Two top-20 fantasy football running backs have been ruled out for Week 14, leaving gaping holes in lineups with the playoffs starting. But the absence of James Conner (ankle) and Matt Breida (ankle) also opens the door for two late-season waiver wire adds who could turn into league-winners.
Enter Jeff Wilson Jr. and Jaylen Samuels, rookies who find themselves in favorable fantasy football situations.
In order of priority at running back, consider Wilson the first choice unless Conner is placed on injured reserve. Wilson proved in Week 13 he can handle the lead role, he offers passing-game upside and plays behind a strong offensive line. Samuels, on the other hand, is a satellite back who’s a better pass-catcher than he is a runner and could face an even split of carries with Stevan Ridley. Samuels can also be deployed as a tight end in Yahoo! leagues. This adds to his potential, especially in PPR formats.
Jeff Wilson Jr. Takes Backfield Reins in San Francisco
Wilson made a statement in his first meaningful action this season, totaling 134 scrimmage yards on 23 touches in Week 13. The undrafted rookie from North Texas worked in the featured role after Matt Breida, the usual lead back, aggravated an ankle injury in warmups. Wilson carried the ball 15 times for 61 yards (4.0 YPC) and saw a whopping nine targets, catching eight of them for 73 yards.
The Niners ruled out Breida for Week 14, and given his injury history he’s no lock to return this season. San Francisco (2-10) has nothing to play for and could opt to place Breida on injured reserve. Regardless, Wilson gets the keys to the backfield for at least a week. Journeyman Alfred Morris figures to get some work, but he doesn’t possess the dynamic ability that Wilson flashed and won’t get a ton of carries.
Wilson benefits from running behind an offensive line that ranks No. 10 in the league in run blocking, according to Football Outsiders. San Francisco running backs average 5.0 YPC, the fifth-best mark in the NFL. Wilson draws another exploitable matchup against Denver’s No. 23-ranked rushing defense. The Broncos allow opposing running backs to average 4.9 YPC and 24.4 fantasy points per game.
Jaylen Samuels Offers Receiving Upside in Conner’s Absence
He’s carried the ball 12 times for 31 yards (2.6 YPC) this season, which doesn’t inspire confidence in his rushing ability. The rookie fifth-round pick from NC State worked primarily as a change-of-pace back in college, never seeing more than 77 carries in any of his four seasons. But he shined in the passing game with the Wolfpack: his 20.2-percent college target share ranks in the 97h-percentile. He tallied three consecutive seasons with at least 55 receptions and 565 receiving yards.
That passing-game prowess has translated into the NFL. Samuels has caught 7-of-9 targets for 54 yards and two TDs. And it’s in the passing game where Samuels holds fantasy value in PPR formats. Coach Mike Tomlin indicated that the team would go with a running-back-by-committee approach. That means Samuels will compete for carries with fellow backup Stevan Ridley, who should handle the bulk of early-down work.
Fantasy gamers who lost James Conner shouldn’t expect Samuels – or Ridley for that matter – to replicate Conner’s body of work. But Samuels enters the low-end RB2 conversation thanks to his ability as a receiver.
Curtis Samuel Makes the Second-Year Leap
Despite Carolina’s four-game losing streak, Samuel’s recent play shows why the Panthers used a 2017 second-round pick on the talented receiver. Samuel recorded 13 catches for 160 yards and two TDs over the past three games. During that span he saw 20 targets and averaged a 70-percent snap share, finishing as the WR19 in PPR formats.
His 11 targets, six catches and 88 receiving yards in Week 13 all set season highs. Samuel played 88.5-percent of the snaps, also a season high, dwarfing his previous best snap share of 49.2-percent. Cam Newton has looked his way in the red zone in each of the past three games, and boasts a 106.7 QB rating when targeting Samuel.
The Panthers lost tight end Greg Olsen to a foot injury and he appears done for the season. That means his 13.3-percent target share is up for grabs. Devin Funchess returned from a back injury in Week 13, and if he’s healthy he’ll take targets away from Samuel. But Samuel has proved he deserves a bigger piece of the passing pie in Carolina. His six TDs rank No. 10 among receivers and are two more than Funchess has. Samuel’s 0.78 fantasy points per pass route are a testament to his efficiency, and that mark ranks No. 2 in the league.
Samuel draws a dream schedule for the fantasy playoffs. The Panthers face Cleveland (No. 29 in pass defense), New Orleans (No. 30) and Atlanta (No. 27) over the next three weeks.
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