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: 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.