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.
Our turbulent stock market is a reminder that what goes up must come down, and the same goes for fantasy assets. While “buy low, sell high” is our trade mantra, predicting the future for those assets is essential to timing those transactions. Today’s focus is on running backs whose stock seems poised to plunge after their next game, or guys whose price will rise after Week 6.
Stock Down: David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Touchdowns have made David Johnson a solid RB2 to date, including a pair of trips to pay-dirt in Week 5, but how often is the Cardinals’ anemic offense going to put him in position to score? If you believe that Arizona’s coaching staff is simply slow to realizing how to utilize their most dynamic weapon, Johnson is a buy-low. If you don’t, he’s a sell-high. A banged-up Cardinals’ o-line is responsible for the league’s fourth-worst run-blocking, according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted-line-yards metric, and provides their bell-cow back with a pitiful .84 yards before contact. They’ve had little success except on runs behind D.J. Humphries. The left tackle is having a solid season, but this week he squares off with Minnesota’s formidable duo in Danielle Hunter and Linval Joseph. The Vikings should dominate the line of scrimmage this week, dooming the up-the-gut runs offensive coordinator Mike McCoy insists on calling.
Maybe this is the week Johnson is targeted more frequently in the passing game. Maybe this is the week it all clicks for rookie Josh Rosen. Maybe this is the week he creates a steadier supply of scoring opportunities. That’s too many maybes for me. This contest could be Johnson’s first of several clunkers going forward this year.
Stock Up: Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
I was initially skeptical of McCaffrey’s rushing potential behind an injury-riddled offensive line, especially given his rookie campaign struggles between the tackles. That said, we’re seeing more of the Stanford Run-CMC in his second professional season and, at least through five weeks, his o-line is somehow second only to the Rams in Football Outsiders’ run-blocking metric. Second-year man Taylor Moton has been a revelation at right tackle and Ryan Kalil is anchoring the middle of the line. Carolina backs average five yards per carry and have only been stuffed at or behind the line on 14% of their carries (part of a four-way tie for the NFL’s lowest percentage). McCaffrey’s 130.3 yards-from-scrimmage average leads all RBs. Week 6 brings a favorable matchup with Washington, who are near the bottom of the league in adjusted line yards allowed. While linebacker Zach Brown is an enforcer in the running game, promising Alabama grads Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne aren’t consistent roadblocks on the defensive line just yet. This week, McCaffrey is likely to solidify his grip on peak fantasy value.
Stock Down: Isaiah Crowell, New York Jets
With two forbidding matchups ahead (Minnesota and Chicago), this would be a good time to trade Isaiah Crowell. The Crow feasted on Denver’s suddenly vulnerable defense last week, piling up 219 rushing yards. He has three blow-up performances to go with two duds in five total games. New York’s Week 6 opponent is an Indianapolis defense that grades pretty well in run defense, dating back to 2017. Last week’s showing notwithstanding, the Jets’ line ranks 25th in Football Outsiders’ formula. No member of this unit is above average in the running game, while Indy’s Denico Autry, Darius Leonard and Margus Hunt have all been tough on opposing backs this year. To be fair, that trio is nursing injuries. Should two out of three miss the game, Crowell’s outlook would brighten but his involvement in the offense is still a concern. A game-script-dependent pounder, Crowell is being out-snapped by the more versatile Bilal Powell on a weekly basis. Crowell flopped in losses to Miami and Jacksonville. Should the prolific passing of Andrew Luck exploit a secondary likely to be missing two of its best cornerbacks, the Jets will turn to Powell predominately.
Complicating matters is Crowell’s health — he was a DNP in the team’s Wednesday and Thursday practices. The RB has almost certainly posted his season-highs already, so once his health is assured he’s a strong sell candidate.
Stock Up: Sony Michel, New England Patriots
Sony Michel fell two yards short of topping the century mark in consecutive games last week. Now he gets to go to work on a Kansas City defense that is allowing a league-worst 5.8 yards per carry to opposing running backs. Lineman Chris Jones is becoming a terror for opposing offenses, but otherwise the Pats have a clear edge in the trenches. Michel is the beneficiary of the NFL’s sixth best run-blocking line, according to Football Outsiders, and a 14% stuff rate. This group is getting it done in the ground game, especially on inside runs.
It’s also a dream matchup for James White, but Week 6 could be the high-water mark for the Patriots’ receiving back. New England can do damage to this defense in a number of ways, but no team surrenders more fantasy points to pass-catching backs than the Chiefs. With Michel surging, Julian Edelman’s return from suspension and Josh Gordon working his way back to full health, this is probably White’s last showcase game. My advice is to shop him while he’s a top-10 back even in non-PPR leagues. On the other hand, a multifaceted offense is only good news for Michel as the last goal-line back standing on a team that positioned LeGarrette Blount to score 18 touchdowns two seasons ago. This is probably our last chance to acquire Michel before he’s widely regarded as a top 10 RB.
Stock Up: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
Similarly, Week 6’s matchup with San Francisco is likely to be Aaron Jones’ coming-out party. Though the big-play back has been frustratingly underused up to this point, Green Bay’s front-five is somehow 9th in adjusted line yards and tied for 7th in yards per carry — paced by Jones’ six yards a pop. The 49ers are an enticing matchup for RBs, allowing an average of 78 rushing yards and a touchdown. Arik Armstead is their sole lineman who has struck fear in the hearts of running backs this season. Fortunately for Jones, the interior of Green Bay’s line is blocking well. The only way he doesn’t get double-digit carries in this one is if the 49ers put the Packers in a hole, as Detroit did in their Week 5 win. While a slow start and special-teams miscues contributed to Green Bay’s deficit, the Lions did score four offensive touchdowns. Against a defense that is surprisingly 4th in total yards allowed, the 49ers’ injury-wracked attack is unlikely to force Aaron Rodgers into another 52 pass attempts. This is the game for Green Bay to get Jones into a rhythm. Once he posts a big stat-line his price tag will double, so this is probably your last chance to acquire him from a frustrated competitor.