Running back committee roundup: Patriots make for an intriguing group
If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know that I tweet about music on occasion -- classic rock, to be exact. And you may have also realized that I like The Band. A lot. One of my favorite things about The Band is that three of the five members were great singers with distinct voices. You can tell right away if it’s Levon Helm song, a Rick Danko song or a Richard Manuel song, usually before the voice even comes in. Each voice lends itself do a different kind of tune, and it’s part of what made The Band so versatile.
It’s similar to why, as a fantasy prognosticator, I really enjoy the New England backfield. With Stevan Ridley on the shelf for the rest of the season, the two remaining backs have their own distinct playing styles. Shane Vereen is a pass-catching dynamo who’s only really going to run the ball insofar as the Patriots can’t just telegraph a pass every time Vereen is on the field. He has played in every game this year, getting anywhere between five and 11 carries each week. Just twice has he given his fantasy owners meaningful contributions on the ground. Vereen typically makes his money through the air, as he did two weeks ago when he caught five passes for 71 yards and two touchdowns. If it’s a good matchup for Tom Brady and the passing game, it’s likely a good matchup for Vereen, as well.
The other voice belongs to Jonas Gray, who went undrafted in 2012 out of Notre Dame and spent time with the Dolphins and Ravens before the Patriots signed him last winter. He spent the first six weeks of the season on the practice squad before joining the active roster after Ridley’s injury. Where Vereen’s voice is full of finesse and lilt, characterized by the crisp routes he runs out of the backfield, Gray’s is gruff and powerful. He ran over the Bears last week, picking up 86 yards on 17 carries.
Even going back to college, Gray was always a bruising runner not exactly known for having a good set of hands. He was primarily a backup to Armando Allen during his time in South Bend, not getting significant playing time until his senior season. He ran for 791 yards and 12 scores on 114 carries, but caught just six passes. Gray’s going to take the ball and run hard north and south. He’s not going to scare anyone as a receiver out of the backfield.
What that means is the New England running back committee is the easiest in the league to handicap. Reggie Bush’s and Joique Bell’s talents are, in some ways, duplicative. The same was true of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, including their innate ability to get hurt in the same game. There is no skills overlap between Vereen and Gray. That makes it about as easy as possible to predict when one or the other will get more touches. It also makes rolling the dice on Gray a little less risky, so long as you read the situation correctly.
More often than not, Vereen is going to be worth starting. The Patriots live and die on Brady’s right arm, and that’s not going to change any time soon. The passing game has been clicking for a month now, with Brady throwing for 1,268 yards, 8.81 yards per attempt and 14 touchdowns against zero interceptions in New England’s last four games. With Rob Gronkowski back at 100 percent and Brandon LaFell turning into a reliable receiver outside the numbers for Brady, there’s only going to be more room in the short and intermediate parts of the field for Vereen to do what he does best. His ceiling is that of a high-end RB2, but his floor doesn’t fall beneath a low-end RB2. Gray can be deployed in the right matchup, and thanks to the clear division of duties, it’s not that challenging to identify the games in which you may want to think about starting Gray.
You don't want to consider Gray this week. The Broncos have allowed just 2.92 yards per carry this season, and have shut down backs with running styles like Gray’s, such as Frank Gore and Chris Ivory. Marshawn Lynch and Knile Davis volumed their way to big fantasy games against the Broncos, while Andre Ellington caught four passes for 112 yards and a score in Denver. Moreover, this feels like a game in which the winner is going to have to put up at least 30 points. That does not suggest a gameflow suited to Gray’s talents. There will be better days ahead for him -- Week 13 against the Packers, for example -- and the best thing about those days is they figure to stand out so clearly that they won’t go wasted on your bench.
Chairman: Anthony Dixon -- 41 snaps, 22 carries, zero targets
Bryce Brown -- 14 snaps, seven carries, three targets
Everything lined up against either Dixon or Brown having a big game last week. First, there was the uncertainty over who would carry the load in the wake of the Spiller-Jackson apocalypse. Then there was the opponent. The Jets have allowed just 3.38 yards per carry this year, but have been one of the worst pass defenses in the league. They rank 24th in pass coverage according to Pro Football Focus, allowing 7.81 yards per attempt and a league-high 22 passing touchdowns.
At the same time, Dixon and Brown showed us why opportunity doesn’t guarantee a running back anything. It may have been just one game, but fantasy owners can safely write off this duo for the rest of the season.
According to Pro Football Focus, no team is worse than the Bills at run blocking. No back is going to make it entirely on his own, but Dixon and Brown would seem to need more help than the average back to become relevant to fantasy owners. That’s strike one.
Strike two comes in the form of Buffalo’s remaining schedule. After their Week 9 bye, the Bills play the Chiefs, Dolphins, Jets, Browns and Broncos, before getting run-friendly teams in Green Bay and Oakland during Weeks 15 and 16, traditionally the semifinals and championship in fantasy leagues. The Jets and Broncos feature the top two run defenses in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, while the Dolphins rank seventh. Meanwhile, the Chiefs have surrendered the fourth-fewest fantasy points per game to running backs this year. Most backs would have trouble against such a slate.
Of course, they would likely have plus matchups in the two most important weeks of the season, but that’s where the third and final strike crosses the plate. Jackson is expected to return from his groin injury by the team’s Week 14 matchup with the Broncos at the latest. More likely, he’ll be back against the Browns a week earlier. That doubles as the one game in which fantasy owners may have considered Dixon or Brown, assuming one of them had taken over as the feature back by that point.
St. Louis Rams
Chairman: Tre Mason -- 18 snaps, seven carries, one target
Benny Cunningham -- 18 snaps, four carries, one target
Zac Stacy -- 15 snaps, five carries, four targets
There’s Jeff Fisher, pulling the rug out on fantasy owners again. After getting 18 carries against the Seahawks, Mason was on the field for just 18 plays, touching the ball eight times in the Rams’ loss to the Chiefs last week. However, you can file this under the “nothing to see here” heading.
The Rams trailed for nearly the entire game and were forced to throw for most of the entire second half. Mason isn’t known as the best pass catcher, so he spent a lot of time on the sidelines with the Rams trying to chase down a big deficit. He still played the most snaps and got the most carries, so it appears he remains atop the depth chart. The bigger story, though, might be that this offense is wholly untrustworthy.
St. Louis already featured a low-ceiling offense that only served fantasy owners’ needs in great matchups or heavy bye weeks. That offense got even worse when it lost Jake Long and Brian Quick to season-ending injuries. That means this offense, which was already 22nd in the league in yards and 26th in points, is now without, arguably, its two best players. In other words, there has never been a worse time to invest in this offense.
The Rams’ next three games are against the 49ers, Cardinals and Broncos. San Francisco has allowed the sixth-fewest fantasy points per game to running backs, while Denver has allowed the ninth fewest. Arizona has been the stingiest defense against running backs, allowing just 11.9 fantasy points per game to the position. Mason remains the leader in St. Louis, but he’s no better than an RB3 for fantasy purposes.