The Week 16 NFL main slate kicks off on Sunday, Dec. 27, 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 16 fantasy football rankings (as of Wednesday morning).
- Austin Ekeler: No. 3 (PPR) | No. 4 (Half PPR) | No. 4 (STD)
- David Montgomery: No. 6 (PPR) | No. 6 (Half PPR) | No. 7 (STD)
- David Johnson: No. 7 (PPR) | No. 8 (Half PPR) | No. 10 (STD)
- Giovani Bernard: No. 22 (PPR) | No. 22 (Half PPR) | No. 21 (STD)
- Malcolm Brown: No. 35 (PPR) | No. 32 (Half PPR) | No. 33 (STD)
Of these five, the two who stand out most to me are Montgomery and Bernard. The other guys I will highlight as needed in the section on players with week-winning upside.
FantasyLabs Positional Breakdowns
For more in-depth NFL analysis, check out The Action Network.
David Montgomery: Chicago Bears (-7.5) at Jacksonville Jaguars (47 Over/Under)
For more than a year, Twitter has been a breeding ground for Montgomery mockery, intentional and otherwise …
David Montgomery…AKA “Frankenstein”…AKA the greatest RB we’ve ever seen.
— Aaron Schill (@aaron_schill) January 7, 2019
… but over the past month — since returning from a concussion — Montgomery has enjoyed massive success.
If you look on Twitter now, it’s nothing but a Montgomery lovefest.
David Montgomery over the past four weeks:
▫️11 rush, 103 yards, 5 rec, 40 yards, 1 TD
▫️17 rush, 72 yards, 2 TD, 4 rec, 39 yards
▫️ 11 rush, 103 yards, 1 TD, 3 rec, 42 yards
▫️ 32 rush, 146 yards, 2 TD, 1 rec, 16 yards
He’s the highest scoring RB in fantasy during that time.
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 21, 2020
And I don’t think his recent breakout is a fluke. In his 10 games since change-of-pace back Tarik Cohen (knee, IR) suffered a season-ending injury in Week 3, Montgomery is No. 1 at the position with a 79% snap rate.
With that kind of playing time, it would be hard for him not to put up some big performances at some point, especially with his overall usage: In his 10 Cohen-less games, Montgomery is Nos. 2 & 4 with 17.1 expected fantasy points per game and a 34% market share of team opportunities (minimum of six games, per RotoViz NFL Player Statistical Summary).
What Montgomery has done over the past month isn’t just a short-term outburst: He has been positioned for success for most of the season.
And there’s no reason to think that he won’t keep on rolling this week. Montgomery has the Mona Lisa of matchups against the Jaguars, who have been wrecked by almost every running back to face them since the second half of last year.
Prepare yourself: The list is long and daunting.
- 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
- J.K. Dobbins (Week 15): 15.1 PPR, 14.1 STD | 14-64-1 | 1-17-0, one target
Not every back to face the Jags goes off, but almost every back has an above-average performance at worst.
The Jags are essentially an auto-play matchup. Here’s a flow chart that might help.
- Is this player a running back? If no, stop. If yes, continue.
- Is the player facing the Jaguars? If no, stop. If yes, continue.
- Is the player a guy who gets snaps? If no, stop. If yes, continue.
- Is the player relatively healthy at kickoff? If no, maybe play him. If yes, definitely play him.
Follow the flow chart.
Since returning from injury, Montgomery has been a high-end fantasy RB1 each week (per RotoViz NFL Stat Explorer) …
… and now he has one of the slate’s best matchups. There’s nothing not to love about him in championship week.
Montgomery is a mid-range RB1 in season-long leagues and the No. 1 option in the Hodge and Freedman Models for FanDuel, where he leads all backs with his median, ceiling and floor projections as well as 10 Pro Trends.
Giovani Bernard: Cincinnati Bengals (+8.5) at Houston Texans (45.5 O/U)
It’s not every week that I highlight a running back who happens to be a road underdog of more than a touchdown. In fact, it almost never happens. I bet Bernard is the first such back I’ve profiled at length this year.
But he warrants attention.
First of all, he has a great matchup: The Texans are No. 31 with a 39.0 run-defense grade (per Pro Football Focus). Opposing backfields are No. 2 in the league against them with 25.4 fantasy points per game on 354-1,916-17 rushing and 69-615-1 receiving.
Second, Bernard looks to be locked in as the lead back with teammate Joe Mixon (foot, IR) seemingly nowhere near returning to action. In Week 14, Bernard disappointed with 3-8-0 rushing and 3-15-0 receiving on a paltry 24% snap rate in a 30-7 loss to the Cowboys, but last week he had his best game of the season with 25-81-1 rushing and 1-14-1 receiving on a supermajoritive 68% snap rate in a triumphant 27-17 win over the divisional rival Steelers.
Also, I doubt “supermajoritive” is a real word, but it should be.
Since Mixon entered the league in 2017, Bernard has been serviceable at worst in his 12 games without him (per RotoViz Game Splits App).
His usage splits with and without Mixon are telling.
- Without Joe Mixon (12 games): 12.1 carries | 4.7 targets
- With Joe Mixon (46 games): 3.8 carries | 3.2 targets
As bad as the Bengals offense is, and as mediocre as Bernard has been this season, it’s still hard to ignore a back with 16.8 opportunities per game.
Bernard is a low-end RB2 with upside in season-long leagues and the No. 1 back in the SportsGeek Model for DraftKings.
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.
Austin Ekeler, Chargers (-3.5) vs. Broncos (49 O/U): In his six full games with quarterback Justin Herbert, Ekeler has impressed overall, even with two mediocre performances over the past three weeks.
- Week 2 (vs. KC): 18.8 PPR, 14.8 STD | 16-93-0 | 4-55-0, four targets
- Week 3 (vs. CAR): 31.3 PPR, 20.3 STD | 12-59-1 | 11-84-0, 11 targets
- Week 12 (at BUF): 23.9 PPR, 12.9 STD | 14-44-0 | 11-85-0, 16 targets
- Week 13 (vs. NE): 10.8 PPR, 6.8 STD | 8-36-0 | 4-32-0, nine targets
- Week 14 (vs. ATL): 23.6 PPR, 14.6 STD | 15-79-0 | 9-67-0, nine targets
- Week 15 (at LV): 11.9 PPR, 7.9 STD | 13-60-0 | 4-19-0, four targets
An elite receiver, Ekeler is No. 2 among all backs with 49 air yards and yards after catch (AirYAC) per game (minimum of six games).
AirYAC is a leading indicator of fantasy production and can be found in the RotoViz NFL Player Statistical Summary.
Full disclosure: I’m betting against head coach Anthony Lynn’s Chargers, against whom road underdogs are 15-8-1 against the spread (ATS), good for a 25.2% return on investment (ROI, per our Bet Labs database).
You can bet on this game at DraftKings, and this is the exact spot in which sports speculators should be fade the Chargers. But that doesn’t diminish any enthusiasm I have for Ekeler, who has outperformed in his 15 regular-season games with double-digit carries.
Ekeler has a position-high +4.08 Projected Plus/Minus on FanDuel.
Jonathan Taylor, Colts (-2) at Steelers (44.5 O/U): The Steelers are No. 3 with a -25.8% rush-defense DVOA (per Football Outsiders), but Taylor is in peak form. Over his past four games, Taylor has seized control of the Colts backfield with 71-414-3 rushing and 13-95-1 receiving on 14 targets. In that span, Taylor is No. 5 with a 35% opportunity share.
Tony Pollard, Cowboys (+2) vs. Eagles (49.5 O/U): I don’t like how the Cowboys have handled their backfield situation with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard …
Literally did. https://t.co/z7uxoFxdYe
— John Daigle (@notJDaigle) December 23, 2020
… but at least we were able to see Pollard in all his glory last week with 12-69-2 rushing and 9-63-0 receiving on nine targets. If Elliott (calf) is inactive once again this week, Pollard will be a top-five back.
Chris Carson, Seahawks (-1.5) vs. Rams (47 O/U): In his three games since fully returning to action in Week 13, Carson is 40-204-1 rushing and 8-73-1 receiving with a backfield-high 52% snap rate and 30% opportunity share. The Rams are No. 7 with a 69.4 PFF run-defense grade, but Carson is on the positive side of his splits with 16.7 DraftKings and 14.5 FanDuel points per game as a favorite in his three years as a lead back (per our FantasyLabs Trends Tool).
J. K. Dobbins, Ravens (-11) vs. Giants (45 O/U): I’m betting against the Ravens this weekend. Road underdogs are 12-7 ATS (22.3% ROI) against the Ravens in quarterback Lamar Jackson’s starts.
But I’m still bullish on Dobbins, who is 53-258-4 rushing and 3-40-0 receiving with two 2-point conversions on a backfield-best 55% snap rate and 24% opportunity share over his past four games.
David Johnson, Texans (-8.5) vs. Bengals (45.5 O/U): Without change-of-pace back Duke Johnson (neck) siphoning opportunities, Da. Johnson was 8-27-0 rushing and 11-106-0 receiving on 11 targets as the locked-in lead back. As a home favorite, he could get extended clock-killing action this week if Du. Johnson is once again out. The Bengals are No. 24 with a 54.7 PFF run-defense grade.
Le’Veon Bell, Chiefs (-11) vs. Falcons (54 O/U): No. 1 back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ankle/hip) is out, so Bell is expected to fill in as he did last week, when he was 15-62-1 rushing and 1-14-0 receiving. It’s hard to trust Bell, but the Chiefs have a slate-high 32.25-point implied Vegas total.
Melvin Gordon, Broncos (+3.5) at Chargers (49 O/U): In his Week 8 #RevengeGame against the Chargers, Gordon had a scoreless 47 yards on 14 touches, but fate and the NFL schedule have conspired to give Gordon another opportunity for vengeance this week. In the words of Hamlet …
How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. …
My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!
In his three games since the unfortunate Week 12 “Kendall Hinton” incident, Gordon is a pseudo-dominant 39-260-2 rushing and 8-54-0 receiving.
Darrell Henderson, Rams (+1.5) at Seahawks (47 O/U): The Rams will be without No. 1 back and future superstar Cam Akers (ankle) — or should I say “Cam Anklers,” nailed it — so Henderson seems likely to lead the backfield. In his five games this season with 12-plus carries, he has done well.
Also, I just want to be sure you didn’t miss the “Cam Anklers” joke I made earlier. I mean, what do they put in this decaf coffee?
Gus Edwards, Ravens (-11) vs. Giants (45 O/U): Contrary to my hopes and dreams, Edwards is not ahead of teammate J.K. 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 produce. 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: 3.17 (2nd)
Edwards has 5.2 yards per carry on 387 career attempts, and since Dobbins’ Week 13 return from the COVID-19 reserve list, Edwards has held his own with 23-192-2 rushing and 3-40-0 receiving over the past three games. Edwards has rendered the services of benched starter Mark Ingram totally needless.
Frank Gore, Jets (+9.5) vs. Browns (47 O/U): Unbowed, unbent, unbroken, undead. Last week, Gore grueled his way — that’s right, I said “grueled his way” — to 23-59-1 rushing and 1-6-0 receiving. I’m betting against the Jets, as opponents are 22-13-1 ATS (23.8% ROI) against quarterback Sam Darnold …
… but I’m not about to write off a back who just got 24 touches without first taking the time to look at his situation carefully and mock him before he retires.
Dare Ogunbowale, Jaguars (+7.5) vs. Bears (47 O/U): No. 1 back James Robinson (ankle) is dealing with an injury and might miss Week 16. If that happens, the plodding yet pass-catching Ogunbowale might serve as the lead back against the Bears. EXCITING!
Ito Smith, Falcons (+11) at Chiefs (54 O/U): Over the past month, Smith has led the Falcons backfield with 37-167-1 rushing, 8-20-0 receiving and a 20% opportunity share. That’s one of the saddest sentences I’ve ever typed. But at least the Chiefs are Nos. 30 & 31 with a 2.6% rush-defense DVOA and 29.9% pass-defense DVOA against running backs.
Malcolm Brown, Rams (+1.5) at Seahawks (47 O/U): See, the thing is I don’t think you really appreciated my “Cam Anklers” joke.
The Editor-in-Chief of FantasyLabs, Freedman is commonly called the Oracle & the Labyrinthian.
Pictured above: David Montgomery
Photo credit: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images