Words by Jim Ayello; rankings by Paul Charchian
1. Le’Veon Bell vs. Baltimore – 9.75
In four career games against Baltimore, Bell has racked up 400 total yards and two touchdowns. And those were in games where the Ravens defense actually played like the Ravens defense (read: good). Now, they’re the team that’s surrendered the sixth-most points in the league through the first three games. While they’ve been fairly sturdy in limiting opponents’ ground attacks, Pittsburgh is going force the issue with Big Ben absent. Expect Bell to exceed 25 touches in this game and rack up points, including through the air. Lead backs so far this season are averaging more than three catches and 25 yards per game against Baltimore.
2. Jamaal Charles at Cincinnati – 9.5
As my boss likes to say, fantasy is often more about opportunity than talent. [Charch: it's true.] I couldn’t agree more. [Charch: atta boy] The primary reason I stayed away from Charles in drafts leading into this year was that there were too many games last season where Andy Reid seemed to have forgotten he had one of the most talented players in the league at his disposal. For example, in the first two weeks last year, Charles touched the ball a total of 14 times. He would go on to have four more weeks where he touched the ball 14 or fewer times. Needless to say, I was at my wit’s end with Reid. However, now it looks as though Reid will make me regret my decision all year long. So far this year, Charles is fifth in the league in touches, averaging more than 20 per game. And, Charles, of course, has capitalized, scoring five touchdowns and racking up more than 100 total yards per game. As long as keeps getting fed the rock, I expect his excellent season to continue this week in the Queen City, against a Bengals that has been particularly susceptible against receiving backs, having allowed an AFC-worst 28 catches, two touchdowns and 205 yards. Rushing yards could be tough to come by, though. The Bengals are allowing just 3.7 yards per carry, and haven't allowed a touchdown via the ground.
3. Latavius Murray at Chicago – 9.5
Murray now has collected exactly two 100-yard rushing performances in his career, so if you think he’s going to get his third this week against the Bears … You’re absolutely right. Chicago’s run defense can best be described as porous, penetrable and pervious. It has allowed 100 rushing yards or a touchdown to running backs in seven of the past eight weeks. It failed to slow down Eddie Lacy in Week 1, helped resurrect CJ1K’s dying star of a career in Week 2 and let a rookie with two NFL totes to his name before Week 3 gash them for 104 yards on 6.5 yards per carry. From now until the end of the season, consider any No. 1 running back against the Bears at top 10 option.
4. Adrian Peterson at Denver – 9.25
Adrian Peterson reminds me of “30 Rock.” Not only were they both rookies in 2007, but they both experienced a temporary hiatus (remember the 2007-08 writers’ strike) in their careers and worried fans whether they’d be the same when they returned. There is a reason they’re both remembered at as all-time greats. Tina Fey and the gang delivered a knockout second season, and Peterson just knocked out the Lions and 49ers the past couple of weeks. It’s the same as it ever was with All-Day, and it will be again this week when he faces a Broncos unit that has given up three touchdowns to backs in their past two tilts. Denver is an elite pass defense, and merely a very good run defense. Look for the Vikings to do everything possible to salt away the game with Peterson.
5. Joseph Randle at New Orleans - 9
You know what would be the ultimate test for this fantasy star-maker offensive line? Trent Richardson. Do you think they can turn him into a stud like they have with DeMarco Murray and now Randle? I bet if you got him drunk enough, Jerry Jones would pay to find out. Alas, one can only dream. Anyway, the Cowboys will continue to run, run, run, and that should be a A+ game plan against the Saints, who have allowed average backs, including Doug Martin, Charles Sims and Jonathan Stewart, to average a combined four yards per carry against them. Also the Saints’ one rushing touchdown allowed to running backs is a bit of a misnomer. Tampa Bay and Carolina quarterbacks each vultured touchdowns from their backs. That will not be a concern of Randle’s with Weeden under center.
6. Eddie Lacy at San Francisco – 8.75
A recent report out of Green Bay suggested Mike McCarthy was trying to preserve Lacy (ankle) during Monday night’s game against the Chiefs, and that, more importantly, he might do the same going forward. No matter. If you own him in yearlong leagues, you’re starting him as this matchup looks sweeter than Grandma Gertie's apple pie on Thanksgiving. The 49ers defense has allowed a whopping five rushing touchdowns in its past two games to middling backs DeAngelo Williams and Chris Johnson. That said, there are reasons I don’t like him as a standout play this. I’ll give four. One, he was out-touched by James Starks last week 19-13. Two, he’s banged up and admitted he can’t run as hard on his bum ankle. Three, he’s traveling two time zones away to play a game on short rest. And finally, his team has shown almost no willingness to give him the ball in scoring territory this year. Aaron Rodgers has thrown 12 passes inside the 20, while Lacy has received only four red zone carries, none of which have come inside the five.
7. Thomas Rawls vs. Detroit – 8.75 (if Marshawn Lynch is inactive)
8. Mark Ingram vs. Dallas – 8.75
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, it truly is amazing the effect losing a star quarterback has on a defense. The Cowboys had been outstanding against the run, having allowed lead backs to rush for more than 65 yards just once in the 10 weeks leading up to last Sunday. Then voila! Romo goes down, and the unit gets bulldozed by a mediocre Atlanta rushing attack. Don’t look now, here comes more trouble. According to Pro Football Focus, the Saints’ left side of the line (Terron Armstead and Tim Lelito) is one the best run blocking units in the league, boasting a combined grade of 6.3. For reference Dallas’ vaunted left side of Tyron Smith and Zach Martin grade out at a combined 7.6. With Drew Brees’ status unclear, expect Ingram to haul in close to 20 touches again, and for the reeling Cowboys defense to struggle mightily to stop him.
9. Karlos Williams vs. New York Giants – 8.75
It doesn’t look like we’ll see Shady (hamstring) Sunday, so Williams is now the No. 1 in a burgeoning Bills offense. The rookie has been electric of late, dashing for 7.8 yards per carry and scoring a rushing touchdown in all three games -- making him the only back in the NFL to do so. That said, he’ll face a real challenge against a Giants defense that has limited backs to less than 3.6 yards per carry this season and only two rushing touchdowns. What will make or break Williams this week is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. The Giants already have surrendered 250 yards and a score to backs through the air. Though Williams only has two catches on the season, during his final year as at Florida State, he caught 29 passes, and his NFL.com draft analysis suggests he “can be a factor on swing passes and will body up in pass protection. Lowers pads and delivers a blow on the move.” No promises, but it’s a good sign.
10. Matt Forte vs. Oakland – 8.5
So Chicago (#puntcity) had an interesting game plan last week (#getoffthebuspunting) that was, well let’s just be honest, riveting (#thethrillofthepunt). I have to give them credit. They refused to give up (#puntstrong) despite most of their fans killing themselves (#puntforcetrauma) midway through the game.
Listen, it’s no fault of Adam Gase, the Bears offensive coordinator. He did the best he could with a quarterback playing the position like it was 1912 (the year before the invention of the forward pass) again. I’m not sure how Gase managed to get Forte to a respectable 74 rushing yards against an excellent and motivated Seattle defense. Me thinks he might be a wizard. Burn him! With Jay Cutler not likely to play, I don’t expect him to be able to conjure up similar magic this week against an Oakland defense that knows they don’t have to worry about even a whiff of a passing attack from Jimmy Clausen. Forte may struggle to find running room against a blah run defense. Forte will snag a few catches against a Raiders unit that’s already allowed 23 receptions to backs, seventh most in the league.
11. Devonta Freeman vs. Houston – 8.25
You have our attention, Devonta. Now, what will you do with it? Sorry to say, but my guess is the encore won’t live up to the first act. Even after that 141-yard outburst, he’s still averaging a meager 3.5 yards per carry this season, which tells you all you need to know about his first two weeks. Even though Tevin Coleman likely won’t play, expect Freeman to come back down to earth this week against a Houston defense that has allowed exactly 100-yard rusher and exactly one rushing touchdown since Week 9 of last year.
12. Melvin Gordon vs. Cleveland – 8.25
“Marvelous Melvin downs Browns” “Gordon grounds, pounds, Browns.” Oh, hey. Sorry. I was just prewriting Monday morning headlines for the San Diego area news team I don’t work for. What?! I want to be ready when Ron Burgundy gives me the call.
So, Gordon becoming the latest back to decimate the dreadful Cleveland defense is the No. 1 mortal lock of the day. Bank it. Danny Woodhead has turned invisible, and Cleveland has surrendered 100 total yards to a running back in its past six consecutive games. It ranks dead last in rushing yardage allowed. It that same time frame, it’s allowed not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, but seven touchdowns to runners! (That’s right. I’m counting things in LeBron’s city. What of it?). So when you open up your newspaper Monday morning, expect to see: “Masterful Melvin runs wild, crushes Browns, becomes No. 1 fantasy player in the world, announces candidacy for president.” Or something like that. I’m Ron Burgundy?
Working against Gordon is an offensive line riddled with injury. Be sure to check the status of center Chris Watt, left guard Orlando Franklin, tackle King Dunlap, right guard DJ Fluker, and reserve guard Chris Hairston before kickoff.
13. Frank Gore vs. Jacksonville – 8.25
My motto for the 2015-16 Colts offense: Let’s put a little Pep in Gore’s step. Sure, it’s a bit of a reach, but it conveys the necessary message. Pep Hamilton needs to get the ball in Gore’s reliable hands to relieve some pressure off the struggling Andrew Luck. At the ripe age of 32, Gore looks as feisty as ever, averaging close to five yards per carry. However, my hope for Gore owners, is that Pep realizes what my astute colleague Johnnie Carlyle mentioned last week: “The world thinks Jacksonville is terrible against the run, but ... no team gave up more receptions to the position in 2014 than the Jags.” Jacksonville is only allowing running backs 3.5 yards per carry, but already have surrendered 25 catches. If Pep gets Gore involved in the passing game, he will have a monster day.
14. Chris Ivory vs. Miami (in London) – 8.25
Sure, it was a little disconcerting Ivory didn’t take a snap last week despite being active, but I actually think his owners will be pleased with that decision in the long run. Ivory received two full weeks to rest his ailing quadriceps and should be ready to take advantage of an excellent opportunity this Sunday in London. The Miami defense has not been the force most expected coming into the season, as they already have allowed 369 rushing yards and three touchdowns to backs this year. This is certainly not the same group that held Ivory to 3.1 yards per carry in two matchups last season. What’s more, big, bull-dozing backs like Ivory have bludgeoned the ‘Phins this season. Alfred Morris (224 pounds) and Karlos Williams (230 pounds) each ran for 100-plus yards against them.
15. Carlos Hyde vs. Green Bay – 8.25
Garbage time stats count for just as much as those accrued in the beginning of the game, right Jamaal? The 49ers are a mess and are going to get blown to smithereens, but Hyde could benefit much the same way Charles prospered last week, when the Chiefs back caught a handful of passes and punched in a few late and ultimately meaningless scores. I’m not saying I think Hyde goes for the hat trick here, but the Packers are one of only five teams to have surrendered 240-plus rushing yards, 100-plus receiving yards and five total touchdowns to opposing backs this season.
16. Jonathan Stewart at Tampa Bay – 8.25
And now, a fantasy football plea in the form of Princess Leia Organa’s dramatic message to Obi Wan Kenobi from the classic film, “Star Wars: A New Hope”:
"Jonathan Stewart, years ago you served my team in the fantasy wars of 2009. Now I beg of you to help me in my struggle against future opponents. I regret that I am unable to present my request to you in person, but I feared you would find that more than a little creepy and that you would deem my mission a failure.
Jonathan, I have put the incredibly tasty matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before you. There are loads of fantasy points to be had this week. You know how to retrieve them. You must see my team to safety and deliver me a victory. This is my most desperate hour. Help me, Jonathan Stewart. You’re my only hope."
So ... yeah, I could use a win this week. And I think Stewart, like Obi Wan will help. Tampa Bay has surrendered rushing touchdowns in their past five games, while also allowing the second-most rushing yards to backs in the league this year.
17. Lance Dunbar at New Orleans – 8.25
A Christian Peterson favorite is quickly becoming one of mine as well. As has widely been reported, Dunbar’s 21 catches and 215 receiving yards lead the Cowboys and put him on pace to both eclipse 100 catches and 1,000 yards this season. He is second on the team in targets with 23, and the reason I love him so much this week is he is going to see a whole heck of a lot more against a Saints defense that has allowed the second most catches (29) and yards (266) to backs this year. He’s a dynamite flex option in standard leagues and an absolute must-start in PPR formats.
18. Isaiah Crowell at San Diego - 8
This one is all about the matchup. San Diego is one of only three teams in the league to have surrendered more than 500 total yards to backs already this season. It also is one of only six teams to have conceded at least five touchdowns to the group. Now, Crowell hasn’t exactly been knocking anyone’s socks off (3.5 yards per carry, one touchdown), but he still is averaging 13 touches per game, and that should be plenty to do damage against a horrific Chargers defense. Remember, it’s not always about talent.
19. Arian Foster at Atlanta – 8
I feel exactly the opposite about Foster as I do about Lynch. Though, they are both game-time decision, Foster plays in the early matchups, therefore giving fantasy owners plenty of options once a decision is made. And, unlike Lynch, his matchup is oh so juicy. The Atlanta rush defense got off to a hot start this year, then showed its true colors in allowing a Romo-less Cowboys team to run all over them. Alfred Blue and Jonathan Grimes have been, to be gracious, underwhelming thus far, and if Foster is cleared to go, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he picked up 20 touches. Remember, Bill O’Brien likes to play it fast and loose with Foster’s health. In his first two weeks last year as the coach of the fragile back, O’Brien gave Foster 59 touches before he went down with another injury. Maybe he learned from his mistake. Then again, with a division up for grabs and his job at stake, maybe he didn’t.
20. Tap Dancing Nancy vs. St. Louis - 8
For as good as the Rams defense looks on paper, it has been gashed week in and week out this year. Each of the three lead backs they’ve faced (Marshawn Lynch, Matt Jones and Le’Veon Bell) have totaled more than 100 yards in their games against the Rams this season, and only Lynch failed to score. With the news that Chris Johnson will receive 15-20 touches even when Andre Ellington returns, he is now, somehow, a bankable RB2. Does anyone else feel like we’re in bizarro world? Anyway, as much as I think I could be a decent flex option playing in this juggernaut Cardinals offense, Johnson is the guy reaping the benefits, however unfairly. Oh, and for those concerned about his size being a limiting factor, don’t be. Johnson is one of eight backs in the league to have received double-digit touches in the red zone, including four from inside the 10.
21. DeMarco Murray at Washington – 7.75
Right now, the Eagles left guard, left tackle and center have a combined Pro Football Focus run-blocking grade of -9.4. Worse, they only employ one starting lineman who has graded out positively in run blocking (right guard Andrew Gardner). If you’re looking for a culprit for the Eagles’ slow start, look no further than the big men up front. They are the reason Eagles backs have rushed for just 186 yards this season, 28th in the league. If they don’t improve quickly, I don’t see how Murray will be able to get anything going against a Washington defense that has allowed the fewest total yards to backs this season (244). I suppose if there’s any hope Murray owners have it’s that Washington allowed three 100-yard rushers last season, Arian Foster, DeMarco Murray and DeMarco Murray. Then again, Murray ain’t exactly in Dallas anymore.
22. Jeremy Hill vs Kansas City – 7.75
Owning Jeremy Hill is the fantasy equivalent to listening to that awful music while on hold with your insurance company or cable provider. It’s annoying how long you have to wait, but what you need is at the other end of that crappy music, so you do. Hill isn’t 3.0-yards-per-carry-and-two-fumbles bad, as his stats suggest. He’s just in a funk. With a thriving offense and an exceptional blend of speed and power, he bound to come out of this. Remember how slow Eddie Lacy came out of the gates last year? These things happen. Unfortunately, I don’t think the rebound comes this week against Kansas City. The Chiefs have not given up more than 46 yards to a running back this year and have not surrendered a touchdown to the position. I’m sorry. I know this won’t help, but all I can is: Please stay on the line. Your call is important to us.
23. Lamar Miller vs. New York Jets (in London) – 7.75
Did you know that Lamar Miller’s last game with at least 20 rushes was Dec. 1, 2012? Did you know he only has 30 rushes so far this season? I’m sure Miller owners know both of those things. What they don’t know, I bet, is why Joe Philbin & Co. just refuses to give Miller the damn ball. I don’t get it. All he did was average 5.1 yards per carry last season behind a pretty shoddy offensive line. And he’s got great hands out of the backfield. I know he’s a little banged up, but that can’t be the only explanation. Maybe he said something about Philbin’s mom. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Nevertheless, Miller is getting just 55 percent of the Dolphins rushing attempts this season and seems destined to share carries with whoever is around. Between that and a matchup with the Jets, (3.15 yards per carry and one rushing touchdown allowed to backs) I’m hesitant to recommend Miller this week.
24. Justin Forsett at Pittsburgh – 7.75
Do you see, Marc? Do you see?! This is why you can’t have nice things. Just look at what you did. You broke Justin. Last season -- without you! -- this guy was the tug-at-your-heartstrings, comeback story of the year we could all cheer for. And now you’ve gone and broken him. Swell. Real swell.
I really can’t think of reason to recommend starting Forsett Thursday night. The Steelers are stymying backs to the tune of 2.8 yards per carry, and haven’t given up a touchdown -- rushing or receiving -- to a back this year. Meanwhile, Forsett is averaging 3.2 yards per carry, failing to get anything going against very beatable Oakland and Cincinnati defenses. He also has yet to score. Sure, he’s caught four pass in each game, but even those are getting snuffed out. He has earned just 41 yards on those 12 catches. Forsett is at best a mediocre flex option this week.
25. James Starks vs San Francisco – 7.75
26. Giovani Bernard vs. Kansas City – 7.75
27. C.J. Anderson vs. Minnesota – 7.75
28. Doug Martin vs. Carolina – 7.75
29. Marshawn Lynch vs. Detroit – 7.5
Hard pass. Sorry, but Lynch is a game-time decision against a good Lions defense (3.5 yards per carry allowed to backs) on a Monday night that will limit your backup options. I can’t advise going with a guy who carried the ball just five times last Sunday, then underwent an MRI to examine the severity of the damage done to his hamstring. I think the Seahawks have bigger goals in mind and will hold the beast out, or at the very least, limit his touches. Banking on Lynch this week is one of the decisions that could cost you a victory.
30. Matt Jones vs. Philadelphia – 7.5
All you need to know about Jones’ future usage can be found in Jay Gruden’s interview with ESPN: “We’re not going to shy away from giving him the ball,” Gruden said. “When he does get the ball, he’s a force to be reckoned with, but he’s got to protect the ball.”
There it is. It’s that simple. Jones owners, if the former Gator holds onto the ball, you have fantasy gold mine on your hands. If he doesn’t you have waiver wire fodder. Since fumbling issues rarely have run talented backs out of the league, I’m going to say Jones figures out a way to keep the ball off the turf and blossoms into Washington’s leading rusher this year. That said, for this week, he has a few factors working against him. Along with sharing first- and second-down duties with Alfred Morris, Jones also must overcome an Eagles defense that has not surrendered a touchdown to a back this season and held runners to 3.1 yards per carry. On the bright side, Washington backs did experience some success last season in a pair of games against Philly, going for 168 yards and four touchdowns.
31. Ameer Abdullah at Seattle – 7.5
32. Alfred Morris vs. Philadelphia – 7.5
33. Danny Woodhead vs. Cleveland – 7.5
34. T.J. Yeldon at Indianapolis - 7.75
For as bad as they’ve been at just about everything else, the Colts’ run defense actually has been fairly sturdy. That’s bad news for Yeldon, who, after back-to-back subpar games, is averaging only 3.2 yards per carry and has yet to find the end zone. There’s more where that came from. In two games against the Colts last year, no Jaguars runner picked up more than 33 yards rushing or more than 72 total yards, and no back found the end zone. In fact, no Jaguars back has scored a touchdown, rushing or receiving against the Colts since Maurice Jones-Drew in Week 2 of the 2012 season.
35. Andre Ellington vs. St. Louis – 7.5
36. Ryan Mathews at Washington – 7.5
37. Rashad Jennings at Buffalo – 7.5
38. Ronnie Hillman vs. Minnesota – 7.5
39. Bilal Powell vs Miami (in London) – 7.25
40. Duke Johnson at San Diego – 7.25
41. Andre Williams at Buffalo – 7.0
42. Todd Gurley at Arizona – 6.75