As we move through any NFL season, we start to see the same trends emerge. Early in the year, teams are trying to establish their identities. Midway through, there is some separation between those who are going to make a playoff push and those who aren’t. By the waning weeks, it’s a matter of survival: either in making it to the end of the year or in the postseason race.
For Week 16, the running back position has a clear and familiar theme: backups who will serve as teams’ starters.
Normally, this comes to fruition because of injuries — after all, we are so deep into the season that the physicality of the sport will take a toll on the players. Injuries are, of course, part of the reason for players in new roles, but we also have COVID protocols serving as another avenue for a player to be inactive. Such is the case for Sunday, and it actually provides some tremendous values for players who are now in position to thrive.
Alexander Mattison – MIN $5,300 vs. LAR – We’ve all seen this one before. Dalvin Cook will miss the Minnesota Vikings’ next game, and Alexander Mattison will slide into the starting role. This has already happened three prior times this year and, in each of Mattison’s three starts, he either ran for 100 yards or scored a touchdown. He actually did both in two-of-the-three games.
Mattison isn’t necessarily a plug-and-play, though. Not at first glance, anyway. He will face a Los Angeles Rams defense that ranks third-best in yards-per-carry and has held opposing teams to fewer than 100 yards eight times this year — and in three-of-its-last-four games. Why, then, do we “need” Mattison?
Volume and possible leverage.
Minnesota insists on running the football and, as a team, ranks eighth-best in yards-per-game. Mattison had at least 25 touches — with no fewer than three receptions — in all three of his starts. The Vikings commit to their running backs, and they especially lean on one when the backfield isn’t split.
As for “leverage,” the aforementioned matchup against the Rams could lead people in other directions. As we will soon see in this article, there are less expensive options with high upside, and Mattison’s comparatively higher price tag might scare away other WFS managers.
Mattison is in the driver’s seat again, and we should be along for the ride.
Justin Jackson – LAC $4,700 at HOU – As we just established with Mattison, Justin Jackson will likely be sliding into a starting role for his team, only in a better matchup and with some price savings.
As of this writing, it is not guaranteed that running back Austin Ekeler will miss Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans, but it does remain likely. Therefore, this is a situation to monitor closely. If Ekeler is out — and we are currently proceeding under that assumption — then Jackson is expected to shoulder the workload for the Los Angeles Chargers. This puts him in prime position.
The Texans’ defense ranks in the bottom-two for every rushing category of importance, and it’s largely because Houston ends up trailing at one point in almost every game. Will that be any different against the Texans on Sunday? Probably not.
The good news for those of us trying to navigate the backfield situation for Los Angeles is that this type of game flow — where, again, the Chargers are leading and turning to a rushing attack — should provide opportunities to multiple running backs. Even if Jackson has to share carries, his price tag is so low that he can return value without a full-time role. That raises his floor.
If Jackson serves as a true lead back, then his ceiling is astronomical.
Ronald Jones II – TB $4,500 at CAR – Notice a pattern? I specifically wrote about it in the introduction to this column. That is, backups who will serve as starters for their respective teams are in excellent position, and Ronald Jones II is the latest — and least expensive — name to consider.
Leonard Fournette is officially out for Sunday with a traditional injury — as opposed to the COVID protocols mentioned earlier — and, despite the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ reluctance to use Jones more earlier in the season, he is expected to serve as the lead running back. Like Jackson, Jones has a positive game script in a matchup where his team is likely to be leading late and, thus, running the ball more.
There is risk, of course. The Carolina Panthers feature one of the best defenses in the league — second-fewest yards allowed and ninth-fewest yards-per-carry — but Jones is priced so low that almost any moderate performance will be helpful to a WFS lineup. And let’s not forget that he stepped in for the injured Fournette during last week’s game against a stout Saints defense and still delivered 63 rushing yards on just eight carries.
Jones will probably be among the most popular plays of the weekend, but there’s no way to avoid the low-risk, high-reward potential.