22 Running Back Sleepers & Values (Plus 15 Attrition Plays)
Updated 8/30, new text is indicated in red.
Over the past few seasons, it has become much more acceptable to draft one or two wide receivers in the first two rounds and wait until a bit later to start drafting running backs. Last offseason, I did a couple of studies — Are Early Round Receivers Safer Than Running Backs? and Should You Be Drafting More Wide Receivers in the First Round? — which convinced me to fully endorse a WR-early approach last season. Given the historically poor performance of early round running backs in 2015, I will do so again this year
Note: The WR-early movement has led to some quality running backs slipping into the 3rd round.
It’s important to realize that this plan is not simply a function of running back bust rates. There are several backs going in the middle rounds that look like terrific values heading into draft season, and those values make it a lot easier to target stud receivers in the early rounds.
I will break the backs into two groups: Values (4th-7th round) and Sleepers (8th round or later). There are a lot of names here, but it represents just how deep the crop of running backs is this year. I’ll also include a section for Attrition Plays – players who are poised for starter-caliber numbers if there’s an injury further up the depth chart.
Note: Players with an asterisk next to their names have extra value in PPR formats and are not quite as valuable in standard leagues.
C.J. Anderson, Broncos
Anderson wasn’t fully healthy heading into the season and struggled at the onset, averaging just 2.69 YPC on 11.4 rushing attempts through the first six weeks of the season. He turned it around in a big way after the Week 7 bye, however, racking up an average of 64.5 yards on 11.6 carries (5.57 YPC) and 0.58 TD over his final 12 games, including the playoffs. Those are mid-level RB1 numbers in standard formats and low-end RB1 numbers in PPR. Moreover, the Broncos committed to Anderson down the stretch, feeding him 15.6 carries over the final five games. In that span, he averaged 13.7 fantasy points in standard (and 15.9 FP in PPR). Those averages would have been good enough to finish #3 in both formats. Even though he finished strong, playoff numbers don’t count for fantasy, so the fact remains that Anderson burned his owners in 2015. As a result, his ADP is likely to remain a bit depressed heading into 2016 fantasy drafts. He’s a nice value in the 4th round.
Danny Woodhead, Chargers*
Woodhead finished #12 in standard formats and #3 in PPR in 2015. He’ll have a new offensive coordinator, Ken Whisenhunt, who returns to the Chargers after coordinating the offense back in 2013. In that season, Woodhead averaged 9.3 FP (standard) and 13.8 FP (PPR) in 18 games, including the postseason. Those are solid RB2 (standard) and RB1 (PPR) numbers, respectively. Worries about the potential emergence of Melvin Gordon will depress Woodhead’s ADP, which is currently residing in the 7th round of early standard drafts (5th in PPR). He’s a fantastic target for owners who want to wait on value at the RB position. Still not sold? Click here.
Carlos Hyde, 49ers
Hyde was the #14 RB (PPR) through the first six weeks before missing the rest of the season with a foot injury. Chip Kelly's teams in Philadelphia had an average ranking of 7.3 in total rush attempts, so Hyde should get plenty of work as the team's lead back. The team re-signed Shaun Draughn after he showed solid productivity down the stretch, but Hyde is the better talent and should serve as the team's RB1. There has also been plenty of talk about Hyde assuming a larger role in the passing game, which is crucial since the 49ers are likely to be trailing more than they’ll be leading.
Thomas Rawls, Seahawks
With Marshawn Lynch out of the way, Rawls is first in line for workhorse back duties given his performance in 2015. In the six games in which Rawls played and Lynch did not, the rookie averaged 20.5 touches for 120 yards and 0.84 touchdowns (on a stellar 5.6 YPC). That doesn't even include Week 3, when he turned 16 carries into 104 yards while Lynch was limited to five carries. A fractured ankle ended his season, but it didn't require surgery and he should be ready for training camp, though they appear to be targeting a Week 1 return. If he were fully healthy, his ADP would likely be in the 3rd round. Update: Christine Michael has had a good preseason and is worth a pick for Rawls owners wanting to hedge their bets.
Giovani Bernard, Bengals*
Bernard has finished in the top 17 in each of his first three seasons in PPR formats. In standard, he’s more of a low-end RB2 since Jeremy Hill gets most of the Bengals’ goal line work. The team lost a couple of pass-catchers in free agency, and there’s talk of Bernard playing some snaps in the slot or in two-RB sets alongside Hill. Bernard is a solid value in the 5th round of PPR drafts, though he doesn’t have the upside of some of the other backs going in that range.