As NFL teams arrive at their final starting rosters in late August or early September, fantasy players use that information as the blueprint for their draft strategy. These early lineups are almost too easily etched into our memories and can cause a lot of dissonances as the season wears on and real teams are forced to abandon their best-laid plans. The chaos created disrupts the fantasy season, leaving only those who are best equipped mentally to shift gears and find flexible new solutions still standing in December.
Quarterback has been hit particularly hard with injuries (and a bit of incompetence) this season, with some teams, like the 49ers, Panthers, Jets and Colts going to their third option to close out the season. Baltimore, Philadelphia, the LA Rams, New Orleans, Tennessee and maybe Washington will be starting a QB in fantasy finals week whom they didn’t begin the season with.
In a single QB league, these changes are easy enough to navigate, and with the exception of Jalen Hurts, have largely left the top fantasy performers unscathed. In Week 16, however, we did see an interesting trend among running backs from the teams who had implemented QB substitutions.
We’ll dive into some specifics below, but on a macro level, running backs on teams with backup QBs were outstanding in Week 16. Always looking for patterns in what could be random events, could we arrive at a conclusion that the two facts are interdependent? For some players, at least? Here are a few running backs thriving despite — or because of — a change at QB.
Week 16's leading rusher was Akers, with 118 yards on the ground and three rushing touchdowns. The Rams basically doubled their season total points in this one game against the Broncos (some hyperbole). The strong run game enabled Baker Mayfield to attempt only 28 passes, completing over 85 percent of them for 230 yards and two additional passing touchdowns. Perhaps nothing has been more shocking to our fantasy systems than the complete decline followed by the sudden resurgence of the Rams this season (Deshaun Watson's return completely wrecking Nick Chubb and the Browns' playoff hopes is a close second for me).
Akers has been a rollercoaster this season, from highly drafted to droppable by Week 5, and was unlikely to be a difference-maker in the fantasy semifinals. With the Chargers and their bottom-five fantasy run defense on tap in Week 17, Akers is a tempting start. Part of what got you to this decision point was flexibility and an ability to live in the moment, not in the past. Not that you’ll get three scores again, but Akers should be better than a lot of options, including the aforementioned Chubb, who faces a tough challenge in the Commanders with his new dysfunctional offense.
It doesn't matter who you have at QB when Henry is your running back and you're facing the Texans. This was 100 percent a smash spot for Henry and one of the few best-laid fantasy draft plans in August that made sense both then and now. Even though Malik Willis stole a rushing touchdown (and averaged a bit higher YPC than Henry), Henry's 126 rushing yards and score kept them in the game.
Ultimately, the rookie QB threw two interceptions and Henry lost a fumble with mistakes outweighing his strong individual showing and handing the Titans another loss. Tennessee takes on Dallas on Thursday Night Football for Week 17, which is the third-worst matchup for fantasy RBs. Don’t expect Henry’s highest ceiling game, but also don’t overthink it and bench him either (most wouldn't even think of doing such a thing, but it should still be said considering we're in the championship round).
Chuba Hubbard and D’Onta Foreman
It is not a good time to be from the South if you're a football fan. Not a single team from either conference's South division has a winning record. The Panthers have won two of their three games since the Week 13 bye, all during Sam Darnold's tenure. In that span, Darnold has gotten progressively better, even as the team relied heavily on its two-headed RB committee of Hubbard and Foreman. Darnold has been mistake-free, increasing his completion rate and yardage in each successive game. This low-level competence is perhaps forcing defensive attention away from Foreman, who rushed 21 times for 165 yards and a touchdown against the Lions. Not to be deterred, Hubbard rushed 12 times for 125 yards. The Lions are known as a pass-friendly defense, but this was by far the best rushing performance against them to date.
It’s worthwhile noting that not only are the Panthers’ backs enjoying high volume, but both Foreman and Hubbard are also making the most of it with high efficiency (7.9 and 10.4 YPC in Week 16, respectively). Next up are the Buccaneers, a tough matchup on paper, but one that saw our next guy manage to succeed in, providing some hope for those relying on Foreman in the fantasy finale.
All eyes were on Conner at my family Christmas dinner. Since we're all into fantasy, there were multiple scenarios playing out among our different leagues and Conner was a central factor in at least two of them. His good performance helped my brother advance to a final but knocked me out of trophy contention in one league (though I really blame Davante Adams' performance for the L). With the Cardinals' defense being one of their downfalls and the Bucs' run defense being so strong, Conner was in a tough spot with Trace McSorley getting the start at QB.
Still, his seven catches on eight targets (!) to go along with 79 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown kept the Cardinals alive into overtime, when they finally capitulated. Maybe if they had run the ball more it would have made a difference; McSorely’s 45 attempts yielded only 217 yards and a pick.
I think everyone who made it to the final with Conner is starting him, and he should help you out again versus a very average Falcons' run defense next week.
Snow-vantage? James Cook / Devin Singletary
James Cook and Devin Singletary led the Bills to a decisive victory in freezing Chicago on Saturday afternoon. They had nearly identical stat lines; Singletary rushed 12 times for 106 yards and one TD, while Cook rushed 11 times for 99 yards and one TD. Despite the apparent rise of Cook, it’s been Singletary when the Bills are in a tight game, which next Monday night against the Bengals should be. If you have to rely on a Bills’ back for your finals, I’d go with Singletary.
BONUS: Tyler Allgeier also had another decent game, rushing for 74 yards and catching four of five targets for an additional 43 yards. Atlanta doesn't look great with Desmond Ridder at the helm, but they're out of playoff contention and will surely continue to feed Allgeier over Cordarrelle Patterson down the stretch. That should make for a favorable fantasy play in Week 17 as the Falcons take on the Cardinals, who allow the third-most overall fantasy points and just gave up a monster game to Leonard Fournette. Fournette found a lot of his success through the air, catching 9-of-10 targets in the overtime win. Hopefully, Ridder will continue to look to Allgeier as he did in Week 16, leading the rookie to a strong fantasy finish for us.