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5 Late-Round Running Backs You Should Be Targeting

Bonnema analyzes five running backs who offer lots of upside for little draft capital.

With calendars firmly in August, we can officially take ADP seriously and focus our efforts on drafting championship fantasy football teams. A large part of that effort includes identifying late-rounders that could establish themselves as key pieces of our teams. You can call them sleepers if you want, but in today’s culture of excessive information, I’d say that title jumped the shark years ago.

To clarify the process for the players in question, just like in the sister article to this one covering wide receivers, I decided to route everything through PPR scoring. The reason for that decision is built on our Post-2016 survey, in which approximately 60 percent of you said your league utilizes PPR scoring. So when I refer to Player A as RB36, it means RB36 in PPR scoring during Weeks 1-16, unless otherwise noted.

Regarding the concept of what qualifies as a “late round running back”, I took the standpoint of 12-team leagues, with the 10th round being the cutoff. That’s not necessary an arbitrary number. After 10 rounds, the core of your roster is set and you are merely drafting depth. So it’s fair to say players chosen in the 11th round or later qualify as late-round selections. The number by each player’s name is where they are being selected at their position per our consensus ADP for PPR leagues.

Now that we have politics out of the way, let’s dive in!

Jamaal Williams – RB49

First things first, the hype around rookie running backs is out of control this year. The fact of the matter is, rookies have an alarming failure rate when you compare their performance to historical ADP. The recent rookie seasons of Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, and LeVeon Bell seem to be clouding judgements. For context, Leonard Fournette is being drafted two full rounds above where Adrian Peterson was drafted in his rookie season per historical ADP data by MyFantasyLeague.com. That’s an insanely risky proposition, especially considering who Fournette plays for. In short, you’re better off chasing Jordan Howard than Elliott.  

Next, let’s clear the air on beat-writer talk that the preseason so often breeds. The “Player A is pushing the starter for reps” is nothing more than one person’s observation that so rarely converts to anything meaningful once the season starts. Case in point:

Now, it is interesting that Williams has apparently been good in pass protection, which is one of the quickest ways to seeing more playing time. It’s also interesting that during his college career he handled nearly 800 touches and fumbled only five times. So, he’s a dual-threat when it comes to pass protection and ball protection. But “pushing the starter for reps” is a far cry from “becoming the starter anytime soon.”

Meanwhile, Ty Montgomery has struggled this preseason in pass protection while making the fulltime switch from wide receiver to running back. He also fumbled in the Packers’ first preseason game. But he’s a weapon with the ball in his hands, and where he might struggle in protecting the quarterback he more than makes up for with his skills as both a runner and receiver. Montgomery isn’t losing his starting role anytime soon.

The truth is, running backs selected after the 10th round are, at best, part of a committee attack and require injuries to teammates in order to see quality snaps. But Williams is a little different. The Packers aren’t necessarily committed in any way to Montgomery—he’s never had more than 16 carries in a game and his next highest is nine—and even though Williams is mediocre where metrics are concerned, he’s more of a traditional running back with bell-cow protentional.

This is a long way of saying he doesn’t need an injury to Montgomery in order to produce for his owners. Williams could see a lot of time around the goal line if he continues to protect the ball. And even though the Packers called running plays only 35.3 percent of the time last year (second lowest percentage in the league), they drafted three running backs after cleaning house—an indication that head coach Mike McCarthy is aiming to establish a running game.

To put it another way, Williams is being drafted as the 49th running back off the board, and actually has a good shot at splitting snaps so long as his pass protection continues to improve, all while playing for one of the best offenses in the league. So while everyone else is chasing Elliott’s rookie season by burning top draft capital on the likes Fournette in the second round, and Joe Mixon and Christian McCaffrey shortly thereafter, Williams actually gives you upside at a fair price.

Thomas Rawls – RB50

When Eddie Lacy signed with the Seahawks earlier this year, and we learned about his $165,000 incentive to lose weight, the jokes practically wrote themselves (Seahawks went from Beast Mode to Feast Mode). His signing figured to be the end of Rawls, who in 2015, ranked fifth in rushing yards and 16th in fantasy points during his lone healthy spell from Week 3 to Week 13.

Health being the operative word. His 2016 season was derailed from the beginning when he wasn’t able to participate in most of the preseason and then suffered a leg injury in the second game of the regular season that cost him nine weeks. He struggled when he came back partially due to missed playing time, partially due to the Seahawks’ offensive line—which ranked 26th in run blocking—and partiality due to the fact that the Seahawks’ offense was predictable with Russell Wilson hobbled.  

But as of mid-August, Rawls sits atop the depth chart while Lacy has seen limited action. That may mean nothing once the snaps actually matter; it is, however, a sliver of hope that maybe Rawls will be the main ground attack for a team looking to reestablish the run. That could also mean C.J. Prosise takes over lead duties at some point this season, but Rawls has at least proven he can play that role when healthy. I expect the Seahawks’ offense to be one of the best in 2017, which means one of their running backs could evolve as a weekly RB1 option. And should that not be the case, Rawls is the cheapest investment of the three and easy to churn into a waiver exchange as necessary.

Giovani Bernard – RB54

While everyone is gushing over Mixon and essentially pronouncing Jeremy Hill dead, let’s not forget that Bernard is still one of the most talented players on the Bengals’ offense and is in the process of completing an impressively speedy recovery from an ACL tear that occurred last November.

The injury isn’t as concerning as his timeshare outlook, which is clouded due Mixon’s elite metrics and Hill’s presence. It could be that Mixon is worth his current third round draft price and pulls together a stunning rookie year. But his chances of doing so are directly related to how well Hill plays—a great receiver in his own right—and how quickly Mixon adjusts to pass protection at a pro level.

In between the two, Bernard’s role is the clearest—he’s a third-down running back with extraordinary pass-blocking skills. In fact, his ability to protect the quarterback is his inside ticket to added snaps—an area where both Hill and Mixon remain liabilities. That probably explains why Bernard, before tearing his ACL in Week 11, out-snapped Hill 394-278.

I’ve been harping on pass protection a lot. That’s because it’s a major concern for this team—they ranked 26th in that category last year per Football Outsiders—and coming into 2017, we have their offensive line ranked 32nd, which is, you know, the worst. If you believe Hill is suddenly going to turn into a great blocker, or that a rookie running back will immediately pick up pass protection alongside a terrible line and earn a full workload as a result, then by all means ignore this passage, but Bernard is their only proven asset.

And if you’re concerned about his size, keep in mind he can do this:

Bernard is a special talent who, despite only playing 10 games, finished as RB37 last year, and was RB20 before getting injured. Furthermore, only five running backs had more targets from Week 1 to Week 11. Some of that can be attributed to the health of Tyler Eifert, who didn’t play until Week 7, but we shouldn’t downplay what Bernard brings to the table as a receiver. Selecting him the 13th round is hardly a gamble, even if he doesn’t promise much in the way of touchdowns.

Chris Thompson – RB59

Only 12 running backs had more targets than Thompson last year, which paved the way for his RB30 finish despite only logging 65 carries and five touchdowns. That could all change with Sean McVay now with the Rams and Matt Cavanaugh taking over as offensive coordinator. Under McVay, Washington was seventh in pass attempts and ran three wide receiver sets 73% of time, ranking sixth. Those stats easily explain why Thompson was so involved as a receiver and why he ranked fifth among his teammates in target market share (10.5%), despite only playing 46% snaps (leading all Washington backs by a fair margin).   

But the departure of Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson leave a combined 214 targets unclaimed for the 2017 season. Newly acquired Terrelle Pryor is the logical option to absorb a great deal of those targets, Jordan Reed, Jamison Crowder, and Josh Doctson the others, but Reed already has injury concerns entering the season, and Thompson is still the best player on the roster when it comes to catching passes out of the backfield.

In fact, there’s no clear RB1 in this offense. Rob Kelley is the default, for lack of better description. And rookie Samaje Perine might be the future. What’s great about Thompson is, regardless of who wins the starting role, his path is definite—he’s the passing-down back that figures to, once again, lead Washington backs in snap accounts (not so unlike Bernard). So, while Kelley’s role may not be safe, and Perine may not be good enough to be a lead back in 2017, Thompson is the same player as he was last year. And he’ll be waiting for you in the 15th round—several picks below his running-mates.

Jalen Richard – RB67

The Oakland backfield got a little easier to figure out after they signed Marshawn Lynch. He will be the lead back until age or aggravation does him in. Meanwhile, Richard and DeAndre Washington are left to split whatever scraps are left—none of which will be goal line work. If not for Lynch, you could make a case for either backup.

For now, I’m taking fliers on Richard, who ignored contact by defenders last year on his way to leading all running backs in yards after contact per attempt. He also displayed a keen sense of vision and ability to read blocks in front him, as one analyst pointed out earlier this year:

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to just single out Richard without also mentioning that Washington ranked fourth in yards after contact per attempt. What this tells us explicitly is that the Raiders’ offensive line might be the best in the league when it comes to run blocking. They at least rank highly coming into 2017 season, which is probably better for Lynch than anyone, but if anyone is going to take Lynch’s spot should he have old man problems, it will be Richard. Washington is much faster and more athletic, but Richard has vision and patience similar to that of Lynch. Richard also has proven to be a reliable pass-catcher, even if that isn’t his primary duty.

As it stands, Washington gets the preseason love given his superiority in the metrics box and current status as RB2 on the depth chart, but both have plenty of value behind a solid offensive line and a veteran who turned 31 in April, who hasn’t played since the 10th week of 2015, and whose back problems persist. A lot will change by Week 1, but don’t be afraid to target Richard right before you draft your kicker and defense.