Week 7 Running Back DFS Picks: Zeke Elliott worth the risk at his price

By John Evans

Special to Yahoo Sports

Christian McCaffrey is on bye and Alvin Kamara is battling two separate injuries that will likely sideline him this week, but there is always an array of daily fantasy options to consider at the pivotal RB position. As usual, I’ve weighed a combination of factors — individual talent, offensive line play, key injuries, and defensive matchup — to separate the budget-friendly plays from the salaries not worth paying.

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Let’s start with a larger investment that’s worth making in Week 7 …

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Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars ($32 in Yahoo DFS)

It’s tempting to pay the extra $3 to deploy Saquon Barkley ($35) instead, an auto-start in season-long formats, but he’s returning from a high ankle sprain earlier than expected and carries more than a smidgen of risk against the Cardinals this week. I think Fournette is the best big-ticket option on the main slate, and here’s why ...

Fantasy gamers have learned to target the Cincinnati Bengals this season, and losing both starting corners to injury isn’t going to help this reeling defense. Running backs are shredding them by land and air, racking up a total of nine touchdowns and 1160 yards. Both marks are worst in the league, as is their yards-per-carry average allowed (5.3). I could keep going, but suffice it to say, Cincinnati is bringing up the rear in most metrics. This is the kind of matchup that RBs dream about.

It would help Fournette’s dream come true if the offensive line played better. The big back is third in PlayerProfiler.com’s Yards Created stat, which charts yards generated by the RB independent of his blocking. Fournette is doing a lot of the heavy lifting himself. Center Brandon Linder was a real asset in the power running game for five seasons in a row, but if he’s been disappointingly average this season, the rest of the o-line has just been disappointing. Jacksonville is 20th in Football Outsiders’ measure of run-blocking, Adjusted Line Yards.

Despite the uneven play of his blockers, Fournette already has more rushing yards, receptions and receiving yards in six games than he did in eight last season. He’s been far more efficient in a far more functional offense – Jacksonville is averaging 62.8 additional yards per game, with due credit to the emergence of Gardner Minshew and D.J. Chark, as well as John DeFilippo’s play-calling. But Fournette has faced as many stacked boxes as anyone and still produced. He’s No. 1 in the NFL in yards after contact with a defender.

With Cincy’s corners out it’s conceivable that Chark or other pass-catchers get all the touchdowns, but that small risk is not reason enough to shy away from the Jags’ bell-cow back. Only Christian McCaffrey is getting more touches than Fournette, so the floor on this play is pretty high. So is the ceiling — we just might get a monster game worthy of the Halloween season.

Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers ($31 in Yahoo DFS)

If Fournette is about as safe as a DFS investment can get, Aaron Jones is just the opposite at a meager $1 discount. We all saw what he could do two weeks ago (four touchdowns vs. Dallas), but last week showed us a scarier possibility. Jones is a fine receiver out of the backfield and ball security hasn’t been a big issue for him, but a lost fumble and a dropped touchdown put him behind Jamaal Williams during last Monday’s game against Detroit. The problem is that Williams is a highly professional, versatile and reliable back. He doesn’t have Jones’ flashy athleticism — not even close — but the team trusts him and when he’s healthy he plays a key role in this backfield. So if you pay that $31 it’s not because you know you can bank on a big workload for Jones.

Could Jones deliver anyway? Of course — he’s currently 10th in Football Outsiders’ RB grading and fifth in red-zone touches. The Green Bay back is hard to bring down and if you fail to do so, he’s got the burst of a McLaren. His offensive line is an impressive 13th in Adjusted Line Yards right now. However, while right tackle Bryan Bulaga is absolutely crushing it in the running game, the left side of the line has struggled.

The Oakland Raiders have given up some pretty memorable games to running backs. Seven years later, Doug Martin’s rookie season explosion still readily comes to mind (251 rushing yards, 4 touchdowns). But these aren’t those Raiders. Only nine teams are allowing fewer rushing yards per game. Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison ran wild on the Raiders in Week 3 (Dalvin is seldom stopped) but every other back — including Marlon Mack – has been held to single-digit fantasy points. Led by linebacker Nicholas Morrow, who has been a terror in run defense so far, this is a disciplined group that tackles well on all three levels.

With a host of injured players, the Packers have a paucity of weapons this week, so the ever-explosive Aaron Jones should get plenty of touches even if the snaps are split pretty evenly with his steady-Eddie teammate. But between the timeshare and a matchup that isn’t as enticing as it appears, I would steer clear of Jones in DFS.

Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys ($28 in Yahoo DFS)

You’re getting Zeke at a discount this week, based on the rash of injuries Dallas has suffered, their three-game losing streak, and a formidable Week 7 opponent. A lot of Cowboys have an uncertain status right now, but as of this writing, no key player is clearly trending toward OUT. Indications are that Dallas will get one or both tackles back, whom they’ve sorely missed.

No lineman has dished out as many pulverizing blocks in the ground game as La’el Collins this season, so his return would be a big boost. Even with its injury woes, Dallas is currently 4th in Adjusted Line Yards, and Elliott is among the league leaders in yards before contact with a defender.

It’s hard to recommend an RB facing the Philadelphia Eagles. They’ve been the gold standard in rush defense for some time. This season just three teams have been stingier in doling out fantasy points to running backs. Philly’s defensive line is a brick wall, stuffing more ball carriers at or behind the line than any team in the league. While the Eagles’ safeties have been savage, the team just cut their starting middle linebacker, the often banged-up Nigel Bradham has been a liability, and the next men up are unproven.

The Eagles are a classic “funnel defense,” meaning they discourage any attempt to run the ball and seemingly dare opponents to attack their weak corners. Philadelphia is getting torched through the air, but the Cowboys may not be able to capitalize without Amari Cooper (he’s iffy for Sunday night). And whether they’re winning or losing, the Cowboys feed Ezekiel Elliott. Though his rushing productivity has ticked downward each year since entering the league in 2016, he’s still sixth in carries per game this season.

It's a rough matchup for Zeke in Week 7, but the price is right. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
It's a rough matchup for Zeke in Week 7, but the price is right. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In his career vs. Philadelphia, Zeke has one game under 100 rushing yards — he only got 96 the first time he played them. He’s a solid play at $28. This recommendation is contingent on at least four-fifths of the o-line’s regular starters being active on gameday, but that’s a likely scenario.

Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans ($22 in Yahoo DFS)

The Titans’ sputtering offense may seem like a barren wasteland, largely devoid of fantasy value, but then there’s Derrick Henry. Since Week 14 of last season, Henry leads the NFL in rushing yards (1001) and rushing touchdowns (11). He did struggle against the Broncos last week, but the Chargers are a far less formidable defense. They’re surrendering more than 120 rushing yards per game and are just outside the bottom 10 in fantasy points allowed to running backs.

You may be aware that the 6’3, 238-pound Derrick Henry is not an easy man to tackle — according to PlayerProfiler.com, he is sixth in evaded tackle average (6.5). Meanwhile, the Bolts are blowing tackles left and right, with linebacker Thomas Davis their only reliable run-stopper not named Joey Bosa.

Tennessee’s offensive line is struggling, admittedly. Taylor Lewan has not been the catalyst the team hoped he would be after returning from a four-game suspension. Right tackle Jack Conklin has been occasionally dominant, but rookie right guard Nate Davis looks lost. While the line’s grading and metrics are average at best, it’s a talented group that should exploit their advantage in the trenches this week.

Henry is a good value at $22, a dollar less than Todd Gurley and Carlos Hyde. He’s a dollar more than the members of the Chargers’ split backfield, a rookie who hasn’t played since Week 2 (Devin Singletary) and another committee back (Tevin Coleman). Meanwhile, Henry is among the league-leaders in touches. All we need from newly installed quarterback Ryan Tannehill is a modicum of competence to put Henry in position to pay off in fantasy.

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals ($14 in Yahoo DFS)

Joe Mixon is the RB32 right now, sandwiched between Chris Thompson and Peyton Barber. Yikes. While his situation has been subpar, he simply isn’t playing well this season. That said, it’s hard to find an RB priced at $14 in the daily game with Mixon’s combination of proven talent and opportunity. The third-year back has 74 carries and 19 targets; passing-down back Giovani Bernard has 23 carries and 19 targets. Bernard has out-snapped Mixon twice this season, but this week Cincinnati can lean on their early down pounder.

The Bengals’ opponents (the aforementioned Jacksonville Jaguars) are the NFL’s 10th most generous defense in terms of total yards allowed and they’re eighth in rushing yards allowed. They’ve surrendered the seventh-most fantasy points to running backs. Jacksonville is no longer a defense to be feared.

Cincinnati’s offensive line play has been a certified train wreck, even without the ugly drama surrounding Cordy Glenn’s concussion situation. However, the Bengals may have found something in John Jerry. The journeyman has looked great run blocking, albeit on 32 snaps so far. According to Football Outsiders, Jacksonville is dead last in defending left-tackle runs. That’s where Jerry plays, and Cincinnati’s o-line has been at its best on those runs all season. Now, NFL teams run between the guards on the majority of their attempts, but the Bengals have been particularly stubborn about it (and particularly unsuccessful). Hopefully, Zac Taylor will adapt.

Sure, Mixon might be bottled up again, but at $14 he’s a low-cost option with high potential in a tasty matchup.

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