Running Back Sleepers, Values and Targets

Aug 26, 2019
Running Back Sleepers, Values and Targets

This year, there are roughly 21 running backs whose workloads and/or roles are reasonably predictable. I’m talking about Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara, David Johnson, LeVeon Bell, Joe Mixon, James Conner, Damien Williams, Todd Gurley, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb, Aaron Jones, Kerryon Johnson, Chris Carson, Josh Jacobs, Devonta Freeman, Derrick Henry, Mark Ingram, Leonard Fournette and Marlon Mack. This is more depth than last year, where at this point in the offseason I counted 13 such running backs. The receiver position continues to enjoy excellent depth, so it seems logical to draft two or three 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. Since so many (20) of the backfields are more or less settled, there aren't as many Zero-RB types this year. Drafters can still utilize a Zero-RB strategy, but it may not be as easy as in years past.

More Sleepers, Values and Targets: QB | TE | WR

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 outside of the first three rounds that I’m actively trying to draft). All ADP assumes a 12-team half-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. Players with a ^ before their name were added or moved after the article was originally published.

Running Back Values

David Montgomery, Bears

In an effort to become less predictable, the Bears traded away Jordan Howard and signed Mike Davis (34 catches last year in a part-time role with the Seahawks) before trading up to draft Montgomery in the third round. Montgomery was reportedly “a problem” for the Bears’ defense in spring workouts and led “the rookies, if not the entire team” in big plays this offseason. HC Matt Nagy praised Montgomery’s route-running and said that the team knew he had “great hands.” Montgomery is the clear favorite to lead the team in carries, though he’ll have to deal with Tarik Cohen if he hopes to have a major role as a pass-catcher. One thing to note: When I studied "Trade Up" running backs earlier in the offseason, I found that third round "Trade Up" running backs outscored their counterparts by 54% in their rookie seasons. I am a little worried that Davis's dual-threat ability will limit Montgomery's upside in his first season.

Latavius Murray, Saints

Continue reading for four more RB values, seven RB sleepers, five RBs John is targeting regularly and 21 RB attrition plays...

Mark Ingram averaged 13.3 touches per game last season and 18.0 touches per game the year before, so the role he’s vacating is sizable. Alvin Kamara will be the clear leader in backfield touches, but if Murray sees Ingram’s 2018 rushing workload (11.5 per game) at his career 4.1 YPC, he’s looking at around 48 yards per game just as a runner. Throw in a half touchdown per game and half of Ingram’s receiving production and Murray could post a low-end fantasy RB2 season, and he’d have RB1 upside if anything were to happen to Kamara. Standalone value plus RB1 upside is a nice combination for a middle-round running back.

Darrell Henderson, Rams*

HC Sean McVay reportedly thought that Henderson was the most dangerous offensive player in the draft. When I studied “Trade Up” running backs this offseason, I found that since 2008, when teams traded up for a back in the third round, they produced 54% more fantasy points than their “No Trade Up” counterparts. So history is certainly working in Henderson’s favor. GM Les Snead said that Henderson brings that “[Alvin] Kamara element” to the team, so it seems clear that he’s going to be involved as a rookie. If Todd Gurley misses time, Henderson will probably split work with Malcolm Brown. Like Kamara, Henderson should hold more value in full-PPR formats.

Running Back Sleepers

Royce Freeman, Broncos

In his first season, Freeman gained 521 yards and five touchdowns on 130 carries (4.0 YPC), but was never able to beat out undrafted rookie Phillip Lindsay (192 rushes for 1,037 yards, 5.4 YPC). Some believe that Freeman will usurp Lindsay in his second season, and Lindsay’s absence (due to wrist surgery) from spring practices allowed Freeman to operate as the RB1. Lindsay was so much more productive than Freeman last season that he’s going to have to fall on his face to lose the lead back job. Being undrafted, Lindsay probably has less room for error than a typical incumbent starter, and depending on how Freeman plays, this timeshare could be closer to even in 2019.

Damien Harris, Patriots

Given their depth at the position, the Patriots raised some eyebrows when they drafted Harris in the third round, raising questions about the health of Sony Michel’s knee. With Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead on the roster, Harris may not have a big role right away, but if/when the injuries start to pile up, Harris has the three-down ability to take advantage.

LeSean McCoy, Bills

McCoy’s production fell off of a cliff last season as he gained 514 yards on 161 carries for a 3.19 YPC. He’s on the wrong side of 30 and hasn’t averaged more than 4.0 YPC since 2016. Still, he’s going so late in the draft for someone with his talent, and it’s possible he could have a bounceback season or get traded to (or released and then subsequently signed by) an RB-needy team with a better offense.

Kalen Ballage, Dolphins

Ballage has been getting the first running back reps in camp, so it appears that he’s ahead of Kenyan Drake for now. (Update: Drake did draw the start in the first preseason game.) If that’s the case, he’s currently one of the last starters off the board since his ADP is in the 11th round. Ballage is big and fast, but last season he went down on first contact far too often.

Justin Jackson, Chargers

Jackson’s ADP is rising due to concerns about the Melvin Gordon holdout, though he’s still available into the double-digit rounds. There are those that believe Jackson will leapfrog Austin Ekeler if Gordon misses games, but I think it’s more likely that he’ll serve as the RB2 in a two-back committee. In the three games that Gordon missed and Ekeler was healthy, Jackson averaged 8.3 touches, so he basically took over Ekeler’s role as the secondary back.

Adrian Peterson, Redskins

Peterson gained 1250 yards on 271 touches in his age 33 season, but his ADP will be dependent on the status of Derrius Guice, who is expected to be the running back of the future in Washington. Guice is currently practicing so Peterson is available very late in drafts. The main problem for Guice fans is that his balky knee has required three additional surgeries due to infection and he was already dealing with a hamstring injury in camp. Washington signed Peterson to a two-year deal, but only $1.5 million is guaranteed, so they can move on if necessary. For now, I think Peterson will continue to start until it’s obvious that Guice is ready to take over.

^Justice Hill, Ravens

Hill rushed for 3,539 yards across three seasons at Oklahoma State before the Ravens took him in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. He's not a big player, but his athletic profile is very solid while his closest comparable at Player Profiler is Reggie Bush. The Ravens' backfield is a bit crowded, but the fact that the Ravens drafted Hill at all given their RB corps speaks to what they think he can bring to the team. Mark Ingram likely leads this backfield in touches, but he's pushing 30 and missed some games due to injury in 2013-2015 (12 games missed), so if Ingram misses time, Hill will get his chance.

^Darwin Thompson, Chiefs

The sixth-round rookie (153 carries for 1,044 yards and 14 touchdowns at Utah State) has had a great camp and seems to be passing Carlos Hyde on the Chiefs' depth chart at running back. He's small, but he's agile and quick, and has dual-threat ability. I still firmly believe that Damien Williams is the back to own (at his ADP) in this backfield, but Thompson looks like a good Zero RB/attrition play as a way to get a cheap piece of what should be the league's most potent offense.

Running Back Targets

^Damien Williams, Chiefs

Williams took over for Kareem Hunt in mid-December and definitely looked the part. He boasts 4.45 speed and a 95th percentile speed score, per Player Profiler. He averaged 19.4 touches for 114 yards and 1.6 touchdowns in five games (23.4 PPG in half-PPR formats), including the postseason. He averaged 5.60 YPC in that span and showed dual-threat ability, playing well enough to earn a two-year extension from the Chiefs, which I think is a key indicator heading into 2019. The team called him their starter all offseason, until he missed some time with a hamstring injury, then Andy Reid starts talking about using a committee—which he almost never does—but I don’t really buy it. Carlos Hyde isn’t very good anymore, and Darwin Thompson is more of a change of pace back than someone who is really going to eat into Williams’ workload. I realize that owners are skittish about a career backup possibly flopping in a starting role, but it worked for Michael Turner, LaMont Jordan, Darren Sproles and Chester Taylor, and it can work for Williams too.

^Chris Carson, Seahawks

Last year at this time, Carson was expected to lose the lead back job to rookie Rashaad Penny, but that never happened and Carson finished with 1,314 total yards and nine touchdowns on 267 touches. He had some sort of a procedure done on his knee, though he's a full go at camp. With Mike Davis (146 touches) now in Chicago, there is plenty of room or Penny’s role to grow without affecting Carson’s workload, but Carson is making a case for a 300-touch season. He's apparently shown good hands as a receiver, and the Seahawks want to double his targets. He's reportedly taking at least two-thirds of the snaps in camp with the starters, with Penny rotating in occasionally. Carson is a great pick at his current ADP in the fourth round, but I think he might be going in the third by late August.

Josh Jacobs, Raiders

A rookie like Jacobs would typically be going in the third round, but the depth at the position has him going off the board in the fourth round, on average. He should see a big workload in his rookie season. Oakland has roughly 18.2 touches per game vacated by Marshawn Lynch and Doug Martin, though the team did re-sign Martin after Isaiah Crowell’s injury. (This is probably a net gain for Jacobs since Crowell is better than Martin at this point.) From 1998-2007, Jon Gruden’s lead backs averaged 266.1 touches on an average of 14.7 games played. That works out to 18.1 touches per game for Gruden’s top back, so assuming Jacobs can keep Jalen Richard at bay on passing downs, he should see 250-280 touches. Moreover, the Oakland offensive line blocked pretty well in the running game last season, finishing No. 13 in Adjusted Line Yards at Football Outsiders. Of this year’s running back draft class, Jacobs easily fared the best in Kevin Zatloukal’s model that predicts a back’s chances of success in his first three seasons.

Mark Ingram, Ravens

Ingram is 29 years old, has dual-threat ability and has averaged 4.6+ yards per carry in each of the last four seasons. The Ravens are likely to lead the NFL in all rushing categories, so Ingram should post RB2 numbers with RB1 upside if his touches are consistent. The Ravens gave Ingram the second-most money at his position in free agency, so they are likely to feed him the ball.

^Miles Sanders, Eagles

Sanders’ offseason got off to a rough start since he missed all of spring practices with a hamstring injury. But he has been turning heads in camp and is ascending the depth chart. He checked in with the second-highest chance of success in Kevin Zatloukal’s new running back model and finished third when Kevin’s three models are averaged. There is upside here, but he may not get a big workload until he’s able to put Jordan Howard in his rearview mirror. Based on how the beat reporters are gushing about his talent, that may be sooner rather than later. The Eagles have had a committee backfield under Doug Pederson, but that could change this season.

^Duke Johnson, Texans

Johnson finally got his wish to be traded, and he landed in a pretty good spot behind a vulnerable RB1 (Lamar Miller) in what should be a high-scoring offense. In the last three seasons (48 games), Johnson has turned 195 carries into 907 yards for a 4.65 yards per carry. He has caught 174 passes for 1,636 yards and scored 11 total touchdowns. The resulting 10.3 points per game (PPR) put him at a high-end RB3/low-end RB2 pace in that format on just 7.7 touches per game. Alfred Blue saw 170 touches last year, so there's a sizable role for Johnson, though the Texans haven't utilized their running backs in the passing game very often. Update (8/24): Lamar Miller suffered what looks to be a serious knee injury, so Johnson will have a chance to seize a three-down role in Houston. Depending on the severity of the injury and whether or not the Texans make another move at running back, at this point Johnson is worthy of a fifth round pick on draft day.

James White, Patriots*

White finished as the No. 8 running back in half-PPR formats yet he’s going significantly later in fantasy drafts. With Rob Gronkowski and Chris Hogan retired/gone, there should still be a sizable role for White in the passing game. White’s numbers did take a dip when Rex Burkhead was available, but he should continue to lead this backfield in receptions.

Kenyan Drake, Dolphins

Despite the feeling that the fantasy community views his 2018 campaign as a failure, Drake finished the season as the No. 17 back in half-PPR formats. He hasn’t been a consistent producer thus far in his career, but that was mainly due to his irregular usage under former HC Adam Gase. There’s a new regime in town and the team let Frank Gore walk, vacating 156 carries in the backfield. Kalen Ballage has actually been running ahead of Drake in camp, but I think Drake’s talent will win out in the end. If he gets the workload, he’ll produce. In 12 games where he received at least nine carries in the last two seasons, he has averaged 17.8 touches for 96 total yards and 0.50 touchdowns per game (on 4.66 yards per carry). Even if Ballage begins the season as the starter, Drake will likely have a big role, especially in the passing game. This Dolphins team is likely to spend most of the season trailing on the scoreboard, which enhances Drake’s outlook as a very good pass-catching back.

Austin Ekeler, Chargers

Even before the Melvin Gordon holdout began, Ekeler was one of my favorite late-round running back targets thanks to the every-week role he has with Gordon in the lineup. In 14 games with Gordon, Ekeler averaged 8.5 touches for 68 yards and 0.45 touchdowns, and he has fantasy RB2 upside with Gordon threatening to hold out. In three games without Gordon last season, Ekeler had touch counts of 17, 18 and 17, and he opened camp with the starters. In five career games where he saw at least 10 carries, he averaged 16.2 touches for 84 yards and 0.60 touchdowns. Those are fantasy RB1 numbers. He’s now going in the sixth or seventh round which is a fair price to pay given all that’s going on with Gordon. I’m pretty pessimistic that Gordon will report before midseason.

^Tony Pollard, Cowboys

Pollard was a fourth round pick by the Cowboys. He gained 1,010 total yards on 117 touches as a junior at Memphis, playing behind Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor. He actually played some slot receiver at Memphis, so he is known for his hands, but he has a good combination of size (210 lbs) and speed (4.42 40-yard dash at his pro day), and could turn into a three-down back if things break his way. Jon Machota of The Athletic writes, "The Cowboys are thrilled with everything they’ve seen from the rookie up to this point. He’s been getting more work with the first team and continues to be used in a variety of ways." In his projection of the Cowboys' 53-man roster, he listed Pollard as the RB2 behind Ezekiel Elliott. If Elliott's holdout extends into the season, Pollard's value is going to skyrocket.

Attrition Plays

These are players that are 1-2 injuries (or a possible trade) away from ascending the depth chart into a feature back role. It’s almost a sure thing that a few of these guys make fantasy headlines at one point or another in 2019.

Chase Edmonds, Cardinals

Dion Lewis, Titans

Mike Davis, Bears

Malcolm Brown, Rams (cheap handcuff alternative for Todd Gurley)

Devin Singletary, Bills (move him up if LeSean McCoy is traded or cut)

C.J. Anderson, Lions

Gus Edwards, Ravens

Matt Breida, 49ers

Ty Montgomery, Jets

Giovani Bernard, Bengals

Cameron Artis-Payne, Panthers

Ito Smith, Falcons (keep an eye on Brian Hill)

Ryquell Armstead, Jaguars

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