Slotting Elliott into a starting running back spot on your roster is a no-brainer -- he ranked first in touches per game (25.4) and scrimmage yards per game (133.4) in 2018 as a focal point of the Dallas offense. But here are three players to start and three to sit this week who might not be so obvious.
Austin Ekeler, RB, Los Angeles Chargers
In 2018, the No. 1 running back on the Chargers’ depth chart got 175 carries and 66 targets over 12 games. That player, Melvin Gordon, is holding out for a new contract with no end in sight, opening the door for Ekeler to be a featured back in Week 1.
In limited duty last year, Ekeler produced 3.6 yards per carry after contact, the highest figure on the team, per Pro Football Focus, and the third highest in the NFL among running backs getting at least 25 percent of their team’s carries.
Matt Breida, RB, San Francisco 49ers
Breida tallied 1,075 yards from scrimmage in 14 games in 2018, with 22 of his 153 carries coming in the red zone. Only Alfred Morris, now with the Dallas Cowboys, had more among 49ers backs last year. And don’t worry too much about Tevin Coleman’s presence on the depth chart; Breida told the Mercury News he is glad Coleman is on the team so he can remain fresh for a potential playoff run.
“I’m just looking forward to playing together with him. He’s a great running back,” Breida said Monday. “Last year, [Jerick McKinnon] got hurt, so no one really could see what the offense could fully do.
“I feel like this year now, even though [McKinnon] is still hurt, we’ve got Tevin now, which will help take some more off me. It’ll be good.”
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Francisco’s Week 1 opponent, had difficulty stopping power rushers in 2018, allowing 71 percent of runs on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go to achieve a first down or touchdown. The league average was 66 percent.
Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals
Murray, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft, and rookie head coach Kliff Kingsbury get the benefit of surprise — no one really knows what scheme they are going to run in Week 1. Kingsbury’s offense will probably feature many of the aspects he is known for, such as the frenzied, pass-heavy scheme he ran in college, allowing Murray and the offense to create mismatches down field against the Detroit Lions.
Plus, the Lions should have a below-average pass rush in 2019, per the game charters at Pro Football Focus, opening the door for Murray to sit in the pocket without being pressured.
Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
The six-time Pro Bowl receiver caught fire toward the end of last season, catching 60 passes for 865 yards and eight touchdowns in November and December. This year’s initial challenge will come on the road against the Minnesota Vikings, a defense that allowed just 59 yards per game to an opposing team’s top wideout in 2018, the third-lowest mark in the NFL. And that was despite “a huge step backward” from that group, per PFF.
Benching a first-round fantasy pick is never easy, but of the four receivers who saw 10 or more targets against the Vikings last year, just two caught touchdowns. Only one of the four ended the game with more than 64 receiving yards. Jones averaged 10.6 targets per game in 2018.
LeSean McCoy, Damien Williams and Darwin Thompson, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
We don’t know which of these three running backs will get the majority of the workload in Week 1, but we do know that all three will be going up against a Jacksonville Jaguars defense that is expected to be the 11th best of 2019. Jacksonville’s defensive front stopped 22 percent of rushers at or behind the line of scrimmage in 2018 (the league average was 19 percent) and allowed eight fewer points per 100 rushing plays against than you would expect after taking into account the down, distance and field position of each play, per TruMedia. Only the Houston Texans (9.6 points saved per 100 rushing plays) were better at preventing points on the ground last season.
Derrius Guice, RB, Washington Redskins
It’s tempting to start Washington’s second-round draft pick of 2018 after Coach Jay Gruden gushed about how Washington’s offense “will probably go through him.” Don’t. This offense is a mess, and there likely won’t be enough opportunities for Guice to warrant a starting spot on your fantasy squad this week.
Even if Adrian Peterson doesn’t siphon carries as a backup, it remains to be seen how many rushing attempts the team will amass. Washington is a 9½-point underdog to the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Redskins run the ball significantly less often when losing than when they lead.
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