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.

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Player Receiving 10 Votes

Christine Michael, Seattle

Sigmund Bloom: Michael has had "an awakening" this offseason, earning praise from coaches and teammates about his approach to the game. His talent never went to sleep, but he had trouble earning playing time and eventually played his way off of three teams before Seattle re-signed him near the end of last season. Starter Thomas Rawls will be eased back in early coming off of ankle surgery, which will give Michael a chance to earn a season-long role and carry a high injury upside ceiling if Rawls goes down again.

Mike Brown: There are some players that fantasy owners just simply cannot quit. For me, that player is Christine Michael. I've probably drafted him in one league or another every year of his career, thinking THIS will be the year. And to this point, it has never been. But THIS will be the year!

Ryan Hester: The once-hyped (and now being hyped again) prospect has been cut by multiple teams but circled back to Seattle, his initial NFL home. So far this preseason, he has been the recipient of praise saying he’s in shape and re-focused as a player. Between his running hot thus far in the preseason and Thomas Rawls’ ankle injury, Michael should continue to be the primary backup in Seattle, making him a Rawls injury/aggravation away from being the top back on a run-heavy offense. That’s worth a late-round dart throw.

Andy Hicks: The longer the rookies struggle, both on and off the field, the more likely it is that not only does former 2nd round pick Christine Michael make the roster, but he becomes fantasy relevant. Thomas Rawls did well last year, but has been limited in preseason with various ailments. It looks like the light has gone on in Christie Michael's head, he has done well in preseason and he will be an excellent flyer investment.

Dan Hindery: While Thomas Rawls seems to be making real progress towards a return in Week 1, Michael has looked so good in preseason that he may have forced himself into the Seahawks offensive plans. Michael has always been a freakish physical specimen, but the light just hasn't gone on for him for whatever reason. He has bounced around the league in recent years before landing back with the Seahawks. Perhaps no NFL team operates as more of a meritocracy when it comes to playing time than the Seahawks under Pete Carroll. If Michael is the best back (which he very well could be), he is going to get the carries. Michael is one of the best late-round boom/bust picks because if he does hit, he could be a league winner.

Ari Ingel: Michael seems to have had a change of attitude on his second deployment with the Seahawks. He's finally playing to his talent level and the commitment seems to be there with HC Peter Carroll stating that he makes a great 1, 2 punch with Thomas Rawls. While I expect Rawls to be the team's main ball carrier, Michael could easily get 8 to 10 touches a game and has the upside to produce as a RB1 if Rawls went down again. Clear hesitancy since we have been here before, but later in drafts, only upside.

Chris Kuczynski: After a couple of strong performances in the first two preseason games, there is a lot of discussion that Michael could see a fair amount of touches once the regular season starts as part of a committee with Thomas Rawls. Considering Rawls is still not 100% and might still even be hobbled by the time week 1 rolls around, it would make sense to split carries to keep each of them fresh. Given Michaels late round ADP, he is a steal considering he could be able to contribute right away, and as I've mentioned with Rawls, the Seahawks may not be convinced they have found their bellcow since we haven't seen enough from Rawls (half of his yards came in 2 big games) and the team drafted a few RBs.

John Mamula: Christine Michael will have a role in the Seattle offense this season. Michael has rushed for 99 yards in the first two preseason games and is averaging 5.82 yards per rush. He has always had the talent and is now making a case for regular season touches. Michael is having a standout training camp while Thomas Rawls is on the sidelines recovering from his offseason ankle surgery. Look for the Seahawks to start the season in a RBBC, while Michael has the potential to be the lead dog if Rawls suffers a setback or another injury.

Daniel Simpkins: As Rawls continues his recovery, Michael has been the lead back throughout training camp. He looked positively electric running with the first unit in the first preseason game. We’ve been hearing that Michael is finally beginning to demonstrate maturity and put in the work required of an NFL player. If Seattle moves to a committee approach, as many believe they will, Michael looks set to play a valuable part in that committee. A thirteenth-round pick or later does not seem an outlandish price to pay for a guy with first-round athletic talent.

Matt Waldman: Pete Carroll and Michael's teammates all say that the runner has been "on-point" and working hard throughout the offseason. He's in better shape than last year and he's studying regularly. Carroll has said Michael will be part of a "1-2" punch with Rawls. Michael has the talent to out-produce Rawls. He's a smoother runner with top speed. At the price you can get him, it's worth the flier even if he's repeatedly disappointed. Seriously, it's not like you ever drafted him inside the 10th round during the past four years.

Player Receiving 6 Votes

James White, New England

James Brimacombe: With Dion Lewis having another surgery in August there is no timetable and guarantee that he will be ready to start the season. The Patriots have always played the next man up game when it comes to RBs so this could be White’s chance to make a difference in a very good offense. White offers some great value in the passing game as he caught 40 passes for 410 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Chris Feery: The news that Dion Lewis will require another surgery on his knee dealt a blow to his fantasy prospects for 2016, but provided a ‘welcome back to fantasy relevance’ moment for James White. He’s expected to slip into the Lewis role in the offense, and reports out of camp indicate he’s looked pretty solid this summer. While Patriots running backs are inherently unpredictable for fantasy purposes, the club does show some consistency in their utilization of pass-catching backs. That’s where White fits into the offense, and he makes for an intriguing target for this year’s drafts.

Jeff Haseley: The news of Dion Lewis and his second surgical procedure on his knee has me looking at James White as the next man up in the Patriots backfield who can come close to Lewis' skill set. White has shown the ability to be a receiving threat for the Patriots, catching 33 passes after Week 10 or a pace of 73 for a full season. Lewis missing time means White jumps up the ranks, especially in PPR leagues.

Dan Hindery: The lingering injury issues for Dion Lewis open the door wide open for White to step into the role of primary pass catching back in New England. We have seen Shane Vereen, Dion Lewis and other backs excel in this role and there is serious fantasy potential in PPR leagues for White. We saw this down the stretch of 2015 as White caught 28 passes in the final five games (a 90-catch pace over 16 games). Do not be afraid to "reach" for a high-upside back like White in the 8th-10th round range.

Chad Parsons: James White continues to gain steam as Dion Lewis is now earmarked for surgery and missing a chunk of the season at a minimum. White offers top-12 PPR potential any week Lewis is out of the lineup. Late in 2015, White had three games of at least 60 receiving yards when Lewis was inactive, including six total touchdowns for the final seven games. White is now an ideal part of any Zero RB draft plan.

Jeff Pasquino: With the recent news that Dion Lewis is having another surgery and with Tom Brady suspended for four weeks, the Patriots are going to be all about conservative offense and short plays with upside. Enter James White as the best candidate for catches out of the backfield to complement the rushing game. White had 40 targets the final six weeks of 2015, converting those to 30 catches, 315 yards and three scores solely as a receiver (he added 22 yards and a touchdown on the ground over the same timeframe). White offers fantastic value late in drafts.

Players Receiving 4 Votes

Shaun Draughn, San Francisco

Phil Alexander: Chip Kelly naming Draughn the number two back in San Fransico behind Carlos Hyde might carry bigger fantasy ramifications than many people realize. Hyde, you'll remember, has missed 11 out 32 games since turning pro. Draughn had a five-game stretch of low-end RB1 PPR production after Hyde went down last year and could very well offer a bit more than handcuff appeal after 49ers offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins (the Lions running backs coach last year) recently compared him to Theo Riddick. The primary pass catching back in a Kelly offense warrants our attention regardless, but another injury to Hyde puts Draughn's name on the short list of potential league winners for teams that took a wide receiver heavy approach at the top of their drafts.

Justin Howe: The journeyman seems to have latched on in San Francisco, as Chip Kelly has talked up Draughn as his clear No. 2 back and pass-game complement. Draughn isn't special, but he's a functional receiver and PPR producer who will play a ton of snaps in a mile-a-minute offense. And considering the 49ers will trail for most of their season, Draughn could ultimately see a similar snap count to starter Carlos Hyde.

Devin Knotts: Shaun Draughn has solidified himself as the number two running back for San Francisco behind Carlos Hyde who has not shown that he can stay healthy so far in his young career as he has missed 11 games over his first two seasons. Draughn saw a little bit of time as a starter last season, and when he did he was tremendous as a receiving back out of the backfield for Blaine Gabbert as he averaged four receptions per game in the final six games of the 2015 season. With Gabbert returning to the 49ers as the starting quarterback, Draughn could have value even if Hyde doesn’t get hurt on passing downs as Gabbert has shown he is very comfortable with Draughn. Draughn is currently the 70th running back being selected and has great potential to exceed that draft selection.

Jeff Tefertiller: The 49ers are relying on backup tailback Shaun Draughn much more than is reported. Draughn backs up an oft-injured Carlos Hyde and is the superior receiver of the two. The reserve sat out the second preseason game with a rib injury and saw his hold on the backup job strengthened by the fumbles of Mike Davis and DuJuan Harris.

Alfred Morris, Dallas

Sigmund Bloom: Morris rumbled through the defense like he did in his rookie year, putting pressure on Darren McFadden to get back on the field from his broken elbow sooner than later. Add in Lance Dunbar returning earlier than expected from his knee blowout and seventh-round pick Darius Jackson looking too good to dangle on the waiver wire on the way to the practice squad and there's a good reason for McFadden to stay on the PUP, with Morris as the primary backup. He would easily be an RB1 if he got to carry the mail behind this offensive line. That kind of upside is worth stashing in the late portion of your draft in case Elliott's hamstring becomes an issue during the season.

Mike Brown: Let's be honest with ourselves. If this was the regular season and Ezekiel Elliott had just injured his hamstring, how many of US would be pulling their hamstrings racing to the waiver wire to pick up Alfred Morris? This is a guy with extensive starting experience, backing up an injured rookie who has never played, behind the best line in football. Go get Morris, now!

Andy Hicks: Alfred Morris is in prime position to be the clear backup to rookie Ezekiel Elliott and will have value in 2016. His 2015 form in Washington doesn't reflect his true worth and if you own Elliot you almost certainly need to grab Morris as well. Behind that line and with only a rookie in front of him, drafting Morris carries little risk and an extremely high upside. Morris has looked great in training camp and preseason and if there is any chink in the armor of Elliott then Morris will be a steal in fantasy drafts this year.

Jason Wood: Morris is one injury (to Ezekiel Elliott) away from fantasy stardom. Let's remember what Morris did in Washington, yet he's now on a team with the league's best offensive line and a commitment to the ground game. We've seen glimpses in the preseason of how effective Morris can be running behind the Cowboys blockers. Some may be scared off by Darren McFadden, but Morris the better back and McFadden has lost ground due to injuries this preseason.

Spencer Ware, Kansas City

Ryan Hester: Ware is the more talented of the Kansas City backups, and he’s the one who would get goal line carries. Look at his film from Week 1 of the preseason to see how versatile and effective he can be. Ware’s value lies in a Jamaal Charles injury. Even if Charcandrick West also has a role in that scenario, Ware would be the goal line and early downs player, which is more than enough to make him a usable asset.

Ari Ingel: Ware won't get many touches as long as Jamaal Charles is healthy, but could get the ones that count. This is a team with Super Bowl aspirations and it wouldn't surprise me if he received a good number of goal line carries as the team looked to keep Charles healthy for when they really need him, in the playoffs.

John Mamula: Spencer Ware is the favorite for the primary backup RB role behind Jamaal Charles. After suffering two ACL tears, I do not trust Charles this season. If Charles struggles early or succumbs to another injury, Ware will be the RB to own in the Chiefs backfield. During the final rounds of your draft, Ware is a high-upside RB that you can stash away with the potential for a large return.

Matt Waldman: He's a great after contact runner, a good before contact runner, and one of the best in the league against eight-man fronts. If Jamaal Charles can't stay healthy, Ware can be the feature back and thrive. He runs a lot like Marion Barber did: quick, agile, and violent. His pass protection looks good, he's catching the ball well, and he's earned the No.2 role in camp. I love his game.

Players Receiving 3 Votes

Jordan Howard, Chicago

Stephen Holloway: Howard was not drafted until the fifth round, but the running backs ahead of him on the Bears’ depth chart should not strike fear into anyone that loves to compete. It is possible that Howard begins the year in a committee role, but overtakes Langford and Carey by mid-season, particularly if he achieves success as a receiving back.

Jeff Pasquino: Jordan Howard was a top back in college last year with Indiana, topping 1,587 yards in 2014 with 13 rushing touchdowns and then following that season up with last year’s 1,213 yards and nine rushing scores in just nine games. The biggest thing here for me is that every opponent knew that Howard was getting the ball, yet he still averaged 5-6 yards a touch. Now that the Bears selected him, all that stands in his way is another young (and relatively unproven) back in Jeremy Langford. With no Matt Forte left in Chicago, it is either Langford or Howard (or a mix of the two) to run the ball. Give me Howard on the cheap in drafts and let me hope for the upside to materialize at some point this season.

Mark Wimer: Howard is the Thunder to Jeremy Langford's Lightning (such as it is) - Howard may approach 1,000 yards combined as the 1B running back for the Bears. He has even more upside if he can beat out Langford outright during training camp.

Chris Thompson, Washington

Justin Howe: It's likely the only sure thing in the 2016 Washington backfield will be Thompson as a dynamic passing game dominator. A year after catching three passes per game and averaging 6.2 yards per rush, Thompson looks poised to benefit from the weakness and inexperience on the depth chart and log a career high in snaps. The only thing between him and a 50-catch season is his health, but there are few more worthy gambles down the back half of a draft.

Chris Kuczynski: Thompson will handle the 3rd down pass catching role in the Washington offense, but stands to have an increased role from last year (70 touches for 450 yards) after the departure of Alfred Morris and the recent shoulder injury to Matt Jones which may linger into the season. He might not have the capacity to be an every down back, but the competition in the backfield is not exactly insurmountable- he should be able to carve out his place in the offense, which will utilize his skill set as a Theo Riddick type player. He is being selected at the end of drafts, but given the right opportunities, he could have some use in the flex position or as a bye week filler later in the season.

Will Grant: Washington hasn’t really show much throughout his career, but he’s the #2 back this season and the top guy Matt Jones is hurt. Jones is expected to be back by the time the season starts, but the impact of his injury could linger. Thompson could see increased playing time due to the serious lack of competition which makes him an interesting play in deep PPR leagues. If Jones can’t go, or is limited in any way, Washington will be one of the hottest waiver wire picks on the market.

Players Receiving 2 Votes

Keith Marshall, Washington

Daniel Simpkins: Our own Matt Waldman has talked about how much more highly Keith Marshall would be regarded if not for a gruesome ACL injury suffered in college. Earlier in the offseason, reporters questioned if Marshall would make the final roster. Fantasy owners also have little confidence in Marshall at the present -- he’s going completely undrafted in most formats. As Marshall gets further removed from his injury, he has shown flashes in camp and on his preseason touches. Should Matt Jones’ fumbling become an issue, Marshall has the needed skills to step in and contribute for the Redskins offense.

Mark Wimer: Fantasy football is about opportunity and Matt Jones' shoulder/A/C injury gives Marshall an opening to exploit in Washington. We'll see if he can walk through the door during the third preseason game, but at least the door is open now. He's worth a late 'lottery-ticket' pick in your redraft league.

Paul Perkins, NY Giants

Jeff Pasquino: One of the more unsettled backfields for me is that of the New York Giants. Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen are the top two backs for New York, but neither of them are short yardage specialists. That’s why I like Perkins, a fifth round draft pick from UCLA to offer solid value as the possible third option for the Giants in 2016. Perkins was the ninth rookie to be selected, but he did have 14 touchdowns in 2015 alone for UCLA and has a well-rounded skillset as a rusher. Perkins could earn more and more playing time as the season wears on, but I like him as a goal line back early on in 2016.

Jason Wood: There is no certainty in the New York Giants running game; which means we can't discount rookie Paul Perkins from earnings a major role at some point. The former UCLA Bruin is a jack-of-all-trades. While he's not elite per se in any particular skill, he's good enough at all of them to be productive in Ben McAdoo's offense. When Rashad Jennings is the veteran competition, it's not exactly a high bar Perkins has to leap over to generate fantasy value.

C.J. Spiller, New Orleans

Sigmund Bloom: Think of Spiller as a player you draft to see if he regains his old form and an empty roster spot to fill if he doesn't. All reports say he looks much healthier than last year, and as long as the Saints don't release him, which is unlikely since they already paid him a 1.55 million dollar roster bonus in the offseason. The Saints know how to set up a receiving back with explosiveness like Spiller for success. He could be a PPR surprise if his body holds up early in the season, even though that might be temporary.

Stephen Holloway: Spiller was terrible in his first year with the Saints. He averaged a career low 3.1 ypc and only 70 touches, including 34 receptions. He did suffer a pre-season injury and possibly was not healthy the entire season. His ADP is extremely low, well after Tim Hightower, but his skills remain a good fit for the Saints offense. If he ever gets it going, he could be heavily used in the passing game.

Terrance West, Baltimore

Ryan Hester: The darling of Baltimore’s camp, West (a hometown player who hails from the Baltimore area) has seemingly taken over goal line duties with two short-yardage touchdowns in the first preseason game. Along with that, he appears to have assumed backup duties for early-down work if Justin Forsett were to be injured or ineffective. West is well worth a late round flier.

John Mamula: Most reports out of Ravens camp have been that Terrance West has looked explosive. West made an impact during the Ravens first preseason game with 25 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns. He is currently listed 2nd on the Ravens depth chart and it would not surprise me if he starts the season in a RBBC with Justin Forsett.

Jonathan Williams, Buffalo

Ari Ingel: With Karlos Williams being cut, there is an opening for the backup role to LeSean McCoy on a team that will be very run heavy. Williams is a true three down running back who noted analyst Greg Cosell compared favorably to Ezekiel Elliot. He missed all of 2015 with injury but had a 101.9 elusive rating in 2014 that would have been good enough for second in 2015. While Reggie Bush may act as McCoy's backup to start the season, Williams is my bet to eventually take over that role.

Daniel Simpkins: Williams is the more talented of the two Arkansas runners that went in the Draft. He recently was charged with a DUI, but it shouldn’t impact his redraft availability. He probably will not serve a suspension until 2017 while the legal process plays out. It’s going to give him time to get his foot in the door as the backup, especially with incumbent backup Karlos Williams struggling with weight and a four-game suspension. Should LeSean McCoy struggle with injury again early this year, Williams could be called into action and display the quick feet and lateral agility that made him so much fun to watch in college. Undrafted in all but the deepest formats, he’s worth taking a last-round flier on just to see if something develops.

Players Receiving 1 Vote

Javorius Allen, Baltimore

Jeff Haseley: If Justin Forsett doesn't secure the lead back in Baltimore, my guess on his successor is Javorius Allen. Allen was a Top 5 running back from Week 10 on, last season. He had 38 receptions in the last seven games of the season, which shows that he can be an effective back in Marc Trestman's offense when called upon.

Kenjon Barner, Philadelphia

Devin Knotts: Kenjon Barner has solidified himself as the number two running back for Philadelphia behind the often injured Ryan Mathews. This presents a tremendous opportunity for Barner, as Mathews has only played 19 games and carried the ball only 180 times over the last two seasons. Barner is currently being drafted as the 81st running back overall, but it is very likely that at some point he will be fantasy relevant and is a great sleeper who could provide tremendous returns on the selection as there is a possibility that even if Mathews doesn’t get hurt as they look to split carries between the two in order to protect Mathews from injury.

Malcolm Brown, Los Angeles

Matt Waldman: He'll likely split time with Benny Cunningham if Todd Gurley gets hurt but he's a physical runner with excellent quickness. Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk mentioned him in the Rams broadcast as the reserve player they were most excited to see because they like how he plays. Brown has had a good camp with Tre Mason away from the team and as much as Benny Cunningham continues to improve, Brown has more upside as a load-carrying, bell cow.

Kenyan Drake, Miami

Andy Hicks: The Dolphins let the underused Lamar Miller walk in the off season and project last year's 5th rounder Jay Ajayi or veteran Arian Foster as the starter. The choice therefore becomes whether you think Ajayi can improve and take the starting job, whether Foster has anything left in the tank or whether this year's 3rd rounder Kenyan Drake takes over all duties once Ajayi flounders or Foster gets injured again. I favor the Drake approach. Ajayi was horrible in his last 7 games registering 98 yards on 38 carries. That is 2.58 yards a carry, with only 4 of those carries going for more than 5 yards. The situation is reminiscent of David Johnson in Arizona last year. Chris Johnson was the Arian Foster character and Jay Ajayi plays the Andre Ellington role. Drake will need luck to get the opportunities that Johnson did, but if he does he will be offer high rewards for a nothing price.

Darren McFadden, Dallas

Stephen Holloway: I get that Ezekiel Elliott was drafted 4th overall by the Cowboys and is expected to dominate the running back snaps for the team. But, he has already been sidelined by a right hamstring. McFadden has played in all 16 games for the past two seasons and a year ago, rushed for 1,089 yards (4.6 ypc) and caught 40 passes. He also was drafted 4th overall, way back in 2008, but remains a talented athlete who possibly has been kicked to the curb a little early.

Darren Sproles, Philadelphia

Mark Wimer: Sproles is likely to flourish as a change of pace back in Philadelphia this year. He has enough in the tank to handle 6-8 touches per game and should be a valuable bye-week stand-in for your usual fantasy starters.

Dwayne Washington, Detroit

Matt Waldman: The former wide receiver who starred briefly as a running back at Washington is one of the most impressive raw prospects I've seen in the past 2-3 years. He has the speed, acceleration, balance, and after contact power of a feature back. What he lacked was consistent ball security, mature decision-making behind a variety of blocking schemes, and he even struggled with quarterback exchanges. Although the sample size has been slim, none of this has been a problem during the preseason. If Washington continues to play this well, he'll not only make the team, he might cut into Zach Zenner's opportunities--he's that dynamic.

Charcandrick West, Kansas City

Jason Wood: In a part-time role in place of Jamaal Charles, West generated 848 yards from scrimmage and 5 touchdowns. With Charles now coming off his 2nd ACL tear, it wouldn't shock me to see West used regularly to spell Charles; and we know that he's a capable fantasy starter if Charles breaks down again. With the running back position being so uncertain in this new uber-passing era, I love the ability to roster a capable backup in a proven run-heavy offense late in drafts.

Zach Zenner, Detroit

Justin Howe: The Lions hold a crowded backfield, but two roles we know like the backs of our hands. They want Theo Riddick to handle most passing downs and catch 60+ balls, and they want a bruising interior runner to control the pace and complement Ameer Abdullah. If the team felt the need to forcefeed a wheezing Joique Bell down the 2015 stretch, I'm sure they'll find opportunity for SPARQ star and mega college producer Zenner. He's dynamic and versatile and could eat just as much into Abdullah's 2016 touches as Bell did – only with upside.

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