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Running to stand still: Auditing the backfield situations driving fantasy players crazy

Scott Pianowski
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We’re almost through September in the fresh fantasy season, and the positional landscapes have familiar tints.

Quarterback remains very deep, even with an unexpected number of injuries.

[Play in Yahoo’s NFL $400K Baller. $10 entry fee and $50K to first place]

Wide receiver has hits all over, including a class of precocious rookies.

Tight end is a mixed bag, with a few name brands, a small number of breakouts, and then the ugly middle ground that many of us have to navigate weekly.

And then there are the running backs, always the most maddening of positions. Solve the running back spot and you generally rule in fantasy. But there are plenty of high-capital guys who have disappointed us in the opening three weeks.

Today, we take a look at four of them — and try to give you an actionable path moving forward. As always, you gotta season this to taste for your particular context. You know your league better than anyone else. Trading habits and FAAB habits are different in every room. No matter what we say, a number of comments will start off with “But in my league ...” Got it; it’s all contextual.

Free free to add the “... But in my league ...” reactions below. If you want to go deeper than that, I’m on Twitter, @scott_pianowski.

Sony Michel, Todd Gurley, and Devonta Freeman
Have you gotten sick of these frustrating RBs yet? (Photo by Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Sony Michel, Patriots

The Patriots went against type with a first-round selection of Michel in 2018, and it’s starting to look like a mistake. He came into the league with injury baggage, and the team has no problem finding running back talent, anyway.

Michel went absolutely nowhere in the wins over Pittsburgh and the Jets; a collective 24 carries for 25 yards. He was mediocre in the win at Miami — 21 rushes, 83 yards. A couple of touchdowns provided welcome deodorant, but a 2.4 YPC is embarrassing. And we know Michel is a zero in the passing game (seven career catches, none this year).

A struggling New England offensive line will probably come around — OL coach Dante Scarnecchia is a legend who can fix just about anything. But will Michel be healthy enough to benefit? Will Michel be able to make unblocked defenders miss, something he’s been awful at this year? And keep in mind, James White is a more talented receiver than Michel, while Rex Burkhead is the most versatile back on the roster.

Michel’s struggles have caught the eye of many in the community, so if you decide to sell right this second, it’s a sell-low. I’m not dismissing that out of hand, but I’d prefer you try to wait until he stumbles into a good game, even if it’s masked by a touchdown or two, and then take to the market. No matter if you decide to time this or act on it now, I do not like Michel as a long-term investment.

Gut Call: Wait for a solid game, then look to sell.

Todd Gurley, Rams

The Rams are one of several NFL clubs that tend to be secretive and even misleading about their intentions, but while their words are often meaningless or deceptive, their actions can scream loudly. And when the Rams went out of their way to prioritize keeping Malcolm Brown and drafting Darrell Henderson in the offseason, it spoke greatly on Gurley.

Gurley’s efficiency has been fine — 4.6 yards a pop — though the Rams offensive line has not graded well. But Gurley no longer is a monster in the passing game (just four catches, eight yards) and he only has one of the team’s four rushing touchdowns. In Gurley’s best days, he was gifted the short touchdowns and the easy chunk plays in the passing game. Those days might not be coming back.

Gurley is tied for 18th in running back touches, and that links to where his fantasy value probably lies. Now keep in mind, catches are more valuable than rushes when it comes to those RB touches, but we’ll take what we can get. Gurley probably is a middle-to-lesser RB2 until further notice, and he’s no guarantee to be the top touchdown man on this offense. I am not tied to Gurley, and the price would have to be awfully low for me to jump in now.

Gut Call: A credible support player, no longer a superstar; forget the name, focus on the numbers.

Chris Carson, Seahawks

You want consistency, Carson is giving it. He’s carried the ball 15 times in each of his three starts — and he’s fumbled in each game, too. You know what coach really hates fumbles? All of them.

There are some silver linings in the Carson playbook. OC Brian Schottenheimer is insistent on a run-heavy scheme, no matter that he has Russell Wilson at quarterback. Carson’s main competitor, Rashaad Penny, has a mediocre resume and isn’t healthy at the moment. C.J. Prosise is a specialty option, a satellite back at best. When Pete Carroll gives Carson a vote of confidence, it’s probably in part because there’s no obvious card to play.

I’m sticking with Carson. He’s tied to an offense that prioritizes him. He’s already halfway to last season’s 20 catches — he’ll never make anyone forget Marshall Faulk, but he’s no longer just a two-down grinder. The pieces after him are ordinary. Not all of the fumbles were blunders, either — sometimes a defender makes a nasty hit or strip and deserves credit.

Gut Call: Probably a guy to hold.

Devonta Freeman, Falcons

The Falcons wanted to rebuild the offensive line this year, but it’s turned into an injury-ravaged flop. Perhaps that’s why Atlanta keeps scoring all of its touchdowns through the air; it’s generally more plausible to mask your OL problems through the passing game. Freeman went nowhere in two starts, before breaking free for a solid 95-yard game at Indianapolis.

Freeman’s running style (and the occupational hazards of the position) have taxed him recently; he missed most of the 2018 season and has just one full year out of four. He’s currently sitting at the lowest YPC of his carer, a comment on the line struggling and Freeman failing to make yards after contact. He’s no longer a proactive part of the passing game; forget the Freeman who caught 73 passes in 2015 and 54 balls in 2016. Last week’s lofty snap share was driven by two other backs getting hurt.

The best case for Freeman is the depth behind him; maybe Ito Smith or Brian Hill will eventually carve out a secondary role, but no one is really pushing Freeman. Perhaps the line will gel eventually. For better or for worse, Freeman is the best option the team has at the moment.

Gut Call: Probably a forced hold, but not someone I’d have any loyalty to if trades presented themselves.

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