Week 1 is in the books and as always, quite a few surprises along the way. There were several downright shocks when players were inactive despite the fantasy world chugging along without a clue until last Sunday. There were notable inactives and starters, so it must be time to jump ship and head for the next bandwagon. Or is it?
Here’s six items for Week 2 that I’m thinking about.
1.) San Francisco 49ers backfield – The 49er moved to grab Trey Sermon with their 3.25 pick as the prototypical power back. Of course, he was a healthy scratch in Week 1, and Raheem Mostert only lasted for two carries before being lost for the year. Their 6.10 pick of Elijah Mitchell took over and gained 104 yards and a score on 19 carries versus the weak Lions’ defense. And the fantasy world was set on fire. In one of my leagues, a team bid $973 of their $1000 in free-agent money on Mitchell. That’s called “buying into the change.”
Now that Mostert is gone, Mitchell assumedly starts another game but what to think about Trey Sermon? Will Mitchell handle a high number of carries each week now that he’s broken out against a defense ranked No. 31 versus running backs last year? Maybe?
The 49ers backfield is a committee. Five different backs finished with the most carries in a 49ers’ game last year. In half of their matchups, the top back totaled less than 52% of the weekly backfield fantasy points. Mitchell’s 19 carries were more than all but two games for the weekly primary back.
I am in one league where the owner dropped Trey Sermon. That seemed a bit too reactive. The 49ers’ party line is that Sermon will be active this week. At halftime in Week 3 of the preseason, Sermon (7-37) and Mostert (7-53) split carries. Mitchell (3-19) did not play until the final series of the second quarter. It was his only preseason action. Sermon ran eight times in the first half as the starter in Week 1 of the preseason.
If the 49ers truly soured on Sermon, they did a great job in never mentioning it. In the end, Shanahan is going to do whatever Shanahan is going to do. Mitchell earned another start after tearing up that terrible Lions defense. But I’d be surprised if Sermon just slinks off to the shadows.
I would not pay $973 for Mitchell, and I wouldn’t drop Sermon. I would expect that the backfield was not settled last week and will not be this week. This backfield never is settled, historically. Losing Mostert in Game 1 and with Jeff Wilson on injured reserve, the two rookies (and James Hasty) have a less crowded backfield. And that allows opportunity – the one thing that matters most for a running back.
But I expect to see all three play and the sharing ratio to be nearly even. I also expect that the only person truly happy with the rushing results will be Shanahan.
2.) Baltimore Ravens backfield – In my 25 years covering the NFL, I’ve never seen a team lose their Top-3 running backs before the season started. The depth chart currently holds Ty’Son Williams, Latavius Murray, and Devonta Freeman. Le’Veon Bell is on the practice squad, wondering where his career went.
The most curious part of their backfield in Week 1 was the usage of players. Ty’Son Williams knew the offense from last year and was effective rushing in the first half. He rushed for 64 yards on seven carries and caught two passes for 23 yards. Latavius Murray ran three times for no gain.
That swapped in the second half, with Murray (6-25) taking the lead over Williams (2-1). For this week, Devonta Freeman was activated onto the roster. Le’Veon Bell may eventually make it onto the regular roster, but there’s no reason to expect anything from him. He’s not been a much of factor since 2017 and is just veteran depth. Devonta Freeman is another 29-year-old running back in decline for the last few years. He could figure in as a minor contributor.
Murray’s role will be significant despite being 31 years old. Being part of a committee is exactly what he’s done for the last four years. The question becomes how much use will Williams get? After looking so clearly better?
Even when the Ravens had J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards last year, they still mixed in one or two more backs each week. The expectation is a committee that will use other backs for three or four carries. But Murray should slide back into that familiar role with 150 carries on the season. The difference that Williams makes – and it matters – is that he caught three passes for 29 yards while Murray had none.
Week 2 will better confirm the roles and ratios, but this could end up with Murray playing the same role he had in New Orleans while Williams plays a Kamara-esque part. He’s not the runner that Kamara is and he won’t get anywhere near as many passes, but the Ravens can now rely on two backs with complementary styles, unlike last year when Edwards and Dobbins used similar styles.
3.) The Big 3 Rookies – And no, we’re not talking about running backs. The first three wide receivers drafted in April all debuted with a big game and a touchdown. Ja’Marr Chase (5-101, TD), Jaylen Waddle (4-61, TD), and DeVonta Smith (6-71, TD) all impressed. This weekend will be interesting since each opened against a softer defense – Vikings, Patriots (missing Stephon Gilmore), and Falcons.
This week, the task will be tougher for Chase (at Chicago), Waddle (Bills), and Smith (49ers). The rest of the rookie wideouts made minimal impact and that may continue throughout the season. The Cardinals’ Rondale Moore (4-68) and the Browns’ Anthony Schwartz (3-69) were the next best. Schwartz helped replace Odell Beckham but plays in an offense that prefers to run. Moore was impressive and is one to watch in the powerful Cardinals offense.
4.) WR K.J. Hamler – The ex-Penn State wide receiver was the 2.14 pick by the Broncos last year and ended with 30 receptions for 381 yards and three touchdowns. Hamler was the primary backup for Jerry Jeudy, who is on injured reserve for the next four to six weeks after suffering a high ankle sprain. Tim Patrick is also involved, but Hamler takes over the flanker spot left behind by Jeudy.
Hamler caught three of four passes for 41 yards, but his one incompletion was a drop that would have been a 50-yard touchdown. The Broncos face the Jaguars this week and then host the Jets. Hamler runs a 4.36 40-time and has two soft matchups up next. Now is when he can earn a bigger role even when Jeudy returns.
5.) RB Zack Moss – The Bills play in Miami, and the backfield is more interesting than usual. The offense under OC Brian Daboll is a mature, three-year scheme with no new influences from last year. Moss became the primary rusher from Week 14 to 16, and then neither he nor Devin Singletary did much in the playoffs. It was a surprise when Moss was inactive in Week 1, given that he was expected to take a bigger role after a more impressive ending to his rookie year.
Yet another disappearing player. The Bills use a committee anyway, but Singletary and Matt Breida were the two backs in Week 1. Singletary ended with 72 yards on 11 carries thanks to a few chunk runs. Breida only ran for four yards on four carries versus the Steelers. I’m watching the backfield this week to see what happens. No Moss this week? Then he’s surprisingly no longer a factor and went through the preseason with no one realizing he had fallen from favor.
The Bills face the Dolphins this week. They allowed 100 yards on 23 carries to Damien Harris in Week 1, so the Bills head into a three-game stretch against softer teams. Breida hasn’t been a contributor since 2019 with the 49ers. And he only handled the four carries last Sunday. It appears that Moss was passed on the depth chart by a player that hasn’t been effective for the last two years. The Bills never used a draft pick on a running back, and did nothing more than acquiring Breida on a one-year contract for $1 million.
This weekend should be all you need to know about the Bills backfield this year. If Breida keeps his job with a one-yard rushing average, there are fundamental changes with the Bills.
6.) Philadelphia Eagles backfield – It’s always hard to shift gears on an offense when there are new coaches and scheme. The Eagles are now under HC Nick Sirianni, who last was the Colts offensive coordinator the three years. The early hype that Boston Scott would assume the third-down role was wrong. He was active in Week 1 but never recorded a touch.
The rookie Kenneth Gainwell ran nine times for 37 yards and a score, plus caught two passes for six yards. Gainwell ran in his score from eight yards out, and he is smaller than Sanders who should see goal line work. Then again, Jalen Hurts will take several rushing scores himself.
The encouraging aspect of this offense’s first game was rushing Sanders 15 times for 74 yards and catching four passes for 39 yards. That’s 19 touches to 11 for Gainwell in a game that the Eagles won 32-6. And three of the rookie’s touches happened over the final three of the game.
Sanders impressed as a rookie in 2019 when he combined for 1,327 total yards and six touchdowns. Last year, the Eagles finished up five seasons with HC Doug Pederson, and Sanders struggled with injuries and an underperforming offense around him. I’m watching the backfield again this week because Sanders and Gainwell look better than expected.