If you're new to the Upside Down Draft Strategy and it's the first time you've read about this topic, you've stumbled into the middle of the story. Begin here for the basics or go here for a more exhaustive look.
If you're a regular of my column but missed last week's post, here's my Early-Round RB Anchors for 2016. Now that we're caught up, let's look at the mid-round PPR backs that I endorse for this year's Upside Down Strategy.
This list will not be a comprehensive look at every running back. If you want to know my thoughts on each player, read the comments in my rankings. If you're thinking, "I'm going to email or Tweet Matt and ask him, 'what about [insert name of back not listed below that you maybe-possibly-kinda like]?'" it will be nice to hear from you but I'll still tell you to read the comments in my rankings.
The Gut Check's Preferred Late-Round (10th-20th) Runners
I'm listing 2-3 runners per round as well as an extra runner (in parenthesis) that is worth reaching for if both of the prescribed backs in those rounds are gone. As draft progress, ADP ranges become wider, which means there will be some overlap of backs I like within a range of 2-3 rounds. In italics are 1-2 non-runners in each round I value.
If you land at least 3-5 of these backs by the 20th round you'll have quality depth with your Upside Down Draft.
- If They Fall to Round 11: LeGarrette Blount, Devontae Booker, Bilal Powell, (DeAndre Washington) or Josh Gordon-Antonio Gates.
- Round 11: Devontae Booker, DeAndre Washington, James Starks, (Darren Sproles) or Michael Thomas-Martellus Bennett.
- Round 12: Darren Sproles, Jerick McKinnon or Sammie Coates-Devin Funchess
- Round 13: Darren McFadden, Chris Johnson (Spencer Ware) or Tyler Boyd-Nelson Agholor
- Round 14: Chris Johnson, Spencer Ware, Chris Thompson
- Round 15: Spencer Ware, Alfred Morris, Chris Thompson or Teddy Bridgewater
- Round 16: Alfred Morris, Cameron Artis-Payne, Tim Hightower
- Round 18: Keith Marshall or Ted Ginn-Anquan Boldin-Leonte Carroo-Bruce Ellington-Austin Hooper
- Round 19: Alex Collins, Andre Ellington or Austin Hooper-Richard Rodgers-Jaelen Strong
- Round 20: Christine Michael, Zach Zenner, Bobby Rainey, Malcolm Brown
- Waiver Wire Watchlist: Ka'Deem Carey Jalen Richard, Bobby Rainey, Malcolm Brown, Christine Michael, Orleans Darkwa, Peyton Barber, Darius Jackson, Benny Cunningham, Reggie Bush, and Jonathan Williams.
Profiling the Late-Round Choices
If Gordon falls here, he's worth considering above the rest of the pack. Among the backs, Blount and Powell are the safest picks with upside. Booker has a higher upside if injuries give him a shot at the featured role. He also has the most downside because pass protection could be a big adjustment. He wasn't third-down ready as a pass protector at Utah. If he learns fast, look out.
Gates is the safest Non-RB Exception of my two offerings. He's in the Tony Gonzalez place of his career—unstoppable against zone coverage and still quality in the red zone.
If you must reach, consider DeAndre Washington. But before you do, keep an eye on UDFA Jalen Richard from Southern Mississippi. He has a lot of qualities similar to C.J. Anderson and he's earning first-team reps. If Richard continues to thrive, determine whom it impacts more—Washington or Latavius Murray—before dropping the hammer and taking Washington.
If there's no change in ADP to Thomas or Bennett, I like them here the most. It's why I suggested Booker and Washington in the 10th round. Thomas is what a pre-Achilles Michael Crabtree could have been in the Saints offense (a better Marques Colston). Sterling Shepard, Laquon Treadwell, and Corey Coleman are all worth the love they're getting but Thomas could wind up with more catches this year.
Most people view Bennett as a TE2 in fantasy leagues this year because he's the TE2 in the Patriots' scheme. But translate the role of a TE2 in the Patriots' multiple offense during the Aaron Hernandez era and TE2 equals No.2 or productive No.3 receiver on the team and it translates to mid-range TE1 production in fantasy leagues. I'm all over Bennett as a bargain TE1 option.
If neither of these options suits your draft as it plays out, Starks offers no worse than RB3 production as the lead back if Eddie Lacy goes down. The upside option might be Jordan Howard, whom I didn't list. I can't fully endorse him because I'm still wary of his burst. Does he show enough of it to become a feature back in the NFL? I still don't have a good feel for what I saw at Indiana.
It's why I've structured the end of the mid-rounds in a fashion so you could take a shot at Thomas or Bennett. If you're seeking a safe pick with a likelihood of playing time and production Starks and Sproles are the safest. But I think you can get Sproles in the 12th without a problem.
It was commented by either Cecil Lammey or Sigmund Bloom that Elliott Shorr-Parks doesn't always display a great feel for where the Eagles are heading when the beat writer makes camp observations. This was the paraphrased commentary in our Footballguys News Feed about Shorr-Parks' observation that the best running back on the team is Sproles. In this case, I agree with Shorr-Parks.
Unfortunately, in most rational coaching circumstances, Sproles' size has made him the least likely back to earn feature touches in an offense. But this year may offer a confluence of events that makes Sproles a far more consistent part of the scheme if Ryan Mathews can't stay healthy. I don't believe Wendell Smallwood, Kenjan Barner, or Byron Marshall have the skills to maintain a major role in 2016.
Sproles is the smartest runner and the most versatile. He's also at an age where this could be his final season. The team may decide to let it ride and give the veteran all that he can handle, knowing that his time in the league is short.
McKinnon is the safer choice but he has a lower floor than Sproles. Both will have opportunities to see the field while the starter is healthy but I think Sproles has a better chance to do what Danny Woodhead did in 2015 than McKinnon.
The choice comes down to strategy. Do you want a handcuff for Peterson or a player who potentially makes the Peterson owner weaker? Or, do you want a player with more immediate upside as a potential flex play right now?
I doubt Sammie Coates' ADP remains in this range by mid-August but if he's here, I'd take the risk on him. The unknown is whether Coates' offseason improvement will show up under the lights and whether he's improved his skills tracking the football over his head in tight man coverage. If the answer is "yes" to both, he's a strong WR2 with potential for elite weeks. If the answer is "yes" to only the general improvement, Coates still has value because he'll have WR3 potential as the beneficiary of working with Ben Roethlisberger and opposite Antonio Brown.
Funchess should earn low-end WR2 fantasy production. He won't have weeks as explosive as Ted Ginn's best games but he'll offer a little more week-to-week consistency if his route running has improved. He still has more boom-bust volatility to his value due to his weaknesses as a prospect prior to this offseason. Continue monitoring his progress in camp. Look for praise about his route running and making plays downfield.
My endorsement of McFadden is shaky—even as a late-round pick—because I think he's held together by baling wire and the addition of Alfred Morris strengthens the notion that the Cowboys loved the fantasy of McFadden as a big-play option but have dealt with the reality that he's not a consistently strong decision-maker. Morris has slightly below average physical skills as a starter but his understanding of the game makes him a consistent option in a Dallas offense that will run more zone than the changes in Washington last year. I prefer Morris later but if McFadden is healthy, I'll draft him while nitpicking his flaws in lieu of last year's top-15 fantasy season.
Truth be told, McFadden is the last RB I'd choose on this list. I prefer Johnson and, if his ADP begins to rise, Ware. The fact that Bruce Arians confirmed in August that the two Johnsons are "even" as far as running the football should indicate that the elder Johnson will have a role in Arizona's rotation. He's no longer flashy but he's still effective and still has RB1 upside if he earns the majority of touches as the injury replacement starter.
Ware was one of the top backs last year in both yards before and after contact, according to Joe Holka's Rushing Expectation Studies. Ware also had this ridiculous efficiency while facing eight or more in the box on 36 percent of his runs. If there's a late-round handcuff with RB1 potential in this draft, Ware is near the top of the list.
I'd rather reach for Ware than the non-RB alternatives. Both Boyd and Agholor have upside due to their projected roles in their offenses. Boyd's good start to camp is a great sign that the game doesn't appear too big for him as a rookie, which was clearly the case for Agholor last year. If you're weak on receivers at this point in your draft, Agholor is the safer pick. If you're seeking upside Boyd's skill after the catch and toughness at the catch point while working opposite two experienced receivers could earn him easier match-ups.
Today, give me Johnson-Ware in 13-14 and I'll roll with Keith Marshall later as a high-upside pick. But Thompson out-produced Jones last year and he has already been labeled this week by Washington's GM as part of a two-headed backfield. We should give Matt Jones an opportunity to display that he has become a wiser back between last season and the early preseason. But if he hasn't, there's a compelling argument that Thompson and Marshall could be a nice late-round combo bet while eschewing Jones altogether.
Marshall and Thompson offer more speed and skill as receivers from the backfield. Both are physical runners and smarter about blocking schemes coming out of school than Jones displayed as a Florida Gator. Marshall's injury history is an ACL tear and then a minor compensatory injury during his recovery year. He's healthy and too much has been made of his durability.
The same can't be said of Thompson. His injury history is more extensive and worrisome. Thompson is also a 195-pound back while Marshall is a solid 220 pounds with even more speed than the blazing Thompson.
If you read the RSP, you know I've been talking about Marshall for almost two years and his post-injury evaluation was a strong one. His speed, maturity, and work ethic are already making a good impression in camp. I'm broaching Marshall here because his value may rise if he continues to perform well and it's worth considering him in rounds 14-17 if this happens. For in-depth analysis on Marshall, here's a tape session I did with Holka this week.
I've written enough about Bridgewater. You know why I like him and why I project him to see statistical improvement behind a healthy offensive line.
Rounds 16-19: Keith Marshall, Tim Hightower, Alfred Morris, Cameron Artis-Payne, Chris Thompson, Andre Ellington, Alex Collins or Ted Ginn-Anquan Boldin-Leonte Carroo-Bruce Ellington-Austin Hooper-Richard Rodgers-Jalen Strong
Like Morris, Artis-Payne has the look of a safe RB2 if he earns the feature role due to injury. He's quicker than fast, smart between the tackles, and capable of winning against physical play. He's not a big-play option but in this Carolina offense, he could accumulate enough volume to help. If you need receivers, I'd probably take these options listed in reverse order.
Hightower's performance down the stretch of 2015 makes him a nice handcuff for Mark Ingram. The former Richmond star is a fine receiver and despite lacking C.J. Spiller's speed, he's a smarter runner between the tackles. He's a good bet for top-15 production at his position if Ingram gets hurt again.
Ellington offers the safety of projected PPR volume and big-play upside due to his speed and skill after the catch. Carroo is in a crowded situation but he continues making plays in camp. I think he's one of the most polished receivers in this class and capable of bumping DeVante Parker to a reserve role if Parker underwhelms against press.
Boldin lacks great upside but there's bye-week or flex-play potential as a steady PPR option against zone coverage. Ginn remains the best deep threat on the Panthers despite his unreliable hands. Based on what he did last year, I like the idea of having Ginn in my back pocket just in case there's an injury to Kelvin Benjamin, Greg Olsen, or Funchess.
Jaelen Strong is competing for the slot role with Cecil Shorts. But if Will Fuller gets hurt, we might see Strong used as more of a possession complement if the Texans aren't confident in Braxton Miller's progress. Strong's OTA performance makes him worth a flier. He has always been sure-handed and skilled above the rim in tight coverage. I also like the discipline he showed in some aspects of his route running while at Arizona State.
If you're risk-friendly with your drafts, wait until the 11th to take Martellus Bennett and then roll with either Austin Hooper or Richard Rodgers as your reserve. Hooper is earning and converting on lots of red zone targets (as mentioned here this spring) in training camp and Rodgers cut his weight from 275 pounds to 255.
This is a notable development because when I scouted Rodgers at Cal, he was a quick, nimble, and athletic move tight end in the 245-250 range and I was shocked he added so much weight to begin his NFL career. The potential addition of Kellen Winslow, Jr. is more of an insurance policy of depth in case Jared Cook can't stay healthy or underperforms (as is often the case during his career).
Alex Colins has the toughness, footwork, vision, and underrated receiving skills to earn playing time but I'd stay tuned to perennial underachiever Christine Michael one final time (see below) before pulling the trigger on the rookie. Andre Ellington in the 18th-19th round is an upside pick based on proven skill.
Michael and Rainey are the two players most likely to earn laughter from those drafting with you and admiration if they earn extensive playing time due to an injury. Michael has been "on point" throughout the offseason, according to Pete Carroll and that's not just Smiling Pete's sunny optimism in overcast Seattle.
Michael's greatest obstacle has been his mental preparation and emotional commitment to becoming the best football player his physical ability promises. I can't tell you if Michael has dedicated himself to becoming that player but based on his consistency this summer, it's a good bet that he's at least doing the minimum to make his coaches happy. It's better than getting dealt to Dallas and later waived.
I'll take a chance at the end of my drafts for a true talent who made his way back to the team that drafted him with his tail between his legs. If Thomas Rawls isn't ready there's a good chance that Michael gets the nod and the rookies behind him get a year to stew.
Rainey has impressed in camp as a runner and receiver. He's a smart veteran with excellent short-area burst and prowess on third downs. Paul Perkins is the player the Giants want as its future but if Rashad Jennings stays healthy or productive in the present, Rainey is a better all-around option than Shane Vereen, who has been a perennial disappointment.
Unless Stevan Ridley surprises, look for Zach Zenner to continue working ahead of the former Patriot starter. If I were to compare Zenner stylistically to a player, he's a more talented and physical version of Donald Brown. He can catch, run with power, and he's an agile athlete. If Ameer Abdullah falters, Zenner has the upside to exceed the best that Joique Bell offered as a Lion, which was RB2 production.
Malcolm Brown still has performed well enough this summer to earn playing time at the expense of Benny Cunningham, which is a bigger task than some may realize, but he has a great blend of skills to surprise in a lead role if Todd Gurley goes down. Cunningham's experience, third-down skills and overall smart play as a well-balanced runner will give him the edge. Still, keep an eye on Brown because he has excellent balance and his athletic profile is agility, strength, balance, and room to grow into a starter level decision-maker.
Many of the players from the final five rounds will be available as free agents. If not, here's a little bit about each player on my waiver wire watchlist.
- Ka'Deem Carey: Kyle Long loves how hard Carey runs. He lacks conventional speed but he's a smart, physical player who could wind up the most consistent option in the Bears backfield.
- Jalen Richard: I shared my pre-draft summary on Richard from the Rookie Scouting Portfolio to non-customers last week.
- Orleans Darkwa: If Rashard Jennings and Shane Vereen are the projected rotation for most touches from the Giants backfield, consider Darkwa the Jennings to Bobby Rainey's Vereen.
- Peyton Barber: He's making a strong case for the third spot on the depth chart over Mike James. He runs a lot like Spencer Ware and Thomas Rawls--not fast, but quick, balanced, good vision, and strong.
- Darius Jackson: The Cowboys' back has a great athletic profile but has to show enough in camp to earn a roster spot. If he earns one at the expense of a veteran, keeps him on your speed dial.
All three 15-round drafts below were live mocks conducted two weeks ago at mockdraftcalculator.com. The presumable lineup is 1QB/2RB/3WR/1Flex/1TE/1DEF
From the 1-Spot
Don't get too wrapped up in my first choice. The most important thing you should notice is that I invoked the first-round variation this year with one of my early-round choices. Based on Fitzgerald's ADP, I could probably have gotten him at the top of the sixth round but I like him more than Hurns, Decker, Floyd, and Baldwin and didn't want to stick too close to ADP when I think the old man is the best available player at the position. I also had a block of four backs ahead.
Bernard and Abdullah are a similar type: PPR weapons with every-down upside. I countered that with Ajayi and Crowell as potential bellcows. I would have been satisfied with these four without Gurley.
Thomas is a popular target for me at this point in drafts and I'm pleased to finish my TE1-QB1 acquisition with Winston. If this were a 20-round draft, Teddy Bridgewater and Austin Hooper would be my picks in rounds 16-17.
Because I embrace risk and watch my share of rookies, I'm like rolling with Michael Thomas and Treadwell with consecutive picks. Rounding out my receiving corps with Ellington also suits my desire for potential high-volume PPR targets. I want consistency with big-play potential and all three offer that option as reserves.
The pick I'm least comfortable with is Ajayi. If I were drafting this team today, Tyler Lockett or Melvin Jones would have earned the nod in the seventh.
From the 12-spot
I'm also happy with the outcome of this mock. The trio of Robinson, Allen and Fitzgerald gives me a ton of target potential even if I hoped that Watkins fell three more spots for me to steal in the third (remember, Watkins recovery was still a bigger question at the time of this mock).
I probably could have waited another round for Forte but I also wanted a shot at Marvin Jones and Tyler Lockett in the middle of my mid-round RB block so I opted to go a little earlier at RB, especially when I saw Forte leave at this exact spot in my last mock. After all, he's the last back in my early-round exception list.
I tied up the Bengals backfield, which I can't say I feel great about. I though I reached a little for Isaiah Crowell in the previous draft so I wanted to see if he'd fall to me in the 10th round. In hindsight, I would have opted for Crowell in the 8th even if most probably believe more in Hill.
Winston-Gates, Winston-Martellus Bennett, or Rivers and one of these two tight ends suit me fine in the 9th-10th. I'll roll with that combo all day.
You can probably flip-flop Gordon and Washington in terms of ADP now that Washington is contending with Jalen Richard and Gordon will only see a four-game absence. You might not get Gordon outside the 10th round within another week or two.
And as you can imagine, I'm pleased to land Ware in the 14th round. Just like the other draft, if this was a 20-round deal I'd take Bridgewater and Hooper as my backups to the Winston-Rivers/Bennett combo.
From the 6-Spot
Once again, I invoked my early-round variation at the top of the draft with Peterson and I could have had Gurley or Elliott, which I know many of you might have taken ahead of the Vikings' back. I'm not one for debating the merits of the top 3-5 backs if I think all belong in that range.
I hoped for Robinson or Allen to fall one more spot but when I got Cooks and Watkins with consecutive picks I was far from crestfallen. I reached too much for Kelce. I could have landed him a 2-3 rounds later. In hindsight, Russell Wilson or Allen Hurns would have been on my short list.
I managed to wait for Fitzgerald and land him in the 6th, so that was a success and I'm actually a little happier with the choice of Lockett later than Hurns earlier. If I missed on Kelce in the process and had Wilson and a tight end like Thomas, Gates or Bennett, I'd probably feel a little better about this draft.
The biggest reason I'm not thrilled with the outcome is my lack of depth at RB. I hoped Forte, Anderson, or Rawls would make it to me in the fourth and came up short. I landed Fitzgerald but lost Abdullah and Bernard. It means my RB2 is a hope for a Murray rebound and Crowell breakout. I'm fine with the backs I picked, but I didn't get enough of them and I'd feel better if I had one more. Even so, I have the Vikings backfield and I like the strength of my starters.