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Fantasy Playbook: Which Fringe Running Backs Can You Trust?

Oft-sidelined backs like David Montgomery, Melvin Gordon III, and Joe Mixon had fantasy-relevant stat lines in Week 8. But are any of them worth leaning on going forward?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sit/start decisions in fantasy football are always agonizing, and that’s been particularly true this year for a group of high-upside but maddeningly unpredictable flex options at running back. Guys like the Bears’ David Montgomery, the Bengals’ Joe Mixon, the Chargers’ Melvin Gordon III, and the Eagles’ backfield duo of Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard all entered the season with enough hype to come off the board as consensus top-100 picks by ADP. But all five have been incredibly tough to trust: It seems like every time you plug one of them into your lineup, he disappears, and every time you sit one of them, he shines.

Judging by start percentages at ESPN, that mercurial group of backs generated oodles of post-lineup-lock dread among fantasy owners on Sunday. Montgomery exploded in a breakout game, netting 147 yards and a score to post a career-high 27.4 PPR points … and was started in just 35.4 percent of fantasy leagues. Sanders wasn’t far behind, posting 22.8 PPR points with 118 yards and a touchdown on six touches—and got the start in just 18.0 percent of leagues. His backfield mate in Howard (111 total yards and a TD on 23 touches) nabbed another 18.1 points but was started in 29.2 percent of leagues. Even Gordon (11.4 PPR points) and Mixon (who notched 17.7 PPR points)—both of whom finished 2018 as RB1s—drew starts in fewer than 65 percent of leagues. But while it’s easy to lament those missed fantasy points, it’s much tougher to know what to do with those guys going forward. Were Montgomery, Sanders, Howard, Mixon, and Gordon’s respective scoring outbursts this week more misleading outliers—or were they a sign of things to come?

Montgomery looks like the best bet for sustained, bankable production going forward—thanks in large part to what seems to be a rededication to the run in Chicago. That new focus starts right at the top with head coach Matt Nagy: After calling just seven running plays in a home loss to New Orleans last week, Nagy told the team his game plan was “horse shit,” and that “it’s going to change.” And we certainly saw that come to fruition in the team’s narrow 17-16 loss to the Chargers on Sunday. The Bears posted seasons highs with 38 rush attempts for 162 yards, getting over 100 yards for the first time since Week 2. Montgomery, who’d previously been used in a confusing timeshare with the ineffective Tarik Cohen, was the clear lead back in this one, carrying the ball a career-high 27 times for 135 yards and a touchdown. His long run of the day was this 55-yard scamper late in the second quarter, which led to a field goal.

Montgomery does have a few things working against him going forward: The Bears’ passing offense has not been effective under Mitchell Trubisky, which should lead to plenty of packed boxes to run into for Monty. And the team’s banged-up offensive line hasn’t been great, either: That unit came into the week ranked 29th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards metric. But Montgomery also has the second-easiest future schedule for running backs, according to Yahoo’s Brad Evans. Next week’s matchup with the Eagles will be tough, but the Bears draw juicy running-back matchups against the Lions’ rough run defense in weeks 10 and 13, the Packers’ porous run front in Week 15, and then the Chiefs in Week 16. More than any of that, though, I think we saw a sea change in Nagy’s strategy going forward, and he’ll continue to feed his third-round rookie in order to take as much pressure off of Trubisky as possible. That potential for volume should trump Montgomery’s less-than-ideal supporting cast.

The Eagles’ backfield duo is tougher to project. Sanders has flashed dynamic playmaking talent (and the versatility he’s shown as a runner and pass catcher early on in his career puts him in rare company through eight games), but has also struggled with decisiveness when given heavy doses of carries on the ground. The team clearly doesn’t trust him to carry a full load out of the backfield, and has increasingly leaned on Howard, who in the past three weeks has carried the ball 47 times to Sanders’s 12 totes. Sanders, meanwhile, has showcased plenty of utility in the passing game: The rookie has been featured as a downfield pass catcher and has out-targeted Howard nine to three in the past three weeks, outgaining him 141 yards to 21 through the air. Going forward, Sanders could begin to earn more of a role in the ground game—and his 65-yard jail-break run from a two-running-back set on Sunday certainly can’t hurt—but until he does, the Eagles’ split-role committee makes both Howard and Sanders high-variance flex plays for the immediate future. It’s worth monitoring Sanders’s status for next week’s matchup against the Bears: He exited the game with a shoulder injury, though it doesn’t appear to be serious.

As for Gordon and Mixon, neither of their rest-of-season outlooks appear particularly bright. Gordon’s return to the field has been an abject disaster: In the four games since the end of his holdout, Gordon’s gained 112 yards and one touchdown on 44 carries—a paltry 2.54 yards per tote—with an additional 37 yards and a score on 11 receptions. Outside of a 19-yard touchdown run on Sunday, Gordon’s mostly looked sluggish and ineffective behind an injury-wracked Chargers line and has surrendered most of the team’s lucrative passing game action to the electric Austin Ekeler. And while the team bizarrely seems committed to force-feeding their fifth-year back in the ground game, they’re also reportedly looking to trade Gordon, further muddying his fantasy value in the second half of the year. Unless something drastic changes in the L.A. backfield—or he’s traded to a fantasy-friendly team—Gordon’s arrow is pointing down.

I’d say the same for Mixon, who managed to salvage an otherwise forgettable fantasy day in Cincinnati’s 24-10 loss to the Rams with a 1-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. The Bengals rank dead last in Football Outsiders’s adjusted line yards, and Mixon’s typically had nowhere to go, as we saw last week against the Jaguars when he needed to create 17 yards after contact just to net a total of 2 yards on 10 carries. He’s yet to find the end zone on the ground, and remains an unreliable threat through the air, carrying a meager 7 percent target share in the passing game into this week (for reference, Mixon’s target share was 12 percent last year, and Christian McCaffrey leads all running backs this season with a 21 percent share). Mixon’s stuck on a bad team that’s typically playing from behind and isn’t using him regularly in the passing game. I’m not optimistic Sunday’s performance is the start of a new trend.

OK, on to the rest of the happenings around the league.

Risers and Sliders

Riser: RB Tevin Coleman, 49ers

Coleman exploded for four touchdowns in the Niners’ 51-13 rout of the Panthers, carrying the ball 11 times for 105 yards and three scores while adding a pair of receptions for 13 yards and a score. The 26-year-old back was decisive in picking lanes and slicing up into the second level, ripping off separate gains of 48, 22, and 19 yards in the game. After missing weeks 2-4 with an ankle sprain, Coleman has emerged as the clear lead back on the NFL’s best (and highest-volume) rushing team over the past three weeks. Start him in all formats going forward.

Slider: QB Sam Darnold, Jets

Darnold failed to bounce back from a nightmarish four-interception outing against the Patriots last week, tossing another three picks in the Jets’ 29-15 loss to the Jaguars. The Jets signal-caller finished the day 21-of-30 for 218 yards, mustering 12.6 fantasy points thanks to a pair of touchdown passes, but his complete lack of ball security remains a major concern as New York heads into the second half of the year. Darnold now has seven interceptions in the past two weeks and 23 total in 17 career games. The second-year pro remains on the QB-streaming radar because of his incredibly easy schedule over the next six weeks (at the Dolphins, vs. the Giants, at the Redskins, vs. the Raiders, at the Bengals, and vs. the Dolphins again), but unless he can improve his decision-making, he’ll have a tough time capitalizing on that cakewalk slate. He suffered a sprained thumb during the loss, so monitor his status on the injury report this week.

Riser: RB Latavius Murray, Saints

Murray has flourished in relief of an injured Alvin Kamara, and posted his second straight monster outing for the Saints in the team’s 31-9 blowout of the Cardinals. Murray carried the ball 21 times for 102 yards and a score while adding nine catches for 55 yards and a touchdown to give him 36.7 PPR points on the day. This performance comes on the heels of a 32.0-point day last week, and while Kamara has a good chance to return after the team’s Week 9 bye, Murray’s clearly played well enough to secure himself a bigger share of the team’s running back workload going forward.

Slider: QB Mitchell Trubisky, Bears

Trubisky had another rough outing in Chicago’s 17-16 loss to the Chargers, completing 23 of 35 passes for 253 yards, a pick, and a lost fumble to finish with 7.1 points on the day. After coming into the week the overall QB34 in fantasy points per game (11.4), Trubisky’s bound to drop further down the ranks—and his lack of development as a passer isn’t the only thing to blame. The former second overall pick finished last season as the QB11 in fantasy points per game (18.8 in 14 games) thanks to a nice boost his 421 yards and three touchdowns in the ground game added to his bottom line. This year, Trubisky has been poor as a passer, but he’s also tallied just 31 yards and zero touchdowns on the ground in six games.

Riser: WR Darius Slayton, Giants

Slayton has developed some intriguing chemistry with Daniel Jones. The two rookies linked up for a few big plays in the Giants’ 31-26 loss to the Lions on Sunday, with Slayton finishing with two catches for 50 yards and two touchdowns, just missing on a third touchdown late in the game. Boasting good size (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) and elite downfield speed (he ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at the combine) Slayton provides big-play potential for New York and has a good shot to carve out a bigger piece of the passing game pie going forward.

Slider: TE Zach Ertz, Eagles

Ertz caught two of his four targets for 20 yards in the 31-13 blowout of the Bills, and was once again overshadowed by second-year tight end Dallas Goedert, who reeled in three catches for 22 yards and a score. That’s becoming a trend in the Philly offense: Goedert has outscored the veteran tight end 37.9 to 19.2 in PPR over the past three weeks with a near equal target share (17 to 16 in favor of Ertz). Ertz’s stranglehold on the no. 1 receiving role in the Philly passing game is no more. The 28-year-old tight end is still startable in all formats at the shallow position, but Goedert should continue to eat into his bottom line.

Riser: TE Jonnu Smith, Titans

With starter Delanie Walker hobbled by an ankle injury the past two weeks, Smith stepped up into a bigger role in the Tennessee offense, posting six catches on seven targets for 78 yards and a touchdown (19.8 PPR points) in Sunday’s 27-23 win over the Buccaneers. It was the second straight promising game for the third-year pro, who caught three passes for 64 yards (for 9.4 points) last week. He remains a streaming option at tight end as long as Walker remains limited.

Cutting Up the Pie

Seahawks Give Rashaad Penny Some Work

After playing him on just two snaps last week, the Seahawks gave Penny a more featured role in the team’s 27-20 win over the Falcons on Sunday. He carried the ball eight times for 55 yards, busting out for several long runs (including for 17 yards, 12 yards, and 9 yards) while showcasing decisiveness and speed through the hole. Finally back to full health after nursing an ankle injury over the past few weeks, Penny’s uptick in usage could mean one of several things: One, it could be that the Seahawks are looking to give starter Chris Carson a little bit of help to keep him from wearing down throughout the year. Or, two, Seattle may have been looking to drive up Penny’s trade value a little bit (he has been the subject of trade rumors this week). In any case, it makes Penny (who’s rostered in just 31 percent of leagues) one to monitor this week.

Lions Shake Things Up at RB

When Kerryon Johnson was placed on injured reserve last week with a knee injury, it left more questions than answers at the running back spot for Detroit. After one game, it’s looking like the job of de facto lead back is Tra Carson’s to lose. Carson, a 27-year-old veteran recently picked up on waivers from the Packers, was the surprising go-to guy out the gates for the Lions, carrying the ball 12 times for 34 yards in the team’s 31-26 win over the Giants. Rookie Ty Johnson was the no. 2 in the backfield, adding seven carries for 25 yards and one catch for 13 yards, while Paul Perkins (three carries, 4 yards) and J.D. McKissic (one carry for negative-1 yard plus three catches for 2 yards) chipped in. None of the four backs was particularly effective, with Detroit gaining just 59 yards on 24 totes, but Carson should be a popular waiver-wire add this week.

Darrell Henderson Leads Backfield Touches for Rams

Henderson didn’t exactly post a massive outing against the Bengals, rushing 11 times for 49 yards while adding a pair of catches for 20 more—but it is worth noting that the rookie out-touched Todd Gurley 13-10 in the blowout and could be slowly earning a bigger piece of the backfield pie with Malcolm Brown on the shelf. Gurley, who finished with 10 carries for 44 yards and a touchdown, is still the clear starter, but Henderson is a smart stash in case Gurley’s knee deteriorates as the year goes on.

The Injury Report

RB Chase Edmonds, Cardinals: Edmonds left Sunday’s game late with a hamstring injury and did not return. With David Johnson inactive, the Cardinals turned to the recently signed Zach Zenner, who finished out the game at that spot. Zenner and Alfred Morris (also signed last week) are the next men up for Arizona if neither Johnson nor Edmonds can play next week against the fearsome 49ers defense.

WR Dede Westbrook, Jaguars: Westbrook re-aggravated a neck/shoulder in the second half and didn’t return. If the third-year pro misses any time, it could boost the passing-game roles for Chris Conley (who caught four passes for 103 yards and one touchdown against the Jets) and Keelan Cole (two catches, 12 yards, one touchdown).

WR Brandin Cooks, Rams: Cooks suffered a concussion on his first target of the game and did not return. It’s his second concussion this season, and he’s had several in his career, which complicates his recovery timeline. Expect Cooks to miss some time; Josh Reynolds becomes the next man up in the team’s three-receiver sets.

RB Matt Breida (ankle), RB Jeff Wilson (stinger), 49ers: The 49ers came out of their blowout win over the Panthers banged up at the running back spot, with Breida exiting the game with an ankle injury and Wilson getting knocked out of the matchup with a stinger. Breida wanted to go back in, per head coach Kyle Shanahan, so his injury may not be serious, but go grab Raheem Mostert this week in case either back misses time.

RB Miles Sanders, Eagles: Sanders left Sunday’s game with a shoulder injury and didn’t return. The rookie back seemed confident he’d be ready to roll next week, but keep an eye on the injury report this week. If Sanders misses time, it’s a boost for Jordan Howard and puts backup Boston Scott on the fantasy radar.

Smash the Add Button

Here’s a few must-add players to target on this week’s waiver wire.

WR Josh Reynolds, Rams (rostered in zero percent of Yahoo leagues): With Cooks’s availability up in the air following the Rams’ Week 9 bye, now’s the time to grab Reynolds and see how that injury situation pans out. Reynolds grabbed three catches for 73 yards and a touchdown after Cooks went out against the Bengals.

WR Chris Conley, Jaguars (3 percent): If Dede Westbrook misses extended time, Conley could move into a bigger role opposite DJ Chark. The über-athletic wideout caught four of seven targets for 103 yards and a touchdown on Sunday after posting a three-catch, 83-yard line (with a two-point conversion) on seven targets last week. He’s trending up.

TE Dallas Goedert, Eagles (20 percent): Geodert’s athleticism and size downfield makes him a scintillating target for Carson Wentz. He’s posted nine-plus PPR points in four of his past five games and is worth an add at a thin TE position.

WR Darius Slayton, Giants (4 percent): Slayton’s shown growing chemistry with fellow rookie Daniel Jones, and while the Giants offense is prone to big swings in effectiveness from game to game, Slayton is a big-play and red zone threat who could fill a flex spot with four teams on bye in Week 9.

RB Raheem Mostert, 49ers (6 percent): This is a speculative add until we know more about the extent of Breida’s injuries from Sunday, but the no. 2 job behind Coleman falls to Mostert if Breida misses any time. That’s a valuable fantasy role on a run-heavy team like the 49ers.

RB Tra Carson, Lions (zero percent): The jury’s still out on whether Carson can hold on to the lead-back job in Detroit, but he’s worth an add for RB-needy teams. The Lions face an exploitable Raiders defense next week.

The Watch List

Here’s a handful of players to add to your waiver-wire watch list. Be ready to pounce.

TE Noah Fant, Broncos (13 percent): Fant was one of the big beneficiaries of the Emmanuel Sanders trade, catching five of eight targets (both season highs) in the Broncos’ loss to the Colts. He turned that into only 26 yards, and has struggled to develop as a seam-stretching threat for the Broncos, but his market share in the team’s passing game is pointing up.

TE Jonnu Smith, Titans (19 percent): Smith’s fantasy value rests on Delanie Walker’s health, but if Walker is forced to miss more time with an ankle injury, Smith’s an option as a TE streamer in Week 9.