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How to Navigate Fantasy Football’s Running Back Crisis

If you drafted a running back in fantasy, he probably got hurt in Week 2. Here are the five best options to help your roster.

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There will always be injuries during an NFL season, but Week 2’s spate was extraordinary, specifically because so many star players were impacted. The running back position took a bigger hit than arguably any other spot. The Giants’ Saquon Barkley tore his ACL; the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey suffered a high-ankle sprain and will be out four to six weeks; the 49ers’ Raheem Mostert suffered a mild MCL sprain; Rams rookie Cam Akers injured his ribs against the Eagles and didn’t return after only appearing on three snaps. This comes a week after Colts starting tailback Marlon Mack was lost for the season with a torn Achilles and Broncos part-time halfback Phillip Lindsay suffered a turf toe injury.

These losses put teams without depth in a bind. They also could be troublesome for fantasy team managers who were hoping some of the league’s brightest stars would carry their backfields. For those of you fretting after Week 2’s abnormal rash of injuries, don’t worry just yet. At least, not too much. There are still some potential diamonds in the rough for you to place your waiver claims on or hope to convince a rival manager to trade you. Below are some names for you to target.

Devonta Freeman, Free Agent

It’s been an eventful offseason for Freeman. Back in 2017, the Falcons extended Freeman with a five-year, $41.25 million deal that made him the league’s highest-paid back at the time, but Atlanta cut him in March with three years remaining on the pact. In July, Freeman’s then-agent Kristin Campbell reportedly severed her relationship with the two-time Pro Bowler after he rejected a deal with the Seahawks and interest from the Buccaneers never led to a deal. A week later, Freeman signed with agent Drew Rosenhaus, who intended to get him on a team by “late July.” It’s now late September, but it appears that Freeman could finally be in line to get some work.

Freeman visited with the Eagles over the weekend, but didn’t agree to a contract. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Monday that the Giants, following Barkley’s season-ending injury, hosted Freeman on a visit Monday morning. After Barkley went down Sunday, New York turned to veteran scatback Dion Lewis, who could also be considered an option for RB-needy fantasy managers. At 5-foot-8 and 195 pounds, Lewis is better served as a pass catcher and change-of-pace back; he finished the game with 10 carries for 20 yards and four receptions for 36 yards. His value as a receiving option is noteworthy for PPR leagues, but he turns 30 this week and has topped 1,000 scrimmage yards in a season only once. He may simply not get enough volume to swing a fantasy season. Fourth-year back Wayne Gallman entered the week as the Giants’ only other running back on the depth chart, but was inactive for Week 2. Freeman could be an ideal addition, considering his experience and past production.

Should Freeman land with the Giants, he’d be due for plenty of reps but it wouldn’t be a given he succeeds. According to Warren Sharp’s database, the Giants in 2020 have passed at the highest frequency of any team in the league and have the second-lowest success rate rushing the ball. Barkley is one of the most gifted backs in the league, and prior to his injury he was averaging only 1.8 yards per carry (although he did notch four attempts for 28 yards vs. the Bears in Week 2 after rushing 15 times for 6 total yards vs. the Steelers Week 1). Freeman could perhaps enjoy more success elsewhere, but New York has the clearest need for his skill set.

Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers

Everything but Sunday’s result has seemed to go in the wrong direction for the 49ers. San Francisco will likely be without its nos. 1 and 2 running backs following a Week 2 win against the Jets; Mostert’s MCL sprain will keep him out at least through this weekend against the Giants, and Tevin Coleman is likely to miss “multiple weeks” after suffering a knee injury. That leaves the Niners with McKinnon and third-year pro Jeff Wilson Jr. as their remaining healthy tailbacks on the roster.

McKinnon has scored in each of San Francisco’s first two games this season, including a 5-yard reception Week 1 against the Cardinals and a 16-yard carry in Week 2. He’s an adept pass catcher, and has previously shown he’s a capable runner when healthy. McKinnon hasn’t been healthy since 2017, the last year he’d made an appearance prior to this season. He posted 570 rushing yards on 3.8 yards per carry as the Vikings’ backup tailback, mostly sharing the backfield with Latavius Murray after Dalvin Cook suffered a season-ending injury early in the year. McKinnon signed with San Francisco but missed the last two seasons because of ACL and LCL tears. Now, if he can hold up, he’s going to get plenty of carries. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo missed the second half of Sunday’s win after spraining his ankle, and while he has a chance to play against the Giants this week, it’s not a guarantee. Regardless, unless San Francisco adds another running back to the fold, McKinnon will be the first option out of the backfield. The Giants have allowed 138 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per attempt through two games thus far. McKinnon could be worth a flier this week.

Mike Davis, Carolina Panthers

Davis was a superstar at South Carolina, but a gruesome leg injury in 2013 derailed his career before it ever got off the ground. A fourth-round draft pick in 2015, Davis has previous experience as a fill-in starter, having done so 10 times across stints with the 49ers, Seahawks, and Bears during the first five years of his career. He landed with the Panthers last season, appearing in five games while posting just two carries for 2 yards. Playing behind Christian McCaffrey—who played 93 percent of the Panthers’ offensive snaps last season and was the only RB to play at least 85 percent—doesn’t offer much opportunity. Now, Davis is in line to bear the biggest role of his NFL career.

First-year coach Matt Rhule had praised Davis for his performance in training camp and lauded him again Monday, calling Davis “a starting running back in the National Football League.” If he is, he’ll need some help from Carolina’s offensive line. The Panthers’ unit only boasts one player in the top 25 of run-block grades at their position (Taylor Moton, 71.7—24th among OTs), per Pro Football Focus, suggesting that the group isn’t a dominant force in the run game.

Davis isn’t the receiving weapon that McCaffrey is—there are few running backs close to his caliber in that regard—but he could still see sizable usage. Even before McCaffrey’s injury, Rhule seemed to show an affinity for him and desire to get him the ball. With McCaffrey out of the lineup, snatch Davis up if he’s available.

Joshua Kelley, Los Angeles Chargers

Anthony Lynn hasn’t handed rookie quarterback Justin Herbert the keys to the offense just yet, but if he does, Kelley’s value will only rise. After receiving 12 carries for 60 yards against the Bengals with Tyrod Taylor under center Week 1, Kelley’s workload increased to 23 carries for 64 yards and two catches for 49 yards with Herbert starting against the Chiefs in Week 2.

The Chargers ran the ball on 58 percent of their snaps, the third-highest frequency among teams in Week 2, according to Sharp’s database, an increase of 3 percentage points from Week 1. That means plenty of opportunities for Los Angeles’s tailbacks to get the ball. We already know starter Austin Ekeler is particularly dynamic as a receiver, but Kelley is a very good no. 2. The fourth-round pick was on the field for 52 percent of the Chargers’ offensive snaps against Kansas City (up from 27 percent in Week 1), and if Herbert continues to start, he should sustain his usage. Kelley was a popular waiver-wire option after his debut, but if he’s still there, don’t hesitate to grab him.

Darrell Henderson Jr., Los Angeles Rams

The Rams boast a three-man rotating door at tailback between Henderson, Malcolm Brown, and Cam Akers. But Akers suffered a rib injury on Sunday that he never returned from, and Brown was limited toward the end of the game by a finger injury. The status of either player for Week 3 is unclear, but what we do know is that Henderson is currently the only fully healthy member of the trio.

With a healthy offensive line, Sean McVay has the Rams offense rolling this season, and the running game has benefited. Through two games, Los Angeles ranks third in the league in rushing yards per game (172.0), and if Brown or Akers aren’t able to play against the Bills this weekend, Henderson could have an increased role. When Akers got injured last week, the Rams turned to Henderson near the goal line, and he punched in a 2-yard score. Henderson finished with 12 carries for 81 yards, too. Per Sharp’s database, the Rams have run the ball at the highest frequency of any team in the league so far (57 percent of snaps). As long as L.A.’s offense is humming, it’s difficult to imagine them abandoning the run game any time soon.