We saw the importance of backup running backs in Week 13, as inopportune a time as there is in the fantasy football calendar for lead backs to get injured with the playoffs fast approaching.
Rhamondre Stevenson’s ankle bent in the wrong direction = Enter Ezekiel Elliott, who turned 21 touches into 92 yards.
Derrick Henry went to the medical tent to be evaluated for a concussion = Here comes Tyjae Spears, the dual-threat rookie who logged 20 touches for 88 yards.
Brian Robinson Jr. felt a twinge in his hamstring = Chris Rodriguez Jr. and Antonio Gibson saw an uptick in touches.
That was just one weekend. On the cusp of the fantasy playoffs. Losing a starting running back at this time of year is like blowing out a tire on the highway. The rest of the ride won’t last long. That’s why this week’s Running Back Report is here to help prepare fantasy managers for the possibility of repairing the flat on the fly. Ideally, these players are riding benches because the starters remained healthy and productive. We’ve all had enough injuries to last us until next season.
Since people like lists, here's one of the 10 most important backup RBs. These are players who are currently backups or on the lesser end of a timeshare. Excluded from this list are the Lions’ David Montgomery-Jahmyr Gibbs, the Steelers’ Najee Harris-Jaylen Warren and the Dolphins’ Raheem Mostert-De’Von Achane, as these tandems are valuable for fantasy and already are every-week starters. Elliott is left out as well, as are players like Zach Charbonnet and Zack Moss, who have already taken over for injured starters.
Let’s bring in the understudies.
1. Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco 49ers
Christian McCaffrey has been the picture of health since he joined the 49ers a year ago, playing 23 straight regular-season games (and three playoff games). It's still amazing that he's scored in all but one game as a 49er, and has an 80.5% snap share that is third among all running backs this season. Beyond elite usage.
Even though he’s been the picture of health, and in one of the greatest offensive environments anywhere, McCaffrey did play just 10 of 33 games in 2020-21. He had an injury scare when a banged-up oblique made him questionable all the way up to game time, then he went for 96 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Minnesota in Week 7. Mitchell becomes someone to be added as either insurance or speculation in case McCaffrey misses time.
Mitchell went from lightly regarded 2021 sixth-round pick to compiling 1,100 total yards and six touchdowns in his rookie year. Jordan Mason is another 49ers consideration, but if McCaffrey sits at all Mitchell likely gets first shot at the bulk of the workload. He has more than twice the number of snaps as Mason, 100-48, on the season. Games against the Cardinals and Commanders in Weeks 15 and 17, respectively, are quite enticing matchups for the 49ers.
2. Rico Dowdle, Dallas Cowboys
Tony Pollard has rewarded fantasy managers who stuck by him, scoring in three straight games and registering between 15 and 24 touches every game in Weeks 9-13. The Cowboys have been one of the hottest offenses in the NFL, averaging 42 points in a four-game winning streak. Things are really rolling in Big D, good news considering the Eagles come to town this week.
Dowdle has had moments of standalone value, rushing 12 times for 79 yards and a score in a Week 10 blowout of the Giants. The way the passing game has been humming for the Cowboys, a running back will have plenty of room to roam. Playing at Buffalo and Miami then hosting the Lions during the fantasy playoffs, the Cowboys are facing games where points could be scored on both sides.
3. Kenneth Gainwell, Philadelphia Eagles
D’Andre Swift left the Week 13 loss to the 49ers late and did not return after a visit to the medical tent. Gainwell might get some important snaps as early as this week against the Cowboys. In his first two games, Gainwell toted the ball 14 times in each contest. With Swift taking over lead running back duties since the early part of the season, Gainwell has taken a step back in the pecking order.
Gainwell ran 31 routes against the 49ers, getting five catches for 42 yards, so he could have a role if Swift misses time. The Eagles have a wonderful playoff schedule, playing the Cardinals, Seahawks and Giants, all bottom 10 in most fantasy points allowed to running backs.
4. Tyjae Spears, Tennessee Titans
Spears is here because Henry did not go into the concussion protocol after leaving the Week 13 game. Aside from what we saw on Sunday, Spears has been bordering on flex status most of the season, as his snap share on the season has been nearly equal to Henry’s, 54.5% to 52.2%. His percentage of routes run (45.3%) is almost double that of Henry (24.4%). Spears also has a big target lead on the Titans’ veteran, 44-25.
Since Spears is already involved in the Tennessee offense, and we’ve seen what can happen if he gets the great majority of the touches, his rostership number grew from the 36% it was before waivers ran last night to 45%. But even if he were to run unopposed, he would have two tough matchups against Houston in Weeks 15 and 17. That’s a bit of a shocker, because the Texans were among the leaders in fantasy points and yards allowed to running backs. Currently, Houston is allowing the seventh-fewest rushing yards to running backs at 73.6. Seattle’s defense, allowing the fifth-most fantasy points to running backs, awaits in Week 16.
5. Tyler Allgeier, Atlanta Falcons
Bijan Robinson has taken over the lead running back role for the Falcons, posting between 19 and 23 touches his last three games. His snap share has been 71.2%, with Allgeier's being 24.1%. That's a far cry from the 31-29 carry advantage that Allgeier had over Robinson in the first two games of the season.
Allgeier is still a running back who rushed for 1,035 yards last season. He’s a big back who can carry a big workload for the Falcons, who face tasty matchups against the Panthers and Colts the first two weeks of the fantasy playoffs. Week 17 is a trip to Chicago, which has stiffened against running backs except for allowing 193 total yards to Gibbs and Montgomery on Thanksgiving.
6. Roschon Johnson, Chicago Bears
Fantasy managers rejoiced when Johnson totaled 15 touches against the Vikings in a 12-10 Bears victory. Is this a signal that Johnson could be taking over the lead running back role after Khalil Herbert and D’Onta Foreman have traded being the top ballcarriers for the Bears throughout the season?
Johnson was one of the top waiver wire recommendations this week coming off the Bears' bye last week. Fantasy managers have not forgotten that usage, and the Bears may need to find out what they have in the solid 225-pound rookie who can also contribute in the passing game. The Browns and Falcons' tough run defenses loom in the fantasy playoffs, though a Week 16 date against the Cardinals could be a big game if Johnson is the Bears' top dog in the backfield.
7. Jerick McKinnon/Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
Isiah Pacheco has been one of the fantasy draft bargains, getting picked in the seventh round and delivering RB7 production. His 779 yards are fifth in the NFL, making him a bright spot on the Chiefs' offense.
McKinnon is here with a caveat, as he’s missed the past two games with a groin injury and he’s 31, not exactly sprightly by running back standards. But the memory is still fresh of him scoring nine touchdowns in the final six regular-season games last year. If he’s healthy, he’s a valuable backup to Pacheco. If he remains out, Edwards-Helaire needs to be rostered because games against the Patriots, Raiders and Bengals during the fantasy playoffs are solid matchups for running backs.
8. Ty Chandler, Minnesota Vikings
Chandler became a very popular pickup after rolling up 110 scrimmage yards in Week 11 at Denver on Sunday Night Football. He got up to 48% rostered, but during the bye week he dropped down to 22%. His 11-yard performance in Week 12 cannot have helped.
Alexander Mattison has underwhelmed as a lead back for the Vikings, with just four games totaling at least 80 yards. Mattison has a snap share of 63.3%, but is just the RB30 on the season. Chandler has shown good speed and had that big game two weeks ago. If he gets the lead role for Week 17 when the Vikings host the Packers — who allow the 10th-most fantasy points to running backs — Chandler would need to be started.
9. Royce Freeman, Los Angeles Rams
Kyren Williams has been one of the great stories in fantasy this season. Largely ignored during early draft season, it was in late August that Williams began to get some mention as he gained traction in the Rams' backfield. With six top-10 finishes in his eight games thus far, Williams has been one of the most valuable backs for fantasy when he's been healthy.
Williams did miss four games to injury, and he is a smallish back (194 pounds) who has been on the field for 82.1% of the snaps. Freeman, though, had a pair of games with 70-plus rushing yards in Weeks 11 and 12 before being an afterthought with zero yards on a single carry this past Sunday. Still, if Freeman were to be needed, games against the Commanders and Giants in Weeks 15 and 17, respectively, would warrant starting him in the fantasy playoffs.
10. D’Ernest Johnson, Jacksonville Jaguars
Since we've talked a bit about snap share up above, Jacksonville's Travis Etienne Jr. 76.2% is sixth in the league. He's also the RB3 on the season. Etienne has played all 29 of the Jaguars' games since missing his rookie year with a foot injury.
Before the season, it looked like Tank Bigsby would be the backup and maybe take touches from Etienne. Bigsby has been glued to the bench for the most part, as he has more than three rush attempts just once — two weeks ago — since Week 1. Johnson, however, has crept up with a touch count of 8-8-6 the past three games. He looks to be the new No. 2 in Jacksonville.
The Jags have a couple tough defenses against running backs in the Ravens (eighth overall) and Buccaneers (11th) the first two weeks of the fantasy playoffs. Carolina awaits in Week 17, and the Panthers are second in fantasy points allowed to running backs. Whoever starts against them must be in fantasy lineups.