It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, so the idea of having an elite RB1 like Ezekiel Elliott for the price of a second round pick, is enticing. If you hit on your other picks, you will lock in an advantage over your peers who didn’t mine as much late season value from their picks.
If you do target Elliott, you’ll have the knowledge that you are taking him to help you prepare for his possible six-game absence, which can cushion the blow of getting nothing from a core pick for the first seven weeks of the season. Which players are the best targets to pair up with Elliott?
Note: Remember that number of bench spots is a key variable to consider when determining whether taking these players are wise for your team. In a 14 or 16-man roster league, taking a suspended player necessarily means you have to carry an extra player than can’t contribute and therefore clogs up a roster spot that can be used in the all important early waiver wire runs. In 20-man roster leagues, you should easily be able to carry replacement candidates without limiting early season roster flexibility. Just make sure you don’t take too many other “late bloomers” like rookies or injured players that you will feel reluctant to release early in the season.
Darren McFadden, DAL (Cost: 7th-8th Round) - This is the easy answer, although one that might not be satisfying by Week 2 or 3. All signs point to McFadden being the clear backup and lead back while Elliott is out. Then we remember that this is Darren McFadden, he of the frequent injury and disappointment. The 7th-8th round is prime territory for upside RB/WR plays, an ascendent QB1 talent or one of the last TE1’s. Something in my gut tells me that this isn’t the most productive angle on mitigating an early pick of Elliott, and we might see more of Rod Smith and Alfred Morris than expected.
Jacquizz Rodgers, TB (Cost: 10th Round) - Doug Martin is dealing with a three-game suspension of his own, and Rodgers will be the starter during that time. The first two are against the Dolphins and Bears, which should be favorable matchups. The Bucs were comfortable riding Rodgers when he started last year, and they will be again this year.
Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis NE (Cost: 12th Round or Later) - Burkhead and Lewis were already high on my sleepers and must leave your draft with him list. Add in Mike Gillislee’s on and off hamstring issues throughout the offseason and preseason and Burkhead could be the lead between the tackles and goal line back for the season opener against the Chiefs. although we should track whatever is causing him to miss practices. The chance of recurrence of Gillislee's hamstring the Patriots taking it easy early with Gillislee increase Burkhead’s speculative early season value. If it's Burkhead and Gillislee limited, we have already seen the Patriots willingness to use Lewis in every situation in 2015, and he has regained his old form by all accounts. Go ahead and add James White to this list if you want. Taking one or two Patriots backs in the second half of your draft fits every plan.
C.J. Anderson, DEN (Cost: 5th Round) - Anderson is looking like an excellent fit for Elliott teams despite the fifth round price tag. His problem has been lasting through and staying strong for an entire season, but that is downplayed when we emphasize the first seven weeks. Devontae Booker is out with a wrist injury and Jamaal Charles is playing for his spot on the roster. The Broncos have the Cowboys, Bills, and Raiders Weeks 2-4. He could be an RB1 through the first month of the season, although he does have his bye in Week 5.
Ameer Abdullah, DET (Cost: 6th Round) - Abdullah should have been in your sixth-round consideration list anyway, but his value is increased if you spend a second on Elliott. One of the main drags on his value is the potential for injury to mar his season again, but in a six week sample (his bye is Week 7) that becomes a smaller factor. The Lions open with five or their first six games on turf, which suits the strengths of Abdullah’s game. Did I mention that Theo Riddick was still in a red non-contact jersey in practice as of August 23? If he is limited early, Abdullah has easy top 10 PPR running back upside.
Bilal Powell, NYJ (Cost: 6th Round) - This one isn’t for the faint of heart, but Powell was a strong RB1 when Matt Forte was out last year, and Forte has been struggling with a hamstring issue this preseason. Powell opens with the Bills defense in flux and also gets the Raiders, Dolphins, and Browns in Weeks 2, 3, and 5 while Elliott is suspended. Powell would seem to benefit from the Jets getting blown out as much as he would the Jets being competitive (which might be a stretch) because of his safety valve value for a struggling quarterback. Powell also doesn’t have a bye in the first seven weeks.
Adrian Peterson, NO (Cost: 6th/7th Round) - If you don’t like older backs, feel free to substitute Mark Ingram at his fifth round cost here. I prefer Peterson because the Saints open with his old team, the Vikings. They also have the Dolphins, Lions and Packers Weeks 4-7 (with a Week 5 bye, bummer for Elliott drafters). The Saints will be without left tackle Terron Armstead for most, if not all of that stretch, and replacing him with first-round pick Ryan Ramczyk, who is a better run blocker than pass blocker. Sean Payton has shown an inclination to run the ball 25-30 times or more and may have that as a Plan A against the Patriots in Week 2 to keep Tom Brady on the sidelines. Peterson’s value reflects a belief that at his age, he might wear down or get hurt. That doesn’t matter as much when the first seven weeks are the most important to you.
Paul Perkins, NYG (Cost: 7th Round) - Perkins is one of the last starters off of the board, and he has season-long upside to outproduce his draft position, especially if Shane Vereen can’t stay healthy. It’s possible he takes on a larger role if Odell Beckham is out or limited early, and the Giants offense could get off to a hot start with the Cowboys and Lions to open. I have been on the fence about taking the plunge with Perkins, but I know which side I would fall on if I took Elliott in the second.
Jonathan Stewart, CAR (Cost: 10th-11th Round) - Baked into Stewart’s ADP is the belief that Christian McCaffrey could take over more of the backfield as the season goes on, but that is downplayed when you are just looking to cover the first seven weeks. The Panthers schedule opens with the 49ers creampuff run defense and then the Bills and Saints at home, who are also vulnerable vs. the run. Stewart’s outlook is much better in games the Panthers should win, and all three qualify. He should project for 15-20 carries with a decent shot at a score in all three of those games, and the Lions and Bears matchups in Weeks 5 and 7 are also favorable. Stewart also has a Week 11 bye.
Rob Kelley, WAS (Cost: 9th Round) - Kelley and Washington running game have been far from impressive at this point in the preseason and they open with the tough front seven of the Eagles, but the Rams, Raiders, and 49ers matchups in Weeks 2, 3 and 6 will be useful, although his bye coming in Week 5 hurts. Samaje Perine may take over at some point in the season, but if Kelley holds onto the ball and does his job, he’ll be the starter through their bye.
James Conner, PIT (Cost: 15th Round) - Conner isn’t the clear cut backup yet, but he showed he could hold up under a large workload after an injury-riddled preseason and offseason, and he offers more short and long-term upside than Fitzgerald Toussaint or Knile Davis. One would think if Le’Veon Bell gets hurt after holding out, Conner would get the largest share of the backfield and first shot at starting. A small chip on a Bell injury that could give you a reasonable RB2 option for some part of Elliott’s suspension is a low-cost, high-reward angle on drafting to address your weakness.
Tevin Coleman, ATL (Cost: 7th Round) - Coleman might have trouble reproducing his 2016 value without good touchdown luck and his early Week 5 bye hurts his case to be an Elliott fill-in, but the schedule makes him worth a second look. The season opens with the Bears, Packers, Lions, Bills and Dolphins in Weeks 1-6. All of those teams have question marks at linebacker and the Falcons could try to isolate Coleman in positive matchups in the passing game like they did against the Bucs, Saints, and Broncos last year. Devonta Freeman has already suffered a concussion, a second early in the season would give Coleman the reins. Coleman isn’t a primary consideration for Elliott drafters, but envisioning a scenario where he can save their bacon isn’t difficult.
Jeremy Hill, CIN (Cost: 13th Round) - I am not a fan of taking Hill in any format, but I might make an exception for Elliott drafters. The team might be conservative with Joe Mixon at first, and Hill should be in line for goal line work at least. His floor and ceiling are still low, but he’s available for pennies and the Bengals open with winnable home games against Baltimore and Houston and have the porous Browns and Bills run defenses in Weeks 4 and 5.
Javorius Allen, BAL (Cost: 15th+ Round) - This is a long shot, but one that could connect. Danny Woodhead’s hamstring injury might give Allen the inside track for the receiving back job early in the season on a team that targets the running back heavily and might be playing from behind with all of their misfortune this year. Terrance West possibly should belong on this list, but I don’t believe in him and I’m not willing to pay the current eighth round price. Danny Woodhead would have been high on this list before the hamstring injury and he’s still a main target of mine in PPR leagues, but this dampens his early season outlook, which is amplified for Elliott drafters.