Welcome to Week 4 of the 2021 Footballguys Roundtable. Our intrepid and oddball panel of fantasy pundits examines players with notable Week 3 outcomes, productive running back tandems, runners who may be game-script dependent, and emerging candidates with a shot at their first full season of starter-caliber fantasy production.
The True Reveal
Matt Waldman: Sigmund Bloom likes to use the phrase "The True Reveal," to describe what we learn during the opening month of the NFL season. Consider the list of players below.
- Marquise Brown
- Ben Roethlisberger
- Justin Jefferson
- James Robinson
- Emmanuel Sanders
- DeSean Jackson
- Kendrick Bourne
- Tyler Conklin
- Tyler Higbee
Which player showed their true 2021 self in Week 3? Which player's Week 3 was an aberration?
Troy King: James Robinson- Robinson had 15 rushes for 88 yards and a rushing touchdown. He also had 6 receptions on 6 targets for 46 yards. Robinson looked more like “ 2020 James Robinson” with a 72.41% opportunity share and 18.8% target share. If this usage keeps up, he can be a reliable RB2 going forward.
Jordan McNamara: Justin Jefferson is a dominant WR1 if you believe his 9-reception, 118-yard, and 1-score performance this weekend was an indication of things to come. Jefferson is fifth in the percentage of the team's air yards (49%) through three weeks. Jefferson has averaged 10 targets per game through three weeks with 254 receiving yards. Adam Thielen has drawn more attention because of his 4 touchdowns, but Jefferson is the clear leader in the receiving offense.
DeSean Jackson had a 5-target, 3-reception, 120-yard performance that included a touchdown. However, this performance was a complete aberration. Jackson did all his damage on a total of 14 routes, which is not enough to depend on when putting him in your lineup. Jackson may have big games throughout the season, but his small workload makes it difficult to predict when they will occur.
Dan Hindery: Robinson is someone who impressed me in Week 3 and you have to think the Jacksonville coaching staff is seeing the same thing. In the short term, this offense should be built around Robinson. Give him 20 touches per game while Trevor Lawrence keeps defenses honest with the deep ball and his own ability to pull the ball and beat linebackers to the edge and maybe this team gets back on track a bit. Despite taking another loss, the Jaguars at least looked like a competent team against the Cardinals and it would not surprise me if we see Robinson put up solid RB2 numbers the rest of the way.
Jackson’s fantasy line was an aberration. He is still somewhere between third and fifth in the pecking order of pass catchers for Matthew Stafford. Jackson is only averaging 12.7 snaps per game. While we should not expect fantasy-relevant performances from Jackson most weeks, his deep-ball prowess continues to make him an ideal late-round best-ball pick. I just would not buy into the idea of starting him anytime soon because if he doesn’t catch a long touchdown, he is not likely to give you much.
Waldman: The following RB Tandems are performing as fantasy starters in most leagues. The numbers in parenthesis are each player's PPR value after three weeks:
- D'Andre Swift (3)/Jamaal Williams (10)
- Nick Chubb (7)/Kareem Hunt (8)
- Mike Davis (22)/Cordarrelle Patterson (9)
- Mike Singeltary (28)/Zack Moss (21)
- Ezekiel Elliott (NA) / Tony Pollard (NA) - Both players will be top-36 options or better after tonight.
- Which current fantasy tandem has the lowest chance of remaining a tandem (non-injury related) and why is one option a much better fantasy pick than the other?
- Which back has the most fantasy upside if injury strikes the other?
- Pick two tandems where if you had one of them, you would start them in the same lineup weekly?
- Which tandem is the least predictable to determine the best performer of the two backs weekly?
Davenport: The Buffalo duo is the one that jumps out to me as the one with the least chance to remain a tandem. Devin Singletary is the same guy he's been for the last two years except that he happened to break a 42-yard touchdown in Week 2. In Week 1, without Zack Moss, he put up only 11 points, and with Moss last week he was out-touched 16 to 12. Singletary is a plodder with a low ceiling of 8-10 points a week. Moss is clearly the guy to have going forward not just for total opportunities, but for the most important statistic of them all: red-zone touches. Since Moss' return in Week 2, he's had 10 red zone touches compared to 6 for Singletary. This is Moss' backfield to lose at this point.
I think Tony Pollard has the most upside of these tandems if injury strikes Ezekiel Elliott. It's tempting to pick the Cleveland running backs, but in 2020 when Nick Chubb went down they showed no indication that they wanted Kareem Hunt to take over the backfield. In Dallas, on the other hand, Pollard was the guy when Elliott missed time and he performed really well when he got the chance. His lone start against San Francisco last year saw him catch six passes, pile up 132 total yards, and score twice. He's got RB1 written all over him if Elliott gets hurt.
The tandem I would start in the same lineup is the Lions' running backs. The game scripts through Week 3 have been exactly what people hoped for and so has Jared Goff's tendency to check the ball down to his running backs. The duo in Detroit has piled up 37 targets already (over 12 per game) and this is the best way to provide fantasy relevance. I wouldn't hesitate to start both guys if I needed to.
Oddly enough, the Browns' backs have been the hardest to predict so far. Nick Chubb has saved himself with touchdowns, but otherwise, Cleveland has not been willing to pile up the carries for him, and Demetric Felton has stepped in at times catching passes as well. The Browns' backfield should continue to produce, but they will also continue to be hard to count on in fantasy lineups.
Brimacombe: I feel the Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson duo will blow up at some point this season. The Falcons look like a bad team overall and as the season goes you are going to see the frustration and you are going to see the team look at more pass-heavy options.
Waldman: Hard for that to happen when pressure arrives so fast that the quarterback has to check the ball to his outlets early and frequently. Both players are good receivers, but Patterson has the edge as an open-field runner and Davis has the edge as a pass protector. I'll be buying Patterson at every turn as a solid PPR RB2.
James, who is the back with the most fantasy upside if injury strikes?
Brimacombe: The easy answer would be either of the Browns' backs have the most upside if one were to get banged up. They are both capable of being 20-plus touch players in any game they play in. The Dallas situation would be interesting if Elliott were to get injured as Pollard has shown such a good burst and explosion every time he has touched the ball through the teams' first three games.
Waldman: Completely on board with these two choices and in that order. What about the two tandems you'd start in the same lineup? Is it the same two teams?
Brimacombe: Yes. I like the Browns and the Cowboys backs as my choices here. Both for different reasons as the Browns are a strong offense that is built for a running game. The Cowboys are a team that can move the ball with ease and score a lot of points for getting both Elliott and Pollard in your lineup at the same time makes a lot of sense.
The least predictable on a weekly basis? Maybe I would lean Detroit here with Swift showing that he is going to catch a lot of balls each week as the Lions are going to be down in a lot of games. He also is such an explosive player so the upside of him breaking a long run or catch makes a lot of sense as you get the safe floor but very high ceiling each week no matter the game script for the Lions.
Kluge: Swift and Williams have been able to coexist through the first few weeks. While I expect that relationship to stay relatively symbiotic, I can see Swift’s role increasing as the season goes on. Swift dealt with a few injury concerns throughout the offseason, and the team could be limiting his touches while he gets fully up to speed. As the more talented back in every facet, I expect him to cut into Williams’s workload as the season progresses.
Whether it is Elliot or Pollard, they’re each an injury away from elite RB1 territory. The Cowboys are averaging 139.3 rushing yards per game, fourth-most in the NFL behind only the Ravens, Browns, and Titans. In addition to the rushing yards, Elliott and Pollard are combining for 5.0 targets per game out of the backfield. They are working together harmoniously for now, but an injury to one would increase carries, targets, and goalline opportunities on a premier offense.
You can confidently start the Lions’ and Browns’ running backs together every week. While the Cowboys have an explosive offense all around, the Lions and Browns both run their offense through their backfields. The Browns are averaging an obscene 174.7 rushing yards per game. Kevin Stefanski’s run-first offense makes both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt strong starts every week. While the Lions don’t have the same run-first mentality, D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams are averaging 12.4 targets per game. The Lions’ offense is built around a solid offensive line and short throws from Jared Goff, which gives both running backs a lot of room to run.
Davis and Patterson are going to be a headache to manage for the foreseeable future. What made Davis a valuable pick in the offseason was a presumed elite workload. Patterson’s abilities as a runner in open space and viable target out of the backfield and nuking Davis’s value. While Patterson has averaged precisely 7.0 carries per game, his 5.3 targets per game are hurting Davis. Davis is out-pacing Patterson in targets for now, but Patterson was a non-factor in Week 1 and looks like he could see a growing role. I like Patterson as a potential stash for now, but you shouldn’t be confident with either in your starting lineups.
Hindery: All of these backfields should remain split the rest of the day. Since I have to pick one, I will go with Dallas. This probably remains a 2-to-1 split in favor of Ezekiel Elliott but it is not too hard to imagine that split tipping more heavily towards Elliott if he continues to play well.
If Ezekiel Elliott gets injured, Tony Pollard instantly becomes one of the top fantasy options while he is out. Elliott missed one game last year and Pollard played 90% of the snaps, had 12 carries, and saw 9 targets. He finished with 132 total yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Ideally, I would hope to have better options than the second option in any of these backfields. However, the Chubb-Hunt backfield would be the best option of the bunch. Hunt has averaged 13.3 touches per game, which gives him a solid weekly floor. His knack for finding the end zone gives him some weekly upside, as well. If I had to pick a second, it would be the Cowboys duo.
Waldman: Ideally, I'd like to be watching RB tape with Jim Brown, Marshall Faulk, and Barry Sanders. However...
Hindery: Ha! As for the least predictable tandem? The Buffalo backfield is a weekly headache. Zach Moss went from healthy scratch in Week 1 to lead the backfield with 16 touches in Week 3. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that some weeks Buffalo may almost completely abandon the running game, making even the best performing running back a fantasy flop.
Schofield: Ideally, I'd like to have been a former NFL quarterback who started for Bill Walsh. Did I do that right?
Waldman: How could you be wrong with Walsh?
Schofield: No doubt. The tandem I think has the lowest chance of remaining a tandem comes from Detroit, whereas the season goes on I believe Swift is going to take on more of that workload. As Dave Kluge wrote earlier, Swift is the more talented back, and coming off injury concerns, the Lions might be bringing him along slowly.
Regarding what back has the most upside if his partner goes down, I think you can start with Swift. After all, should Jamaal Williams go down to injury, then you'll see Swift take on more opportunities perhaps sooner rather than later. Another way to look at this question is this way: If someone goes down in Dallas, the player left standing - either Elliott or Pollard - that player immediately vaults into RB1 territory.
The two tandems where I trust both backs come from Dallas and Cleveland. We are seeing Kellen Moore incorporate both Elliott and Pollard into game plans each week, and as Derrik Klassen pointed out recently for Football Outsiders, it is almost as if one cannot exist without the other. As Klassen wrote "Pollard is still someone who needs touches in this offense. People have been clamoring for it for years and it's true. As frustrating as his work between the tackles can be, especially on zone concepts, Pollard is electric when he does find the angle to bounce a play outside. There is a shiftiness and degree of raw speed that Elliott doesn't have at this point. That's valuable, even if just as the change-up."
Then there are the Browns, who run their offense through Chubb and Hunt. Even with the return of Odell Beckham Jr Jr., this will be an offense that focuses on the running game and an offense that gives both players opportunities. Last week alone, in a win over the Bears, Chubb had 22 touches -- all runs -- while Hunt had a combined 17 touches with a 10/7 split.
The backfield that is difficult to trust each week comes from Atlanta, with Davis and Patterson. A lot of this might be gameplan specific, or game-script specific, but the Falcons, despite their win Sunday, might not be in positive or neutral scripts a ton and might be putting the ball in the air more than these other teams.
McNamara: I find it really unlikely that Singletary and Moss remain a tandem. The involvement of Moss has been the past two weeks when Buffalo had big leads over Miami and Washington. I think it is unlikely either is a dependable contributor going forward, but Singletary's receiving role makes him a more dependable future producer.
Swift has RB1 firmly in his range of outcomes. Swift's current workload, 52 total touches, would see an uptick if Jamaal Williams (42 total touches) were injured. Swift is averaging 6.3 receptions per game, with only two touchdowns, so his upside is likely the highest regardless of a Williams injury.
Chubb and Hunt would be fine as running backs in the same lineup. We know Chubb and Hunt can produce top-24 finishes while sharing a backfield from 2020. Additionally, the Browns lead the league in rushing attempts and have a strong offensive line. Altogether, they have a good track record and a good opportunity going forward in 2021.
Davis and Patterson feel difficult to predict. Patterson is getting less workload and operating on uber efficiency, so betting on him feels dangerous. On the flip side, Mike Davis has underperformed his expected points through three weeks. The small sample size makes the situation tough to gauge through three weeks, especially given Patterson's unique usage.
King: Swift currently has an opportunity share of 55.4% and saw a massive 19.2% target share. Jamaal Williams currently seizes 11.7% target share and a 41.6% opportunity share. If Williams was injured, Swift would absorb an even greater target share and more rushing opportunities.
Chubb and Hunt epitomize a dynamic duo. They compliment each other very well. Their roles are clearly defined as Chubb is primarily the first and second-down back, while Hunt is very involved in the passing game. Chubb is averaging 16 rushing attempts and 87.3 yards a game. Hunt has a 14.9% target share compared to Chubb's 3.9% target share. Hunt also is averaging 9.5 yards per target, which is the second-highest among the listed tandems. I feel very confident playing both backs each week.
While we have seen Chubb outscore Hunt the first two weeks, Hunt outscored Chubb in Week 3. The game script plays a factor, but we have also seen both backs get goal-line opportunities, which usually swings the outcome of who outscores the other. It’s difficult to project how each back will be utilized game to game.
While both of Dallas' backs have been productive, Elliott has played on 75.3% of snaps while Pollard is sitting at 31.4% on the season. Pollard also only has a 38% opportunity share and is seeing a minimal target share of 7.3%. Pollard’s lack of snaps and targets will make it difficult for him to keep pace with Elliott for the rest of the season.
Ryan Weisse: I respectfully disagree with Troy here. While this isn't the 1a/1b situation of some tandems, Pollard is so efficient with his touches, he will remain fantasy-relevant, even as the clear second option. His production of almost 7 yards per carry and 8 yards per catch will keep him in the top-36 fantasy running backs for sure. I love Zeke but Pollard isn't going anywhere.
King: Very fair points. Pollard has been extremely efficient. He has made the most of his opportunities, I just want to see more opportunities is all.
Waldman: I agree that Pollard will continue to earn touches based on this being the coaching staff's intention since summer and Pollard has played well. Still, I'm not counting on Pollard to remain as efficient throughout the year as he has been during the first three weeks. I'm more in Troy's camp here with Elliott earning more snaps. He won't shut out Pollard, but I think Pollard will have more boom-bust games than he did this month.
Swift has benefited from game script more than any back mentioned in this topic. He has good build-up speed, but his acceleration is overrated. His power is average between the tackles and Jamaal Williams is a superior pass protector, route runner, and short-yardage back. The only things elite about Swift are his work ethic and current circumstances with his game script.
In fact, I wouldn't be surprised that we'd see more of Jermar Jefferson in Williams' role before we'd see Swift's role change dramatically if Williams got hurt. In contrast, I would bet that Williams would see a bigger uptick in touches with Jefferson in a lesser role if Swift got hurt.
RB Game Script Dependency
Waldman: I suspect these runners have a higher game script dependency than their peers:
- Which back is the most game-script dependent and the how 'the how' and 'the why' behind your answer?
- Which back that is game-script dependent has the best chance for game scripts to go his way?
- Which is the most independent?
McNamara: James Conner is dependent on the Cardinals being in tight games or leading. When the Cardinals have to throw, it has been Chase Edmonds with the primary role. Conner has run 25 routes compared to 76 routes for Edmonds, while Conner (35) has more carries than Edmonds (31).
Clyde Edwards-Helaire has the best chance for positive game scripts. I think the Chiefs will figure this 1-2 start out, and get back on track. Edwards-Helaire is an ineffective receiver but can accumulate yards on the ground when Kansas City is leading.
Waldman: I'll counter that Edwards-Helaire's best trait coming out of LSU was his route running and pass-catching, but Patrick Mahomes II has been so good at targeting his elite receiver and tight end down the field and buying time when needed to do so, that Edwards-Helaire hasn't utilized as intended. Now that Mahomes is deserving of some criticism for extending plays and ignoring his outlets beyond the point of reason, perhaps we'll see more love for Edwards-Helaire here.
From a fantasy perspective, Edwards-Helaire is an ineffective receiver, from a talent perspective, he's excellent. Just want to clear that up. Ryan, who is your most independent of the game-script-dependent options?
McNamara: Gotcha. Najee Harris is independent of the game script. The offense struggles to run and throws the ball a lot, with Harris running by far the most routes for a running back. That is a high floor and high ceiling combination week in and week out.
King: Bernard is barely on the field. He is playing about 28% on snaps. His opportunity share is 20.5%, but he has an 11.5 % target share. He has 15 targets on the season and 0 rushing attempts. Bernard is only used in third-down and passing situations.
Waldman: While I expect to see the Buccaneers evolve with its usage of Bernard as the season unfolds, it's tough keeping him on a roster. This is especially true if the Buccaneers are leading in most games and its receivers stay healthy. However, Bernard is the hedge to acquire if the veteran receivers and tight ends spend more time in the cold tub than the practice field.
Who has the best chance to have game scripts go his way, Troy?
King: Edwards-Helaire. The Chiefs are currently the fifth-ranked offense in the league and Edwards- Helaire has a 70% opportunity share. Edwards- Helaire is top 10 among running backs in rushing attempts and yards. The Chief’s high-powered offense provides more opportunities for a positive game script in which Edwards-Helaire can pound the rock.
To put it plainly, Harris never leaves the field so he's obviously the most independent of a game script. He has played on 96.4% of snaps. He has a 91.8% opportunity share and 20.8% target share. Whether winning or losing, Harris is on the field and very involved in the offense.
Schofield: Of the backs listed, Giovani Bernard is the most game-script-dependent. As Troy pointed out, he is barely seeing the field to start with, as the Buccaneers continue to rely heavily on Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II. Bernard does see action on third downs, but with the other weapons the Buccaneers have around Tom Brady, and the emphasis on the passing game in Tampa Bay, Bernard is in a tough spot.
The back most likely for scripts to go his way is probably Edwards-Helaire, as others have pointed out. Kansas City has some games coming up where you might see a heavy dose of the run game, whether the Eagles this week, Washington in two weeks, the Giants to kick off November as well as the Packers after that. Andy Reid is going to figure things out, the Chiefs have some winnable games coming up, and that run game will be a bit more of a focus as October gives way to November.
Emerging Player Candidates
Matt Waldman: No rookies allowed. Name a player who has never been a top-15 QB, top-24 RB, top-36 WR, or top-15 TE who has a shot to become one this year.
Brimacombe:Pollard is the first name that I think of here as through three weeks he has looked the most electric out of the options in Dallas. He obviously has an uphill battle with Elliott in front of him but as long as the Cowboys keep giving him 10 touches a game he could do it along on his 8 yards per touch.
Davenport: Jamaal Williams has always been a productive guy when he saw the field, but his best finish was as RB32 back in 2017. Since then he's languished in the mid-30s as a fantasy running back largely because his touches have topped out at 175 in 2017. This year he is averaging almost 14 touches per game (a 16-game pace of 219, and a 17-game pace of 232) and that would smash any prior year's opportunities by a large margin. Based on his current ranking of PPR RB10, he would have to see a statistically significant reduction in touches not to end the year inside the Top 24.
Hindery: I will dig a bit deeper here and go with a non-obvious candidate... Hunter Renfrow has never posted a Top-50 season at wide receiver but has a real shot at a Top-36 finish this year. In researching and writing the Raiders training camp reports for Footballguys, one of the consistent themes from player comments and beat writers this year was that Renfrow was Carr’s favorite wide receiver and the one guy he really trusted.
For example, this mid-August quote from Carr is one that has stuck with me: “There is a lot of guys that can (have) straight-line track speed. But Hunter, the thing that makes him different, not only that side-to-side speed, is that … he knows what route he’s running, obviously, and he sees the coverage. He knows how it’s set up; he knows exactly what I want him to do, and he literally does it every single time.”
Renfrow has been consistently productive with at least five catches and 57 receiving yards every game so far. He is on pace for 91 catches for 1,156 yards and those types of numbers do not seem unrealistic. He is not going to be a league-winning fantasy superstar but Renfrow could quietly put up solid WR3 numbers and outscore a lot of bigger-named wide receivers.
Waldman: I like that call, Dan, and I mentioned him this week as a worthwhile candidate for your rosters in this Week's Top 10.
McNamara: I'll take a Matt favorite and say Jamaal Williams who is averaging 13.7 touches per game, which is a solid workload in a better-than-expected offense, and would be a big beneficiary of a Swift injury. As a top-12 running back through three weeks, he has some extra leeway in the remainder of his season.
King: Knox is currently TE8 on the season. He is ninth in tight end receptions and 11th in tight end targets. He is also playing on about 72% of snaps. Knox has a chance in the explosive Bills offense to finish as TE1 or at least top 15.
Waldman: I mentioned Knox as an emerging option in this week's RSP Quick Game with Mark. He has some elite athletic traits that make him a favorable mismatch in theory. In practice, Know needed more work at the craft of his position. This year, he attended "Tight End University," a network of former and current tight ends who study and practice the craft of the position during the offseason, including Greg Olsen, Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Robert Tonyan Jr.
Knox told the media that he benefitted greatly from the knowledge these veterans shared and the work that he put in to apply the lessons. It's beginning to show.
Schofield: I'll join the chorus of those promoting Knox. Sometimes it is important to see what organizations do not do when it comes to roster construction. During an off-season that saw many clamoring for the Bills to address the tight end position, whether by trade or through the draft, Buffalo stayed pat with Knox. Now, some of that might be due to their reliance on 10 personnel and playing without a tight end, but this past week you saw concepts called for Knox, including his touchdown which came with him isolated to one side of the formation in that "Y-Iso" look. As I said a few weeks ago with Christian Kirk, pay attention to what offensive play-callers are dialing up, and when they are calling plays designed to go to specific players, it is worth noting.