The Week 1 NFL main slate kicks off on Sunday, September 12th 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 Player Models. While the models are built for DFS 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, player ratings in our Player Models will change. For updates, visit the models directly.

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Top Running Backs in the FantasyLabs Models

There are three backs atop the individual Pro Models that Jonathan Bales, Peter Jennings (CSURAM88), Sean Koerner, Chris Raybon, and Ryan Hodge have constructed.

  • Dalvin Cook
  • James Robinson
  • Joe Mixon

We’ll discuss why these three are popping in our models, as well as take a look at some other running backs with week-winning upside and some value plays for the cash game players out there.

FantasyLabs Positional Breakdowns

For more in-depth NFL analysis, check out The Action Network.

Dalvin Cook ($9,100 DraftKings, $9,400 FanDuel) Minnesota Vikings (-3) at Cincinnati Bengals (47.5 Total)

Cook is the highest-rated back in the Hodge Models for both DraftKings and FanDuel. The Vikings are slight favorites, which suits Cook — he averages an extra 1.35 points and is four times as likely to provide an Upside Score as a favorite. The Vikings have historically been content to ride Cook heavily when playing with a lead. Their 56% rush rate while leading was top three in the NFL last season.

Cook is also one of the league’s few remaining workhorse backs, trailing only James Robinson and Derrick Henry in his percent of team rushing yards in 2020. His three catches per game beats out Henry’s and is in line with Robinson, and Cook is playing for a better offense and has a better game script.

He makes sense on either site this week as we have him second in Median and Ceiling Projections on DraftKings and FanDuel. His receiving ability helps out on DraftKings, but his goal-line role keeps him a solid play on FanDuel, where touchdowns are comparatively more important. He owns a better Bargain Rating on FanDuel, however, clocking in at a 93 percent rating.

(Note: Bargain Rating is a proprietary Labs metric that compares how expensive a particular player is on one site relative to the other)

James Robinson ($6,400 DraftKings, $5,900 FanDuel) Jacksonville Jaguars (-3) at Houston Texans (44.5 Total)

Robinson leads all of our expert’s (except Hodge) models on FanDuel, where he has a 99% Bargain Rating. As alluded to above, Robinson led the league in his share of his team’s rushing yards last season. The Jaguars used (wasted) a first-round pick on Travis Etienne to help lighten RB1son’s load, but then Etienne promptly went down for the season.

Now with similarly sparse competition — but priced as if Etienne was playing — Robinson is taking on a Texans team that was 29th in the league in DVOA against the rush last season, and that was before losing JJ Watt.

The last (and only) time Robinson played in a game as a favorite, he dropped over 30 DraftKings points on the Dolphins. He should get to experience playing with a lead again this week, as the Texans are projected (you can check out every team’s total on the Action Network NFL teams page) to be the worst team in the league this year.

Robinson is a better play on FanDuel, where he has the best Pts/Sal in our projections.

Joe Mixon ($6,200 DraftKings, $7,200 FanDuel) Cincinnati Bengals (+3) vs. Minnesota Vikings (47.5 total)

With the exception of Hodge, Mixon is the leader in all of our Pro Models on DraftKings, thanks to his 87% Bargain Rating and his slate-leading 2.8 Pts/Sal. As one of only five backs to account for more than 70% of his team’s rushing yardage last season — while adding four targets per game, Mixon is expected to continue to carry a heavy load.

The Bengals offense should improve this season, with the addition of Ja’Marr Chase and the return/development of Joe Burrow. This will hopefully lead to more red-zone looks for Mixon, whose 1.31 chances per game was disappointing last year. (For some context, Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, and Alvin Kamara averaged over four per game.) If he can improve upon his touchdown production, he’ll be one of the league’s best backs all season.

Week 1 is a perfect example for him to do just that. The Vikings had the worst Plus/Minus allowed against the position last season. Mixon’s workload and situation this week are similar to players like Henry, Cook, and Kamara. The difference is they all cost at least $2600 more than him on DraftKings. He makes a great cash game play and could potentially provide some leverage off of Bengals passing stacks if those project to be popular. (You can find our rostership projections in our models.)

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Other Running Backs With Week-Winning Upside

Christian McCaffrey ($9,500 DraftKings, $10,400 FanDuel) Carolina Panthers (-5) vs. New York Jets (45 total)

CMC leads our Median and Ceiling Projections across both sites this week. He averaged over 30 DraftKings points per game in three games last season and has been an all-time great fantasy option since entering the league.

Taking on a Jets team that attempted to shore up their defensive line, only to lose prized free agent Carl Lawson to injury, this week is as good as any for McCaffrey. Despite a handful of injuries, the Panthers brought in little in the way of competition for touches. With Mike Davis gone, his primary backup is fourth-round rookie Chuba Hubbard. I see no reason to expect he’ll be anything less than the league’s best fantasy back, so fade at your own risk.

Alvin Kamara ($8,600 DraftKings, $,8600 FanDuel) New Orleans Saints (+4.5) vs. Green Bay Packers (50 total)

In his career, Kamara has averaged a ridiculous 7 catches, 148 yards, and 1.5 touchdowns without Michael Thomas in the lineup. Now with Thomas missing for at least the first five games of the season, the Saints have little choice but to direct their offense through Kamara.

He trails only McCaffrey and Cook in our projections but has a shot to outscore them while coming in at a relative discount. My only concern is that Jameis Winston won’t be checking down to the backfield as much as Brees did, but even then, the Saints will design plenty of looks for Kamara.

Derrick Henry ($8,800 DraftKings, $8,900 FanDuel) Tennessee Titans (-3) vs Arizona Cardinals (52 total)

Much has been made about Henry’s cold-weather splits, but he’s still averaged over 18 DraftKings points in the first two months of the season over the last two years. The big dog is fourth in our Ceiling and Median Projections on both sites but is a better play on yardage and touchdown-dependent FanDuel. I prefer to get my exposure when the Titans are favored:

(Derrick Henry splits by favorite/dog, per trends tool)

But he does hit for “upside” scores more frequently as an underdog. (Our Upside metric is a function of salary, so it’s partially explained by pricing algorithms accounting for this trend.) It’s also not crazy to think the Titans get out to a lead and lean on Henry to keep the Cardinals’ explosive attack off the field, so he’s an intriguing play.

Austin Ekeler ($7,000 DraftKings, $6,900 FanDuel) Los Angeles Chargers (pk) at Washington Football Team (44.5 total)

As long as his injury situation turns out OK, Ekeler is one of my favorite plays this week. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi joins the Chargers from New Orleans, where he helped design the offense that gave us Alvin Kamara. Ekeler could play a similar role this year while bringing a similar skill set to the table.

While Washington has one of the league’s best defensive lines, the amount of pressure they generate on Herbert could lead to more quick throws to the running backs. He provides a nice mixture of floor and ceiling with his pass-game work, especially if he adds a touchdown.

Ekeler has been missing from practice this week, however. So be sure to monitor his final injury status.

Value Running Backs

Mike Davis ($5,400 DraftKings, $6,200 FanDuel) Atlanta Falcons (-3) vs Philadelphia Eagles (48 total)

Now that “98% CMC” has a new home in Atlanta this year, where he could see a similar role as he did last year as the fill-in starter in Carolina. This is cheaper than Davis was in all but one week last season (post-McCaffrey injury.)

He showed serious receiving chops, averaging over 4.5 receptions per game as the starter. If his role is anything like what it was last season — and I doubt the Falcons signed him to do anything else — he’s an absolute steal in a game that should be fairly high-scoring. On DraftKings, he has rates second in Pts/Sal, largely thanks to his receiving floor.

Chase Edmonds ($4,600 DraftKings, $5,900 FanDuel) Arizona Cardinals (+3) at Tennessee Titans (52 total)

Edmonds is third in Pts/Sal in a game against the Titans that should be fast-paced. We expect him to share time with James Conner ($4,500 DraftKings $5,500 FanDuel), but Edmonds is the smaller back and the better receiver, which should favor him in a game between two potent offenses that’s likely to shootout. Especially on DraftKings, with full PPR scoring, this is probably one of the best situations for Edmonds all year. Edmonds has a 95% Bargain Rating on DraftKings, where he’s simply too cheap for his expected role.

Kareem Hunt ($5,500 DraftKings, $6,000 FanDuel) Cleveland Browns (+6.5) at Kansas City Chiefs (54.5)

Hunt isn’t exactly popping in our models or projections this week, but I’m big on him. He outscores Nick Chubb ($7,200 DraftKings, $7,700 FanDuel) by almost three points when Clevland is an underdog. He’s also remarkably consistent, hitting salary-based expectations 64.5% of the time. Finally, the Browns have the fourth-best run-blocking advantage this week.  He’s a much better play on DraftKings, where the full PPR scoring suits him.

Pictured above: James Robinson/Trevor Lawrence
Credit: Matthew Pearce/Getty Images