By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
Another week, another chance to win at DFS! Each slate presents its own challenges and opportunities, as player pricing either supports or thwarts our team-building strategies. This week I prefer to save money at running back and pay up for top plays at other positions. Here are some lower-cost options that will allow you to do that, as well as one player whose price has me cooling on him like a chilly mid-November gust.
Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars ($23 in Yahoo DFS)
Leonard Fournette has scored one touchdown this season. One! For a guy who is third in the NFL in RB touches and fourth in rushing yards per game, that is an absurd number. This explains his persistently low DFS price, but while an invisible barrier seems to be keeping the former LSU Tiger out of the end zone he’s still 10th among RBs in fantasy points per game.
Based on basic regression analysis Fournette is due for a score (or six) down the stretch, but that doesn’t mean touchdowns will automatically be abundant for him. The Jaguars’ occasionally helter-skelter offense bears responsibility for not giving their behemoth bell-cow more goal-line carries. And Fournette tends to be bottled up by opposing front sevens until breaking one big run, making his rushing total look a lot better. Despite being fast for 6-foot and 228 pounds, he’s been caught from behind on most of those long jaunts. Still, with this workload the guy’s gotta score more, right?
Well, this week’s opponent isn’t ideal in that regard. The Indianapolis Colts have zealously defended their end zone from enemy running backs, surrendering just three TDs on the ground. They only give up 82 rushing yards per game and an opposing RB has yet to crack the century mark since defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus took over 25 games ago. However, if we look deeper there are cracks in this facade. Indy is just 23rd in Football Outsiders’ signature DVOA metric (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) for run defense. Over their last seven games the Colts have faced just two rushing attacks ranking above 16th in yards per game. The top backs they’ve seen all year – Derrick Henry and Josh Jacobs – accumulated 93 and 108 total yards. Even Trey Edmunds recently ran for 73 against them.
All things considered, these teams’ battle in the trenches looks like a draw. The fact that with a 3.6 yard-average Fournette leads the NFL in rushing yards after contact with a defender (a whopping half-yard ahead of No. 2 Derrick Henry) tells us two things – one, he is not an easy man to tackle, and two, his offensive line isn’t dominating the line of scrimmage. Fournette is a dismal 45th in yards before contact, which means there aren’t holes to run through. Jacksonville ranks just 24th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards – this handy stat measures the effectiveness of an offensive line’s run-blocking.
The return of Nick Foles is probably a good thing for Jacksonville’s offense. Minshew Magic was a ton of fun but the rookie was increasingly inconsistent, culminating in a fourth-quarter meltdown vs. Houston. The Foles we saw for two seasons in Philadelphia (and 11 snaps in 2019) can better threaten defenses downfield. The Jaguars have the receivers to do that, which should lighten the fronts that Fournette plows through. He’s faced an average of 7.2 defenders in the box. According to PlayerProfiler.com, that is the third-highest mark in the NFL.
Here’s more good news for the giant Jaguar. Over the last month, no team has allowed more receptions to running backs (30) than Indianapolis. Before Jacksonville’s bye Fournette saw season lows in rush attempts (11) and rushing yards (40) but still tallied five grabs for 32 yards in a loss to Houston. Only five backs have caught more passes in 2019, which gives Fournette a high weekly floor.
I can’t promise that Fournette gets off the schneid against the Colts and hits pay-dirt, but the odds are good he will. $23 puts him in a tier of backs who don’t have his combination of a three-down role, sometimes-explosive offense and reasonable matchup.
Mark Ingram, Baltimore Ravens ($22 in Yahoo DFS)
Last week I touted Mark Ingram at $25 against the Bengals and he tallied just nine carries for 34 yards in a pillow-soft matchup, though a touchdown salvaged his stat-line. Now we can take a $3 discount to play him in a much tougher matchup against the same Houston defense that stymied Fournette and the Jags two weeks ago. Count me out.
Though the Texans’ defense doesn’t have a great reputation anymore, especially sans J.J. Watt, they’ve been surprisingly staunch lately. Over their last five games only Josh Jacobs has run for more than 44 yards against them and Houston has allowed RBs only two rushing TDs all season. Defensive tackle D.J. Reader has developed into an impenetrable barrier in the middle and linebacker Zach Cunningham is a force in run defense. The Texans rank sixth in Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency rating vs. the run.
As I mentioned last week, Baltimore runs the ball more than anyone not named the “San Francisco 49ers,” but Lamar Jackson gets nearly half of those attempts. The Ravens do have a top-five run-blocking line and can give Houston’s front seven a stern test. However, Houston has a high-flying offense (fourth in total yards per game, eighth in points) and the defense is far more vulnerable to air strikes. Baltimore could get behind and be forced to throw the ball more, a scenario that isn’t as appetizing for Ingram as last week’s draw. It didn’t work out, as the Ravens blew out the Bengals with such tremendous efficiency that it actually worked against their running backs, but the table was better set for Ingram to run wild.
On the other hand, John Harbaugh could elect to keep the ball away from Deshaun Watson by running it. As the lead back in a tremendous offense Ingram certainly has a solid chance to score another touchdown. But he’s now averaged 44 rushing yards in four of his last five games (he totaled 115 against New England two weeks ago). $22 is too rich for my blood in Week 11, with some great options at the bottom of the pricing scale.
Brian Hill, Atlanta Falcons ($14 in Yahoo DFS)
Atlanta’s offensive line play has been alarmingly deficient this year. Center Alex Mack is perennially near the top of run-blocking grades, but his 2019 mark is barely average. Though Mack and tackle Jake Matthews were expected to be stalwarts of an improving unit, Matthews and the rest have underwhelmed or gotten hurt. Atlanta is 26th in Adjusted Line Yards and dead last in the league on runs between the guards, where the majority of NFL carries go. The Falcons’ running game is a lowly 29th in yards per game and Devonta Freeman is 37th in yards before contact with a defender. Now Freeman is out for a week or two and Brian Hill steps in to try his luck.
Doesn’t sound too exciting, does it? Well, the matchup is. No defense has allowed more fantasy points to running backs over the last month than the Carolina Panthers. This season only Cincinnati, Kansas City and Miami permit more rushing yards per game. While the defensive line has been stout even without injured Kawann Short, the linebacking corps is perilously thin behind Luke Kuechly and breakout Shaq Thompson, and the safeties have struggled in run defense.
In the trenches we have a resistible force squaring off with a moveable object. Brian Hill won’t get a better chance to strut his stuff. So what kind of player is the 2017 fifth-round pick from Wyoming? Hill has the build to carry the load for his team and did so in college. In 2016 he was third in the nation in rushing yards. Hill showed the versatility to succeed in both zone or power blocking schemes and his athletic testing was similarly well-rounded. In addition to deceptive speed and quickness, Hill runs with determination and has a mean stiff-arm. If that wasn’t enough, he can contribute in the passing game as well.
At $14, Hill’s name is going to appear in a lot of lineups. But it should. Not only is he a great DFS play, with a strong performance he could announce his arrival on the fantasy landscape. Back-to-back bouts with Tampa Bay and New Orleans are the opposite end of the spectrum from Carolina in terms of defensive matchup, but he did have a receiving touchdown against the Saints last week. Hill is an intriguing player.
Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($14 in Yahoo DFS)
Ronald Jones Truthers are rejoicing, as it took until the middle of the former USC Trojan’s second pro campaign for him to carve out a leading role in Tampa Bay’s backfield. And Peyton Barber still scored the game-winning TD after Jones coughed up the ball in last Sunday’s win over Arizona. But Jones has been far more dynamic than Barber, even demonstrating a proficiency in the passing game that he didn’t show in college. Against the Cardinals the former second-round pick had 77 receiving yards and led the Bucs with eight catches. Bruce Arians has credited RB coach Todd McNair, himself a polished receiving back in the NFL, for refining RoJo’s game.
So why is Jones the same price as unheralded Brian Hill? First off, Barber had as many carries as Jones last week and is as reliable as a pair of wool socks. (He’s about as exciting, too.) There’s always a chance Arians goes back to Barber more than we’d like. And the other problem is the Bucs play New Orleans in Week 11. The Saints are one of the tougher run defenses in the NFL, surrendering just 90.8 rushing yards per game. Only Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh allowed fewer fantasy points to RBs over the last month.
That should worry Barber more than Jones, given RoJo’s newfound involvement in the passing game. Running backs have amassed receptions against this defense, with Duke Johnson (four), Ezekiel Elliott (six), Leonard Fournette (six) and Tarik Cohen (nine) providing their quarterbacks an outlet. With Saints CB Marshon Lattimore expected to be out the Bucs can air it out early and often rather than pound the ball into the teeth of this fearsome front seven. Assuming that Jones wasn’t simply possessed by the spirit of Marshall Faulk for one game, he’s the better piece to play in this chess match than Barber.
At $14 you don’t need Jones to have a huge fantasy day, but that’s in his potential range of outcomes. He’s a sneaky play.
Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers ($10 in Yahoo DFS)
Raheem Mostert was limited in practice all week but is fully expected to play when Arizona comes to town on Sunday. With Matt Breida likely to sit this one out, Mostert has a great opportunity. Even with Tevin Coleman the lead back for San Francisco, in this run-centric offense there are always ample carries to go around.
While Mostert wasn’t a workhorse at Purdue, his athletic testing turned heads in terms of raw speed, agility and acceleration. Dating back to last season, the well-traveled 2015 UDFA has been productive whenever the 49ers call upon him. In games that Mostert has received nine or more attempts he’s averaged nearly 70 rushing yards (6.3 yards per carry).
San Francisco’s offensive line always gives their running backs a boost. It’s a shame that as soon as Joe Staley returned after breaking his leg he suffered a severe finger injury. Fortunately, fill-in Justin Skule has been excellent in the running game, if not pass protection. The Niners’ offensive line is top 10 in Adjusted Line Yards and both lead backs are top 12 in yards before contact with a defender, a credit to their run-blocking. As you might expect with Kyle Shanahan’s ballyhooed outside-zone scheme, the line has been very effective on end runs.
This week’s opponent is worst in the NFL against right-end runs and 20th when defending the left side, so those stats bode well for the Bay Area backs. Over the last month Arizona’s defense has been a soft touch with running backs, especially via the air. The Cards have allowed at least 100 rushing yards in every game this season. They are bottom 10 in both rushing yards allowed and yards per carry. Safety Budda Baker has been a beast in run defense, but he’s 5-10, 195 pounds. The Red Birds are suffering from an epidemic of poor tackling and former first-round pick Haason Reddick has been such a disaster at linebacker that his playing time is in jeopardy.
With a minimum salary, Mostert has a chance to be your “free square” and allow you to pay up at other positions. I say go for it!