In Week 6, 9 of the top 24 fantasy scorers at the running back position began the season as backups. If you want to count Urban Meyer's bungling of James Robinson in September out of spite for his display of incompetence with assessing personnel I appreciate your motivation but it doesn't count.
Running back is the most obvious position where a backup can become an impactful starter in fantasy lineups down the stretch. Much of the pre-draft advice from this column is focused on building squads where your strengths are at quarterback, wide receiver, and tight end.
If there's a designed weakness to the team-building strategy it's most often for the RB2 or RB3 on the roster because in most leagues I see, the starting lineup allotment of non-running backs far outweighs the allotment for the position. Although there are multiple ways to build a successful fantasy scorer, having the greatest weakness be the RB2 slot in a starting lineup is one of the most prevalent that I have seen during the past 25 years.
With that in mind, let's examine the running backs who have increased their potential to matter for you for the rest of the fantasy season.
After seeing Williams' box score and red-zone highlights, many fans who soured on Clyde Edwards-Helaire will believe that Williams is the better running back. Williams is a better pass protector and tackle-breaker against box defenders (DL and LB) than Edwards-Helaire but not necessarily the better overall player.
Williams also has underrated footwork and this combination of movement, vision, and strength makes him the superior red-zone option.
Edwards-Helaire is a superior route runner and receiver and he's a more creative runner in a zone-blocking scheme. He's also a better player in space.
However, the Chiefs have not exploited the best of Edwards-Helaire's gifts in its offense. He's not used like Brian Westbrook or Austin Ekeler. They don't give him option routes or make him the focal point of the passing game. He's a meat-and-potatoes outlet option in a vegan passing offense where Patrick Mahomes II' version of check-down-comfort-food is an intermediate target or a 30-yard throw across his body while moving to his left.
Because the Chiefs don't have an offense that exploits Edwards-Helaire's best gifts to beat linebackers and safeties one-on-one in the middle of the field or the flats and often doesn't need to do so, any back with outlet receiving skills (screens, wide routes, and swing passes) will do.
Williams is a capable reserve and as I shared in his pre-draft scouting report, he's a good running back who will deliver steady work as a role player and create a bidding storm as an injury substitute. He has just enough burst to execute as a chain-mover in an NFL offense. Combined with his overall game, Williams is a better fit for a team that loved that idea of Edwards-Helaire but doesn't make the most of the specific skills where he can be a difference-maker.
Expect Williams to remain the lead back at least through Week 10 and deliver as a solid RB2 with RB1 upside due to his effectiveness in the red zone.
As good as Aaron Jones is, the Packers' coaching staff has already expressed that it is having difficulty keeping Dillon off the field. Green Bay has realized that Dillon is a good passing-down option (he always was) and they love his footwork and power. Unlike Brandon Jacobs, Michael Bush, and a host of other big-backs from the recent past, Dillon has no identity crisis issues with this combination of sweet feet and powerful frame.
Dillon is the 43rd-ranked scorer at his position in PPR formats this year, but he's 31st on the board since Week 3 and 24th since Week 4. He's not out-producing Jones — a top-15 producer at the position — but he's carving out a legitimate role in an offense that wants to run.
If you can't find a legitimate starter and the GM in your league with Dillon doesn't have Jones, you might be able to pry Dillon from him as a part of a package deal and earn at least passable flex value from him in your lineup.
Joe Mixon isn't going anywhere without a severe injury. If that happens, Perine appears locked in as the primary runner for the Bengals when they have to lean on the depth chart. Perine has shown more as a reliable runner between the tackles who will get the difficult yards that keep the playbook expanded.
Always a good receiver, Perine showed off his total game against the Packers in Week 5, earning 15 touches for 83 yards. Perine scored a receiving touchdown in the game, earning 4 catches on 5 targets for 24 yards.
Perine's speed has always been an issue with his game when looking at it from the perspective that most teams have about running back play (see Trey Sermon below...although Sermon is quicker and faster than Perine). However, like Williams, he's fast enough to move the chains in the NFL and even turn on the jets once he earns an angle in the open field. The issue with Perine is that he has build-up speed and average burst for an NFL runner — not an NFL starting runner, but when accounting for all runners on professional depth charts.
If he can get into open space and have a runway, he'll earn big yardage.
Perine's power and footwork make him a viable backup with starter production potential worth monitoring. He's a must-have for GMs reliant on Mixon and there's little else on their running back depth charts.
I wouldn't be surprised if Evans is the more desired pick for many fantasy GMs because he's fast and he's made splash plays. This touchdown last week against Detroit is a great display of Evans' specialized skills. You don't see a lot of running backs utilizing a footwork combination off the line that many receivers still have to learn.
Evans also earned seven touches last week whereas Perine didn't see the field. However, I'm betting this has a lot more to do with roles than Evans "working his way up the depth chart."
Evans offers big-play skill detached from the formation when they can match him with a linebacker. His speed also makes him a valuable change of pace for the Bengals when Mixon is healthy. However, if Mixon gets hurt, Perine's between-the-tackles reliability will make him the lead option with Evans still in the same role he's had.
If you're in need of a potential bye-week flex who can deliver a big play, Evans is a candidate. If Mixon gets hurt, you may wind up getting more from Perine for less of a hit to your budget than those presuming Evans' usage as a roleplayer means he's leapfrogged Perine on the depth chart.
Khalil Herbert-damien Williams
I shared my thoughts on the Bears' backfield on Monday's Top 10. While rational coaching may not occur, analysts like myself and ESPN's Matt Bowen believe Herbert is a great fit for the lead role in Chicago while David Montgomery is out. His cutback skills as a zone runner are superior to Williams', who is competent in this area but is better with gap plays, which is rarely the staple of most NFL ground games.
Williams is the most proven passing-down player of the two. Although Herbert has impressed the staff with his passing-down skills, it's likely that Williams will retain that role. It means that like the Evans-Perine situation above, look for Williams to remain the most-used reserve when Montgomery returns but for Herbert to earn the most touches while Montgomery is out.
Also in profile in this week's Top 10, Stevenson performed well enough to continue earning a role in the offense. His usage against Dallas should continue as long as he plays error-free football:
- Green zone (inside the five) touches.
- Schemed work up the seams and in the flats as a passing-down weapon on screens and intermediate routes.
- Substituting Damien Harris for parts of a series to give Harris a breather.
Look for Stevenson to earn at least 5-7 touches a week and at least 1-2 of them being high-leverage carries near the goal line.
Without a doubt, McKissic is the preferred play if Antonio Gibson needs a rest before the bye week. This is something Jene Bramel suggests is likely. Patterson is the more rugged back and has some nice movement skills of his own, but he lacks the burst McKissic has and isn't as versatile of a receiver.
McKissic also gives you value as a flex play even with Gibson in the lineup. Considering that he's already the 25th-ranked PPR runner at this point of the year, most of you already realize he's valuable even if you didn't give significant thought to the "Why."
D'Ernest Johnson - demetric Felton
If Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin return to the Browns' lineup, Johnson is a valuable option for a least a week or two while Nick Chubb recuperates. However, Cleveland's substitute tackles were awful against the Cardinals and offensive linemen have a better baseline of performance as run blockers when they get a new assignment with a team.
Johnson is a straight-line runner with receiving skills who understands the scheme and can make the one cut necessary to earn yardage when there's a crease where it's supposed to be. Creativity hasn't been his strong suit and if the Browns' line can't stay healthy, Johnson's best shot at yardage comes in the passing game and on plays where the opposing defense is playing to stop Case Keenum and/or Baker Mayfield and leaves a hole open on a draw or an audible.
Felton is creative and explosive in space.
#Browns Mayfield OUT.— Ahaan Rungta (@AhaanRungta) October 20, 2021
Chubb & Hunt OUT.
Possible OL returns on #TNF.
Keenum among #NFL QB's lowest in aDOT, intended air yds/pass since leaving MIN.
DEN ranks bot-11 in the #NFL in pass & rush DVOA. I am starting Demetric Felton Week 7 #FantasyFootball.pic.twitter.com/htqXkZulNh
This is where Felton's skills begin and end. He's a space runner. Despite starting at UCLA, Felton is raw at setting up blocks between the tackles. He may generate a big play on a schemed look like the screen shown above but you're seeking a puncher's chance at a big play rather than reliable touches
Because Broncos' linebackers have been weak against the pass (for years), Felton is indeed worth a start for those with bye weeks and injuries impacting your lineups and you're desperate.
Also profiled on Monday, Freeman still has enough juice to get outside and he's adapting to the zone read work that the Ravens want to do with Lamar Jackson. When healthy, Latavius Murray will still have a role, but Freeman has always been a creative back with burst. While I'm not betting on this committee to evolve into a single-back system, if it were to happen, I'd bet on Freeman to take the lead.
Alex Collins is a safe performer. He understands the scheme, has great footwork, and he's efficient.
When healthy he'll maintain a significant role in the Seahawks' offense while Chris Carson is out. Rashaad Penny is the lottery ticket because he has great speed and improved skills as a zone runner, which was his weakness. This is part of the theme you'll see in my thoughts about Sermon below, but the Seahawks clearly valued Penny for his speed and instincts but not his refined skill for the scheme they actually ran when they drafted him.
Since then, they've only seen flashes of production and have not earned remote the return on their investment. Even so, Penny is a nice addition for a team with the luxury of a spot on its roster to see if he can show he's worth the first-round pick Seattle doled out for him. With DeeJay Dallas and Travis Homer playing well in their roles and Collins' reliability, I doubt Penny suddenly earns Carson's role but with more speed on the field.
If so, you can use Penny as trade bait but again, it's a luxury pick.
Occasionally, I'm asked this question because I have Sermon as my top-ranked rookie talent at the position this year. It's clear that the 49ers have chosen to roll with Elijah Mitchell as its back. The reason is that Kyle Shanahan and his staff value speed more than overall skill.
Mitchell's cutting, timing with zone runs, contact balance, and tackle-breaking are not at the same level of play as Sermon. However, he's much faster. Speed shows up in non-contact practices and as I was told by someone with a ton of experience in the league, about 60 percent of NFL coaches place too much value on these practices when evaluating running backs.
I don't say this lightly. Shanahan and many NFL coaches and personnel decision-makers have blindspots with running back evaluation. They are still stuck in the Gil Brandt era where they think the position is largely about athletic ability and instincts in a similar way that many music critics thought jazz musicians were idiot savants who played from the heart and had no understanding of advanced music concepts.
Shanahan has done this before with Tevin Coleman (twice) and Jerick McKinnon. Pete Carroll has done it with C.J. Prosise ahead of Alex Collins. Denver did it with Devontae Booker ahead of C.J. Anderson.
Sermon is fast enough to start in the NFL, even in Shanahan's system. We've seen him reach the edge multiple times with touches he's earned this year as well as his extensive film in the Big 10 and Big 12 against NFL-caliber athletes. Mitchell is simply faster and Shanahan believes his line can open the holes to maximize that speed.
We'll see if that proves true. However, after Mitchell's 19-104-1 performance against Detroit, Philadelphia limited Mitchell to a 17-42-0 performance. Although Mitchell earned 9-43 against Arizona, his long run of 14 yards accounted for nearly 33 percent of his total rushing output and disguises his play-to-play inefficiency.
Since Week 2, Elijah Mitchell has earned 36-146-1. Sermon has earned 31-135-1 and his play-to-play efficiency has been higher. Where it wasn't on individual plays, Sermon's film reveals a back who is doing more to break and/or elude tackles than Mitchell — even when the end result isn't favorable.
For details about this situation from the perspective of how the coaching staff in San Francisco is myopic about speed for its ground game, check out the first 20 minutes of this podcast I host with J. Moyer.
I also received indirect confirmation about the 49ers' speed bias shortly after posting this podcast that I'll be sharing with RSP subscribers in my October newsletter.
I believe in Trey Sermon's talent. He's shown nothing on the field to counter my assessment. However, I was wrong about the team fit. In April's pre-draft scouting report, I had the 49ers as the worst possible fit because I was concerned about the potential for a piecemeal ground game. I changed my mind after the draft because of the team trading up to get Sermon in the third round and looking at the depth chart and its existing contracts.
Coaching styles fall along the spectrum of matching the scheme to the player on one end and demanding the player fit the scheme on the other. What I didn't consider is that Shanahan and his staff would be dogmatic about demanding specific characteristics to their scheme that aren't as impactful as they think.
I didn't consider the implications of Shanahan's past experience in Atlanta. I saw what transpired: Shanahan tried to ramrod Tevin Coleman into the Atlanta offense as a rookie, discovered that Coleman's experience with the wide zone at Indiana didn't project well to the NFL, and had to implement gap running to get any use from Coleman. This forced Shanahan to cede the lead role to Devonta Freeman, who delivered at a Pro Bowl level.
I didn't consider that Shanahan would err in the same fashion in San Francisco, trying to ramrod Mitchell's speed into the offense. Although I thought San Francisco didn't want to pay Raheem Mostert because he was old for a big second contract (and I think that's still a primary factor), I'm beginning to wonder if they didn't truly see the difference in skill between Mostert and a player like Mitchell, who is a pale imitation at this point.
The same thing is happening with Brandon Aiyuk at wide receiver, which we also discuss in the podcast.
Sermon's best shot of establishing his talent and maintaining a significant role in San Francisco will be reliant on injury or a coaching change. Hopefully, it's Shanahan changing his philosophy to get the best players on the field rather than those who have specific characteristics that fit the offense in theory.
With Jeff Wilson returning in a matter of weeks, Sermon should be available on waiver wires in re-draft formats. I'm trying to buy-low on Sermon in dynasty formats although his value hasn't dropped far enough yet for people to give up on him long-term because they are thinking that Sermon has an issue that's improvable as opposed to the coaching staff having a blind spot.