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.

Players Receiving 3 Votes

Javorius Allen, Baltimore Ravens

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 – appears to be 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 and pass-blocking skills.

Simpkins: Stylistically, Allen differs significantly from the incumbent Justin Forsett. Fortunately, so does Allen’s only real competition, Lorenzo Taliaferro. Though a rookie, Allen already blocks well. He’s a competent runner and catches the ball well for a bigger man. Have no doubt that the Ravens would turn to Allen if Forsett’s smaller frame can’t take the punishment of a sixteen game season. Increasingly, owners are beginning to see Allen go in the last round or two of drafts as the fantasy community awakens to his potential for value.

Wood: Allen had ups and downs while at USC, but his talent is undeniable. He landed in a phenomenal position in Baltimore, for a team with a commitment to the running game and a depth chart that gives Allen upward mobility. Justin Forsett is the starter, but let's not forget Forsett was an uninspiring journeyman until last year's breakout. If Forsett falters or gets hurt (neither are unlikely), I believe Allen would get the nod over Lorenzo Taliaferro. Any running back that has a shot at major snaps in a Marc Trestman offense is someone worth targeting on draft day.

Khiry Robinson, New Orleans Saints

Gray: Khiry Robinson has produced in the past when given an opportunity, so there's no reason to think he can't do that going forward. He just needs touches. With Pierre Thomas out of town, Robinson is only behind Mark Ingram II and C.J. Spiller. Each of those backs has a an injury-riddled history - Spiller is already hobbled. Robinson is more than capable of filling in when needed.

Simpkins: History has shown that Mark Ingram II and C.J. Spiller are not the most durable backs. It’s not hard to imagine one or both of them missing some time this year. Already, Spiller has been ailing from an undisclosed injury in camp. Robinson has shown in past usage that he can carry the load when called upon. Remember, the Saints invested a lot in improving their offensive line this offseason and seem poised to emphasize the run in 2015. Currently going undrafted in most leagues, Robinson could be that afterthought running back that propels owners to championships if things break just right ahead of him.

Waldman: He knows the Saints offense, he's a better match to sub for Mark Ingram II if Ingram gets hurt, and he's currently ahead of C.J. Spiller on the depth chart. Bill Parcells also likened him to Curtis Martin. He may never turn into that kind of player, but there's skill in those legs.

Players Receiving 2 Votes

Jonas Gray, New England Patriots

Gray: While it's next to impossible to predict what Bill Belichick will do at running back, Jonas Gray is the best bet in New England. He looks the part physically and has already mentioned how much quicker he feels after losing 10 pounds over the offseason. Gray fell into Belichick's doghouse after being late to a meeting last year. He should have learned from that and run with any opportunity he gets in 2015.

Waldman: The Patriots' runner has feature back size, decent vision, and he lost 10 pounds to get a little quicker. He also earned a clean slate after his tardiness cost him the starting gig last year.

Theo Riddick, Detroit Lions

Haseley: Theo Riddick is one of my target running backs in the later rounds this year. He assumes the Reggie Bush role and he also has the ability to get some third down rushes. He could line up as the Lions slot receiver, which would give him a reception boost. A safe estimate is 30-35 catches, but he could get even more. Detroit loves to throw to their backs. He's a great value at RB72.

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 if fit, we can never be sure about rookies. Bell has been hampered by injuries in the off season and Riddick should be good for a few fantasy points every week in a worst case scenario. Very valuable if you are desperate or in best ball/survivor leagues. In a best case scenario should one or both of Bell and Ameer Abdullah miss time then Riddick becomes much more useful.

Denard Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars

Brimacombe: Robinson was the lone bright spot from the Jaguars RB spot last year as he put up 582 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns and added 23 receptions for 124 yards. He easily beat out last years big free agent signee Toby Gerhart with his play on the field but entering 2015 is a different story with 2nd round draft pick T.J. Yeldon likely in front of him on the depth chart. Look for both to battle it out during camp and even if Robinson doesn’t win the starting job he should see plenty of action on the field.

Hicks: Every year we see the promise of a fresh crop of rookie running backs held back at the start of the season due to coaching concerns and inability to catch up to the pace of the NFL. This gives the opportunity to impress back to the experienced veterans on the roster. Most don’t take advantage of this chance, but one that could is 3rd year man Denard Robinson. During a 4 game stretch replacing the ineffective and injured Toby Gerhart, Robinson recorded an impressive 72 carries for 389 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns. Niggling injuries caught up with after that, but he displayed starter potential. For his current draft price he could easily be useful at the start of the year before giving way to the rookie, unless of course he plays so well he doesn’t relinquish the job.

James Starks, Green Bay Packers

Haseley: If an injury were to derail Eddie Lacy, James Starks would automatically become a weekly must start and you get him late in your draft. People tend to forget about him and most of the time he goes undrafted if the Lacy owner doesn't select him. Target him later in your draft and wait for him to get an opportunity.

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.

James White, New England Patriots

Haseley: Travaris Cadet may be the experienced veteran of the group, but James White looks poised to make a move as the Patriots replacement of Shane Vereen. It's possible that there will be a change of pace back by committee in New England, but my money is on White to lead the way as the back who assumes the majority of that role.

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 1 Vote

Cameron Artis-Payne, Carolina Panthers

Parsons: Artis-Payne is my written-in-pen late-round selection at running back. The three certainties in life are death, taxes, and a Jonathan Stewart injury. No other back projects as an early-down lead back on Carolina’s depth chart. Artis-Payne was a rock-solid producer on the ground through his various stops in college, culminating with a huge finale at Auburn in 2014. Instead of fighting for Artis-Payne on the waiver wire, lock him up in the double-digit rounds and wait for the duct tape to fall off Jonathan Stewart.

Roy Helu, Oakland Raiders

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.

Dan Herron, Indianapolis Colts

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. 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, Buffalo Bills

Wood: LeSean McCoy is in line for a ton of carries in Buffalo, at least if the season goes according to Rex Ryan's plan. Yet, the Bills want to be at or near the top of the league rushing standings, which means there is room for a second running back to see 10+ touches per game. There are other options on the Bills' roster, but Jackson is the most reliable and pedigreed. Jackson can fill the third down role, or handle full-time duties in McCoy's stead.

Matt Jones, Washington

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 Shanahans' 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 running back 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.

Jerick McKinnon, Minnesota Vikings

Alexander: Adrian Peterson is 30 years old, which is past the age at which running back decline should be expected. Before sitting out all but one game last season, he suffered a torn ACL, a high ankle sprain, a mid-foot sprain, and had two groin surgeries, all in the previous three years. No one knows how Peterson’s body will react after a year away from the game, but would it really be surprising to see McKinnon starting for the Vikings at some point this season? The best measured athlete at last year’s scouting combine, McKinnon ran for 4.8 yards per attempt as a rookie, despite playing through a back injury that eventually required surgery. If something happens to Adrian Peterson, McKinnon carries league winning upside, and he’s currently being drafted after Pierre Thomas, who doesn’t play professional football for a living at the moment.

Chris Polk, Houston Texans

Brimacombe: Most people are going to be going in the direction of Alfred Blue after the Arian Foster injury. Well with Polk you can get him at the end of drafts without reaching and he gives you all the tools to be an every down back. If the Texans don’t bring in another RB to compete with Blue and Polk to start the season, Polk has a real chance to see 15+ touches a game and could be a nice option until Arian Foster comes back from injury.

Ray Rice, Free Agent

Waldman: He might be unofficially blackballed from the league, but a lot of teams seem to be looking and a domestic violence prevention advocate has publicly said that Rice deserves another chance to play and earn a living at what he does well. Rice looked good against the 49ers last year. The quickness was back and he was healthy. He has at least one strong year left in his legs. Don't be surprised if a team desperate for a starter comes knocking after an injury or two.

Antone Smith, Atlanta Falcons

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. Smith is seeing a lot of first-team reps in training camp thanks to the hamstring injuries plaguing Devonta Freeman and Tevin Colemand - Smith has definitely got the opportunity to push for more work while the two youngsters are sidelined.

Robert Turbin, Seattle Seahawks

Simpkins: Lynch has had a relatively clean injury history while he’s been in Seattle. While many see Christine Michael as the backup to Lynch because of his greater physical upside, the team has showed with their on field moves and off field comments that they trust Turbin more when it comes to toting the rock. Turbin is only a Lynch injury away from having major relevance. Turbin has been a severely underrated back in his time in the league, one that has done a good job filling in on the rare occasions the otherwise durable Lynch was out of the game. If Turbin gets away in 2016 free agency, it would not be surprising if a team recruits him to become their lead option. He’s also one of the few backs that could become a featured option in a truly run-first offense. Turbin is a late pick that could change the destinies of many a fantasy owner if Lynch goes down.

Terrance West, Cleveland Browns

Hicks: It is easy to presume that Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson Jr 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 carrying an injury. For his current draft price West could prove to be a steal. Training Camp and preseason could be vital in determining pecking order and running back coach Wilbert Montgomery recently praised West’s preparation while complaining about Crowell and Johnson. West is considered the 3rd option by the fantasy community, but this may not prove to be the case.

Damien Williams, Miami Dolphins

Wimer: Jay AJayi is not impressing during training camp, and the early word is that Williams is the clear-cut #2 running back. If Lamar Miller goes down, Williams would inherit a fantasy-starter-worthy role down in Miami. Williams is worth a late-round flyer pick.