Week 1 of the NFL regular season is here, bringing with it a full 12-game main slate on Sunday, Sept. 9, that kicks off at 1:00 pm ET.
For analysis on the smaller slates, consult Chris Raybon’s premium strategy pieces (released throughout the week).
In writing this piece, I’ve relied primarily upon the FantasyLabs Models. Please think of this breakdown as less of a comprehensive analysis of each running back and more of an introduction to this week’s players via our large suite of analytic DFS Tools. We’ll start with the four running backs at the top of the salary scale, then touch on 23 players who have caught my eye (for good or bad) and finish with three backs at the top of our individual Pro Models.
For updates on Vegas spreads and over/unders, check out The Action Network Live Odds page.
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The Big Four
There are four running backs at the top of the salary scale.
- Le’Veon Bell: $9,400 DraftKings; $8,900 FanDuel
- David Johnson: $8,800 DraftKings; $8,600 FanDuel
- Alvin Kamara: $8,500 DraftKings; $8,700 FanDuel
- Ezekiel Elliott: $7,700 DraftKings; $8,300 FanDuel
Le’Veon Bell: Pittsburgh Steelers (-4) at Cleveland Browns, 44.5 over/under
As of writing, Bell has yet to sign his $14.54-million franchise tender and report to the team. He implied over the summer that he was unlikely to hold out into the season, and he won’t get paid for Week 1 unless he reports by Saturday afternoon, so the odds are that Bell will show up before Sunday. Even so, it’s possible — even likely — that Bell will sit or be extremely limited in Week 1 given that he is probably not in playing shape and has missed practice as the team has prepared for the Browns.
Accordingly, we have removed Bell from our Models and expect the bulk of the backfield work to go to second-year backup James Conner ($4,500 DraftKings; $5,000 FanDuel).
In the event that news breaks that Bell will play and serve as the lead back in Week 1, he’ll be someone to consider, especially since he could have a reduced ownership rate in guaranteed prize pools. Bell has a position-high 99% FanDuel Bargain Rating, and finished last season first among all backs with a 91.7% snap share and 89.3% opportunity share (per PlayerProfiler.com), as well as 321 carries and 85 receptions. Since his 2014 breakout season, Bell has smoked all other backs with 23.3 fantasy points per game in point-per-reception scoring. (Zeke is second with 21.1.)
While quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has notorious home/road splits, Bell has produced at a high level regardless of location.
- Bell at home (24 games): 24.2 DraftKings points, +3.10 Plus/Minus, 62.5% Consistency Rating
- Bell away (25 games): 24.8 DraftKings points, +3.07 Plus/Minus, 52.0% Consistency Rating
While Bell has been more consistent at Heinz Field, his home/road Plus/Minus values are nearly identical.
If you look at the matchup between the Browns’ defense and the Steelers’ offense, you might be surprised to see that last year the Browns were fourth in the league in rush defense with a -20.8% in Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). Last year in their Week 1 game against the Steelers, the Browns managed to hold Bell and Conner to just 43 yards rushing on 14 combined carries. For all the weaknesses defensive coordinator Gregg Williams might have, his unit proved capable of stopping the run, holding opponents to just 3.4 yard per carry, the NFL’s second-lowest mark. These Browns are not the 2014-16 version of themselves, which allowed a league-high 137.5 rushing yards per game.
Nevertheless, the Steelers seem likely to run against the Browns, and they could have success doing it.
The Browns-Steelers game is currently forecast for an 81% chance of precipitation with winds approaching 20 miles per hour. In such conditions, the Steelers could opt for a ball-control, run-heavy offense, and running backs have historically done well in poor weather. Additionally, the Steelers have Pro Football Focus’ No. 4 offensive line entering the season. They might not run with great efficiency, but as long as they don’t fall behind by double-digit points — and the Steelers are favored by more than a field goal — they figure to rely on their backfield.
If Conner serves as the Week 1 lead back, he could have a big game, albeit with significant ownership. Rushing for 4.5 yards per carry as a rookie last year, Conner has a combination of size (6-foot-1, 233 pounds), draft pedigree (third-round selection) and college production (4,145 yards and 56 touchdowns in 39 games) that tends to translate into NFL success. Conner was targeted just once in 2017, but as a Pitt senior he had a 21-302-4 receiving campaign. He has three-down potential at minimal cost.
David Johnson: Arizona Cardinals (-1) vs. Washington Redskins, 44 O/U
Johnson (wrist) was the No. 1 draft pick in most leagues last year, and then he missed all but 46 snaps of the season due to a random injury. He’s healthy now and expected to play as the lead back in a run-heavy offense coordinated by Mike McCoy and quarterbacked by Sam Bradford. With only the small-school rookie Chase Edmonds ($4,500 DraftKings; $5,000 FanDuel) behind Johnson on the depth chart and no established wide receiver after Larry Fitzgerald on the team, Johnson has a real shot to join Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig in the 1,000-1,000 club.
Johnson should utterly dominate usage for the Cardinals: In 2016, he was second at the position with a 91.9% snap share.
The Cardinals-Redskins game opened as a pick’em, but it has recently shifted toward the Cardinals, who have apparently attracted some sharp bettors, getting 46% of the tickets but 57% of the money. The Cardinals’ offensive line was ravaged by injuries last year, but Johnson’s blockers are all healthy to open the year, and the Redskins’ rush defense ranked 29th with a 0.8% DVOA in 2017.
Johnson has 33 touchdowns in 33 career games and 25.6 PPR points per game in his 20 contests with 10-plus carries. He has the highest median, ceiling and floor projections in our Models, and is one year removed from leading the league with 373 touches, 2,118 scrimmage yards and 20 total touchdowns. His salary is high, but it could be above $9,000 within a couple of weeks.
Alvin Kamara: New Orleans Saints (-9.5) vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 49.5 O/U
Last year Kamara joined Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Charley Taylor and College Football HOFer Herschel Walker as one of only three rookies in history with 700 yards as both a rusher and receiver. As a runner, Kamara led the league with 6.1 yards per carry, breaking runs of 15-plus yards at an NFL-high rate of 9.2%. As a receiver, he led all backs with 826 yards and had a very impressive catch rate of 81.0% on his 100 targets. He was outright obscene with his league-best +71.3 Production Premium (a PlayerProfiler metric that measures productivity in league-average situations).
With teammate Mark Ingram (suspension) out for the first month, Kamara is in a great situation to open the season. As of writing, the Saints have literally just two running backs on the active roster: Kamara and Mike Gillislee ($3,400 DraftKings; $4,600 FanDuel), who was signed less than a week after being cut by the Patriots. It’s possible that the Saints could call up a runner from the practice squad or even — fantasy gawds, have mercy — use fullback and 2013 Freedman favorite Zach Line ($3,000 DraftKings; $4,500 FanDuel) as an occasional rusher. But it’s easy to see how Kamara could get 20 touches against the Bucs.
Plus, Kamara is at the Coors Field of fantasy football, otherwise known as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. A shootout-friendly venue, the Superdome has a 54-39-2 over/under record with Drew Brees at quarterback. In his seven post-Adrian Peterson appearances as a home favorite, Kamara averaged 19.1 points per game, a +6.71 Plus/Minus and 85.7% Consistency Rating at FanDuel, where he has a position-high 15 Pro Trends and is the highest-rated back in literally every one of our Pro Models. For good measure, Kamara’s also the No. 1 DraftKings back in the Levitan Model.
And it doesn’t hurt at all that Kamara faces a Bucs defense that allowed the fifth-most DraftKings points per game last year to opposing backfields (27.0). When we said on the midweek edition of The Action Network NFL Podcast that Kamara is our top Week 1 back, we meant it.
Ezekiel Elliott: Dallas Cowboys (+3) at Carolina Panthers, 43 O/U
Over the past two seasons, Zeke has led the league with 22.6 carries and 104.6 yards rushing per game. He hasn’t been poor as a receiver, either, catching 75.3% of his 77 targets for 632 yards and three touchdowns in 25 games. I will probably die believing that the Cowboys shouldn’t have drafted Zeke No. 4 overall in the 2016 draft, but as a fantasy producer, he’s elite. Since he entered the league, only Johnson (24.8) and Bell (24.4) have averaged more PPR points per game than Zeke’s 21.1.
In each of the past two years, the Cowboys have been top-three in rush rate (48.7% in 2016, 47.8% in 2017), giving their lead back as many touches as he can handle, and they are likely to rely on him even more as both a runner and receiver given the state of the team’s wide receiving corps (PFF’s No. 29 unit) following the offseason departures of long-time top pass-catchers Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.
Zeke isn’t in a great spot as a road dog facing a Panthers rush defense that ranked fifth last year with a -16.9% DVOA. Plus, starting center Travis Frederick (Guillain-Barre) is doubtful, left guard Connor Williams is a rookie with no experience playing in the interior and right tackle La’el Collins (50.7 PFF grade) is a career underachiever. The Cowboys still have All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin, but their offensive line is remarkably fragile for a unit generally regarded as one of the league’s best.
But even with these negative circumstances, Zeke warrants consideration in guaranteed prize pools, especially on FanDuel, where he has a position-high 76% leverage score thanks to his high ceiling and low ownership projections. The sample is small, but it’s encouraging that in his four games as an underdog (three on the road), he’s averaged 23.3 touches for 160.5 yards and 1.5 touchdowns from scrimmage and 29.3 DraftKings points per game.
If you do use Zeke in tournaments, you might want to use our Lineup Builder to stack him with quarterback Dak Prescott. Since 2014, NFL RB1s on average have a 0.29 correlation with their quarterbacks. Over that same time, head coach Jason Garrett’s lead backs and passers have a strong 0.55 correlation.
Up the Gut
Here’s a quick rundown of 23 running backs who have caught my eye (for good or bad). And yes, that’s almost all of the fantasy-viable backs in the slate. It’s Week 1: I’m paying attention to everything.
Leonard Fournette: Jacksonville Jaguars (-3) at New York Giants, 43.5 O/U
- $7,100 DraftKings; $8,000 FanDuel
- Jacksonville led the league last year with 32.9 rushes per game and a 49.5% rush rate.
Kareem Hunt: Kansas City Chiefs (+3.5) at Los Angeles Chargers, 48 O/U
- $6,900 DraftKings; $8,000 FanDuel
- Hunt had an NFL-high 137 evaded tackles and 632 yards created (PlayerProfiler) as a rookie in 2017.
Melvin Gordon: Los Angeles Chargers (-3.5) vs. Kansas City Chiefs, 48 O/U
- $6,800 DraftKings; $8,100 FanDuel
- MG3 is one of just three backs (along with Bell and Todd Gurley) with 250-plus carries and 50-plus targets in each of the past two seasons.
Saquon Barkley: New York Giants (+3) vs. Jacksonville Jaguars, 43.5 O/U
- $6,700 DraftKings; $7,600 FanDuel
- The best running back prospect of the past decade makes his NFL debut against a run-flowing funnel defense that ranked first (-27.6%) against the pass but just 27th (-2.8%) against the rush in DVOA last season.
Christian McCaffrey: Carolina Panthers (-3) vs. Dallas Cowboys, 43 O/U
- $6,400 DraftKings; $7,500 FanDuel
- The 2017 No. 8 overall pick played on 59-of-66 first-string snaps this preseason and is poised for a breakout.
Dalvin Cook & Latavius Murray: Minnesota Vikings (-6.5) vs. San Francisco 49ers, 46 O/U
- Cook: $6,200 DraftKings; $7,300 FanDuel
- Murray: $4,800 DraftKings; $5,500 FanDuel
- The 49ers have allowed an NFL-high 6,534 yards and 58 touchdowns rushing since former head coach Jim Harbaugh’s departure in 2015.
Joe Mixon & Giovani Bernard: Cincinnati Bengals (+2.5) vs. Indianapolis Colts, 48.5 O/U
- Mixon: $6,100 DraftKings; $6,900 FanDuel
- Bernard: $4,400 DraftKings; $5,400 FanDuel
- The Colts’ defense was 32nd (28.5%) in rush DVOA and 31st (27.9%) in pass DVOA against running backs last year.
LeSean McCoy: Buffalo Bills (+7.5) vs. Baltimore Ravens, 40.5 O/U
- $6,000 DraftKings; $7,300 FanDuel
- Shady is the only back with 200-plus carries and 50-plus targets in each of the past three seasons and has a position-high 73% leverage score on DraftKings.
Kenyan Drake & Frank Gore: Miami Dolphins (+1) vs. Tennessee Titans, 45 O/U
- Drake: $5,900 DraftKings; $6,600 FanDuel
- Gore: $3,700 DraftKings; $5,300 FanDuel
- Drake averaged 18.9 DraftKings points per game in December last year; the Inconvenient Truth has more scrimmage yards (3,742) over the past three seasons than any other running back age 32 to 34 in history.
Lamar Miller: Houston Texans (+6) at New England Patriots, 50.5 O/U
- $5,200 DraftKings; $6,500 FanDuel
- Miller had 15.4 DraftKings points on 20.2 opportunities (carries plus targets) per game in Deshaun Watson‘s six starts.
Adrian Peterson & Chris Thompson: Washington Redskins (+1) at Arizona Cardinals, 44 O/U
- Peterson: $4,700 DraftKings; $6,300 FanDuel
- Thompson: $4,700 DraftKings; $6,200 FanDuel
- The Cardinals’ rush defense was first in 2017 with a -24.4% DVOA.
Carlos Hyde & Duke Johnson: Cleveland Browns (+4) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, 44 O/U
- Hyde: $4,500 DraftKings; $5,900 FanDuel
- Johnson: $4,700 DraftKings; $5,800 FanDuel
- Hyde played on 19-of-25 early-down snaps outside of the two-minute drill in Week 3 of the preseason; Johnson leads all backs with 188 receptions since entering the league three years ago.
Chris Carson & Rashaad Penny: Seattle Seahawks (+3) at Denver Broncos, 42.5 O/U
- Carson: $4,500 DraftKings; $5,900 FanDuel
- Penny: $4,800 DraftKings; $5,800 FanDuel
- The Broncos’ rush defense has been a top-four unit in DVOA in three of the past four years (second, 2014; fourth, 2015; third, 2017).
Royce Freeman: Denver Broncos (-3) vs. Seattle Seahawks, 42.5 O/U
- $4,500 DraftKings; $6,000 FanDuel
- Freeman is Arbitrage Fournette given his size (5-foot-11, 229 pounds), athleticism (4.54-second 40 time, 6.90-second three-cone drill) and college production (1,000-10 campaigns in all four seasons at Oregon).
Peyton Barber: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+9.5) at New Orleans Saints, 49.5 O/U
- $4,100 DraftKings; $5,600 FanDuel
- Barber averaged 12.2 PPR points per game in two contests as an underdog lead back against the Saints last year.
Alfred Morris & Matt Breida: San Francisco 49ers (+6.5) vs. Minnesota Vikings, 46 O/U
- Morris: $3,600 DraftKings; $5,500 FanDuel
- Breida: $4,600 DraftKings; $5,000 FanDuel
- The Vikings’ defense held opposing backfields to an NFL-low 12.8 fantasy points per game last year.
The Model Running Backs
Besides Kamara, there are three running backs atop the individual Pro Models that Jonathan Bales, Peter Jennings (CSURAM88), Adam Levitan, Sean Koerner, Chris Raybon, Kevin McClelland (SportsGeek) and I have constructed.
- Alex Collins: $5,600 DraftKings; $6,700 FanDuel
- Rex Burkhead: $4,200 DraftKings; $6,300 FanDuel
- James White: $4,000 DraftKings; $5,500 FanDuel
Alex Collins: Baltimore Ravens (-7.5) vs. Buffalo Bills, 40.5 O/U
Just the third Southeastern Conference back ever to have 1,000 yards rushing in each of his first three college seasons, Collins was an under-appreciated talent out of Arkansas who I dubbed “The Next Really Good ‘Meh’ SEC Runner” during the 2016 draft process. (It’s not for nothing that I call myself the Oracle.)
Selected by the Seahawks in the fifth round, Collins was unforgivably waived at final cuts last year, ultimately signing with the Ravens’ practice squad before being called up in Week 2. From Week 5 on, he averaged 15.6 carries and 2.8 targets per game, and despite sharing snaps with pass-catching Sith Lord Javorius Allen ($4,200 DraftKings; $4,900 FanDuel), Collins especially balled out after the Week 10 bye, scoring 17.1 DraftKings points per game with a +7.00 Plus/Minus and 71.4% Consistency Rating over his final seven outings.
Last year the Ravens were sixth with 4.36 adjusted line yards per carry (per Football Outsiders), and their offensive line should be improved thanks to the return of All-Pro right guard Marshal Yanda (ankle). Collins should benefit from a run-heavy game script as a big home favorite against a Bills defense that allowed a league-high 29.1 points per game to opposing backfields on DraftKings, where Collins is the highest-rated back in the SportsGeek Model.
Rex Burkhead & James White: New England Patriots (-6) vs. Houston Texans, 50.5 O/U
As frustrating as Patriots backs can be in fantasy, they’re tempting in this spot. The Pats are first in The Action Network Power Rankings, and over the past half decade they have crushed as home favorites, going 24-12-2 against the spread, gifting backers a 30.3% return on investment. The Pats should put up points — last year they scored on a league-high 49.4% of their drives — and with a thin wide receiver depth chart, they could rely heavily on Burkhead and White, both of whom are strong pass-catching backs.
Burkhead has a position-high 95% Bargain Rating on DraftKings, where he’s the top back in the Bales, CSURAM88 and Koerner Models. Burkhead isn’t necessarily locked in as the lead back: He could easily lose carries and even goal-line opportunities to first-round rookie Sony Michel ($5,100 DraftKings; $6,000 FanDuel) and the big-bodied Jeremy Hill ($3,300 DraftKings; $4,600 FanDuel), the latter of whom averaged 10 touchdowns per year in his first three NFL seasons.
But Michel (knee) is questionable to play, Hill has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry since 2015 and Burkhead had 6.4 carries, 3.6 targets, 51.8 yards and 0.8 touchdowns per game last year with the Pats, barely finishing behind the departed Lewis in DraftKings points per game (13.1 vs. 13.0). For Week 1, at least, Burkhead looks like the back with the most three-down upside.
But White will also likely have a role. Over the past two years, he has played 32 games with Brady (including playoffs). In those games, he’s averaged 11.8 DraftKings points. In the 12 such games in which he’s had double-digit opportunities, he’s jumped up to 17.1 DraftKings points per outing. Given that the Texans have PFF’s No. 8 run defense and that they held the Pats to just 59 yards rushing in Week 3 last year, the Pats could shift away from the run and instead funnel targets to White via the short passing game. He has the potential for six-plus targets, which makes him highly attractive on DraftKings, where he’s the No. 1 back in the Raybon and Freedman Models.
Positional Breakdowns & News
Be sure to read the other Week 1 positional breakdowns.
For more in-depth NFL analysis information, check out The Action Network.
After this piece is published, FantasyLabs is likely to provide news updates on a number of players. Be sure to stay ahead of your competition with our industry-leading DFS-focused news blurbs.
Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Pictured above: Alvin Kamara