Fantasy Football Running Back Sleepers, Values and Targets
Over the past few seasons, it has become much more common practice to forgo the running back position in the early rounds and instead focus on receiver (or tight end). After a historically bad season for early-round picks at position in 2015, running backs bounced back in 2016, so owners may see more backs coming off the board in the early rounds this year.
The position looks pretty top-heavy in 2017, with two no-brainer studs, David Johnson and LeVeon Bell, and another stud, Ezekiel Elliott, with a looming suspension. I’m comfortable with the average draft positions (ADP) of LeSean McCoy, Jay Ajayi and Devonta Freeman, and I could live with DeMarco Murray, Leonard Fournette, Lamar Miller and Isaiah Crowell in the third round.
After that, there appears to be a significant drop-off. Joe Mixon and Christian McCaffery are going in the third round of MFL10s, but they don’t look all that different than Ameer Abdullah, Spencer Ware or Bilal Powell, who are going in the late-5th to mid-6th round.
I will break the position into three groups: Values (4th-7th round), Sleepers (8th round or later) and Targets (players I’m actively trying to draft at their current price). 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.
Ameer Abdullah, Lions (in the 5th/6th)
Through 18 games in two seasons, Abdullah has averaged 4.34 yards per carry on 161 rushing attempts. In Week 1 of last year, Abdullah served as the Lions’ lead back, and turned 17 touches into 120 total yards and a touchdown. He’s coming off of a Lisfranc tear, but reportedly looked great in offseason activities. Beat writer Tim Twentyman said that Abdullah showed “great burst” in practice and that the team’s offense is “noticeably different” with Abdullah in the lineup. When Joe Holka studied Abdullah for his Rushing Expectation series, he determined that a “breakout is imminent” because Abdullah is “that special of a talent.”
Spencer Ware, Chiefs (5th/6th)
In 17 games where he’s seen at least 10 carries—13 of those games occurred in 2016—Ware has averaged 17.9 touches for 99 yards and 0.59 touchdowns, or 15.5 fantasy points per game (in PPR formats). Those numbers would have extrapolated to No. 8 RB numbers in 2016. Ware missed two games last year, but was on pace to finish as the No. 11 RB had he stayed healthy. Holka studied Ware for his Rushing Expectation series and argued that Ware has “league-winning upside.” The Chiefs drafted Kareem Hunt, and he has his believers in the fantasy industry, so Ware’s ADP now sits at the end of the 5th round. He will be an excellent value there provided that he can hold onto the starting running back job.
Ty Montgomery, Packers (4th)
Montgomery started getting significant playing time in Week 6, and from that point on, he averaged 73 total yards and 0.27 touchdowns (not including the playoffs). This resulted in 13.0 PPG in PPR formats and 9.0 PPG in standard in that span. In two healthy playoff games (versus the Giants and the Cowboys), Montgomery gained a combined 149 yards and found the end zone twice. Montgomery has beefed up this offseason to prepare for a full season at running back. In his Rushing Expectation series, Holka came away impressed: “Montgomery is built like a feature back, yet pairs rare receiving ability with elite vision in the open field. It's surprising how natural he made the transition from wide receiver to running back look, consistently showing patience and maturity between the tackles.” Montgomery has been working on his pass protection, which is the one thing standing in the way of a three-down role.
Danny Woodhead, Ravens* (6th)
Woodhead is an elite pass-catcher and an underrated runner. With Kenneth Dixon out for the year, Woodhead will form a committee with Terrance West. Joe Flacco compared Woodhead to Ray Rice in June, and Rice averaged 4.25 receptions per game in his final five seasons in Baltimore. If Woodhead's role is similar, he has 60–70-catch upside. In 18 games over the past two years, Woodhead has averaged 11.3 touches for 69 yards and 0.56 touchdowns per game. Those are RB1 numbers in PPR formats and high-end RB2 numbers in standard leagues.
Mike Gillislee, Patriots (6th)
One of my favorite draft tactics is to target talented free agent backups when they land in good situations with new teams. It has worked in the past with Michael Turner, Darren Sproles, LaMont Jordan and Chester Taylor—remember those last two names?—and Gillislee jumps out as a good of a bet as any this year. Over the past two seasons, he has gained 844 yards on 148 carries (5.70 yards per carry) and found the end zone 12 times. In fact, among running backs with at least eight rush attempts inside the opponent's 5-yard line over the past two seasons, Gillislee is tied with LeVeon Bell for the highest touchdown conversion rate (70.0 percent) in the league. With LeGarrette Blount off to Philadelphia, the Patriots are looking for a runner who can handle the power running game along with those short-yardage duties and Gillislee certainly fits the bill. As Chris Raybon mentioned in his in-depth examination of the New England backfield, the Patriots consistently rank in the top four in the number of plays run inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, so double-digit touchdowns are a distinct possibility for Gillislee. He’s also better equipped than Blount to stay on the field in some passing situations, and if he starts getting third-down/hurry-up work, watch out. The main concern right now is that Gillislee has missed a good chunk of camp with a hamstring injury.
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