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RB Snap Counts and Touches Trends - Week 1 Analysis


And we’re off! For some fantasy football fans, Week 1 of the NFL season is one to forget. Whether the roster you carefully crafted busted or your opponent had the perfect line-up that never should have worked, the first week is often full of chaos and drama.

However, as we approach Week 2, the question becomes decoding which impressive performances and which disastrous debuts are either a one-time fluke or a marker for the future. Look at a player’s snap count: players who are on the field more often will likely score more fantasy points.

Here, we examine three Week 1 running back situations, where either there was no clear lead back or the lead back forfeited a significant portion of touches unexpectedly. Take this data into context and then decide whether this might lead to buy/sell opportunities in the near future.

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Los Angeles Rams

Todd Gurley (Snap %: 70%) / Malcolm Brown (Snap %: 27%) / Darrell Henderson (Snap %: 3%)

Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley remained an enigma throughout most of the preseason for fantasy footballers. No one knew how the former Offensive Player of the Year would be utilized or how serious the arthritis issues in his knee were. At first glance, Gurley’s usage in the Rams’ contest against the Carolina Panthers seemed to indicate that he was no longer the high volume player he once was.

While Gurley was on the field for 70% of the time and had over 101 yards from scrimmage, the star running back ceded a significant amount of touches to Malcolm Brown (15 for Gurley, 11 for Brown) throughout the game, especially in the red-zone, as the latter had two TDs. For fantasy owners, this might have come as a shock, considering that the star running back had downplayed the severity of his injury throughout the preseason. However, before hitting the panic button, let’s break down the facts.

First, Gurley had the most snaps out of the backfield by far. Even though he wasn’t necessarily touching the ball on every single play, the Rams clearly trusted their RB to be on the field, either to run routes or to pass protect. If Gurley was injured or the arthritis problems were hampering him, he would not have been on the field for 70% of the plays. That brings up the second point. The Rams seem to be trying to ensure that they don’t overwork/overuse Gurley, especially when he hasn’t seen any game action since the Super Bowl, rather than being worried about any lingering injuries. Gurley did not suddenly lose all his talent (look no further than his 6.8 yards per touch); instead, the team just wants to protect him. Thirdly, in regards to Malcolm Brown, Sunday proved that he is the RB2 in Los Angeles, as Darrell Henderson was sparingly used. If you have Gurley, Brown would be the running back you would want to own as the handcuff.

Verdict:

Fantasy-wise, expect Todd Gurley to see around 17-20 touches each game. His one reception in Sunday’s contest should be treated as an anomaly, as in the future, it is reasonable to assume that he will see four to five targets a game. While he isn’t a top-five RB anymore, he still is low-end RB1, thanks to the explosiveness of the Rams offense and his talent. Additionally, Malcolm Brown remains the handcuff to own and should be added in all leagues.

 

Chicago Bears

David Montgomery (Snap %: 38%), Mike Davis (Snap %: 56%), Tarik Cohen (Snap %: 70%)

Remember when Chicago Bears running back David Montgomery average ADP was in the late fourth round? That seems so long ago now, thanks to his abysmal usage rate in last Thursday’s defeat to the Green Bay Packers. Montgomery had only six carries for 18 yards, while teammate Mike Davis had five carries for 19 yards. The difference appears in the passing game: Davis had six receptions on seven targets for 17 yards, while Tarik Cohen had eight receptions on ten targets for 49 yards. Montgomery, in comparison, only had one reception on one target for 27 yards.

Why the low utilization for a rookie that was hyped-up in the preseason? Montgomery on tape didn’t seem injured or slow; rather, he seemed to be making the most of his opportunities, and times, looked like the best back Chicago had. However, head coach Matt Nagy was blunt: Montgomery needed to work on the basics before he would see a larger workload. Furthermore, Nagy warned that the rookie was unlikely to post big numbers in the near future. Rookies easing into an offense is not surprising, but nonetheless, fantasy owners will be disappointed because of the high value invested into the prospect. Mike Davis is not going to disappear any time soon and while Tarik Cohen receiving work might reduce with Anthony Miller’s return, his role as the third-down back isn’t going anywhere.

Verdict:

Expect Montgomery to be a high-end RB3 until further notice. The talent may be there, but the opportunity isn’t; until then, his floor remains extremely volatile. Mike Davis is a high-end RB4 and a FLEX play in 14-team leagues, while Tarik Cohen should be a solid FLEX play in 10-12 PPR leagues.

 

New England Patriots

Sony Michel (Snap %: 33%), James White (Snap %: 47%), Rex Burkhead (Snap %: 46%), James Develin (Snap %: 46%), Brandon Bolden (Snap %: 1%)

There’s the old saying: never trust a New England running back. During last Sunday’s game, nothing could be truer. Sony Michel was expected to be the lead running back and while he received 15 carries, he rushed for a measly 14 yards. Meanwhile, James White had four carries for 26 yards and Rex Burkhead had eight carries for 44 yards. In the passing game, where running backs coach Ivan Fears had praised Michel's improvement, the sophomore had an extraordinary zero catches on zero targets for zero yards. On the other hand, White and Burkhead had five receptions each for 56 and 41 yards respectively, while James Develin was heavily utilized in a fullback role as the lead pass-blocker.

Why was Michel on the field for only a third of the plays? Most likely, Sunday confirmed that his role will remain as just a rusher. Regardless, treat his Week 1 performance as an anomaly; the Patriots are notorious for relying on the hot-hand. Against the Steelers, Burkhead was the most effective, while Michel failed to get any traction. Expect this pattern to continue, despite how talented the sophomore is. After all, head coach Bill Belichek has always used a committee approach in years past.

Fantasy-wise, let’s discern each of the Patriots’ RBs roles. First, Develin and teammate Brandon Bolden, while listed as running backs, have zero fantasy relevance; the former is used as a blocker, with the latter is primarily used on special teams. Secondly, Damien Harris didn’t receive an offensive snap, so leave the rookie on the waiver wires, except in dynasty formats. 

Verdict:

In regards to the fantasy-relevant RBs, first up is Rex Burkhead. The veteran will see work in both the pass and run game as Belichek has had a history of relying on experienced RBs. However, his volume ensures that Burkhead should only be a waiver wire choice in 14-16 team leagues.

Secondly, while James White will receive a few carries, his role remains solidified in the passing game; expect him to have about five to six catches a contest, even with the (possible) addition of Antonio Brown. He remains a mid-tier RB2 in PPR formats as his utilization is in the short-yardage/screen-format will most likely remain unchanged.

Finally, Sony Michel is a low-end RB2 across all formats. Week 1 should be viewed as an anomaly; the Patriots offensive-line and Michel’s talent should allow for the sophomore to gain more yardage in future contests. However, while his role on rushing downs is clear, Week 1 highlighted his underutilization in the passing game, dropping his floor.

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