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.