Todd Gurley almost single-handedly won his owners championship berths last week. Gurley totaled 42.00 fantasy points against the Seattle Seahawks, the most any running back has had in any game since Week 14 of 2016. The Rams are one of the best stories of the season, but they are not the only NFC team to make a dramatic turnaround in 2017. The Minnesota Vikings have clinched the NFC North and are poised to earn a first-round bye in the playoffs. Their offense has survived multiple injuries, and players have really stepped up. Case Keenum has played at an extremely high level since Sam Bradford went down with a knee injury, and running backs Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray have stepped up following the loss of rookie Dalvin Cook. Both are RB1s since Week 5. McKinnon is a dynamic receiver out of the backfield and is a major problem for opposing defenses. McKinnon had a career-high 114 receiving yards in last week’s victory against Cincinnati, and he should have another opportunity to excel this week when he faces the Green Bay Packers.
Now that we have officially reached the championship round of the fantasy playoffs, some difficult start/sit decisions become even more magnified. There are only about eight to ten running backs who should be considered no-brainer starters this week. Most other running backs are largely reliant on their matchups. Before you set those Week 16 lineups, let’s take a look at some of the factors to consider regarding some of this week’s running back matchups.
JERICK MCKINNON, MINNESOTA VIKINGS AT GREEN BAY PACKERS
Jerick McKinnon has been the overall RB8 since Dalvin Cook’s season-ending injury. His 114 receiving yards last week were not only a career-high, but they were the second-most receiving yards any running back has had in any game this season. McKinnon has done most of his damage in recent weeks via the passing game, as he has not topped 50 rushing yards in any game since Week 6. It is often difficult to count on receiving production from a running back in any given matchup, but McKinnon is a pretty good bet to make a splash play in this game. Green Bay has allowed 311 receiving yards and two receiving scores to opposing running backs in their last four games. They have allowed five different running backs to reach 35 yards receiving in those games. Duke Johnson and Christian McCaffrey, two backs with a similar skill set to McKinnon, have averaged 15.25 fantasy points against Green Bay in the last two weeks. McKinnon does not have a very safe floor, but he does have RB1 upside given the matchup. I have Jerick McKinnon inside my top-20 in Week 16.
JOE MIXON, CINCINNATI BENGALS VS. DETROIT LIONS
Joe Mixon was injured in Week 13 and has missed the last two games with a concussion. Mixon has cleared concussion protocol and will be back in action in Week 16 when the Cincinnati Bengals face the Detroit Lions. Mixon was receiving massive volume in the two games prior to his injury. He saw 48 total touches during Weeks 11 and 12 and averaged 13.70 fantasy points in those games. Mixon should once again be in line for another huge workload this week, and his matchup is a favorable one. Detroit has given up 17 total touchdowns to running backs this season, tied with Buffalo for the most in the NFL. They have also allowed 84 receptions to opposing backs, tied for sixth-most in the league. Mixon has also been more consistent than most give him credit for. If we exclude the game in which he left early due to the injury, Mixon has finished as an RB2 or better in five of his last seven games. I believe he will hit that mark once again this week. I view Joe Mixon as a high-upside RB2 in this matchup.
LAMAR MILLER, HOUSTON TEXANS VS. PITTSBURGH STEELERS
Lamar Miller is still the overall RB11 in 2017, but he has really struggled as of late. His last four weekly fantasy finishes are RB13, RB28, RB41, and RB54. Miller has a chance to get back on the right track in Week 16 when he and the Houston Texans take on the Pittsburgh Steelers on Christmas night. Pittsburgh has really struggled to contain running backs since the unfortunate loss Ryan Shazier. Miller has not proven to have a nose for the end zone during his tenure as a Texan, having tallied just eight rushing scores in 28 games. However, Pittsburgh has allowed six total touchdowns to running backs in their last two games. Before Week 14, Miller had been an RB3 or better in each game this season. Most owners will be off Miller given his recent poor play, but I expect him to break out of his mini-slump and find his scoring touch in this matchup. I believe Lamar Miller is a potential RB1 in this game.
THEO RIDDICK, DETROIT LIONS AT CINCINNATI BENGALS
Theo Riddick has emerged as the Detroit Lions’ most reliable running back. Riddick has averaged 72 total yards and one touchdown during his past three contests. Of note to Riddick owners is that his recent fantasy production has usually been in line with his matchups. This means that, for the most part, we know when we should start Riddick and when we should bench him. His Week 16 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals screams, “START.” Cincinnati has allowed the second-most fantasy points to opposing running backs this season. They have also allowed the most receiving yards to running backs in 2017 and were repeatedly victimized by Jerick McKinnon last week. Riddick has proven during his career that he is adept at catching the football. His recent uptick in carries only solidifies his standing as a very viable fantasy running back this week. I think Theo Riddick makes for a very safe Flex play this week, and he has top-20 upside in this matchup.
LEONARD FOURNETTE, JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS AT SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Two weeks ago, I suggested that Leonard Fournette’s fantasy owners bench him based on a matchup with the Seattle Seahawks. Maybe if I had seen last week’s game first… oh well. Anyway, here we are again. What’s the definition of insanity again? Fournette is the overall RB8 in 2017 and is ranked as such by the vast majority of fans and analysts heading into Week 16. I think this is a mistake. Fournette and the Jacksonville Jaguars travel to San Francisco to take on the 49ers. This may not seem like a daunting matchup, as San Francisco is a bottom-10 fantasy defense in terms of points allowed to opposing running backs over the course of the season. However, this hasn’t been the case in recent weeks. While Jimmy Garoppolo has been grabbing the headlines, San Francisco’s run defense has been a huge reason for their three-game winning streak. In fact, in the four games since San Francisco’s bye week, they have allowed the fewest fantasy points and the fewest total yards to opposing backs. They are also one of four teams who have not allowed a touchdown to a running back during that timeframe. Fournette should be relatively healthy after sitting out Week 15, but I wouldn’t automatically assume a top-10 weekly finish is imminent. I have no problem starting Leonard Fournette this week, but I would only expect Flex-level production.
CARLOS HYDE, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS VS. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
Carlos Hyde still ranks as the overall RB13 on the year, but his recent results have predictably fallen short of that mark. Hyde has finished above the weekly RB30 in just one of his last four games, topping out at RB17 in Week 14. Hyde is still receiving his usual workload on the ground, but his receiving targets have dropped off tremendously since Jimmy Garopollo took over quarterback duties. Hyde has caught just five passes in Garopollo’s three starts. In the six games prior, Hyde averaged 5.17 receptions per contest. Hyde’s rushing chops will be put to the test against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 16. The Jaguars trail only San Francisco themselves in allowing the fewest fantasy points to enemy running backs over the last month. I do think Hyde is in line to see a slight boost in targets, as San Francisco would be wise to avoid Jacksonville’s secondary in this game. However, I do not think that makes Hyde a must-start. I’m fine with starting Carlos Hyde as a Flex in Week 16, but I have him outside my top-20.
MARSHAWN LYNCH, OAKLAND RAIDERS AT PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
Marshawn Lynch has proven me wrong this season, at least to an extent. I considered him to be massively overvalued heading into the season and have zero shares of his fantasy stock anywhere. He hasn’t quite hit his preseason ADP, but he has been a very solid fantasy running back this season. He heads into Week 16 as the overall RB17 on the year. He has also gotten better as the season has gone along. Lynch is the overall RB8 since Week 9. However, I believe he is in for a downturn in Week 16. Lynch and the Oakland Raiders travel to Philadelphia to face the Eagles. Philadelphia is giving up just 50.8 rushing yards per game to opposing running backs this year. Philadelphia is a huge home favorite and has a chance to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs in this game. I think Philadelphia will come out motivated to jump on Oakland early and force them to play catchup. That is not the type of scenario that would benefit Lynch. Despite Marshawn Lynch’s strong finish to the 2017 season, I cannot consider him a starting fantasy running back this week.
SAMAJE PERINE, WASHINGTON REDSKINS AT DENVER BRONCOS
Samaje Perine burst onto the fantasy scene in Washington’s Week 11 game. He totaled 126 yards and scored his first career rushing touchdown. Chris Thompson was lost for the season in that game, which allowed Perine to become the featured back. The next week, he totaled 130 yards. Perine was a top-10 fantasy running in each of those weeks. However, things have gone south ever since. Perine has totaled just 120 rushing yards over his last three games, averaging a paltry 2.79 yards per carry during that stretch. Making matters worse, Perine came up lame in Thursday’s practice and is questionable for Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos. Even if Perine guts it out, he should not be on the fantasy radar. Denver’s Jekyll-and-Hyde run defense has once again been stout over their last two games. Denver has allowed the fewest fantasy points per game (7.40), fewest rushing yards (90), and lowest yards per carry (2.50) in the NFL during that span. Samaje Perine should be left on the bench in all formats this week.
SLEEPER OF THE WEEK:
MIKE GILLISLEE, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS VS. BUFFALO BILLS
Remember when Mike Gillislee was fantasy-relevant? Well, get ready to go back to the future! The NFL season goes by so fast, and yet when you think of Gillislee’s 22.50 fantasy point performance on Opening Night against the Kansas City Chiefs, it feels like it was years ago. Gillislee has seemingly fallen off the face of the earth since, and he has not seen game action since October. Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead have emerged as New England’s running backs of choice over the past several weeks. However, Burkhead suffered a knee injury in last week’s game and has already been ruled out for Week 16’s tilt against the Buffalo Bills. After seeing Burkhead go down last week, I’m not sure how willing Bill Belichick will be to expose Dion Lewis to an increased workload, particularly in what should be a chippy affair against Buffalo. I think Lewis will still get his normal 15 touches or so, which would leave a large chunk of the workload to Gillislee. The matchup doesn’t get any easier than a home date with Buffalo. The Bills have given up the most fantasy points in the NFL to opposing running backs. Gillislee is a former Bill himself, so there may be a little extra motivation on New England’s part to get Gillislee involved, particularly in scoring territory. I think a weekly RB2 finish is well within range for a player who hasn’t even been an RB3 since Week 5.