scored 15-plus DraftKings points in just three of 14 games this season. Of all the starting backs in the league, he without question has been the stone-cold worst. His bifurcated production (+3.07 DraftKings Plus/Minus, 50% Consistency Rating) highlights how unreliable he’s been.
But even with his mediocrity and inconsistency, there is room for optimism with Barber. He has played 55.8% of the team’s offensive snaps and gotten 67.8% of the backfield opportunities. Even with all the playmakers the Bucs have, no player on the team has more scrimmage touchdowns than Barber with six.
Second-round rookie Ronald Jones returned to action in Week 13, but he’s no threat to Barber. Over the past three weeks, he has turned four carries and two targets into just one yard. For the season, Jones has an average of just 1.9 yards per carry. Barber hasn’t exhibited a great deal of talent in his NFL career, but of all the backs on the Bucs roster, he’s been the most productive.
Historically, Barber has been at his best with Jameis Winston instead of Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. As a lead back, Barber has exhibited notable quarterback-based splits. While these splits are apparent even in the games with quarterback changes, I’ve removed such games from the sample so the trend may be better seen.
- Barber with Winston (11 complete games): 12.0 DraftKings points, 15.4 carries, 2.5 targets, 1.9 receptions, 72.3 yards, 0.45 touchdowns
- Barber with Fitzpatrick (five complete games): 5.5 DraftKings points, 13.4 carries, 1.6 targets, 0.8 receptions, 47.4 yards, zero touchdowns
Since Winston took over for Fitz against the Giants five weeks ago, Barber has scored four touchdowns.
Barber doesn’t have a great matchup against the Cowboys, who are fifth in run defense (-18.0% DVOA) and could have linebacker Sean Lee (hamstring) back in the lineup, but in his 19 games since becoming the lead back in Week 13 of last season, Barber has averaged 16.8 opportunities and 10.5 DraftKings points per game. As is the case most weeks, Barber will likely be rosterable at a low ownership rate.
With a position-high 97% Bargain Rating, Barber is the No. 1 DraftKings back in the Freedman Model for maybe the seventh week this season.
Week 16 Positional Breakdowns
Be sure to read the other Week 16 positional breakdowns.
For more in-depth NFL analysis information, check out The Action Network.
Pictured above: Indianapolis Colts running back Marlon Mack (25)
Photo credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports