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Stark Raven Mad - NFC

All Out Blitz: Volume 181

By Doug Orth | 9/16/21 |

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 the game.

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.

MIN | NO | NYG | PHI | SF | SEA | TB | WAS


Starter(s): Chase Edmonds, James Conner

Reserves: Jonathan Ward, Eno Benjamin

Comment: Week 1 likely gave us a good idea of what HC Kliff Kingsbury has in mind for his backfield, as Conner saw 49 percent of the team's snaps, finished with more rushing attempts (thanks to garbage time) and handled all short down-and distance work. Edmonds played 58 percent of the snaps, ran significantly more routes and handled what would typically be considered passing down work (long down-and-distance and two-minute).

What happens if Edmonds or Conner go down? In the event of an Edmonds injury, Conner would undoubtedly assume the lead role. However, it seems more likely than not he would remain in his bruiser role with slightly more work in the passing game while Ward would pick up roughly 70 percent of Edmonds' role. Conversely, I believe we have already seen what happens when Edmonds' tag-team partner goes down. Kingsbury has had two such opportunities during his time in Arizona and trusted Edmonds to handle 29 and 28 touches in those contests.


Starter(s): Mike Davis

Reserves: Cordarrelle Patterson, Wayne Gallman

Comment: As expected, Davis was on the field much more than Patterson or Gallman in Week 1, playing on 75 percent of the offensive snaps and logging 56 percent of the rush attempts. He handled the overwhelming majority of long down-and-distance and two-minute opportunities (85 and 100 percent, respectively). What was surprising was how early Patterson got involved (he saw his first carry four plays into the game and handled three of the first five touches on the second drive). He was also much more efficient than Davis as a runner (7.7 YPC versus Davis' 3.3).

What happens if Davis goes down? As I have maintained for most of the offseason, Davis has shown no ability to maintain his level of play for a full season in the rare instance he has been able to stay healthy. It is hard to imagine Patterson ever being the featured back, but there is a non-zero possibility he emerges as the lead back over Davis at some point. If Davis were to miss multiple games, I would expect Patterson to return to the complementary role he has now while Gallman assumes the lead role.


Starter(s): Christian McCaffrey

Reserves: Chuba Hubbard, Royce Freeman

Comment: Welcome back, CMC! McCaffrey was on the field for 89 percent of the snaps and every short down-and-distance opportunity as well as every two-minute snap in Week 1. The Panthers keep talking about getting him more rest, but that is easier said than done with a player who boasts such an incredible skill set.

What happens if McCaffrey goes down? Freeman could theoretically work his way into a bit of a 1B role behind Hubbard (think one series for Freeman for every two Hubbard would get) once he gets up to speed with the offense, but OC Joe Brady did not hesitate to lean on McCaffrey when he was healthy last year or Mike Davis when CMC was hurt. For what it's worth, Clyde Edwards-Helaire was also featured in Brady's one season as LSU's passing game coordinator.


Starter(s): David Montgomery

Reserves: Damien Williams, Khalil Herbert

Comment: Montgomery looked as good as I have ever seen him in the opener, which is saying something. I have consistently believed in his talent - especially in terms of running with power - but felt as though he has been stuck in an offense that fails to maximize his skill set or provide him with the kind of blocking he needs to be as effective as he could be. Williams appears to be the preferred passing-down back for now (Tarik Cohen should return at some point), however.

What happens if Montgomery goes down? Assuming Cohen is not back if/when this happens, Williams should be expected to keep his passing-down role while handling maybe 75 percent of the work Montgomery likely would (roughly 12-14 carries per game) with Herbert handling the rest. The other factor to consider here is if Justin Fields is starting at that point, as his presence would have a huge impact on all members of the rushing attack.


Starter(s): Ezekiel Elliott

Reserves: Tony Pollard, Corey Clement

Comment: There is apparently some panic in the fantasy world regarding Elliott's Week 1 performance. If that describes the person who has Zeke on their team in your league, take advantage. Elliott was on the field for 70 of 83 plays, handled 73 percent of the rush attempts and ran a route on 72 percent of Dallas' drop-backs. Pollard played 20 snaps. If Blake Jarwin blocks even a little bit on an Elliott run early in the third quarter, Zeke would have walked into the end zone and we would be talking about how he scored 12-plus fantasy points in the worst matchup he will face all year by far.

What happens if Elliott goes down? Elliott rarely misses games, but a repeat of Week 15 against San Francisco last year would likely be the answer to this question. Pollard handled 18 of the 22 backfield touches in that one.


Starter(s): D'Andre Swift

Reserves: Jamaal Williams, Jermar Jefferson

Comment: Be careful about reading too much into what happened in Week 1. Detroit ran 92 plays, which is an insane number for a game that ended in regulation. With that said, Swift played more than two-thirds of the team's offensive snaps, ran a route on 65 percent of drop-backs and was on the field for more than 80 percent of the long down-and-distance and two-minute snaps.

What happens if Swift goes down? Williams would almost certainly handle the bulk of the work, regardless of the game situation. The good thing for prospecting fantasy managers, however, is that Detroit raved about Jefferson this summer. While he lacks Swift's natural talent or explosiveness, the rookie would likely slot into a toned-down version of Swift's role in such a situation.

Green Bay

Starter(s): Aaron Jones

Reserves: AJ Dillon, Kylin Hill

Comment: There is a possibility that the offseason drama was too much for this team, but I doubt it. I also suppose there is a chance there is a handful of fantasy managers with Jones that fear this as well or don't know how to process Jones handling a mere seven touches before the starters got pulled. No such concerns here. Jones was easily the lead back through three quarters. In fact, one could argue he was seeing bell-cow usage through 45 minutes.

What happens if Jones goes down? Dillon already proved in Week 16 last season that he can carry the mail if necessary. While he has proven to a small degree that concerns about his hands were overblown, I doubt he will ever be anything close to the weapon in the passing game than Jones is. If Jones was to get hurt, Dillon would likely push for 70 percent of the rushing work. Hill is a more proven receiver, so he would likely get the nod in negative game script situations and/or passing downs.

LA Rams

Starter(s): Darrell Henderson

Reserves: Sony Michel, Jake Funk

Comment: There was no reason to expect Michel to play much - if at all - in the opener. His role will grow. Henderson's box-score contribution likely was enough to appease his fantasy managers, but nine of his 16 carries and 56 of his 70 rushing yards came in the final 10 minutes against the Bears. While he has shown flashes of brilliance throughout his brief career and his Week 1 usage rates were spectacular across the board, it was not an impressive effort for him overall. Fantasy managers who invested in Michel should continue to hold because if Henderson performs like this against the Colts and Buccaneers over the next two games, the former Patriot will begin to cut into his workload. He might regardless.

What happens if Henderson goes down? Given Henderson's history, it is a matter of "when" and not "if." In such a scenario, the Rams should be expected to go even more pass-heavy but lean on Michel when it is time to ground-and-pound. Considering where he likely is in absorbing the playbook about three weeks after his trade from New England, Michel would likely split work with the rookie and yield to Funk on passing downs.


Starter(s): Dalvin Cook

Reserves: Alexander Mattison, Ameer Abdullah

Comment: Cincinnati should be better against the run this year, but Cooks' 20-61-1 rushing line speaks to the concerns I had about the offensive line and play-calling. Next up: an Arizona defense that bottled up Derrick Henry and a Seattle defense that mostly contained Jonathan Taylor in Week 1 after that. (Gulp.) Cook will be able to make up for it somewhat with volume, but is that a good idea for someone coming off such a high-usage season and with his durability issues?

What happens if Cook goes down? Cook has yet to play a full season as a pro and Mattison has typically handled his responsibilities well in Cook's absence, although it is hard to say he has earned the tag as one of the league's most valuable handcuffs with his production in those contests. Either way, there is no reason to believe Mattison wouldn't be asked to handle the same kind of massive workload and responsibilities again.

New Orleans

Starter(s): Alvin Kamara

Reserves: Tony Jones, Ty Montgomery, Dwayne Washington

Comment: In the first game of the post-Drew Brees era, Kamara registered 20 carries - the second-highest regular-season total of his career. Perhaps that was a product of Green Bay's lack of competitiveness. Or maybe a sign of things to come? Including the playoffs last season, Kamara has logged at least 18 rushing attempts in four straight games (and at least 20 in three of them).

What happens if Kamara goes down? Montgomery would likely see a bit of work in the passing game if Kamara isn't around, but it is fair to assume HC Sean Payton saw enough from Jones this summer to believe he could operate in a workhorse role as Latavius Murray did on the rare occasion Kamara has been unable to play.

NY Giants

Starter(s): Saquon Barkley

Reserves: Devontae Booker, Gary Brightwell

Comment: Barkley looked good in his first real action since ACL surgery last fall. Booker handled most of the work one would have expected him to in Week 1 (long down-and-distance, two-minute), but Barkley saw a few more snaps, logged more rushing attempts and ran a few more routes than his backup. Because the Giants play on a short week in Week 2, expect only a slight bump in usage across the board for Barkley. Assuming that goes well, Barkley should be in line for the kind of workload we have come to expect from him against the Falcons in Week 3.

What happens if Barkley goes down? It seems clear Booker would serve as a bell-cow after GM Dave Gettleman pronounced him a "three-down running back" upon signing Booker back in March. It is debatable how much he could do with a full workload behind New York's offensive line, however.


Starter(s): Miles Sanders

Reserves: Kenneth Gainwell, Boston Scott

Comment: Sanders delivered in the box score in Week 1, but some of the underlying metrics are concerning. Gainwell ran only seven fewer routes and nearly split short down-and-distance snaps with Sanders. The rookie also appears to be the preferred option in two-minute situations. Sanders may not be in any danger of losing his starting job, but there is reason to be concerned about his weekly upside.

What happens if Sanders goes down? Scott did not play an offensive snap in the opener while Gainwell was in for 25 plays, so it is safe to say the rookie would have a firm grasp of the backfield work should Sanders miss time. Because Gainwell has already established himself as the primary option on passing downs, it is reasonable to assume he would handle most of that work and at least half of the carries as well.

San Francisco

Starter(s): Elijah Mitchell

Reserves: Trey Sermon, JaMycal Hasty, Jeff Wilson (IR)

Comment: Something is amiss here. Up until San Francisco announced its inactive list, there was no question in the minds of the 49ers beat writers that Sermon was the next man up after Mostert. My opinion has been (and will continue to be until proven otherwise) that Mitchell, who was expected to be the team's primary kick returner, and Hasty were active over Sermon in Week 1 because they were expected to contribute to special teams and Sermon wasn't. The fact that Raheem Mostert was lost after his second rushing attempt forced HC Kyle Shanahan's hand, and he went with the guy who really started to impress him as the preseason came to a close. Did Mitchell take advantage of his opportunity? Absolutely. Is he a fine carbon copy of Mostert? Yes. Do I expect him to be the waiver-wire darling of the 2021 season or still be running as the clear No. 1 back in San Fran this time next month? No.

What happens if Mitchell goes down? I have quickly come to trust The Athletic's David Lombardi when it comes to figuring what is going on with the 49ers. (I encourage you to start listening to this clip around the 6:00 mark.) Long story short, Lombardi believes (and I think rightfully so) that Shanahan is in a constant state of gathering information when it comes to his running backs. In Lombardi's opinion, Shanahan determined Mostert, Mitchell and Hasty were his best three options for Detroit. Lombardi also suggests Sermon was drafted in part to serve in the Tevin Coleman "tenderizer" role that Wilson handled so well when healthy last year. It leads me to believe very little has actually changed and that Shanahan will most likely roll with the back that runs counter to what he believes the opposing defense is. In other words, Sermon will likely get the majority of work in games against fast-flow or speedy defenses because he offers more power. Mitchell's 4.3 speed will likely win out in Shanahan's mind against bigger and slower fronts. Ironically, the most likely answer to this specific question is Sermon serving as the primary back until Wilson is ready to return. Hasty handled what few long down-and-distance and two-minute snaps there were in Week 1, and it seems likely that would continue to do so if Mitchell missed time.


Starter(s): Chris Carson

Reserves: Alex Collins, DeeJay Dallas, Travis Homer

Comment: Rashaad Penny (calf) was unable to stay healthy long enough in the opener for us to figure out if he was going to play a bigger role in the offense this year. It's just as well, as Collins was the better back last month. Carson took advantage of Penny's absence and Collins' inactivity from a playing time standpoint, logging 78 percent of the snaps and running a route on two-thirds of Seattle's drop-backs.

What happens if Carson goes down? At least until Penny returns (and assuming he can stay on the field), Collins would most likely be a one-for-one replacement for Carson in terms of role. Dallas and Homer combined for five snaps against the Colts and would likely only see a significant boost in snaps when Seattle enters negative game-script situations.

Tampa Bay

Starter(s): Ronald Jones/Leonard Fournette

Reserves: Giovani Bernard

Comment: This backfield is the gift that keeps on giving (please note my sarcasm). Jones was benched after an early fumble (surprise) in Week 1, but Fournette somehow managed to keep playing despite botching what should have been a routine catch on a screen pass that led to an interception. While Bernard handled all of the long down-and-distance and two-minute snaps, it was discouraging that Fournette saw more targets overall (7-3) even though Lombardi Lenny's lack of trustworthy hands was one of the primary reasons why Tampa Bay wanted Bernard in the first place.

What happens if Jones/Fournette goes down? For as much confusion as HC Bruce Arians and OC Byron Leftwich create for fantasy managers with this backfield, the answer to this question is relatively simple: Jones will almost certainly handle roughly 15 carries and cede most of the work to Bernard on passing downs if Fournette gets hurt and Fournette would do the same if Jones misses time.


Starter(s): Antonio Gibson

Reserves: J.D. McKissic, Jaret Patterson

Comment: Week 1 wasn't what his managers wanted in terms of fantasy production, but it is a good sign for a back when his offense runs 55 plays and 25 of them ended with him running/catching the ball or getting targeted. McKissic handled what was available in terms of long down-and-distance and two-minute work in the opener, but it resulted in just one target.

What happens if Gibson goes down? Patterson was impressive enough this summer to make this a question worth asking. He is a better runner than McKissic, so it would not be surprising to see him handle 55-60 percent of the rushing workload. McKissic figures to remain the preferred option on passing downs for the foreseeable future.


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.