Tuesday, 26 September 2017 00:00

Opportunity: The most optimal running backs for Week 4

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Opportunity: The most optimal running backs for Week 4 Keith Allison/Flickr

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Editor's note: This season-long series looks to find the best opportunity to score fantasy points at the running back position. It factors targets, goal line and red zone carries, and rushing attempts. This volume probability is predicated on game script, snap counts, and overall talent of the individual player.

This is Week 4 of this list. You can expect more data as the season goes along and trends emerge. Also, be sure to check out our weekly rankings for complete rankings at every position for Week 4.


Week 3 was weird. Several surefire players ended up tanking, including Jay Ajayi and Marshawn Lynch. But while the NFL may seem unpredictable right now, keep in mind these are the often the times when things swing back to reality.

For example, Ajayi is still going to get a ton of volume and be a menace going forward. Marshawn Lynch might lack a high ceiling but he's just being preserved so Oakland can use him when they need to cement a playoff spot down the stretch. LeSean McCoy should still be fired up this week, as he plays the running-back-friendly New Orleans Saints in Week 4.

Overall, we're all tested when it comes to questioning our previously held fantasy football beliefs as the new season wears on. All the data we've accumulated in the offseason starts to become useless by about Week 4-5. So prepare to have your previous notions eradicated. But for now, hang on to them for at least another week or so.

Here's a look at every fantasy relevant running back for Week 4.

New Orleans at Miami

Total points expected: 50

Game script: Pass heavy if New Orleans gets out to early lead.

New Orleans RB's: It's looking more and like Mark Ingram is the back to own in this offense and Alvin Kamara is the PPR guy. Adrian Peterson continues to make a minimal impact with just 8 fantasy points through 3 games, with Ingram and Kamara scoring 23 and 19, respectively. The biggest surprise is that Ingram and Peterson's carry totals are similar, but Peterson hasn't made the most of his touches with just 3.3 yards per carry.

Miami is an above average run defense, allowing just 19.3 fantasy points per game. Still, Melvin Gordon caught seven passes against them and the Ingram/Kamara combo has been good for about ten targets between the two. They're both solid starts this week with the high over/under.

Miami RB's: Per Rich Hribar on Rotoworld, the Saints are one of two teams (Seattle) to allow a Top-12 scoring running back in each week of the season so far. This means Jay Ajayi should be in play as a rebound candidate after he struggled against The New York Jets in Week 3.

There are elements of Ajayi's dud performance you just can't predict — sometimes one team shows up and the other doesn't. However, his lack of volume in the second half can be blamed on the game script. Not all coaches opt to go pass-heavy when their team is down, but Adam Gase does. Overall, the Dolphins threw the ball over 70 percent of the time and New York dominated the time of possession 36:23.

Ajayi should see better volume against New Orleans in Week 4 given the Saints rank worst against running backs, allowing 33 points per game.

Jacksonville at New York Jets

Total points expected: 39.5 (Jacksonville favored by 4)

Jacksonville RB's: Leonard Fournette has scored a touchdown in each game so far this season and ranks sixth in standard scoring. The gamescript was funky last week with Baltimore's stellar defense coming out flat in London, so don't worry much about Tommy Bahanon and Corey Grant taking snaps away or anything. Fournette is also averaging four targets per game. Game script should favor Fournette seeing heavy volume as long as the Jets don't get completely blown out. The Jets turned Jay Ajayi into Jay Acai berries last week, but they were dominated by LeSean McCoy and the Oakland's committee backfield in the first two weeks. Fournette is still a solid play this week.

New York Jets RB's: People love Bilal Powell this week but I'm in the minority. Josh McCown hasn't thrown past 250 yards in a game this season which limits receiving upside in the backfield. Powell is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry. Jacksonville is a dominant run defense, allowing just 16 points per game against running backs this season. Elijah McGuire has seen increased snaps each week as well, and is expected to be 'involved' this week.

Cincinnati at Cleveland

Total points expected: 40 (Cincinnati favored by 3)

Cincinnati RB's: The Bengals appear ready to feature Mixon as their true lead back going forward. After seeing just 16 snaps a week ago, Mixon saw 34 against Green Bay. He finished with a season-high 18 carries for 62 yards to along with three catches for 39 yards on three targets. Cleveland is an average run defense, but will have No. 1 pick Myles Garrett in the lineup for the first time. Still, we don't know how much they'll use Garrett and even if he'll be effective in his first game. The Bengals offensive line is struggling already, averaging just .71 yards before contact to running backs per Pro Football Focus. Despite that, Mixon should get enough volume to at least have a shot at decent numbers.

Cleveland RB's: Vontaze Burfict has been activated for Week 4 and should help in an already decent run defense. Duke Johnson is starting to see a bigger role in the Cleveland backfield. His target numbers have increased each week. He also has two more total snaps than Isaiah Crowell, a back who's yet to score a touchdown or run for more than 45 yards in a game. Johnson ranks third in reception yards with 160 and is fourth in snaps per route with Le'Veon Bell. He's recorded at least 50 receiving yards in his last two games and could be a great darkhorse play if Cleveland starts giving him more volume in the run game. He's also a great PPR option each week as always.

Pittsburgh at Baltimore

Total points expected: 45 (Pittsburgh favored by 1)

Pittsburgh RB's: Le'Veon Bell is still the clear starter. Bell hasn't created yardage by himself like he has in the past, as he just ranks 23rd in elusive rating among running backs according to Pro Football Focus. He continues to be effective none the less, ranking 15th in standard scoring among running backs even though he hasn't really had a dominant performance. Baltimore handled the Bengals and Browns running backs during their first two games, but will be without one of their best run stoppers in Brandon Williams. This could be a breakout game for bell, as his target totals have been steady each game (6,4,7) and so have his reception totals (3, 4, 6). He might finally pop in Week 4.

Baltimore RB's: Javorius Allen has been the top snap guy as of late. He also has 10 catches in his last two games. The gamescript could favor a pass-friendly day as the Steelers rank 11th in passing plays per game which will increase Allen's opportunity. The Steelers are also giving up 27 points to running backs per game, sixth worst in the league. Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen put up big numbers in Week 3 and Allen could have a favorable gamescript if Pittsburgh gets out to an early lead.

Carolina at New England

Total points expected: 47.5 (New England favored by 9.5)

Game script: High-scoring. Pass heavy.

Carolina RB's: Jonathan Stewart remains the feature back in the offense, but his rush attempts have dwindled from 18 to 12 from Weeks 1 to 3. New England is coming in averaging 33 points per game, second most behind the Los Angeles Rams. It's hard to see Stewart seeing significant volume in this game. Christian McCaffrey has become Cam Newton's favorite check down guy, as he leads all Panthers in targets with 23. New England has also been soft against quarterbacks so far, so this could be a good game to start Newton and McCaffrey as a stack in DFS and avoid Stewart.

New England RB's: Mike Gillislee remains the best volume back, averaging 15 attempts per game but has been out-snapped by James White in every contest but Week 2 where they each had 30. It's looking like Gillislee's fantasy value will be touchdown dependent at times, but that's no problem since the Patriots are scoring so much. The Panthers are above average across the board in terms of fantasy points allowed per game, and have been especially good against tight ends and quarterbacks. Still, they've given up 22 catches to running backs over three games. Gillislee and White are startable, but gameflow will likely hurt one of them.

Los Angeles Rams at Dallas

Total points expected: 45.5 (Dallas favored by 9.5)

Los Angeles Rams RB's: Not a single back took a snap other than Todd Gurley last week and for good reason. Gurley is now the second highest scoring fantasy back through 3 weeks, trailing only Kareem Hunt. The Rams offense has also been potent, scoring 40+ in two of three games. What a difference Sean McVay has made already. The Cowboys haven't played a running back of Gurley's caliber yet this season aside from maybe C.J. Anderson of the Broncos in Week 2. Anderson finished that game with over 100 yards rushing and two total touchdowns.

Dallas RB's: Ezekiel Elliott and the running game rebounded after getting throttled by Denver in Week 2. Elliott is one of the best volume backs in the league, ranking fourth in carries with 55. With just one rushing touchdown so far, you have to worry about Dak Prescott's read-option taking away scoring opportunities as teams key in on Elliott. Still, this is another great matchup for Elliott as the Rams are giving up 29 fantasy points per game to running backs, fourth worst in the league. Elliott continues to see a receiving role as well, averaging four catches per game.

Detroit at Minnesota

Detroit RB's: Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick are seeing an equal amount of snaps from week to week but Abdullah has a sizeable advantage in the touches category. Still, Riddick has out-targeted Abdullah 19-7 through three games. It's frustrating because Abdullah could easily be the receiving and rushing back, but Detroit continues to use Riddick. Minnesota is the best team against opposing running backs so far this season, allowing just 13.2 points per game.

Minnesota RB's: Dalvin Cook's volume so far is surprising considering the Vikings spent money on Latavius Murray in the offseason and Jerrick McKinnon was supposedly the passing down back. Cook ranks second in the league in carries with 61, trailing only Gurley. While McKinnon is still getting targets, last week he saw his fewest of the season (2) and Cook saw five. There's a chance Cook could be used more in the passing game going forward. Detroit is also not a great rushing defense, allowing 25.7 fantasy points to running backs per game.

Tennessee at Houston

Total points expected: 44 (Tennessee favored by 1)

Tennessee RB's: Don't be fooled by DeMarco Murray's 100-plus yard stat line, Derrick Henry is still a valuable piece in this offense. Murray ended up with 14 carries for 115 yards but Henry also saw 13 touches of his own. This is a tough matchup for both running backs, as Houston is giving up 16.7 points per game to running backs, which is 23rd worst.

Houston RB's: Lamar Miller is still the every-down back but D'Onta Foreman is slowly entering the picture. Foreman's three targets led all running backs last week, and turned two of them into 65 receiving yards. Foreman is worth monitoring going forward, but he's still a risky start as of now since the volume isn't quite there. Unless you see coaches clamoring to get him more involved, avoid him in this matchup.

Buffalo at Atlanta

Total points expected: 49 (Atlanta favored by 9.5)

Game script: High-scoring. Atlanta ranks fifth in touchdowns per game, meaning Buffalo might have to play catch up. This game will really come down to how well Buffalo's defense plays. Atlanta has had their way on offense with every defense so far, but they haven't played a group as good as Buffalo yet. 

Buffalo RB's: Buffalo is a run heavy team, rushing 32 times per game on average, which ranks fourth in the league. LeSean McCoy slogged through tough matchups with Denver and Carolina, scoring just 11 fantasy points in that time. He gets a dream matchup this week against Atlanta, a team that's given up 30.6 points to running backs, third worst in the league. While McCoy is the back to start this week, Mike Tolbert is also seeing decent volume as well. Tolbert has seen 10+ carries in two of three games and is known to snag a goal line touchdown from time to time. He's a risky play in DFS tournaments, but not a bad option considering how good the matchup is. If he gets a touchdown and 40 rushing yards (a feat he accomplished last week), he'll 3x his draft value.

Atlanta RB's: Devonta Freeman continues to see plenty of carries and has at least one rushing touchdown in each game. People really want to be contrarian and take Tevin Coleman for a better value, and this might be the matchup to do it. Buffalo is giving up just just 15.7 points to running backs, good for 31st in the league. Buffalo has the speed on defense to keep Freeman in check on a consistent basis, making it likely Coleman might have to break the game open with a big run. If you think Buffalo will dominant this game on defense and Atlanta opts for a change of pace, then go with Coleman. Coleman also leads all running backs in targets with 13.

New York Giants at Tampa Bay

Total points expected: 44 (Tampa Bay favored by 4.5)

Game script: Mid-level scoring. Favors Tampa Bay defense.

New York RB's: Shane Vereen is an intriguing option this week, mainly because Tampa has struggled against pass-catching running backs. They surrendered eight catches to Tarik Cohen and five catches to Dalvin Cook. Plus, this is a desperation game for New York being 0-3, they'll be playing hard.
Overall, the running game continues to be the Achilles Heel of New York's offense. Rookie Wayne Gallman has yet to suit up for a game, but it may be time to at least give him a shot. Paul Perkins has been anemic with just 8 fantasy points through three games and hasn't even played a stout run defense yet. Orleans Darkwa has been slightly more efficient with 7 carries for 22 yards last week but the Giants are just trying to make something work by giving him more snaps. The only thing you can hope for is a few goal line touchdowns at this point. Shane Vereen remains

Tampa Bay RB's: Jacquizz Rodgers gets his last go-around before Doug Martin returns from suspension. He and Charles Sims split snaps last week, and neither made a huge fantasy impact against a tough group in Minnesota. The Giants are better against the pass than the run at this point, but starting Rodgers is a risk considering he lacks a role in the pass game (zero targets through two games).

Philadelphia at Los Angeles Chargers

Total points expected: 46.5

Philadelphia RB's: LeGarrette Blount ran with purpose for the first time all season and finished as an RB14 with 13 fantasy points. He's dealt a tough matchup against San Diego, a team that ranks near the Top 5 in fantasy points allowed for running backs. The opportunity is still there though, as Philadelphia is tied for first in plays run per game with 69. Wendall Smallwood is an intriguing option as well this week. Taking over for Darren Sproles, Smallwood saw 43 snaps last week and should inherit anywhere between 4-8 targets and 5-10 carries.

Los Angeles Chargers RB's: Melvin Gordon and Branden Oliver both saw 33 snaps last week. Gordon is dealing with a bone bruise but all reports indicate he will play against Philadelphia. He's still the clear-cut No. 1 back, but Oliver saw six targets last week and turned them into four receptions for 18 yards. It's not out of the question could see a similar workload in Week 4. Plus, with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox battling a calf injury, we could see an easier matchup for Gordon and Oliver.

San Francisco at Arizona

Total points expected: 45.5 (Arizona favored by 7.5)

Game script: Run-heavy, defensive game.

San Francisco RB's: Carlos Hyde is one of the top fantasy running backs in the NFL right now. He's a bit banged up with a hip injury and is 50/50 to play on Sunday, but he's still very valuable if he does suit up. Matt Breida would be the next guy up, and has only carried the ball 11 times through three games. At 5'11, 190 lbs, the rookie Breida was a standout runner at Georgia Southern but a poor 2016 season hurt his draft stock. Still, he could be an impact player given his straight-line speed (4.3 40-yard dash) and he's one of the more interesting backup running backs in the league overall. He's made a small dent in the passing game, ranking second among San Francisco RB's in targets with 6. Arizona has given up a rushing touchdown to RB1's in each of the last two games. Keep an eye on Hyde's status heading into Sunday.

Arizona RB's: The news that guard Mike Iupati would play Sunday were dashed late Friday as four-time Pro Bowler was sent to injured reserve, likely ending his season. The matchup is still decent for Chris Johnson though, as the 49ers are surrendering 27 points per game to running backs so far. Johnson's ceiling is curbed by Andre Ellington's role in the receiving game, as Ellington saw eight targets to Johnson's two. Ellington's receiving role was heavily influenced by gamescript against Dallas and although the 49ers are still a bad team overall, their offense put up 39 points a week ago. It's tough to start either of these backs this week.

Oakland at Denver

Total points expected: 47

Oakland RB's: Oakland's running backs managed a measly 22 yards rushing last week against Washington. Their matchup doesn't get much easier as they play a Denver team giving up just 16 points to running backs. They have nowhere to go but up though, and Marshawn Lynch should continue to see the most volume with Jalen Richard also mixed in. DeAndre Washington saw a season-high six targets last week due to gamescript, and it's tough to trust him or any other Oakland back in this matchup.

Denver RB's: C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles are now the one-two punch in this offense. Charles outscored Anderson for the first time last week with 12 fantasy points and finished as an RB15. Anderson still out-snapped Charles 49-21, but the veteran back isn't going away anytime soon as he continues to make the most of his carries. Oakland is middle of the road against the run, making this a bland matchup with modest potential for both Bronco running backs.

Indianapolis at Seattle

Total points expected: 41 (Seattle favored by 13.5)

Game script: Low scoring. Favors Seattle defense

Indianapolis RB's: Seattle isn't the dominant run-stopping defense it once was. They've allowed at least a 100 yards or a touchdown to RB1's in the first three weeks of the season. With Marlon Mack out this week, Frank Gore has some dark horse potential coming off a 57-yard performance with a touchdown last week against Cleveland. Only issue is it took Gore 25 carries to do it, and he'll need that kind of volume again if he's expected to turn in a similar performance. Overall, Gore is a better option for cash DFS tournaments or deep redraft leagues due to a low ceiling.

Seattle RB's: Chris Carson is now the feature back in Seattle and C.J. Prosise the pass catcher. Prosise is doubtful this week, making Carson an interesting RB2 with upside. If Carson was going to go over 100 yards this season, this would be the matchup to do it.

Washington at Kansas City (Monday night)

Total points expected: 49 (Kansas City favored by 9)

Washington RB's: Chris Thompson's six-catch, 150-yard performance last week was sensational, but Kansas City will be his toughest task yet if he's expecting to continue his crazy efficiency numbers. Robert Kelley has been practicing this week and could assume the inside runner role due to rookie Samaje Perine's struggles. Overall, Thompson is the only fantasy relevant back in this offense as of now, and his efficiency numbers are bound to fall off at some point. Kansas City is surrendering 23 points per game to running backs this season.

Kansas City RB's: Kareem Hunt is the best running back in fantasy by a wide margin, and gets a Washington defense that's surrendered 18 receptions to running backs over three games. Although Washington showed up against Oakland last week, Kansas City's offensive line is on another level and Hunt is locked in as an RB1 once again.


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Last modified on Wednesday, 04 October 2017 01:03
George Banko

George Banko started talking about fantasy football shortly after graduating college. He started as an intern at FFChamps.com before working as a staff writer for Fantasy Knuckleheads. He currently contributes to the Fantasy Hot Read podcast, which is available on itunes. He also educated himself on player evaluation and is a graduate of The Scouting Academy in 2015, which is an online course run by former NFL Scout Dan Hatman. He started Fantasy Football Helpers as a blog in 2011 and converted it to a full-scale website in 2014. Read more.

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