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The Unusual Suspects: 3 Late Round Running Backs to Target

Phil Alexander gives you three late round running backs who have emerged as potential championship difference makers as we approach the end of draft season.

Since I started writing about fantasy football five years ago, it’s become an annual tradition of mine to wrap up the preseason by sharing my ‘Usual Suspects’ - the players who landed on the majority of my rosters and will either lead me to glory or haunt my existence during the upcoming season.

As I started writing this year’s edition, two things struck me:

First, I had already written about these guys all preseason. If anyone wants to know who ended up on most of my teams, they could read my player spotlights, value plays, check my rankings, or the results of numerous staff mock-drafts I took part in. There’s really not much more I can write about the guys I’ve been drafting all preseason I haven’t already written.

And second, if you haven’t drafted yet, you don’t need an inventory of my teams dating back to July. You need fresh, actionable advice. So instead of sharing the players who found their way onto most of my rosters, I’m changing things up a bit.

The three running backs listed below aren’t found on many of the teams I’ve already drafted, but they would be if draft season started today. You can call these guys ‘late risers’ or say their ‘stock is up’, but I’m sure many would disagree. 

All I know for sure is my outlook on these players has changed for the better in recent weeks, and breakthrough performances by late round running backs are often fantasy championship catalysts. As we enter draft weekend, here are three ‘Unusual Suspects’ to target at running back once your draft reaches the double-digit rounds:

Rex Burkhead

Why I doubted him - Besides the presence of Mike Gillislee, Dion Lewis, and James White on New England’s running back depth chart? For most of the summer, it appeared Bill Belichick’s dreams of playing fantasy running back Russian roulette with a bullet in every chamber were finally realized.

How he won me over - Before I get into Rex Burkhead, let’s get one thing straight: The running back who ends up with the majority of goal line carries in New England is someone you want on your fantasy team. We all remember LeGarrette Blount leading the league in carries from the five-yard line or closer last year. Just in case you think Blount’s 2016 was a one-off event; since Bill Belichick took over as Patriots head coach in 2000, New England has scored 294 rushing touchdowns from inside their opponent's 5-yard line. The Patriots lead the league by more than 12% over the next closest team (New Orleans) over the same span.

For the majority of the off-season, it was assumed Gillislee -- who scored a touchdown on a league-leading 8.2% of his total touches last year (minimum 100 touches) -- was a lock to reprise Blount’s role in the New England offense. Fast forward to the present, Gillislee has missed most of training camp and all of the Patriots preseason games with a lingering hamstring injury.

Gillislee’s injury woes have opened the door for Burkhead to run with the starting offense on base downs and in short-yardage situations. New England didn’t invest much more in Gillislee than they did in Burkhead this off-season, so we have to look at the Patriots early-down role as an open competition Gillislee has lost to this point. 

Burkhead, for his own part, is an interesting prospect. Back at the 2013 combine, he was the top running back performer in the vertical jump, broad jump, 3-cone drill, 20-yard shuttle, and 60-yard shuttle. His production on the field at Nebraska was also exceptional, but he ran an appallingly slow 4.73 40-yard dash, which dropped him down to Round 6 in the NFL Draft. On the limited opportunities Burkhead has received since entering the league, he’s looked effective as a runner and pass catcher, making up for his lack of straight-line speed with the lateral quickness and agility suggested by his outstanding combine measurables. Burkhead also fits the mold of the high-motor, high-character player Belichick has shown an affinity for in the past.

As of this writing, the situation remains fluid. Gillislee returned to a full practice Tuesday, while Burkhead missed practices on Tuesday and Wednesday with an undisclosed injury of his own. It would have been telling if both were active for the preseason dress rehearsal and one played with the Tom Brady unit ahead of the other, but it doesn’t seem like we’ll have clarity by the weekend. 

Still, If I had to place a chip today on the Patriots running back who will emerge with the most consistent week-to-week value, it would land on Burkhead. He’s the more versatile option (Gillislee has 15 receptions in 23 career games), which means Belichick doesn’t have to pull him on passing downs. And perhaps more importantly, Burkhead remains dirt cheap in fantasy. He’s routinely available after Round 10, while Gillislee is still going in Round 5 on the strength of industry hype from back in OTAs. 

C.J. Prosise

Why I doubted him - Seattle signed Eddie Lacy during the off-season to pair with Thomas Rawls on base downs. While the Lacy signing didn’t threaten C.J. Prosise’s role as the Seahawks’ primary pass catching option out of the backfield, it did mean Prosise no longer had a 50-50 chance to beat out Rawls in training camp for the lead-back job.

How he won me over - Prosise hasn’t done much of anything this off-season to win me over. In fact, he’s currently dealing with a groin strain (an MRI showed no serious injury) and the Seahawks coaching staff is growing weary of his inability to stay on the field. My interest in Prosise has less to do with anything he’s shown this off-season, and more to do with what Lacy and Rawls haven’t shown - the ability to stay healthy and make an impact.

I realize using health as an argument in favor of Prosise is borderline absurd, but assuming this latest injury doesn’t linger, he might have the highest fantasy ceiling of any player being drafted in the double-digit rounds. There is no shortage of ways Prosise can find himself leading this backfield in touches before the season is over. Rawls is already dealing with an ankle injury, which raises an eyebrow considering he hasn’t been the same player since ankle surgery ended his 2015 season. And even if this current ankle injury is as minor as the Seahawks are making it sound, Rawls’ violent running style doesn’t exactly lend itself to making it through a 16 game schedule.

Lacy hasn’t been able to move past Rawls on the depth chart despite Seattle committing starter money to him in the offseason. It’s an outrageously small sample to be sure, but Lacy has been awful this preseason. He’s looked slow while rushing for 30 yards on 10 carries, hasn’t shown any ability to change direction, and isn’t even running with his trademark power. When you combine Lacy failing the eye test, his well-documented battles with conditioning, and beat writer speculation he may not be fully recovered from November ankle surgery, it’s easy to spot the opening for Prosise -- even if Rawls were to hold up all season. 

Prosise is labeled a pass-catching specialist and there’s no doubt his experience as a college wide receiver will get him on the field in obvious passing situations. But don’t confuse Prosise with a Theo Riddick type. He goes 6’0’’, 220 lbs and runs with the blend of speed and power you’d expect from a player with an 88th percentile weight adjusted speed score

Prosise put all his tools on display during a memorable 153 yard Week 10 performance in New England -- his only career game with more than eight total touches. He would have had a goal-line touchdown in the game too, if not for a bad call by the officials.

Prosise is the type of player whose preseason projections can’t possibly look appealing on paper due to Seattle’s crowded depth chart. But he’s also the type of player who can quickly climb the depth chart due to in-season attrition and challenge top-5 fantasy running back numbers when he gets his opportunity. At the end of drafts, your goal should be to stockpile as many players like Prosise as you can -- guys with top-end talent, versatile skill-sets, solid offensive team set-ups, and several realistic paths to outperform their projections. 

Marlon Mack

Why I doubted him - A fourth-round rookie scat back? No thanks.

How he won me over - I’ve been on the Colts beat this offseason for our weekly Training Camp Reports, which has kept me immersed in the buzz coming out of Indianapolis. The drumbeat for Marlon Mack from those closest to the team has been impossible to miss. It started with reports he was “flashing regularly” during the first week of practices. The hype train was briefly derailed when Mack hurt his shoulder and missed the Colts first preseason game, but check out some of the quotes around Mack since he debuted with 59 total yards on seven touches last week:

“I thought Mack was outstanding. He’s a slasher, an athletic guy, good vision, good hands and he’s tough. Whether he’s carrying the ball, catching it, protecting on third down, he’s got the size and the toughness to pick up guys, he’s real talented. He’s grown up a lot. He’s so elusive. He breaks tackles. He’s a glider. He reminds you of Jamaal Charles. He’s going to be a heck of a football player.” - Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano

"He's added a nice element to our offense. "He's got good speed, and I've been pleasantly surprised with his pass-catching abilities." - Colts quarterback Scott Tolzien

“The fourth-round pick out of South Florida showed positive signs in all three phases — running with a smooth and fluid style, picking up a free pass rusher on a blitz and making a tough catch on a ball thrown high and behind him and turning it into a 13-yard gain.” - Colts Beat Writer George Bremer

“Mack’s seven touches generated five missed tackles.” - Pro Football Focus

When a head coach compares his rookie running back -- who also happens to be the only bright spot on the entire offense for the duration of the preseason -- to a future Hall of Famer, it’s time to pay attention. Especially when the only players ahead of him on the depth chart are Frank Gore and Robert Turbin.

Gore has been dangling off the edge of the running back age cliff for years. At 34-years old, the chances he falls off completely far outweigh the possibility of another workhorse season. Since 2000, the only 34-year-old running back to exceed 108 carries and 444 rushing yards was Emmitt Smith (2004). 

While Turbin remains the backup to Gore, Mack has already begun getting more second team work. And it’s not like the team doesn’t know what it has in Turbin, who has played on four teams over the last three seasons and owns a career 3.9 yards per carry average.

The continued absence of Andrew Luck hurts all Colts skill position players, but as the only true backfield playmaker on the roster, Pagano may have to turn to Mack earlier than expected to add any type of big play element to the offense. Six of Mack’s 15 touchdowns last season at USF came from 43 yards out or more -- a feat Gore and Turbin can only accomplish in their dreams at this point. And of course, when Luck returns Mack becomes even more dangerous since he’ll find more open running lanes to exploit.

When you look at the other running backs going in the 13th round, there aren’t many who can carve out a role without an injury to the starter in front of them. Mack looks impossible to take off the field for a team struggling to move the ball without its starting quarterback, and his season-long outlook is boosted by the less dynamic backs in front of him on the depth chart.