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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 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 6 Votes

Joe Williams, San Francisco

Sigmund Bloom: The name Shanahan can cause shudders and tics among fantasy players who dealt with Mike’s fickle ways of dealing with his running back depth chart. Kyle might be following in his dad’s footsteps, as his hand-picked back for outside zone - Williams - was put back on the 49ers board on the third day of the draft after he explained his brief retirement, followed by the best football of his career. Williams might be a better fit for Shanahan’s offense, and Shanahan probably believes that even if he isn’t a better fit than Carlos Hyde. Williams could be a wasted pick if Hyde looks as good as he did last year and translates, but the late pick is worth it so he’s on your roster when we find out what Shanahan wants to do with his backfield.

Stephen Holloway: Williams is an excellent athlete displayed by a 4.41 40-yard dash, one of the faster running back times at this year’s NFL Combine. In his final season at Utah, he rushed for 1,407 yards and 10 touchdowns in only nine games. A question mark on his desire is the fact that he retired early in 2016 from playing college football and only returned after Utah’s running backs suffered several injuries. He is only behind oft-injured Carlos Hyde, who returns from a torn MCL at the end of last season and 31-year-old Tim Hightower, a veteran who jump started his career in New Orleans after missing three consecutive seasons.

Justin Howe: Carlos Hyde looked good in spurts during an injury-truncated 2016, but this may be the end of the line. New coach Kyle Shanahan is traditionally RB-friendly, but Williams may be the more desirable piece of this backfield. Williams, a third-rounder with a checkered college past but great final-year rushing production, was hand-picked by Shanahan and could slide into a timeshare as early as training camp. If Hyde continues to lose gobs of time to injury, Williams could find himself beyond handcuff status as a firm 1B in the San Francisco attack. There's even a solid chance he overtakes Hyde entirely, considering the 49ers' new regime has no real ties to Hyde.

Ari Ingel: They traded up to get him and has a chance to be the team's featured back if Hyde gets injured or they decide he is a better fit for their scheme, which seems to be the case at the moment. The downside with Williams is that he was not a productive pass catcher or pass protector in college, the Shanahan system is tough to learn and the team signed free agents Tim Hightower, and everybody’s favorite fullback, Kyle Juszczyk. As long as his ADP stays repressed, he’s a great late grab.

Chris Kuczynski: Everyone has heard the story by now that Kyle Shanahan was “banging on the table” to draft Williams, after GM John Lynch had removed him from his board all together. The reason he wasn’t drafted higher was never related to talent, it was character concerns and questions about his commitment due to his brief retirement from football at the start of last season. If you look at his stats, few running back had a more productive second half of the season than Joe Williams, where in his last seven games he averaged 190 yards rushing per game at over 7 yards per carry and racking up 10 touchdowns. Add in the rumors that Carlos Hyde might not be the best fit in the new coach’s scheme and factoring in Hyde’s injury history, theres reason to believe Williams can carve out a role for himself sooner rather than later in this offense.

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.

Player Receiving 5 Votes

James Conner, Pittsburgh

Sigmund Bloom: The backup to Le'Veon Bell won leagues in 2015 and he was the No. 2 fantasy running back when Bell was suspended for the first three games last year. The identity of that back will change from DeAngelo Williams to James Conner, but as long as Conner is competent, the value shouldn’t fall too much. Conner can help fantasy teams win this year if Bell goes down (he has had a major injury in every year of his career) or if he gets suspended again. Very few players available so late in your draft have so much potential to change your season.

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 Le'Veon Bell, making him an injury to an oft-injured player away from a massive role.

Chad Parsons: With a near-free price point, Conner is the likely primary backup back in Pittsburgh to Le'Veon Bell. Conner has prototypical size and a strong production profile exiting college. With a dynamic Steelers pass game, Conner would be an RB1 any week Bell is out. With suspension and injury as avenues for increased playing time and minimal competition for the No. 2 role, Conner is on the short list of deep sleeper plays at running back.

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, 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.

Players Receiving 4 Votes

Aaron Jones, Green Bay

Justin Howe: The Packers running back depth chart remains barren behind converted wideout Ty Montgomery, but someone will have to produce. Cheap Green Bay RBs have been occasional gold mines over the past half-decade, and Montgomery is anything but a proven workhorse. There's a good chance that one of the team's two drafted rookies, Jones and Jamaal Williams, will see notable action and scoring opportunity in 2017. Shrewd early drafters know this, but most are currently focused more on Williams, who was drafted a round higher. To me, though, Williams is a fringe prospect who brings little athleticism or passing-game ability to the table. Jones absolutely dominated his college backfield, producing touchdowns and receiving numbers that suggest he has a much better chance at NFL utility.

Matt Waldman: There’s often a small margin between talents drafted in the early and late rounds. Jones has excellent burst, a solid understanding of how to run between the tackles, and he’s one of the best receivers from the backfield in this class. If he shows enough as a pass protector this year, he’s not as far from significant carries than it may appear as the likely No. 3 option on Green Bay’s depth chart. He’s an option of note for those patrolling the waiver wire this year.

Mark Wimer: Jones was a big play machine in college and is also a good receiver out of the backfield. If something happens to take Ty Montgomery off the field (whether injury or supsension), Jones could step into the multi-faceted running back role in Green Bay and surprise. He's worth a late-round flyer who might get his opportunity in training camp.

Jason Wood: Ty Montgomery sits atop the Packers depth chart and will be given an opportunity to shine. Regardless of Montgomery’s outlook, the team was bereft of depth entering the NFL draft. Packers GM Ted Thompson drafted two intriguing running back prospects: Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones. Fantasy owners are flocking to Williams as the late-round lottery ticket, particularly as Montgomery’s handcuff. Williams may be the winning ticket, but I would rather take a flier in the last round or two on Aaron Jones. Jones was dominant at UTEP and has game-breaking ability to rival Montgomery. Jones led college football with 12 touchdown runs of 20+ yards. It wouldn’t be unfair to see Jones has Montgomery’s explosiveness with better vision and balance.

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 too 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 a healthy workload in the event that the injury bug strikes the Bills running back corps. He’s a late round flier, but he’s one that could prove to be quite fruitful.

Ari Ingel: True three-down running back (6'0 and 223 pounds) who noted analyst Greg Cosell compared favorably to Ezekiel Elliot, mentioning that he thought that he was even "quicker and more powerful." Posted a 101.9 elusive rating in 2014, which would have been good enough for second best in the 2015 class (he missed 2015 with injury). He’s a great dynasty hold and high-end handcuff to McCoy (29 years old) who would be an every-week RB1 if he got the chance to start, which seems likely for at least a few games this year. Regardless, he should see 5-8 carries a game even with McCoy healthy.

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.

Player Receiving 3 Votes

T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville

Ryan Hester: The demise of Yeldon’s career due to the draft selection of Leonard Fournette is being greatly exaggerated. Yeldon caught 50 passes on 68 targets last season, and rookies tend to struggle in pass blocking. As good as Ezekiel Elliott was last season, he didn’t even play all three downs most of the time. Yeldon has fill-in RB2/flex appeal in any given week of a PPR league and bigger upside if Fournette develops slowly or is injured.

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 on the third 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 2 Votes

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans

Chris Kuczynski: The Saints offense might be the most ideal situation for a devoted pass catching back, and this year the Saints wanted Alvin Kamara so much they traded a 2018 second-round pick to get him in the third round this year. It may seem like a crowded backfield, but Adrian Peterson does not affect Kamara’s role, and Mark Ingram II seems to be perpetually in Sean Payton’s dog house, so its not unrealistic to expect Kamara to get a large portion of the third-down work. In the Saints offense, the last three years running backs have averaged 110 catches and 750 yards receiving, and in the three years before that with Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, the offense averaged an astonishing 145 catches and 1160 yards. If Kamara can get 50 percent of the receiving numbers somewhere in between those ranges, he will be a great asset in PPR leagues.

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 II 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.

Jalen Richard, Oakland

Andy Hicks: When your starting running back is a 31-year-old coming off a year off, the backup is going to be important. It remains to be seen how much, if anything, Marshawn Lynch has left. Both Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington looked good for the Raiders last year and should battle it out for the backup role. Richard had a better yards per carry and was a much better receiver last year, so has to be considered the favorite. At his current draft slot he is being severely underrated and if you have depth you should consider Washington as well.

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. 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.

Players Receiving 1 Vote

Lance Dunbar, LA Rams

Jeff Haseley: The Rams have made it known that they want to improve Todd Gurley's yards per carry average (3.2 YPC in 2016). There are whispers circling that suggest Gurley's targets will drop to allow him to focus on running the ball. Enter Lance Dunbar who is an above average pass catcher who was signed in the offseason. Some expect Sean McVay to use Dunbar similarly to how he used Chris Thompson in Washington. Prior to signing Dunbar, the Rams did not have a go-to receiving back, which fits Dunbar well. He could see 30 catches this year and possibly more if he performs well early in the season.

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 training camp, he could be so much more.

Marlon Mack, Indianapolis

Darin Tietgen: We've been waiting for it to happen for a few years now, but Frank Gore endures the "who will take over for Frank Gore" talk. This could be the year, though. Enter Marlon Mack, who is a 50-yard touchdown jaunt waiting to happen. The Colts offense will likely hum well with Andrew Luck healthy and energized to prove he's one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Eventually they will figure out that Mack is just the better option at running back. At minimum his game-breaking ability will get him on the field. Excelling in pass protection will keep him there and could relegate Gore to backup duty.

Elijah McGuire, NY Jets

Mark Wimer: The Jets appear committed to a platoon approach at running back, but Matt Forte's knee surgery and declining production may signal that the end is near for Forte. McGuire has the skill set to step into Forte's spot as a complimentary back to Bilal Powell - McGuire caught over 100 passes in his collegiate career and rewrote the record books at Louisiana-Lafayette with 5,968 all-purpose yards and 52 touchdowns (including 10 receiving scores). The Jets offense isn't going to be breaking NFL records this year, but McGuire could be in for a sizable role if Forte falters.

Jerick McKinnon, Minnesota

Sigmund Bloom: McKinnon’s fortunes in the passing game greatly improved with the installment of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur during the season. From Week 12 through Week 17 he was a low-end fantasy RB1 in PPR leagues, catching at least five passes in four of the last five games after doing it zero times before that stretch. The Vikings love second-round pick Dalvin Cook, but if Cook has a slow start, McKinnon could pick up where he left off and be a very helpful late pick.

Wendell Smallwood, Philadelphia

Jason Wood: The Eagles running back situation is best avoided on draft day. The team has four backs figuring into the game plan including free agent LeGarrette Blount, veteran Darren Sproles, rookie mini-mite Donnel Pumphrey and second-year Wendell Smallwood. Smallwood may be the odd man out, although he – by far – has the most well-rounded skill set on the roster. Smallwood’s college tape shows a runner capable of getting tough yards inside, bouncing outside for big gains, as well as breaking ankles in the open field. His rookie season didn’t turn out as planned (77 carries for 312 yards) but that shouldn’t condemn the former West Virginia Mountaineer. Smallwood is unlikely to make an impact early in the season, but an injury to Blount would open the door for a second attempt at the lead job.

Shane Vereen, NY Giants

Phil Alexander: Vereen is a forgotten man after a torn triceps torpedoed his 2016 season, but he's set to resume his role as the Giants primary pass-catcher out of the backfield. As recently as 2015, Vereen posted a 59-495-4 receiving line and finished as the RB26 in PPR leagues. Those 59 receptions ranked him inside the Top 5 among running backs. New York is a pass-first team that needs to get the ball out quickly due to offensive line issues. And their multitude of receiving weapons will make it tough for defenses to play them close the line of scrimmage, which creates added space for Vereen to operate. It's worth noting in the four games Paul Perkins saw double-digit carries last year, he never recorded more than one reception. Don't expect to rely on Vereen week-to-week, but he's absolutely worthy of a roster spot in 12-team PPR leagues.

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 three times just over the final four 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.