By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
I hope your holiday season has been a happy one! As we wrap up another roller-coaster year in the fantasy football world, there’s one last week of regular-season action to obsess over. Week 17 can be a weird one, with so many teams resting players or lacking great motivation to win. This year, Yahoo Daily Fantasy gamers have lucked out with our running back options, as most of the high-priced plays are healthy and have good reason to ball out (Dalvin Cook is the one exception). I’ll go a bit lower on the pricing scale to help you save moolah for other positions, but I wouldn’t blame you for anchoring your lineup with an Aaron Jones ($35), for example.
Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints ($27)
It’s been a disappointing season for Alvin Kamara, a top-five pick in fantasy drafts who currently sits at RB13. The lightning-quick Kamara has seemed to be running in quicksand since his midseason ankle injury, routinely failing to make the first man miss. But against Tennessee last week he had a highlight-reel run in the third quarter that not only resulted in a 40-yard touchdown but established his ailing ankle was right again. For the first time in months, Kamara reminded us how explosive he can be with the ball in his hands. His two-TD performance against the Titans was a relief to fantasy gamers who have counted on Kamara and it bodes well for Week 17 when New Orleans faces the Carolina Panthers.
Here’s some highly unscientific analysis for you (what the heck, it’s Week 17!): When it comes to stopping the run, the Panthers, Jaguars, Lions, and Bengals account for four of the bottom seven teams. Cats are notoriously lazy, so maybe that explains it? The Ravens are the only animal mascot in the top six, so perhaps it’s animals in general that are indifferent to run defense.
In any case, over the last month, the Panthers have been especially powerless to stop running backs from producing fantasy points. Just last week the Colts backfield combined for 179 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Even the anemic Atlanta ground game gashed them for 152 yards and two scores.
This week the Panthers will go toe to toe in the trenches with an offensive line that many consider the NFL’s best. The Saints are No. 1 in the league in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards, which isolates the effectiveness of a team’s run blocking. Injuries have whittled away at the continuity of the unit, but one or both of the Saints’ starting guards, Larry Warford and Andrus Peat, may return for this game. Regardless, tackle Ryan Ramczyk is having a run-blocking season for the ages and rookie center Erik McCoy has proven himself to be a second-round steal.
New Orleans needs a win and a San Francisco loss to secure a first-round bye, so we don’t have to worry about their motivation to thump Carolina. Drew Brees and Michael Thomas are a little banged up, so it would behoove Sean Payton to lean on his running game. Since Kamara returned Latavius Murray is getting 33 percent of the snaps and about seven carries per game. He could have a larger workload this week and is a decent tournament play at $17, but I still like the value proposition a healthy Kamara presents for $10 more. Eight backs are more expensive to play and the next 10 are within $5 of the Saints star, so this looks like the sweet spot for pricing. Kamara’s combination of ability, opportunity, and matchup make him a no-brainer play this week.
Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars ($26 in Yahoo DFS)
Now we come to this week’s pass at his price, and it pains me to say it. I’ve been a fan of Leonard Fournette this season, as he’s one of the few backs to tally a ton of carries but also gobble up receptions. That gives his fantasy production a perpetually high floor. Someone get the man some Claritin for his end-zone allergy — Fournette has just three touchdowns on the year — but at least his workload has been consistent and generally yielded fantasy results. The former LSU Tiger is 9th in fantasy points this season and has few duds in his game log.
However, with better options up and down the pricing scale, I don’t favor Fournette in Week 17. First off, he’s expected to play but no one likes to see an RB miss practice with a neck injury. Second, Jacksonville’s offensive line has done Fournette no favors this year (they rank 27th in Adjusted Line Yards). And finally, the Jaguars’ offense has been largely toothless for months now and banking on them to be productive seems like a fool’s errand. Jacksonville has disappointed against the Bucs, Bolts, Raiders, and Falcons, which overall is about as friendly a stretch as you’ll find.
This week the reeling Jaguars play another team that swan-dived over the second half of the season, the Indianapolis Colts, but that doesn’t mean their DST has collapsed. In addition to utterly demolishing the Panthers last week, they’ve allowed just one back to top the century mark in rushing this season, and opposing RBs have only scored six total touchdowns (Austin Ekeler accounts for three of them, going wild way back in Week 1).
That said, over the last month the Colts have surrendered the most RB receptions and third-most receiving yards to that position, so Fournette’s floor seems secure. But why pay $26 for a mid-range RB2? With the Jaguar runner’s usage and spirited style of play, a big game is always in the range of outcomes, but I prefer players on either side of his price.
Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals ($25 in Yahoo DFS)
Joe Mixon doesn’t have the Saints offensive line blocking for him — if he did, I daresay he might be putting up better numbers than the aforementioned Kamara. But Cincinnati’s group is not at that level, to put it mildly. The Bengals did get the best game of Billy Price’s run-blocking career last week, so the news isn’t all bad for one of the NFL’s least-effective front fives. Still, Cincinnati is 28th in Adjusted Line Yards, so Mixon isn’t getting a lot of help from his blockers.
Despite all of the Bengals’ woes in 2019, Mixon’s fantasy-point total is just behind those of Kamara, Miles Sanders, and Josh Jacobs. He did disappoint against the Dolphins last week, but he was playing through a stomach bug that seemed to sap his strength. It was the opposite of Kamara’s performance in that the Bengals back was clearly not himself. I’m willing to go back to the well here, even though plugging Mixon was my only miss in Week 16.
Now the Bengals square off with their intrastate rivals, the Cleveland Browns, and this defense is actually a significantly better matchup than Miami. I’ve often picked on them in this space and the fact remains that injuries, Myles Garrett’s suspension, and general malaise have turned a sporadically fearsome defense into one that has given up 549 rushing yards over the last month, a total that is second only to Carolina’s. On the season Cleveland is allowing RBs to average 5 yards per carry, the third-worst mark in the league.
With Mixon’s bug behind him and the Bengals clearly playing for pride, it’s easy to imagine him exploiting this cushy matchup. He’s well worth the $25 it takes to play him.
Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles ($22 in Yahoo DFS)
I’ve extolled the virtues of Miles Sanders in this space twice recently, but his DFS price remains so attractive I have to go back to him. While Jordan Howard is expected to play this week, Sanders has secured a leading role in the Eagles’ backfield. Over the last month, he’s averaged 125.5 total yards and scored four touchdowns. Doug Pederson has indicated he’ll be riding the hot hand in a critical game against the Giants.
That doesn’t mean it’s a cream-puff matchup. Led by ageless safety Antoine Bethea, trade-deadline acquisition Leonard Williams and 2018 third-rounder B.J. Hill, New York has quietly become one of the NFL’s better run defenses. (Maybe it helps that they aren’t named after a big cat.)
While the Giants have limited opposing RBs to 3.9 yards per carry, they do rank 31st in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) versus the pass. Big Blue is bottom eight in receiving yards allowed to running backs over the last month, so their largesse should extend to Sanders. The rookie has averaged 5.5 targets per game in that span and among RBs he’s seventh in receiving yards this season.
After missing two games Lane Johnson is trending towards a return, which would be a boon to Philadelphia’s excellent offensive line. Johnson is the only right tackle to out-grade Ryan Ramczyk in run-blocking this year. Even without him, the Eagles haven’t missed a beat in that department — Halapoulivaati Vaitai has been an able replacement. Interestingly, Football Outsiders has this o-line as just 14th in Adjusted Line Yards, and 11 teams have accumulated more rushing yards than Philly. Still, let’s give a slight edge to the Eagles in the trenches.
Given the rash of injuries to their receiving options, I expect Sanders to be heavily involved in the passing game. He may not have his best rushing day against the Giants, but a touchdown feels fairly likely. $22 is an attractive price for a player with Sanders’ upside.
Sony Michel, New England Patriots ($19)
I’m reticent to recommend a guy who is the RB28 on the season, but like Kamara, Sony Michel has seemed rejuvenated of late. Over the last two weeks, he’s turned 40 carries into 185 yards (4.6 yards per attempt), displayed fine vision and looked far less plodding than he did for the rest of 2019. Rex Burkhead seems to exist solely to diminish the fantasy upside of other Patriots backs, but we can’t quibble about Michel’s workload versus Buffalo and Cincinnati.
This week the Patriots play a Miami team that, Joe Mixon’s flu game notwithstanding, is one of the most favorable matchups a running back can face. Their best performance since Week 9 was holding the Eagles’ RBs to 114 total yards in mid-November, but Miles Sanders had 105 of those yards himself and scored a touchdown, so it’s hardly a feather in the cap of the Dolphins’ injury-decimated defense.
Meanwhile, legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is doing his best to mold the Patriots’ blockers into a unit that meets his lofty standards. After two strong games in a row, they are now 11th in Adjusted Line Yards and their grading reflects that turnaround. With the line fairly healthy at the moment there is no clear weak link in the chain; every starter is solid.
As is often the case in December, New England seems interested in running the rock if they can. It’s possible that FitzMagic, Devante Parker and company push their division rivals out of a smash-mouth gameplan, but the Patriots’ defense is too fundamentally sound to be picked apart by Fitzpatrick. I expect Miami’s occasionally explosive offense to misfire in this one, so the Patriots won’t be chasing points. Over the last two weeks, Michel has shown his usefulness in that scenario and I think he’ll get the opportunity to do so again. At $19 he’s a play with the potential to score multiple touchdowns, so I’m willing to risk the downside here.
Good luck, everyone. I hope you’ve enjoyed this column — adios!