Fantasy Football Sleepers & Values: Running Backs
Updated August 20, 2014
Over the past few seasons, it has become more acceptable to draft one or two wide receivers in the first two rounds and wait until the middle rounds to start drafting running backs. While I’m still going to target an elite running back in the first half of the 1st round (and target Montee Ball and Eddie Lacy in the late 1st round), heading into 2014 draft season I would not be afraid to go WR/WR or TE/WR in the first two rounds and start drafting running backs in the 3rd or even 4th round.
Why? Because there are several backs currently available in the 3rd, 4th and even 5th rounds that I would not be afraid to start Week 1 if I was strong at receiver and/or tight end.
Below you’ll find several middle round running backs (along with their ADP in parenthesis) that I feel are good values along with a number of sleepers I’ll be looking to draft in the later rounds to round out my bench.
Andre Ellington, Cardinals (3.06)
Ellington is getting a lot of hype this offseason and some owners are worried that he’ll be the next David Wilson. The concerns are reasonable, but Ellington was highly productive in a limited role as a rookie and is being handed the starting gig now that Rashad Mendenhall is enjoying his retirement. HC Bruce Arians says he wants to build the offense around the diminutive RB, but that they’ll be careful not to overwork him, implying that they may limit his short-yardage work. He was the #25 RB in 2013 on 10.4 touches per game, but averaged 12.4 touches in his last 11 games. In that span, he averaged 9.3 FP, which are low-end RB2 numbers. Arians’ offenses don’t utilize the running back heavily in the passing game, but with the way he has been gushing about Ellington’s skill set, that may change. Ellington averaged 0.771 fantasy points per touch in 2013, so if he can maintain that production at a 15-touch workload, he’s looking at an average of 11.6 FP per game. Those are high-end RB2 numbers.
Toby Gerhart, Jaguars (4.02)
His ADP continues to creep up after the Jaguars did little to shore up the running game in the draft. Gerhart has touched the ball 15+ times in seven career games and has averaged low-end RB1 numbers (12.6 FP) with that type of workload. The former Heisman candidate will start for the Jaguars and should see a lot of work in that role. Gerhart has fantasy RB2 potential as a lead back, especially if the Jaguars can stay competitive. Even if they have to play catch up, he’s very capable in the passing game.
Bishop Sankey, Titans (4.12)
We’re projecting Sankey to (eventually) be the clear RB1 in Tennessee after the Titans took him as the first back in the draft. He’s a versatile back who doesn’t have much competition for touches. The last 13 rookies who were the top drafted RB in their class and joined a backfield with a lackluster incumbent (say, someone like Shonn Greene) averaged 18.2 touches for 83.1 yards and 0.55 TD, or 11.6 fantasy points per game. That’s about what Ryan Mathews averaged as the #12 RB in 2013. There have been some negative scouting reports since the draft, but the only thing that really matters is whether the Titans are willing to give him a big role – and it sure appears that they will. The offensive line should be better as well. 8/20 Update: He missed OTAs due to graduation responsibilities at the University of Washington, but has looked good in camp. It should only be a matter of time before he's the lead dog in the Tennessee backfield.
Ryan Mathews, Chargers (4.09)
From Week 6 on, Ryan Mathews was the #10 RB in fantasy. He averaged 21.5 touches for 104 yards and 0.55 TD over the remainder of the regular season, but petered out in the playoffs after suffering a high ankle sprain. Heading into 2014 fantasy drafts, his stock will be interesting to watch given how many owners he has burned in the past, and Danny Woodhead’s continued presence doesn’t help matters — he will limit Mathews’ involvement in the passing game. Still, Mathews has finished as a RB1 in two of the last three seasons and GM Tom Telesco confirmed that he is still the team’s “bell cow” RB despite adding Donald Brown to the mix. Just be sure to grab Brown as a very cheap (but talented) handcuff.
Rashad Jennings, Giants (5.12)
Jennings was the #6 RB from Week 9 to Week 15 (when he was playing starter’s snaps for the Raiders) and that included a missed game against the Jets in Week 14. In 13 career games where he has seen 15+ touches, Jennings has averaged 14.4 fantasy points, or solid RB1 numbers. He has three seasons where he averaged 4.5-plus yards per carry, and his dreadful 2012 season can be partly blamed on a knee injury he suffered in 2011. Jennings will be 29 to open the season, so he’s close to the end of a running back’s prime. But given the limited workload he has seen for most of his career, there should be plenty of tread left on his tires. 8/20 Update: David Wilson's injury means that the Giants will lean on Jennings early. Andre Williams could vulture some early-down and goal-line touches.
Joique Bell, Lions (5.10)
The Lions hired Joe Lombardi (formerly of the Saints) to run the offense. The general consensus is that he’s going to run the ball more, but the Saints actually threw it more often than the Lions did in 2013 (from a pass/run standpoint). However, with the way team personnel are talking about the new offense, we’re relatively certain that he’s going to utilize Reggie Bush in more of a receiving role. Bush saw about 50% of the carries in 2013, while Bell’s number was called 37% of the time. Lombardi was in New Orleans during Bush’s stint there, so he was around while Bush’s average carries dropped from 13.1 in 2007 to a career low 4.5 in 2010, his final season with the Saints. Bush has had far more success running the ball after leaving New Orleans, averaging 4.6 YPC with the Dolphins and the Lions compared to his 4.0 YPC while with the Saints. So while Bush probably won’t be ignored in the running game, the split could easily flip to Bell in a lead rushing role. Bell finished with 219 touches in 2013 (finishing as the #17 RB in standard formats) and the team just extended his contract, indicating that he’s a big part of their long-term offensive plan. He’s going in the #22-#25 RB range, but has upside from there as a potential 240-touch running back in a good offense.
Chris Johnson, Jets (6.01)
Johnson has never finished lower than #16 at his position in standard formats and has finished in the top 12 in each of the last two seasons. He’s changing teams, which usually isn’t a good thing, but the Jets are committed to the run and their offensive line is an upgrade over what Johnson was running behind in Tennessee. There is some uncertainty with his workload, though he doesn’t see himself in a timeshare and OC Marty Mornhinweg recently called him a “first-ballot Hall of Famer,” so we view it as unlikely that he’s in a strict timeshare with Chris Ivory. Don’t expect Johnson to see the 275-plus carries he has seen in the last two years, but 230-240 carries is a possibility. Throw in 35 or so catches and Johnson could easily post RB2 numbers.
Pierre Thomas, Saints (6.10)
Thomas racked up 224 touches for 1,062 yards and five TDs as the lead back in the 2013 version of the Saints’ committee at running back. With Darren Sproles gone, Thomas’s catches aren’t likely to take much of a hit (though Travaris Cadet and/or Brandin Cooks could see some of Sproles’s work). The team has shown signs of moving to Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson more in the running game, so PT may have trouble pushing 150 carries again in 2014. Still, he’ll be a regular part of the rotation in a potent offense and should be a good value in the middle rounds. In PPR formats, he has finished in the top 30 in PPG in five of the last six seasons.
Maurice Jones-Drew, Raiders (8.02)
MJD is far from a lock, but given his 8th/9th round price, there isn’t a whole lot of risk here. He’s a good bet to win the starting job in Oakland, and at 29-years-old, we’re not convinced that he’s completely over the hill. He averaged 4.8 YPC as recently as 2012 and doesn’t have the mileage of a typical 29-year-old back since he was a part-time player for his first three seasons in the league. Rashad Jennings had success down the stretch for the Raiders in 2013 and MJD played ahead of Jennings while in Jacksonville, so it’s not a stretch to think that Jones-Drew can thrive in Oakland as well.
Danny Woodhead, Chargers (8.07)
Woodhead finished #19 in standard formats and #12 in PPR, but the arrival of Donald Brown has seemingly put a dent in Woody’s stock heading into the 2014 season. It’s fair to think that he’s a stretch to finish in the top 20 again, but that doesn’t explain why he’s the #41 RB off the board in early drafts. He’s a capable RB3, especially in PPR formats.
Fred Jackson, Bills (8.11)
Jackson has finished in the top 15 in three of the last five seasons, but never seems to be drafted early thanks to the presence of C.J. Spiller and his considerable upside. The still-productive 33-year-old figures to continue to play in a timeshare with Spiller, though the arrival of Bryce Brown is a bit worrisome. Brown has not had a great camp so Jackson's role should be secure.
Mark Ingram (11.12) & Khiry Robinson (11.05), Saints
Robinson finished with 33 carries for 152 yards and a TD in his final three games. That extrapolates to 176 carries for 811 yards and 5.3 TD over a full season, or about what Trent Richardson scored as the #34 RB in 2013. Meanwhile, Ingram continues to sit atop the depth chart and looks good in camp. Ingram seems to be the better value at this point. He could easily see 10-15 touches if he continues to run well.
LeGarrette Blount, Steelers (15.02)
Blount scored the highest FP/snap (0.42) of all running backs who played at least 20% of their team’s snaps. He joins the Steelers as LeVeon Bell’s backup, but Bell missed time with a foot injury early in the season and was concussed late, so there’s no guarantee that he plays 16 games. Blount proved in 2013 that he’s very capable of carrying the load if given the opportunity, and it sounds as if the Steelers plan to give him touches in their base offense.
Ahmad Bradshaw, Colts (12.11)
Likely to start the season behind Trent Richardson, Bradshaw (who is either being drafted late or going undrafted altogether) could very well take over lead back duties if Richardson’s uninspiring play continues into 2014. He’s coming off of a neck injury, but has been cleared for contact and should be a full go for camp. His career 4.6 YPC puts Richardson’s (3.3 YPC) to shame.
Terrance West, Browns (8.10)
The Browns drafted West in the third round and the team has already said that it plans to play running back by committee. Ben Tate figures to be the lead back, but West saw some first team reps in OTAs with Tate nursing an injury. Tate is no stranger to the training room; he has missed seven games in the last two seasons, so durability is not one of his strengths. If Tate goes down, West will be ready to carry the ball.
Carlos Hyde, 49ers (8.12)
Kendall Hunter is out for the year, so Hyde is a Frank Gore injury away from starter's touches in one of the league's best rushing attacks. He should see a few touches each week as Gore's primary backup, but he's mainly an attrition play.
Devonta Freeman, Falcons (9.05)
He's still buried on the depth chart behind Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith, but Jackson continues to get dinged up, the team could turn to Freeman as the primary early-down back, while letting Rodgers handle third-down duties.
Jonathan Stewart, Panthers (16.01)
Stewart is finally healthy, or so it seems. He ran for two TDs in a recent preseason game and looked good doing it. He's just 27 years old, so it's not inconceivable that he could have a productive season. DeAngelo Williams stands in his way.
Andre Williams, Giants (10.03)
We believe Rashad Jennings will get the lion's share of the touches in the Giants' backfield, but Williams could spell him on early downs and get the goal line work if he can earn the trust of Tom Coughlin and the team's coaching staff.
James White, Patriots (14.01)
White may back up both Shane Vereen and Stevan "Butterfingers" Ridley, so he has upside if injuries or fumblitis take their toll. Brandon Bolden is also in the mix, however, so it's tough to envision a huge role for the rookie.
Lance Dunbar, Cowboys (13.10)
The Cowboys have called Dunbar “a complete weapon,” and the team reportedly has “big plans” for the 24 year-old. New passing game coordinator (i.e. offensive coordinator) Scott Linehan split the RB work between Reggie Bush and Joique Bell last season, and while we’re expecting DeMarco Murray to be the bell cow, he hasn’t been the most durable back since entering the league.
Dexter McCluster, Titans (15.07)
McCluster is expected to play the Danny Woodhead role in Ken Whisenhunt’s offense, so he could have spot starter value in PPR formats as the primary pass-catcher out of the backfield. Likely starter Bishop Sankey is no slouch in the passing game, but the Titans went out and signed McCluster early in free agency, so they clearly have a role in mind for him.
Due to the availability of players like Ellington, Gerhart, Sankey, Mathews, Jennings and Bell in the 3rd-5th rounds, I’m far less inclined to go RB/RB in the first two rounds because it won’t allow me to take advantage of this value in my starting lineup (unless the league lets you start three running backs, of course).
Every year, my willingness to draft a receiver or tight end (or both) in the first two rounds basically depends on how much I like the running backs in the 3rd-5th range. This season there are a number of backs that I’d be happy to have in my starting lineup to start the season, and that opens the door for a TE/WR or WR/WR strategy on draft day.