Running Back Sleepers, Values, and Targets
This year, there are roughly 13 running backs whose workloads and/or roles are reasonably predictable. I’m talking about Todd Gurley, LeVeon Bell, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, Melvin Gordon, Kareem Hunt, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette, Jerick McKinnon and Devonta Freeman. Considering the excellent depth at the receiver position, it seems wise to draft one or two of these running backs and then focus on receivers in the middle rounds.
The only problem with this strategy is that running backs tend to get injured more often than receivers, which not only punishes those owners who draft running backs early—those who get injured, anyway—but also rewards those owners who draft backup and/or committee running backs as part of a Zero-RB or “wait on running back” strategy since some of those backups will find themselves in a starting role due to injury.
There are fewer middle-round running backs who jump out as extremely good values, so instead of going WR-heavy in the early rounds, I’ve been drafting at least one running back in the first two rounds and then letting the draft play out to see if any value emerges at the position. At worst, I can go with a committee at my RB2 spot by drafting a few pass-catching backs (in PPR leagues) in the middle rounds. But given the depth at receiver, I have no problem starting RB/RB and rolling with someone like Larry Fitzgerald as my WR1 (in a PPR league).
For this article, I will break the position into three groups: Values (ADP in the fourth to seventh round), Sleepers (eighth round or later), and Targets (players I’m actively trying to draft at their current price). All ADP assumes a 12-team PPR format. 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.
Chris Thompson, Redskins* (in the fifth/sixth round)
Through the first 10 weeks, Thompson averaged 10.9 touches (4.2 catches) for 86 total yards and 0.56 touchdowns. He was the No. 11 RB in PPR formats (No. 10 in standard) at that point. His TD rate is probably unsustainable--he found the end zone on 5.8% of his touches--but he can still return good value at his ADP even if his touchdowns regress. That ADP is likely to rise now that Derrius Guice is out for the year with a torn ACL. Even with Adrian Peterson in the fold, Thompson should carry the ball more and have a major role in the passing game. Since 2014, when Jay Gruden became Washington's head coach, only one running back has seen at least 50 percent of backfield touches and there hasn’t been a player who has led the backfield in both rushes and receptions in that span (h/t T.J. Hernandez). I think he's an excellent value in the fifth round.
Rex Burkhead, Patriots (in the sixth round)
I wrote about Burkhead more extensively here, but suffice it to say, I don’t think that the Patriots’ decision to draft running back Sony Michel in the first round means he’s going to immediately win (or hold on to) the starting job. Michel has a history of fumbling in college, and the Patriots are notoriously fickle about ball security. The Patriots re-signed Burkhead to a three-year deal, so he’s going to have a role, and it could be a very big role. After returning from a rib injury, Burkhead averaged 12.1 touches (including 4.0 catches) for 65 yards and 1.0 touchdowns from Week 8 to Week 14, before a knee injury knocked him out of the remainder of the regular season. As our own T.J. Hernandez noted, "Even if we project New England for their three-year low of 456 total PPR running back points, Burkhead would need to account for just a third of that production to push for RB2 numbers.” I think he’s a very good RB3 and I’d even be content with Burkhead as my RB2 if I go WR-heavy at the start of the draft. Update (8/23): Jeff Howe reported that Burkhead is dealing with a "slight tear" in his knee (which could be a sprain, since a sprain is technically a tear) that is deemed to be a "minor injury" that he could have played through had it been a regular season game. He returned to practice on 8/19, so he should be fine for Week 1.
Alex Collins, Ravens (in the fourth round)
Taken as a whole, Collins’ breakout 2017 campaign should set him up for lead-back duties in 2018, but there are a few concerns. Collins averaged 5.60 yards per carry (YPC) in the eight games before Baltimore’s Week 10 bye, and just 3.80 after. His fantasy production was better after the bye (16.7 points per game versus 7.3 before the bye), but as his workload increased, his rushing efficiency dropped. None of this matters if Collins has a stranglehold on the No. 1 RB job, and as the summer wears on, the Ravens seem more and more content with the idea of Collins as the feature back. Jason LaCanfora said that “there isn’t much question” that Collins is the lead back in Baltimore, so his fourth-round average draft price (ADP) looks more than fair. Update (8/17): It looks lke Javorius Allen will continue to serve as the Ravens' third-down back, so Collins value is capped in PPR formats.
Lamar Miller, Texans (in the fifth round)
Continue reading to see who John has as his value plays at the running back position this year, which ball-carriers make up his sleepers list, and what he thinks about the rookie rushing class...
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