Target and snap report: Despite committee, Saints' RBs are both worthy fantasy starters
Backfield timeshares have been the norm in the NFL for long enough now that fantasy owners have fully adapted. Outside of a few true workhorses—David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, and a handful of others—most backs are going to split touches to a noticeable degree. Even so, committee remains a four-letter word in most fantasy circles. It’s one thing for a lead back to give up something on the order of 30% of his backfield’s touches. The word committee, however, raises the specter of an even split, and all too often that simply serves to torpedo the fantasy value of two players.
There are a few special circumstances, though, when a true committee can produce two fantasy-relevant backs. First and foremost, the offense needs to be productive enough to get both backs 15-plus touches with regularity. Second, they both need to be threats as runners. It can’t be a situation where one is a running-back-in-name-only, doing nearly all of his damage as a receiver. Players in that vein simply aren’t consistent enough to be safe fantasy starters. Finally, both backs need to get multiple drives per game where they are in command of the backfield. If all three of those requirements are satisfied, it is possible for two backs in a committee to be worthy fantasy starters week in, week out.
One such committee has developed in New Orleans.
When Sean Payton benched Mark Ingram after his starter fumbled early in the team’s Week 8 win over the Seahawks, the dreaded committee possibility became a reality for the Saints. Tim Hightower took over as the team’s running back that day, notching the first 100-yard game for the Saints this season. He wasn’t terribly efficient, needing 26 carries to run for 102 yards, but it was clear he was going to have a large role for the remainder of the season.
Both backs showed up in a big way the following week. Ingram ran for 158 yards and scored two touchdowns, while Hightower led the team with 23 carries, totaled 102 yards from scrimmage, and found the end zone once. That, however, was against the 49ers. The fantasy community needed to see what the committee could do facing a defense that wasn’t one of the worst run units in league history before it could place its trust in both players. We got that opportunity last week—the Saints struggled against the Broncos in Week 10, and Ingram suffered a concussion in Week 1—and the committee delivered.
Ingram had the better day, running for 146 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries and catching one pass, a 21-yard score. Hightower, however, led the team with 15 carries and 17 touches, racking up 105 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown of his own. To be fair, Hightower’s touchdown came on a trick play, a pass from Willie Snead, but the fact that Hightower was on the field so frequently and that the Saints can put up 49 points on a not-terrible defense like the Rams speaks to why both ends of their backfield committee are valuable in all fantasy formats.
Now comes the best part. The Saints’ remaining schedule is going to be quite friendly to Ingram and Hightower. They start with the Lions at home this week. In Weeks 14 and 16, the first round and championship in most fantasy leagues, the Saints get the Buccaneers. They do have a tough draw with the Cardinals in Week 15, but you’ll live with that knowing what the rest of their schedule has in store. Ingram and Hightower are both going to be key weapons during the fantasy playoffs. Their owners would prefer if they had they backfield to themselves, but they’ll both find their way to RB2 production or better over the next four weeks.
With that, let’s get to the rest of the Week 12 Target and Snap Report.
Is the Dion Lewis takeover upon us?
James White has done a great job as the Patriots’ primary receiving back this season. The third-year player out of Wisconsin has 43 receptions for 375 yards and four touchdowns, while adding modest gains on the ground through the team’s first 11 games. Still, it’s clear he’s just not quite as explosive or dynamic as Lewis. If and when Lewis is ready to handle the full load of what he did last year, he will. That could be happening shortly.
Lewis returned from last season’s torn ACL two weeks ago against the 49ers. He played 21 snaps in that game, netting five carries, five targets and three receptions. Lewis was on the field for 23 snaps against the Jets last week, three fewer than White. He had six carries for 24 yards and caught four of his seven targets for 34 yards. White had nine targets, but six fewer touches than Lewis. Even if he doesn’t go away entirely, he could continue to lose target shares to Lewis.
The Patriots have made clear all season that they don’t view Lewis and White as the same style of player, even though both do the majority of their work through the air. Last season, Lewis had 49 carries in six-plus games before tearing his ACL. White, who played 14 games and slid into Lewis’s role after he got hurt, had 22 carries all season. In just two games this year, Lewis has 11 carries. White, who has had a large role in the offense all season, has 28, and he hasn’t carried the ball once since Lewis’s return.
I’ve been warning against Lewis optimism for a few weeks, and I still think it’d be premature to assume we’re going to see him back at his 2015 capacity this season. However it’s impossible to ignore that his role increased in his second game since his return. As productive as New England’s offense is, there are only so many snaps to go around. Lewis and White cannot be fantasy-relevant alongside one another, and it’s the former who is trending in the right direction.
A similar changing of the guard in Baltimore
We’ve been monitoring the workload breakdown between Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon for a few weeks. West has found himself in our Sunday Droppables column multiple times, due to his lack of production and Dixon’s presence. We now have another number that wasn’t available on Sunday to drive home just how starkly this backfield is changing.
Dixon outsnapped West last week for the first time this season. The rookie out of Louisiana Tech played 31 snaps, while the nominal starter played 23. They both carried the ball 13 times, with Dixon gaining one more yard (49 to 48). They had the same number of targets, four, as well. Dixon caught all of his for 31 yards, while West had three receptions for 16 yards. All told, Dixon had 80 yards on 17 touches, and West had 64 on 17.
One game is far from a referendum, especially when the backs had equal opportunities. It’s hard to watch the two play, though, and come away with any conclusion other than that Dixon is the more explosive player. Baltimore’s offense has struggled for the better part of the year, and hasn’t seriously threatened defenses with its backs. Dixon gives them an element that West cannot match. The gulf between the two could grow the rest of the season, making Dixon the back in Baltimore you want to own for the fantasy playoffs.
Jeremy Hill’s Bernard bump does not exist
Injuries to A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard in Week 11 crashed the already-low ceiling of the Cincinnati offense. With Bernard out for the rest of the season because of a torn ACL, though, it was logical to assume Hill could be in for an increase in workload and production. So much for that thought.
The Bengals didn’t tweak their typical backfield plan much, if at all. They simply slid Rex Burkhead into the Bernard role. Burkhead played 38 snaps, one more than Hill, essentially matching the usual snap rates for the team’s primary backs when Bernard was healthy. Burkhead didn’t command the same number of touches, getting five carries and two targets, but his presence was a thorn in the side of Hill owners. What’s worse, he ran for 29 yards on his five totes, while Hill picked up just 21 yards on 12 carries. He somewhat salvaged his day with 61 receiving yards on six catches, but that’s not the sort of production you can lean on from Hill.
The hope for Hill owners was that he’d be able to volume his way to regular fantasy-relevant numbers with Bernard out. So long as Burkhead is playing half of the snaps, that isn’t likely to happen.
Jordan Howard is insulated from the Bears ineptitude
It has long been clear that Howard would be a silver lining in an otherwise terrible season for the Bears. The team is headed for a top-five, and possibly top-three, pick in the draft, but they won’t be concerned about finding a running back next spring. The rookie out of Indiana, by way of UAB, has impressed, running for 766 yards on 149 carries, catching 22 passes for 242 yards, and scoring three touchdowns. He has four 100-yard games this season and has rushed for at least 4.5 yards per carry in all but one of the eight games he has started and finished (he left one game early because of injury). Howard is for real.
Unfortunately, it seemed the team’s fortunes would sink the end of his rookie year. Alshon Jeffery has served the first two games of a four-game suspension after violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Jay Cutler missed last week’s game with a shoulder injury, and could be out for the rest of the season. Zach Miller broke his foot two weeks ago and won’t be seen until 2017. Without its quarterback, top wide receiver and tight end, not to mention both starting guards, it was hard to have much confidence in the only offense that has failed to score 24 points in a game this season. As great as Howard has been, there was plenty of reason to doubt him, given the offensive environment he inhabited in Chicago.
Over the last two weeks, Howard has transcended that environment. Going up against a Giants defense two weeks ago that has allowed 3.67 yards per carry this season, Howard rushed for 77 yards on 17 carries and caught one pass for 22 yards. The only thing that held him back was a bizarre game plan that put the ball in Cutler’s hands twice as often as Howard’s, despite the fact that the Bears were succeeding all afternoon on the ground. With Matt Barkley making his first career start last week, it was clear Howard would have his work cut out for him. He ran over the Titans for 84 yards on 18 carries, and caught three balls for 43 more yards, his fourth game of the season with at least 120 yards from scrimmage. No matter who’s on the field for the Bears the rest of the year, Howard will not be made silent by his surroundings.
The Bears’ next four games are against the 49ers, Lions, Packers and Redskins. The 49ers and Redskins have been two of the friendliest defense to running backs all year, while neither the Lions nor Packers should strike too much fear in the hearts of Howard owners. It will be very interesting to see where he lands on 2017 fantasy draft boards, but, for now, we can trust him as a high-end RB2.
Taking stock of Sammy Watkins’s return
Watkins played last week for the first time since Week 2, his season lost almost entirely to a foot injury. He caught three passes for 80 yards, including a long of 62 where he looked like the receiver who was set to break out in his third season. Now that he’s back, can fantasy owners roll him out with confidence for the rest of the season?
First, let me once again note that injury optimism is incredibly dangerous. Watkins already burned a huge portion of the fantasy community who looked the other way earlier this year when he missed all of the preseason because of his foot issue. We’d like to trust that the Bills wouldn’t have him out there if he weren’t ready to do everything he’s capable of, but this team already pushed him once this season, and did the same to LeSean McCoy when he was dealing with what should have been a minor groin injury, had it been handled correctly. Nothing is guaranteed with his team, especially with its sights set on a possible, albeit tricky, path to the playoffs.
Watkins played 25 of Buffalo’s 55 snaps last week, third most among receivers on the team behind Marquise Goodwin and Brandon Tate. The Bills may trust him, but he’s not likely to attain a monster snap share the rest of the season. Watkins ran 18 routes on those 25 plays, and got three targets. None of those is a huge number, and even if we assume that his play increases as he gets further removed from the injury, likely a safe assumption, we cannot project him for a typical workload.
The best development last week was the one deep shot Tyrod Taylor took with Watkins. That’s where he going to have to make his money for fantasy owners the rest of the season. With his snaps and routes likely limited, he’ll need to make the most of every opportunity. That means converting when he gets deep and red-zone targets. Watkins certainly has the skill set to take advantage of a handful of high-value targets per game, but it’s no sure thing that he does, or that they even materialize. He’s going to be a tempting play every week, but he should be considered no more than a top-30 receiver for the rest of the year.
Finally, some fun with blind resumes
Can you guess to whom the following stat lines belong?
Player A: 55 receptions, 610 receiving yards, three touchdowns
Player B: 55 receptions, 613 receiving yards, three touchdowns
Any idea who has produced these nearly identical lines? Player A is DeAndre Hopkins. Player B is David Johnson. Of course, Johnson also has 921 rushing yards and 10 scores on the ground to go along with what he has done as a receiver this season. Sorry, Hopkins owners.