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  • Two star running backs are out, and two more may join them. Let's make sense of those four backfields.
By Michael Beller
November 28, 2018

Week 13 represents the end of most fantasy football regular seasons, which makes this a crucial week across the landscape. This specific Week 13 is unique for an unfortunate reason. Two of the league’s best running backs, Melvin Gordon and Leonard Fournette, will be out due to injury and suspension, respectively. Two more who are among the top-18 backs in points per game, Marlon Mack and Kerryon Johnson, could also sit this week because of injury. That’s four locked-in starters, including the No. 3 overall back in Gordon, who will or could miss Week 13, and that’s a nightmare for their fantasy owners.

In this week’s edition of the Target and Snap Report, we’ll look at how the Chargers, Jaguars, Colts and Lions have functioned this season without their starting running backs. We have a good amount of data on what we can expect from three of these teams—the Jaguars, Colts and Lions. Fournette and Mack have both missed significant time due to injury this season, while Johnson didn’t ascend to the starting job in Detroit until about halfway through the year. Gordon has been mostly healthy and dominant for the Chargers this season, but he did miss one game with a hamstring injury, and he was out for nearly the entire second half last week after spraining a ligament in his knee.

Deciphering how these four teams will work their backfields without their starters could mean the difference between making the playoffs and looking ahead to 2019. In some cases, it could help lead to a fantasy football championship.

The Chargers without Melvin Gordon

Gordon will miss at least two games because of his sprained MCL, and it’s entirely possible he’s out for the rest of the NFL’s regular season. The Chargers are 8-3, and while a playoff berth is far from secured, they are in good position to make the postseason. If you’re a Gordon owner hoping that he’ll return, you have to be encouraged by the Chargers’ upcoming schedule. They visit the Steelers this week, host the Bengals in Week 14, and then hit the road for showdown with the Chiefs in Week 15. If they go 1-2 in those games, they’ll be sitting at 9-5 going into a Week 16 matchup with the contending Ravens. In other words, the Chargers may need a healthy Gordon to get into the playoffs. Should they be in good shape going into Week 16, though, it wouldn’t be a shock if they shut Gordon down for the regular season, ensuring he’s at 100% for the playoffs.

Austin Ekeler is expected to take over the backfield while Gordon is out, priming him to be a fantasy playoff hero. Ekeler, of course, has had a sizable role in the Chargers’ offense all season, carrying the ball 70 times for 409 yards, catching 32 passes for 354 yards, and scoring four touchdowns. With Gordon healthy, though, Ekeler has been stuck in an odd sort of fantasy purgatory. He has been easily good enough to own, but not quite productive enough to be a regular starter. That will change with Gordon on the shelf.

Gordon missed the Chargers’ Week 7 win over the Titans in London with a hamstring injury. Ekeler took over as the starter, totaling 12 carries for 42 yards and five receptions on seven targets for 26 yards. His production left a bit to be desired, but he was the singular force out of the backfield, playing all but two of the team’s 44 snaps while handling 17 out of 20 running back touches. He deserves a bit of a pass for his bottom-line numbers, too, given that the Titans are a top-five defense against running backs in 4for4’s schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed metric, aFPA. The 44 snaps were a season-low for the Chargers, fully one-quarter less than they run in an average game.

Over the full season, Gordon has a 70.9% snap rate, while Ekeler’s snap rate sits at 36%. Justin Jackson, the rookie out of Northwestern, has been active for eight games, but has touches in just three, including the two games in which Gordon has missed time due to injury. He had seven carries for 57 yards last week, though all seven came after Gordon left the game. At the very least, we should be expecting Ekeler to be in the standard Gordon role, and Jackson to be in the role vacated by Ekeler. If the Chargers’ coaching staff views the gap between Ekeler and Jackson to be wider than the one between Ekeler and Gordon, it’s possible the new starter could have a larger role than Gordon typically does, as unintuitive as that may seem. No matter what, though, Ekeler is going to be a slam-dunk starter for his fantasy owners so long as Gordon is out.

EAKINS: Fantasy Football Buy, Sell, or Hold: D.J. Moore a Sneaky Add Before the Playoffs

The Jaguars without Leonard Fournette

Fournette missed all of six games, and parts of two others, because of a hamstring injury this season, so we have plenty of data on how the Jaguars will deploy the members of their backfield down one very big piece. Of course, all of those games came with Nathaniel Hackett as the offensive coordinator, and that will not be the case this week after the team relieved him of his duties, replacing him on an interim basis with quarterbacks coach Scott Milanovic. The team also benched Blake Bortles, likely for good, installing Cody Kessler as the new starting quarterback. And yet, neither of those is the most important change with respect to this backfield, compared with Fournette’s previous absence this season.

Fournette was out from Week 5 through Week 8 after aggravating a hamstring injury that also cost him the second and third games of the season. In advance of that Week 8 game, the Jaguars traded for Carlos Hyde. They had a bye in Week 9, and Fournette returned in Week 10 to a workhorse role. Nearly all of the data we have from Fournette’s time on the sidelines this year came with Hyde in Cleveland. What’s more, Corey Grant, who is now on IR, had an active role in three of the games Fournette missed.

From Weeks 5 through 8, T.J. Yeldon dominated the Jacksonville backfield. He played 76.4% of the team’s snaps, with Grant, Jamaal Charles (remember when he was on Jacksonville?) and Hyde mixing in, though it must be pointed out that Hyde played just one game with the Jaguars before Fournette returned. Yeldon turned into a regular starter with Fournette on the shelf, racking up 680 total yards and five touchdowns in the eight games the starter missed completely or left early. Last week, however, he was a mere afterthought, both with Fournette in the game and after his ejection. Instead, it was Hyde who inherited a starter’s workload.

Fournette was ejected late in the third quarter of the Jaguars’ 24-21 loss to the Bills. At the time he was ejected, the game was tied at 14, and it was played within a 10-point margin the rest of the way. Hyde got four more carries the rest of the game, finishing with 10 rushes for 33 yards. Yeldon got just one carry after Fournette’s ejection, though he did receive four targets. Yeldon ended the game with three carries and those four targets, catching two of them for 17 yards.

Last week’s usage gives us our best window into how the Jaguars will split the work between Hyde and Yeldon when they host the Colts this week. Hyde will be the favorite for early-down and goal-line work, while Yeldon will dominate obvious passing situations. Should the Jaguars fall behind—and they are four-point underdogs—the pendulum would swing in Yeldon’s direction, given that he’s a much more dangerous receiver. Still, with Hyde in line to secure the bulk of the carries, he’s the better fantasy bet. He has RB2 potential across the board, whereas Yeldon is only attractive in PPR formats.

The Colts without Marlon Mack

Like Fournette, Mack missed enough time earlier this year to give us a usable sample of games without him in the mix. Unlike Fournette’s team, though, Mack’s hasn’t undergone any substantive personnel changes. Andrew Luck is still in command of one of this season’s most impressive turnarounds, with Frank Reich proving why he was such a hot commodity on the coaching market this offseason. The Colts haven’t added or subtracted from their backfield either, meaning that the two players who held down the fort while Mack was out previously, rookies Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins, will be asked to do so again if Mack has to miss the team’s Week 13 game in Jacksonville because of a concussion.

Mack missed Weeks 1, 3, 4 and 5 due to injury. In those four games, Hines played 65.6% of the Colts’ snaps, while Wilkins was on the field for 32.8% of them. In other words, Hines got two snaps for every one of Wilkins’ while Mack was out. In those first three games, the Colts seemed committed to a standard backfield share, with Wilkins dominating early-down touches on the ground and Hines serving as a pass-catching back. Wilkins had 28 carries and five receptions in the first three games Mack missed, compared with 14 and 21, respectively, for Hines. In the fourth game, though, the Colts handed the backfield over to Hines. He got 15 carries and caught seven passes in that contest, totaling 90 yards from scrimmage in a 34-28 loss to the Patriots. Wilkins, meanwhile, had six carries and two catches for a total of 48 yards.

Mack has been one of the best backs in the league since returning, and that sent Hines and Wilkins to the waiver wire in many leagues. Both are back on the start radar this week, but it’s Hines who’s the more intriguing play. Mack suffered his concussion about halfway through the fourth quarter in the Colts’ 27-24 win over the Dolphins last week. To that point, Hines had two carries and one target, while Wilkins had zero carries and three targets. From that point forward, Hines got seven carries and one target, while Wilkins didn’t see the field. Since Mack’s return in Week 6, Hines has retained a noticeable role in the Colts’ offense, playing 34.3% of the snaps. Wilkins, on the other hand, has had a snap rate of just 12.7%. If Mack does indeed miss this week’s matchup with the Jaguars, Hines will be on the RB2 and flex radars in all leagues, while Wilkins would be a desperation play.

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The Lions without Kerryon Johnson

Johnson comes last in this column for two reasons. First, he seems to have the best chance of the four to play this week, which would render this section moot. Second, this is the easiest backfield to project without its starter.

Johnson took over as the starter in Detroit in Week 3 and hasn’t looked back, racking up 641 yards on 118 carries, 213 yards on 32 receptions, and four touchdowns this season. Last week’s loss to Chicago, which he missed because of his knee injury, was the first Lions game since Week 5 in which he played fewer than 50% of the snaps. If Johnson plays, he’s in total control of the backfield.

If he doesn’t, though, the workload split is just as clear. In that Thanksgiving Day loss to the Bears, LeGarrette Blount got 19 carries, running for 88 yards and two touchdowns. Theo Riddick and Zach Zenner combined for four carries and 21 yards. Blount, however, got just one target. Riddick was the team’s leading receiver among backs, hauling in all seven of his targets for 48 yards. Blount played 50% of the snaps, while Riddick was on the field for 43.9% of them. Zenner played four of the team’s 66 snaps.

Should Johnson miss Detroit’s Week 13 game against the Rams, Blount would be the team’s primary runner, while Riddick would likely be in line for six-plus targets. Many of those would come from the slot, where Riddick has been spending time since the Lions traded Golden Tate to the Eagles. Game script will be the driver of touch share, and that’s where things take an ugly turn for Blount. The first-place Bears may have gotten a win in Detroit last week, but the game was within one score for the entire afternoon. That helped keep Blount a viable part of the Lions’ game plan. If the Rams build a multi-score lead, which seems likely, Blount could be forced to the sidelines. Should Johnson need more recovery time, Blount would be no more than a high-end RB3 or low-end flex this week, while Riddick would be on the radar in PPR leagues.

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