In a perfect fantasy football universe, we wouldn’t have unpredictable committee backfields driving us crazy. Five weeks into the NFL season, some backfields are still unsettled. Senior FantasySharks.com writer Matt Wilson gives us his take on each one, and urges everyone to be patient with the slow-starting wideout who finished as the fantasy WR3 in points per reception (PPR) leagues last season.
We’re just five weeks into the NFL season, but …
1. An outdoor cat can’t always become an indoor cat, and a committee tailback can’t always become a workhorse tailback.
The Dude: Jay Ajayi
The Damage: Touted as the guy who would dominate the Philadelphia backfield after the exit of LeGarrette Blount (Detroit), Ajayi amassed a very respectable 85 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns on 22 carries during the first two weeks of the season before sitting out Week 3 with a back injury. He followed up a serviceable Week 4 performance (15 rushes, 70 yards rushing; 3 reception, 11 yards receiving) with a season-worst 34 combo yards on nine touches with one lost fumble at the goal line during Philadelphia’ home loss to Minnesota this past Sunday. Ajayi touched the ball just once after his turnover, and the more effective Wendell Smallwood found the end zone in the Minnesota game for the second time in the last three weeks. From Weeks 3-5, Smallwood has tallied 122 rushing yards and one touchdown on 18 carries while Ajayi (as noted, he missed Week 3) compiled 99 scoreless rushing yards on 23 carries. Has Ajayi hopeless slipped deeper into a full-blown committee backfield?
The Diagnosis: TREND
Yes. While the struggling Ajayi isn’t truly as bad as he looked in the Minnesota game, I suspect the heavy workloads that he received in the beginning of the season will be few and far between going forward. The struggling Philadelphia offense needs its best playmakers on the field, and he isn’t one of them right now. In case you hadn’t heard the news, Ajayi is playing through a small-but-painful fracture in his back. Smallwood, as noted, has been more effective and will remain in the mix. When injured ball carriers Darren Sproles and Corey Clement both return, there will be more competition for touches. Ajayi’s biggest obstacle is game flow. He has never been used heavily as a receiver. With the Philadelphia defense struggling, the team has played in catch-up mode in three of its last four contests, which, of course, means heavy on the throwing and light on the Ajayi carries. Treat him as a No. 3 running back going forward. Ajayi’s next two matchups against the New York Giants (Week 6) and Carolina (Week 7) are not favorable.
2. When you start a 35-year-old guy at tailback, you’re definitely building for the future, right?
The Damage: Following two absolutely terrible Week 3 and Week 4 outings by starter Kenyan Drake (he amassed just 26 combo yards on 11 touches, which included 6 rushing yards on eight carries), Miami shook up its backfield this past Sunday. Frank Gore drew the start on the road against Cincinnati, compiling 12 rushes for 63 rushing yards with no targets. Gore was an effective chain-mover, but he was game-scripted out of the offense late in the game when Miami fell behind. As for Drake, who undoubtedly was parked on a ton of fantasy benches, he operated in more of a change-of-pace role, amassing seven receptions for 69 yards and one touchdown grab (just his second score of the season) on a surprising 11 targets. Drake also compiled 46 rushing yards on six carries, but 25 of those yards came on the last play of the game on a carry against a prevent defense. Is this the backfield arrangement that fantasy owners should expect from the Dolphins going forward?
The Diagnosis: TREND
Yes. If you drafted Drake because of his strong finish to 2017 and Miami head coach Adam Gase’s promise to give him 15-20 carries and 6-8 targets per contest, I’m sure you’re not a happy camper. It wouldn’t be out of the question for change-of-pace guy Drake to bounce back in the rushing department, but the 35-year-old Gore is outperforming him as a runner and leads Drake in carries by a count of 47-39. Drake holds the overall edge in touches 56-50. If you own Drake, think twice about chasing his fantasy points from the Cincinnati game. Miami’s Week 6 opponent, Chicago, has surrendered the fewest receptions and the fewest receptions to running backs heading into Week 5 action. In case you’re wondering, rookie fourth-rounder Kalen Ballage has been active for two weeks in a row, but he has tallied just 5 rushing yards on two carries.
3. Is the three-headed committee backfield that we saw Atlanta use in Week 5 here to stay?
The Damage: During the last three years, Atlanta has famously used a two-runner backfield comprised of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman – when both were healthy – and whoever handled the No. 3 tailback gig received very few touches each week if any at all. This past Sunday, with Devonta Freeman returning from a three-game injury layoff due to a knee injury, Atlanta elected to ease its lead runner back into the mix slowly with a reduced workload during a challenging road clash with Pittsburgh by using a three-man backfield. Freeman drew the start and narrowly won the touch battle, compiling eight rushes for 32 yards and two catches for 9 yards (two targets), while Tevin Coleman amassed seven rushes for 15 yards and two catches for 15 yards (two targets). Ito Smith didn’t see much action but found the end zone, tallying three rushes for 5 yards (with a touchdown) and one catch for 5 yards (one target). Will the Atlanta backfield remain a trio going forward?
The Diagnosis: TRAP
I really doubt it. Offensive boss Steve Sarkisan used Freeman and Coleman as his primary ball carriers last season, and I expect Sarkisian to continue to doing that when Freeman works his way back into game shape. However, I must admit that two things are bugging me. I’m worried about Freeman’s creaky right knee. In case you didn’t know, he had re-injured the same knee that gave him problems at the close of last season. A slight reduction in his workload isn’t out of the question. Smith has scored on a red-zone touchdown run two weeks in a row. While the rookie is expected to return to his fantasy irrelevant No. 3 tailback role, I suspect we haven’t seen the last of him. Atlanta’s Week 6 home matchup against a leaky Tampa Bay defense is favorable.