By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
It’s playoff time in fantasy football leagues, which brings with it excitement, tension, and extra concentration. You pretty much have to play the cards as dealt, though, whether your hand is strong or weak.
This is obviously a good time to play the daily game if you don’t have teams in the playoffs, but even if you do it’s liberating to choose whichever players you want. What’s more, it cushions the blow when your team absorbs a big day from an opponent’s stud if you can at least root for that player in DFS.
As I’ve done all season, I have chosen five running backs for Week 14 whose pricing in Yahoo DFS caught my eye. All of these guys are good values, though they represent different risk/reward propositions to consider.
Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers ($23 in Yahoo DFS)
After a sluggish start, Melvin Gordon has gradually improved rather than worn down. Last week against Denver’s generally stout run defense MGIII tallied 110 total yards and looked a lot like his 2018 self, back when he had the third-highest points-per-game average in fantasy. He’s averaged nearly 5 yards per carry over the last three games. While the Chargers’ passing game hasn’t been a world-beater, it’s been good enough for Gordon to face light fronts — that means six or fewer defenders in the box — on 65 percent of his carries (stat courtesy of PlayerProfiler.com).
Gordon splits the workload with Austin Ekeler, but over the last month, his 21-touch average is right up there with the league leaders. While Ekeler has out-targeted Gordon 21-to-13 in that span, his carries have dwindled to six per game since Gordon’s return. In a run-friendly game script, it will be the former Wisconsin Badger who takes the lead.
Gordon hasn’t been getting a great deal of help from his injury-ravaged offensive line. Mike Pouncey wasn’t dominating before hitting IR in Week 6, but his replacement (Scott Quessenberry) is a downgrade at center. Left tackle Russell Okung and right tackle Sam Tevi missed a lot of time and while rookie Trey Pipkins showed well in their stead, Trent Scott did not. Even with all that churn this o-line ranks just below average in Football Outsiders’ measure of run-blocking efficiency, Adjusted Line Yards. Okung and Tevi returned to the lineup last week, so the arrow is pointing up for the unit.
Gordon doesn’t need elite run-blocking to rip off chunk gains in Week 14. The Bolts will travel to Jacksonville to face a defense that has surrendered 470 rushing yards (at 6 yards per carry) to running backs, along with six touchdowns, over their last four games. Since linebacker Telvin Smith shocked the football world by saying he’d skip the season, the Jags have largely struggled at the second level of their defense. Myles Jack hasn’t played up to his big contract this year, often struggling to get off blocks and stop the run. Now Jack has joined DT Marcell Dareus and LB Najee Goode on injured reserve, leaving a starting role for undersized Stetson grad and 2017 UDFA Donald Payne. Smith was about the same weight but four inches taller than Payne, who did perform admirably against the Bucs last week.
With both teams at 4-8 and neither harboring playoff aspirations at this point, this game could get wacky in any number of ways. However, it doesn’t hurt that Gordon is auditioning for his next contract. At $23 this is about as promising an RB play as you’ll find in Week 14. The Bolts’ back is considerably cheaper than big-ticket options and only a couple of bucks more than players in shakier circumstances.
Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams ($20)
My second choice is another City of Angels star. I’ve usually been bearish on the prospects of the beleaguered Rams RB this season, but circumstances have changed for Todd Gurley. With his team fighting for their playoff lives, last season’s fantasy MVP has seen the restrictions on his carry count lifted of late. Sean McVay knows that as Gurley goes, so go the Rams. Yes, Los Angeles abandoned the run two weeks ago when Baltimore blew them out, but even with that six-carry debacle, he has taken 19 and 25 totes in two of his last three games.
At home against the Seahawks this week, the Rams probably won’t be forced to abandon the run. Los Angeles is fifth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) for total defense and third against the run. Seattle’s offense, third in the NFL in total yards, is a tough customer but they aren’t thrashing teams the way Baltimore has. And despite the narrative that LA has lost its way offensively, the Rams are 12th in points scored and 10th in yards per game. This is not the Washington offense we’re talking about here, even if the letdown from last year feels huge.
Though they are just 18th in DVOA against the run, Seattle is a tough draw for opposing running backs. This defense boasts an array of good run stoppers, from their loaded defensive line to linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. The Seahawks have permitted running backs just five red-zone touches over the last month. On the other hand, the Rams run the ball when they get close to the end zone and have the fifth-most rushing scores in the league. Gurley is seventh in the NFL in red-zone touches, with 40. These stats should come as a relief to fantasy gamers weary of teams getting cute when they approach the painted area.
The biggest culprit in the decline of the Rams’ offense is their personnel turnover up front. After two key starters departed in the spring, this offensive line has seen much-maligned center Brian Allen hit IR and be replaced by Austin Blythe, who has been unequivocally worse in that role. Cornerstone tackle Rob Havenstein floundered and then got hurt. Rookie Bobby Evans was actually better in pass-pro, but getting Havenstein back this week will help the running game. Through it all, this unit has been improving in that regard. Believe it or not, the Rams are now eighth in the NFL in Adjusted Line Yards. That’s a long way from their league-leading 2018 performance, but it’s a good thing for Gurley.
There is risk in playing the creaky-kneed grinder against the high-flying Seahawks this week, but I still like the value he presents at $20 in Yahoo DFS.
Derrius Guice, Washington Redskins ($19 in Yahoo DFS)
This is strictly a tournament play because Derrius Guice does not have a safe floor splitting touches with both Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson, and on a bad offense to boot. Still, while his brief pro career has been marred by injury, Guice is one of those guys who can take over a game. Since returning in Week 11 the former Bayou Bengal has shown flashes of the explosiveness we expected from one of the college game’s best ball-carriers. Last week Guice rolled up 129 yards on just 10 carries against Carolina, scoring two touchdowns. The Panthers field the NFL’s weakest run defense, but if nothing else that performance showed that Guice is getting back to full strength.
While Morgan Moses missed the second half of last week’s win over Carolina, Washington’s offensive line has built cohesion over a largely healthy season. This front five has helped the team develop a run-first identity since Bill Callahan took over. Four-fifths of this group grade very well at run-blocking and the fifth is Moses – both he and his understudy Geron Christian are just okay in that department. Despite being the league’s least-productive offense overall, the Redskins have climbed to 14th in Adjusted Line Yards and seventh in rushing yards per carry.
I wouldn’t think about recommending Guice if Washington’s Week 14 matchup wasn’t tasty, but it is. According to Football Outsiders, Green Bay’s defense is 28th in DVOA against the run and dead last in the league in Adjusted Line Yards allowed. They give up the sixth-most ground yards per game and average one rushing TD allowed each week. Eight opposing running backs have topped 80 yards against the Pack and this D has allowed six rushing scores over their last five games.
It’s certainly possible that Aaron Rodgers and company stake their team to a big lead, given Washington’s subpar defense, but rain or shine the Redskins skew run-heavy. Despite their losing record, the team runs on 40% of their plays, which is league average and actually the same ratio as the Packers. Adrian Peterson ($17) is going to demand his share of the pie, but for two bucks more go with the upside of Guice and his young legs.
Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos ($18 in Yahoo DFS)
The Denver backfield has produced some pretty dreary stat-lines of late, and the team hovers around league average with 108.3 rushing yards per game. Neither Phillip Lindsay nor Royce Freeman has scored a touchdown in two weeks. However, after a nearly 50/50 time-share most of the season Denver’s coaching staff has given Lindsay the Broncos’ reins. Over the last three weeks, he has 46 carries to Freeman’s 15. The former Oregon Duck is also nursing sore ribs so if the matchup is good, Lindsay is the likely beneficiary.
This is a good matchup. It’s true that the Texans were in a prevent defense when James White tore them apart last week, but Houston has been exploited on a regular basis since the beginning of November. Over the last month, this has been the NFL’s most generous team for a running back to face. The Texans have allowed a whopping 472 rushing yards to running backs, along with 198 receiving yards and six total TDs. It’s a bit inexplicable, as there is talent here even with J.J. Watt on the shelf. D.J. Reader is an RB-devouring black hole in the middle of the d-line and linebackers Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney bring a solid combo of run-stuffing and tackling prowess to the second level.
Meanwhile, Denver’s offensive line has produced an impressive Adjusted Line Yards average of 4.58, a number only six teams have topped. Denver backs are stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage on just 15% of their carries, which is the NFL’s fourth-best mark. Ron Leary (concussion) is iffy for Sunday, which would thrust inexperienced Austin Schlottmann into duty at his right guard position, but Ja’Wuan James has been a full participant in practice after a lingering knee injury shelved the high-priced tackle for all but 32 snaps in two games. Offensive lines are affected by their chemistry and we don’t love to see lineup shuffling alter that, but overall this group seems capable of capitalizing on Houston’s apparent weakness in the trenches.
With Lindsay the clear-cut leader in Denver’s backfield, we have to like him at $18 here. He’s a proven pass receiver who can gash the Texans that way too if opportunity and game-script warrant.
Benny Snell, Pittsburgh Steelers ($16 in Yahoo DFS)
I drafted a lot of shares of Benny Snell in my dynasty leagues this offseason, but reports were largely negative through training camp and he was tagged with the unflattering nickname “Benny Snail” for seeming a step slow compared to his peers. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering his subpar athletic profile coming out of Kentucky. According to PlayerProfiler Snell fell below the 50th percentile in all of the key measurables, with an especially woeful 12th percent Burst Score.
That being said, Snell has silenced some detractors since James Conner went down. While pass pro is a problem for the rookie, he’s performed admirably with the ball in his hands. On 16 and 21 carries he’s amassed 161 rushing yards and one score over the last two weeks. Given Pittsburgh’s inability to produce a threatening passing game, Snell faced eight or more defenders in the box on almost half of his carries and still churned out 4.2 yards per attempt. Against the same stacked fronts, Conner averaged more than a full yard less (again, stats courtesy of PlayerProfiler).
The Steelers’ offensive line isn’t what it used to be, ranking 25th in Adjusted Line Yards, but it’s still a solid group with Maurkice Pouncey returning from suspension this week. Pittsburgh has the talent up front to take advantage of a weaker opponent. Fortunately, they have one in Week 14. Though Arizona shut down the 49ers’ vaunted rushing attack two weeks ago, they are a bottom-10 defense in terms of rushing yards allowed on the season. Over the last four games, only three defenses have allowed more rushing touchdowns than the Cardinals. RBs have also sliced and diced them through the air, which is Jaylen Samuels’ forte, not Snell’s, but it’s a favorable matchup for both backs nonetheless.
With the dominance of the Steelers’ defense over the last few weeks, they probably won’t find themselves facing the big deficit that would thrust Samuels into a featured role. Samuels has seen just five and nine touches the last two weeks — carries and catches combined — so Snell’s workload is fairly assured. For $16 he offers us an unspectacular but very solid play.