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AFC Team-by-Team Backfield Breakdowns (Updated)

By Jared Smola 8:08am EDT 8/28/17


Note: This article was originally published on July 11 and updated on August 28. Updates are in bold.


Fantasy football is a volume-driven game. Players can’t score fantasy points without the ball in their hands.

For RBs, that means both carries and catches. Check out the correlation last year between total touches and PPR points for the top 50 RBs:

You don’t need a PhD to explain that one. More touches = more points.

So let’s take a look at how the touches figure to be divvied in all 16 AFC backfields. (We’ll tackle the NFC tomorrow.) These are fluid situations and will change, of course. So stay tuned to Shark Bites throughout training camp and the preseason for updates.


Baltimore Ravens

Top fantasy target: Kenneth Dixon

Also in the mix: Danny Woodhead, Terrance West

The Baltimore backfield hasn’t been a source of much fantasy goodness lately. No Raven has finished higher than 23rd among RBs in PPR points over the past 2 seasons.

That’s been partly due to a muddy depth chart.But volume has also been a problem. The Ravens ranked 25th in rush attempts in 2015 and 30th last year. Only 3 teams have totaled fewer rushing attempts across the last 2 seasons.

Look for Baltimore’s rushing volume to climb in 2017 — perhaps drastically. The team added Greg Roman to the coaching staff this offseason. His official title is Senior Offensive Assistant/Tight Ends Coach, but we expect him to have a hand in the game-planning. Roman has coordinated 6 NFL offenses — 4 in San Francisco and 2 in Buffalo — and they’ve all finished among the top 9 in rushing attempts and top 8 in rushing yards.

Exactly how the carries will be divvied is unclear. Dixon’s 4-game suspension to begin the season will give West a month-long audition as lead back. He led the team with 774 rushing yards and 5 TDs last year — but averaged just 4.0 yards per carry. Football Outsiders ranked West 28th among 42 qualifiers in their DVOA metric.

Dixon convincingly out-played West over the 2nd half of the season, when he was seemingly recovered from a torn MCL suffered in late August. From Week 9 on, Dixon tallied 22 more rushing yards than West — despite carrying 15 fewer times. Dixon averaged 4.5 yards per carry to West’s 3.6.

With an uber-productive college resume and above-average athleticism, Dixon is a good bet to take control of the Ravens backfield after serving that suspension. West and his career 3.9 yards-per-carry average has proven to be a replacement-level talent.

Of course, you could target both guys considering they’re going in the double-digit rounds of recent drafts and lock up the early-down role for a ground game that figures to be more productive in 2017 than it has been recently.

Dixon and West figure to cede the majority of passing-down work to Woodhead — assuming the 32-year-old regains form after last September’s torn ACL. He appears on track after participating fully in spring workouts.

Woodhead is well established as a premier pass-catching back. His 267 career receptions rank 10th among active RBs. That includes 156 grabs over his last 2 healthy seasons.

And while the Ravens haven’t run the ball often recently, they have thrown it to their RBs. Baltimore RBs have totaled 325 targets over the past 2 seasons — 2nd most in the NFL. The RBs accounted for 24% of the team’s total targets during that time. And dating even further back, Ravens RBs rank among the top 5 in total targets since HC John Harbaugh arrived in 2008.

Woodhead is more expensive than either Dixon or West, with an ADP sitting in the early 7th round. But, if healthy, he has the most secure role of the trio.

Update: Dixon's season-ending knee injury has left West as the favorite for early-down work in Baltimore. He hasn't inspired much confidence this preseason, though, averaging just 2.4 yards per carry on 16 totes. West is just a volume-based RB3. His ADP has settled in the 9th round.

Dixon's absence could open up a few extra carries for Woodhead, but he'll continue to make hay in the passing game. Note that Woodhead has been sidelined the past week with a hamstring injury. He's still a fine PPR target at his 7th-round price tag.

Allen has been working in with the 1st-team offense in preseason action and could steal some touches from West and Woodhead. But he's not yet worth rostering in fantasy.


Buffalo Bills

Top fantasy target: LeSean McCoy

Others in the mix: Jonathan Williams, Mike Tolbert

Gone is the run-loving coaching tandem of Rex Ryan and Greg Roman that propelled the Bills to top 2 finishes in rush attempts, yards and TDs in both of the last 2 seasons. But don’t expect the team’s run/pass split to change too drastically this year.

New HC Sean McDermott is a defensive-minded guy who spent the past 6 seasons with the run-heavy Panthers. New OC Rick Dennison has coordinated 9 NFL offenses. Six of them have ranked top 12 in rushing offense.

And the Bills’ strength on offense remains the ground game. The O-line ranked 16th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards and 1st in Pro Football Focus’ Yards Created Before Contact last year. Four starters return from that unit this season. And 2nd-round rookie Dion Dawkins is a potential upgrade at RT.

Of course, McCoy is the engine of this rushing attack. He led all 27 RBs who carried 150+ times last year with 5.4 yards per carry. Shady benefitted from running behind that strong offensive line last year. But he was dominant in his own right, ranking 4th in missed tackles forced per attempt, per Pro Football Focus.

McCoy finished 6th league-wide with 1,267 rushing yards and 4th with 13 TDs. He tacked on a 51-356-1 receiving line to rank 4th at his position in PPR points and 3rd in non-PPR.

He’ll turn 29 in April and has missed 5 games over the past 2 seasons with hamstring and knee injuries. But there have been so signs that the cliff is near. McCoy is fairly priced at his late-1st-round ADP.

Williams is set to take over as Buffalo’s #2 RB after the departure of Mike Gillislee. That’s a spot that’s produced sneaky fantasy value lately. Gillislee popped in 9 total TDs last year on his way to a 29th-place finish in non-PPR and 40th in PPR. Karlos Williams scored a matching 9 times back in 2015, ranking 31st in non-PPR and 38th in PPR.

Williams will prove to be a big value if he approaches that production. He’s coming off the board in the 14th round as RB52. A 5th-round rookie last year, he mustered just 3.5 yards per carry on 27 attempts. But he was stuck behind a strong duo and returning from a serious foot injury that cost him the entire 2015 campaign.

Williams was super productive before that injury, amassing 2,090 yards and 16 TDs on 361 carries (5.8 YPC) across 2013 and 2014. He checked into his Pro Day at 5’11, 220 pounds with 4.6 speed but an impressive 6.97-second 3-cone.

Williams will need to beat out veteran grinder Mike Tolbert for the #2 spot on the depth chart. But assuming he does, he’ll carry spot-start potential on top of every-week-starter value if McCoy goes down.

Update: McCoy had a healthy August, but Buffalo's offense has crumbled around him. He should see plenty of volume, but don't be surprised if his efficiency and TD production drops significantly from 2016 levels.

Williams had a solid start to the preseason, averaging 6.2 yards per carry across the first 2 games. He missed the 3rd with a knee injury, but we've heard nothing to suggest it's serious. Williams should open the year as Buffalo's #2 RB -- and the handcuff to McCoy.


Cincinnati Bengals

Top fantasy target: Joe Mixon

Others in the mix: Gio Bernard, Jeremy Hill

No strangers to gambling on guys with character concerns, the Bengals rolled the dice again this spring with the selection of Mixon. His assault of a female student in 2014 had him off some teams’ draft boards and dropped him into the 2nd round. Strictly on the field, though, this guy is a Round-1 talent.

Mixon racked up 2,027 yards and 17 TDs on 300 carries over the last 2 years at Oklahoma. His 6.8 yards per carry over that span dwarfed Redskins 4th-round pick Samaje Perine’s 5.7. Mixon was just as impressive in the passing game, averaging a sparkling 13.8 yards per catch with 9 TDs on 65 grabs.

The 6’1, 226-pounder clocked a 4.43-second 40 time to earn the class’ top speed score. Mixon also posted above-average marks in the vertical and broad jumps to earn a 71st SPARQ score for his position.

Mixon joins what looks like a crowded Bengals backfield. But note that this team has ranked among the top 9 in total rushing attempts in 4 straight seasons and among the top 7 in rushing TDs in 3 straight years. And Mixon has the type of talent to quickly emerge as the lead dog.

Hill has been a major disappointment since an impressive 2014 rookie campaign. His 3.67 yards per carry over the past 2 seasons ranks 45th among 48 RBs with 200+ attempts during that time. Hill is also subpar in the passing game, with just 63 catches and a 7.4-yard average across 3 NFL seasons.

One area in which Hill has remained effective is near the goal line. He’s converted 20 of 39 career carries from inside the 5-yard line into TDs. That 51.3% conversion rate is nearly 7 percentage points better than the league average over that span.

Bernard was tasked this offseason with recovering from the 2nd torn ACL of his career. After ripping his right ACL at North Carolina back in 2010, the left one gave out last November. He put in some limited work in OTAs, but it’s still unclear if he’ll be ready by Week 1.

A healthy Bernard should remain a factor in the passing game. He’s hauled in 187 balls over 4 NFL seasons with a strong 8.9 yards per catch. Gio has been less efficient on the ground, sporting a 4.2 yards-per-carry average. He’s topped 4.1 YPC in just 1 of 4 campaigns.

While Mixon is the odds-on favorite to lead the 2017 Bengals backfield in total touches, it has the look of a 3-man committee. Hill figures to vulture some short-range TDs, while Bernard siphons targets.

The offensive line is also a concern after losing Pro Bowlers Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler in free agency. The Bengals came in at #31 in Pro Football Focus’ 2017 O-Line rankings.

While Mixon boasts intriguing upside, you’ll have to pay close to ceiling cost at his current RB13 ADP.

Update: This remains a muddy situation heading into Week 1.

All 3 guys were active for Sunday's 3rd preseason game against the Redskins, but Hill exited after just 1 series with an ankle injury. On that series, Hill out-carried Mixon 5 to 2 and scored a 3-yard TD. Bernard didn't touch the ball but did get on the field for a 3rd-down snap.

It sure looks like this will be a 3-headed committee at least to open the season. Mixon remains the best fantasy bet but will be a risk/reward RB2 early on. He still has the talent to emerge as something close to a feature back later on in the year.

Hill could be a TD vulture and is worth a bench spot in non-PPR leagues. Bernard remains a nice PPR value at his dirt-cheap 14th-round ADP.


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