Week 15 Yahoo DFS Running Back Picks: Don't get too hype about James Conner's return

By John Evans

Special to Yahoo Sports

In Week 14 the injury bug was in a very bad mood, biting teams from coast to coast and reducing many fantasy playoffs to a war of attrition. Fortunately, with DFS you don’t have to worry about losing Mike Evans or Calvin Ridley — you still have an abundance of options who can lead your lineup to victory in cash games or tournaments.

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For the last two seasons, I’ve focused on the running back position using a combination of matchup stats, player grades, and offensive line analysis to highlight potentially overlooked values in Yahoo’s daily game, as well as some overpriced options to avoid.

While I’ve had a few painful misses, I’ve been happy with both the process and the results, for the most part. If you’ve read this article often, I hope it’s been helpful and maybe even increased your understanding of what makes a running game go.

Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks ($34 in Yahoo DFS)

It tells us something that Rashaad Penny was priced at $20 for Seattle’s road trip to Carolina, given that Penny shared this backfield with carry-hog Chris Carson. Penny rushed for 203 yards and scored three touchdowns over his last two games, but part of that pricing was surely due to Carolina’s propensity for letting RBs barrel over, around, and through their feathery-soft run defense. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), Carolina has the NFL’s most inept run defense by a country mile. What’s more, the Panthers have given up five more rushing touchdowns than any team in the league.

While the metrics say the Seahawks’ offensive line is middle-of-the-pack at run blocking, this well-coached group has been good enough. Only Baltimore and San Francisco have gained more yards on the ground. Former sixth-round pick Joey Hunt hasn’t made Seahawks fans forget center Justin Britt (placed on IR after Week 8), but none of the other starters have subpar grades. It helps that Carson doesn’t need to get through the line untouched; he’s fifth in yards gained after contact with a defender, a telling indicator of how hard he is to bring down. 

After a scorching start to the season Russell Wilson has cooled off considerably and Tyler Lockett has been on a milk carton for the last month. The Panthers’ pass defense is eighth in DVOA, so they’re not exactly a slump-buster for opposing passing games. Meanwhile, Carolina QB Kyle Allen is struggling and this offense has fallen to 21st in total yards. Add it all up and Seattle should be content to run the ball all day. 

Penny’s resurgent role was a relatively new development for Seattle and C.J. Prosise is unlikely to get the same share of the backfield touches Penny earned, at least not this week. If Penny was $20 and Carson $34, their pricing tells you what a bargain Carson could be with Penny out of the picture.

Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns ($28 in Yahoo DFS) 

Entering the year we expected the Browns’ offense to be about as fun and exciting to watch as a Marvel movie. It’s been more like a depressing drama about a dysfunctional family teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Through it all, Nick Chubb has been the pillar of strength in this household even after Kareem Hunt bounced from the couch to a contributing role. The former Chief has swiped targets and touchdowns from Chubb, but his carry totals aren’t a cause for alarm. With 20 totes per game since Hunt came off suspension, Chubb is still handling one of the league’s bigger workloads. 

In Week 15 the Browns head to the Valley of the Sun. Arizona’s defense hasn’t been at the top of my target list most weeks, but they’re definitely one of the least imposing groups in the league. Over the last month, the Cardinals have been a top-five matchup for QBs and WRs, brightening the outlook for a disgruntled Odell Beckham Jr. and his college buddy, Jarvis Landry (Bonus tip: David Njoku is a sweet tournament play). However, that doesn’t mean teams don’t run on them. Only six defenses have absorbed more carries than Arizona, and they’re ninth in rushing yards allowed. Linebacker Jordan Hicks has stepped up his game recently but the Cardinals’ best run defender is safety Budda Baker, who is nursing a sore hammy.

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Cleveland’s offensive line is capable of strong performances. Despite all the hand-wringing about the play of this unit, it’s currently 10th in Football Outsiders’ measure of run-blocking, Adjusted Line Yards. Right tackle Chris Hubbard isn’t a big help in the running game, but Chris Lamm looked better filling in for him last week and could step in again if needed. After several poor showings at right guard, Wyatt Teller has had two solid outings in a row. Chubb doesn’t need his blockers to conquer the line of scrimmage, anyway; he’s just behind Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette in yards gained after contact with a defender. The former Georgia Bulldog runs tough.

Hunt could score a touchdown here, but that doesn’t mean Chubb won’t. This looks like a get-right game for the tortured Browns, turning that heavy drama into a feel-good story for at least one week.

Saquon Barkley, New York Giants ($26 in Yahoo DFS)

I have not been tempted to recommend Saquon Barkley in quite a while, and it’s a good thing I haven’t because he’s been a consistently poor DFS investment. Despite having uncontested command of New York’s backfield, 2018’s fantasy sensation hasn’t looked the same since his rapid return from the high-ankle sprain he suffered Week 3. Barkley recently acknowledged that while his ankle is healed, the injury still weighs on his mind. 

Fourteen RBs have a higher points-per-game average than Saquon this season. That said, his DFS price has probably hit an all-time low here, coming off another bummer box score in Monday night’s narrow loss to Philadelphia (who boast a robust run defense). At $26 in a home tilt with Miami, the value proposition may be too good to pass up.

The Dolphins’ defense is a staple of this column; I’ve mentioned their struggles slightly less often than Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards. Their rankings look a little better over the last month, but that has more to do with other run defenses folding than Miami making a marked improvement. Over the last month, this defense has still surrendered the fifth-most rushing yards, and RBs have totaled three touchdowns. The Fish are usually fresh and tasty options on our fantasy menu. 

That said, the Giants’ offensive line has not always capitalized on plus matchups. In fact, they currently sit at 27th in Adjusted Line Yards, which is no bueno. Right guard Kevin Zeitler rolled his ankle against Philly and will miss this contest, which isn’t great news. Zeitler was the only starter grading well in the ground game. His inexperienced replacement, 2018 UDFA Nick Gates, has looked good on 30 run-blocking snaps but is probably a big downgrade. 

The Giants’ offense was sporadically explosive with Eli Manning back at the controls last week, though exploiting Philadelphia’s boundary corners with a weapon like Darius Slayton is no great challenge. Manning had enough left to make the throws, at least, and the Dolphins don’t have a scarier secondary than the easily penetrable Eagles. New York should find the red zone several times and exceed their paltry 19 points-per-game scoring average. Saquon is set up for success.

James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers ($21 in Yahoo DFS) 

Yay, James Conner is back! On the other hand, has he been that great anyway? Conner is averaging 14 fantasy points per game, which puts him in strong RB2 territory, but in his seven full games, he’s had 43 or fewer rushing yards five times. He’s been involved in the passing game and scoring six touchdowns helps a lot, but you’d like to see a back have success at the bread-and-butter of his position if you’re going to play him in DFS. I think Conner is a dicey bet in Week 15, and one we should avoid.

James Conner's return is welcomed, but that doesn't mean it will be fruitful. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
James Conner's return is welcomed, but that doesn't mean it will be fruitful. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Long a strength of the team, the Steelers’ offensive line has slid to a shocking 26th in Adjusted Line Yards. Right tackle Matt Feiler is a reliable asset on running plays, but the interior of this line is underwhelming. Maurkice Pouncey is wrapping up the worst season of his career and after three dominant campaigns right guard David DeCastro has now been average two years in a row, at least from a run-blocking perspective.

This week the Steelers host a Buffalo Bills team that is stinging from a 24-17 defeat at the hands of the mighty Baltimore Ravens. Hanging with the Ravens may be a moral victory, but the Bills have their sights set on the postseason. The winner of this game will move into the fifth seed, tightening their grasp on a Wild Card spot, so this could easily be the kind of hard-fought defensive struggle that frustrates fantasy gamers.

Their DVOA will tell us that Buffalo is the fifth-toughest defense an opposing team can face in 2019. Their strength is in the secondary, but the Bills’ run D is nothing to scoff at either. Over the last month only the 49ers, Patriots and Ravens have been a worse matchup for running backs. Much of that scant production has come via the passing game, which may be Jaylen Samuels’ contribution in Conner’s first game back from a nagging shoulder injury. 

Pittsburgh would love to lean on its star running back after Conner missed five of the last six games. However, there is a risk of re-injury on any given carry for Conner. That’s exactly what happened the last time we saw him, in Week 11. Buffalo is a solid, well-rounded team that could get Pittsburgh out of its winning gameplan (play great defense, get out to a lead, be conservative on offense). And if either team stakes out a sizable advantage on the scoreboard, Pittsburgh will probably send Conner to the bench. His upside is considerable, but so is his risk. 

Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers ($20 in Yahoo DFS)

I’m not sure why Raheem Mostert is just $20 at home in a plum matchup with the Atlanta Falcons. Rumors of a committee backfield in San Francisco have been greatly exaggerated. While Matt Breida looks as dangerous as ever on limited touches, the unremarkable Tevin Coleman has played his way out of a prominent role and Mostert has seized control with back-to-back banner days. Over the last two weeks, Mostert has averaged 6 yards per rush and led the backfield in snaps, carries, and yards. 

The former UDFA is quite the success story. While his athletic profile popped off the screen, his college pedigree did not. In four years at Purdue Mostert was primarily a kickoff returner and averaged just 34 carries per season. Though he opened eyes last year with a 7.7 yards-per-carry average, he entered the 2019 campaign as an afterthought. Now he’s earned the 49ers’ full trust and given them “no choice” but to play him, according to Kyle Shanahan. 

The 49ers’ offensive line has helped pave the way for Mostert’s production. This is a well-coached, well-schemed run-blocking unit that often gets the better of their foes in trench combat. Even with significant injuries at the tackle position San Francisco has performed well. Among RBs Mostert and Breida are No. 1 and No. 2 in yards gained before contact with a defender, which is a testament to the tenacity of their blockers. Unfortunately, Ben Garland will be replacing Weston Richburg at center, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against New Orleans. That said, the veteran has always graded well as a run blocker.

San Francisco was running all over people early in the season, but for a variety of reasons the offense has been forced to find balance. After a September that probably made 49ers fans queasy, Jimmy Garoppolo has turned into the kind of passer who can win wild ones like last week’s classic with New Orleans. Acquiring the ageless Emmanuel Sanders certainly helped. Will matchup or game-script make playing Mostert a trap in Week 14?

I don’t see it. The 49ers host an Atlanta Falcons squad with an inconsistent offense now missing its second-best weapon and a defense that rallied midseason but is still 12th in total yards and seventh in points allowed. Yes, they’ve risen to 16th in DVOA against the run and allow a quite respectable 4.0 yards per carry, but they’ve also given up 12 rushing touchdowns. While Grady Jarrett is a real hoss in the middle of this D-line, the Falcons don’t have opposing running backs quaking in their cleats.

At $20 Raheem “Must Start” may be just that in Yahoo’s daily game. He’s playing too well, the game-script sets up too favorably, and the matchup is too enticing to get away from him.

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