Finding a late-round weekly starter is possible at any of the fantasy football skill positions, but none have quite the impact of landing a weekly stud at running back for pennies on the dollar. Running backs have the second-highest weekly floor of usage to quarterbacks and a single injury (or string of lackluster games) can vault a previous bench dweller on a fantasy roster to automatic difference-maker. Here is a look at the top running back stashes to hit the lottery in 2016:
Williams is on the home stretch of his NFL career and likely cannot hold up for more than a handful of games as the primary back and significant touches. However, LeVeon Bell is returning from another injury and Pittsburgh - when Ben Roethlisberger is under center - is one of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL. Williams held up to 240 touches in 2015, with five games of at least 20 carries. At 33 years old, a physical erosion is the biggest risk with Williams who is coming off 4.5 yards-per-carry, his highest since 2011.
Doug Martin got the big contract in the offseason from Tampa Bay in the offseason and is coming off arguably his finest NFL season. Now 27 years old and exiting a running back's historical prime, Martin is a prime regression candidate after his contract year and playing 16 games. Martin is more of a grinder and 'try hard' back than difference-making talent, who also missed 15 games between 2013 and 2014. Charles Sims has been a strong 1B back in Tampa and the primary pass-catcher only needing more interior work to realize his upside. Sims is one of the few primary backups in the NFL earmarked for a full workload if his running mate were out of the lineup.
LeSean McCoy is unlikely to see a suspension by offseason reports from his alleged involvement in a nightclub brawl in February. However, McCoy is two years removed from his peak NFL season and entering his age 28 campaign, a zone where running backs typically continue to decline or miss games. Buffalo is a run-first offense and while the team added talent Jonathan Williams in the NFL Draft, Karlos Williams will have the inside track as the primary backup. Karlos Williams is still learning the position after converting over to running back in college, yet he logged six games of at least 50 total yards as a rookie in 2015.
Matt Jones emerged relatively unscathed from the 2016 NFL Draft as the starter in Washington. Marshall was a late-round selection by the Redskins and projects as the best interior runner to challenge Matt Jones if the second-year back should falter. Jones has struggled with up-and-down play plus fumbles in his committee role with Alfred Morris a year ago. Jones has plenty of physical upside with prototypical size, burst, and later explosion but he has yet to put everything together for a consistent run of production in his collegiate or young NFL career. Marshall was a top recruit in the Georgia running back pipeline and injuries have been his most significant hurdle to-date. Without another power runner to supplant or fill-in for Matt Jones on the roster, Washington was an ideal landing spot for Keith Marshall to make an early impact.
Baltimore is one of the most jumbled running back depth charts in the NFL. Justin Forsett is a one-hit wonder and in the twilight of his career arc - plus returning from injury. Lorenzo Taliaferro also returns from injury and a decent showing as a 2014 rookie. Javorius Allen had his moments as a 2015 rookie. Trent Richardson is a wildcard if he can make the roster. Terrance West is a Day 2 pick still on the NFL (and Baltimore roster) fringe. Kenneth Dixon is the name to watch, however, as one of the strongest metric running back prospects of Day 3 NFL Draft history. Dixon was a three-down production maven at Louisiana Tech with prototypical size, quality lateral explosion, and sturdy hands. If one running back emerges from the Baltimore depth chart to top-shelf production, it will be Kenneth Dixon.
Adrian Peterson continues to churn out quality seasons into his 30s, but a decline is swift for older running backs and typically with little warning. In 2014 when Peterson missed most of the season Jerick McKinnon was then an incoming small school rookie and split work with bruising, low-upside veteran Matt Asiata. Now, McKinnon has been seasoned with sporadic work but was highly efficient in 2015 on 73 total offensive touches (444 yards, 3 touchdowns).
Melvin Gordon's 2016 continues to look murky after an underwhelming rookie season and now the news of an offseason microfracture surgery. Woodhead has been highly effective with his career opportunities and set a career-high with 81 receptions in 2015. Last year was only the third season of Woodhead's career seeing more than 140 touches. Woodhead is the perfect back for Philip Rivers' line-of-scrimmage based offense and check-down throws. Dreamius Smith is an off-the-radar 2015 undrafted running back from West Virginia. Smith has prototypical size and one of the best combinations of Athleticism score (+24%) and Rushing score (+27%) in my metric projection model for running back prospects. Smith has Christine Michael-type physical attributes on tape and by the metrics as a deep name to monitor down San Diego's depth chart if Melvin Gordon misses time.
Latavius Murray logged one of the least impressive 1,000-yard rushing seasons in recent memory last season. No other Raiders running back received more than 24 carries, while Murray had 307 touches averaging a meager 4.0 yards-per-carry and 5.7 yards-per-reception. Oakland eschewed running back in the NFL Draft outside of DeAndre Washington at 143 overall. The Raider chose Washington overall more prototypical backs like Paul Perkins and Jordan Howard still on the board. Washington is an elite pass-catcher by the metrics coming out of Texas Texas with a short and thick build. At a minimum Washington projects as a roadblock to Latavius Murray approaching his 41 receptions from a year ago. Washington is the lone upside option below Murray on the early running back depth chart with a chance to emerge as a fantasy starter.
Eddie Lacy has been a story of rededication this offseason after a lackluster 2015 season (4.1 yards-per-carry, 5 total touchdowns). He has yet to miss many games, but Lacy's running style resembles a wrestling match on a per-carry basis with his lack of explosion or lateral agility. James Starks has largely been the better runner over the three years of the duo in Green Bay and the preferred receiver out of the backfield. Starks enters his 30-year-old season, but a veteran of the offense and still projects as the primary backup if Eddie Lacy were to miss time or underwhelm like pockets of previous seasons.
C.J. Anderson projects as the clear lead back in Denver to open the season with a new contract. Ronnie Hillman did not receive the same vote of confidence with a one-year stopgap deal. Devontae Booker is arguably the best talent in the Broncos backfield with an Arian Foster-like profile and playing style coming out of Utah. Booker's initial depth chart surge is dependent on returning to full strength from a torn meniscus injury in 2015.
The Lions power back role is one of the most highly-contested running back battles to monitor heading into the season. Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah are stronger in space and as receivers than between the tackles or at the goal line. Zach Zenner shows some promise before an injury ended his rookie season as a strong metric small school back. Stevan Ridley was added as a free agent, who is a year removed from his best NFL tape in New England. If Ridley is fully healthy, he can challenge for significant playing time. Dwayne Washington is the incoming rookie wildcard for this role. Washington has ideal size and a well-rounded Athleticism profile (+35% Athleticism score in my projection model) to keep him on a running back watch list for training camp and preseason news and uptick.
Gaffney has simmered under the surface in the NFL due to consistent injuries since being a Day 3 pick in 2014. New England has kept Gaffney around, however, signaling something is there with the big-and-fast former Stanford back. LeGarrette Blount is only other power back on the Patriots roster and at the age of typical erosion of physical skills. Gaffney's most significant barrier to sticking on the New England 53-man roster and rising up the depth chart is health.