By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
Run-blocking is vital to the success of NFL ball-carriers. The matchups in the trenches are as important to understand as receiver/cornerback duels, as teams will often abandon the run completely if they can’t control the line of scrimmage. Conversely, if an o-line opens big holes for their running backs, the team is likely to exploit this advantage as long as they’re close or ahead on the scoreboard. Predicting the outcome of this often-unglamorous struggle helps fantasy players make decisions at the most difficult position to forecast.
This week I’m looking at two running backs whose fantasy stock has probably hit its high-water mark, and two guys whose gains are growing.
Stock Up: Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
You don’t need me to tell you that Melvin Gordon has been great. In a time when workhorse running backs are as rare as the pygmy three-toed sloth, his stats sparkle. No one expects Gordon to maintain his 1,986-yard, 24-touchdown pace, but can he finish as fantasy’s number-one back? Provided his health holds up, Gordon’s bell-cow status is not in question. Austin Ekeler is the perfect complementary back; sure, he will be an occasional thorn in the side of Gordon owners, but the Chargers have to like the division of labor in this backfield. The main unknown is the play of this offensive line.
So far, the Chargers’ front five has been vastly improved from previous years, which is a big part of the career year Gordon is having. This group is 7th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards metric, which measures their ability to create space for running backs. No team has seen their RBs stuffed behind the line as infrequently as the Chargers (Gordon’s primary competition is his cross-town rival, Todd Gurley. Guess whose line is numero uno in FO’s run-blocking metric? The Rams). Though left guard Dan Feeney has been wildly inconsistent, Mike Pouncey and Michael Schofield are a terrific tandem inside. Pouncey is an offseason acquisition paying huge dividends for the Chargers’ ground game. What’s more, Sam Tevi has been surprisingly solid filling in for a returning Joe Barksdale at right tackle, giving the unit enviable depth at an essential position.
Before their Week 16 date with Baltimore — a defense that is very rude to running backs — the Chargers face an array of vulnerable defenses. Pittsburgh (Week 13) has a formidable front but even they are allowing a healthy 4.2 yards per carry. Excluding the Steelers, the rest of the defensive lines on L.A.’s slate have an average rank of 23 in Football Outsiders’ run defense metric. L.A.’s opponents have little chance to control the line of scrimmage, giving Gordon an excellent opportunity to maintain his sterling 5.12 yards per carry average. Touchdown regression is inevitable, but Gordon remains a good bet to finish as fantasy’s first or second-best back.
Stock Down: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
What can we say about the wondrous talent that is Saquon Barkley? He is that rare player who makes offensive line analysis seem irrelevant — at least, so far. Paced by right tackle Chad Wheeler, the Giants’ run blocking is the worst in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders — and it’s not close. Buffalo’s 4.00 adjusted line yards ranks 24th of 32 and their average is a full yard better than New York’s. Despite this, Barkley is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and right behind Gordon on the fantasy leaderboard!
If that doesn’t scream “transcendental ability,” I don’t know what does. And “SaQuads” should run roughshod over Atlanta this week. However, this offense is sputtering badly. The line isn’t protecting Eli Manning and it might not matter, with him looking ready to join his brother on the TV commercial circuit. The term “washed” was coined for players putting out tape like Eli’s Week 6 against Philadelphia.
The Giants scored with second-round draft pick Will Hernandez, a building block at left tackle, but jettisoning Ereck Flowers hasn’t solved all their problems. Circle matchups with Tampa Bay and Washington (twice), but there are limits to what a stud running back can do on a dysfunctional offense. Barkley doesn’t have to hit a rookie wall and/or deal with an injury to see Alvin Kamara and James Conner out-produce him. I don’t believe he can sustain his current level of production without an offensive renaissance in the Big Apple. That said, just think about what he’ll be able to do with a line and quarterback that are average or better…
Stock Up: Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts
Entering the season I expected the Colts’ offensive line to have their growing pains but establish themselves as a unit on the rise. After six games, they’re right on schedule. While a little better than average at run blocking, the Colts’ pass protection has been excellent. What’s impressive is that they’ve achieved this despite a rash of injuries, including a third-stringer playing right tackle. After a down year, pivotman Ryan Kelly has rediscovered his run-blocking chops and versatile rookie Braden Smith was an instant hit.
Andrew Luck has kept this offense afloat despite injuries to both the line and the skill positions. RB Marlon Mack had a very productive outing in his first game back, locking down the early-down role in Indy. This week’s opponent, Buffalo, is no pushover on defense, but neither are the Colts these days. The Bills’ fill-in QB, Derek Anderson, isn’t likely to light them up, which probably means carries for Mack in a neutral or positive game-script. I’m not sure I’m on board with PlayerProfiler’s Marshawn Lynch comparison, but their data tells us that only about 25% of college prospects can top his speed and explosiveness. He’s been a frustrating fantasy asset to date, but at last, everything is lining up for Mack.
Stock Down: Peyton Barber, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Barber’s stock soared after a more-than-solid performance in Week 6, though the fact that it came against Atlanta can’t be overlooked. The Falcons’ decimated defense is the best draw a back can get outside of Kansas City. The cold, hard fact is that the Bucs’ offensive line is only marginally better at run-blocking than the Giants. This is clearly apparent in Barber’s box scores until he ran into (and through) the Falcon D.
While Tampa Bay faced a gauntlet of tough run defenses in September, I don’t believe the line can capitalize against softer fronts in Cleveland and Cincinnati over the next two weeks. None of these guys is playing particularly well in the running game, as even the studly Ali Marpet is much better in pass pro. Barber is a hard-nosed back who runs with power and optimal pad level, but he’s no Saquan Barkley. Yes, he’s fended off the threat of rookie Ronald Jones, at least for now, but his big game against Atlanta was more likely an aberration than the start of a trend.