With Week 12 of the 2021 NFL season in the books, dynasty leagues are rounding into the playoffs as the last trade deadlines draw to a close. This past week saw yet another brutal slate of injuries that sent top running backs cascading to benches, both fantasy and reality. Let’s take a look at two running backs whose arrows are pointed up as they’re primed to affect playoff pushes in the NFC and in dynasty leagues.
RB Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings
Drafted in the third round out of Boise State three seasons ago, Mattison hasn’t seen the field much since 2019 as starting running back Dalvin Cook has enjoyed relatively good health. Mattison has had the opportunity to play over 50% of snaps just four times in his career, all in the past two seasons. In these four games, he’s averaged 23 carries for 108 rushing yards and nearly five catches along with one touchdown per game. Mattison has proven to be an effective lead back when called upon and is explosive on the ground and proficient through the air. With Cook suffering a dislocated shoulder in a Week 12 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Mattison is set to lead the backfield in Week 13 and likely even longer than that.
The Vikings play the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers in the next two weeks – two-run defenses that have been below average this season. It should also be noted that Cook signed a five-year, $63 million contract with the Vikings in 2020 that has a potential out after the 2022 season. Mattison is in the third year of his rookie deal, becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2023. It is a distinct possibility that in 2023, Mattison will lead or at least possess a sizable split of an NFL backfield. Though his value has spiked significantly, Mattison remains a buy for dynasty contenders and rebuilders alike. His value on any given week over the next two seasons has a mid-RB1 ceiling and he possesses long-term upside. I would move any rookie second-round pick for him and would be willing to include an additional piece such as Nico Collins or a rookie third-round pick to cement the deal. At the same time, I would be willing to trade Mattison for a running back with a more sustainable path to playing time such as Rhamondre Stevenson or a more productive handcuff like the running back below.
RB Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys
Pollard’s career trajectory is eerily similar to that of Mattison’s, as a mid-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft who has spent most of his career backing up a premier running back in Ezekiel Elliott. Pollard has also made the most of his limited opportunities, racking up 132 yards and two touchdowns in the only game he’s played the majority of snaps. However, he has taken his efficiency to a new level in 2021 and ranks fifth in yards per carry and rushing yards after contact per rush in the league among all players with at least 100 rushes. On Thanksgiving Day against the New Orleans Saints, Pollard had 68 total yards, four receptions, and a kickoff return for a touchdown. With rumors that the Cowboys could look to limit Elliott’s workload down the stretch, Pollard is in line for a big offensive role.
Much like Mattison, Pollard is a UFA after the 2022 season while the back in front of him, Elliott, is signed to a long-term deal (through 2026) with a potential out for Dallas (in 2023). He has already set career highs for rushing yards, receptions, and receiving yards with six games remaining in 2021 and is a valuable fantasy piece. I would recommend aggressively acquiring Pollard as his increasing role for the Cowboys and floor in PPR leagues, combined with his potential in 2023 and beyond, allows him to be a depth piece with immense upside. I would definitely move a second-round pick for Pollard and as a rebuilding team, I would be okay taking an immediate loss in production by moving shorter-term assets such as Darrell Henderson or Leonard Fournette for him. I would also advise looking into moving second and third-tier rookie wide receivers – Rondale Moore and Kadarius Toney – for the tantalizing talent of Pollard.