It's a time honored tradition as old as fantasy football.
"Is _______ even playing?"
For fantasy owners, one of the most frustrating things is watching
our top running backs go long stretches without a touch, much
less a carry. More frustrating than that is not being able to
explain what happened to the players we thought were stars come
crashing back down to earth.
I consider myself a bit of a running back connoisseur, so I feel
like I appreciate good play from the position as much as anyone.
In fact, I've often said the most beautiful play in football is
a well-executed zone run because it so often marries patience
with vision and precise timing.
In today's NFL, appreciating running back play probably makes
me a bit of a dinosaur because not only is the game seemingly
doing its best to reduce its reliance on the position, but the
rules (namely the lack of live contact for offensive linemen in
practice) are also working against their ability to succeed as
well. Regardless, I take it personal when I "get one wrong"
and make every effort I can to try to understand how it happened.
For the purposes of this article, I will not be writing about
the ones I got "wrong" because I'm not sure any of the
backs below qualify, if only because they were so "right"
a month ago. (Note: I don't believe in slumps when it comes to
anything that doesn't require accuracy, so there will not be any
such mentions below. Long-time readers already know I think the
notion of a "hot hand" in the backfield is one of the
most ridiculous things in football. However, that's another story
for another time.) Instead, it is hope I can explain what went
wrong in each case, suggest what can be done to fix it - if anything
- and figure out what fantasy owners should expect for the rest
of the season.
For each summary below, I've provided the proof (the statistical
slide since the player's fast start) and the pudding (my detailed
analysis as to why it's happening). Dig in …
The Proof: Since rushing for over
100 yards in four of his first five career games, he is averaging
47.8 yards since. Additionally, Hunt hasn't found the end zone
in six straight games since scoring six times in the first three
The Pudding: Seriously, the No.
2 back in overall PPR scoring is "struggling?" Well, I suppose
that depends on your definition. Anyone who has owned a fantasy
back in an Andy Reid offense over the years has learned to take
the good (usually a one-back guy in a fantasy-friendly scheme)
with the bad (maddening peak-and-valley usage from time to time).
Last week really marked the first time "the bad" came into play
AND was hard to explain. Matchups, negative game scripts and short
weeks have contributed to depressed production over the last month
and can easily explain his 21-yard effort against Pittsburgh and/or
46-yard performance versus Denver. With very few exceptions, running
backs simply aren't having success against those teams.
Reid has apparently identified Charcandrick West as the superior
third-down option, although that is a debatable stance if we treat
Pro Football Focus' pass-blocking grades as the gospel (Hunt -
38.1; West -37.9). Whether or not that is the Chiefs' reason for
relying so heavily on West on third down is probably not a question
anyone except Reid and/or OC Matt Nagy can answer, but it's hard
to think of any other area of the game in which Hunt is not the
better player. It could also simply be a matter of Reid and Nagy
picking their spots on when to use the rookie in the first half
of the season so they can ride him hard down the stretch. In fact,
that is the most likely answer, especially considering Hunt is
averaging 20.8 touches and already has 187 through nine contests.
So what has changed to make Hunt less of a fantasy force? The
big-play touchdowns that made him such a revelation in September
have dried up, but most owners likely anticipated he wasn't going
to sustain his early pace anyway. Perhaps the biggest problem
when it comes to scoring touchdowns is he has registered only
three carries from the 5 or closer since Week 3, including just
one inside that area. Over that same time, Kansas City has scored
only three offensive touchdowns inside the 10 through the air
- two of which were on fluky third-down catches by West in Week
5. Simply put, the opportunities for "cheapies" just
haven't been there. Even though the Chiefs have become a big-play
offense to some degree, it's fair to assume regression will eventually
work in Hunt's favor again and give him some chances to get back
in the end zone sooner than later.
As for his yardage, it doesn't seem to me Reid is using Tyreek
Hill in motion nearly as often as he has in the past. The interior
of the offensive line hasn't played together much since the fast
start - OG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and C Mitch Morse both missed
multiple games - which has contributed to the problem. Defenses
really haven't changed their approach much; he is facing eight
men in the box 32.3 percent of the time per Next Gen Stats - roughly
the same mark he did earlier in the season.
The verdict: In order, here are
the current ranks of the defenses - in terms of which ones are
giving up the most PPR points to running backs - the Chiefs face
the rest of the way: 16th, 11th, 21st, sixth, seventh and 24th.
While I acknowledge Hunt's recent struggles from a fantasy perspective
are more than just some tough matchups, I'll take his talent,
overall situation and workload over a whole host of other backs.
The tough thing to keep in mind with Hunt is that most of us drafted
him to be a RB2 this summer. If we asked ourselves then if we
would be happy if our RB2 was consistently going over 100 total
yards, most of us would have been thrilled. Although the touchdowns
may not come in bunches like they did in September, I feel confident
in saying he is going to be OK.
Since scoring five times over his first
four games, Freeman has been held out of the end zone since.
The Proof: Since scoring five times over his first four games,
Freeman has been held out of the end zone since.
The Pudding: As much as owners want to believe otherwise, scoring
touchdowns is not a talent so much as it is usually taking advantage
of an opportunity. Granted, some teams are better equipped and
more able to give more opportunities to certain players to score
a touchdown, but the ability to score is not necessarily a skill
per se. (Look no further than Hunt for proof. He did not lose
his "nose" for the end zone after three weeks.)
So what gives? How can a running back scored every week for four
straight weeks, then not score at all the next four? Let's look
at "opportunity." Since receiving 14 chances (rushes/targets)
in the red zone over the first four weeks - including eight inside
the 5 - Freeman has secured only five opportunities inside the
20 over the last four contests - none inside the 5. Overall volume
can sometimes overcome that problem, but that has been lacking
in a big way as well. After averaging 19.8 touches (17.5 rushing
attempts) over the first four weeks, Freeman is seeing 13.5 touches
The most troubling aspect of Freeman's "demise" is
the fact he has arguably been a better player - at least more
efficient - than he was over the first quarter of the season.
Through four games, he was averaging 4.1 yards per carry. In his
last four, his YPC has jumped up to 5.2. Perhaps the most frustrating
part for Freeman's owners is the near-equal usage of Tevin Coleman
in the passing game. While Freeman has nearly twice as many carries
(114-63), the two are tied with 24 targets apiece and the former
holds only a slight advantage over the latter in catches (18-16).
As a point of reference, Freeman had 227 carries, 65 targets and
54 receptions versus Freeman's 118 carries, 40 targets and 31
catches last season.
Put another way, Atlanta decided to make Freeman the second-richest
running back in the league in August and decided to use him less
despite the fact the passing game has struggled and Freeman is
making more of his opportunities now than he was over the first
The verdict: As is the case with Hunt, the touchdowns should
return in short order. As for his usage, your guess is as good
as mine, but it's too easy and too early to say Freeman is suffering
from the play-calling of OC Steve Sarkisian. His rushing totals
(carries, yards and touchdowns) are very much on track to rival
last season's. Interestingly, he had five total TDs through eight
games last year as well and finished with 13. Coleman has yet
to suffer the injury that has knocked him out for two or three
games in each of his first two seasons, so what we are upset about
is Freeman's lack of work in the passing game. The remaining schedule
isn't as enticing as it looked back in August, and there is no
track record to go on with Sarkisian here, so owners who ride
it out with Freeman are betting on the Falcons figuring out they
need to feature the running game a bit more. Freeman's history
suggests we should stay the course.
The Proof: Martin averaged 5.7 YPC in his first game back from
suspension but only three yards per carry since.
The Pudding: The easy answer here is Martin began his season
with the easiest matchup he could have asked for (the Patriots)
and the schedule has gotten more challenging since. That's a fair
assessment, but it's far from the only explanation. Owners and
observers often frustratingly believe problems that creep up with
players - in regards to their fantasy production - can be corrected
by fixing one problem. (i.e. "Oh good, the opening-day offensive
line is back intact." … "He's off the injury report."
… "Runs-stopping DT/LB ___ isn't playing this week."
We usually have no idea what is going on in their personal lives
or what is being said behind closed doors at the facility among
a host of other things.)
Somewhat shockingly, Martin has yet to record a single touch
when Tampa Bay was ahead on the scoreboard. It's difficult for
an offense built around the principle of having a power-running
attack to be able to get its top back to run against a tired defense
when it is always playing from behind. The Bucs also don't use
Martin a lot as a receiver, so game script has played a fairly
large role in his demise over the last month.
Per Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards metric, Tampa Bay's
3.95-yard average is just slightly off the 4.01 it registered
in 2016. The Bucs also rank 22nd in third-down conversion percentage
(36.8) after finishing sixth a season ago (43.7), further supporting
the notion Martin and his offensive line aren't getting the chances
to wear out opposing defenses. However, it's worth noting 30.6
percent of his 180 rushing yards over the last four games have
come on his three longest runs, meaning he is averaging 2.2 YPC
on his other 57 attempts.
The verdict: From a pure scouting perspective, he looks every
bit as spry and quick as he did in the preseason and Week 5. What
has changed is how often he is forced to avoid penetration in
the backfield. So while Martin looks good, sometimes it doesn't
matter how ready a player is to make something happen. For the
running game to work right, all hands on deck and have to be rowing
in the same direction. That doesn't appear to be the case for
the Bucs, who aren't opening many holes for Martin and have been
so ineffective on defense that Martin ends up playing about three
quarters worth of football. While Martin's ship may not sink to
the bottom of the ocean this year in fantasy, it may be too much
to ask him to account for all the holes that are causing the boat
to take on water.
The Proof: After averaging 11.8 PPR fantasy points through four
games, he is scoring 6.8 per game since.
The Pudding: There are probably some who believe I am an Abdullah
apologist. I don't think I am. I see a frustrated runner wasting
away in a backfield playing for a coaching staff who wants to
believe in his talent but can't find it within themselves to break
out of the committee backfield approach for reasons I probably
cannot comprehend. Owners already know this team is built for
and around the highest-paid quarterback in the league in Matthew Stafford, so there aren't going to be a lot of running backs capable
of setting the fantasy world on fire until the Lions change their
offensive approach. But perhaps their opportunistic defense has
completely overshadowed the fact Detroit is 1-4 in games in which
it has surrendered more than 20 points this season.
For the fifth time in as many seasons, Theo Riddick is averaging
less than four yards per carry - he's actually at 2.6 right now
- Dwayne Washington checks in at 2.2 YPC on 20 carries and Zach Zenner at 1.6 on 10 attempts. (Abdullah's current YPC is a career-low
3.4 after seasons of 4.2 and 5.6, albeit the latter coming in
only two games last season). So what we have here is either four
backs who should not be in the league based on horrible per-carry
production or, more likely, an offensive line that isn't holding
up its end of the bargain in the running game. My experience -
if not common sense - leads me to believe when all four backs
on a team struggle to hit the league average in YPC, there is
something very wrong with the scheme or the line. The fact Abdullah
is nearly a yard better per carry - two in some cases - tells
me he consistently does more with less than they do.
Abdullah hurt his cause by fumbling twice - losing one - on Monday
Night Football in Week 9 and probably cemented the likelihood
he will not see goal-line/red zone work on a regular basis moving
forward. On the plus side, Week 9 was only the second time in
26 career NFL games the Lions entrusted him with at least 20 touches.
Shockingly, Detroit is 7-1 in the eight games in which Abdullah
has received at least 17 touches, including 4-0 this year. While
I understand just about everyone is capable of cherry-picking
a stat that fits a narrative they want to push, I'd like to think
a win-loss record might appeal to coaches, especially when that
same team hasn't had a running game to strike fear into opponents
in what seems like a generation.
The verdict: Up until last week when he finished with 22 touches
(21 carries), Abdullah was experiencing the same kind of volume
drop-off over the second quarter of the season Freeman has been.
Detroit also kept Abdullah busy in the passing game in the first
four games - three games with exactly three receptions - but his
usage in that area has declined as well with five total catches
since then. The eventual return of LT Taylor Decker should help,
but this is another case where the team needs to commit to its
main back and be willing to accept some of the bad to get more
of the good. It's quite possible Detroit's starter in 2018 is
not on the roster, but if the Lions are being honest with themselves,
they still really have no idea if Abdullah can be that guy. While
the second-half schedule is not loaded with cupcake run defenses,
it is heavy on mediocre offenses, so there should be no excuses
when it comes to trying to establish Abdullah. Will it happen?
Detroit's recent history suggests it won't let it happen. I hope
The Proof: Anderson managed at least 20 carries three times in
the first four games, averaging 82.5 rushing yards per contest.
Since then, he has posted three games with 10 carries or fewer,
averaging 38 yards per outing.
The Pudding: My final PPR Big Board ranking had Anderson as my
overall RB36, so I'm not going to pretend like I'm surprised owners
are struggling with what to do with him. Still, in my mind, he's
always been a bit of an underappreciated talent. His issues this
year have to do with his situation, not unlike the men before
him in this piece. The difference between him and everybody else,
however, is more obvious. About the same time Trevor Siemian started
to feel the pressure of the pass rush and went into the tank as
a passer is about the same time Anderson's production began to
fall off a cliff. With minimal work in the passing game (12 catches)
and both of his touchdowns coming in Week 2, there just aren't
a lot of other avenues for him to produce fantasy points when
Denver isn't scoring enough points to play with the lead.
During the Broncos' current four-game losing streak, they have
led for a grand total of 4:01 - all of which came last week in
a game they eventually lost 51-23. During Denver's 3-1 start,
it led for 101:54. The one game over the second quarter of the
season in which Anderson played to the matchup was against Kansas
City, which, up until last week, used S Daniel Sorensen in essentially
the same hybrid safety/linebacker role it has used Eric Berry
in recent times. (To state the obvious, there aren't a lot of
Eric Berrys out there.) In other words, the Chiefs were using
nickel personnel to play their base defense.
However, Anderson's "demise" is more than just about
game script. Over the first four games, Anderson was receiving
66.4 percent of the backfield's carries and owned 77 percent of
the catches made by Denver running backs. Over the past four contests
in which the Broncos have tried to work in Devontae Booker and
Jamaal Charles more frequently, those marks have fallen to 53.8
and 7.7, respectively. His YPC has dipped from 4.5 to 3.5 as well.
Predictably for a player who hasn't scored since Week 2, the
red zone work has really fallen off during the losing streak.
Since recording his 12th and 13th touches inside the 20 of the
season in an Oct. 1 win over the Raiders, Anderson has just three
red zone touches since - all of which came inside the 5-yard line.
Two of those plays did not produce positive yardage, while the
other one gained one yard.
The verdict: The answer as to whether or not Anderson can contribute
anything to fantasy owners for the remainder of the season might
come this weekend, as New England comes to town. The remaining
schedule isn't overly challenging from a run-game perspective,
but we've already established there's more to Anderson's recent
woes than his opposition. Twice in the four weeks since the Week
5 bye, it feels like the defense has either laid an egg or quit
- neither of which is acceptable for a team with this much talent
or playing for a first-year coach. The committee backfield attack
appears here to stay, and the offense needs something more than
the threat of Brock
Osweiler throwing the ball to help a struggling offensive
line. I'm afraid there will be more valleys than peaks in Anderson's
Doug Orth has written for FF
Today since 2006 and been featured in USA Today’s Fantasy
Football Preview magazine since 2010. He hosted USA Today’s
hour-long, pre-kickoff fantasy football internet chat every Sunday
in 2012-13 and appears as a guest analyst on a number of national
sports radio shows, including Sirius XM’s “Fantasy Drive”.
Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.