Tuesday November 17th, 2015

This week’s Fact or Fiction examines a pair of running backs that went from waiver wire darlings into breakout contributors once the starters in front of them went down with injuries. Who’s more likely to keep it up for your fantasy team down the stretch?

Fact: Charcandrick West is a league-stealer.

When Jamaal Charles went down with an ACL tear against Chicago in Week 5, he took with him most of his fantasy owners’ playoff hopes. It’s a serious challenge for anyone to lose their first-round pick and still compete, especially when it’s a player like Charles. He’s the sort of guy you build a team around, and he was playing like a championship linchpin for the first five weeks of the year. He left that eventual loss to the Bears in the first half, meaning in just four and a half games he had 364 rushing yards, 21 receptions, 177 receiving yards and five total touchdowns. That’s not the sort of production you simply replace.

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At that point, Charles owners had two paths to continued relevance in their leagues. The first path had to be paved months in advance. As good as Charles is and as tough as it is to lose him, it certainly was possible to draft well enough to absorb his injury. The other path opened up in real time. The thing about the second path, though, was that it was available to everyone, and if Charles owners didn’t start down it immediately, someone else would. Whoever did will likely have one of the most dangerous teams come playoff time. That path was grabbing Charcandrick West off the waiver wire.

West’s first start was unremarkable enough. He got just nine carries, picking up 33 yards in a loss to the Vikings. The Chiefs couldn’t get anything going, however, and trailed by two scores for most of the final three quarters of the game. Alex Smith attempted 37 passes in that game, his third-highest total of the season. Since then, the Chiefs have won three straight, and they’ve made no secret about how they plan to get back into the playoff hunt in the AFC. Put simply, and with a nod to Horace Greeley, they will go West.

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The second-year back out of Abilene Christian isn’t nearly as shifty or explosive as Charles, but the Chiefs seem prepared to use him as if he is the same player. West has had at least 20 carries in each of the last three weeks. In that time, he has rushed for 276 yards and three touchdowns. He has also caught nine of 16 targets for 136 yards and another score. That translates to 21.73 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. West hasn’t climbed to that lofty average on the strength of one big game, either. During this three-week stretch, he has scored between 18.2 and 28.1 points in every game and finished no lower than seventh among running backs in a given week.

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Let’s take a look at how the Chiefs have deployed West just like they would Charles, and how West has taken advantage of his new role in the offense. He finished off the Broncos with an 80-yard touchdown reception in Week 10, a 14-point play in standard-scoring leagues that undoubtedly was the difference between a win and a loss for many of his owners. To be fair, this play isn’t going to illuminate some special skill that West has. The Broncos just totally lost him in coverage. That’s not the point, though. The mere fact that he’s running this route is proof that the Chiefs haven’t altered the playbook one bit with Charles on the shelf.

West didn’t have any pass-blocking responsibilities on this play, which we know since he ran right past Denver rookie Shane Ray without even getting a chip on him. He was purely a receiver, and he made the Broncos pay in a fashion similar to what we’re used to seeing from Charles.

West proved his mettle in his first big game, in which he ran for 110 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in a win over the Steelers. Unlike the previous play we looked at, the following one has more to do with West himself and less with scheme. The Chiefs held a 16–13 lead with just more than eight minutes remaining in the game. It was first-and-10, and they had the ball just on their side of midfield. They come out in an offset I-formation with one receiver to either side of the formation. Here’s what it looks like when Smith takes the snap.

West is about to get his 17th carry of the game. The last time West had at least 17 carries in a game, prior to the Week 7 win over the Steelers, was on Sept. 7, 2013, when his Abilene Christian Wildcats beat McMurray University, 60–17 (West had 20 carries for 139 yards and four touchdowns in that game). It wouldn’t be a huge shock if he were a little gassed, but that was not the case.

West sheds at least three tackles on this play and gains about 25 yards after first contact. The Chiefs would go on to score five plays later, effectively ending the game. You can bet Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson remember how they got there.

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There’s one last factor that not only makes West a rock-solid RB1 for the rest of the season but guarantees that he must be included among potential playoff MVPs. The Chiefs play the Chargers, Ravens and Browns during the fantasy playoffs. The Ravens present a neutral matchup (though they have been terrible against the pass), but West should be able to run all over the bookends of Kansas City’s playoff schedule. The Chargers and Browns have allowed the most and sixth-most points per game, respectively, to running backs. Few fantasy owners knew who West was just three months ago. Now he could hold the key to raising a playoff championship trophy.

Fiction: Jeremy Langford will star down the stretch right alongside West.

West has been the best fantasy back over the last three weeks, but Langford holds that title in the window is narrowed to the last two. Matt Forte suffered a sprained knee against the Vikings in Week 8, giving the Bears an opportunity to get a glimpse at their future. Forte, who has been the starting running back in Chicago since 2008, is expected to leave in free agency after this season. Langford, whom the team selected out of Michigan State in the fourth round of this year’s draft, thus had at least a few weeks to audition for the starting gig in 2016. Needless to say, he has aced it so far.

In two games as the starter, Langford has done a spot-on impression of Forte. He was electric in the Bears’ Week 9 win over the Chargers, racking up 142 yards from scrimmage on 21 touches and scoring on a goal-line plunge. The next week, in the Bears’ surprise shellacking of the Rams, Langford broke a screen pass 83 yards for a touchdown. All told, he had seven catches for 109 yards, 20 carries for 73 yards and two touchdowns against one of the best defenses in the league.

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So how is it possible that we’re calling his league-stealer status a fiction? It should be clear that it has nothing to do with Langford, or the way he has played. In fact, his performance has likely helped make it a reality that he won’t have as large a role in the fantasy playoffs as looked possible just a few weeks ago.

The Bears are now 4–5 and have entered the NFC wild card mix. Their next two games—against the Broncos and Packers—don’t appear as hopeless as they once did. Even if they just split those two games, they’ll still be within striking distance of the playoffs. By that time, Forte should be ready to return. We’ve seen a lot of players suffer sprained MCLs this season, from Ben Roethlisberger to Marcus Mariota to Tyrod Taylor. While the severity of the injury can differ, the timetable for return is typically two to four weeks. Forte will be three weeks removed from his MCL sprain when the Bears host the Broncos on Sunday. He may not be ready for that game, but he very well could be for the Thanksgiving night showdown with the Packers and almost certainly should be when the Bears take on the 49ers in Week 13. If the Bears can still sniff the playoffs when Forte’s knee is back to 100%, you can bet that he’ll be back in the starter’s chair.

It may be just two games, but Langford has done everything possible to prove to the Bears he can be their starter as soon as next season. He likely has done enough to guarantee himself a more significant role in the offense the rest of the way than he had for the first half of the season, even when Forte returns. But once the Bears have their star running back available, Langford will be relegated to a 10- or 12-touch role. He may help get his owners to the playoffs, but he’s unlikely to carry them once they get there.

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