October 22, 2014

By BJ Rudell, Special to SI.com

In fantasy football, I like to think that injuries lead to opportunities. As bad as things seem when your first round pick gets hurt, there’s often a comparable player ripe for the taking.

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The bigger challenge is deciding which train to ride for the long term -- the sidelined starter, or his seemingly capable replacements. So, let's evaluate five starting running backs scheduled to return to the field soon and their current stand-ins, and determine who will be the starter going forward.

Montee Ball // Ronnie Hillman, C.J. Anderson, Juwan Thompson

Two years ago Ronnie Hillman, he enjoyed only 84 carries playing behind Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno. Last year, he rushed only 55 times while deferring to Moreno and Ball. This season, Ball was handed the starting job, while Hillman battled early simply to be his backup.

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As we see all too often in fantasy football, a lot has changed in very little time. Ball is out with a groin injury suffered in Week 5, while Hillman has racked up impressive performances in back-to-back games, culminating in a two-touchdown evening on Sunday.

Will Ball regain his featured role? Not this year. His 3.1 yards per carry and lone touchdown could be chalked up to playing stingy defenses. But his stats look much worse considering the Broncos scored 25 points per game in Bell’s three healthy starts. Hillman has thrived despite facing similarly tough competition. Barring a huge and unlikely regression, it’s Hillman’s job to lose.

As for Anderson and Juwan Thompson, they’re nothing more than RB5 fliers, useful in leagues with deep benches as security blankets in case Hillman gets hurt.

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Ryan Mathews // Branden Oliver

Still in the prime of his career, Ryan Mathews suffered an MCL sprain during Week 2. The ensuing season-ending injury to Danny Woodhead, coupled with Donald Brown’s concussion (as well as his generally poor play), propelled Branden Oliver into the prime backfield slot.

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Oliver has made the most of the opportunity, averaging 128 total yards and a score in three starts; over a full season, those numbers would project to 2,048 all-purpose yards and 16 touchdowns. In other words, unless the former undrafted free agent happens to be one of the league’s top running backs, he’s due for a moderate-to-significant regression before Mathews returns. It doesn’t help that Oliver next faces two excellent run defenses on the road: the Broncos and Dolphins.

While Mathews has been injury prone throughout his five-year career, no one should doubt his standing as the Chargers’ featured back. He’s coming off a 1,255-yard, six-touchdown season in which he scored at least nine fantasy points in 12 out of 16 games, including each of the year’s final eight contests. As a proven workhorse, he should continue to see 15+ touches per game upon his return in a few weeks, keeping him on the RB2 radar. Meanwhile, expect Oliver to settle into a complementary role, netting seven to nine carries per game.

Rashad Jennings // Andre Williams

When Rashad Jennings suffered a sprained MCL in Week 5, some fantasy owners expected Andre Williams to at least match Jennings’ production in the ensuing weeks, thrusting a mere handcuff into the low-end RB1 conversation. But 35 carries and 110 yards later, Williams’ stock is pointing downward, making Jennings’ return to the starting lineup all but certain.

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Even if Jennings misses another game or two or even three, Williams is a bad bet to do significant damage in any of those contests, even with 20 carries per game. For starters, the Giants’ upcoming opponents consist of three top 10 run defenses: the Colts, Seahawks, and 49ers. Additionally, Williams is not utilized in the passing game, limiting his fantasy impact.

Once he returns to the field, Jennings will retain his former RB2 status. Barring a blowout, Williams’ value will be minimal most weeks.

Fred Jackson // Bryce Brown, Anthony Dixon 

One of my fantasy rules-of-thumb is to never draft a 33-year-old running back. The last fantasy-relevant tailback to reach that murky milestone was Ricky Williams, who followed up a revelatory age 32 season (1,121 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns) with a relative dud in a slightly diminished role (673 rushing yards, three touchdowns). 

As a Fred Jackson’s quest to defy the experts has been fraught with similar challenge, as he has only two scores after tallying 10 in 2013, and now he’s out for a few weeks with a groin injury. Will he return to the starting lineup for a fantastic fantasy playoff schedule that includes the Raiders (fourth worst run defense) and Packers (second worst run defense)?

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Jackson’s fate rests with Bryce Brown, who’s been inactive for each game this year. Acquired during the offseason for a middle-round draft pick, Brown became a fantasy legend during weeks 12 and 13 of the 2012 season, amassing 347 rushing yards and four touchdowns as a 21-year-old. Yet since then, he’s netted only 390 rushing yards on 115 carries (3.39 yards per carry) in 19 games. He will need to be much better these next few games if he hopes to supplant Jackson or even garner a sizable complementary role alongside the veteran.

I believe he will be better. Brown has received at least nine carries in only six games throughout his career; in those contests, he’s averaged 5.92 yards per carry. Running alongside Anthony Dixon (who’s no better than an RB5 with almost zero upside), Brown should net upwards of 12-15 carries, giving him a realistic chance at 70-90 total yards per game and an occasional score, placing him solidly in the RB2 camp and forcing Jackson into a complementary RB4 role upon his return.

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Toby Gerhart // Denard Robinson, Storm Johnson

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Five weeks ago, I wrote that Toby Gerhart -- at the time the Jaguars’ undisputed three-down running back -- would lose his starting gig to Denard Robinson by midseason. It’s actually happened a little sooner than expected. Whenever the prized free agent signing returns from a nagging foot injury, he will get no more than five to seven touches per game, and could see as little as one or two. 

The starting job is Robinson’s to lose following a 22-carry, 127-yard, one-touchdown performance this past Sunday. However, Jacksonville is second-to-last in points scored, meaning Robinson won’t have an easy time reaching the end zone most week. Consider him an RB3 with upside, depending on how effectively quarterback Blake Bortles moves the ball going forward. Meanwhile, Storm Johnson is an intriguing RB5, poised to run with the first team if Robinson struggles or gets hurt.

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