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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 and identify players that should significantly outperform their late draft position. These players should be your targets after the 12th round of your draft.

Players Receiving 4 Votes

James Conner, Pittsburgh

Ryan Hester: The running back role in Pittsburgh has incredible fantasy value due to the offense as a whole and the volume the starter receives. With DeAngelo Williams no longer on the team, Conner figures to be the player right behind LeVeon Bell, making him an injury to an oft-injured player away from a massive role.

Andy Hicks: The backup slot in Pittsburgh is an important one as the starter Le'Veon Bell has spent a fair amount of time on the injury list, as well as missing time through multiple suspensions. DeAngelo Williams turned this missing time in 2015 into a 4th ranked fantasy season. That brings us to the most likely backup this year in James Conner. Drafted at the end of the 3rd round, Conner is a big strong back with a will to succeed. He may not be explosive or an elite back of the future, but he will be undervalued, especially if Bell continues to play the role of malcontent.

Jeff Pasquino: Conner is the clear backup to Le’Veon Bell, and we have all seen how Bell’s backup can perform as recently with DeAngelo Williams last season. Head coach Mike Tomlin loves to use a single feature back, and if anything happens to Bell again, Conner becomes a huge value. This is exactly the type of player you want to grab late in fantasy drafts – low downside but huge upside.

Matt Waldman: The former Pitt Panther claims he was performing at 70 percent of his athletic potential after a year overcoming Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. While he didn’t perform the type of drills at the NFL Combine that could have validated his claim, the pre-illness tape of Conner shows a quicker player with better acceleration. Post-illness tape of Conner also reveals a player who can play on Sundays. The difference is that pre-illness Conner might have been a top-five back in this class. If the Steelers get this version of Conner, he could eventually make Le’Veon Bell expendable because Pittsburgh won’t need to pay an exorbitant sum for a capable starter behind a strong line. If Bell gets hurt, Conner could be the best option for the job this year.

Jonathan Williams, Buffalo

Phil Alexander: Williams has the smell of a league-winner if anything serious were to happen to LeSean McCoy. The Bills stole Williams in the fifth-round of the 2016 NFL Draft due largely to concerns about his surgically repaired foot. Had it not been for the injury that wiped out his 2015, Williams wouldn't have made it out of the second round. After New England poached Mike Gillislee, Buffalo is thin in the backfield behind McCoy. At the very least, Williams has the opportunity to leverage the role Gillislee turned into 576 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last season. And if McCoy were to go down for an extended period, Williams becomes the unquestioned lead back in an offense that tied for the league-lead in rushing attempts per game last season.

Chris Feery: We can expect the Buffalo Bills to have a run-heavy attack this year, and there’s not much in the cupboard beyond LeSean McCoy. While there’s no question that McCoy will receive the bulk of the work, he also has a decent amount of tread on his tires. Jonathan Williams will see a decent amount of carries even if McCoy remains at full health, and he would be in line for an incredibly healthy workload in the event that the injury bug strikes the Bills running back corps. He’s a no-brainer as a handcuff for McCoy, but he deserves draft day consideration in his own right. Williams can be had for incredibly reasonable prices, and he’s a later round selection that could prove to be quite fruitful.

Ryan Hester: He’s the backup to LeSean McCoy, which is valuable enough, but he may have standalone value as well. Last season, when McCoy was a year younger and when Buffalo was running the ball like teams did in the 1980s, Mike Gillislee scored eight rushing (and nine total) touchdowns. It’s not inconceivable that even with a coaching change, Buffalo still decides to manage McCoy’s reps near the end zone. And if McCoy were injured, Williams has RB2 or RB1 weekly upside.

Jeff Pasquino: Mike Gillislee is now in New England, which promotes Jonathan Williams to second on the depth chart behind LeSean McCoy. McCoy will be 29 in Week 1 this season, and he will most assuredly reach 2,500 career touches this season - the milestone for decline for running backs. Williams can be had for a late round pick and offers immediate upside if McCoy misses any games, which has happened five times in the past two seasons.

Players Receiving 2 Votes

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans

Stephen Holloway: Kamara is the dynamic play maker that head coach Sean Payton traded up to draft this year in the third round. Yes, he is playing behind both Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson, but Kamara should have a minor role regardless. If injury strikes one or both of the co-starters and both of them have missed games often, Kamara could easily turn into a value selection.

Daniel Simpkins: In this range, owners should be looking for a back that has great opportunity should disaster strike upon the starter(s) in front of him. Alvin Kamara fits that profile nicely. A crowded depth chart with Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram gives us pause, but considering the storied injury histories of both should boost confidence. Additionally, we have seen that in this offense, prolific pass catching backs often generate fantasy relevant numbers, even in a timeshare situation. Kamara’s trademark skill is catching passes. The Saints moved up to acquire Kamara, giving up a future second in the third round. He’ll have opportunities in year one with the potential to do more if he shows his competencies early.

T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville

Andy Hicks: T.J. Yeldon has had his fantasy stock crash following the drafting of Leonard Fournette by the Jaguars. Don’t be so hasty. Yeldon can pass protect and as was demonstrated by 50 receptions in 2016 will be on the field more often than not on the 3rd down. If Fournette shows any weakness, he will not start the season. If Fournette fails to adapt to the NFL, like so many of his predecessors, he will not be the immediate bell cow. Yeldon does have a limited upside but will be much better than his draft stock indicates.

Jeff Pasquino: While everyone hops on the Leonard Fournette hype train, it is often the veteran in the same backfield that is overlooked. Yeldon led the Jaguars backfield in carries, receptions, and yardage last season, and he will get some work (most likely in passing situations) to spell Fournette in his first professional season. Yeldon comes very cheap and offers strong upside if he becomes the starter once again, a role he has inherited in the past.

Players Receiving 1 Vote

Devontae Booker, Denver

Stephen Holloway: Booker, the Bronco’s 2016 4th-round selection underperformed last year. Everyone remembers that he only averaged 3.5 YPC, but forgets that he caught 31 passes and scored 5 touchdowns. His running style is a better fit for the gap-based system that the Broncos are expected to use this year. Booker’s lack of patience was exposed as a rookie, but even if he remains impatient, it should not trouble him as much in this system. Even as disappointing as he was, he finished 2016 as RB27 in standard scoring. His ADP is so far below that currently due to his wrist injury that he is completely off everyone’s radar. He is only behind C. J. Anderson, who has also been a career underperformer and free agent Jamaal Charles, who at age 30 attempts a come back after playing only 8 games over the past two seasons.

Justin Davis, LA Rams

Matt Waldman: Malcolm Brown deserves the nod as the Rams handcuff of note behind an improved offensive line. He’s strong, quick, physical and one of my favorite below-the-radar backs. However, one of my favorite RB projects in the 2017 RSP is Davis. A 6-1, 198-pound performer at USC, his long speed wasn’t that enticing. However, he had excellent burst and change of direction quickness which is far more valuable. I was impressed with his decision-making and his physical style at the end of runs. Davis has the frame to add another 12-20 pounds of muscle. I also thought that Davis was a solid blocker and pass receiver with potential for growth in these areas. So far in camp, Davis has impressed with his quickness and his passing game skills, including pass protection. He has also added muscle to his frame and reporters note that he appears notably larger than 198 pounds. There’s talk he might carve a role as a third-down option.

Kenyan Drake, Miami

Jason Wood: Drake and Damien Williams are vying for the #2 role behind Jay Ajayi. It’s an open competition halfway through the preseason, but Drake should emerge by the end of camp. The 6’1”, 210-pounder enters his second season with purpose. He’s been dominant in stretches of OTAs, mini-camps and the preseason and has flashed a willingness to hit the hole and take a pounding that wasn’t there as a rookie. Jay Ajayi is an impressive starter but is already dealing with a concussion. The Dolphins may need the #2 back to play a prominent role early in the season. Drake costs virtually nothing on draft day but could be the starter in Week One if Ajayi remains in the concussion protocol. Even if Ajayi is cleared, Drake is a more compelling backup running back than at least a dozen other RB2s being drafted much earlier.

D'Onta Foreman, Houston

Andy Hicks: Every year there is a rookie running back who comes out of nowhere, usually from the 3rd round of the NFL draft. Think David Johnson, DeMarco Murray or Steve Slaton. It usually is a result of an injury or an underachieving starter. That underachieving starter description fits Lamar Miller to a tee. The Texans can move on quickly from Miller and D’Onta Foreman is a bigger back who should at least get the goal line carries. Depending on his progress during preseason, he could be so much more. Easily a back to consider late and get a pleasant surprise from.

DeAngelo Henderson, Denver

Jason Wood: Henderson has consistently stood out in OTAs, mini-camps and training camp. The 5’7”, 208-pound rookie from Coastal Carolina runs with presence and vision. He’s shown an ability to hit the hole and gain positive yardage after initial contact. The team has quietly given Henderson first team reps although the reality is he’s competing for the #2 role behind Jamaal Charles versus the starting role against C.J. Anderson. It’s much smarter to spend an end-of-draft pick on Henderson than a middle round pick on Jamaal Charles.

Dion Lewis, New England

Jeff Haseley: Lewis could be the odd man out in the Patriots backfield if the team elects to only keep three running backs, but if that's the case New England would lose one of their best return threats in addition to his all-purpose potential with the running and receiving game. If anyone is going to do the unexpected, it's New England. If Lewis is kept, his value will increase significantly, especially if one of Rex Burkhead, James White or Mike Gillislee is not kept on the 53 man roster. He is virtually going undrafted in redraft leagues right now.

Alfred Morris, Dallas

Chad Parsons: Morris is poised to rise in ADP off the Ezekiel Elliott suspension announcement but is a value play compared to the Darren McFadden price. McFadden is the leader in the clubhouse for significant work in Elliott's absence, but an injury to the brittle back paves the way for Morris to provide the value for multiple weeks early in the season.

Jalen Richard, Oakland

Matt Waldman: One of my underrated options in the 2016 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, Richard outplayed GM Reggie McKenzie’s projected “every-down” draft pick DeAndre Washington last year. Richard has legitimate big-play speed and runs with a low center of gravity. His yards-after-contact production was among the best in the league last year. Despite the addition of Marshawn Lynch, the Raiders didn’t anyone else to compete with Richard and Washington for their roles on the depth chart. If Lynch can’t stay healthy, which has been a problem since 2014, after a year away from the game, Richard has a great opportunity behind a good offensive line to surprise. It makes him a nice late-round value in deep leagues and a first-tier waiver wire option otherwise.

Wendell Smallwood, Philadelphia

Jason Wood: Fantasy owners have abandoned Wendell Smallwood after one season, which would be a mistake. Smallwood led the Big 12 in rushing in 2015 and has all the necessary tools. He’s a willing inside runner, has above average speed (4.47 40-yard dash) and is a capable receiver. He’s the largest back on the roster outside of LeGarrette Blount, and the Eagles are a team committed to a balanced run/pass ratio. Blount was devastatingly effective in New England last year but has been outright awful in his other NFL stops. Smallwood could be in line for a starting role either because of a Blount injury or ineffectiveness and that more than justifies his current price tag.

Robert Turbin, Indianapolis

Chad Parsons: Turbin carved a significant red zone role last season as the No.2 to Frank Gore and reports point to a more even workload split in 2017. Turbin is a two-way player and unlikely to be challenged by rookie Marlon Mack. Turbin offers flex potential even without a Gore injury.

Shane Vereen, NY Giants

Ari Ingel: Can’t seem to stay healthy, but as someone betting against Paul Perkins, good chance he becomes a reliable weekly PPR flex option if Perkins sticks and a RB2 if he over takes him. This is a team that is also built on spreading things out and throwing the ball, passing on around 63% of their downs last year. Perkins is a decent pass catcher, despite having small hands (only 9”), but Shane Vereen is a great pass catching back and is fully healthy coming off of a lost season due to an arm injury that sidelined him most of last year. Vereen is also a 96th percentile SPARQ athlete and has spent time playing under Patriots coach Bill Belichick, which never hurts. I have a feeling I will be moving him up this list if he stays healthy through camp. You can bump him down a tier (or two) in standard leagues.

Joe Williams, San Francisco

Jeff Pasquino: When I am looking for sleepers, I am not just shopping for a guy who might be a bye week fill-in for my fantasy team. I am swinging for the fences to try and land a Top 24 option who can be a starter (or strong flex) option when he emerges, and Joe Williams fits that description. The rookie is poised to push Carlos Hyde for the starting role by mid-year (if not sooner) and he has three-down potential.

Zach Zenner, Detroit

Justin Howe: Long a favorite prospect of mine, Zenner's NFL ship could easily come in this year. The outright freak of nature (a 95th-percentile SPARQ score in 2014) impressed late in 2016 and could make himself a hefty part of a Lions committee. Ameer Abdullah is returning, but I'm still not sure what to make of his NFL prospects. Abdullah isn't a particularly explosive athlete, nor was he productive as an NFL rookie, averaging a ho-hum 4.2 yards per rush and 7.6 PPR points. He was also an afterthought in the red zone, with a paltry 12 rushes and 1 touchdown over 16 games. Note, please, that Zenner notched 8 such carries and scored 3 times just over the final 4 games of 2016. Zenner actually brings to the table a better speed score - he matched Abdullah's 40 time while 18 pounds heavier - and has shown far better interior running skills. His worst-case is likely a year as the Lions' goal line back, which itself would carry some value, while his ceiling is as a workhorse with a nose for the end zone.