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Running Confusion: Fantasy RB Uncertainty in Philadelphia

When the Eagles signed Jay Ajayi before Week 11, many fantasy players became more intrigued about the Philadelphia backfield. Jordan Howard was dealing with a shoulder injury, Darren Sproles was done for the year, and Miles Sanders seemed to be unreliable. Could Ajayi really come off the street after no preseason and 10 weeks of not being in action to boost Philly’s running outlook?

The immediate answer seemed to be no. Ajayi did not play a single snap in a loss to New England. Sanders played on 85 percent of the snaps and rushed for 38 yards on 11 carries. He added nine yards on two receptions. Miniature scatback Boston Scott rushed for 26 yards on seven carries.

So where do we stand now, as we look towards the fantasy football home stretch?

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Much to Figure Out in Philly

Things are not looking much different as the Eagles head into this Sunday’s home matchup with the Seahawks. Pederson said after the New England game that Ajayi needed more time to get into the flow of the Eagles offense. Howard has been limited in practices, but his status is still uncertain. Sanders should remain the lead RB in the short term, and we could conceivably see Ajayi get some work for the first time this season, but that is a speculative angle. Scott appears to be a desperation option to get a few touches. He may be the same height as Sproles (5-6) but does not resemble him at all as a playmaker.

As indicated by Eagles beat writer Paul Domowitch in his preview of Sunday’s game, the team would ideally like to have Howard back to help the team exhibit a more customary ball-control approach, running out of 12 formations. Fantasy players can only wonder how Doug Pederson will utilize his RBs if Howard is out again or limited. Will Ajayi get more work to spell Howard?

Pederson has always seemed to prefer a timeshare or committee approach in his RB usage. That is why the Eagles signed Howard, to be a physical inside type, and drafted Sanders to be a complementary piece who could operate in space and as an upside type. There was also hope to get one more quality season out of Sproles.


Steak and Sizzle

Howard has regained some respectability after falling out of favor with the Bears and fantasy players last season. He has averaged 4.4 yards per carry and scored six times. He has averaged 58.3 yards per game, though, so Howard is truly just an RB4 type. But he is on pace to finish with 10 TD runs this year, so he is certainly not waiver wire material.

Sanders is the most exciting runner, and possibly the most electric player on the team with DeSean Jackson out. At his best, he displays nifty cutback moves, elusive jukes, and impressive speed. He is also a quality receiver. If he can ever put it all together for a few games, Sanders could emerge as an explosive all-around contributor.

Sanders started the season slowly as a runner, looking tentative and indecisive. But then he started to show frequent flashes of his dynamic promise. In Week 3, he had receptions of 40 and 33 yards. In Week 4, he had a 30-yard run. He had a 36-yard reception in Week 5 and three catches for 86 yards, including a season-best 45-yarder in Week 6. He then seemed to be on the verge of a breakout when he ripped off a 65-yard TD run in Week 8.

But Sanders has averaged 55 yards from scrimmage in the past two games and fantasy players are starting to consider cutting him again. That may turn out to be a regrettable move when you consider the upside he has already shown us at times. Like Howard, he is a fantasy RB4 type, but his ceiling is much higher. Sproles’ injury issues and ultimate loss for the season gives him some added appeal as a pass-catcher down the stretch.

Ajayi’s injury history is well documented, but when he was healthy and in his better form, he was a tough runner who got his uniform dirty and worked hard for every yard. He also was a productive goal-line runner. He appears to be insurance in case Howard is not available and would assume the interior runner and short-yardage duties if and whenever Howard is out.


Gonna Flex Now

If Pederson has his way, Howard and Sanders will continue to complement each other, and Ajayi can serve as a backup for each, more naturally for Howard. We are likely looking at a true two-RB timeshare situation for Philadelphia for the remainder of the season. Howard can operate as a part-time ball carrier and the team’s top TD threat when healthy.

Sanders is the wild card. He could deliver what appears to be a breakout game at any time, as he can score from anywhere on the field as a runner and receiver. You would think if he starts to provide big plays more regularly, it may be hard to not consider him the lead RB at some point. But it’s difficult to envision Pederson purely featuring one RB.

Having two styles of runners can keep defenses off balance and both players fresh and less exposed to injuries. But that sort of approach will limit any significant appeal either guy could have, especially in the case of Sanders. As the bye weeks finish and fantasy players have to worry less about streaming, Sanders and Howard will receive less starting consideration.

But both players can both be in the mix as flex plays, especially Sanders. Howard will be more TD dependent and possibly have a safer floor when healthy. Ajayi will have to show us some real signs of life after a long layoff before we can think about using him at all.

So Sanders can be your RB4 with the potential for more in any given week, and Howard can be a double-figure fantasy producer at any time when healthy because of his short yardage abilities. Ajayi should stay on your roster for now because of Howard’s uncertain status.

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