There's a point in fantasy football drafts where hope becomes a strategy. It’s usually around the 10th round. There’s no projection; just taking a blindfolded shot at a player who might eventually get some starts in fantasy lineups. Or they could be cut at the first week’s waiver wire.
At that point in the fantasy draft, expected starting lineups are set and fantasy managers can already start thinking of how they’ll just ride to glory with hardly having to make any moves. It’s easy to look at these double-digit rounds as lottery tickets that, if they come true, they could become trade bait for what managers really need.
Occasionally those picks do pan out. Whether through performance or injury attrition, some players take over lead roles and eventually lead fantasy teams to championships. Tyler Allgeier was such a player last year. Rashaad Penny the year before. Those are the picks, or occasionally the waiver wire pickups, that fantasy managers tell stories about years later when recounting championship roster builds.
This week’s Running Back Report dives into three players who may be taking over lead roles in backfields just when the fantasy matchups get most interesting. These RBs all got to this point differently, but they have all become major parts of their teams’ offenses.
Let’s start with the player who may have come furthest, and has championship upside.
Jaylen Warren, Pittsburgh Steelers
Every time it looks like Warren has proven he’s an every-week starter in fantasy, someone looks at the timeshare that is the Pittsburgh backfield to rain on the parade of the Warren cognoscenti. In the last three games, Warren and his backfield mate Najee Harris have practically shared the opportunities evenly:
Snaps: Harris (100), Warren (81)
Carries: Harris (44), Warren (35)
Routes run: Harris (29), Warren (28)
Targets: Harris (10), Warren (10)
But look at what the Pittsburgh tandem has done with those opportunities. Harris has been serviceable, with 76, 96 and 36 scrimmage yards in his last three outings, scoring twice. Warren, the RB56 in Yahoo ADP, has been on another level. In Week 9 against Tennessee, Warren ran for 88 yards and added another 25 via the air. He was just warming up.
Facing the Packers in Week 9, Warren turned 15 carries into 101 yards and a touchdown, adding another nine receiving yards. This past Sunday was his crowning achievement, taking nine carries and thundering for 129 yards, including a 74-yard scamper against the staunch Cleveland defense that proved to be the only touchdown for the Steelers. With 145 from scrimmage on the day, he was the RB2 on the week.
Austin Ekeler saw some parallels between his own situation and that of Warren, as both were undrafted free agents who outperformed all expectations to excel as a part of a tandem. Warren is that ultra-efficient running back who makes the most of his touches without being a true bell-cow back.
Here is where he ranks in some very important rushing categories:
How is this going to play out? With both running backs being healthy, this should remain a timeshare for the foreseeable future. But the way that Warren is playing, he looks primed to continue his great run in a very tasty final stretch of the season.
This week he gets the Bengals — and again in Week 16 — and they just gave up 95 combined rushing yards to Gus Edwards and Keaton Mitchell. A week before they had Devin Singletary gash them for 150 yards (more on him below). Also on the schedule are inviting matchups against the Cardinals, Colts, Patriots and Seahawks (Week 17). After what Warren has done against good run defenses, it’s fun to imagine what he could do against lesser teams. All those fantasy managers who used a late pick on him, just enjoy the bounty like found money.
Devin Singletary, Houston Texans
As spectacular as the rise of C.J. Stroud has been from over-scrutinized No. 2 pick to budding star quarterback, the Texans’ running game has been perplexing. OC Bobby Slowik came over from San Francisco, which has consistently had a good running game under Kyle Shanahan, even if it wasn’t always a bell-cow back like Christian McCaffrey toting the rock. Through nine weeks, the rushing high for Houston was 81 yards, by Dameon Pierce. However, it didn’t look like the running game was going anywhere with the second-year back out of Florida.
When an ankle injury sidelined Pierce in Week 9, Singletary came in and put up a very pedestrian 26 yards on 13 carries. Stroud put the NFL on notice with 470 yards and five touchdowns that week, masking the issue on the ground. Then came the aforementioned 150 yards against the Bengals, and the Texans appear to have a new lead back. A lead back who was drafted as the RB51 last summer.
Unlike the Steelers, Singletary has not had to share the workload with hardly anyone. In the past two weeks, he has a snap share of 83.7% and taken 88.1% of the rush attempts. This is beyond bell-cow usage, and may be unsustainable.
Pierce has missed three straight games with an ankle injury — which tend to linger for players — and could return at some point down the stretch. Since he has far from excelled in this new offense, he looks to have been surpassed by the veteran Singletary. A big AFC North matchup with Jacksonville is beckoning this week, and the Jaguars have given up yardage to running backs lately. McCaffrey put up 142 scrimmage yards in Week 10, while Alvin Kamara ran roughshod on them for 153 total yards in Week 7.
Singletary has a more ominous fantasy playoff schedule, though, with Tennessee on the docket for a pair of games. The Titans have been more mortal against the run this year, allowing 89.2 rushing yards per game even though Warren had a big game against them recently. The Browns are the other team in that span — in Week 16 — and aside from Warren, no running back has more than 75 yards against them. They are 26th in fantasy points allowed to the position. Still, with volume like he’s experienced the past two weeks (52 carries) Singletary could come through on volume at the most opportune times.
Zach Charbonnet, Seattle Seahawks
When fantasy managers drafted Charbonnet at RB42, this was more of an insurance policy, similar to the first two players on this list. Somehow he closed out Week 11 rostered in just 45% of Yahoo leagues. That is going to jump dramatically because of a twinge in teammate Kenneth Walker’s side.
The diagnosis is an oblique strain, and early indications are that the injury is not serious. McCaffrey did not miss a game after suffering the same injury earlier this season, and the record of skill players not missing time with this malady is positive. The calendar may be working against Walker, though, as the Seahawks play on Thanksgiving. Hard to expect Walker to recover in time for that contest, and that could mean a big chunk of the touches on turkey day for the rookie.
Charbonnet took over as the lead dog in the backfield in Week 11, handling 53 snaps after Walker went out after just seven. With the added workload, Charbonnet rushed 15 times for 47 yards and caught all six of his targets for an additional 22 yards to finish as the RB17 on the week. Though, in the previous three games, Charbonnet out-snapped Walker: 31-24, 27-22, 39-35.
It is in the passing game that Charbonnet has been the biggest factor. In Weeks 8-10, Charbonnet ran almost double the routes as Walker, 60-26. He caught seven of eight targets for 34 yards. Even if Walker doesn’t miss time, Charbonnet has entrenched himself as a factor in the Seattle attack.
With the short turnaround this week, if Charbonnet has a larger share of the workload, he’s going to have a tough task ahead of him. The 49ers are the Thanksgiving Day foe, and they’re allowing just 62.6 rushing yards to running backs. That’s the fourth-fewest in the NFL, and aside from Joe Mixon (87 yards) and Jerome Ford (84), no running back has more than 52 rushing yards against the 49ers. With just 17 points allowed in two games since coming back from their bye, the 49ers have become quite stingy.
Charbonnet is a must-start because of the volume he'll receive if Walker is put, but against that defense he might not find much running room to run. It'll actually be the start of a stretch of games that will be tough for Seattle running backs.