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Week 5 Fantasy Running Back Depth Charts & Volatility

Every Tuesday, we go around the NFL at the running back depth charts around the league telling you which backs are secure in their jobs, others who are threatened, listing fantasy-relevant non-starters and handcuffs.

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Week 4 of the 2015 NFL season is over and the fantasy football running back landscape is as volatile as it always is at this moment. We are at a point where it is unclear if there are 20 RBs who are safe to start, which means there is a lot of confusion for owners to fill their RB2 and flex spots, make trades, craft our benches to cover our tails.

This weekly post has looked solely at the safety of primary and passing downs roles around the league up to this point. For the remainder of season, we will contextualize the individuals with rest of season rankings in a separate post.

Remember we are gauging volatility here more situationally than based on the skill of the players. On one hand, a very talented back can not get the ball enough to trust while a mediocre back is higher in ranks simply because he can be trusted to get a high quantity of touches. No matter what the talent level of the back, an RB is only good in fantasy as his situation.

Volatility

Ranking volatility is trite and oversimplifying. We will separate them into tiers, from the most to least volatile. The most volatile situations are mostly ones to avoid, unless otherwise noted; and the least are one where roles are shared, but there is still startable weekly fantasy value to be had.

Notable situations not ranked in volatility this week:

  • Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks: Lynch should be expected to play in Week 5, especially as Thomas Rawls was so underwhelming that Seattle will likely not err on the side of caution. Whether or not this means Lynch will play the full game in Cincinnati is the larger question, making this a volatile situation. But we cannot start Rawls this week and Lynch's job is not at all threatened.
  • Todd Gurley, Rams: We are going to move forward assuming that Gurley is fully healthy, has won the primary job, and is the bellcow who will dominate touches out of the St. Louis backfield.
  • Devonta Freeman, Falcons: Freeman has done enough to win the primary job. We are still unsure what that means, as Tevin Coleman is to return from injury. This is likely a timeshare where both players are startable RB2s, and they will likely be in this post next week, but there is little to analyze before we see what it looks like with both on the field after Freeman has clearly broken out with elite performances as an all-purpose back.
  • Joseph Randle, Cowboys: This was one of our favorite timeshares to ride this season with Randle as a TD-dependent RB2 in standard, he and Lance Dunbar being legit RB3 flex options in PPR. With Dunbar likely out the remainder of the season, Darren McFadden doing nothing to win a role other than spelling Randle, and we have no evidence of how Christine Michael will be utilized.
  • Arian Foster, Texans: His debut was bad and the Texans were down five possessions early in the 2nd half, so he had no chance to rebound. Therefore, we are unsure of his health and ability. We can be sure that every other option in Houston's backfield is terrible, so assuming that Foster is well enough to play the amount of 1st half snaps as he did, this will never be a timeshare, but only an injury risk. And all RBs have high injury risks. Recency bias does not really make his situation too special.
  • Alfred Morris, Washington: Matt Jones seduced us all, but Chris Thompson is the passing downs back and Jones' carries seem to only exist to spell Morris, as opposed to a timeshare gameplan. Jones remains one of the best handcuffs in the league, but he may otherwise be useless in 12-team redraft leagues.
  • Frank Gore, Colts: T.J. Yeldon, Jaguars; and Carlos Hyde, 49ers: Gore has been bad, but he still got 22 of the Colts' 25 touches in Week 4. Yeldon is a very back in the unluckiest of situations with a terrible offensive line and a team that will be forced by the scoreboard to abandon the run often, but no one is taking his job, either. Hyde is in a similar situation as Yeldon. Gore has a juicy schedule to give him and his line many mulligans to pick up his game; Yeldon and Hyde are both very talented, but their teams' low skill have set their ceilings so low that there are timeshare back who rank over them.

Tier 1: Timeshares where everyone is bad

Andre Williams, Rashad Jennings, and Shane Vereen, Giants: The snap counts have been evenly split over the last two weeks between the three. The carries are pretty evenly split between Williams and Jennings. Neither of the two rushers are doing anything with carries and the low snap count is killing Vereen's PPR value. Vereen is the only ownable piece to this backfield, and that's no more than a low-end RB3. Drop the other two where we have them to handcuff guys who will actually play in our lineups, or for a backup QB; hell, we'd rather carry a second DST looking forward to the coming week than own Williams or Jennings. Let a fish pick them up and sabotage their lineup.

Antonio Andrews, Bishop Sankey, and Dexter McCluster, Titans: Andrews is the only back with any potential for fantasy value, but he would require a role that lands him 15 touches to even be an RB3. There are just too many talented pass catching backs not starting in the NFL for Andrews to crack a top-25 anytime soon. Sankey is bad, no matter how many touches and though McCluster will have nice PPR weeks here and there, good luck knowing when to start him.

Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, Lions: Hopefully, people reading this thought I was full of crap after Week 1 and didn't trade for Abdullah as if he is an RB2. This whole team is a mess and the running game is not immune. Joique Bell doesn't exist anymore, so Abdullah is clearly the primary back, but the blocking can't create anything. Abdullah is on the low end of my top-40, rest of season (ROS), but his top-25 upside in the passing game makes him a legit RB3 in PPR and still rosterable in all formats. Riddick is a rosterable handcuff and a top-40 PPR option, 4th in the NFL among RBs in targets (23) and tied for 3rd in receptions (20).

Demarco Murray, Darren Sproles, and Ryan Mathews, Eagles: Philly is another mess. They can't block anyone, so the rushing attack runs backward. Murray is still out-touched Mathews and Sproles 10:5:4 in Week 4, so he is a low-end RB2 against the Saints in Week 5 with Sproles as a desperate flex option in PPR. Mathews is only a handcuff. Murray is being paid too much to lose the job without injury. Also, Philly is only running around 60 plays per game, ten less than they have averaged in the Chip Kelly era, so there is enough room for optimism that selling entirely is still premature.

C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, Broncos: Hillman is clearly running better than Anderson, but despite an 103 yards and a TD, Anderson will always be on the field more often because of his passing downs work. they can both be flex options against the Raiders in Week 5, and we will continue to re-evaluate from week to week, as neither are being used in the passing game to add value:

Broncos RBs through Weeks 2 Through 4
Off. Snaps Carries Targets Red Zone Carries
Anderson 106 31 3 6
Hillman 79 27 3 6


Tier 2: Timeshares with startable options

Duke Johnson, Jr. and Isaiah Crowell, Browns: Nice game for both, but we're buying Duke as a flex option in all formats, but selling high on Crowell's 125 total yards in Week 4 against the Chargers. 62 of Crowell's yards came in the passing game which is unsustainable and he likely won't get the carries to depend on 60 rushing yards, when you look how bad the Chargers have been this year:

Yards Per Carry vs Chargers
Week Player YPC
1 Ameer Abdullah 7.14
2 Adrian Peterson 6.3
3 Giovani Bernard 6.14
4 Isaiah Crowell 5.25

On the other hand, Duke, after not being targeted once in the passing game in the first two weeks, has seen seven and ten in the following two. Josh McCown needs the checkdowns and Travis Benjamin is doing just enough to stretch the field for Duke to have space underneath. This is why Duke has played over half of the snaps in each of the last three weeks, up to over 60% in Week 4.

Doug Martin and Charles Sims, Buccaneers: If the Bucs were a better team, Martin would be a borderline top-8 RB and Sims would only be a handcuff. But they are a bad team with an antiquated head coach, and a QB who desperately needs the checkdown to avoid INTs. Though Martin had 25 touches in Week 4 and 23 in Week 2, Sims has played more snaps in each of the last two weeks. Tampa shouldn't be killing clock to protect leads at any foreseeable point ROS, so Martin's value tops out as a high-end RB2 and Sims should become a deep PPR flex option after their Week 5 bye.

Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount, Patriots: Lewis is a top-18 RB in standard and top-15 in PPR, ROS. We can fully buy into that, despite Bill Belichick, simply because he is the only receiving back in the offense, and the Pats are looking to run up the score on the entire NFL. Where Blount will always remain relevant is as their closer when they will kill clock.

Besides the Broncos in Week 12, we can't really see enough impossibility for a blowout to bench Blount in standard leagues. The swings make him an RB3, but every week carries RB1 upside because of the late game volume and TDs. He doesn't need more than half of the red zone snaps to get multiple goal line carries any given week.

Danny Woodhead and Melvin Gordon, Chargers: Despite Gordon starting and having 52 carries to Woody's 32, the line is completely tattered, Woody is more trusted in the red zone and is among the elite pass catching backs in the NFL for years. Gordon will lead this team in rushing yards, but not by enough to top Woody in TDs and total yards from scrimmage. Both are top-25 in all formats with bumps in PPR--Woody has cracked my top-20 in standard leagues and is borderline top-15 in PPR.

Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, Bengals: Bernard is among the league leaders in rushing yards, but Hill is the TD guy. Hill is tied for 2nd in the NFL with five TDs, but his 3.3 yards per carry may not improve enough to be more than a poor man's Blount on a team which should run more. Bernard is firmly top-15 in standard and borderline top-10 in PPR. The Bengals face the Seahawks at home in Week 5, then travel to Buffalo in Week 6, so they should be getting Bernard back into the passing game before their Week 7 bye.

Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington, Cardinals: Ellington is expected back for Week 5 in Detroit. After that, the Cards go to Pittsburgh, host the Ravens, then travel to Cleveland before their Week 8 bye. The importance of their schedule is that it highlights the lack of need to force bellcow things from Ellington we have never seen before.

Johnson should be expected to start all games, receive the bulk of the carries north of 15 per game, and close all games as the only true rusher on the team. For that Johnson is elevated to my top-12 in standard ROS and Ellington falls, heavily, to a high-end flex in all formats. David Johnson's volume is too unpredictable that a Chris Johnson injury would be the only event to change this dynamic. What D.J. does, though, is take away volume from Ellington, but not C.J.

Tier 3: Timeshare looming

Jonathan Stewart and Cameron Artis-Payne, Panthers: Stewart had five YPC in Week 4, but failed to exploit one of the worst run Ds in the NFL--the Bucs--with only 50 yards on ten carries. Artis-Payne had eight carries and we may be seeing Ron Rivera has had enough of trusting Stewart's sub-four YPC as a bellcow with any impact potential.

Stewart is droppable in all formats (#HOTTAKE), no matter how deep the league. You can never start him. No one will trade for him. Let him be someone else 8-point-upside problem. Fantasy football is about optimizing your roster, but also about taking the few chances to slightly worsen the rosters of others.

Artis-Payne may not crack my top-50, yet, but he is among those outside of the top-40 with the best shots to be top-30 before the end of the season, so he is worth a stash in standard 12-team leagues as our RB5. If anything, he is a devil we don't know with far more upside than the devil we know here.

Lamar Miller and Jonas Gray, Dolphins: If Miller news matters at all to you, it is only because you own him, so I don't have to describe how terrible he has been. The Dolphins are a mess and we don't know what new head coach Dan Campbell will do.

After Gray dominated garbage time carries in Week 3, he was non-existent in Week 4, as the totality of the Miami running game has been. Stereotyping Campbell's meatball je ne sais quoi, I'm--personally--guessing that the quantity of this rushing attack goes up, and that it's between the tackles. Gray seems like a better fit to ground and pound at a high volume at lower variance for more than 4.0 YPC than Miller.

LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams, Bills: Williams is undergoing concussion protocols this week, so could miss Week 5 and we won't know until maybe Friday. If McCoy returns and Williams plays, this is a true timeshare with undefined roles. If one plays, that one is the bellcow. If neither play, Anthony "Boobie" Dixon is likely to start. Buffalo signed Dan Herron off the street, making a good enough chance that neither suit up in Tennessee.

Week 5 RB Depth Charts

Handcuff notes

  • Charcandrick West is now widely rumored to be the new Jamaal Charles handcuff, so drop Knile Davis for him.
  • Terron Ward becomes irrelevant when Coleman returns for Atlanta.
Primary Handcuff PPR Option
Bears Matt Forte Langford/Rodgers
Bengals Bernard/Hill Bernard/Hill Giovani Bernard
Bills McCoy/Williams McCoy/Williams
Broncos Anderson/Hillman Anderson/Hillman
Browns Isaiah Crowell Duke Johnson Duke Johnson
Buccaneers Doug Martin Charles Sims Charles Sims
Cardinals Chris Johnson Andre Ellington Andre Ellington
Chargers Woodhead/Gordon Woodhead/Gordon Danny Woodhead
Chiefs Jamaal Charles Charcandrick West
Colts Frank Gore Josh Robinson
Cowboys Joseph Randle Christine Michael
Dolphins Lamar Miller Jonas Gray
Eagles Demarco Murray Mathews/Sproles Darren Sproles
Falcons Devonta Freeman Terron Ward
49ers Carlos Hyde Mike Davis
Giants Williams/Jennings Williams/Jennings Shane Vereen
Jaguars T.J. Yeldon Denard Robinson
Jets Chris Ivory Bilal Powell
Lions Ameer Abdullah Theo Riddick Theo Riddick
Packers Eddie Lacy James Starks
Panthers Jonathan Stewart Cameron Artis-Payne
Patriots Blount/Lewis Blount/Lewis Dion Lewis
Raiders Latavius Murray Taiwan Jones
Rams Todd Gurley Tre Mason
Ravens Justin Forsett Lorenzo Taliaferro
Redskins Alfred Morris Matt Jones Matt Jones
Saints Mark Ingram Robinson/Spiller C.J. Spiller
Seahawks Marshawn Lynch Thomas Rawls
Steelers Le'Veon Bell Deangelo Williams
Texans Arian Foster Alfred Blue
Titans Antonio Andrews Bishop Sankey Dexter McCluster
Vikings Adrian Peterson Jerick McKinnon

Stats via Pro-Football-Reference.com.