Fantasy football lessons from Week 2: Running back injuries leave backfields in flux
- Adrian Peterson. Doug Martin. Danny Woodhead. Jonathan Stewart. If you didn't lose an RB on your fantasy team to injury in Week 2, you got incredibly lucky. Here's advice for the rest of us.
Week 2 wasn’t quite the same fireworks show that the NFL treated us to a week ago. Week 1 made its mark in the fantasy community with close games and high-scoring affairs. Week 2 will be remembered for a wave of injuries, most notably at the running back position, which started right toward the beginning of the early games and did not let up.
Those injuries are where we’ll start with the Week 2 fantasy takeaways. Be sure to keep the following lessons in mind as you’re making your waiver claims and considering trades this week.
Running back attrition dominated the day
It started with Jonathan Stewart leaving the Panthers’ win over San Francisco with a hamstring injury. Then it was Arian Foster, who had his day cut short by a balky groin. Ameer Abdullah departed Detroit’s loss to Tennessee with a foot injury. Danny Woodhead sustained what appeared to be a serious knee injury. Thomas Rawls, who was on the mend and nearing a return to full health, suffered a setback and exited the Seahawks’ loss to the Rams with a leg injury. Finally, a hamstring problem knocked Doug Martin out of the Buccaneers’ loss to the Cardinals in the first quarter.
That’s six running backs who could be missing for their owners for some time—in Woodhead’s case, the fear is that he could be done for the season. The severity of the other four injuries isn’t known, but all are in jeopardy for Week 3. That opens the door for a handful of new players to make their presence felt in the fantasy world, though there isn’t much of a buying opportunity for owners
Melvin Gordon, Charles Sims and Christine Michael are already owned across the board. Gordon is going to get all the work he can possibly handle, especially if Woodhead’s injury is as serious as it appeared. Sims and Michael will take on new roles with their respective teams, though those could offer largely short-term value. We’ll learn more about the status of Martin and Rawls status this week, but both Sims and Michael will be strong fantasy plays as long as they’re starters.
Owners looking to buy on the waiver wire will want to focus on Miami and Carolina, with Detroit a distant third. The Dolphins fell into a huge hole against the Patriots, forcing them away from the run, so we didn’t get much insight into what the backfield might look like with Foster out. Jay Ajayi had 14 yards on five carries, while Kenyan Drake picked up 12 yards and a touchdown on two totes. Ajayi caught all four of his targets for 31 yards, while Drake pulled in both of his for six yards. Both are worth claiming in all of your leagues, but, for now, it seems Ajayi is ahead in the pecking order.
Meanwhile, Fozzy Whittaker took over as the lead back in Carolina after Stewart left. He carried the ball 16 times for 100 yards and caught three passes for 31 yards. That would suggest he’s in line to take over as the starter, but someone else could be in the mix. Cameron Artis-Payne was inactive on Sunday, due in part to the fact that he doesn’t play special teams. He does, however, seem the more logical choice to take over as a lead back. We should get more information on the Carolina backfield early in the week, but Artis-Payne should be one of your primary waiver wire targets this week.
Dwayne Washington has handled the goal-line role for the Detroit this season, but he’d likely be in for a lot more work if Abdullah has to miss any time because of his foot injury. Theo Riddick would also get more work as a runner, but Washington could be a deep league flex option if he nets 12 touches per game.
Just when we thought the infirmary was closed for the night, one more player had to be admitted. Adrian Peterson left the Sunday night game with a knee injury and was totally unable to put weight on it as two Minnesota staff members helped him back to the locker room. Peterson has made a habit of returning earlier from injury than any other mortal would, but it’s probably safe to bet on him missing at least a few weeks. That puts Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon back on the radar in all fantasy leagues.
We have a bit of an idea of what this timeshare will look like with Peterson on the shelf. When Peterson was suspended for 15 games in 2014, Asiata logged 164 carries, 44 receptions and 63 targets. McKinnon, who was a rookie that year, had 113 carries, 27 catches and 41 targets. Asiata will handle the goal-line work, while McKinnon will be the primary pass catcher out of the backfield. When the Vikings are between the 20s, both backs will factor into the mix. Asiata is better built to handle a large workload, but McKinnon is more athletic and a true home-run threat. Asiata was the nominal starter two years ago when both backs combined to replace Peterson in the backfield, but McKinnon has matured a lot as a player since then. It's entirely possible he has closed the gap that once existed between the two players. Both players are worth claiming this week, but neither is likely to turn into a locked-in fantasy starter. McKinnon has more upside because of his big-play ability, but both players grade as no better than semi-consistent flex options. There's value in that sort of player, especially with byes beginning in Week 4.
Jacoby Brissett enters the spotlight
There were injuries at positions other than running back, most notably in New England. Jimmy Garoppolo was carving up the Dolphins on Sunday, racking up 234 yards, 8.67 yards per attempt and three touchdowns in a little less than a half. Then he absorbed a huge hit from Kiko Alonso, leaving the game in obvious discomfort.
Garoppolo reportedly suffered a sprained shoulder and could be out for up to six weeks. Tom Brady will return in Week 5, so it’s likely Garoppolo has started his last game of the 2016 season. That puts Brissett at the helm of the New England offense for the next two weeks.
Brissett, who started his college career at Florida before transferring to North Carolina State, landed with the Patriots in the third round of this year’s draft. He was decent in his first NFL action on Sunday, completing six of his nine pass attempts for 92 yards and 10.22 YPA. He’s only fantasy-relevant in superflex and two-QB formats, and even there owners shouldn’t make him too much of a priority. He’s only going to start two games before handing the reins back to Brady. His impact on the rest of the team, however, will matter in all fantasy leagues.
The Patriots didn’t have to change the playbook at all with Garoppolo under center, but that may not be the case with Brissett. Garoppolo was a second-round pick working on his third year in the Patriots’ offense. Brissett likely hasn’t taken any reps with the first-team offense. They’re at opposite ends of the developmental spectrum, and the Patriots will likely have to tailor the playbook a bit. That’s not the best news in the world for Julian Edelman and, assuming he returns next week, Rob Gronkowski. It could mean even more work for LeGarrette Blount, who already has 51 carries through two weeks.
Denver’s defense remains a nightmare
It wasn’t any secret that Andrew Luck was going to have his hands full with the Broncos’ defense on Sunday. Still, after his Week 1 success—he was the highest-scoring quarterback—and volume, he seemed a good bet to post low-end QB1 numbers.
Instead, Luck came up well short of the QB1 range, completing just more than half pass attempts for a final line of 197 yards, 4.93 YPA, one touchdown and one interception. Luck was completely out of sorts from the first drive of the game, throwing his touchdown on the Colts’ penultimate possession. He turned the ball over twice, and the Broncos returned both of those for touchdowns. In short, it was a dreadful day for Luck and the Colts’ offense.
To be fair, Luck will not be the last quarterback to struggle against the Broncos. Danny Trevathan and Malik Jackson left over the off-season, but this defense does not seem to miss them one bit. Given that the Broncos also had relative success against Cam Newton in Week 1, holding him to 194 passing yards, 5.88 YPA and one touchdown while picking him off once, it’s safe to say that the fantasy community will have to downgrade every player when they go up against the Broncos.
Chargers’ offense clicks in first game without Keenan Allen
The Chargers once again have to piece together an offense without the help of their best receiver. We got our first look at what that group might look like on Sunday, and for anyone invested in the Chargers’ offense, it looked pretty good.
Philip Rivers had his way with the Jaguars, throwing for 220 yards, 9.17 YPA and four touchdowns. Melvin Gordon racked up 102 yards and a score, looking well on his way to a breakout season. Travis Benjamin looked the part in his first game as San Diego’s No. 1 receiver, hauling in six receptions for 115 yards and two touchdowns. Tyrell Williams got six targets, catching three of them for 61 yards and busting loose for a 44-yard score. Antonio Gates caught Rivers’s remaining score, but he only finished with three receptions for 15 yards.
The Chargers had to adjust on the fly yet again after losing Woodhead and did so admirably. With Woodhead potentially out for the season, Gordon could see an uptick in his targets. Williams was already slated for a major role after Allen tore his ACL, and now he’s even more important to the offense with Woodhead out. Rivers has held the team together with duct tape in the past, and he’ll have to do so again this year. Sunday was a step in the right direction.
Might the Dolphins’ offense be competent?
Through the first half of the Dolphins’ eventual loss to the Patriots on Sunday, it looked like Ryan Tannehill and the Miami offense were on their way to a disappointingly expected no-show: They had all of three points and trailed the Patriots by 21 going into the locker room. Tannehill was 9 of 16 for 95 yards and an interception. It didn’t appear that he would manage even a top-25 week among the league’s quarterbacks, let alone be near the top of the leaderboard.
Tannehill & Co. turned things around, beginning with the Dolphins’ final drive of the first half. They managed to go 77 yards on nine plays in just 58 seconds, setting up an Andrew Franks field goal. They carried that right into the third quarter, marching 41 yards on six plays before a Jay Ajayi fumble ended the drive abruptly. Clearly, though, something had changed.
The Dolphins found the end zone on their next three possessions, racking up 237 yards of offense in the process. Tannehill finished his day with 389 yards, 8.64 YPA and two touchdowns against two interceptions, the second of which was a fourth-down heave on the last play of the game. Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker were Tannehill’s favorite receivers, each netting 13 targets. Landry caught 10 of his for 137 yards, while Parker pulled down eight for 106 yards, bringing big-play ability and down-the-field legitimacy to a team that desperately needs both.
Now, the Dolphins aren’t suddenly going to turn into a juggernaut on offense. That doesn’t mean we should ignore how good they looked in the second half against the Patriots. Adam Gase improved the efficiency of Jay Cutler and the Bears’ offense in his one year as the coordinator in Chicago. The hope was that he’d have the same effect on Tannehill and the Dolphins. After what we saw Sunday, there’s reason to believe he will do just that.
Is it panic button time in Green Bay?
After Week 1, fantasy owners believing in the Packers could point to 27 points for the offense and a 23.56-point day for Aaron Rodgers and say that, while not perfect, there was more bad than good. Still, if you wanted to find the cracks, they were there. Most notably, Rodgers had just 5.85 YPA in the Week 1 win over the Jaguars, and Jordy Nelson, who was one of the most dangerous downfield threats in the league before tearing his ACL last summer, had a long catch of eight yards.
There was no hiding the blemishes on Sunday night. The problems that Rodgers was able to smooth over in Week 1 stood out in stark relief against the top-tier Minnesota defense. Rodgers completed 20 of his 36 passes for 213 yards, 5.92 YPA, one touchdown and one interception. Nelson did make one big play, catching a 39-yard pass to set up a Rodgers rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter, but he was otherwise held in check, ending the game with five grabs for 73 yards and a 1-yard touchdown reception. Eddie Lacy turned in a nondescript 12-carry, 50-yard effort, while Randall Cobb caught five balls for 42 yards. The Green Bay offense has problems.
Remember, this stretches back further than the start of this season. The Packers offense got off to a fine start last season, but when defenses learned that no receiver could create consistent separation, they adjusted and made life miserable for Rodgers. Sunday’s loss marked his 14th straight game with a passer rating of less than 100. Mike Zimmer has a good history against Rodgers, and the Vikings defense is going to be a challenge for every offense that faces it this year. That does not completely excuse the lackluster performance from the Packers.
We’re not writing a eulogy for the Packers tenure in the elite fantasy offense club just yet. The key, though, is Nelson. If he’s working his way back to being the explosive, deep-ball threat he was as recently as 2014, there’s hope for everyone on the offense. When defenses have to respect his ability to take the top off on every snap, room is created in the middle of the field for Cobb and Lacy to do what they do best. When Lacy gets going, Rodgers becomes a wizard in the playaction passing game. There’s legitimate hope for the offense, but it rests on Nelson’s reconstructed knee.
Stefon Diggs is ready for his moment
It became obvious that fantasy drafters woefully undervalued Diggs about halfway through August. That made him a popular mid-round pick, but his breakout candidacy received a heavy dose of cold water when Teddy Bridgewater suffered a serious leg injury one week before the season started. Would Diggs still be as effective playing with a new quarterback?
Well, Diggs has answered that in the affirmative twice in two games. After hauling in seven of his nine targets for 103 yards with Shaun Hill under center in Week 1, Diggs exploded against the Packers in Week 2 with Sam Bradford at the helm. He had nine receptions on 11 targets for 182 yards and a touchdown, making him one of the top scorers, regardless of position, for the week. Diggs’s 291 receiving yards through two games leads the NFL, and is 59 yards clear of Willie Snead, who sits in second place. It has just been two games, but it looks like Diggs will be just fine without Bridgewater.
You should always be open to trading anyone on your roster, but do not look at Diggs as a sell-high player right now. What we’re seeing is a youngster building on a successful rookie year and taking the next step in his career. Every season, reaching back as far as reliable average draft position and fantasy point databases go, there has been a mid-round receiver (drafted no earlier than the sixth round and no later than the ninth round) who has posted a top-10 season. Right now, Diggs is the clear favorite to be that receiver this year.