RB committee roundup: What's going on with Bills' running backs?
Running Back Committee Watchers far and wide are without doubt focused on two cities this weekend. One of those houses a familiar team to the Committee Watch, albeit with a different pair of backs this week. The other was previously ignored, but after a major shakeup over the last few weeks, holds a new place of significance in fantasy football circles. As we charge out of the gate in this week’s edition of the Running Back Committee Watch, let’s head to western New York, where nobody can be too sure what to expect.
There’s really no sense in listing a chairman for this backfield because it would be no more than an educated guess. With C.J. Spiller (broken collarbone) out for the year, and Fred Jackson (groin) taking a seat for four weeks, Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon will handle the backfield duties for the Bills for at least the next month. You can try all you want to read the tea leaves here, but you’re still going to be speculating until we see how the pair is deployed on Sunday. What we can do, however, is diagnose what each back does well.
Think of Dixon as the boring minivan that is going to get you around town without an issue, while Brown is the flashy sports car that just isn’t practical in every situation. There are multiple reasons why Dixon has played every game while Brown has been a healthy scratch for seven weeks running. Yes, Dixon contributes on special teams, while the Bills were not comfortable with Brown in that role. But Dixon has his charms as a running back, as well. He has had just 27 carries this year, turning those into 137 yards. He didn’t get significant work as a runner until Spiller and Jackson got hurt last week, running for 51 yards on 13 totes. That’s nothing to write home about, but it’s not like he’s putting up Toby Gerhart numbers, either. In short, nothing thus far would suggest that the Bills are completely down on him as a runner.
Dixon has also proven himself capable in pass protection, coming through on all 11 of his pass-blocking assignments this year. That may not seem like a huge number, but it represents one-sixth of the snaps he has played. Dixon does all the things a third running back needs to do to get on the field. No one would ever confuse him with a feature back, but he doesn’t need to be one to ruin Brown’s fantasy value. He just needs to hold onto enough of the coaching staff’s trust to get his share of the snaps.
No one doubts who the better athlete is in this situation. Brown ran for 4.6 yards per rush on 190 carries in two years with the Eagles. He was touted as a necessary handcuff to LeSean McCoy last year, and then McCoy completely squeezed him from the game plan by having one of the best seasons for a running back in recent memory. He’s not nearly the special teamer or pass blocker that Dixon is, but that doesn’t mean he’s behind the veteran on the depth chart. It speaks volumes that Jackson had such glowing things to say about the 23-year-old Brown earlier this week. If one of these two becomes a true feature back while Jackson is on the shelf, Brown will be that guy.
Dixon may have been a better fit for what the Buffalo offense needed when Spiller and Jackson were healthy, but Brown is the only back left standing who has proved himself capable of dominating a game as a pure running back. With McCoy injured late in the 2012 season, Brown took over as the Philadelphia starter and put up back-to-back monster performances. In Week 12 of that season against the Panthers, Brown ran for 178 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. One of his scores was on an impressive 65-yard scamper, displaying his big-play ability. He was right back at it against Dallas the next week, picking up 169 yards and hitting paydirt twice more on 24 attempts. He had four separate runs in that game of at least 15 yards. Dixon may be great at picking up a blitzing linebacker, but he can’t do what Brown can as a runner.
And yet, fantasy owners cannot be sure that either one will be featured enough to trust as a regular starter. This team and coaching staff has not shown any appetite to go with just one back, splitting touches and snaps between Jackson and Spiller, thus tormenting fantasy owners. It’s hard to imagine that changing, especially with Brown’s deficiencies in pass protection. More likely, the two will share the duties, with Dixon playing on third downs. He is also expected to start when the Bills visit the Jets on Sunday. Both of them should be owned at this point, and this game merits close watching to see how the workload is divided. Neither, however, can be considered a solid fantasy starter this week.
St. Louis Rams
Chairman: Tre Mason – 26 snaps, 18 carries, zero targets
Benny Cunningham – 17 snaps, two carries, five targets
Zac Stacy – one snap, zero carries, zero targets
Things really de-escalated quickly for Stacy, huh? Three games ago, he played 31 snaps, ran the ball 11 times and got four targets. He probably would have played even more if not for a calf injury. Last week, while essentially completely healthy, he took the field exactly one time. Instead, the rookie Mason impressed against a tough Seattle defense, getting 85 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Cunningham reprised his familiar role as the pass-catching back, but he ran just twice. We always have to be careful about reading too much into one game, but Mason is no doubt occupying the chair heading into Week 8.
We’ve already detailed Mason’s exploits in his last two games in the Fast Forward, Target Report and Start ‘Em, Sit ‘Em columns this week, so now, we'll look at what, if any, looming threat Stacy still presents to Mason. It’s safe to say that no matter who the starter is, Cunningham will serve as a change-of-pace back and receiver out of the backfield. Neither Mason nor Stacy can measure up to him in that regard. At the same time, he’s at his best in that role, not as a workhorse back. If anyone can derail the seemingly runaway Mason train, it’s Stacy.
I labeled Stacy as my top bust candidate as many times as I possibly could back in drafting season, but even I would admit that he does do some things well. He’s not nearly as good of a runner as Mason or as good of a receiver as Cunningham, but he’s not a total bum, either. He can be a hammer at the goal line, and has acquitted himself well in pass-blocking situations. Stacy has had 13 pass-blocking assignments this year, allowing one quarterback hit and zero sacks. He’s not going to be confused with Ahmad Bradshaw, but he is almost always going to fulfill his duties in pass protection.
Head coach Jeff Fisher has uttered the words “hot hand” this week, and that’s where Mason owners have to be worried. The Rams were committed to Stacy coming into the season, and were feeding him starter’s touches just three weeks ago. He ostensibly would still be starting for the Rams if not for the calf injury that has limited him in recent weeks. If Mason gets off to a slow start, the Rams could very well turn to Stacy. In other words, Mason owners should fear Fisher more than they do the former starter.
Having said all that, I’m on the record as being a dyed-in-the-wool believer in Mason. You don’t run for 1,816 yards and score 24 touchdowns in a single season playing in the SEC by accident. The Rams have smartly brought him along at a snail’s pace, making sure he learned the offense while also keeping him fresh. Mason has only touched the ball 24 times this year. This is a guy who had 317 carries in his final year at Auburn. He can handle a full season’s workload, and he’s ready to grab a stranglehold of the starting job in St. Louis. Is Stacy still potentially a threat to his job security? Yes. Is it one that should have Mason owners intimidated? No.
Out of Committee
Minnesota Vikings – Jerick McKinnon has taken over this job, thankfully, from Matt Asiata. He has low-end RB2 value for the rest of the season.
New Orleans Saints – Two weeks ago, Khiry Robinson was the primary runner in New Orleans, while Pierre Thomas was holding down his role as the team’s pass-catching back. Mark Ingram returned from a broken hand last week, and relegated Robinson to the bench. Now that Thomas is dealing with a shoulder injury, the Saints will get another new face in their backfield this week. Travaris Cadet has played quite well in limited duty this season. He played fewer than 20 percent of the Saints’ snaps in their first three games. In the three games since, he has 15 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown while playing a total of 39 snaps. Cadet inherits a role in which Thomas had a snap percentage of at least 32 percent every week this year. He’s still flying under the radar, but that won’t be the case after Sunday.