Fantasy football is a game of week-to-week decisions. One of the most important decisions we make every week is gauging how often our RBs will be in the game and touch the ball. Another is how we craft our benches and watch lists to cover our tails when the inevitable adversity of our starting RBs getting stuck in Timeshare Hell, losing their jobs, or getting hurt.
Once we are clear of the top-12-to-15 RBs, every situation has a degree of ambiguity all season. Staying on top of every team's situation at this position is a key to being a winning fantasy player. Which situations to buy and which to sell, which to trust and from which to steer clear, how to extract value from opponents, and how we prepare for bye week all largely come down to having our fingers on the pulse of what teams are doing with their running backs throughout the season.
After all of the games are finished for the week, we will edit and revise these situations so we can best be up to date ahead of our opponents and avoid mistakes with our future roster decisions.
We can rarely see injuries coming around the corner, but there is a lot we can do to see when our RBs are at risk of losing their job to bad play or an up-and-comer. We cannot handcuff every starter and not every real life starter on our bench will outperform our fantasy starter's backup. Moreover, it really sucks to have our RB2 lose their job on Sunday, then we also lose out to picking up their team's new starter to a higher waiver claim. If we can see these volatile situations before they come, we can prepare ourselves by avoiding the situations altogether or being prepared.
These are the teams with volatile starting RBs in Week 1.
Tier 1: These RBs are only starting until the real starter comes back
The loss of these jobs are completely inevitable. These are the true handcuffs on their teams.
Dion Lewis and Brandon Bolden, Patriots: It is rare that we go into a week knowing who will get the bulk of the touches for New England, but we can safely say that: (a) whomever gets those touches will surely have great fantasy value in standard scoring leagues; and (b) the job for the 2015 season is Legarrette Blount's job to lose.
Blount is suspended for Week 1, but that was not a problem for those who drafted him because Jonas Gray was cheaply grabbed for many who went WR-heavy on draft day. Of course, Blount-Gray stable drafters were Belichicked when Gray got cut late last week. Lewis is rumored to be liked and to get time, while Bolden has been a fringe-y deep PPR flex option to have. No one knows if Lewis will get 20 carries and Bolden eight catches, or if Bolden will get most of the carries with his catches, or if both will cease to exist in the realm of Week 1 fantasy relevance. Recent news with the Pats likely starting Danny Amendola alongside Julian Edelman, as Reggie Wayne's voluntarily release has soldified, says that Rob Gronkowski and Edelman will get 20 targets each or Bolden will effectively be the third WR and the running game will be utilized. Either way, Blount is the starting RB for the Pats in Week 2, so whomever starts is an unpredictable one-week option. Bolden's PPR value has gone up, though.
Deangelo Williams, Steelers: Williams is not very good. He is only starting until Le'Veon Bell returns, and Williams should lose out to Dri Archer in the targets column. Add that the Steelers defense stinks and Ben Roethlisberger is coming off of a season where he threw over 600 times, and you have a scenario where Pittsburgh will be pass-heavy until Bell returns.
Alfred Blue, Texans: Blue could start more games than the timeshares in this category, but his job is guaranteed unsafe because, well, Arian Foster. You can ask five people when Foster will return and get seven answers, so the comeback is up in the air. Blue can lose his job while Foster is out, though; or Foster can simply come back on the sooner side; but, most importantly, Blue could start every week while Foster is out and just be terrible while starting.
Tre Mason and Benny Cunningham, Rams: Mason is a tough case. He only has the job until Todd Gurley gets on the field. But this may be Mason's job to win. Gurley has three strikes working against his automatic bid for the starting role: (1) his injury was to the ACL, which is very difficult to rehab and from which to recover, so when he will come back and how effective he can be is completely unknown; (2) unlike the other RBs in this group, Mason has RB2 upside as a starter, which has been seen and is not aging out of it any time soon; and (3) Gurley is a rookie and the Rams should be bad, so even if the Rams see him as the RB of their future, he could come back to play with a snap limit that keeps Mason fantasy relevant. Mason is nursing a hamstring strain and could be out for Week 1 or split snaps with Cunningham, which could limit his chances to win the starting job.
Tier 2: Current timeshares
These RB tandems are already fully expected to be splitting time for various reasons and cannot be trusted for all-purpose volume or--in some cases--to remain relevant in their offenses.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Falcons: This is the most concerning of timeshares because: (a) neither has a defined role in Atlanta's offense; (b) Atlanta's offensive line projects to be terrible; (c) their defense also projects poorly, which could limit running opportunities; and (d) both Freeman and Coleman have chances to be so bad that one may not definitively win the job over the other to become fantasy relevant any time soon. As a fantasy owner, it is unclear if either is desirable to own until we see something in which to believe.
Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle, Cowboys: Let's be clear: McFadden is the starting RB behind the Cowboys awesome offensive line. What that means may be unclear, as we don't know if the job is McFadden's to lose--as the physically gifted veteran--or Randle's to prove he can win. Randle has the nice YPC over a small sample size, but DMC has that history as well. Both can be assets in the receiving game and running on any side of the field. Only McFadden is startable for Week 1 as a flex option. Randle can be a PPR option, as the season rolls along, even if he does not win the job. Personally, I'm convinced that this job will come down to McFadden's health and pass blocking. The great fantasy numbers should take of itself if those come through. McFadden finishing the year as a top-8 back wouldn't surprise me; McFadden getting cut before October wouldn't surprise me.
Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson, Browns: Everything about this team is awful. Crowell is the starter, but if he has a spot in your lineup, you desperately need to make a trade. Johnson is a fringe PPR flex option, but we should still wait a couple of weeks to see a defined role for him before we trust him. He is a rookie and Crowell may be more in danger of losing his job than Johnson, so Johnson is the only Browns RB with the upside of taking the entire offense. And that could be fun, given that neither Josh McCown or Johnny Manziel are capable of getting the ball downfield and will be checkdown-dependent.
Carlos Hyde and Reggie Bush, 49ers: This situation is not concerning because we know what it is and will be: Hyde is the runner and Bush is the receiver; neither should really take much from one another. The concern is that the Niners defense keeps Hyde off of the field, but Hyde as a high-end RB2 in all formats and Bush is a flex option in PPR with RB2 upside. Hyde is the future of the organization and should be the lead rusher all season, but is still young enough to lose his job. and the Niners defense is so unknown that Bush can dominate snaps as games go on.
Tier 3: Rookies are always volatile
Starting rookie RBs always have top-15 upside. Unfortunately, they also carry the downside of fumbling their way out of starting jobs very fast or endangering their QB with bad pass blocking.
Melvin Gordon and Danny Woodhead, Chargers: This is a current timeshare, but we there is a safety to Gordon's role because there is another strong option for San Diego between the tackles and a lot is invested in him. What makes his situation worthy of some distrust is that Woodhead is an elite receiving back who was a trusted goal line back in 2014 for this team. He can not only take snaps away from Gordon for passing down, but also vulture TDs. Either way, Woodhead can be a legit RB2 in PPR formats throughout the season, regardless of Gordon's performance and that threatens Gordon's consistency from week-to-week.
Ameer Abdullah and Joique Bell, Lions: This is an exciting NFL scenario which can be great for fantasy owners on all ends. We could see Abdullah as a high-end RB2 with 15 touches per game and Bell as a low-end RB2 with 12 or so and goal line carries. If Abdullah loses the starting job, it would likely be due to Bell performing well and Abdullah can still remain somewhere between Woodhead and Bush as a PPR option. There is reason for optimism that owning neither will fail. Just curb your enthusiasm and know where to cap their ceilings, as they both do have glass ceilings from week to week.
T.J. Yeldon, Jaguars: Yeldon may not be better than Gordon or Abdullah, but his job is safest of these rookies because Denard Robinson has such limited utility. Being the big fish in the small pond should keep Yeldon fantasy relevant all season. That said, we've been here with the post-MJD Jags before and nothing has worked for them over significant, foreseeable spans of time. Bad teams are bad because they are inconsistent. The line, the young QB, the receiving corps, and the defense will all swing in different directions at different times, and Yeldon has not shown he is immune from being affected by this. He can get scapegoated, he can get phased out when the Jags are losing big, he can just be out there every week for dozens of snaps and be flat-out bad. Robinson has the opportunity to become a volume receiving back with their TE struggles and Yeldon's youth.
Tier 4: Backup is looming
Bishop Sankey, Titans: Sankey is terrible, but--lucky for him--Terrance West may be worse. That said, as much as I want to like Dexter McCluster as a deep league PPR flex option or roster stash, I really need to stop feeling that about him every year. If this situation is something to watch for you, you have much bigger problems.
Andre Ellington, Cardinals: Ellington's job is very safe, but this is a situation where he can play himself out of the job and create the opportunity for David Johnson. Ellington could also becoming the receiving back in a timeshare where Johnson is the lead rusher. The situation is safe for now, but we should keep a close eye.
Week 1 RB Depth Charts
This is a rolling depth chart from week to week. Players who are will be inactive the coming week will not appear on this list.
Where the handcuff column has two names listed, it is a situation where the team's PPR option would not likely become the lead rusher were the primary to go down. Goal line alternatives are largely unknown, but more teams will have names added to this chart as the season rolls along.
EDIT (1:13 p.m.): Seahawks are rolling with Fred Jackson a lot in practice, hoping he can be an all-purpose 3rd down back, so he is clearly the handcuff to own for Lynch with flex upside in PPR. His departure from Buffalo was weird, but he isn't done.