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Deep Sleepers: Running Backs

The Footballguys staff digs deep for 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.

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Players Receiving 6 Votes

Jordan Howard, Chicago

Haseley: The Bears don't have a known lead running back right now and rookie Jordan Howard is included in the mix to be fighting for that role. Howard's size, 6'0, 230 pounds is the type of back that John Fox has thrived with in the past. A ground and pound physical specimen who can carry the load and produce at the goal line. Howard's ADP of RB54, 154 overall is ideal for taking a chance on a rookie running back with a chance to be involved in year one.

Holloway: Howard was not drafted until the fifth round, but the running backs ahead of him on the Bears' depth chart should not strike fear into anyone that loves to compete. It is possible that Howard begins the year in a committee role, but overtakes Langford and Carey by mid-season, particularly if he can have success in a third down role.

Ingel: Jordan Howard (6'0, 230lbs) is the exact opposite of Jeremy Langford; a nasty inside runner who likes to hit and drag defenders as he goes. As we saw in Denver and Carolina, John Fox, has no problem running with a two-man backfield, and that's certainly how things could play out this year, with Howard getting the early and goal-line work and Langford the passing down plays. Buy shares of Howard now while you can.

Parsons: Jeremy Langford has generated tepid-at-best reports this offseason. Howard is a big-bodied back who runs with power between the tackles and has capable pass-catching acumen. At a minimum, expect Howard to be a factor in the red zone and salting away the clock later in games. In a murky backfield, Howard is a quality bet to rise during the season with or without an injury on the depth chart.

Pasquino: Jordan Howard was a top back in college last year with Indiana, topping 1,587 yards in 2014 with 13 rushing touchdowns and then following that season up with last year's 1,213 yards and nine rushing scores in just nine games. The biggest thing here for me is that every opponent knew that Howard was getting the ball, yet he still averaged 5-6 yards a touch. Now that the Bears selected him, all that stands in his way is another young (and relatively unproven) back in Jeremy Langford. With no Matt Forte left in Chicago, it is either Langford or Howard (or a mix of the two) to run the ball. Give me Howard on the cheap in drafts and let me hope for the upside to materialize at some point this season.

Wimer: Howard is the Thunder to Jeremy Langford's Lightning (such as it is) - Howard may approach 1,000 yards combined as the 1B running back for the Bears. He has even more upside if he can beat out Langford outright during training camp.

DeAndre Washington, Oakland

Bloom: Latavius Murray was mediocre at best last year, so asking who is next on the depth chart behind him is an important question for your draft end game this year. Washington has a lot of juice in his legs and it might not take that much for him to play his way into a committee, if not usurp the lion's share of the touches by the end of the season.

Haseley: Latavius Murray was the clear-cut lead back in Oakland last year, handling 79% of the team's carries. That might change in 2016 with the drafting of DeAndre Washington, who some compare to Brian Westbrook. He's an excellent pass-catching back with the skills to run between the tackles. Washington's ADP of RB59, 175 overall is likely to increase as we get closer to September. He's someone I'm targeting later in the draft as my RB5. He could have a Duke Johnson-like rookie season, which would more than outperform his draft position.

Hester: Deep sleepers at running back are generally either pure handcuffs who would be workhorses if an injury happened in front of them or players with limited roles already that would expand (but likely remain in a shared backfield situation). Washington fits the latter of those classifications. Already all but handed the passing-downs work on a silver platter and given work with the starters in minicamp, Washington has been a gleam in the eye of his coaching staff before even strapping on NFL shoulder pads. If Latavius Murray were hurt, Marcel Reece would likely factor in with some touches in tandem with Washington, but the rookie would be the proverbial "lead dog" and have some very nice value – particularly given this price.

Hindery: The strength of the 2016 rookie running back class was the depth that pushed a number of talented runners down to the fourth and fifth rounds. While rookies like Paul Perkins and Kenneth Dixon have received much of the hype, Washington has flown more under the radar. Washington is the late-round rookie best poised to make an immediate fantasy impact. Latavius Murray struggled down the stretch of the 2015 season in the passing game and Roy Helu looked like he might be washed up. Washington is the favorite for the third-down/change-of-pace role, which gives him a nice floor in PPR leagues. However, he should not be considered just a part-time player. There is some Devonta Freeman to Washington's game and if Murray gets hurt, Washington could emerge as a fantasy star behind one of the league's best offensive lines.

Kuczynski: Despite having Latavius Murray in the backfield, the Raiders showed a lot of interest in the off season to acquire another running back, especially since Murray is entering a contract year. With very little depth at the position, they opted to draft a compliment to Murray's size and upright run style in the small, shifty scatback DeAndre Washington. He should fill the Gio Bernard/Danny Woodhead/Dion Lewis role in Oakland's offense and give the team an element they have not had in the passing game. His last year in college he was able to rush for nearly 1500 yards and 14 TDs along with 40/400 receiving, and word is the Raiders feel he can handle a lot of touches. Much like Oakland found a steal late in the NFL draft, Washington will be a late round steal for your team that may crack your lineup later in the season.

Waldman: The rookie has earned first-team reps in June, which is a good sign that he's acclimating to an NFL offense as well a as projected. Although Washington ran a spread scheme at Texas Tech, he showed skill between the tackles when working with tighter line splits. He understands when to attack the line with patience and when to hit a crease decisively. Although short, he has a low center of gravity and he can run through wraps. If these positives of Washington's game translate to the NFL without much acclimation time, he'll be a more consistent runner between the tackles than Latavius Murray. A big-play threat, Washington is projected to earn a significant role as the passing down back. Don't be surprised if he overtakes Murray by midseason as the starter.

Player Receiving 5 Votes

Jerick McKinnon, Minnesota

Alexander: McKinnon is buried on the depth chart behind an all-time great who led the NFL in rushing last season, but he has clear win-your-league potential as the 55th running back off the board. Adrian Peterson doesn't appear to be slowing down, but he is 31 years old (well past the normal point of decline for most running backs). Prior to sitting out nearly all of 2014 due to suspension, Peterson suffered a torn ACL, high-ankle sprain, mid-foot sprain, and had two groin surgeries in the three previous years. That's a whole lot of leg injuries for a running back with nearly 2,400 career carries. McKinnon's 1.14 PPR fantasy points per touch in 2015 suggest he's graduated from athletic project to highly-efficient NFL running back. In the (likely?) event he inherits the lead-back role on one of the run-heaviest teams in the NFL at some point in 2016, you'll be glad you reached for McKinnon a round or two before his ADP.

Bloom: McKinnon is a possible league winner this year if Adrian Peterson goes down. The Vikings did bring back Matt Asiata, but McKinnon is clearly more prominent in their long-term plans, and they need to see what they have in him to prepare for a future without Adrian Peterson that is coming at some point. McKinnon was very explosive in December and he could easily make enough splash plays to force the Vikings to use him more in 2016 even if Peterson still looks like a Hall of Famer.

Hester: Deep sleepers at running back are generally either pure handcuffs who would be workhorses if an injury happened in front of them or players with limited roles already that would expand (but likely remain in a shared backfield situation). McKinnon fits the former category, as he plays behind probably the most prototypical workhorse of this generation. But an injury to Adrian Peterson would mean that McKinnon could flash his brilliant athleticism early and often for Minnesota and provide fantasy owners who threw a dart his way with much joy. Last year in Week 16, with Minnesota crushing the New York Giants, McKinnon busted off a 68-yard touchdown run that gave a glimpse into just how explosive he can be. All he needs is the chance.

Holloway: McKinnon has played well in a back-up role to Adrian Peterson, averaging almost 5.0 yards per carry in his two seasons. He has also caught 48 passes. Peterson enters this year at the age of 31 and has 2,383 rushes and 238 receptions over his nine NFL seasons. If he goes down to injury, which seems more likely each year, McKinnon could be productive for the Vikings.

Simpkins: Jerick McKinnon is being selected right at the end of round 13, making him one of the cheapest high-upside stashes in redraft. While he has long been considered a "project" due to being a converted quarterback, it's time to remove that tag. In relief of Adrian Peterson, McKinnon averaged a respectable 5.2 yards per carry in 2015. Peterson hasn't been the picture of health throughout his storied career and is 31 years old entering this season. As is the case with DeAngelo Williams, Jerick McKinnon is a possible game changer if the starter in front of him gets injured.

Players Receiving 4 Votes

Paul Perkins, NY Giants

Feery: The New York Giants selected Paul Perkins in this year's draft with an eye towards him being the team's three-down back of the future. While a huge role right out of the gate would be far too overly optimistic, Perkins will have a role this year. That role will continue to develop as the season moves along, and Perkins could actually find himself squarely in an RBBC situation by mid-season. While that may not sound like too much to get excited about, the college tape on Perkins is certainly something to be intrigued by. He brings to the table a combination of explosiveness and the ability to pick up tough yardage, and could offer some nice production even in a limited role. He's certainly worth a very late round flier, and a name to keep on speed dial in the event of injury to Rashad Jennings.

Pasquino: One of the more unsettled backfields for me is that of the New York Giants. Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen are the top two backs for New York, but neither of them are short yardage specialists. That's why I like Perkins, a fifth round draft pick from UCLA to offer solid value as the possible third option for the Giants in 2016. Perkins was the ninth rookie to be selected, but he did have 14 touchdowns in 2015 alone for UCLA and has a well-rounded skillset as a rusher. Perkins could earn more and more playing time as the season wears on, but I like him as a goal line back early on in 2016.

Simpkins: The Giants running back situation seems more wide open than most expect. While Rashad Jennings is the presumed starter, we've yet to see a season in which he didn't get worn down or dinged up. Shane Vereen remains a purely third-down option. Who would fill the void if Jennings once again doesn't stay healthy? It's not unreasonable to posit that it could be Paul Perkins. A 13th-round flier pick does not seem excessive for the versatile back, either. Watching Perkins on tape, we don't see him do anything outstanding, but we do see him play very competently while displaying patience, vision, and good balance through his runs. Coaches love guys who do their job and keep their assignment play after play. Perkins is a player with whom the regime could fall in love for those reasons.

Wood: There is no certainty in the New York Giants running game; which means we can't discount rookie Paul Perkins from earnings a major role at some point. The former UCLA Bruin is a jack-of-all-trades. While he's not elite per se in any particular skill, he's good enough at all of them to be productive in Ben McAdoo's offense. When Rashad Jennings is the veteran competition, it's not exactly a high bar Perkins has to leap over to generate fantasy value.

Chris Thompson, Washington

Haseley: I don't foresee Chris Thompson being a lead back for Washington, but I can see him playing a role that will see him catch upwards of 40-50 passes in 2016. At his current ADP of RB63 (195 overall), there is no risk involved, only upside. His potential in a budding offense is enough for me to take a flier on him being a PPR darling that I can use as an emergency flex option.

Hester: Deep sleepers at running back are generally either pure handcuffs who would be workhorses if an injury happened in front of them or players with limited roles already that would expand (but likely remain in a shared backfield situation). Thompson fits the second category as he's already entrenched as Washington's passing downs back. On a team that should be pass-centric, Thompson is already a flex-worthy player in PPR leagues. If Jones is hurt or ineffective, his role would grow and make him possibly worthy of every-week starter status.

Howe: His roster spot isn't yet certain, but if Chris Thompson is healthy and sticks in Washington, he could be a PPR league-winner of sorts. Thompson caught 35 balls over just 13 games last year as the receiving complement to bruiser Alfred Morris, and when Thompson lost time to injury, the team kept his passing down reserves involved. Matt Jones is an intriguing starter, but no guarantee to dominate the backfield.

Waldman: Matt Jones made a lot of immature decisions as a runner last year and his ball security compounded concerns that he might not be the future of this Washington ground game. Chris Thompson lacks the dimensions of a banger that Jones brings to the team but he's an explosive runner with excellent hands who out-produced Jones for much of the season. The greatest concern with Thompson is that he has dealt with an array of difficult injuries (knee, back, and shoulder) during his career. At the same time, he's built a lot like Charlie Garner, the former Eagles and Raiders back who eventually turned into an excellent workhorse once he proved he could stay healthy. Mike Shanahan always had a good eye for RB talent and Thompson is worth drafting late in PPR leagues if Jones struggles again.

Player Receiving 3 Votes

Charcandrick West, Kansas City

Hicks: Charcandrick West filled in admirably once Jamaal Charles went down last year, but lost momentum after an injury in Week 11 cost him a week and an opportunity for former Seahawk Spencer Ware arose. Jamaal Charles will be the main man once again, but will lose touches. The key question is whether West remains the chief backup or whether Spencer Ware can usurp that role. Knile Davis went from backup to nothing and nothing can be assumed in the Chiefs backfield behind Charles. West is ranked as the clear backup, but careful attention must be paid to training camp and preseason news. As has been proven in the past, the Chiefs backup running back can be a very valuable man.

Pasquino: Those expecting Knile Davis to be the clear backup to Jamaal Charles last year were sorely disappointed when Charcandrick West stepped up in the second half of 2015 for Kansas City. West put up 110 yards on the ground and a touchdown in Week 7 against Pittsburgh, then went on to build upon that for over 800 total yards last season after Charles was lost for the year. Kansas City may not be giving Charles a huge feature back role in 2016 with West, Davis and Spencer Ware all expected to make the squad. West should have a reasonable understudy role on offense and push for more even if Charles remains healthy all season. The upside is certainly there if West had to lead the backfield again, so I will gladly roll the dice on him with a later draft pick.

Wood: In a part-time role in place of Jamaal Charles, West generated 848 yards from scrimmage and 5 touchdowns. With Charles now coming off his 2nd ACL tear, it wouldn't shock me to see West used regularly to spell Charles; and we know that he's a capable fantasy starter if Charles breaks down again. With the running back position being so uncertain in this new uber-passing era, I love the ability to roster a capable backup in a proven run-heavy offense late in drafts.

Players Receiving 2 Votes

C.J. Spiller, New Orleans

Bloom: Spiller was an immense disappointment last year, but he cost you a pick in your top 2-3 backs and first 5-6 rounds, whereas this year he'll cost a pick in the last 5-6 rounds of your draft in the last 2-3 spots on your bench. When he flames out again, we can drop him, but he is in a good enough offense that has made a pass-catching back a stud in his later years recently with Darren Sproles, so it's worth a late pick to see if Spiller can stay healthy and look like his old self again on the Superdome turf.

Holloway: Spiller was terrible in his first year with the Saints. He averaged a career low 3.1 YPC and only 70 touches, including 34 receptions. He did suffer a pre-season injury and possibly was not healthy the entire season. His ADP is extremely low, currently at 213, well after Tim Hightower, but his skills are a good fit for the offense.

Darren Sproles, Philadelphia

Wimer: Sproles is likely to flourish as a change of pace back in Philadelphia this year. He has enough in the tank to handle 6-8 touches per game and should be a valuable bye-week stand-in for your usual fantasy starters.

Wood: I'm surprised by the lack of chatter surrounding Darren Sproles. The Eagles are a complete rebuild in 2016 and we know Doug Pederson runs a system that relies on running backs in the passing game. Ryan Mathews should be the lead horse, but he's not durable. Wendell Smallwood could surprise as a rookie but I have to think Pederson is going to find a place for Sproles given his value out of the backfield as a runner, receiver and blocker.

Players Receiving 1 Vote

Kenyan Drake, Miami

Hicks: The Dolphins let the underused Lamar Miller walk in the off season and project last year's 5th-round pick, Jay Ajayi as the starter. The choice therefore becomes whether you think Ajayi can improve and take the starting job or this year's 3rd-round pick Kenyan Drake takes over all duties once Ajayi flounders. I favor the latter approach. Ajayi was horrible in his last seven games registering 98 yards on 38 carries. That is 2.58 yards a carry, with only four of those carries going for more than 5 yards. Drake has to earn the trust of the coaching staff during training camp, but Ajayi is a pick from the previous regime and is owed no favors.

Shaun Draughn, San Francisco

Tefertiller: Draughn will play the receiving back role in the Chip Kelly offense. He will also be the primary backup to Carlos Hyde, a ball carrier who has yet to showcase durability. Draughn has a shot to start games at tailback and be the passing-down back when Hyde starts. Let's remember that the 49ers will likely be behind in most games and will be passing to catch up on the scoreboard. This is a great opportunity to find a fantasy RB2 on the waiver wire.

Andre Ellington, Arizona

Bonnema: There's no denying Ellington's talent or his fragility. If it weren't a career of injuries he might not be trending to a one-and-done contract with the Cardinals. As far as his fantasy fortunes for 2017 are concerned, he's still capable of plug-and-play weeks as second fiddle to David Johnson, and a huge boom should something happen to Johnson. While there is concern Chris Johnson will return as the team's top running back, Ellington is much better fit and a much better player. All he needs is health to prove his doubters wrong.

Josh Ferguson, Indianapolis

Hindery: The Colts boast arguably the worst running back depth chart in the NFL. Frank Gore is still the starter, but at 33-years old, he cannot be expected to stay healthy and productive for 16 games and there is little talent behind him. But Ferguson is the one potential bright spot in the Colts backfield. He is dynamite in the open field and has a knack for making plays when his number is called. He should instantly earn opportunities on third down. Do not be surprised when Ferguson emerges as the top fantasy back in Indianapolis by midseason.

Ronnie Hillman, Denver

Wimer: Hillman is a solid receiver and should get an array of touches behind CJ Anderson in a change of pace role. Either Paxton Lynch or Mark Sanchez will be the quarterback in Denver this year, leading to an outsize commitment to running the football. Hill should approach 1,000 yards from scrimmage (combined) with lots of receptions as a safety-valve outlet for the uninspiring Denver cadre of Denver quarterbacks.

Chris Johnson, Arizona

Waldman: Fantasy football has coronated David Johnson as an elite running back. No so fast my friends. While I believe the second-year runner has the potential to develop into that kind of producer, I'm not convinced he's worth a top-five pick at his position. One of those reasons is the strength of the passing game. Another is veteran Chris Johnson, who out-played David Johnson as an interior runner. The data from statistical splits doesn't show this clearly but watch the two runners on plays between the tackles and it's apparent that Chris is more knowledge able about how to approach a blocking scheme (when to be patient, when to be aggressive, and when not to freelance). This was also the point of view of the coaching staff last year. The staff expects David to develop fast enough to become the primary back and this is reasonable but the team knows Chris is still good enough to start and thrive. It also plans to use both backs a lot. Unlike the Tampa situation, I expect Chris to limit David's upside just enough that David isn't worth a top-five pick.

Alfred Morris, Dallas

Hicks: Whoever wins the backup job behind likely starting back Ezekiel Elliot between Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden will have value in 2016. With the rumor that the Cowboys were trying to trade McFadden and a phone related mishap to last year's starter, it looks like Morris has his nose in front for the moment. His 2015 form in Washington doesn't reflect his true worth and if you own Elliot you almost certainly need to grab Morris as well. Behind that line and with only a rookie in front of him, drafting Morris carries little risk and an extremely high upside.

Spencer Ware, Kansas City

Kuczynski: Last year when Jamaal Charles went down with his second ACL tear of his career, the Chiefs had to turn to a committee of backs led by Charcandrick West. This only lasted a couple weeks, as Spencer Ware would come out of nowhere and become a large contributor to the offense averaging around 6 yards per carry. His big bruising style of running is much different from Charles' and West's more finesse style, so even as a backup he could be able to carve out an important short yardage and change of pace role. If Charles suffers another injury, or age catches up to him and he's not the same back he used to be, Ware would be called upon again.

Zach Zenner, Detroit

Simpkins: Going very deep, Zach Zenner is someone on whom we want to keep an eye. He's not being drafted in typical leagues at this time. A rib and lung injury marred his rookie season, but he was outplaying fellow rookie Ameer Abdullah when the injury occurred. He's fully healed and ready to participate in training camp. With Joique Bell cut, there is a need for a power back in this scheme. We could see Zenner secure Bell's old role this upcoming year. With Ameer Abdullah missing offseason work due to shoulder surgery, Zenner will get additional reps that might open the door for him to get significant touches in this running game.