By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
Fantasy championship week is here! But whether your season-long teams are kaput or going for the gold, this is a great week to play the daily game. Given the often dicey decisions of Week 17, when NFL teams often have little to play for, this is our best chance to play regular-season DFS until September 2020.
It’s generally a good strategy to pay up at running back, but in this column, I try to spot the landmines at the top of the list and pick out the mid-and-lower-tier plays that have the best risk/reward ratio. It can really give you an edge to save money at RB but get stud production, or at least a winning ROI.
With Week 16’s main slate missing three games due to Saturday action, I expected the choosing of my candidates to be a challenge, but I don’t think I’ve ever picked five players faster. It doesn’t mean these predictions should be etched in stone, but I’ll take it as a good sign. Let’s lead off with a big investment you’re better off leaving for someone else …
Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans ($36 in Yahoo DFS)
Derrick Henry is the RB5 in fantasy this year, and I’ve recommended him several times along the way. For a variety of reasons, though, I think the beefy Tennessee ball-carrier is a pass at $36, which makes him the second-priciest back on the board (and just $6 behind Christian McCaffrey, whose season has been the stuff of legend). If you’re paying up, just go with the Panther, as usual.
Where to begin with reasons not to play Henry in DFS this week? He’s a little banged up (hamstring), which has reduced his snaps and puts him at some risk of in-game aggravation. We saw in last week’s loss to Houston what happens when Tennessee trails; they threw the ball more, of course, and when they do that the targets don’t come Henry’s way (18 catches in 14 games). His carry count dipped and so did his productivity; 86 scoreless yards isn’t disastrous, but it was a far cry from the lofty numbers fantasy gamers have come to expect from the former Alabama back. Prior to that, Henry had scored at least one touchdown in 10 of his 13 games. It doesn’t hurt that the Titans won six of seven before Week 15, giving him plenty of positive game script.
Should we expect a positive game script at home against New Orleans? It could happen, but don’t count on it. While the Saints in general (and Drew Brees specifically) are less dangerous outdoors, the Titans don’t have the kind of defense we’d expect to shut down Sean Payton’s potent attack. On the other side of the ball, New Orleans has given many top backs trouble this season. Todd Gurley (63), Chris Carson (53), Ezekiel Elliott (35) and Christian McCaffrey (64) all posted pedestrian rushing totals against them, and Leonard Fournette’s 72 has been the high-water mark since Carlos Hyde tallied 83 in Week 1. So far, 26 teams have surrendered more rushing touchdowns than New Orleans, and only Tampa Bay has been more miserly with their rushing yards allowed to RBs.
That said, the Titans’ offensive line is one of the league’s most capable front fives. Four starters have sterling run-blocking grades in 2019 and Tennessee is currently sixth in Adjusted Line Yards, which is Football Outsiders’ measure of an o-line’s effectiveness when run-blocking. The Saints do miss Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport up front, and hard-hitting safety Vonn Bell could be out again here. That didn’t hurt this defense last week when they held Indianapolis RBs to 39 rushing yards, but Raheem Mostert went bananas against them two weeks ago. However, one of his two touchdowns and 40 of his 109 total yards came on receptions, which isn’t Henry’s bag. And prowling the second level is linebacker Demario Davis, who has been less than saintly in his treatment of opposing running backs this season. He grades as the league’s most well-rounded run defender at his position.
Ultimately, it’s a pretty easy decision for me to fade Henry versus New Orleans. He could always bust a big run or plunge over the goal line at least once, but I feel a lot more comfortable sticking with him in season-long leagues than paying top dollar in DFS.
Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals ($28 in Yahoo DFS)
Let’s keep an eye on Joe Mixon’s calf injury, which seems to have occurred in practice on Wednesday. But assuming that he’s fine for Sunday, Mixon makes a rare appearance in this space, at least to be plugged instead of pooh-poohed. The problem is not Mixon’s talent, which is prodigious. But pass-happy game-plans and poor offensive line play torpedoed his early season production. Lately, however, Zac Taylor has committed to Mixon and his usage is up regardless of score or situation. Over the last seven games, the gifted RB has scored four touchdowns and averaged 23 touches for 117.4 total yards. Raising his floor is reliable involvement in the passing game — Mixon has added 32 receptions for 250 yards and 3 touchdowns to his 2019 totals. Against New England last week, one of the toughest matchups a tailback can face, Mixon was nearly unstoppable.
While Mixon has clearly stepped up his game over the last six weeks, the offensive line has also shown signs of improvement as the season has gone along. Tackle Cordy Glenn is rounding into form after missing the first 11 games. Mixon’s average has risen to a respectable 1.9 yards before contact with a defender, a number his blocking should receive some credit for. In September he was getting enveloped at the hand-off. It is a little worrisome that guard John Miller is likely to miss this contest with a concussion, disrupting the o-line’s chemistry. Likely fill-in Billy Price has not lived up to the hype he entered the league with as a first-round pick, but Miller hasn’t been much better at run-blocking anyway.
What makes Mixon a great play here is not his line, however — it’s who they’ll be facing in the trenches. Our old friends, the Miami Dolphins! How can I resist targeting them again? While Ryan Fitzpatrick is once again a fantasy phenom and DeVante Parker is in the midst of the best late-bloomer story we’ve seen from a receiver in some time, the Dolphins’ D continues to lose starters to injured reserve. They now have a whopping 13 defenders on the shelf. Their biggest loss to date may be middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, the backbone of their run defense, who went down last week.
Miami’s defensive line is dead last in Adjusted Line Yards Allowed, both overall and on outside runs, which plays to Cincinnati’s strength — the Bengals rank ninth on left-end runs and third when running to the right. This is a good matchup. In the Dolphins’ 14 games they have allowed nine running backs to finish top 12 for the week in fantasy points. Opposing backfields have never amassed fewer than 114 total yards against them. Last week, the Giants’ RBs rolled up 169 total yards and three scores.
The sage folks who set the DFS pricing recognize all this, and it’s not like you’re getting Mixon for a song at $28. That said, he fits the main criteria I look for at a mid-range RB price — workload, matchup and the ability to capitalize on that opportunity. It’s all there for Mixon this week.
Mark Ingram, Baltimore Ravens ($25 in Yahoo DFS)
Mark Ingram has been a bit of a boom-bust proposition this season; he’s a part of the league’s highest-scoring offense, so the touchdowns have been there (often two at a time), but his quarterback is the centerpiece of this attack. There are a lot of weeks where Ingram’s stat-line depends on him finding the end zone, and that’s not easy to predict. The matchup isn’t always meaningful for the hard-charging Ravens RB.
This week, though, Ingram feels like a hit at $25. Baltimore travels to Cleveland with an eye on securing home-field advantage, and they would love to avenge their blowout loss to the Browns on September 29, which is the last time they failed to win a football game. This probably isn’t the week the Ravens see what rookie Justice Hill can do (though I’d like to find out, myself). While a matchup with Cleveland’s defense isn’t at the tippy-top of our holiday wish list, injuries and recent trends have them at the level of a very solid stocking-stuffer.
According to Football Outsiders, the Browns are 28th in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) against the run and their defensive line is third-worst in short-yardage and goal-line situations, which bodes well for a back like Ingram (10 rushing touchdowns). Last week, Cleveland let Kenyan Drake swing fantasy matchups with 137 rushing yards and four end-zone celebrations. The week before that, Joe Mixon had 186 total yards and a score. And in Week 14 the Steelers’ motley crew of backs, minus James Conner, still totaled 105 rushing yards and a TD. The discontent and perhaps even disinterest this team has shown lately is well documented, but being down to backups at all three levels of the defense is as much of a problem as anything. Though rookie linebacker Mack Wilson played well last week, he’s hardly been a force against the run.
The Ravens are getting good news on the injury front: Star left tackle Ronnie Stanley returns this week after missing the Jets game with a concussion. This will send James Hurst to the bench and improve Baltimore’s run blocking. The Ravens are fifth in Adjusted Line Yards and the trio of Lamar Jackson (first), Gus Edwards (11th) and Ingram (16th) are all among league leaders in yards gained before contact with a defender. The threat Jackson presents defenses, the scheme, and the blocking have formed a perfect storm, allowing the Ravens to roll up nearly 800 more rushing yards than the next-closest team (San Francisco).
Okay, this battle between o-line and front seven sure looks like a mismatch. But what if this is a week where Ingram isn’t featured, gets 50 yards and doesn’t sniff the end zone? Sure, death and taxes remain our sole guarantees in this world. But Ingram is set up to feast.
Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts ($25 in Yahoo DFS)
On Monday night Mack came up small against the Saints’ stout run defense, so you may be understandably reticent to deploy him for $25 this week. However, the Colts got their doors blown off, so things didn’t set up well for their early down pounder and goal-line grinder. The scenario looks a lot different against the Carolina Panthers. Savvy fantasy gamers have been circling that name whenever it appears on an RB’s schedule, and the matchup has yet to disappoint.
Like the rest of the team, the Colts’ offensive line did not acquit themselves well against New Orleans, as Mack was met in the backfield multiple times. However, on the season Indy is affording the former USF Bull an average of 2.3 yards before contact with a defender, a mark that puts him just outside the top 15. As a unit, only Philadelphia has a higher run-blocking grade, and Indianapolis is ninth in total rushing yards.
In the Panthers’ 14 games this year, 10 running backs have had top-12 fantasy performances against them, and another five players put up RB2 numbers. Over the last month, Carolina has given up eight rushing touchdowns and allowed 102 more rushing yards than the next worst team (the Rams, interestingly enough). No defense has surrendered more rushing touchdowns in goal-to-go situations than the 13 the Panthers have. The phrase “sieve-like” was coined to describe things like this. Indy’s o-line should have a huge advantage in the trenches.
The cherry on top of this delicious sundae is the starting quarterback for the Panthers — rookie Will Grier. Now, I still like the kid from a dynasty perspective, but by all accounts, he never threatened Kyle Allen’s place on the depth chart in August, and it took some truly epic struggles for Allen to finally cede starting duties to Grier in late December. We’ve seen rookie passers dazzle in their first action (like, say, Kyle Allen, for instance), largely because defensive coordinators don’t know quite what to do with them yet. Later, as a quarterback’s tendencies become known, and their weaknesses revealed, every defense from that point forward attacks the chinks in their armor. It’s still safe to say this should be a more run-friendly game script for Indy than Monday night’s debacle. Grier has weapons, but he’s unlikely to bury the Colts on the scoreboard.
Due to a hand injury and bad matchups back to back, Mack hasn’t done anything of note since Week 11 against the Jaguars, when he turned 14 carries into 109 yards. He hasn’t looked great since then, but everything lines up perfectly for him in this one. Mack is a high-ceiling play with an acceptable amount of risk.
Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers ($21 in Yahoo DFS)
I thought about finishing this article with an endorsement of DeAndre Washington ($16) now that Josh Jacobs is out, but the better move may be on the other side of Oakland’s contest with the Chargers. Melvin Gordon is cheaper than Austin Ekeler ($25) and has every bit as many opportunities. While receiving backs have ravaged the Raiders this season — a point in Ekeler’s favor — the Chargers are nearly a touchdown favorite in this matchup of two moribund offenses. Sans Jacobs, it’s unlikely that Oakland leaps out to a big lead and puts Los Angeles’ passing-down back in pole position. Yes, this game could become an ugly slog, but Gordon has a good chance to grind out lots of yards and find pay-dirt.
Despite being a bottom-10 rushing offense, the Chargers are a surprising 11th in Adjusted Line Yards. Unfortunately, oft-injured tackle Russell Okung hurt his groin again last week and is unlikely to suit up on Sunday. While Trent Scott struggled in relief, before that he’d been looking more capable in the running game. This unit may not play its best football on Sunday, but it’s not a set of turnstiles, either.
The wheels have fallen off the Raiders’ season and rolled into a ditch. That doesn’t mean their defensive line has gone soft against the run, however. Only the Jets, Buccaneers and Eagles have a better Adjusted Line Yards ranking than Oakland’s imposing front four. And while linebacker Tahir Whitehead is a liability in coverage, he’s held up well against the running game. All that being said, RBs have little trouble if they get past Whitehead. Against the run, Oakland is 26th in DVOA, so breakdowns do occur — especially on outside runs. They’re 26th in Adjusted Line Yards on left-end carries and 20th on the right. The Chargers’ o-line ranks seventh in blocking right-end runs.
Last week the Raiders held Leonard Fournette to 42 rushing yards. Derrick Henry trounced them in Week 14 but before that the Chiefs’ and Jets’ admittedly anemic ground attacks accomplished little. Still, Joe Mixon tallied 86 and a score, and the week before that, in these teams’ first meeting, Melvin Gordon had 108 and a TD. The better backs tend to be fine against Oakland. Gordon qualifies as a “better back.”
As a Raiders fan, I would love to see them play with pride and poise after last week’s stinging defeat in the final game for the Black Hole, but I still dig Gordon’s DFS value at $21. Let’s give him a whirl!