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Updated Deep Sleepers: Running Backs

The Footballguys staff digs for deep sleepers at running back

A fantasy draft is all about obtaining the most value with each selection. There is value available throughout a draft, and grabbing it is one of the most important keys to a successful fantasy team. This article specifically targets deep sleeper value (players that can be found very late in a fantasy draft). In an attempt to point out this value, we asked our staff to look deeper than the top 150 players and identify players that should significantly outperform their late draft position. These players should be your targets after the 12th round of your draft.

Player with 9 Votes

Joique Bell, Det

Sigmund Bloom: I’m not really sure why Mikel Leshoure is still thought of as the backup in Detroit, because every sign this year (and last season) points to Bell being the better back and better fit in Detroit’s offense. If Reggie Bush goes down, Bell is an instant top 15 back in PPR leagues, and he might do enough to have flex appeal even when Bush is healthy.

David Dodds: He is the real handcuff and backup to Reggie Bush. Mikel Leshoure averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and just 6.3 yards per catch last season as he battled a ton of injuries. Bell averaged 5.0 and 9.3 respectively. Talent always wins out and Bell is a better player than the higher drafted Leshoure by a good bit. He is just a Reggie Bush injury away from having a big role in an exciting Detroit offense.

Jeff Haseley: The Lions have Mikel Leshoure as an alternative running back, but Reggie Bush's primary replacement is Joique Bell. Don't forget, Bell occupied Bush's role last year and amassed 52 receptions in the Lions offense. Detroit loves to utilize the running back as a receiver in their modified spread style of offense. If Bush gets injured, Bell becomes a player of interest in fantasy leagues, especially PPR leagues.

Ryan Hester: It’s Bell – not Mikel LeShoure – who is the clear backup to Reggie Bush in Detroit. Not only has Bell outperformed LeShoure in training camp, but he fits Detroit’s offensive scheme much better. He caught 52 passes in exactly zero starts last season, showing that if he got extended playing time, he could be productive for a longer stretch. I have a ton invested in Reggie Bush due to my ranking of him and hyping him all preseason, so I hope he doesn’t miss any time. But if he does, Bell would be a viable RB2/flex play – even in standard leagues.

Aaron Rudnicki: Reggie Bush is around to carry most of the workload in Detroit this year, but Bell looks like a leader in the competition for the #2 job right now. A versatile player who can run with power, Bell should provide a nice complement assuming he can hold off the underwhelming Mikel Leshoure.

Kyle Wachtel: Bell may begin the season as the third running back on the depth chart. However, Reggie Bush will not be a full-time runner and Mikel Leshoure (3.7 YPC in 2012) is an awfully uninspiring runner. Bell averaged 5.0 YPC en route to 414 rushing yards and added 52 receptions for 485 receiving yards. He could surpass Leshoure on talent alone and then would be a strong handcuff to Bush.

Matt Waldman: A back who has long reminded me of Marion Barber in style, the Lions added Bell two years ago as a free agent and commented that they had long-term plans for him. Bell didn’t out-produce Mikel Leshoure last year, but he did out play the second-year Illinois star returning from an Achilles. With Reggie Bush added to the depth chart as the lead back, I think it provides an opening for Bell to eventually take Leshoure’s job if Leshoure cannot stay healthy and play to his talent level. As late as one can grab Bell, it’s worth the bet.

Mark Wimer: Joique Bell is someone to consider for your bench in deep leagues - Reggie Bush hasn't been a paragon of health throughout his career, and that goes for Mikel Leshoure as well. Bell put up 82/414/3 rushing (5.0 yards per carry) and 52/485/0 receiving last season in a part-time role. If Bell winds up starting for the Lions at some point, he could be VERY productive indeed, for the cost of a late-round draft pick.

Jason Wood: The Lions added Reggie Bush in the offseason and it’s clear he will be a major part of the offense. But it wasn’t long ago that Bush was considered an injury risk and even if Bush stays healthy, the Lions have room on the roster to leverage two running backs. Most fantasy owners view MikelLeshoure as the yin to Bell’s yang, but I see it differently. Joique Bell has far outclassed Leshoure throughout the preseason and quietly delivered a stellar season in 2012. He averaged 3.0 yards after contact – better Marshawn Lynch, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles. He also ranked among the best receiving backs on a per touch basis. Bell could be a star if Bush gets hurt, don’t forget that.

Players with 4 Votes

Bilal Powell, NYJ

Sigmund Bloom: Chris Ivory is back on the field at the moment I am writing this, but by the time you are reading this he might be sidelined again. He is a terrific talent, but he is one of the most likely starting running backs to yield to the backup due to injury at some point this year. Powell is nothing special (neither is the Jets offense), but he is a solid all-around back who will be starting for a team that has produced startable fantasy numbers at running back with nothing special (aka Shonn Greene) at the position in the recent past.

Cian Fahey: As much as the Jets will look to ride on Chris Ivory this season, Bilal Powell should still be involved on offense as a change of pace and third down back. Powell is a talented player who can make the most of his opportunities, but his real value lies in the the probability of Ivory missing time. If Ivory misses time, Powell could be set to take over a very large workload.

Steve Holloway: Powell has played adequately for the New York Jets over the past two seasons. He averaged 4.0 ypc last year on 110 carries and also caught 17 passes for another 140 yards. This will be his third season with the team. The other top two candidates for the Jets’ primary running back job are both newcomers. Most give the edge to Chris Ivory who has a 5.1 ypc career average, but who has played sparingly for the Saints in his three years there. He has been injured some and has also been inactive for numerous games, playing in only 24 games over three years. The other candidate, Mike Goodson played last year in Oakland following three years in Carolina. He has rushed for only 722 yards over four seasons and has had an arrest since coming to the Jets. Powell has a chance to be the last man standing.

Matt Waldman: He’s the starter in New York right now. Ivory hasn’t proven he can stay healthy and Goodson has something going on that no one will talk abut in New York that is keeping him away from the facility. Some of my colleagues believe Powell is a plodder. I think he was misused in New York’s split backfield with Shonn Greene. I will say that Powell is a bit of a volume runner, which means he’s at his best with enough carries to set up defenders as the game wears on.

Marcel Reece, Oak

James Brimacombe: If you play in PPR leagues you always want to consider rostering Reece as one of your last picks. He caught 52 passes in 2012 and had 767 combined yards. The other nice thing he has going for him is that he plays on a team that has Darren McFadden as their starting RB so you never know when he might have to be plugged in as the starting RB.

Andy Hicks: Reece had a 4 game stretch last year where he averaged 14 fantasy points and never got below 10 points. That occurred while Darren McFadden was injured. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that McFadden has injury problems and his backup Rashad Jennings is a career tease with injury problems of his own. Reece recorded 52 receptions last year and at the very least is good for a few points every week. How many times do those kind of players become very useful as the season wears on?

Aaron Rudnicki: The Raiders obviously have a talented starter in place with Darren McFadden but he has had a lot of trouble staying healthy. Reece is not a traditional fullback as he can easily contribute as a 3rd down back at times while also stepping in as a feature back when necessary. He posted 52 receptions a year ago while also averaging 4.6 yards per carry. I think he showed that he is ready for a bigger role, and more work for him could help McFadden make it through a season for a change.

Kyle Wachtel: The injury concerns regarding Darren McFadden are well-documented - he has averaged nearly five missed games per season. At 6’3”, 240 pounds, Reece has posted a career YPC of 4.8 and is also a terrific receiver. After taking over for McFadden in Weeks 10 through 12 last season, Reece averaged more than 100 total yards per game. If Reece is asked to replace McFadden once again, he has the ability to become a solid RB2.

Players with 3 Votes

Roy Helu, Was

Mike Brown: Along with everyone else, I was amazed at what Alfred Morris was able to do last season. That being said, I've also been amazed at what Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, and a number of other backs have been able to do in the Mike Shanahan system. That is no knock on Morris, because he does appear to be an excellent talent. But let's be honest - would you be completely shocked if somehow by the end of the season, Morris is NOT the guy we all thought he was during the 2012 season? C'mon, think back to how you used to feel about Mike Anderson and then get back to me. The truth is, Helu could have a nice role for himself regardless of Morris, because Helu is effective in the passing game. And if Morris were to experience any difficulties (ineffectiveness, injury, fumbling woes), Helu is in a prime spot to pick up the slack at the cost of a very late pick.

Ryan Hester: Last season, it was Helu who many thought would be Washington’s most productive running back. Injuries in both 2011 and 2012, though have slowed his progress. Helu is healthy now and will be the team’s third-down back as long as his bill of health stays clean. There could be a number of games this season where Helu has flex value and starter Alfred Morris has high-end RB2 prospects. In PPR leagues, especially, Helu could be a nice asset, as he has the potential to get to 40 or more catches. Along with being the passing down running back, I think Helu would be the Washington back you’d most want to own if Alfred Morris were injured. This late in your draft, that alone is worth a flier.

Aaron Rudnicki: We saw Helu’s potential late in the 2011 season when he looked like a potential PPR fantasy start. A great receiver out of the backfield, Helu appears to be in line for 3rd down duties with the Redskins this year. Alfred Morris proved himself a capable workhorse back last year, but he can’t take every touch so there’s clearly an opportunity for Helu to carve out a role for himself. Then if Morris were to go down with an injury at some point, you’re looking at a likely everyweek starter for your fantasy team.

Christine Michael, Sea

Sigmund Bloom: Michael is the best pure runner from the 2013 draft, and he landed on a team with one of the best running games in the league. Robert Turbin would still figure into the backfield if Marshawn Lynch goes down, but Michael has the talent to be a very strong RB2 in that event, even in an RBBC. He’s a terrific home run pick in the late rounds.

David Dodds: It's hard not to get excited about what this player brings to the table even as a rookie. He is a great fit to run behind this talented offensive line in Seattle. If Lynch were to miss time, Michael would likely be a top 10 RB the rest of the way (and possibly a lot better than this). When taking late shots at RB, this is exactly the kind of player you should be targeting.

Steve Holloway: Michael was drafted in the 2nd round this year and has played very well in the pre-season. Many expect Turbin to continue as the Seahawks’ second running back, leaving Michael around to be drafted very late. With Lynch’s beast mode style, he seems to be primed for injury this season, and in fact already suffers from back spasms. Michael could begin the season with a part-time role and carve out additional playing time with success. Seattle definitely wants to establish the run and could use both Lynch and Michael early. Michael’s best opportunity would involve missed time by Lynch, but that too is not an unreasonable assumption.

Players with 2 Votes

Mike Gillislee, Mia

James Brimacombe: Everyone is giving Lamar Miller the starting RB spot on the depth chart. Is this justified as only seeing limited action as a rookie? I am not sure I am completely sold as of yet and where Miller is being drafted I would rather pass and take his backup much later as a flier.

Ryan Hester: Gillislee is a rookie out of Florida who is likely to enter the season third on the team’s depth chart at the position. However, the players ahead of him are uninspiring (Daniel Thomas) and unproven (projected starter Lamar Miller). Gillislee isn’t flashy, but he knows how to find holes and get the yards that are given to him by his schemes and offensive line. It’s well within the realm of possibility that Gillislee sees a couple of starts this season, and that’s all you need to be a deep sleeper that pans out.

Shonn Greene, Ten

Mike Brown: Chris Johnson is the engine that makes the Tennessee offense go, but let's not forget that Greene was a starting-caliber back in his own right each of the past two seasons. Add in the fact that he is expected to be the team's short yardage (read: goal line) back this season, and he could carve out a nice little role for himself as a bye week replacement. And if anything should happen to Johnson, Greene would be running behind an improved offensive line with the full featured back role all to himself.

Jeff Pasquino: Shonn Greene was a very quiet but effective fantasy RB2 with the Jets last year, but now he is the second back on Tennessee. The question is, how will the Titans use him? Word has it that he will be used almost like a LenDale White, hammering the ball in between the tackles and at the goal line, stealing scoring chances from Chris Johnson. That makes Greene very valuable in traditional leagues and a big handcuff for Chris Johnson owners.

Chris Polk, Phi

Matt Waldman: I thought Polk had second or third-round talent entering the 2013 NFL draft, but he turned off scouts for a variety of reasons that had little to do with his ability on the field. He showed up this year in better shape and running with the authority that won me over at Washington when he was one of the most physical backs I saw in that 2013 class. He’s a former wide receiver in high school and his hands are excellent. Bryce Brown is a better talent in terms of upside, but he has to improve his decision-making and hold onto the football. Brown is doing the latter in camp, but not the former and it’s why Polk is earning time ahead of the wunderkind. Don’t be shocked if Polk does a “Joique Bell” on Brown this year.

Jason Wood: Last year Chris Polk was outclassed by Bryce Brown, who stepped into the #2 role in Philadelphia and delivered multiple 100-yard games as LeSean McCoy’s fill-in. But Brown put the ball on the ground at times and hasn’t been sharp this preseason. Meanwhile Polk came to camp a man possessed, and looks stronger, faster and more decisive than Brown. With Chip Kelly being obsessed with the ground game, Polk could be in line for big numbers as McCoy’s backup if he displaces Brown. Don’t bet against him.

Player with 1 Vote

Knile Davis, KC

Adam Harstad: After a mediocre senior season, Davis is generating very little buzz for a rookie 3rd round draft pick. At the moment, all that stands between him and a starting job in one of the most RB-friendly systems in the league is Jamaal Charles.

Lance Dunbar, Dal

Jeff Pasquino: Dunbar appears to be moving into the backup role for Dallas, right behind DeMarco Murray, a tailback with a checkered health history. Dunbar has looked strong in the preseason and has elevated above Joseph Randle and Phillip Tanner, so if he gets the chance to start or even split time with Murray then he will have a quick path to fantasy relevance in Dallas.

Justin Forsett, Jac

Mark Wimer: Justin Forsett has been effective for extended stretches of various seasons in his career, and has a careeer average of 4.9 yards per carry (79 games played for 341/1,662/8 rushing and 146 targets for 100/765/1 receiving). Maurice Jones-Drew has yet to prove that he is recovered from the surgery to correct his Lisfranc fracture, which is a dicey proposition at best. If Jones-Drew suffers a setback, or a reinjury, Forsett would be the next man up in Jacksonville. You can get Forsett for a throw-away pick right now - he's worth stashing on your bench.

DuJuan Harris, GB

Jeff Haseley: I fully believe Eddie Lacy will be the Packers starting running back, but don't discount DuJuan Harris as the team's second option in the run game. He showed a nose for the end zone late in the season last year when he was given more opportunities, plus Mike McCarthy has an interest in keeping him involved in the offense. He's a great late round RB to target, especially as a handcuff to Lacy.

Rashad Jennings, Oak

Jason Wood: We have to dig deep for candidates at the RB position, since more than 50 RBs come off the board in the top 150 picks, and so I’ll turn your attention to the Raiders new backup Rashad Jennings. Jennings is massive (6’1”, 238 lbs.) and was once considered a complementary weapon to Maurice Jones-Drew. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry in his first two season and also caught 42 receptions in limited work as MJD’s backup, but missed the entire 2011 season and looked like a shadow of his former self upon his 2012 return (2.8 yards per rush). But Jennings is battling Latavius Murray for RB2 honors in Oakland, and anyone that’s Darren McFadden’s backup is someone fantasy owners need to keep an eye out for.

Willis McGahe, FA

Adam Harstad: Want to draft a starting running back with the last pick of your draft? Pick Willis McGahee and hope for an injury during training camp. McGahee is a reliable veteran who currently finds himself unemployed, but who figures to be among the first players to get a phone call. It might not pay off, but few running backs still available that late in the draft have upside anywhere near McGahee's.

Knowshon Moreno, Den

Andy Hicks: Moreno is being drafted with the kickers and 3rd string quarterbacks, which is odd considering he was the starting running back for the last 7 games of 2012 and did a reasonable job as a receiver as well. Given that his primary competition will be a rookie in Montee Ball, of which John Fox has a documented history of rarely using rookie backs, and 2nd year man Ronnie Hillman who struggled with pass protection in 2012 and I’d give more than a passing glance at drafting Moreno late and seeing where things fall.

Latavius Murray, Oak

Chad Parsons: Every season, the Oakland backup running back position is a worthy fantasy consideration. Fantasy owners live by the mantra ‘it is not when, but how long’ in terms of tracking Darren McFadden’s injuries, making Michael Bush, Justin Fargas, Mike Goodson, and even Marcel Reese fantasy-viable in previous seasons. This year, the trio of possible replacements includes Marcel Reece, Rashad Jennings, and Latavius Murray. Murray is the exciting name to monitor for a big impact. He has some, keyword some,physical similarities to Adrian Peterson as a prospect. Looking through hundreds of drafted running backs over the past decade, that is a rare thing. Considering his dirt-cheap cost at the outset of 2013, Murray is a no-brainer final running back on a fantasy roster because, as the phrase goes, "the juice is worth the squeeze."

Stepfan Taylor, Ari

Jeff Haseley: I believe the Cardinals are concerned about Ryan Williams and his ability to come back effectively after struggling to return to form. Insert Stepfan Taylor who would then occupy the backup role to Rashard Mendenhall. Taylor may not have blazing speed, but he is a very effective running back who has earned an opportunity. Don't be surprised if Ryan Williams is dropped down depth chart or even released outright. Don't forget, the Cardinals also have Andre Ellington, who is awaiting his opportunity.

Daniel Thomas, Mia

Andy Hicks: Thomas will finally be given a chance to seize the job full time for the Dolphins following the departure of Reggie Bush. Before we get too carried away it must be said that he won’t be the favourite heading into that competition, but those of us who doubt that Lamar Miller will be the man see Thomas as the most likely and as the potential goal line back should be much better value than his current ADP states.

Mike Tolbert, Car

Jeff Pasquino: The Carolina Panthers love to run the ball, and neither Jonathan Stewart nor DeAngelo Williams is a stranger to the injury report. Last year, Tolbert posted strong numbers (54-183-7 rushing, 27-268-0 receiving) with Stewart sidelined for nearly half of the season. Tolbert’s seven rushing scores was second to QB Cam Newton and two higher than the lead tailback DeAngelo Williams. Tolbert has history posting solid numbers out of the backfield in both San Diego and Carolina and could be another goal line vulture for the Panthers this year.

Robert Turbin, Sea

James Brimacombe: The Seahawks have one of the best running games in all of football and with that they also have the 3 very talented RBs in Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin, and newly drafted Christine Michael. Losing Percy Harvin for most of the year is going to continue to allow the Seahawks to do what they do best in running the football. Turbin looked every bit the part when he was given the opportunity last year. If Lynch goes down, Turbin is an instant plug and play RB1/RB2 as he showed his worth in Week 14 last season rushing 20 times for 108 yards.