The Week 15 NFL main slate kicks off on Sunday, Dec. 20, at 1 p.m. ET.
In this piece, I highlight running backs who stand out in our large suite of analytical fantasy tools, most specifically our FantasyLabs Models. While the Models are built for daily contests, this is an all-purpose fantasy article with actionable information for all formats.
As news breaks throughout the week and we adjust our projections, where players rate in our Models will change. For updates, visit the Models directly.
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Top Running Backs in the FantasyLabs Models
There are five running backs atop the individual Pro Models that Jonathan Bales, Peter Jennings (CSURAM88), Sean Koerner, Chris Raybon, Kevin McClelland (SportsGeek), Ryan Hodge and I have constructed.
Here’s where they place within our Week 15 fantasy football rankings (as of Wednesday afternoon).
- Dalvin Cook: No. 1 (PPR) | No. 1 (Half PPR) | No. 2 (STD)
- Derrick Henry: No. 3 (PPR) | No. 2 (Half PPR) | No. 1 (STD)
- Jonathan Taylor: No. 8 (PPR) | No. 7 (Half PPR) | No. 6 (STD)
- Kenyan Drake: No. 10 (PPR) | No. 10 (Half PPR) | No. 10 (STD)
- Chase Edmonds: No. 28 (PPR) | No. 30 (Half PPR) | No. 32 (STD)
Of these five, the two who stand out most to me are Cook and Henry. (Yes, I also like vanilla ice cream and chalk.) The other guys I will highlight as needed in the section on players with week-winning upside.
FantasyLabs Positional Breakdowns
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- Wide Receivers: On Thu./Fri.
- Tight Ends: On Thu./Fri.
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Dalvin Cook: Minnesota Vikings (-3.5) vs. Chicago Bears (46.5 Over/Under)
If it feels as if I’ve written about Cook almost every week for the past month, that’s because I have. He warrants the words.
And, yeah, I’m basically copying, pasting and tweaking my Cook analysis from previous breakdowns, because …
- It still applies.
- It is correct.
- It saves time.
Cook has enjoyed über-elite usage since returning from injury out of the bye.
- Week 8 (at GB): 48.6 PPR, 46.6 STD | 30-163-3 | 2-63-1, three targets
- Week 9 (vs. DET): 39.2 PPR, 37.2 STD | 22-206-2 | 2-46-0, two targets
- Week 10 (at CHI): 15.2 PPR, 11.2 STD | 30-96-0 | 4-16-0, four targets
- Week 11 (vs. DAL): 25.0 PPR, 20.0 STD | 27-115-1 | 5-45-0, five targets
- Week 12 (vs. CAR): 10.2 PPR, 6.2 STD | 18-61-0 | 4-21-0, four targets
- Week 13 (vs. JAX): 23.9 PPR, 17.9 STD | 32-120-0 | 6-59-0, nine targets
- Week 14 (at TB): 19.0 PPR, 17.0 STD | 22-102-1 | 2-8-0, four targets
Despite leaving Week 5 early with a groin injury and missing Week 6, Cook leads the league with 1,674 yards from scrimmage, to which he has added 15 touchdowns. He’s a volume monster.
It’s no surprise that Cook is a top-five producer with 0.51 PPR and 0.44 STD points per snap (per Pro Football Focus).
As great as he was last season with 1,654 yards and 13 touchdowns in 14 games, he has been even better in 2020. Since returning to action in Week 8, Cook is No. 1 in the league with 24.0 expected fantasy points per game (minimum two games played, per RotoViz NFL Player Statistical Summary).
It’s notable that Cook has a bad matchup against the Bears, who are No. 5 with a -23.2% rush-defense DVOA and No. 3 with a -25.2% pass-defense DVOA against running backs (per Football Outsiders).
But with a high-volume back like Cook, matchup matters much less, and it’s not as if he can’t overcome the challenge. In his two games against the Bears since last year, he has done well.
- Week 4, 2019 (at CHI): 19.0 PPR, 13.0 STD | 14-35-1 | 6-35-0, eight targets
- Week 10, 2020 (at CHI): 15.2 PPR, 11.2 STD | 30-96-0 | 4-16-0, four targets
There are macro reasons to be enthusiastic this weekend about Cook and the Vikings, who are on the positive side of their splits against the spread (ATS). As regular-season home favorites under head coach Mike Zimmer, the Vikings are 26-16-1 ATS, good for a 20.5% return on investment (ROI, per our Bet Labs database). You can bet on this game at FanDuel.
It’s just an added bonus that Cook is on the positive side of his career-long home/away splits (per our FantasyLabs Trends Tool).
- Home (20 games): 18.9 FanDuel points | 65.0% Consistency Rating
- Away (23 games): 16.9 FanDuel points | 56.5% Consistency Rating
Cook leads all running backs in our Models with his ceiling projections.
A locked-in top-three RB1 in season-long leagues, Cook is the No. 1 back in the CSURAM88 and Koerner Models for FanDuel.
Derrick Henry: Tennessee Titans vs. Detroit Lions (Off the Board)
This game is off the board at most sportsbooks because Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (ribs) is uncertain to play.
#Lions QB Matthew Stafford’s status is in doubt for Sunday against the #Titans, but he hasn’t been ruled out yet, per me and @TomPelissero. Stafford is tough and has played through a lot, but he was in a ton of pain last night after his rib injury. Chase Daniel would step in.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 14, 2020
But this game is available at Bet365, where the Titans are 10.5-point favorites and the over/under is 51.5.
With these lines, the Titans have a slate-high 31-point implied Vegas total: They should put up points.
As I noted last week, December is Derrick Henry SZN. November has also been good to Henry, and January has seen him put up some legendary playoff performances, but December is as good as it gets.
Derrick Henry fantasy points per game by month since 2018:
– Sep: 13.7
– Oct: 14.6
– Nov: 20.0
– Dec: 26.4
Data from @FantasyLabs Trends Tool pic.twitter.com/eE17kWT320
— Matthew Freedman (@MattFtheOracle) December 16, 2020
Especially in the post-DeMarco Murray era (since 2018), Henry has shined in the second half of the season, and last week against the Jaguars he was extraordinarily bright with 26-215-2 rushing and 2-7-0 receiving.
With his Week 14 performance, he became the only back in NFL history with four games of 200 yards and two touchdowns rushing, breaking the tie he had at three with Hall-of-Famers Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and LaDainian Tomlinson.
Given the pass-heavy era in which Henry plays, his ground-based accomplishments are particularly incredible.
Last year, Henry was a league-best 303-1,540-16 rushing in 15 games. This year, he has almost matched those numbers with an NFL-high 297-1,532-14 rushing — but he still has three games left in the season.
It just so happens that all three remaining games offer him fantastic matchups.
- Lions (Week 15): 26.5 STD allowed | 319-1,458-16 | 61-588-7, 85 targets
- Packers (Week 16): 23.0 STD allowed | 270-1,214-13 | 74-660-5, 91 targets
- Texans (Week 17): 25.7 STD allowed | 333-1,790-16 | 63-592-1, 86 targets
Opposing backfields have top-four fantasy production against each of the Lions, Packers and Texans. All three teams are bottom-12 in rush defense DVOA. This end-of-season stretch run could not be any friendlier to Henry.
I’m calling it now: Henry won’t just get 2,000 yards rushing — a mark that only seven backs in history have hit. Henry will also break Eric Dickerson’s all-time single-season mark of 2,105.
He’s just 573 yards away. That’s a big number, but Henry’s a big dude. Last year, in three straight games against the Texans (Week 17), Patriots (Wild Card Weekend) and Ravens (Divisional Round), Henry had 588 yards.
He has a real shot to get the record.
And if he does, do you think he might be live as a 100/1 MVP underdog? I do.
I’ve got a new bet in the @ActionApp: Derrick Henry to win MVP at 100/1. My analysis: https://t.co/wPYUIJ0IPW pic.twitter.com/JXwcu75ASK
— Matthew Freedman (@MattFtheOracle) December 16, 2020
Henry’s not likely to win MVP, but his odds must be better than +10000, right? The last time a running back crossed the 2,000-yard threshold — Adrian Peterson in 2012 with 2,097 yards — he won the MVP.
In fact, Peterson was the last non-quarterback to win the award.
It’s not impossible.
And it all starts this weekend with Henry destroying the Lions, who have allowed an NFL-high 26.5 fantasy points per game to opposing backfields.
Since his career breakout game in Week 14 of 2018, Henry has had no fewer than 16 touches in 35 games. Over that span, he has averaged 20.9 PPR and 19.7 STD points, 127.4 yards and 1.17 touchdowns on 22.0 carries, 1.7 targets and 1.2 receptions per game (including postseason).
In the 32 regular-season games since his breakout performance, Henry has been a fantasy RB1 56% of the time despite his limited pass-catching usage (per RotoViz NFL Stat Explorer).
Henry is the NFL’s only player with 1,000-yard, 10-TD campaigns on the ground in each of the past three seasons, and this year he trails only Dalvin Cook with his 41% market share of team opportunities (carries plus targets).
Henry is the Titans offense.
It’s just an added bonus that he’s on the positive side of the Vegas splits he has exhibited over the past three years.
- Favorite (25 games): 20.7 DraftKings points
- Underdog (21 games): 17.0 DraftKings points
In quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s 23 regular-season starts with the Titans, the over is 18-4-1 (58.6% ROI).
Against a defense that ranks No. 29 with 29.9 points allowed, the Titans could go off, and that’s a wonderful thing for Henry. You can bet on this game at DraftKings.
Henry leads all backs in our Models with his floor projections.
A no-doubt top-three RB1 in season-long leagues, Henry is the No. 1 back in the SportsGeek, Hodge and Freedman Models for DraftKings, where he has a position-high eight Pro Trends.
Running Backs With Week-Winning Upside
In this section, I highlight some running backs I think will outperform expectations and whom I especially like as upside season-long and DFS tournament plays.
Alvin Kamara, Saints (+2.5) vs. Chiefs (50.5 O/U): Quarterback Drew Brees (ribs, IR) increasingly looks unlikely to play, so Kamara will probably suffer as a pass-catcher (he’s 10-51-0 receiving on 16 targets in quarterback Taysom Hill’s four starts), but his matchup on the ground is almost flawless. The Chiefs are No. 30 with a 3.2% rush defense DVOA.
Jonathan Taylor, Colts (-7.5) vs. Texans (50.5 O/U): In his three games over the past month, Taylor has seized control of the Colts backfield with 55-331-2 rushing and 9-83-1 receiving on nine targets. The Texans are No. 31 with a 42.9 PFF run-defense grade.
James Robinson, Jaguars (+13.5) at Ravens (46.5 O/U): Even on a 1-12 team ranking No. 28 with 20.1 points per game, Robinson has been a fantasy RB1 in 54% of his games.
I’m highly tempted to bet against the Ravens, who have allowed road underdogs to go 12-6 ATS (29.1% ROI) in quarterback Lamar Jackson’s starts …
… and Robinson will likely have a big day if the Jags manage to keep the game competitive. Robinson is No. 4 with a 37% opportunity share.
David Montgomery, Bears (+3.5) at Vikings (46.5 O/U): In his nine games without change-of-pace back Tarik Cohen (knee, IR) this season, Montgomery is No. 1 at the position with an 80% snap rate. Since returning from injury in Week 12, Montgomery is 39-288-3 rushing and 12-121-1 receiving on 14 targets in three games. The Vikings are No. 26 with a 47.9 PFF run-defense grade.
Cam Akers, Rams (-16.5) vs. Jets (44.5 O/U): The sample is small, but over the past two weeks the difference between Derrick Henry and the rookie Akers has been minimal.
Question: Which one of these players is Derrick Henry, and which one is Cam Akers?
– Player A: 50 carries, 3 receptions, 288 yards
– Player B: 41 carries, 3 receptions, 291 yards
Answer: It doesn’t matter.
— Matthew Freedman (@MattFtheOracle) December 15, 2020
I’m not going to say that Akers is THE No. 1 overall back on the slate, because he isn’t, but …
So this morning I woke up, had a cup of decaf, did some jumping jacks and Week 15 player projections, and then, while listening to a Battlestar Gallactica podcast and brushing my teeth, I looked in the mirror, spit out my toothpaste, and said:
“Cam Akers is the RB1 …”
— Matthew Freedman (@MattFtheOracle) December 15, 2020
… what else do you call a talented, locked-in lead back favored by more than two touchdowns at home against a winless Jets team?
J. K. Dobbins, Ravens (-13.5) vs. Jaguars (46.5 O/U): The Jags have been dominated by almost every running back to face them since the second half of last year:
- Carlos Hyde (Week 9 of 2019): 14.0 PPR, 14.0 STD | 19-160-0
- Duke Johnson (Week 9): 19.1 PPR, 14.1 STD | 7-13-1 | 5-68-0, five targets
- BYE WEEK (Week 10): The Jags somehow made their run defense worse during the bye.
- Marlon Mack (Week 11): 16.9 PPR, 16.9 STD | 14-109-1
- Jonathan Williams (Week 11): 15.7 PPR, 14.7 STD | 13-116-0 | 1-31-0, one target
- Nyheim Hines (Week 11): 12.5 PPR, 9.5 STD | 3-11-1 | 3-24-0, four targets
- Derrick Henry (Week 12): 28.5 PPR, 27.5 STD | 19-159-2 | 1-16-0, one target
- Peyton Barber (Week 13): 18.4 PPR, 18.4 STD | 17-44-2
- Austin Ekeler (Week 14): 31.3 PPR, 27.3 STD | 8-101-0 | 4-112-1, five targets
- Melvin Gordon III (Week 14): 19.4 PPR, 14.4 STD | 12-55-1 | 5-29-0, five targets
- Josh Jacobs (Week 15): 12.9 PPR, 10.9 STD | 24-89-0 | 2-20-0, three targets
- Devonta Freeman (Week 16): 33.7 PPR, 24.7 STD | 13-53-1 | 9-74-1, 10 targets
- Brian Hill & Qadree Ollison (Week 16): 12.9 PPR, 12.9 STD | 8-69-1
- Marlon Mack (Week 17): 19.7 PPR, 19.7 STD | 15-77-2 | 0-0-0, one target
- Nyheim Hines (Week 17): 8.6 PPR, 5.6 STD | 7-34-0 | 3-22-0, five targets
- Nyheim Hines (Week 1 of 2020): 27.3 PPR, 19.3 STD | 7-28-1 | 8-45-1, eight targets
- Jonathan Taylor (Week 1): 14.9 PPR, 8.9 STD | 9-22-0 | 6-67-0 six targets
- Marlon Mack (Week 1, injured): 8.6 PPR, 5.6 STD | 4-26-0 | 3-30-0, three targets
- Derrick Henry (Week 2): 8.4 PPR, 8.4 STD | 25-84-0 | 0-0-0, two targets
- Myles Gaskin & Jordan Howard (Week 3): 20.6 PPR, 15.6 STD | 25-67-1 | 5-29-0, five targets
- Joe Mixon (Week 4): 42.1 PPR, 36.1 STD | 25-151-2 | 6-30-1, six targets
- David Johnson (Week 5): 12.3 PPR, 10.3 STD | 17-96-0 | 2-7-0, four targets
- D’Andre Swift (Week 6): 27.3 PPR, 24.3 STD | 14-116-2 | 3-7-0, four targets
- Adrian Peterson (Week 6): 12.8 PPR, 11.8 STD | 15-40-1 | 1-18-0, one target
- Joshua Kelley (Week 7): 10.3 PPR, 5.3 STD | 12-20-0 | 5-24-0, five targets
- Justin Jackson (Week 7): 10.5 PPR, 5.5 STD | 5-12-0 | 5-43-0, six targets
- BYE WEEK (Week 8): Yep, they’re still bad.
- Duke Johnson (Week 9): 15.3 PPR, 11.3 STD | 16-41-1 | 4-32-0, four targets
- Aaron Jones (Week 10): 14.5 PPR, 9.5 STD | 13-46-0 | 5-49-0, six targets
- James Conner (Week 11): 12.9 PPR, 9.9 STD | 13-89-0 | 3-10-0, three targets
- Nick Chubb (Week 12): 26.6 PPR, 23.6 STD | 19-144-1 | 3-32-0, three targets
- Dalvin Cook (Week 13): 23.9 PPR, 17.9 STD | 32-120-0 | 6-59-0, nine targets
- Derrick Henry (Week 14): 36.2 PPR, 34.2 STD | 26-215-2 | 2-7-0, two targets
Not every back to face the Jags goes off, but almost every back has an above-average performance at worst. Since the Week 7 bye, Dobbins has led the Ravens backfield with a 55% snap rate and 33% carry share, and since his activation off the reserve list two weeks ago, he is 24-124-2 rushing with a 2-point conversion.
J.D. McKissic, Football Team (+5.5) vs. Seahawks (44.5 O/U): No. 1 back Antonio Gibson (toe) exited Week 13 with an injury, missed last week and seems unlikely to play this week. Thanks to his receiving workload, McKissic leads all Washington backs with 13.6 expected fantasy points per game, and he also is No. 1 with a 56% snap rate. Filling in for Gibson last week, McKissic was a respectable 11-68-0 rushing and 2-18-0 receiving on four targets.
Kenyan Drake, Cardinals (-6.5) vs. Eagles (48.5 O/U): In five games since returning from injury, Drake is 82-336-5 rushing and 11-74-0 receiving on 14 targets. Since joining the Cardinals in Week 9 of 2019, Drake has been at least a fantasy RB2 in 69% of games.
Drake is No. 4 at the position with 17.5 expected fantasy points per game since Week 10.
Jeff Wilson, 49ers (-3.5) at Cowboys (45.5 O/U): No. 1 running back Raheem Mostert (ankle) had an MRI on Monday and is uncertain to play. In his nine career games with at least eight carries, Wilson has performed well (per RotoViz Game Splits App).
Even with Mostert, Wilson has 30 carries and eight targets over the past three weeks as the No. 2 back, and if Mostert is out, Wilson will have immense upside against the Cowboys, who are No. 27 with a 1.0% rush-defense DVOA.
Leonard Fournette, Buccaneers (-5.5) at Falcons (50.5 O/U): No. 1 back Ronald Jones (finger) had surgery on a broken pinky early this week, so he’s unlikely to play this weekend. A surprise healthy scratch in Week 14, Fournette is the frontrunner to lead the Bucs backfield in Week 15. Antifragility in action.
Chase Edmonds, Cardinals (-6.5) vs. Eagles (48.5 O/U): Despite playing behind Kenyan Drake since his return to action, Edmonds has averaged 5.8 carries and 4.4 targets over the past five games, and for the year he is No. 10 among all backs with 30.9 air yards and yards after catch (AirYAC) per game. Edmonds has a position-high +2.40 Projected Plus/Minus on DraftKings.
AirYAC is a leading indicator of fantasy production and can be found in the RotoViz NFL Player Statistical Summary.
Gus Edwards, Ravens (-13.5) vs. Jaguars (46.5 O/U): See Dobbins, J.K. It’s a long list. The Jags are highly exploitable, and Edwards is 14-150-2 rushing over the past two weeks. Contrary to my hopes and dreams, Edwards is not ahead of Dobbins …
So today I woke up at 3 AM because my dog jumped off the bed & just looked at me like, “It’s time man,” so I got out of bed, went downstairs, opened the door, walked into the cold MN morning and, while my dog peed on some rocks, I said:
“Gus Edwards is the RB1 in Baltimore.”
— Matthew Freedman (@MattFtheOracle) November 16, 2020
… but he is still talented enough to exploit the matchup. In his three NFL seasons, Edwards has been one of the league’s most no-nonsense North/South runners based on his Efficiency metric (per Next Gen Stats).
- 2018: 2.78 (1st)
- 2019: 2.93 (1st)
- 2020: 3.15 (2nd)
Edwards has 5.2 yards per carry on 368 career attempts, and he’s well ahead of backups Mark Ingram and Justice Hill, who combined for just seven snaps last week.
Matt Breida, Dolphins (-2) vs. Patriots (41.5 O/U): Someone has to carry the ball for the Dolphins. Why not Breida? The Patriots are No. 28 with a 1.9% rush-defense DVOA. Full disclosure: I’m betting on the Dolphins.
Since joining Miami before the 2019 season, head coach Brian Flores has driven the Dolphins to 19-10 ATS (26.6% ROI). And if you remove the first month of last season, during which the Dolphins were experimenting all over the team with their personnel, they are 19-6 ATS (46.9% ROI). You can bet on this game at William Hill.
Matthew Freedman is 889-702-33 (55.9%) overall betting on the NFL. You can follow him in our free app.
The Editor-in-Chief of FantasyLabs, Freedman is commonly called the Oracle & the Labyrinthian.
Pictured above: Derrick Henry
Photo credit: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images