The Running Back Breakdown offers data-driven analysis for each week’s main NFL slate. For more of our weekly football content, visit our NFL dashboard (out soon).
The wait is over. Week 1 is here, bringing us a 12-game main slate, as the Buccaneers-Dolphins game has been postponed to Week 11 due to Hurricane Irma. Monitor our NFL news feed for player and weather updates throughout the week. For analysis of the Thursday and Monday night games, see Joe Holka’s Thursday Night NFL Breakdown and Kelly McCann’s Prime Time NFL Breakdown (out later this week). For more information on the players highlighted in this article, see our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
The Big Four
Last year, the four running backs with the most DraftKings and FanDuel points per game (PPG) hit their salary-adjusted expectations in 71.2 percent of contests. They open Week 1 as the four highest-salaried backs:
- Le’Veon Bell ($9,800 DraftKings, $9,300 FanDuel)
- David Johnson ($9,400 DraftKings, $9,400 FanDuel)
- Ezekiel Elliott ($8,100 DraftKings, $8,700 FanDuel)
- LeSean McCoy ($8,200 DraftKings, $8,500 FanDuel)
Bang a gong.
“It’s Le’Ve-OH-sa, not Le’Veo-SAH”
Since Bell became his All-Pro self in 2014, he’s been the league’s best back on a per-game basis (per our Trends tool):
- DraftKings and FanDuel PPG: 24.77 and 20.83
- Plus/Minus: +6.25 and +5.29
- Consistency Rating (percent): 73.5 and 61.8
- Yards rushing: 93.7
- Carries: 19.5
- Yards receiving: 47.2
- Targets: 6.6
- Catch rate (percent): 80.9
- Touchdowns (scrimmage): 0.68
- Opportunities inside the 10-yard line: 1.4
Although Bell isn’t a prolific scorer, his goal-line deficiencies have been overstated, and he compensates for his lack of touchdowns with elite receiving production and backfield market share domination. Last year he was first in the NFL in opportunity share (95.2 percent, PlayerProfiler) and snaps (96.4 percent in 12 games played).
Facing the Browns, who last year were 31st with 29.0 DraftKings and 25.9 FanDuel PPG allowed to opposing backfields, the Steelers are currently tied for first with an implied total of 27.5 points as 8.0-point favorites (per our Vegas Dashboard). With an offensive line that was third last year with 4.68 adjusted line yards per carry (Football Outsiders), the Steelers could run extensively on the road, where (unlike quarterback Ben Roethlisberger) Le’Veon tends to outperform:
- Home (17 games): 23.84 DraftKings and 19.87 FanDuel PPG
- Visitor (17): 25.69 DraftKings and 21.78 FanDuel PPG
Bell is the most expensive back on DraftKings, but in our Models we’re still projecting him to have an ownership rate in excess of 25 percent. He leads the slate with 10 and 13 Pro Trends and 35.6- and 30.2-point ceiling projections on DraftKings and FanDuel. Use our Lineup Builder to construct contrarian-esque Roethlisberger-Le’Veon stacks.
The Big Johnson
While the Cardinals are implied for a respectable 25.0 points as 2.0-point road favorites, the matchup isn’t great for Johnson. The Lions last year had a funnel-ish defense, ranking 19th against the run in FO’s Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) but 32nd against the pass. Overall, their defense was bottom-12 in fantasy PPG (22.2 DraftKings, 18.9 FanDuel PPG) allowed to opposing backfields. It’s possible Johnson will have fewer carries than expected with his positive game script. Nevertheless, Johnson will contribute as a receiver: No back has more than his 177 targets since 2015, and the Lions last year were 29th in pass DVOA against running backs. With a league-high 33 touchdowns over the last two years, Johnson will produce. We’re projecting him to be the most popular DraftKings running back with an ownership rate of 31-40 percent in large-field guaranteed prize pools.
This year FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across GPPs of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs. Throughout his career Johnson has actually had higher ownership on the road (19.3 percent) than at home (16.4). Still, Johnson’s ownership won’t be prohibitive if he’s rostered in diversifying ways, perhaps via a stack with quarterback Carson Palmer. After lineups lock, visit our DFS Contests Dashboard to see how Palmer-Johnson lineups fared in terms of uniqueness. Our Correlations Matrix suggests that the correlated production between the Cardinals quarterback and running back is greater than their dual tournament ownership.
Last year, despite sitting out the meaningless Week 17, Elliott led the league with 322 carries and 1,631 rushing yards. In NFL history, Zeke is one of only 12 rookies to have 300 carries and 30 receptions: In that cohort are some of the game’s best: Eric Dickerson (1983), Marshall Faulk (1994), and LaDainian Tomlinson (2001). Zeke has the potential to have an All-Pro season and Hall-of-Fame career — but his Week 1 opponent is tough (per our NFL Matchups Dashboard). Last year the Giants defense was second in points allowed and rush DVOA, and the unit might be better this year: All 11 starters were on the team last year and know the defense. As good as Zeke is, the Giants in two 2016 games held him to 159 yards and a touchdown on 44 carries and four targets. He’s cheap in comparison to #TeamJamEmIn, but he’s a GPP-only play.
“May I Have Your Attention Please?”
As I mention in this week’s Rotoworld pivot piece, McCoy is a top-tier alternative to B&J. Despite losing 24 touchdowns to underlings, he’s been a top-five fantasy back over the last two seasons. The opposing Jets last year were first in rush DVOA, but McCoy has:
- Five returning starters on a strong run-blocking offensive line (first in 2016 with 5.12 running back yards per carry)
- A running quarterback (Tyrod Taylor) whose presence has correlated with enhanced production for McCoy (108.0 yards per game with Tyrod; 71.3 without)
- An offensive coordinator (Rick Dennison) who has featured workhorse backs (Arian Foster, 2010-13)
- A backfield bench of relative non-entities (such as 31-year-old second fullback Mike Tolbert)
The Bills are slate-high 8.5-point favorites at home. Over the last two years as a home favorite McCoy has averaged 24.71 DraftKings and 21.15 FanDuel PPG with +7.96 and +7.47 Plus/Minus values. He could get 25-plus touches.
Up the Gut
Three yards and a cloud of dust.
Todd Gurley ($6,000 DraftKings, $7,300 FanDuel): He was one of six backs last year to have at least 250 carries and 50 targets. The Rams are 4.0-point home favorites against an Andrew Luck-less Colts team whose defense in 2016 was 32nd in rush DVOA.
LeGarrette Blount ($4,500 DraftKings, $6,200 FanDuel) and Darren Sproles ($3,900 DraftKings, $5,500 FanDuel): The Eagles are 1.0-point road favorites against the Redskins, who last year were top-five in PPG (27.9 DraftKings, 24.4 FanDuel) allowed to opposing backfields. The Eagles have Pro Football Focus’ top offensive line. They’ll likely rely on the running and short-passing game.
Christian McCaffrey ($5,400 DraftKings, $6,500 FanDuel) and Jonathan Stewart ($5,000 DraftKings, $6,100 FanDuel): Given his college production (183.1 scrimmage yards per game as starter), age (21), and draft capital (No. 8 pick), McCaffrey looks like a future superstar. J-Stew has 25 carries inside the five-yard line since 2015. The Panthers are implied for 26.5 points as 5.0-point road favorites against the 49ers, whose defense allowed the most PPG (33.7 DraftKings, 29.5 FanDuel) to opposing backfields last year. My bold call on the Week 1 Daily Fantasy Flex: McCaffrey gets 120 yards and deuce sixers.
DeMarco Murray ($7,400 DraftKings, $7,600 FanDuel) and Derrick Henry ($5,500 DraftKings, $5,800 FanDuel): The Raiders-Titans game has the slate’s second-highest total (50.5 points), and the Titans are 2.5-point home favorites. Murray’s averaged 273.8 carries and 63.0 targets per season since 2013, and Henry averaged 10.1 touches and 0.63 touchdowns per game in the second half of 2016.
Lamar Miller ($5,100 DraftKings, $7,300 FanDuel): The Texans are 5.5-point favorites and without their No. 2 back in Alfred Blue. Miller was fourth last year with 19.1 carries per game and could roll as the Texans open the season with a #HoustonStrong home game.
Devonta Freeman ($7,000 DraftKings, $8,300 FanDuel) and Tevin Coleman ($5,400 DraftKings, $6,200 FanDuel): The Falcons were top-five last year in rushing yards (1,928) and touchdowns (20) and are implied for a slate-high 27.5 points as 6.5-point road favorites against the Bears, whose defense was 29th in rush DVOA in 2016.
Danny Woodhead ($5,200 DraftKings, $6,500 FanDuel), Bilal Powell ($4,900 DraftKings, $6,300 FanDuel), and Chris Thompson ($3,700 DraftKings, $5,400 FanDuel): They all have five-reception, 50-yard, one-touchdown potential as pass-catching backs for the underdog Ravens, Jets, and Redskins.
Ty Montgomery ($5,800 DraftKings, $6,600 FanDuel): In his nine games last year with at least 10 opportunities (including playoffs), he turned 9.2 carries and 6.2 targets into 91.1 yards, 4.9 receptions, and 0.55 touchdowns per game. Against a Seahawks defense that was third in rush DVOA last year, Montgomery will have low ownership.
The Model Running Backs
There are currently two running backs atop the Pro Models built by Jonathan Bales, Peter Jennings (CSURAM88), Adam Levitan, and Kevin McClelland (SportsGeek): Bell and Carlos Hyde ($4,600 DraftKings, $6,800 FanDuel).
The 49ers are 5.0-point underdogs against the Panthers and their offensive line last year was 32nd with 3.46 adjusted line yards per carry, but Hyde’s the only 49ers back with more than seven career NFL carries, and head coach Kyle Shanahan has a record of running back success. Narrative Street TRIGGER WARNING: Hyde historically has crushed in Week 1 with 325 scrimmage yards and five touchdowns in three season-openers. He’s the top back in the Bales and CSURAM88 Models for DraftKings, where he’s tied with a slate-high 96 percent Bargain Rating.
Positional Breakdowns & Tools
Be sure to read the other Week 1 positional breakdowns:
Also, visit our suite of Tools to research all of the slate’s running backs for yourself.
Good luck this week!
After this piece is published, FantasyLabs is likely to provide news updates on a number of players herein mentioned. Be sure to stay ahead of your competition with our industry-leading DFS-focused news blurbs: