This past Sunday, we witnessed some possibly huge changes in the backfields of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Carolina Panthers and the Miami Dolphins. There’s also one backfield that’s still driving fantasy owners up the wall. Which one? Here’s a hint: Not-so-exotic Smashmouth. Is it safe to trust the reigning NFL MVP once again? Has a former Chicago Bear finally got things on track in South Beach? FantasySharks.com senior writer Matt Wilson tackles those questions in his regular Monday feature that we call “Traps and Trends.”
1. Did we see a changing of the guard in the Philadelphia Eagles’ backfield?
The Damage: The Eagles’ quartet of runners absolutely mauled what had been the Denver Broncos top-ranked run defense this past past Sunday. Coming into Week 9, the Broncos hadn’t allowed a rushing score by a tailback and had just surrendered two receiving scores to the position, which tells you how dominant Philadelphia’s backfield was.
- The rookie Clement’s quietly expanded role against the San Francisco 49ers two weeks ago wasn’t a fluke. He surprisingly led this group in touches in the Denver game, amassing 51 yards and two scores on 12 carries, and catching one pass for 15 yards and a third touchdown.
- Ajayi, making his Eagles debut, compiled an 8-77-1 rushing line (he scored on a 46-yard scamper) and didn’t catch any passes but was far more effective than Blount.
- Speaking of Blount, he handled some clock-killing work in the fourth quarter but was limited to just 9-37-0 with no catches.
- Smallwood, who touched the ball just two times in the 49ers game, didn’t see any action against the Broncos until garbage time. He amassed just 25 rushing yards on five carries and logged no targets.
- Is the Philadelphia backfield going to operate as the Ajayi and Clement show when the team returns from a Week 10 bye?
The Diagnosis: TREND
I think what has been an unpredictable Eagles backfield during the last season and a half will become far more reliable with Ajayi and Clement are the two guys to own going forward. Even though the Eagles insist that Blount will remain involved – he won’t disappear – look for Ajayi, who has a week off to get up to speed with the playbook, to take over the starting gig. They didn’t trade for Ajayi to use him only in a secondary role, right? The speedy Clement owns a three-down skill set, and his superior blocking skills are the main reason why Smallwood, who isn’t very good at pass-blocking, has tumbled down the depth chart. If you can’t help protect Carson Wentz, you’re not going to see much action.
2. Has another rookie running back finally taken command of his team’s backfield?
The Dude: Christian McCaffrey
The Damage: On pace to amass 96 receptions but averaging just 6.1 carries per contest heading into Week 9 action, the rookie eighth overall selection finally came through with an overdue breakout rushing performance this past Sunday during a victory over the Atlanta Falcons. With the now Kelvin Benjamin-less Carolina Panthers’ aerial attack sputtering and Jonathan Stewart plodding through yet another unimpressive outing that included two lost fumbles, the Panthers featured McCaffrey as their lead runner in the second half. Frequently slamming it between the tackles, he rushed a career-high 15 times for 66 yards and notched his first career rushing score, but McCaffrey continued to make an impact as a receiver with five catches for 28 yards on six targets. Does the Carolina backfield now belong to McCaffrey?
The Diagnosis: TREND
It took about half the season for it to happen, but McCaffrey is finally starting to produce the high-volume three-down performances that have been expected since draft day. Even if the struggling Stewart keeps the starting job (during the last two months, he has scored once and has compiled more than 65 yards in a game just once), it’ll be in title only. McCaffrey, the far more effective runner of the two, is now the Panthers’ go-to ball carrier. Keep McCaffrey locked and loaded as a must-start fantasy RB2. Did I mention that he’s on pace to rack up 96 catches? Oh yeah, I did. McCaffrey’s rushing production is icing on the fantasy cake.
3. Is the Miami Dolphins post-Jay Ajayi backfield looking a lot more fantasy friendly?
The Damage: In case you weren’t able to stay up for Sunday Night Football, the Dolphins unveiled their replacement for the departed Ajayi (Eagles) – the Drake/Williams tandem. Drake, playing more snaps, was the more effective runner of the two. He compiled the bulk of his 9-69-0 rushing line on a 42-yard run and chipped in 6-35-0 on six targets. As for Williams, who is supposedly the designated goal-line guy, he didn’t look sharp toting the rock (7-14-0 on the ground) but compiled six receptions for 47 yards and one touchdown on six looks. Will the Miami timeshare continue? Are both players legit fantasy options?
The Diagnosis: TREND
The answers are “yes” and “yes.” The final touch count was 15 for Drake and 13 for Williams, which is obviously close to a 50/50 split. While they’re capable ball carriers, I don’t think either Drake or Williams is good enough to take over the Dolphins backfield – but Williams should maintain his goal-line role. Unlike Ajayi, Drake and Williams are both solid receivers, which gives them solid fantasy floors and flex value going forward. I’m sure I don’t need to explain that finding a productive and healthy running back in the free-agent pool at this point in the season is an early Christmas present.