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.

Player Receiving 5 Votes

DeAngelo Williams

Sigmund Bloom: If you knew that an injury handcuff running back with prior high quality play was going to get at least three starts in a great offense and those starts would open up the season, what round would you draft them in? It’s got to be earlier than the late-round reaches that DeAngelo Williams lasts until these days. None of New England, San Francisco, or St. Louis are that scary against the run and the Steelers offense should be among the most productive in the league. Williams is an especially easy pick late if you have a flex spot to plug him into.

Andy Hicks: DeAngelo Williams will be the starter for a team that runs the ball well for three weeks. His current draft price is among backups, longshots and contributing backs. Obviously this is due to Le’Veon Bell’s three-game suspension, but being an almost guaranteed starter for three games carries serious weight. We also don’t know if Bell will come straight back in and carry the ball 20 times a game or if he’ll be eased back in. Who knows he might not even be fit? The Bell owner will be looking to handcuff Williams, but for not much of a cost you can grab him ahead of them and look to parlay it into an improved team or a starter for three weeks. If all goes well Williams will have incredible value after Week 1. New England will be without Tom Brady and have a depleted defense. Then in Week 2 he has a rebuilding 49ers team. Buy low, sell high.

Stephen Holloway: Williams signed a two-year $4 million contract with the Steelers and should get the majority of the carries over the first three weeks of the season while LeVeon Bell serves his suspension. Williams is coming off his worst FL season, the only one in his career where he averaged less than 4 yards per carry. Although he turned 32 this spring, Williams has only 1,434 carries over nine NFL seasons. He provides an almost certain starter (for three weeks) at an inexpensive price and could play well enough to see continued play even after Bell returns. His primary value lies in the first three weeks and as the replacement if Bell were to suffer injury.

Matt Waldman: Le’Veon Bell’s suspension gives Williams a shot to play behind a fine Steelers’ offensive line. Fantasy owners have a collective bias against Williams for his age and work behind a poor offensive line—and arguably scheme—in Carolina and LeVeon Bell’s weight loss. The popular sentiment among fantasy owners is that Bell’s weight loss made him a great player last year, not the return of multiple healthy offensive linemen. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Bell’s quickness and agility were on par with Jahvid Best and Ahmad Bradshaw as a 230-pound back at Michigan State. Due to the poor run blocking, Bell had to use that first-class quickness and creativity in the backfield as a rookie rather than in the intended crease. Williams could have been a much better back statistically if Carolina didn’t stifle him. He has enough left to produce top-15 fantasy production while Bell is serving a suspension. Players coming off suspension often get dinged after they return to the field, which also makes Williams a fine handcuff for a strong Steelers offense in 2015.

Jason Wood: DeAngelo Williams has been a maddening fantasy player throughout his tenure as a Panther. He’s always had to share the workload (save for the 2008 season – 1,636 yards and 20 touchdowns) and now finds himself a 32-year old veteran backing up the league’s top workhorse (Le’Veon Bell). That said, Williams is worth more than his ADP even if you only roster him for a month. Bell is due to serve a multi-game suspension and Williams is the odds on favorite to be the Steelers workhorse in the first month of the season. Consider how much fantasy owners pay in a weekly waiver claim for a backup RB that gets a start or two midseason? We KNOW Williams is going to get multiple starts, and would also be a workhorse if Bell got hurt. Williams is the very definition of value.

Player Receiving 4 Votes

James White

James Brimacombe: The door looks to be open for James White with Shane Vereen leaving town to the New York Giants. White will compete with Jonas Gray and Tarvaris Cadet for backup RB duties behind LeGarrette Blount but putting a label on a Patriots RB does not make much sense as things can change quickly in that backfield. The Patriots always seem to look to the hot hand at the RB position and as long as you are in the mix for carries you have potential to have a breakout game that could land you more opportunities down the road.

Christopher Feery: White appears to be in the lead for the 3rd-down back role for the Patriots. While it’s nearly impossible to predict what Bill Belichik will employ with his RBs on a week-to-week basis, the team relies on the short passing game and may rely on it even more so while Brady is out to start the year. White was well-regarded around last years’ draft coming out of Wisconsin. If he receives similar touches to what Shane Vereen received in a similar role, he could be a sneaky good late round pick.

Jeff Haseley: Many are speculating that James White will take over the Shane Vereen role in New England. White is an excellent receiving back who could threaten 50+ catches if he produces and gives the coaches what they're looking for. When looking for a late round running back, target those who are skilled at catching passes on pass-friendly offenses. White is a perfect example of PPR back to target

Jeff Pasquino: The Patriots no longer have Shane Vereen (Giants) on the roster any longer, so someone will have to step up and fill that role for New England. James White is my pick to do just that, as he offers solid rushing and receiving ability to fill that role. White was drafted to be Vereen’s replacement and he has been talked up all offseason by the Patriots. With LeGarrette Blount suspended for the first week of the season, White could contribute to the offense right away this year.

Players Receiving 3 Votes

Javorius Allen

Sigmund Bloom: Justin Forsett is still holding down the Ravens backfield, but he hasn’t had to come back and shoulder a heavy workload the year after shouldering a career-high workload before, and this in his age 30 season. Allen is a good receiver out of the backfield, and he’s got more burst than plodding 2014 fourth-rounder Lorenzo Taliaferro. If Allen can outplay Taliaferro this summer, he’ll be in next in line for a very valuable starting RB role in PPR leagues that is occupied by a relatively unproven player.

Ryan Hester: Allen joined a great situation for a rookie running back when he was selected by Baltimore. Their running back depth chart has a 29 year-old journeyman with just one season of starting experience at the top and not much else behind him. If Justin Forsett were injured, Allen – not second-year player Lorenzo Talliaferro – is the player best-suited to execute the type of offense Baltimore will run under Marc Trestman. Trestman loves to target his running backs in the passing game, and Allen has great pass-catching skills.

Daniel Simpkins: Allen landed on a depth chart with virtually no competition for the number two job. Justin Forsett holds the lead role, but being a bit below the prototypical weight for the position, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where he begins wearing down or gets injured as the season progresses. Allen fits the Trestman scheme nicely and is a competent receiver. At the very least, expect Allen to earn a committee role in this offense, with the chance to do more if Forsett falters. Allen regularly isn’t being drafted in 12-team leagues, but clearly needs to own a spot on your waiver wire speed dial.

Cameron Artis-Payne

Chad Parsons: Three guarantees in life are death, taxes, and a Jonathan Stewart injury. Cameron Artis-Payne is a talented two-down thumper and is an extremely underrated asset due to his late Day 3 NFL Draft pedigree. Carolina has little on the depth chart to challenge Artis-Payne as the primary backup to Jonathan Stewart. Instead of fighting fellow owners with precious waiver wire priority or blind bidding dollars in-season, Artis-Payne is the ideal final roster spot pick for forward-thinking owners prior to Week 1.

Daniel Simpkins: Like Javorius Allen, Artis-Payne also landed on a depth chart where the number two job is far from decided. As anyone who has played redraft in recent years can attest, Jonathan Stewart isn’t one to stay healthy for an entire 16 game span. Even without a Stewart injury, look for Artis-Payne to get some touches each game. Should Stewart ail yet again, Artis-Payne would likely shoulder the bulk of the work. His downhill, no-nonsense style may not be flashy, but should Artis-Payne be given a chance to lead the Panthers backfield, he’ll be a player fantasy owners want to own.

Matt Waldman: There’s little exciting about Artis-Payne as an athlete, he’s simply a back that meets the NFL baselines in size, strength, speed, and quickness. Payne’s vision and the depth chart in Carolina make the rookie a deep sleeper. Fozzy Whittaker proved capable last year, but Payne is more physical. If the rookie can jockey for playing time in a committee reserve role with Whittaker, he’ll earn a shot. Jonathan Stewart’s ability to remain a healthy option wire-to-wire is still in doubt.

Roy Helu

Jeff Haseley: Latavius Murray looks to be the Raiders primary ball carrier, but Roy Helu is slated to be the team's third down back and receiving option out of the backfield. Helu is one of those PPR specials to target later in drafts. When the talent pool runs dry in your draft, seek out high catch potential backs. Helu fits that role well.

Mark Wimer: Helu should get enough work as a change-of-pace/third-down back (especially as a receiver out of the backfield) to merit a late-round fantasy selection, especially in PPR leagues. He should have some good games making him worth looking at as a bye-week stand-in for fantasy owners.

Jason Wood: Roy Helu isn’t a lead NFL back, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have value in redraft leagues. If you’re in a PPR format, in particular, Helu is worth grabbing late. In four seasons in Washington, Helu served as both the backup tailback and 3rd down specialist. He caught 129 receptions for 1,152 yards and 3 TDs and was also effective as a runner in limited snaps (255 carries for 1,132 yards and 7 TDs). The Raiders hope Latavius Murray can be a full-time starter, but that’s a low probability outcome. At worst, Helu will be a 3rd down option catching passes from Derek Carr (as a safety valve). At best, Helu plays into a committee role and sees 200+ touches and, as a result, delivers fringe Top 25 numbers (in a PPR format).

Matt Jones

Chad Parsons: Matt Jones has some Marshawn Lynch to his running style and has pass-catching ability to go along with his ideal size. The primary backup job in Washington is Jones’ for the taking and Alfred Morris has enjoyed a strong run of health. Morris is not a difference-making talent, creating an opportunity for Jones to emerge, at a minimum, as a valuable handcuff. Jones has the combination of talent and situation to be a top waiver wire addition in-season if Alfred Morris gets dinged up or sustains a longer term injury.

Jeff Pasquino: Last year, Washington had seasoned veteran Roy Helu behind Alfred Morris, but nowHelu has moved on to Oakland. That opens up Helu’s role as both backup running back and also as the pass catcher out of the backfield for Washington. The team drafted a new option late in the third round of the NFL Draft in May, and the hype started almost immediately, as Washington GM Scot McCloughan compared him to Marshawn Lynch. Coach Jay Gruden has been impressed with Jones so far, and some team beat writers believe that Jones could push Morris for playing time and touches.

Jason Wood: I’m not going to pound the table on Matt Jones in redraft leagues, but I do think he’s a deep sleeper worth rostering as part of your draft-day end game. Washington appears set to give Alfred Morris a chance to thrive in a new power blocking scheme; but Morris is only proven in a one-cut-and-go style running behind the Shanahan’s zone blocking. If Morris struggles in the new scheme, Jones would be the next man up. We saw Jay Gruden’s ability to get creative at the RB position while he was calling plays in Cincinnati, Jones could become a short-yardage power option and have fringe RB3 value if the dominoes fall perfectly.

Stevan Ridley

Sigmund Bloom: Ridley is still not 100% after tearing his ACL during the 2014 season, but if he can get healthy enough to make the team and be ahead of Zac Stacy to open the season, he’ll be in position to get a larger workload if Chris Ivory can’t stay healthy. Ivory was mostly durable in 2014, but he has been a frequent name on the injury report before that. Ridley has excellent balance and efficiency between the tackles and will produce if healthy and given the chance.

Cian Fahey: Chris Ivory may enter training camp ahead of Stevan Ridley on the New York Jets depth chart, but Ridley should expect to take his spot coming out of camp. Ridley is a better fit with Chan Gailey and the Jets' most talented back if healthy. He should be back from his ACL tear in time to be at 100 percent effectiveness for the regular season. Ridley likely wouldn't even be with the Jets if he hadn't hurt his knee last year. He is one of the better starters in the NFL when fully healthy.

Stephen Holloway: Ridley was an efficient running back during his four years in New England. Coming off knee surgery six months ago, he signed a one-year deal with the Jets and has a chance to be ready for the beginning of the season. If healthy, he could play behind Chris Ivory who has played in 31 games the past two seasons in New York, but missed a lot of games earlier in his career. Ridley carries a 4.3 ypc rushing average, but has not been used much in the passing game with only 23 career receptions.

Players Receiving 2 Votes

Christine Michael

Ari Ingel: Despite reports of his demise, Marshawn Lynch is still the man in Seattle, but Michael is once again a must own handcuff and a player that will be a certified RB1 in the event Lynch gets hurt. So far we’ve only seen glimpses of his talent, but what we have seen has been pretty darn exciting.

Daniel Simpkins: There’s no questioning Michael's electric ability. Michael has simply had the misfortune of being stuck behind the supremely talented Marshawn Lynch. It probably doesn’t help that Michael has demonstrated immaturity early in his career, either. Let us not forget that though Lynch has enjoyed relatively good health in his time in Seattle, his bad back could flare up and cause him to miss time. If Michael has his head right and gets his shot, it will be hard for Seattle to put the genie back in the bottle. It’s also very possible that his opportunity could come with a trade to another team if Seattle feels good about rolling strictly with Turbin and Rawls. With Michael going undrafted in all but the deepest of formats, he makes a great lottery ticket that could have a huge payoff.

Terrance West

Andy Hicks: It is easy to presume that Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson will see more ball than Terrance West this season, but West did show ability in his rookie season and could easily show improvement in year 2. Against all AFC North foes he recorded at least 94 yards in a game with 3 touchdowns in total. Crowell has made bad decisions in the past and Johnson is an unproven commodity. For his current draft price West could prove to be a steal. Training Camp and preseason could be vital in determining pecking order and while West is considered the 3rd option this may not prove to be the case.

Mark Wimer: Isaiah Crowell kept his nose clean during his rookie season, and looks poised to be the starter in Cleveland this year. However, the coaches were very fickle during 2014 giving West some starts too - it is within the realm of possibility that West becomes the lead back in this committee during preseason and that makes West a worthwhile gamble late in fantasy drafts.

Players Receiving 1 Vote

Travaris Cadet

Phil Alexander: Running backs have accounted for nearly 20% of New England’s receptions during the Bill Belichick era. That number is unlikely to budge this year, despite Shane Vereen’s defection to the NY Giants. According to beat writer Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, Cadet currently has the leg up on James White in the camp battle for the Patriots’ receiving back role. Like Vereen, Cadet is a versatile player who has proven capable of running out-routes and comebacks in addition to the normal RB route tree. The Saints lined him up all over the formation last season, and he responded with 38 receptions and 1.69 yards per route run, which was 8th best among RBs with at least 40 targets. If Cadet can prove this summer he’s made strides as a pass protector, he stands to inherit the role that made Vereen the fourth most heavily targeted RB last season, yet he’s currently going undrafted.

Michael Dyer

Matt Waldman: The former Auburn back displayed the savvy, balance, burst, and agility to remind me a lot of Frank Gore. Injuries and off-field issues forced Dyer into a nomadic college career. If he can stay healthy, he has a strong shot to make the team and earn playing time. Trent Richardson is the most talented back in Oakland, but he has mentally and emotionally checked out of football three years ago. Dyer provides the Raiders a better financial bargain. Roy Helu is a decent reserve with receiving skills, but lacks Dyer’s every-down potential between the tackles. Latavius Murray is a favorite among those tantalized easily by size-speed, but he didn’t build on the Chiefs game last year and he runs more like a young James Starks—a player that developed into a capable first-call backup, but needed a few years to develop his craft. Dyer is a longshot, but coaches have raved about him in OTAs and there’s a reasonable opening for him.

Dan Herron

Ryan Hester: Indianapolis acquired Frank Gore this offseason to assume the role of lead back, but Gore is 32 years old and is far from guaranteed to play all 16 games this season. The team also drafted Josh Robinson out of Mississippi State, who is receiving plenty of hype from many early fantasy drafters. It shouldn’t be assumed, however, that Robinson would be the clear backup behind Gore. Should Gore get hurt or need rest, Herron is the player who knows the offense well and who earned the trust of the coaching staff and Andrew Luck. As a pass-catching back, he would allow Indianapolis to do what they best – execute an offense built around Andrew Luck. Robinson is likely not versatile enough or a good enough pass-blocker to see a ton of snaps if Gore went down.

Fred Jackson

Jeff Haseley: Only Le'Veon Bell and Matt Forte had more targets than Fred Jackson among running backs last season. LeSean McCoy has earned the lead back role with the Bills, but don't bet against Jackson seeing action as well. His diligent work ethic and years of experience will give him a utility role with the possibility of more if an injury opens the door. The veteran Jackson isn't going away yet, don't forget about him later in drafts.

Theo Riddick

Andy Hicks: Theo Riddick impressed in limited play for the Lions in 2014. As a runner not so much, but out of the backfield he caught 34 balls in his restricted playing time. While Joique Bell will clearly play ahead of Riddick, we can never be sure about rookies. Riddick should be good for a few fantasy points every week in a worst case scenario and that is valuable if you are desperate or in best ball/survivor leagues. In a best case scenario should 1 or both of Bell and Ameer Abdullah miss time then Riddick becomes much more useful.

Josh Robinson

Ari Ingel: Frank Gore is clearly the man in Indy, but he is 33 years old and if he happens to go down, Josh Robinson could certainly emerge as his replacement. His nickname is the “bowling ball” as he is a big, compact player that runs hard and gains yards. He also has a little shiftiness in his game and actually has good hands as well, so he is capable of being a three down back if given the chance.

Antone Smith

Mark Wimer: Smith showed some impressive bursts of production last year, and he's in the mix with several inexperienced running backs in the Atlanta stable. He may see more work than most expect during 2015, making him worth a late-round gamble for fantasy owners.

James Starks

Jeff Pasquino: Eddie Lacy is a top feature back this year, so there is inherent value to his understudy, James Starks. Starks has proven himself as a capable fill-in starter whenever Eddie Lacy is unavailable, and his draft price tag is very cheap. With no other threats on the Packers’ roster to Starks’ position on the depth chart, he is a solid handcuff to pick up late in drafts this year.

Zach Zenner

Matt Waldman: It’s a deep rookie running back class and Zenner is a prime example. The South Dakota State Superman has a style that looks a lot like Donald Brown to the naked eye. The difference is Zenner’s size and strength. Think about Brown’s quickness and pair it with a bigger, stronger runner and it’s why Zenner is worth watching in a Lions’ camp where Theo Riddick is strictly special teams and third-down depth and Joique Bell is another year older and coming off two injuries—one of them taking more time to heal than desired. Zenner has the all-around skills to become an NFL contributor. Monitor the opportunity that may come open if Bell can’t take the field late this summer and Zenner builds on a good OTA performance.