By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
It’s Week 3 in the National Football League, and running backs continue to confound and delight fantasy gamers in fairly unpredictable fashion. Marlon Mack kept me guessing last week with a surprising dud after being a surprise stud in the opener. A top-tier offensive line and workhorse usage aren’t always enough, as Mack totaled 63 scoreless yards against the Titans.
Nonetheless, there are some profitable plays to be found in the often-rocky RB landscape. Here are a few, along with one stay-away pick.
Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys ($33 in Yahoo DFS)
It might sound obvious to start Ezekiel Elliott against Miami, but in DFS you could be wondering if he’s worth $33, with only Christian McCaffrey ($40) and Saquon Barkley ($36) coming with higher price-tags. Well, he is.
The Cowboys’ robust run blocking has the potential to pulp the poor Fish, who currently have the 29th-worst run defense in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders’ metrics, and only nine teams have allowed a higher yards-per-carry average. For Dallas, tackle La’el Collins is off to a great start, which is encouraging as guard Connor Williams continues to struggle.
With the Dolphins in full tank mode, our only fear here is that Dallas gets out to such a monstrous lead that Tony Pollard ($14) is the beneficiary of their defensive largesse, which makes the rookie a decent play in his own right. That being said, with Michael Gallup injured there are a limited number of options for the Cowboys to put the game away with. Sure, Amari Cooper, Jason Witten/Blake Jarwin, Randall Cobb or back-from-the-dead Devin Smith could find pay-dirt, but Zeke is one of the safest bets to score on the slate. Pollard may be the second-half grinder, but Zeke is going to get his yardage and at least one TD.
Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers ($25 in Yahoo DFS)
Through two weeks, the best running back in fantasy has been BMI-challenged Austin Ekeler, and those with Melvin Gordon on their teams are wondering what might have been. (I know I am.) This unlikely star has been a force by land and air and he’s still reasonably priced in the daily game. While Ekeler’s efficiency is sure to take a hit before long, Football Outsiders ranks the Bolts’ offensive line a surprising eighth in Adjusted Line Yards, their proprietary run-blocking metric. Even without top tackle Russell Okung (blood clots) the unit has been average or better by most measures.
This week Ekeler faces a Houston defense that hasn’t graded well while surrendering the league’s eighth-most rushing yards and a mind-blowing six yards per carry, which no team can match. His key role in the passing game insulates his fantasy value against the possibility of a disappointing rushing total. The only scenario where Ekeler isn’t heavily involved is a blowout win, but with LA favored by just three points at home, I don’t see that as a terribly likely scenario. He remains a better bet than several higher-priced backs.
Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams ($24 in Yahoo DFS)
How did Todd Gurley go from the fantasy stratosphere to the 14th-most expensive RB on the board? Creaky knees and lost snaps to Malcolm Brown justify his fall from grace, but he’s still getting 17 touches per game, which is top-15 usage. There’s always a chance that Gurley’s knee gives out but so far he’s out-rushed Brown 160 yards to 90, with both backs averaging 5.3 yards a pop.
Football Outsiders ranks the Rams second in Adjusted Line Yards, their proprietary run-blocking metric, and through two games Los Angeles is No. 7 in total rushing yards (14th in yards per carry). Despite its diminished personnel, the Rams’ o-line is providing RBs with the league’s fourth-most yards before contact. No lineman is grading well individually, but sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (a great run-blocking scheme doesn’t hurt, either).
This week the Rams travel to Cleveland to face a Browns team that has been just outside the bottom 10 in run defense, though they’ve held Derrick Henry and Le’Veon Bell to 4.4 and 3.5 yards per tote, respectively. The Titans and Jets had limited offenses, however, and the Rams present a far stiffer test. This offense is averaging the 13th-most total yards while those teams were not unexpectedly bottom-six. In Week 3 Cleveland will almost certainly be without linebacker Christian Kirksey (chest), which thrusts rookie Mack Wilson into the lineup.
While it’s far from ideal for the Rams to start shaky second-year man Jamil Demby over banged-up Austin Blythe, this still looks like a favorable matchup in the trenches — at least in the running game. Gurley isn’t on the main slate in DFS, but I like his value where applicable.
Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions ($18 in Yahoo DFS)
There are encouraging signs for Kerryon, most notably his 36-yard reception for a score last week and the Lions jettisoning C.J. Anderson in favor of Paul Perkins. However, the sophomore has grounded out a paltry 3.2 yards per carry behind an offensive line that ranks just 22nd in Adjusted Line Yards, and Johnson has yet to have a breakaway run.
What’s more, the offseason whispers of a committee being mandated in the Motor City have proven correct as Johnson has received just 55 percent of the snaps and his touch count is on par with luminaries such as Peyton Barber and Frank Gore. Those numbers seem bound to rise this week, even with Ty Johnson and J.D. McKissic pilfering passing-down snaps, but the Lions’ opponent should give fantasy gamers pause.
The Philadelphia Eagles are a perennially tough run defense to go up against, and that’s again been the case through two games. Philly has surrendered the fifth-lowest yards per carry and neither Washington nor Atlanta topped 57 rushing yards against them. They are currently Football Outsiders’ second-best run defense, based on Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA).
If you’re playing Kerryon this week, you’re counting on higher usage than he’s seen so far, especially in the passing game. It could happen, but I don’t feel great about it.
Carlos Hyde, Houston Texans ($17 in Yahoo DFS)
File this in the “Who knew?!” category: Houston’s offensive line has actually been pretty good in the running game through two weeks. The Texans have rolled up the league’s fifth-most rushing yards and Football Outsiders has them fourth (fourth!) in Adjusted Line Yards. Not bad for a team I thought would be the NFL’s worst run-blocking unit entering the season. What’s more, Houston has played New Orleans and Jacksonville, teams that aren’t terrible against the run by any means.
Many observers (including myself) figured that Carlos Hyde was washed after a couple of mostly unproductive seasons, but the former Buckeye has been surprisingly spry this September. Hyde has the fifth-most rushing yards in the league and is Football Outsiders’ No. 4 RB in Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR), which compares a player’s performance with those of his peers. What’s more, Hyde is actually making his line look good by creating his own yards and eluding tackles at a shockingly high rate.
This week Houston takes on a Chargers squad that corralled Kerryon Johnson last week, a step forward after allowing 203 rushing yards to the Colts in Week 1. Los Angeles is still looking for its optimal defensive line rotation and keeps losing starters, as this week run-stuffing safety Adrian Phillips joined Derwin James on IR.
Hyde has out-touched Duke Johnson 31 to 19 so far and Houston has yet to lean on a true passing-down back in the Deshaun Watson era. Neither Texans back is expected to have a high rostership percentage in DFS this weekend, so Hyde makes a sneaky play at $17.