In less than two weeks' time, the Baltimore Ravens experienced more
chaos to their backfield than any team should have to experience
in a season - much less during a stretch from the final preseason
game to the season opener. J.K. Dobbins was the first running back
to go down, suffering a torn ACL on Aug. 28. Nine days later, Justice Hill blew out his Achilles. Three days after that, presumptive new
lead back Gus Edwards tore his ACL.
With that said, the situation provided me with the inspiration
for the topic to lead off Year 13 of this column. As an ESPN production
assistant many years ago, we were taught to go into a game with
a well-researched plan for the highlight we were assigned to cut
for SportsCenter that night but have the flexibility to let our
research go at the drop of a hat once the game went off the rails.
While not to the same degree as my ESPN experience, NFL backfields
rarely remain intact or play out according to plan. Deciphering
how backfields could potentially play out when chaos strikes is
one of the ways successful fantasy managers can stay ahead of
As a result, this week's focus will be examining what I believe
would happen if/when each team's primary ball-carrier is forced
to miss at least one game this season.
Comment: Williams' Week 1 disappearing act following
his impressive start was curious. Considering Murray did next
to nothing in the second half and showed little explosion while
doing so suggests HC John Harbaugh and OC Greg Roman either don't
trust Williams' ball security yet (possible but unlikely) or his
ability to pick up the blitz. Based on how lost he appeared on
both of the Raiders' blitzes in the opener, it is safe to assume
this was the reason behind his lack of activity. With that said,
Williams looked better in Week 1 than Murray did or Bell and Freeman
What happens if Williams goes down? Do we really
want to go there with the fourth running back on this team? Murray
is the back that most fits how Baltimore likes to run, so he would
likely be the primary back with Freeman serving as his 1B. Bell
and Freeman would likely split most of the work on clear passing
Comment: Some recent pass-run ratios for the Bills: 51-25, 48-25,
37-16, 35-21, 38-25. The Bills haven't tried to establish the
run to a large degree in their last five games. Thankfully, Singletary
worked out hard enough during the offseason and stood out enough
during camp to make Moss a healthy scratch in Week 1. Was it because
Buffalo didn't expect to run much against Pittsburgh? Possibly.
Either way, Moss isn't a priority right now.
What happens if Singletary goes down? Moss would
likely be the lead man in a two-back committee with Breida similar
to the one he and Singletary operated out of last season when
both were healthy. Would it matter in fantasy? Unlikely. Moss
deserves better, but he is a poor fit for an offense that is relying
on four-wide sets significantly more than just about any team
in the league.
Comment: The Mixon takeover that has been expected ever since
he entered the NFL in 2017 may finally be happening. Cincinnati
gave him a break on long down-and-distance plays in Week 1, but
there was not another facet of the game where he did not see an
overwhelming amount of the playing time versus the Vikings.
What happens if Mixon goes down? The expectation
would be that Perine would assume most of Mixon's current workload,
although Evans was drafted in part because of his ability to be
a weapon in the passing game. Thus, the best and perhaps most
appropriate comparison would be Perine and Evans playing the same
respective roles Mixon and Giovani Bernard played in recent years
Comment: Much as the case was last year, Chubb yielded a disproportionate
amount of work to Hunt in Week 1 - except for when it came to
rushing attempts (15-6). Otherwise, Hunt ran more routes and held
the advantage when it came to short or long down-and-distance
snaps AND two-minute work. If there is an upside for Chubb here,
it is that Hunt was not nearly that involved early. Hunt also
did not record the first of his three catches until the 9:28 mark
of the fourth quarter. One of the reasons I liked Chubb so much
this year was the likelihood they would be playing with a positive
game script much more often than not. We saw what could be for
him over the first three quarters.
What happens if Chubb goes down? There is no
reason to expect much of a departure from what happened last year
when Chubb missed four games, other than Felton would likely steal
some of Hunt's work as a receiver. In Chubb's absence last season,
Hunt commanded 75.5 percent of the rushing attempts and 77.8 percent
of the targets this backfield had to offer.
Comment: Gordon's 70-yard touchdown run made things look a bit
lopsided in the box score, but it is ultimately a very promising
thing that Williams essentially battled him to a draw almost across
the board in terms of opportunities and specific usage. Williams
held a 14-11 edge in rushing attempts, while Gordon was slightly
more involved in the passing game. Expect things to lean slightly
more to Williams as the season progresses.
What happens if Gordon/Williams goes down? About
what you would expect. Gordon and Williams each played 33 of 66
snaps in Week 1. No other back played one. Boone could end up
being a bit of a factor once he is healthy enough to play, but
Gordon would almost certainly be a workhorse if the rookie gets
hurt and vice versa.
Comment: Imagine how bad the Jaguars had to be in Week 1 to give
up one run of more than 11 yards on 41 attempts and still surrender
160 yards rushing. Not one of the aforementioned trio averaged
more than 3.3 yards per carry. We learned that Ingram is the clear
lead back for however long Houston can remain in games this season.
It appears Lindsay's role is to relieve Ingram, while Johnson
handles most of the traditional passing-down work.
What happens if Ingram goes down? I'm not sure
the answer to this question matters. With their next eight games
coming against the Browns, Panthers, Bills, Patriots, Colts, Cardinals,
Rams and Dolphins, there won't be much of an opportunity for Houston
to establish the run. To answer the question, I believe Lindsay
would likely assume Ingram's role while probably holding a 60-40
edge in rushing work over Johnson.
Comment: One of the more encouraging things here was that Mack
did not even log an offensive snap in Week 1. Another encouraging
thing is that despite Hines being one of the best passing-game
weapons in the league at running back, Taylor nearly rivaled him
in terms of passing game usage in the opener. With that said,
the Colts did not run the ball with much success against Seattle,
possibly giving some credence to the narrative that the Colts
(Taylor in particular) took advantage of a light schedule down
the stretch last year. It is also unlikely the Colts want 15 of
38 potential targets going to the running back position every
What happens if Taylor goes down? We saw this
movie play out a bit last year when Taylor was struggling to establish
his place on the depth chart. Indianapolis has shown a willingness
to make Hines the lead back when necessary. It is fair to assume
he would handle roughly half of the carries in any given game
and play about 90 percent of the snaps on passing downs. Mack
would likely get most of the scraps and share work near the goal
Comment: The injury to Travis Etienne last month was supposed
to clear up the uncertainty in this backfield. Instead, it appeared
as if the Week 1 plan was to minimize the one thing that worked
in 2020. Robinson had two carries through the team's first three
drives and was done for the day as a runner after three totes
on the fourth drive. The good news here is that Robinson still
ran significantly more routes and saw way more usage on clear
passing downs than Hyde. Expect that to continue.
What happens if Robinson goes down? Hyde would
be this year's James Robinson, right? Well, not exactly. The Jaguars
would almost certainly ask Duke
Johnson or Dare
Ogunbowale to handle the majority of work in the passing game.
It seems clear at this point that Hyde would handle the bulk of
work on early downs, although it is fair to wonder how much that
might mean on an offense that struggled so mightily against Houston
and didn't bother to use one of its best weapons (Trevor Lawrence's
rushing ability) to get something going.
Comment: CEH played 72 percent of the team's offensive snaps
in Week 1 - the third-highest mark of his brief pro career and
the area where we can start thinking of players approaching workhorse
status. Another very encouraging stat from the opener was that
he handled 14 of the 16 carries that were allotted to the backfield.
McKinnon barely played (six percent of snaps) and did not steal
any of the long down-and-distance or two-minute work that may
have had CEH managers on edge in drafts. Unfortunately, Williams
handled the majority of those specific opportunities. Interestingly,
Williams barely dented the box score (one carry) in spite of that.
What happens if Edwards-Helaire goes down? It
would appear McKinnon was added in the offseason to complement
Williams in case of an Edwards-Helaire injury and not to share
passing-down work with him. Williams seems to be the preferred
option - at least in HC Andy Reid's mind - over McKinnon and would
be in line for the same 12-14 carries that CEH figures to receive
on a weekly basis. More than likely, Williams and McKinnon would
split work on passing downs.
Comment: Jacobs was clearly dealing with a toe or ankle issue
early and often against Baltimore. Drake logged 41 snaps to Jacobs'
45 on Monday Night Football, although it is difficult to say how
much of that was a product of the Raiders not holding their first
lead until Zay Jones' game-winning catch in overtime. However,
the early returns are not overly promising for Jacobs, who finished
with the same number of touches as Drake (11).
What happens if Jacobs goes down? We may not
have to wait very long to find out if Jacobs continues to play
in pain. Drake inked a two-year deal worth $11 million in March
to give Las Vegas a versatile chess piece that could complement
Jacobs when he is healthy and handle 20 touches if Jacobs was
forced to miss time. Barber could get some short-yardage and goal-line
work if Jacobs has to sit at any point, but Drake would almost
certainly be treated as a bell-cow.
Comment: Ekeler was slowed by a hamstring injury last week, which
is about the only explanation as to why he didn't see a target
in a game Justin Herbert threw 47 times and the offense ran 81
plays. (Jackson was the only running back to see a target.) It
seems pointless to read too much into Ekeler's usage given his
uncertain nature leading up to the opener, although it is somewhat
encouraging he logged 58 percent of the team's snaps and wasn't
pulled near the goal line before converting from 3 yards out on
the team's first drive.
What happens if Ekeler goes down? We saw the
scenario play out last season when Ekeler missed Weeks 5-11, although
that was under a different head coach and play-caller. It's reasonable
to assume based on preseason and Week 1 usage that Rountree would
handle the bulk of early-down work, while Jackson would change
the pace for him as a runner and hold down most of the work on
Comment: One of the most-discussed topics in fantasy last month
was whether Gaskin was going to return to last year's workhorse
role. The Week 1 answer: apologies to those who believed it would
happen. Thankfully for his fantasy managers, he performed far
better than his teammates and assumed the overwhelming majority
of work in two-minute situations. The good news: even just playing
54 percent of the snaps, he still logged 14 touches (five catches).
Brown appears to be the preferred option in short down-and-distance
What happens if Gaskin goes down? I get the
distinct impression Miami would prefer to keep Brown in his current
role, if only because he has never been trusted to carry the load
for more than a game or two at a time. Therefore, we can probably
assume Ahmed would likely take on Gaskin's role.
Comment: Stevenson fumbled on his first regular-season
catch and was not heard from again in Week 1. Harris fumbled on
his 25th and final touch with the Patriots in field-goal range
and in position to close out the Dolphins. Few coaches show their
disdain for ball-security issues like Bill Belichick, so Harris
see his role reduced and Stevenson could get benched for the
foreseeable future. Enter preseason standout Taylor, who was inactive
last week. It would be far from surprising to see Belichick make
Stevenson inactive as punishment and give the 1B role to Taylor,
who reminds some of a bigger Dion Lewis.
What happens if Harris goes down? It is nearly
impossible to peg what Belichick might do with his backfield on
a weekly basis, so predicting how it would take shape over the
rest of the season seems pointless. However, if Harris were to
miss time, the primary beneficiary would be whichever back (Stevenson
and Taylor) is on the coach's good side when it happens. That
player would be a strong bet for 15-plus carries, while the other
would likely be in line for 5-8. White might see a carry or two
more than he usually does, although his main job would continue
to be operating as the primary back on passing downs.
Comment: This backfield actually entered Week 1 with a bit of
a promise. While most of us realized the Jets would use a committee,
OC Mike LaFleur's San Francisco-inspired offensive scheme combined
with the improvements New York made to its offensive line was
generating optimism. That is not how it played out against Carolina.
Even before LT Mekhi Becton was lost for multiple weeks with a
knee injury, the running game looked awful. Johnson was able to
muster a 12-yard run on one of his four carries, but it was one
of only four rushing attempts for him. Somewhat interestingly,
Johnson held a significant advantage over his teammates in snaps
and routes as well as long down-and-distance and two-minute work.
What happens if Coleman goes down? Week 1 was
a disaster for the running game, and it is hard to believe much
will change against the Patriots or Broncos in the next two weeks.
My point is that I don't think the answer to this question will
matter much in fantasy, outside of reducing this backfield from
a three-headed mess to a two-headed mess.
Comment: As advertised, Harris was drafted to handle the majority
of the workload in this backfield. Harris played all 58 offensive
snaps in Week 1.
What happens if Harris goes down? McFarland
appeared to be making some headway toward winning the backup job
before an undisclosed preseason injury put him on IR. Over the
next two weeks, Ballage would seem to be the favorite to take
over if Harris can't go, although the most likely conclusion would
have him splitting time with Snell. Ballage would likely handle
most of the passing-down work.
Comment: Tennessee's blocking was atrocious for the better part
of the first half against Arizona. (Well, that and Chandler Jones
made himself nearly impossible to block.) One of the problems
with riding with Henry in fantasy is that we have become so accustomed
to the Titans holding leads or staying within one score that panic
can ensue in the rare instance the Titans lay an egg. An unexpected
bonus to come out of Week 1 was Henry's four targets. It was only
the fourth time in 79 career games he has recorded that many.
What happens if Henry goes down? Here is the
million-dollar question that has not needed to be answered yet.
Evans was drafted to be the answer, but he has been injured so
much in the 1 1/2 years he has been with the team that Tennessee
may just decide to keep him in a change-of-pace role regardless
of Henry's health. McNichols would likely split work as a rusher
and receiver with Sargent almost right down the middle if King
Henry took a tumble.
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.