During the 2023 season, fantasy football analyst Jorge Martin will provide weekly analysis of some of the muddiest fantasy RB situations while looking ahead to future matchups.
Legendary Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully, when talking about a player’s injury status, described him as day-to-day. “Well, aren’t we all?” the iconic voice quipped.
When it comes to the NFL and running backs, “day to day” is the best way to describe how to approach the number of committees that keep cropping up with each new injury to lead runners. At the very least, it's "week to week."
Scott Pianowski is doing his usual excellent work describing the landscape of the running back position across the league in another Yahoo feature. Here, though, we’re taking our weekly look at several running back situations, some that might be gaining clarity while others were dropped into chaos by injuries to star runners.
As usual, a look ahead to the upcoming opponent might help enlighten fantasy managers on how usage could look in that game. Let’s start with the Dawg Pound.
Since 2018, Nick Chubb has been a pillar of consistency, rushing for over 1,000 yards in four straight seasons after barely missing that figure his rookie season. His severe knee injury opens up the backfield for Jerome Ford, Pierre Strong Jr., and the return of Kareem Hunt fresh off free agency.
Monday night, Ford rushed for 106 yards on 16 carries, with 69 yards coming on a run that set up a one-yard plunge by Strong. Ford out-snapped Strong 43-13, and had more carries, 16-2 (thanks to Fantasy Points Data’s Bellcow Report). This being Wednesday, Ford is the player whom many fantasy managers spent large sums of their FAB to acquire. Hunt entering into the mix, and his familiarity with the offense, will likely render Strong to a distant third on the depth chart.
Hunt battled injuries in 2022 and did not have the same burst. Was that injury related, or a factor of being an older back at age 28? This is going to become apparent in the coming weeks as we see him running on fresher legs that did not go through training camp. Hunt’s work in the passing game could get him on the field, as he drew 44 targets last year and caught 35 for 210 yards.
For this week, Ford should be the leader in touches (Kevin Stefanski already labeled him the starter), though expect Hunt to get into the game about as much as Strong did on Monday. Going up against a Tennessee defense that is tied for third with 130 rushing yards allowed in 2023, it’s a tough task this week for the Browns backfield. No running back has produced more than 45 yards against the Titans.
Ford is a tepid start, and Hunt is a speculative pickup for future games.
It’s OK to admit that starting D’Andre Swift this past Thursday against the Vikings came with an uneasy feeling. Sometimes poker players call so they can see the river card and get rewarded with a straight to win the pot. That’s what starting Swift felt like when he lugged the ball 28 times for 175 yards and a score. He added three catches for 6 yards.
Does Swift keep the lead gig, or does Kenneth Gainwell regain the starting role he relinquished because he missed a game due to a rib injury? There is no word on Gainwell’s injury status, and Boston Scott is in the concussion protocol. If both miss the next game, it clearly positions Swift to be the lead runner. Rashaad Penny would be a distant No. 2.
The Eagles travel to Tampa Bay, and the Buccaneers have not allowed more than 35 yards to any ballcarrier this year. The Eagles could choose to open the passing game, as the Bucs have already allowed a pair of 100-yard receivers. It’s hard to sit Swift, but this will not be an easy road matchup.
Not so fast.
The Lions have clearly split touches between running backs the past two seasons. Gibbs drew nine targets last week, which is a good indicator that he will continue to be very involved in the passing game. His seven carries for 27 yards, though, show that the Lions will likely find someone else on early downs.
Enter Craig Reynolds, who ran the ball three times for 7 yards after Montgomery’s injury. Reynolds is the no-frills banger who is reminiscent of Jamaal Williams without the emotional postgame speeches.
In a matchup with the Falcons, Gibbs has breakout potential, while fellow first-rounder Bijan Robinson is on the other sideline. Gibbs’ touches jumped from nine to 14 in Week 2. Miles Sanders put up 98 total yards in Week 1 against the Falcons, so Gibbs could follow suit if he keeps seeing touches, especially in the passing game.
The practice reports for the Chargers will get plenty of scrutiny to see if Austin Ekeler has any chance to return. He was missed last week, as Joshua Kelley was limited to 39 yards on 13 carries against a stout Tennessee defense. No other Chargers running back saw more than four rush attempts last week.
If Ekeler can’t go, Kelley is poised to lead the backfield again, though in a much more forgiving matchup against Minnesota. The Vikings just got trampled by Swift and the Eagles, so Kelley could see some room to run. Then again, in a game on the fast track in Minnesota and with an over/under of 54, this game could turn into an offensive slugfest with tons of passing from both sides. Kelley has just two targets on the season.
If Ekeler plays, Kelley goes back to second fiddle, where he was great in the opener.
With 18 carries for 121 yards against Bill Belichick’s New England defense, Raheem Mostert was the clear lead back for the Dolphins. Considering his history with head coach Mike McDaniel, Mostert should be the clear lead runner in Miami. But his age (31) and extensive injury history, which have limited him in recent years, must be taken into account.
Nonetheless, Mostert should lead the backfield against the Broncos this week, who just got lit up by Brian Robinson for 129 total yards and two touchdowns. However, don’t be surprised if he sits out Wednesday's practice (he did last week).
Keep an eye on De’Von Achane’s usage in Week 3, too. Last week, he saw just five snaps after being inactive the previous week. If his snap usage increases, it could be a sign that a larger role looms later in the season. Remember, he was drafted in the third round by the Dolphins, who were enamored with how his speed would fit into their offense.
Also, keep in mind the weather for Sunday. It’s predicted at 85 degrees with likely thunderstorms. The positioning of the benches for early games means visitors’ benches in South Florida are often in the sun and incredibly hot and humid. That wears on teams in September matchups.
Saquon Barkley's injury is a gut punch. Joining Daniel Jones in dragging the Giants from the precipice of an 0-2 start to a thrilling 31-28 victory in Arizona, Barkley sprained his ankle and has already been ruled out for Week 3. It’s not clear how long he’ll miss.
With a game coming up against the 49ers on Thursday, Breida might not have much room to run. Keep an eye on Eric Gray, though. The rookie fifth-rounder has just two touches thus far, both on punt returns. He did have 1,366 yards at Oklahoma last year, so if his touch count increases he could become a factor in Barkley’s absence.
The D’Onta Foreman inactive in Week 2 reset the pecking order among Chicago running backs, starting with Khalil Herbert and then rookie Roschon Johnson. In the game against the Buccaneers, it appeared that each back had series to themselves, and Johnson’s size and speed shined on a 29-yard run that accounted for most of his 32 yards on four carries.
Herbert will continue to be the starter, with Johnson gaining. This week, however, might not be conducive to much running, as the Bears travel to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes sets up to have a big day against a Bears defense that just gave up 317 yards to Baker Mayfield.
Justin Fields might have to play catch-up against the Super Bowl champs, leaving behind the running game.
Time for the Gus Bus or Justice for All? In the first game after J.K. Dobbins’ season was ended by an Achilles injury, the usage among Ravens running backs was a near draw between Gus Edwards and Justice Hill. Edwards led in rushing yards 62-41 and scored the lone touchdown between the two. Hill had the advantage in snaps (39-31), routes run (20-8) and carries inside the five (4-1), so could the pendulum swing his way in the weeks ahead?
The smart money would be on Hill because of the larger role in the passing game, but he's been ruled out for Week 3. There is something about Edwards that consistently has him seeing touches when he’s healthy. He’s also a 6-foot-1, 238-pound battering ram, which should eventually mean more touches in the red zone. Also, keep in mind that veteran NFL backs Melvin Gordon and Kenyan Drake are on the practice roster, so either or both could get elevated in the future.
This week is a tougher matchup for the ground game against the Colts, who limited Texans running backs to 49 combined yards. The secondary, however, is beatable, so look for Lamar Jackson to open things up in the passing game.