NFL Week 17 Fantasy RB Breakdown: Smash with Saquon Barkley
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Saquon Barkley
The final week of the regular season is here, and the NFL is still on pace for a record-breaking campaign with an average of 23.4 points per game per team. But scoring has dropped precipitously as injuries have mounted, game tape has accumulated, weather conditions have worsened, pace of play has slowed and divisional opponents have rematched.
Four of the five lowest-scoring weeks this season have been played in the month of December.
- Week 13: 21.4 points
- Week 14: 21.8 points
- Week 15: 19.3 points
- Week 16: 22.7 points
Year over year, scoring is up, but within 2018, we’ve seen a very notable downward trend, which could continue into this weekend, given that Week 17 tends to have a preseason-esque randomness thanks to the mixed motivations of each team.
Regardless, with no Thursday and Monday Night Football, we have the largest main slate of the regular season (15 games), and many teams are playing to win. The action kicks off on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.
In this positional breakdown, I’m looking at three running backs at the top of the individual Pro Models that Jonathan Bales, Peter Jennings (CSURAM88), Adam Levitan, Sean Koerner, Chris Raybon, Kevin McClelland (SportsGeek) and I have constructed.
Note: This week especially, the players at the top of our Models might change radically as we get more news regarding how teams with no need to use their starters plan to deploy their players. Be sure to check our Models regularly for updates.
After this piece is published, FantasyLabs is likely to provide news updates on a number of players. Stay ahead of your competition with our industry-leading DFS-focused news feed.
For updates on Vegas spreads and over/unders, check out The Action Network Live Odds page.
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Model Running Backs
As CSURAM88 mentioned on the Week 17 edition of The Action Network NFL Podcast, running back is a hard position to figure out for the slate. Only one expensive back in the slate is likely safe for cash games.
- Saquon Barkley: $8,200 DraftKings; $8,500 FanDuel
Saquon Barkley: New York Giants (-6.5) vs. Dallas Cowboys, 41 Over/Under
The Giants have long been out of the playoff picture, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to play for: Head coach Pat Shurmur and quarterback Eli Manning have been playing for their 2019 jobs ever since they entered the Week 9 bye with just one win, and Barkley could secure the Offensive Rookie of the Year award with one final big game.
In the second half of the season, the Giants have displayed a competitiveness they notably lacked in the first half (per the RotoViz Team Splits App).
- Giants, Weeks 1-8: 1-7 record, -6.88 differential, 18.75 points scored, 25.62 points allowed
- Giants, Weeks 10-16: 4-3 record, 1.86 differential, 26.29 points scored, 24.43 points allowed
Playing at home against division rivals bound for the playoffs, the Giants could be motivated to win in order to “prove” that they are a postseason-caliber team that simply had a rough start to the season.
While the Giants were probably foolish to use the No. 2 overall pick on Barkley, that shouldn’t be held against him as a player. He’s still in his first season, so these numbers will likely regress, but of all backs to play since 2014, Barkley leads the position with his 21.2 FanDuel points per game.
If Barkley does in Week 17 what he’s done on a per-week basis throughout the season, he’ll finish with a top-three all-time mark in scrimmage yardage among rookie backs, trailing only Eric Dickerson (1983) and Edgerrin James (1999) and displacing Ezekiel Elliott (2016) from the triumvirate.
Here’s what I said about Barkley in the rookie phenom’s 2018 NFL Draft prospect profile:
Each year Barkley progressed. As a sophomore, he showed that he could handle a full workload, earning 300 touches in a breakout campaign. As a junior he became a bona fide threat in the passing game: He finished just three receptions off the team lead, and he was first among all Football Bowl Subdivision running backs in receiving yardage. Barkley is a complete three-down player, and as his two return touchdowns highlight he has the agility and speed to break long plays whenever he touches the ball.
Barkley as a prospect is no less impressive than the backs selected with top-10 picks in the past few years.
In fact, Barkley is more impressive than all of them: He’s a better receiver than Leonard Fournette and bigger than Christian McCaffrey. Unlike Ezekiel Elliott, he produced as a freshman. Unlike Gurley, he’s not entering the NFL fresh off an ACL tear. And based on his combine performance, he’s the best athlete of the group. With his age, physical profile, and production, Barkley is the best running back prospect of the past decade.
Months later, Barkley hasn’t done anything as a professional to undermine that evaluation. Playing on a team with a limited quarterback and an offensive line that struggles to run block (3.94 adjusted line yards, 27th), Barkley has still managed to produce thanks to his goal-line usage (27 rushes and five targets inside the 10-yard line) and big-play ability (seven touchdowns of 15-plus yards and five of 50-plus yards).
While Barkley’s average of 16.3 carries per game is less than ideal, he hasn’t had fewer than 10 rush attempts in a game, and his receiving workload more than compensates for his rushing shortfall. He’s second among all backs with 87 receptions and third with 113 targets.
As impressive as Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey were in the receiving game last season as rookies, Barkley is just one catch shy of Reggie Bush’s 2006 rookie record of 88 receptions for a running back, and he could also approach Bush’s first-year record of 121 targets.
With all the volume Barkley gets as a receiver, he’s had at least 18 opportunities in every game this season. Add it all up, and Barkley trails only Zeke and McCaffrey with his 1,886 scrimmage yards.
At a glance, Barkley might not seem as if he’s in a great spot. The Giants are implied for just 23.75 points, which is a middle-of-the-road total, and the Cowboys are fourth in run defense with a -19.6% mark in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. But very few teams have high totals this week, and the Cowboys seem likely to rest many of their players, given that they’re locked into the NFC’s No. 4 seed. Rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch has been a force with his 85.3 Pro Football Focus run-defense grade, but the Cowboys don’t seem likely to give him his regular allotment of snaps.
On top of that, the Cowboys are relatively weak in pass defense against running backs. Linebacker Jaylon Smith has allowed an 80.0% catch rate, and no linebacker has been attacked in coverage more than Vander Esch has with his 83 targets. The Cowboys have allowed a top-five mark of 95 receptions to opposing backfields. The Cowboys defense has been surprisingly competent this season, but Barkley has a decent matchup.
But there are a couple of significant factors working against Barkley. Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (quad) is out, and the Giants have been a much worse team without him over the past two years.
- Without Beckham (15 games): 15.6 points per game, 1.22 points per drive
- With Beckham (16 games): 21.6 points per game, 1.92 points per drive
The sample is small, but Barkley has seen a dip in production without OBJ, as opposing defenses have been able to focus their attention solely on him.
- Without Beckham (three games): 17.2 FanDuel points per game, +0.76 Plus/Minus, 16.3 carries, 7.3 targets, 4.3 receptions, 110 yards and 0.67 touchdowns from scrimmage
- With Beckham (12 games): 22.2 FanDuel points per game, +7.79 Plus/Minus, 16.3 carries, 7.6 targets, 6.2 receptions, 129.7 yards and 1.0 touchdowns from scrimmage
In an offense missing its best player, Barkley has diminished potential.
Additionally, the Cowboys have tended to hit the under in the post-Tony Romo era (since 2016), especially on the road (per our data at Bet Labs).
- Over/under: 29-18 (61.7%), +3.33 Margin, 18.9% ROI
- Over/under on the road: 17-6 (73.9%), +6.2 Margin, 41.9% ROI
The Giants and Cowboys combine to have one of the slate’s slowest rates of play, so Barkley could find himself in a low-scoring game.
But even with this negative factors, Barkley leads the slate with his median, ceiling and floor projections. If you’re looking to pay up at the position, Barkley is the only safe option. As a game script-independent and matchup-agnostic three-down back seeing 83.0% of his team’s offensive snaps, Barkley should smash a Cowboys defense that should consist of second- and third-stringers for most of the game.
On Sunday morning, I might look to bet the over on Barkey’s reception prop, given his role in the passing game and the extent to which the Cowboys have allowed receptions to backs. To find the best bets in the props market, use our Player Props Tool, which is powered by our industry-leading projections. Since Week 1, the props with a bet quality of 10 have gone 222-103-12, good for a 66% win rate. Without question, you should supplement your DFS action with player props.
Barkley leads all backs with his 10 Pro Trends on DraftKings as well as 13 on FanDuel, where he’s the No. 1 option in the CSURAM88 and Levitan Models.
Week 17 Positional Breakdowns
Be sure to read the other Week 17 positional breakdowns.
For more in-depth NFL analysis information, check out The Action Network.