By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
If you’re playing Yahoo Daily Fantasy in Week 5 you’ll probably feel pretty good about your running back options in the main slate. There’s only one guy who really stands out to me as a dubious investment (more on him in a second) and a range of RBs who seem like a good bet to justify their price tags.
Many will prove to be fool’s gold, for whatever reason, so I’ve focused on the four I feel most confident about. If you’ve been reading this column weekly you know that in the case of Marlon Mack, just do the opposite of whatever I tell you, but I’m giving the enigmatic Colt a week off (if not a month) because I prefer that my predictions be proven right.
With that in mind, here’s one DFS play that’s too risky for my taste and four fine values.
Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets ($27 in Yahoo DFS)
I was surprised to see Le’Veon Bell’s price in Yahoo’s daily game. $27, sixth-highest among RBs, must be a reflection of his outsized role in the Jets offense. Not only does Bell have all but 34 of their rushing yards, he’s tied for the team lead in receptions, second in receiving yards and has the Jets’ only receiving touchdown. If Gang Green moves the ball or scores, it’s probably Le’Veon Bell doing it.
But there’s the rub. Can the Jets do either of those things in Philadelphia on Sunday? I would have my doubts even if Sam Darnold was under center, and he isn’t, so “fuggedaboutit!” The Eagles are fifth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) when stopping the run. They’ve allowed a paltry 62 yards per game and no starting RB has surpassed 2.0 yards per carry against them. Bell’s best bet will definitely be to follow in the footsteps of Chris Thompson, Devonta Freeman, and Aaron Jones, who did average 49 scoreless receiving yards against the Eagles.
Meanwhile, the Jets are dead last in Adjusted Line Yards, which is Football Outsiders’ measure of run-blocking proficiency, and only the Bengals have had a higher percentage of their runs stuffed at or behind the line. Kelechi Osemele has been a big disappointment at LG and picked up a shoulder injury in practice this week.
Simply put, we have a major mismatch in the trenches here. If you play Bell you’re basically banking on his voluminous workload. Yes, he is one of the finest running backs of this era, but it will take a vintage performance (or a couple of defensive pass interference calls that put the ball on the one-yard line) for him to justify a $27 price tag.
Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans ($27 in Yahoo DFS)
It will also cost you $27 to play Derrick Henry this week. Though Henry scored on a long screen pass in Week 1, he lacks Bell’s versatility and is largely dependent on carries to generate his fantasy value. Nonetheless, the pride of the Crimson Tide has been the RB7 through the first month of the fantasy season. Henry has been held out of the end zone only once and topped the century mark in that game (last week against Atlanta), so he’s been a very reliable RB1.
This week the Titans play host to a Bills squad that is better known for its pass defense — which completely stymied Tom Brady last week — than its ability to thwart the ground game. Buffalo is 25th in DVOA against the run. While this defense held opposing running backs under 70 yards in three out of four games, in those contests they tussled with three of the most troubled offensive lines in the league (Jets, Bengals, Patriots).
This week the Titans’ offensive line gets a shot in the arm — more nitro boost than flu vaccine — with Taylor Lewan returning from his four-game suspension. Even without him, they’ve been middle of the pack, at worst. RT Jack Conklin has been a monster but the interior of this line is pushing people around, too. Replacing Dennis Kelly with Lewan could make Derrick Henry’s job MUCH easier. The former Michigan Wolverine is a true difference-maker at left tackle.
Add all that up and it looks like a good day at the office for Henry. At $27 he’s not exactly bargain-priced, but for the same cost as Bell, you get a much safer play. This might be a hard-fought, low-scoring game, but the Titans know their best bet is to rely heavily on Henry.
Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers ($24 in Yahoo DFS)
Aaron Jones has found tough sledding in three out of his first four games, averaging 26.3 yards rushing, though he did also churn out 116 against the fearsome Minnesota defense. That performance and four touchdowns have him at RB11 right now despite Jamaal Williams getting between 41 and 61 percent of the snaps before his unfortunate injury against the Eagles last week.
Green Bay’s offensive line has fallen short of my preseason expectations, as I saw them as the sixth-most promising run-blocking unit in the league. While all five starters have strong individual grades, collectively this unit is just 23rd in Adjusted Line Yards. The Packers have also struggled to control the line of scrimmage in short-yardage situations and have allowed too many stuffs at or behind the line. It’s a talented bunch and I expect their metrics and the ground game’s productivity to improve.
Dallas has been middle-of-the-road in run defense so far, but they’ve had two easy matchups (Miami and Washington) and keeping Saquon Barkley (139 total yards) and Alvin Kamara (89) out of the end zone is their main claim to fame. The Cowboys’ defensive tackles are nursing injuries and star linebacker Leighton Vander Esch seems mired in a sophomore slump, at least when defending the run.
This week the Packers will probably be without Jamaal Williams’ services, which means it will fall to rookie Dexter Williams to spell Jones. That development would probably secure Jones’ biggest snap count to date. Dexter has been a weekly inactive and didn’t set the world on fire in the preseason, so he’ll probably be relied on as little as possible.
Something I look for in an RB is a guy who should be heavily involved no matter what happens. Given that Jones has proven solid in pass protection and can catch the ball, game flow won’t be a big factor for him. He’s a gamble worth taking at $24.
Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars ($23 in Yahoo DFS)
An even better value is Leonard Fournette. Despite running wild on the Denver Broncos last week, it will cost you just a dollar more to play him this week than Phillip Lindsay, who is splitting touches in a challenging matchup! Fournette was a little underwhelming the first three weeks and has yet to cross the goal line, but several factors indicate he’s going to produce in Carolina on Sunday.
First, Fournette is carrying much of the Jaguars’ offense on his broad shoulders. The former LSU Tiger is one of three tailbacks averaging more than 100 yards per game, and only Christian McCaffrey commands a larger combination of carries and targets. He’s 10th in tackles evaded, according to PlayerProfiler.com, and has three breakaway runs already (including one to save his dismal day vs. Tennessee in Week 3). He might not be the transcendent talent we expected in his college days, but Fournette is the very definition of a workhorse back.
The Jaguars’ offensive line has been no great shakes so far but left tackle Cam Robinson is finally back to full health after a knee injury cost him most of the first three games. This unit is one of the fortunate few to have all five projected starters good to go in Week 5. Jacksonville already has 10 rushes of 10+ yards on the left side and this week’s opponent, Carolina, is bottom-six against such runs. Despite the presence of Luke Kuechly and late bloomer Shaq Thompson at linebacker, the Panthers have allowed the ninth-most rushing yards, at a generous 4.9 yards per carry. Now defensive tackle Kawann Short, a renowned run-plugger, is on IR.
While it’s true that Carolina has looked like one of the league’s nastier defenses overall, Fournette’s workload is safe (his backups have 10 total touches) and he only needs one big play to make his day. Touchdown regression is a real thing, too, so I expect Fournette’s scoring drought to end this week.
Jaylen Samuels, Pittsburgh Steelers ($10 in Yahoo DFS)
As I write this, James Conner is in serious jeopardy of missing the Steelers’ home date with Baltimore, but even if he goes Jaylen Samuels is a great bargain-basement play. Sure, it’s chalky, but if you didn’t play last week’s $10 gimme (Wayne Gallman) he put you in a two-touchdown hole. And if you’re considering Samuels in a seasonal league, here’s why he’s a strong flex candidate as well.
At North Carolina State the versatile Samuels had an absurd 20.2% target share and, for a big back (6‘0, 225), he boasts an impressive blend of speed and agility. Coaches attributed Samuels’ heavy workload in Week 4 to the absence of TE Vance McDonald, who isn’t trending in the right direction this week either. But Samuels has looked like a better runner than rookie Benny Snell and proved last season he can carry the mail on early downs when called upon.
The Steelers’ offensive line has not performed up to its lofty reputation in 2019, tallying an unimpressive 3.43 Adjusted Line Yards per carry, “good” for 28th in the league. Whether it’s the loss of Mike Munchak and Marcus Gilbert or general malaise, this veteran group seems to have lost a step. That said, their individual grades aren’t bad and with David DeCastro leading the way they could turn in a terrific outing at any time.
This might be the week. The Ravens have been a sieve against the run, ranking 28th in DVOA and giving up bushels of fantasy points to running backs (including a league-leading six touchdowns). And that’s with Baltimore facing bottom-10 rushing attacks (Miami and Arizona) in two of their four games played. The second level of this defense really misses C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, and Za’Darius Smith.
The reeling Ravens defense may get it together and look better than Cincinnati did against Pittsburgh on Monday night, as they’re perennially well-coached. But Samuels is a talented player who could be in for a big workload — that’s a neon sign flashing “fantasy value.”