To illustrate just how quickly things can change in fantasy football, one just needs to view the current running back landscape compared to a few short weeks ago. In standard scoring leagues, there are two (TWO!) Baltimore Ravens currently performing as RB1s, neither of which is Danny Woodhead. PPR flier Chris Thompson is the overall RB6 in standard scoring, and four of the top seven NFL rushing leaders are rookies, including one who is still listed fourth on his own team’s depth chart! Another NFC rookie currently ranks as an RB1 in both PPR scoring and standard scoring. That rookie, of course, is Tarik Cohen of the Chicago Bears and not Christian McCaffrey. Meanwhile, many running backs who were drafted at the very top of drafts have been huge disappointments. Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy are the only running backs drafted in the first round who are even top-20 scorers among running backs through two weeks. Then, of course, there’s Kareem Hunt. Hunt has been so dominant through two games that if you only counted his rushing stats, he’d be the overall RB2. In fact, if you only counted Hunt’s receiving stats, he’d still be the overall RB10!
Panic may be setting in for many fantasy owners who drafted running backs early. However, it’s still too early to eschew all preseason preparation and blindly follow two weeks worth of data. Even the relative strength of a matchup can be skewed by such a small sample size. For example, the Detroit Lions have given up just 88 total rushing yards and just 2.7 yards per carry so far this season. On the flip side, the Seattle Seahawks have given up a total of 222 rushing yards and 5.5 yards per carry. Are we ready to deem Detroit a tougher matchup for running backs than Seattle? Probably not. There’s simply too much variance in a sample size of two games. At least for another week or two, I want to try to be less reactionary and continue to trust the process. With that said, let’s look into the running back matchups for Week 3.
Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns at Indianapolis Colts – Thus far in 2017, Isaiah Crowell has managed just 103 scoreless yards from scrimmage. However, he’s had two daunting matchups against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. In last week’s game, Cleveland trailed by double digits from the middle of the second quarter on, rendering Crowell largely useless. Quarterback DeShone Kizer was also in and out of the lineup while dealing with a migraine. This week’s contest against Indianapolis figures to be better for Crowell. Indianapolis has started off well against running backs this season, holding opposing running backs to just 2.73 yards per carry so far this year. However, this is still largely the same defensive unit that gave up a whopping 4.76 yards per carry a season ago. I look for Crowell to exceed 20 touches in this game, particularly after his recent conversation with head coach Hue Jackson. This expected volume makes him a pretty safe RB2, and he can easily hit RB1 value this week. Crowell owners need to overlook his rough start and start him with confidence in Week 3.
Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers vs. New Orleans Saints – Christian McCaffrey has started his NFL career by delivering 129 scoreless yards in back-to-back cake matchups. Needless to say, it’s not the beginning to the season that many of us expected. However, McCaffrey needs to be played once again this week as he and the Carolina Panthers host the New Orleans Saints. The Saints have been obliterated by opposing running backs since 2016, particularly through the air. Last season’s Saints allowed 8.51 yards per target to opposing running backs, nearly a full yard higher than the next highest team (Tampa Bay, 7.70). Things haven’t gotten much better in 2017 for New Orleans, as they’re still hemorrhaging 8.41 yards per target. Last week, James White put up 85 receiving yards against the Saints. That number was better than all but ten wide receivers. As bad as McCaffrey’s numbers look so far, all it takes this early in the season is one big game for them to look more in line with those of the second or third round pick that fantasy owners expected.
Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers vs. New Orleans Saints – I promise to not have Jonathan Stewart in this space again next week. However, as I just mentioned with Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers have started out the season with two easy matchups. That trend continues again here in Week 3. Unfortunately for owners of both McCaffrey and Stewart, their easy matchups haven’t translated to much fantasy success. McCaffrey has yet to hit double figures in fantasy points and Stewart had a disappointing Week 2. But both running backs should hit value in Week 3. On top of the Saints’ woes in trying to corral running backs in the receiving game, they’ve also allowed 19 rushing touchdowns dating back to 2016. Only San Francisco has allowed more rushing touchdowns during that span. Stewart has also scored at least one rushing touchdown in his last three games versus New Orleans. Stewart should get 15-20 touches and has a high likelihood of scoring a touchdown in this game. I have no issue with firing up both Panthers running backs up in Week 3.
Frank Gore, Indianapolis Colts vs. Cleveland Browns – Those who have read any of my preseason running back columns know how much I dislike Frank Gore’s fantasy prospects this season. But this is a matchups column. And a matchup against the Cleveland Browns is a good one for almost any starting NFL running back. The Browns have given up 19 rushing touchdowns since 2016, tied with New Orleans for second-worst in the NFL over that span. Gore has produced only 98 total yards on 25 touches through two games. However, he still has received exactly half of the touches among Colts running backs. This volume makes for a relatively safe floor in this matchup. Gore may very likely find himself in line for a touchdown in this game. If you own Frank Gore, I have very specific advice for you:
1. Start Frank Gore this week.
2. Hope he falls into the end zone on a short touchdown plunge, helping you to a Week 3 victory.
3. Immediately sell to the biggest fool in your league.
Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Baltimore Ravens (in London) – Leonard Fournette checks in as the overall fantasy RB8 after the first two weeks of the 2017 season. Thus far he has averaged 20 carries, 70 rushing yards, and one touchdown per game. This week he and the Jacksonville Jaguars cross the Atlantic to face the Baltimore Ravens. Fournette will likely be in for a monster workload, particularly early on, as the Jaguars will try to avoid too much exposure to Blake Bortles against a Ravens’ defense that has allowed just 10 total points while forcing a whopping ten turnovers. If you have Fournette, you’re probably going to have to play him on expected volume alone. But expectations should be tempered. The Ravens will undoubtedly stack the box against the Jaguars, daring Fournette and company to beat eight and maybe even nine-man boxes. If the Jaguars fall behind quickly and Fournette fails to score a short touchdown in this game, he will likely wind up in low Flex territory.
[the_ad_group id=”2221″]Lamar Miller, Houston Texans at New England Patriots – So far this season, Lamar Miller has managed 183 total yards on 40 touches. He now takes on the New England Patriots, who have allowed the most fantasy points to opposing running backs. So why do I consider this an unfavorable matchup? Two words – sample size. Or two more words – Kareem Hunt. Either way, this matchup is not as easy as early-season results would indicate. Last season, New England allowed just 3.61 yards per carry, third-best in the NFL. They also permitted just four rushing touchdowns, best in the league. I put far more stock in those numbers than one bad game against what looks to be a dynamic running back in this season’s opener. While New England allowed 4.76 yards per carry last week, that is largely skewed as well. The Patriots allowed just 3.31 yards per rush until Mark Ingram’s 28 yard run on the game’s final play. Miller has pretty bankable volume, but the upside just isn’t there in a game the Texans figure to be playing from behind in throughout. I see Miller as little more than a potential Flex option in Week 3.
Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks at Tennessee Titans – I really hope I’m wrong about this. I love what I’ve seen so far from Chris Carson, and it’s always nice to see a someone emerge from relative obscurity into a relevant role in both real life and fantasy. But Carson will have a tall order this week in trying to run against the Tennessee Titans defense. The Titans allowed just 3.81 yards per carry last season, good for sixth-best in the NFL. That number has improved to 3.66 this season, primarily against Marshawn Lynch and Leonard Fournette. Carson may struggle to find running room this week. There’s also still the looming threat of Thomas Rawls. Head Coach Pete Carroll said that Rawls’ limited workload was intended to slowly integrate him back into the offense. That may simply be coach speak, but it makes Carson a less trustworthy option this week. I’d prefer to wait and see how Seattle utilizes their running backs this week rather than play Chris Carson.
Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans vs. Seattle Seahawks – Following DeMarco Murray’s early exit due to a hamstring injury in Week 2, Derrick Henry was given the bulk of the work in the second half of Tennessee’s victory. Henry responded with 92 yards and a touchdown on just 14 carries. This is precisely the kind of upside Henry has displayed in small doses, and it is why he’s such a valued fantasy commodity. However, if Murray suits up on Sunday, Henry’s upside is severely capped. On top of that, the matchup is not ideal. Seattle has allowed 5.5 yards per carry thus far, but that number drops down to 4.13 if you take away Carlos Hyde’s 61-yard run last week. This is just another example of why early-season numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt. Seattle allowed just 3.38 yards per carry last season. That is a far more reliable sample of what we can expect from Seattle’s defense. In a difficult matchup with his workload still in doubt, it’s tough to rely on Henry as a fantasy starter in this week’s game.
Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers – Mark Ingram leads the New Orleans Saints backfield with 69 rushing yards and 78 receiving yards through two games. Ingram’s totals to this point might fool people into believing he has a safe floor and is a viable RB2/Flex option this week. Don’t buy it. As I mentioned earlier, 28 of those 69 rushing yards came on a game-ending play in which New England’s second-string defenders barely participated. In addition, 50 of Ingram’s 78 receiving yards have come on two garbage-time drives at the end of games against prevent defenses. Over half of Ingram’s year-to-date yardage has been gained during meaningless snaps against prevent defenses. The Saints backfield is quite simply a mess. Adrian Peterson looks like a square peg in a round hole, and none of the Saints’ running backs have been able to establish any sort of rhythm. They now head out of the comfort of the Superdome to take on a Carolina Panthers squad that has allowed a grand total of 70 rushing yards on 2.41 yards per carry to opposing running backs through two weeks. I want no part of Mark Ingram in this matchup. In fact, I don’t want any part of him until at least Week 6.
SLEEPER OF THE WEEK:
Theo Riddick, Detroit Lions vs. Atlanta Falcons – Theo Riddick tallied only 37 total yards in Detroit’s Monday night win against the New York Giants. Ameer Abdullah is clearly the running back Detroit prefers to use on early downs and in their four-minute offense. Riddick, on the other hand, is most useful in games in which Detroit figures to be playing from behind and at a higher tempo. Enter the Atlanta Falcons. This week’s game has the second-highest Vegas total and features Detroit as a slight underdog. This is exactly the type of game to use Riddick in. The matchup itself is also great. The Falcons allowed the most receiving yards to opposing running backs in 2016, and haven’t started out 2017 much better. Atlanta has already allowed three running backs to exceed 10 fantasy points so far this season. In fact, two of them (Tarik Cohen and Ty Montgomery) have hit double figures on just their receiving output alone. This is the area of the game that Riddick thrives in, and I’m expecting him to score at least 10 fantasy points in this game as well. I predict Riddick will have at least five catches and a receiving touchdown, putting him squarely on the RB2 radar this week.