By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
The real football is finally upon us, and we’re all hoping for more fantasy fireworks than Thursday’s opener provided. Neither Chicago’s offensive line nor Green Bay’s did their skill positions any favors in that one!
Preseason reps together are especially important for o-lines, which depend on their ability to work in sync as a unit. The league’s more formidable front sevens may dominate in the trenches this week, and in fact, a clever game-plan could be all it takes to stymie five starters who didn’t share many game snaps in August.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at Week 1’s running-back matchups. Today I’ll focus on five whose performances may surprise (for better or for worse).
Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets ($33 in Yahoo DFS)
Le’Veon Bell is the week’s third-most expensive RB option in Yahoo DFS, but Bell finishing anywhere near the top of the leaderboard would surprise me. In Week 1 his new team hosts a Buffalo Bills defense that was top-10 in opponents’ yards per carry last year and allowed only three backs to accumulate more than 90 rushing yards against them. Not only did the Orchard Park braintrust draft a highly disruptive defensive tackle in Ed Oliver, but their linebacking corps should be better with a healthy Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds poised to make a second-year leap. And oh, by the way? Buffalo’s secondary is one of the NFL’s best.
On the other side of this matchup, the Jets’ front office has done an admirable job upgrading their offensive line at the last minute, adding center Ryan Kalil and guard Alex Lewis in August, but there is ample room for improvement with a unit that ranked dead last in Football Outsiders’ run-blocking metric, Adjusted Line Yards. Even with the new additions, no member of the 2019 group was above average at run-blocking last season. The Jets won’t be 32nd out of 32 teams this season, but they be road-graders for their RBs, either.
All things considered, Buffalo could bully their division rivals at the line of scrimmage here. It has the look of a low-scoring game that relegates a potentially rusty Le’Veon Bell to a high-volume, inefficient workload, one that falls short of RB1 production. He could see scant red-zone opportunities in a game where he needs to score to return high-end value. And it’s even possible that Ty Montgomery siphons touches from the starter, considering that Bell didn’t play at all this preseason. I anticipate a fairly inauspicious debut for the former All-Pro.
Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks ($23 in Yahoo DFS)
When Seattle was in Super Bowls, they pounded the rock with Marshawn Lynch regularly. Hoping to return to their heyday, perhaps, the 2019 edition wants to be one of the run-heaviest squads around. That might not always be possible with a defense that, recent additions notwithstanding, is nowhere near as stacked as the Legion of Boom. Week 1, though, Seattle hosts a Cincinnati team that was frequently run over in 2018 and hasn’t added any immediate difference makers to their D.
Other than Duane Brown the Seahawks’ offensive line lacks stars, but they were surprisingly effective run blockers in Mike Solari’s first year coaching the hog mollies. Seattle was 5th in Power Success (short-yardage and goal-line) percentage last season and have only improved their personnel. Guards Mike Iupati and D.J. Fluker have a reputation as bulldozers and the Seahawks love to deploy George Fant as a “tight end” (he’s really an extra tackle). Even if Ethan Pocic has to fill in for the oft-injured Iupati, he’s looked serviceable this preseason.
Which brings us to Chris Carson. Yes, Seattle drafted him in the 7th round, but last year this underdog story was sixth in yards created (yards gained independent of his blocking) and third in evaded tackles, according to PlayerProfiler.com. Football Outsiders had him 13th in DYAR or Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement. Let me boil it down: Chris Carson is GOOD, folks. And if the Bengals were to get ahead on the scoreboard, Seattle’s coaching staff has indicated that Carson will be a part of the passing game, too. Pete Carroll has gone so far as to say he has the best hands on the team! I have a feeling that in this contest, Carson will crush.
Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts ($21 in Yahoo DFS)
Like everyone in the fantasy community, I’m mourning the loss of Andrew Luck, and it will definitely hinder the Colts’ chances of scoring fantasy points. Some believe the change at quarterback helps Mack because the team will go run-heavy, but the offense is far more likely to sputter on shorter drives without the Captain in command. That means fewer touchdowns for Mack and more stacked boxes.
The good news is that Indy still has an elite offensive line, the same group that posted the fourth-best finish in Adjusted Line Yards a season ago. Some weeks the trench battle will be a mismatch in their favor, but that’s not something to count on in Week 1. The Los Angeles Chargers permitted the NFL’s 10th-fewest rushing yards in 2018 and even with Derwin James on IR, they figure to be a roadblock for offenses this year. In addition to getting other defenders back from injury, the Chargers added ageless linebacker Thomas Davis and drafted a stud defensive tackle in Jerry Tillery. The rookie is better known for his pass-rushing prowess and may need time to get up to speed at the pro level, but these Bolts are more than capable of shutting down the Luckless Colts.
While Indy also has a stout defense and LA is missing a star of their own in Melvin Gordon, Mack may cede snaps to passing-game specialist Nyheim Hines if their opponents get out to a sizeable lead. Hines is one of the fastest players in the NFL and a more natural receiver than Mack. Long story short, this could be a pedestrian opener for the Colts’ lead back.
Mark Ingram, Baltimore Ravens ($20 in Yahoo DFS)
Some are skeptical of Mark Ingram, a running back who is pushing 30 (not a good thing, historically) and facing competition from a guy who did his job ably last year (Gus Edwards) and a rookie (Justice Hill) with fresh legs and an extra gear Ingram’s never had. Is the nine-year veteran in the mold of Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore, much older backs who’ve aged like fine wine, or a guy for whom the cliff may suddenly appear this year? I don’t know if Ingram will have the longevity of AP or the Inconvenient Truth, but I put him in their phylum. Sure, there are clear signs Ingram will share the load with Gus the Bus and Justice, but he’s still a great bet to produce for fantasy gamers in Week 1.
First off, by several measures (including Adjusted Line Yards) Baltimore’s offensive line was a top 10 unit last season, and they were particularly adept at both preventing tackles in the backfield (stuffs) and getting a good push in short-yardage (e.g., goal-line) situations. There’s no reason to think the team’s quality of blocking will slide in 2019. Yes, the Ravens haven’t announced who’s starting at left guard, and we know it won’t be someone the caliber of right guard Marshal Yanda, but whoever lines up shouldn’t be a liability in Week 1 — not with this matchup!
The Miami Dolphins are bringing the NBA’s “Trust the Process” rebuild philosophy to the gridiron and have shipped out more NFL talents than they’ve added to a run defense that was bottom-10 last time we saw them. Unless Christian Wilkins is a world-beater in his first game as a pro athlete, I expect the Fish to flounder when the Ravens run the ball down their throats again and again. In this matchup, there should be plenty of yards before contact for Baltimore's backs. While the Ravens defense had its own exodus of talent, the visitors should have little trouble building a lead in this game. Expect a coming-out-party for the Ravens’ new/old running back.
Matt Breida, San Francisco 49ers ($14 in Yahoo DFS)
$14 is looking like a steal for Matt Breida in Yahoo’s daily game. I’ve extolled the virtues of the San Francisco offensive line before — they earned high grades individually and as a unit en route to finishing 2018 at No. 10 in Adjusted Line Yards. Even in a 4-12 season with few run-friendly game-scripts, the 49ers were top-12 in both yards per carry and total rushing yards. Veteran linemen Joe Staley and Mike Person could begin showing their age in the upcoming campaign, but the unit returns all five starters so their cohesiveness isn’t in question.
I don’t put great stock in unofficial depth charts — they’re generally the province of the PR department — but it’s not a bad thing that Matt Breida is listed as the starter. While it doesn’t mean Tevin Coleman spends the whole game on the sidelines, Breida only needs 10 to 15 touches to be highly productive. Even hampered by an ankle injury last season, Breida averaged 5.3 yards on 11 carries per game and rolled up 814 rushing yards. In a good matchup, we don’t have to worry about his usage.
Is Tampa Bay a good matchup? Yes, indeedy. Last year the Bucs struggled to defend their end zone, allowing the third-most rushing TDs, and overall just eight teams surrendered more yards on the ground. Newcomers Ndamukong Suh (DT) and rookie Devin White (LB) should help, but this defense is in dire need of standout run defenders.
San Francisco at Tampa Bay is one of the clear high-scoring affairs on the slate, which is a double-edged sword. If there are lots of touchdowns, Breida has a good shot at scoring one of them. Yes, as a proven passing-down back Coleman could take charge if the Bucs’ explosive passing attack stakes them to a big lead at home. Breida doesn’t have Coleman’s 2016 on his resume (421 receiving yards for Atlanta). That said, the former UDFA isn’t in the Alfred Morris/Jordan Howard category of non-factor, either. He developed his receiving chops in 2018 and tallied a respectable 27 catches for 261 yards and two receiving touchdowns. I believe this is where the Breida breakout begins.