“Running back by committee” used to be a dirty phrase in the early days of fantasy football, an instant path to anxiety. We wanted bell cows and there were plenty to choose from. Get a couple on your roster, stampede over your opponents, plan a parade route.
Today’s version of the NFL is much different, of course. Usage is more splintered than ever. A base offense is three receivers. Most teams want to regularly use two running backs, and some teams go deeper than that. And of course, it’s a golden age for running quarterbacks — in part because of the resourceful and athletic QBs, in part because of the rules that are encouraging them to take yardage that’s practically free.
Monday’s doubleheader gave us an interesting window into four backfields in curious places. Let’s get a quick status check as we start to get into the teeth of our Week 7 prep.
CEH responds with Bell looming
Clyde Edwards-Helaire picked a great time for his best, and busiest, game of the year. He turned 30 touches into 169 total yards at Buffalo, and averaged 6.2 yards per rushing attempt. CEH showed decisiveness, power, the ability to hit the second level, and the ability to handle a heavy workload. He did lose the handle on one carry — courtesy of a devastating hit from a defender — but replay fairly concluded that CEH’s knee hit the turf before the ball was dislodged.
Le’Veon Bell’s arrival pushed urgency onto Edwards-Helaire’s plate. The Chiefs wouldn’t have added Bell if they didn’t envision a meaty role for him; perhaps as a pass-catching back, maybe as a goal-line option, and at minimum, as a change-of-pace guy. Yes, the Chiefs still have the tastiest offensive pie in the NFL, but one more mouth to feed complicates the fantasy equation.
Although Patrick Mahomes has been more proactive as a runner this year, there’s no reason why the Kansas City offense can’t support two backs. While a hot hand — or a fumbling streak — could always change the split, I’m figuring CEH’s solid start to the year still protects about 65-70 percent of the backfield work. Bell could cut into that if he hits the ground at full speed, and who knows — maybe we’ll see another winner in the Escaping Adam Gase lottery. But if you were a concerned CEH manager, take heart that your rookie back answered the call at the perfect time.
Mind you, Edwards-Helaire still could have a capped range — if Bell becomes the designed goal-line back. But given the volume that’s reasonable to project for CEH, he remains a higher-end RB2 at worst, with RB1 upside in the reasonable range of outcomes. A challenge of sorts was issued over the last week, and Edwards-Helaire was up to it.
Bills haven’t found their rushing legs yet
When we talk about the Bills backfield, we have to start with Josh Allen. He’s still the team’s de-facto goal-line back, and one of the athletic quarterbacks that’s taken over the league over the last few years.
If you look at the complete Allen stat line, you’re thrilled through six weeks. He’s quickly clicked with new receiver Stefon Diggs, he’s throwing touchdown passes at a much higher rate, he’s cut his sack percentage significantly. He’s the NFL’s leader in QBR, if you believe in that stat (I don’t blame you if you don’t). He’s significantly boosted his completion percentage and his yards per attempt.
On the flip side, Allen’s two worst games came in prime time against notable contenders, the Titans and Chiefs. A possible MVP sleeper in late September, the story is on weak legs now. Allen figures to bounce back nicely against the Jets in Week 7, before the first Bill Belichick exam of the year in Week 8.
Allen’s rushing effectiveness has quietly ebbed in recent weeks, and for the year he’s averaging just 23.8 rushing yards per game. This could be maturity talking, or opponents being more willing to proactively defend Allen as a scrambler. Of course, Allen still has three touchdown runs; Devin Singletary (one) is the only other Buffalo player to score by land this year.
Yards per carry can be a noisy metric, but it’s discouraging to see Singletary’s YPC drop from 5.1 to 3.8. He’s been a little more active as a receiver. He’s picked up double-digit touches in every game, and usage is a fantasy currency. Zack Moss has been slow to launch, in part because of mediocre play, in part because of injuries.
I can’t view Singletary as more than a high-end flex at the moment. Allen will always have more touchdown equity at the goal, and perhaps Moss, now healthy, will start moving in on that work. I’m also a little concerned about Buffalo’s schedule, which gets much tougher after the Jets rematch this week. Pittsburgh, Denver, and New England are in line for the playoff weeks, the money weeks.
Drake can’t pick a lane; Zeke too big to fail
I still don’t trust Kenyan Drake, but he enjoyed two bars of glorious fantasy deodorant in the win over Dallas. Drake punched in a one-yard touchdown in the first half and had a garbage-time 69-yard score against a tired, disinterested Cowboys front. Those plays still count and no Drake manager will offer them back, but it still makes me wonder how good Drake really is. He had just two targets in the passing game, both incomplete.
But the best news for Drake is that even with some stumbling in the first half, the Cardinals never backed off him. He finished the game with 20 carries, while Chase Edmonds had a modest six touches (five rushes, one catch). I’ve been proactively holding Edmonds on several of my benches and I’ve even needed to spot-start him on some deeper rosters in recent weeks. But the Cardinals aren’t showing any reluctance with Drake. They’re invested. Edmonds remains an interesting insurance back, but he’s not threatening for a bigger role, at least not per any signals the Cardinals are giving us.
But once again, we have to worry about a capped range for Drake. Kyler Murray’s passing metrics are ordinary this year, but he’s on pace to run for just under 1,000 yards and 16 touchdowns. There is no adequate defense for Murray the runner, assuming you don’t have a defense that’s willing to pile up personal fouls and NFL fines. When an athlete is this unstoppable, especially around the goal line, you’re likely to keep using him. It’s just algebra. Those running yards remain fantasy’s simplest cheat code.
If Drake’s benching odds look like a longshot, the Ezekiel Elliott benching odds are probably close to zero. Dallas gave Zeke the big check — curiously prioritizing him before Dak Prescott — and although Elliott has a league-high five fumbles, it hasn’t backed the team off his usage. Elliott’s six touchdowns have been glorious deodorant, masking the fact that he’s at the worst yards per rush and yards per catch of his career. Heck, at 4.7 yards per target, you have to wonder why the Pokes are so in love with Elliott, the receiver.
Tony Pollard received a season-high 12 touches Monday, as Elliott was briefly in time-out after two first-half fumbles. Pollard did nothing to spark a controversy (40 total yards), but even if he smashed, we have to follow the money here. Elliott is the team’s big-ticket investment, while Pollard is a talented but inexpensive understudy. I can’t imagine ever starting Pollard this year if Elliott is still in uniform.
I’ll try not to overreact to Andy Dalton’s poor start. It was his first start, of course, and Zeke’s fumbling problems torpedoed Dallas in the first half. Throw in some textbook Cowboys defense — almost everything Arizona ran in the second quarter worked — and you had a game that quickly fell out of hand. I still expect the Cowboys to have a plus offense (despite a crumbling offensive line), and a team that will score enough to be competitive most weeks — even if the defense ultimately keeps them under .500. At least that weak NFC East will keep Dallas relevant all year.