By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
Part of what makes fantasy football so fun is how it keeps us on our toes. As the NFL season enters its third month, it’s tempting to say we know exactly who teams are and how they’ll perform most weeks. But then we’re reminded how fast things can change, at least in any given game. For instance, entering Thursday Night Football many thought that Tevin Coleman had decisively pulled ahead of Matt Breida in the San Francisco backfield, and Jimmy Garoppolo was a low-ceiling fantasy option. Those assumptions were challenged, if not refuted completely. The rest of Week 9’s action is sure to have its share of surprises!
Let’s take a look at running back pricing in Yahoo’s Daily Fantasy slate and see what shrewd players might do to maximize their budget. As usual, I’ve chosen four values to highlight and one player who seems overpriced.
Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets ($26 in Yahoo DFS)
I feel like I tout Aaron Jones ($29) and slam the Chargers’ run defense every other week, so just know he belongs in your Yahoo daily fantasy lineup. Le’Veon Bell is a less obvious choice at $26, given his recent struggles, but there is a fine case to be made for him this week.
Bell has seen his touches dwindle since Sam Darnold kicked the mono, and the Jets’ offense was subsequently throttled by the Patriots and Jaguars in successive weeks. However, the Miami Dolphins present a very different form of opposition. Despite a spirited first half against Pittsburgh last Monday night, this defense remains near the bottom of the league in most metrics. On the season Miami is dead last in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), which is Football Outsiders’ proprietary measure of defensive efficiency. This is the third-most generous defense in terms of fantasy points allowed to running backs, and five opposing RBs have topped the century mark in rushing. You get the point — it’s an easy matchup for anyone.
An easy matchup is necessary for the Jets’ largely ineffectual offensive line. A thin depth chart has been beset by injuries and the only silver lining is that if center Ryan Kalil misses this game, backup Jonotthan Harrison has looked like the team’s best run-blocker. It’s been bad in the Big Apple. Only Cincinnati sits below New York in Adjusted Line Yards, the run-blocking formula created by Football Outsiders, and Bell is being afforded a meager 1.2 yards before contact.
Fortunately, the Fish field an offensive line that hasn’t been much better, and they’ll face a Jets’ front that is second only to Tampa Bay in DVOA. Miami could get manhandled here, creating a positive game script for the Jets’ running game. It’s not terribly likely that Darnold is forced to air it out again and again to keep up with the Dolphins offense. New York receiving the ball in scoring position after Ryan Fitzpatrick turnovers is a more plausible scenario.
It doesn’t hurt that Bell sounded off about his small workload of late. The NFL has a long history of squeaky wheels getting greased, with the Vikings’ receivers springing immediately to mind. $26 isn’t cheap, but this is the definition of a smash spot for an angry Le’Veon Bell.
Josh Jacobs, Oakland Raiders ($24 in Yahoo DFS)
At $24 Josh Jacobs comes at a substantial discount to the top backs and is only $1 to $5 more than the whole next tier of options. For a great talent whose team is a home favorite and doesn’t use other running backs extensively, the value proposition is promising.
And yes, Jacobs is a great talent. There was reason for skepticism with a player who had less than 300 touches in three years at Alabama, but Oakland’s first-round pick has risen to that challenge by averaging nearly 20 touches per game at the pro level. Jacobs outpaced Raider legend Bo Jackson’s production through their first seven career games, averaged more than 104 rushing yards per game in October, and was named AFC Offensive Rookie of the Month. His quickness, fantastic footwork and aggressive style make him hard to bring down — Jacobs is eighth in PlayerProfiler.com’s Evaded Tackles and Juke Rate metrics. For a guy who lacks elite long speed, being seventh in rushes of 15 or more yards is impressive, too.
In the preseason I misjudged my favorite team’s offensive line, ranking the Raiders 25th in run-blocking potential. My concerns were turnover (2–3 new starters), Kolton Miller’s rocky rookie season and OL coach Tom Cable’s capacity to address the first two concerns. Well, Cable can be proud of Miller’s rapid development and the way this unit has gelled. The Raiders are fourth (!) in Adjusted Line Yards.
However, center Rodney Hudson hurt his ankle in Houston last week and is going to miss some time. It’s hard to measure the step down from Hudson, one of the NFL’s best centers, to undrafted rookie Andre James, but the youngster didn’t impress in 19 run-blocking snaps. (He did handle himself well in pass protection.) Jacobs clearly had a harder time of it with Hudson out of the game. What’s more, James is suddenly nursing his own ankle injury, so the team may have crafty veteran Richie Incognito hold down the pivot while a backup takes his place at guard. Fortunately, Denzelle Good and David Sharpe are solid replacements there.
With Detroit coming to town in Week 9, the trench matchup should favor Oakland – at least on paper. From a fantasy perspective only the Bengals have been more generous with running backs. Detroit’s defensive line is 27th in Adjusted Line Yards and 28th in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Only two teams stuff RBs at or behind the line of scrimmage less frequently than the Lions. While Damon “Snacks” Harrison is renowned for his run-stuffing, he’s not played to his high standards this season.
Not all of the news is good. Da’Shawn Hand looked ferocious in his return last week and could give whoever plays center for Oakland all he can handle. Another concern could be Jacobs’ shoulder injury, as it may have reduced his role slightly last week, but it doesn’t seem to be hindering him much on the field. All things considered, I still say we give the kid a go!
Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts ($24 in Yahoo DFS)
Marlon Mack is a player I’m much less confident about this week. I admit, the Colts’ workhorse has been the hardest player to predict for me this season, as he usually does the exact opposite of what I expect, but if you look at Mack’s game log you’ll see he’s alternated good games and bad ones every other week! Well, he had 76 yards and a touchdown against Denver in his last outing. $24 is too much to pay for Mack in a difficult matchup against Pittsburgh.
After Seattle and San Francisco ran the ball effectively in Weeks 2 and 3 the Steelers have been one of the least-forgiving run defenses in football. Opposing running backs are averaging the league’s fifth-lowest yards per carry. Two weeks ago Pittsburgh lost a difference-maker when Stephon Tuitt went on IR, but the defense has responded well to this adversity. Tyson Alualu has stepped up and Cameron Heyward is having a career year. Over the last month, the Steelers have shut down the Dolphins, Chargers, Ravens (except for Lamar Jackson) and Bengals. Long story short, the big boys up front present a problem for offensive lines.
Fortunately for the Colts, they have one of the most talented blocking walls in football. Quenton Nelson is vying to become the best run-blocker at his position. However, Indy is just 20th in Adjusted Line Yards and surprisingly average when blocking on interior runs. There are 20 RBs averaging more yards before contact than Marlon (including three 49ers, BTW), which says the o-line isn’t opening holes you could drive a Mack truck through. By no means is this unit a liability, but collectively their run-blocking is hardly pulverizing the competition. Indy is middle of the pack in most rushing metrics.
On Monday night the defensively impaired Dolphins gave Mason Rudolph some trouble, early on, and the Colts’ defense is considerably better than Miami’s. It’s possible this becomes a Mack-friendly game script, and with his consistently large workloads, he’s due for some positive regression in the touchdown column. But with Mack having trouble finding the end zone this year (three TDs) and Pittsburgh doing a good job keeping RBs out of theirs (four TDs allowed), it isn’t an ideal spot for the former South Florida Bull to break out of his scoring slump. T.Y. Hilton (calf) missing the game won’t benefit the offense, either. I’m staying away.
Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos ($16 in Yahoo DFS)
I like Royce Freeman this week. At $21 Phillip Lindsay, the more explosive Broncos back, is a solid contrarian play but not a screaming DFS value by any means. For $5 less Freeman is the better bet. The main concern with both these guys is their nearly even snap split. Freeman has one more target, but Lindsay has 109 carries to Freeman’s 88. The last two weeks, however, Freeman has scored the touchdowns and since Week 4 he’s doubled-up Lindsay in red-zone touches, 12 to 6.
The Broncos’ offensive line won’t be a hindrance to their ball-carriers. This unit is currently seventh in Adjusted Line Yards and Lindsay is 12th in yards before contact, a credit to his blocking (Freeman is 10 spots behind). Both backs are averaging more than four yards per carry. Despite a highly erratic passing game Denver is 16th in rushing yards per game and 15th in yards per carry. These are positive indicators, but what isn’t is a rookie being your best run-blocker, and Kansas State product Dalton Risner has only been decent in that regard. It looked like this depth-challenged group was about to benefit from the return of prized free-agent acquisition Ja’Wuan James, but he only lasted 22 snaps against Indy last week and is highly questionable for Sunday.
On the plus side, Denver’s Week 9 opponent is a Cleveland team whose defensive shortcomings I’ve mentioned here before. The Browns are allowing a whopping 143 rushing yards per game, the fourth-worst average in the NFL, and in October this defense was bottom five in fantasy points allowed to RBs. It’s the kind of matchup fantasy gamers seek to exploit.
With Brandon Allen taking over for Joe Flacco, I expect the Broncos to lean hard on their running game this week — and have success doing it. The fleet-footed Lindsay should break at least one big play, but his production is imperiled by Freeman’s equal involvement and threat as a touchdown vulture. If you just play “Rolls Royce” for $16 he doesn’t have to do as much to earn his keep in your lineup.
James White, New England Patriots ($13 in Yahoo DFS)
We don’t apply traditional running-back analysis to James White, as he’s known for his prowess in the passing game, not his rushing volume, but White stands out at just $13 this week. In Yahoo scoring his per-game fantasy production has been virtually identical to that of Freeman, Matt Breida and David Montgomery. White’s running mate Sony Michel is averaging just 1.1 points more. While White has never dipped below nine points, it’s been a rougher ride for gamers relying on those other guys. What has depressed White’s stats is the fact that he’s scored a single touchdown — by the end of last season he’d racked up 12 of them! The shifty receiving back is past due to find pay-dirt again.
This week the Patriots play a Baltimore Ravens team that is allowing the third-fewest rushing yards in the league. Michel has been struggling all season and it would be unwise to expect him to get rolling against this defense. With Josh Gordon gone and Mohamed Sanu in just his second game with the team, Tom Brady will rely on White and Julian Edelman to move the ball.
Meanwhile, New England’s defense has dominated a schedule of offenses ranked 32nd (the Jets, twice), 31st, 30th, 28th, 24th, 20th, and 19th in total yards per game. The Ravens are second only to Dallas in this category and only the Patriots are scoring more points per game. Yes, Bill Belichick’s D is very, very good, but this matchup could force his offense to take to the air. Pass on Michel at $19 and play White for $13.