Words by Jim Ayello; rankings by Paul Charchian
1. DeAngelo Williams at Baltimore – 9.75
The best backup in the league just keeps on producing. Despite just 56 total yards last week, DeAngelo Williams scored, making it six of his past seven games with at least 100 yards and/or a touchdown. Listen, every single Ray Lewis ESPN TV spot stokes the fires of my hatred of this franchise, but I can’t help but feel sorry for the Ravens right now. With the Steelers on a three-game winning streak the Ravens opponents’ have over the past three weeks (Seahawks, Chiefs) won 16 consecutive games. That’s some extraordinarily tough sledding for a team the injury bug already took a whopping bite out of. Alas, the Steelers locker room is probably the last place the Ravens will find sympathy. There has never been love lost between these teams, and Pittsburgh is likely to relish the opportunity to shovel some more dirt on the Ravens anytime they can. The last time these teams met, Le’Veon Bell totaled 150 yards and a score; I expect Williams to emerge Sunday afternoon with something similar.
2. David Johnson vs. Green Bay – 9.5
In the three games since taking over as the Cardinals’ lead back, David Johnson has averaged 157.3 total yards per game and scored four times. So, you know, he’s been reasonably effective. But fair warning: Johnson has taken the league by storm against three teams in the bottom half of the NFL in rushing yards allowed to backs. Green Bay will be a much stiffer test. The Packers are No. 14 in rushing yards allowed to backs and No. 2 in receiving yards allowed to the position. The last back to total more than 65 yards and score was C.J. Anderson way back in Week 8. The list of backs they’ve stifled includes Jonathan Stewart (68 total yards) Adrian Peterson (61 total yards) and Matt Forte (53 total yards). So, expecting another monster performance from Johnson is probably like asking Santa for a pony for Christmas. Which reminds me, I hate anyone that ever had a pony when they were growing up…(sorry, just watched that episode of Seinfeld)
3. Devonta Freeman vs. Carolina – 9.25
His ground figures have gone to hell, but his aerial production has kept him relevant. Freeman’s 56 rushing yards last week were the most he’s gained since an Oct. 1 game against Tampa Bay. Since then however, he has scored twice and has 25 catches for 190 yards making him a PPR star and a decent standard league option. For him to be a success this Sunday, that pattern likely will have to continue. The Panthers are outstanding against the run, but have conceded more catches to backs (91) than every team but Atlanta. That said, when these teams met two weeks ago, Carolina held Freeman to just three catches for 22 yards, and only 62 yards total. He’s a risky play, but then again, so was Rashad Jennings last week, and he became just the second back to run for 100 yards and a touchdown against Carolina.
4. Adrian Peterson vs. New York Giants – 9.0
Note: there are plausible scenarios where the Vikings game has zero impact on their playoff positioning, and Peterson could rest his ankle injury. Because of that, his rating is lower than the matchup would otherwise suggest. If the Vikings need a victory on Sunday night, assume that Peterson resumes his normal unbenchable status. With 1,314 yards, Adrian Peterson is nine yards ahead of Doug Martin and en route to his third NFL rushing title. If he holds on, he would be the first back to win three titles since Barry Sanders darted to his fourth and final crown in 1997. Even more impressive, he’d be just the second back since the merger to lead the league in rushing at the age of 30 years or older. Curtis Martin is the only other back to accomplish the feat, which he did in 2004 at age 31. Again, all Peterson needs to do is hold off Doug Martin, and he should have no issue doing so this week against the Giants, who have given up 4.2 yards per carry over their past three games, along with 28.3 points per game.
5. Doug Martin vs. Chicago – 9.0
I’m a teensy bit concerned about Doug Martin in this game. For one, the Bears have allowed backs just 3 yards per carry over their past three games, and they are No. 4 in rushing touchdowns allowed (five). Two, Chicago has shown great vulnerability to backs catching passes (six receiving touchdowns allowed), and while Martin has some ability in that area, Charles Sims has 14 catches over the past four games to Martin’s four. Of course, if you own the league’s second-leading rusher, you’re playing him. After all, since enduring a mini-slump from weeks 8-10 (3.17 yards per carry), Martin has averaged 6.3 YPC in the five following games (599 yards).
6. Denard Robinson at New Orleans – 9.0
Two fumbles and 2.0 yards per carry was not the way Denard Robinson wanted to make his triumphant return to the Jaguars starting lineup. Alas, Gus Bradley reportedly still has faith in the former Michigan quarterback, and with T.J. Yeldon still nursing a sprained MCL, Robinson looks primed to get a shot at redemption. And he’ll find some, too. Mostly because he’s playing the hilariously bad Saints. New Orleans is coming off a Monday night fiasco in which they let Joique Bell and Ameer Abdullah EACH run for season-highs, Bell (71), Abdullah (77) — that’s the same Joique Bell and Ameer Abdullah whose combined 803 rushing yards are six yards fewer than Frank Gore. And Frank Gore has been awful. In their past three games, the Saints have given up five rushing touchdown and a ridiculous 6.2 YPC. Seriously, if Robinson doesn’t go off against them, there’s something wrong with him.
7. Darren McFadden at Buffalo – 8.75
First Matty Pegula, son of Bills owner Terry Pegula, went all sarcastic golf clap on Twitter; then Mario Williams just went ahead and questioned Rex Ryan’s schemes. So things are not exactly hunky-dory in Buffalo. Last week’s debacle against Washington made it 10-straight games in which Buffalo has yielded 100 total yards or a touchdown to a running back. Meanwhile, McFadden (AKA the Cowboys only weapon) has rushed for 100 yards in back-to-back games against Green Bay and the Jets, much stiffer fronts that what Buffalo has become.
8. Ryan Mathews vs. Washington – 8.75
Among Eagles runners, Mark Sanchez is averaging more yards per carry (3.7) than DeMarco Murray (3.4). When Murray stops running like a bad Trent Richardson impersonator, then maybe he can rightfully whine about his lack of PT. Until then, shut up and enjoy the Ryan Mathews show. All Mathews has done with his 98 carries this season is average a robust 5.3 yards per attempt, third-best in the league. That said, his timeshare with Darren Sproles has sapped some of his value, as Mathews has been out-touched by the sprightly back 37-36 over the past three games. Even so, Mathews might be in line for a big game against Washington, which has conceded rushing touchdowns in three straight games, while allowing backs to average close to 5 yards per carry.
9. Cameron Artis-Payne at Atlanta – 8.75
Cameron Artis-Payne #blessed. The rookie running back could have been drafted by anyone, but the #blessed back was picked by the now-14-0 Panthers, who just now happen to need a workhorse running back. This week, Artis-Payne owners will be #blessed, as he gets to face the only team that has given up more rushing scores than games played. Atlanta has yielded 15 touchdowns -- five in their past four games -- including one each to a then-healthy Jonathan Stewart and backup Fozzy Whittaker. That pair combined for 109 rushing yards, which is about what I expect Artis-Payne to finish with Sunday.
10. Karlos Williams vs. Dallas – 8.5
Those LeSean McCoy owners who wisely hung on to Karlos Williams, congratulations. Your intelligence and foresight is about to pay off in a big way. To those who dropped Shady’s talented handcuff, go find yourself a lump of coal and deposit it directly in your stocking. Do not cross Go. Do not collect $100. Shame on you if you entered the fantasy playoffs with Shady as your starting back and didn’t invest in the insurance policy. You don’t deserve a title. For those who earned the pleasure of starting Williams, enjoy watching him against a defense that has given up three rushing touchdowns to backs in its past two games and is a trainwreck at stopping backs through the air, allowing the fourth-most receiving yards. Mike Gillislee has scored in back-to-back games, and will likely get some carries again, but I expect Williams to get the majority of looks.
11. Lamar Miller vs. Indianapolis – 8.5
Let’s start with the good news: Over the past three weeks, only the 49ers have allowed more rushing yards than the Colts, who were most recently steamrolled by … Alfred Blue (20-107). Meanwhile, Lamar Miller is averaging 4.9 yards per carry, second-best in the league among backs with at least 150 attempts. Under normal circumstances, those two factors combined would result in a top-10 projection. Miller was unexplainably benched in the second half despite being in fine physical health — though I imagine his mental health is shot to shit considering his befuddling usage the past two seasons. The free-agent-to-be accounted for all of one carry in the second half of Sunday’s game after getting just one in the fourth quarter the week before. Meanwhile, rookie backup Jay Ajayi has been seeing more and more of the workload each week. I don’t know what’s going on in Miami, but all this uncertainty has me questioning whether or not Miller is a backend RB2 this week or worse.
12. Latavius Murray vs. San Diego – 8.5
Latavius’ Murray biggest contribution to yearlong fantasy owners this year? Health. While top backs around have hit the ground faster than passes intended for Mike Evans (bitter owner alert), Murray has played in every single game this season. And while he has delivered some stinkers — four games with fewer than 70 yards and no touchdowns — he is the league’s fifth-leading rusher (956 yards) and contributes 80 yards per game. To take the next step and join the running back elite next season, all Murray will need to do is improve on his paltry 2 yards per carry average in the red zone. Because his lowly five rushing touchdowns are what has kept him from fantasy superstardom. Unfortunately for Murray and owners, his struggles inside the red zone may rear their head again this week against San Diego. The Chargers defense has played extraordinarily well of late, holding teams to just 13.6 points per game in their past three, not allowing any back to exceed 56 rushing yards and conceding just one garbage-time rushing touchdown. That said, the last time these two teams met, Murray ran for 85 yards on just 15 carries (5.7 ypc) and scored a touchdown, so there’s hope.
13. Frank Gore at Miami – 8.5
[Charch says: You’d never guess that Jim lives in Indy. #bitter] Frank Gore would forfeit his season’s salary just to go back and unchoose signing with the Colts this past offseason. Seriously. He doesn’t care about money. I have never seen a guy so crushed after a loss, week after depressing week. He takes them personally. All he wants to do is win; all he wants is a title. He thought he had a chance at that in Indy. He was wrong, and he’s paying the price one meaningless carry at a time. It’s hard to watch, because he still has it. He’s still Frank Gore. I just don’t know how much longer that will be the case. The Colts should have to forfeit a pick for the way they’ve wasted the twilight years of this future Hall of Famer. Anyway, enough DeMarco Murraying over spilt milk. Though it’s not at all what he cares about, Gore has a fine opportunity to break a dubious Colts’ streak. No Colt has rushed for 100 yard in a game in 54 straight contests. Miami is No. 30 in the league against running backs, allowing 120 rushing yards per game, and they just gave up 131 yards to Chargers running backs. So, here’s to hoping he gets 100, and that maybe he finds some solace in that.
14. Tim Hightower vs Jacksonville – 8.5
Buried amid the trainwreck that is the Saints’ season is one of the best comeback stories of the year. Nick Underhill of the New Orleans Advocate wrote a great piece about Tim Hightower’s unlikely return to the league, and I implore you to check it out. Hightower worked his ass off to get back from a knee injury that “flummoxed doctors.” After you read his story, if you’re a Hightower owner, you’re going to love cheering for this guy. Anyway, onto this week’s analysis. Jacksonville has quietly been stout against the run for a while now, so it’s hard to project a big day for the former Richmond Spider. The Jags are No. 9 in rushing yards allowed to backs, as they haven’t conceded more than 78 to a back since Doug Martin way back in Week 5. That said, because their pass defense is so atrocious, they have given up 10 rushing touchdowns, including two in the past three games. Hightower might not drive the Saints into the red zone, but he has a good shot at punching one in once they’re down there.
15. Matt Forte at Tampa Bay – 8.25
The Bears have looked terrible in recent weeks, but that hasn’t stopped Forte from delivering for his fantasy owners. He’s scored in each of the past three weeks, and put up 100 total yards in two of them. The Bucs are an elite run defense. They just held Todd Gurley to two yards per carry, Devonta Freeman to three yards per carry, and Frank Gore to one yard per carry. They’ve given up two rushing touchdowns since Week 3. And, Forte is locked into a timeshare with Jeremy Langford. . Langford has out-carried Forte two weeks running (11-10; 11-8), and if the Bears decide to get him more involved, that could spell trouble for Forte owners.
16. Todd Gurley at Seattle – 8.25
The Seahawks are six rushing yards away from being the No. 1 team against running backs. As it stands now, they’re No. 3. They occupy the same spot in rushing touchdowns allowed, having surrendered just four, none of which came in the past three weeks. No back has run for 100 yards against them this season, and none has reached 70 since Jonathan Stewart in Week 6. Are Todd Gurley owners up on the ledge yet? Hold on. I got one more: The last time these teams met (Week 1), Rams running backs averaged 2.6 yards per carry. I know, I know Benny Cunningham and Isaiah Pead are about as close to Gurley’s talent level as Trent Richardson. Still, the Seahawks are playing once again like one of the best teams in the league, and I can easily see Gurley emerging from this game with nothing more than a handful of yards.
17. Charcandrick West vs. Cleveland – 8.25
Over the past three weeks, the Browns have surrendered 4.3 yards per carry and allowed just one running back touchdown. So, that’s something. I mean, they’re still No. 32 in rushing yards allowed to backs, and teams are still tearing through them like Ralphie unwrapping the Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle Christmas morning. But improvement is improvement, and it would be unfair to expect Charcandrick West to go all Ralphie vs. Scut Farkus like backs did earlier this season, especially with Spencer Ware expected to be active. That said, West has averaged 5 yards per carry his past two games, and the Browns have surrendered 30-plus points the points in six of their past seven games, so he won’t exactly be out there with his tongue stuck to a pole, know what I mean? Spencer Ware likely gets back into the rotation, and that means that West’s chances for a touchdown drop pretty dramatically.
18. Christine Michael vs. St. Louis – 8.25
Wait, who’s getting carries for Seattle? Wasn’t it supposed to be Bryce Brown? Or Fred Jackson? Or DuJuan Harris? or Derrick Coleman? … What do you mean it’s Christine Michael? The guy that cut by like eight teams? No. No. You must be mistaken. Michael was cut by the Seahawks already. What do you mean he’s back? Can someone please stop the room now? I’d like to get off.
From what I understand Christine Michael is now the primary back in Seattle. I’m still not totally convinced I’m not being Punked, but, fine. Here we go. Michael looked solid last week, and he gets a tasty matchup with the Rams, who have allowed the fourth-most rushing yards to backs the past three weeks and who gave up 104 total yards to Marshawn Lynch in these teams’ first meeting. From searching for a team to a top 20 back this week? The NFL is so weird.
19. Jeremy Hill at Denver – 8.25
It’s been four weeks since Giovani Bernard was a fantasy factor, so it’s no longer a debate. This is Jeremy Hill’s world, and we’re all just living in it. Even with Hill’s strange first-quarter benching last week, he still easily managed the better fantasy day with a couple of 1-yard plunges. And scoring is why he remains the top dog — as far as fantasy goes — in Cincinnati. Hill has scored five times in five games, and he’ll need to hit pay dirt again to be relevant against Denver. The Broncos have given up the fourth-fewest rushing yards to backs, but have surrendered scores to backs in three of their past four games.
20. Danny Woodhead at Oakland – 8.25
Adrian Peterson, Todd Gurley, Lamar Miller, Danny Woodhead. What do these guys have in common? All of them have scored nine total touchdowns this season. That’s right, Danny Woodhead has scored nine times (please channel your inner Edward R. Rooney when you say this aloud) [Charch says: you want me to channel sex offenders?]. Woodhead trails only Devonta Freeman (12), David Johnson (12) and Jeremy Hill (11) among running back touchdown leaders. And with 921 yards from scrimmage, he’s 79 yards and a score away from the sacred 1,000-yard 10-TD season. Since 2005, that feat has been accomplished 94 times (meaning fewer than 10 backs per season). Ready for that list to shrink? In that same span, only six times has a 30-year-old back put up a 1,000 and 10 season. Danny Woodhead will turn 31 a month from Christmas. He’s been quietly amazing and most certainly underappreciated this season. If you own him, do not make the mistake of watching him hit the 1,000-10 on your bench, because he will attain it this week. With Melvin Gordon hitting the IR, Woodhead’s path to it is clear against an Oakland defense that given up the eighth-most catches to backs, and a score to a back in five of the past six weeks
21. Eddie Lacy at Arizona – 8.25
Here’s looking at you, Crash:
I believe in the Super Bowl, the punt block, the sluggo, the success of NFL’s small backs, the hang-time on a punt, the screen pass, good clock management, that the words of Tony Dungy are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Giovani Bernard should act alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing kickers in fantasy football. I believe in the tight spiral, bracket coverage of No. 1 receivers, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve, and I believe in long, arching, pretty touchdown passes that win you your fantasy matchup against an archrival.
You know what I don’t believe in? I don’t believe in Eddie Lacy against the No. 1 rushing defense against backs. I don’t believe in Eddie Lacy coming off an 11-carry, 23-yard performance. And I don’t believe the Packers will hesitate to turn to James Starks if Lacy starts slow.
22. Spencer Ware vs. Cleveland – 8.0
23. Bilal Powell vs. New England – 8.0
As I’m writing this, I see that Chris Ivory has been named an alternate to the Pro Bowl. How could this be? I think to myself. So I pop over to ESPN’s rushing leaderboard, and much to my surprise, I find Chris Ivory is the AFC’s second leading-rusher behind only Latavius Murray (also strange). Man if Ivory and Murray are 1-2 atop the AFC rushing leaderboard, that tells you all you need to know about the toll injuries have taken this year. Pro Bowl or not, I ain’t buying #BeastEast this week. I’m sure my boss, AKA founder of the Chris Ivory fan club, will disagree, but Ivory has been lesser of two backs of late. [Charch says: Sadly, it’s true.] What I mean is while Ivory’s been busy not finding the end zone for three consecutive weeks, Bilal Powell has scored in three straight and has outgained Ivory by 50 yards in that time. Now comes a matchup with the Pats, a tough team to run on, a team Ivory only gained 41 rushing yards against in their first matchup. The Jets are going to have to throw, and that means more Powell than Ivory. And because New England has allowed the 12th-most catches to backs, I expect Powell to have some success.
23. James White at New York Jets – 8.0
This one feels simple. You can’t run on the Jets -- they’ve conceded just one rushing touchdown all season and just 3.7 yards per carry the past three games. So, logically speaking (remember, this is the Pats were talking about, so logic doesn’t always apply), White appears to be the best play among a group that includes Joey Iosefa, Steven Jackson and Brandon Bolden. White has caught 22 passes over the past three games for 224 yards and two touchdowns. In the one game he didn’t catch a touchdown pass, he ran one in. White didn’t have a great game in these teams’ last meeting (3 catches, 26 yards), but White’s role has expanded since then.
24. Ameer Abdullah vs. San Francisco – 8.0
25. Javorius Allen vs. Pittsburgh – 7.75
Starting Buck Allen is going to take a lot of faith. 1. He’s coming off a game in which he was benched for fumbling (for a second straight game). 2. He hasn’t totaled more 58 yards in each of the two weeks. 3. Well, this offense sucks. Still, I’m putting my faith in Allen, because 1. He’s by far the most talented player on this unbelievably banged up team. 2. His recent poor showing were against some of the top defenses in the league (Seattle, Kansas City). 3. Before his recent struggles, he had totaled 100 yards or scored in three straight games. And 4. Justin Forsett toasted this Steelers defense back in Week 4 for 150 yards on 27 carries. Obviously, the situation and rosters are much different more than 10 weeks later, but the fact is, Pittsburgh isn’t great at containing backs, especially through the air, which is where Allen tends to shine.
26. Donald Brown at Oakland - 7.75
27. Darren Sproles vs. Washington - 7.75
28. Chris Ivory vs. New England – 7.75
29. Giovani Bernard at Denver – 7.5
30. Alfred Blue at Tennessee – 7.5
31. Alfred Morris at Philadelphia – 7.5
32. Rashad Jennings at Minnesota – 7.5
A running game in New York? It’s a Christmas miracle! With 107 yards, Jennings became the first back to rush for 100 yards since Andre Williams in Week 16 of last season. Wait. It get’s better. Jennings’ touchdown last week was the first Giants running back rushing score since Orleans Darkwa stumbled into the end zone in Week 7. What I’m saying is this: Getting better-than-average production from a Giants running back this season happens about as often as a good Chris O’Donnell movie (Broken Arrow is terrible, deal with it). So even though Minnesota’s defense has shown cracks recently -- lead backs have totaled 100 yards against them in five straight games -- I still don’t expect much more from Jennings than perhaps a decent yardage total.
33. Shaun Draughn at Detroit (if he plays) – 7.5
34. Jeremy Langford at Tampa Bay – 7.5
35. Joique Bell vs. San Francisco - 7.5
36. Antonio Andrews vs. Houston – 7.5
37. Matt Jones at Philadelphia – 7.5
38. Charles Sims vs. Chicago – 7.5
39. Mike Gillislee vs. Dallas – 7.25
40. James Starks at Arizona – 7.25
41. Bryce Brown vs. St. Louis – 7.25
42. Ronnie Hillman vs. Cincinnati – 7.25
43. C.J. Anderson vs. Cincinnati – 7.25
44. Fozzy Whittaker at Atlanta – 7.0
45. Brandon Bolden at New York Jets – 7.0
46. Shane Vereen at Minnesota – 7.0
47. Theo Riddick vs. San Francisco – 7.0
48. Duke Johnson at Kansas City – 7.0
49. DeMarco Murray vs. Washington – 6.75
50. Steven Jackson at New York Jets – 6.75
51. DuJuan Harris at Detroit – 6.75
52. C.J. Spiller vs. Jacksonville – 6.5
53. Joey Iosefa at New York Jets – 6.5
54. Terrance West vs. Pittsburgh – 6.25