Value Plays: Running Backs

The Footballguys staff finds value at the running back position

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. In an attempt to point out this value, we asked our staff to look through the Top 150 and identify players that should outperform their draft position.

Player Receiving 4 Votes

Danny Woodhead, Baltimore

Ryan Hester: Steve Smith has retired, and Dennis Pitta was released. Only new arrival Jeremy Maclin has displayed the skill set required to make catches in the middle of the field at short and intermediate distances. Enter Woodhead, a free agent signing who has registered 80 and 76 receptions in the last two seasons he has finished, making him a dark-horse candidate lead this team in receptions. In fact, the biggest obstacle might be his injury history, as opposed to his teammates. But at this price, even if he suffers another injury, he can be replaced in your lineup. If he doesn’t, he’s a huge steal with a realistic 50-catch floor and 80-catch potential. Remember, Joe Flacco finished just one pass attempt behind Drew Brees for the league lead in 2016, and Baltimore has led the NFL in pass attempts the last two seasons.

Chad Parsons: The Ravens were second only to the Saints in running back receptions in 2016. Plus there is uncertainty at wide receiver and tight end for Baltimore. With Kenneth Dixon suspended to open the season and Terrance West used as an early-down back primarily in 2016, Woodhead is a hot start projection with RB1 upside.

Jeff Pasquino: Joe Flacco has had to throw a lot of passes for the Ravens over the past few years, but Baltimore enters this year with a lot fewer options than last season. Gone are Steve Smith at wide receiver and now tight end Dennis Pitta has been lost to a third hip injury that may cost him his career. The path for Woodhead to be utilized in large amounts in the Ravens’ passing game was already there, but the suspension of Kenneth Dixon for the first four contests only increases Woodhead’s value.

Mark Wimer: Woodhead posted two 1,000 yards-combined seasons with the Chargers over his last four seasons in the league (the other two campaigns were injury-shortened). He's been recovering from a torn ACL suffered in mid-September 2016, and all reports indicate that he is fully rehabbed and working with no restrictions. "I haven’t been thinking about needing to do stuff to rehab it because I’m healthy now." he said on May 25, 2017. With the ability to snag 70+ receptions in a season and reports out of Baltimore that Woodhead is building good chemistry with Joe Flacco during OTAs, I think Woodhead is a potential top-20 fantasy back that is being drafted with bench-warmers at his current ADP. That is the definition of "Value" to me. Also, the Ravens' tight end corps has lost two members during offseason including starter Dennis Pitta, and none of the guys remaining on the active roster have seized command of the position as of mid-July. Woodhead could see a surprising number of short-to-medium range targets if the remaining tight ends flounder for the Ravens.

Players Receiving 3 Votes

Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland

Ryan Hester: Fellow staffer Jeff Haseley noted with some tweets back in June that four players had 175 or more rushes, at least 4.8 yards per carry, at least 7.0 yards per reception, and seven or more total touchdowns in 2016. Those players were Ezekiel Elliott, Le'Veon Bell, Jordan Howard, and Crowell, who also tied Elliott and Howard for the most games with 10 or more carries and at least 5.0 yards per carry with seven such performances. Crowell’s issue wasn’t ability or efficiency; it was volume. If Cleveland can find a way to not be trailing by double digits in many of their games this season, Crowell will get more touches. His coach is a notoriously run-heavy play caller. Only game script will take him away from that. Cleveland also added multiple new offensive linemen to bolster what was arguably the league’s worst unit.

Justin Howe: The Footballguys have been hot on Crowell all offseason, and why not? He semi-erupted in 2016, averaging 79 scrimmage yards per game and turning in 8 top-18 weeks. Many are ignoring him as a top-tier RB2 for 2017 due to his timeshare with passing-down specialist Duke Johnson Jr and the Browns' general awfulness. But it's worth noting that, down the 2016 stretch, Crowell drew nearly an equal target share to Johnson; he's no mere two-down thumper. And while the Browns will likely struggle to provide scoring opportunity, let's appreciate the fact that this is a Hue Jackson offense - one that has showcased its run game at nearly every stop and has always maximized the impact of its backs. Crowell is beginning to look like what Jeremy Hill could've been under Jackson: a productive grinder who can exploit strong blocking and produce beyond what his subpar volume would suggest.

Chris Kuczynski: The Browns are quietly developing one of the better offensive lines in the league by adding interior linemen JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler this offseason, as well as extending left guard Joel Bitonio, to go along with All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas. Crowell who was already very successful last season, will be the biggest beneficiary. He proved last year that not only could he handle the majority of the carries, he is also an effective pass catcher reeling in 40 catches for 319 yards. The only thing holding him back last year was game script and lack of volume, considering they were typically behind most of the game and had to abandon the run. In games where he was able to get in a rhythm and log double digit carries, he averaged 79 rushing yards and over 5.5 yards per carry. If Hue Jackson is serious about his commitment to running the ball more, Crowell could put up some lofty numbers, especially since there is not a lot of competition on the depth chart considering passing catching back Duke Johnson Jr only had 14 less catches. For now Crowell’s ADP is definitely a great value for a potential every down RB1, but I fully expect his draft stock to rise substantially between now and the start of the season.

James White, New England

Jeff Haseley: The Super Bowl hero may have uncovered a bigger role in the offense for 2017. Mike Gillislee was brought in to replace LeGarrette Blount, but there's still a role for a pass-catching back to thrive. Recent reports out of New England suggest Dion Lewis may be the odd man out, making White and newly signed Rex Burkhead the options New England will use in the short passing game. White has the most tenure with the team and is likely to be the first man into the rotation for those short-ranged pass targets that make the Patriots so formidable on offense.

Chris Kuczynski: Last season White established himself as the Patriots primary pass catching back, which is one of the most promising roles in fantasy football. The team showed their faith in him after his 14 catch, 140 total yard, 3 touchdown performance in the Super Bowl by giving him a 3 year extension. The new addition of Mike Gillislee fills the early down role and Rex Burkhead as a change of pace back puts more competition on Dion Lewis, who has been battling injuries. Since he has separated himself from the rest of the group, I see White getting the greatest share of backfield targets in the passing game, which the Patriots have made one of the signature facets of their offense, while Lewis becomes less involved in the game plan.

Jason Wood: The Patriots have an embarrassment of riches at the running back position, so it stands to reason the team will use a committee approach. However, drafters have overshot the mark in seemingly treating James White like a end-of-the-roster afterthought. LeGarrette Blount is now in Philadelphia, and White received a handsome extension this offseason. It’s hard to imagine someone as logical as Head Coach Bill Belichick will forget what White did against the Falcons in the Super Bowl (140 yards and three touchdowns). White is being drafted in the same range as clear-cut backups that have zero fantasy value absent an injury, yet White’s most likely outcome is a flex-level every week starter, particularly in PPR formats.

Players Receiving 2 Votes

Ameer Abdullah, Detroit

Mark Wimer: Abdullah had his 2016 season ruined due to what we now know was a Lisfranc tear suffered in Week Two. However, he recovered for the bulk of the previous regular season as well as this entire off-season, and the Lions eschewed picking up any rookie backs during the 2017 draft class despite a rich class of running backs. Also, Abdullah has been endorsed as the lead back by GM Bob Quinn. I think Abdullah's prospects to significantly outproduce his current ADP is quite high.

Jason Wood: The injury history is concerning, but all signals point to Abdullah getting one more chance at the Lions lead role. In spite of missing 14 games last year, the Lions passed on veteran free agents this offseason. They also passed on drafting viable alternatives. The Lions ranked 30th in rushing yards and 26th in touchdowns last season; they NEED to be more efficient on the ground. They didn’t bring in anyone to compete with Abdullah. The general manager and coaching staff have also said all the right things. Abdullah won’t be a workhorse. Theo Riddick plays a key role in receiving packages, and Zach Zenner has a role in short yardage. Abdullah has explosiveness and dynamism that makes him a fantasy commodity even if he only touches the ball 12-15 times per game. If Abdullah stays healthy in training camp, his ADP is going to skyrocket. Justifiably.

Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati

Stephen Holloway: Bernard is coming off an ACL injury that put him on IR after week 11 of last season. His much lower 2017 ADP is due to the expectation of a slow return to health, reduced athleticism based on that injury and also the potential impact that Joe Mixon, drafted in the second round will have on Bernard's usage. Bernard has always had good burst, shiftiness and quick feet. He has previously shared the running back duties in Cincinnati with others, mostly Jeremy Hill. Bernard has always been prominent in the passing game as he averages 3.4 catches per game played over his four seasons. I suspect that he will maintain his passing game role and will continue to get rushing carries. As long as he is healthy, he will be a bargain in 2017.

Chris Kuczynski: The addition of Joe Mixon in this years draft may be concerning to some fans about the usage of the running backs in Cincinnati, but this move will likely impact Jeremy Hill’s two down role more than it will impact Bernard’s pass catching role. Last year in only 10 games he had 700 total yards and 39 catches, but the previous three years he averaged about 160 carries, 50 catches and 1000 total yards a season, despite playing a complementary role to Jeremy Hill and many times having less touches per game. Bernard could be eased in to start the season due to his injury recovery, but he is too talented to take off of the field. Mixon may be a very talented all-around back, but Bernard knows the offense and has been successful for years- pass catching backs will always carve out a role, and I don’t think Mixon will become a bell cow running back so quickly this year.

Doug Martin, Tampa Bay

Ari Ingel: Despite his three-game suspension, he is already getting rave reviews in OTA’s. With Charles Sims, Jacquizz Rodgers and rookie Jeremy McNichols on the roster, his PPR upside is certainly limited, so more of a standard league grab, but the additional weapons on the outside should help him run inside. Rodgers appears to be his direct backup, so a cheap three week handcuff to start the season. Last season was a bit of a lost year due to a hamstring injury that kept him out Weeks 2 through 9, and then hobbled Weeks 10 through 15. Fully healthy now, Martin was PFF's highest-graded runner in 2015 and in Week 1 this past season he broke 7 tackles on just 18 attempts. He's a great grab at his current ADP.

Matt Waldman: An immense talent with an up-and-down career due to weight gain and PED issues, when Martin is right—something we have usually seen during the spring—he’s a fantasy RB1. This year, he’ll be serving a three-game suspension, but he has also been the clear No. 1 RB for the Buccaneers this spring and all reports indicate that he has righted his approach to the game since the initial violation. Charles Sims is a quality contributor, but Martin is a better all-around back with a lot of tread left. He’ll be a strong value as a low-end RB2 who could deliver high-end RB1 production in a balanced offense with emerging talents.

Ty Montgomery, Green Bay

Ryan Hester: After being converted to a running back in the middle of last season, Montgomery had two 10-reception games when Green Bay was passing nearly every down out of necessity due to injuries in the backfield. But even after the team began using him in a more traditional running back role, he had five games with three or more receptions and had a 162-yard rushing performance in Week 14 at Chicago. He was benched at times, though, due to pass protection issues. Montgomery’s barriers to fantasy success are pass protection and two rookies drafted in the middle rounds. He’s working on his pass blocking, and unlike last season, he’ll have a full offseason program at the running back position, including gaining weight to help with his blocking. Any piece of an offense like Green Bay’s is good for fantasy football. And Montgomery is one of the cheapest components right now.

Jeff Pasquino: Running backs produce fantasy numbers based on opportunity and touches, and Montgomery offers a ton of both based on his status as the top running back for the Packers heading into this season. Montgomery is a converted wide receiver who is still learning how to read his offensive line and set up blocks as a rusher, but he clearly knows how to run after the catch in open spaces. With Aaron Rodgers getting him involved on offense early and often in every contest, I see a lot of upside for Montgomery in 2017.

DeMarco Murray, Tennessee

Chris Feery: DeMarco Murray has an outstanding shot at producing as a Top 5 running back in 2017, but he’s not being drafted like one. There are concerns that second-year pro Derrick Henry will steal even more carries this year, but Titans head coach Mike Mularkey has indicated that Murray will remain the lead dog. He’s falling into the second round in early drafts, and you would be wise to pounce if that happens in yours. Similar production to 2016 - 1,664 yards and 12 touchdowns - makes for a solid baseline, and that’s a nice return to bank on for a second rounder.

Mark Wimer: Even though Murray is being drafted as a top-ten back, I believe he belongs in the second tier of running backs just after David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott and Le'Veon Bell. It's not often you can find a top-five running back in the second round of most drafts, but that is where Murray is going off the boards right now - that's a bargain in my book.

Players Receiving 1 Vote

LeGarrette Blount, Philadelphia

Matt Waldman: Another year, another season where folks underestimate Blount. He was written off for being too slow, but he illustrated why acceleration and change-of-direction quickness were always more important traits. He was written off for being a stiff plodder but continues to show great hip and ankle flexion to avoid penetration in the backfield, turning certain losses into moderate gains. He’s now being written off in Philadelphia because he won’t have Tom Brady and the Patriots’ surrounding talent. However, Blount is joining one of the best offensive lines in the league and if you say that he doesn’t catch enough passes, didn’t New England field multiple receiving backs while Blount was the No. 7 fantasy RB last year and the No. 12 option for the first 10 weeks of 2015? Maybe the age monsters will rise from the edge of our flat earth and swallow Blount whole in 2017. It will be the first thing folks get right about him.

Kenneth Dixon, Baltimore

Jeff Pasquino: Dixon is suspended for the first four games this year, but that does not mean he is worthless as a draft pick in fantasy. The Ravens want him to step up and take over as their lead back, which he has the talent to do and could as soon as October this year. With only third-down specialist Danny Woodhead and Terrance West to compete for the workload, Dixon has ample opportunity to be a later round pick in fantasy drafts this summer that could be a fantasy hero by fantasy playoff time.

Mike Gillislee, New Englad

Justin Howe: We certainly wish the Patriots would show some week-to-week consistency in terms of rushing volume. But we know they'll run a lot - great teams with frequent leads often do - and that their runners will almost certainly draw a hefty chunk of touchdown opportunity. Gillislee isn't the clock-killing longtimer LeGarrette Blount was last year, but he could be even more efficient than his plodding predecessor. And like 2016 Blount, Gillislee will enter the year lacking real competition for rushing duties. All four of his primary backfield mates are receiver-first types, so we can likely pencil in roughly half the Patriots' RB rushes for Gillislee. Assuming the Patriots remain world-beaters, it's safe to expect a run at 1,000 yards and double-digit scores, as well - quite a value for a back currently being drafted as RB34.

Melvin Gordon III, LA Chargers

Justin Howe: Shockingly, drafters all over the place are pulling Gordon with second-round picks. I realize he's not the most dynamic back out there - in fact, he's yet to show much dynamism at all through two seasons. But what he has shown are several aspects that point to top-5 overall upside and strong insulation from the risk of busting. For one, Gordon is catching tons of passes out of the backfield - actually, 41 over last year's 10 full games after Danny Woodhead left the lineup. The Chargers have added absolutely nothing of note to their backfield, which is packed with very limited reserves, so it's hard to expect Gordon to catch fewer than 50-55 balls. All told, only three backs (David Johnson, Le'Veon Bell, and Ezekiel Elliott) project to even approach him in terms of all-around volume, and those three will be gone three picks into most drafts. Nabbing Gordon's own outstanding volume a full round later is grand larceny. And let's not forget about his touchdown outlook, which also nestles among the fantasy draft board's elite. Some are balking at the idea of Gordon again notching double-digit touchdowns, but to me in seems like a near-certainty. There was nothing particularly fluky there: in 2016, only four players received more touches from inside the 10-yard line than Gordon's 30, which came across just 12.5 games. Simply put, he's a three-down bell cow with no real competition for any aspect of his game, and he's on the short list to lead the league in touchdowns. And right now, I'm prioritizing him on the same level as the top tier of wideouts, putting him in play for a mid-Round 1 pick in terms of value. Luckily, at the moment, we're able to get him for significantly less.

Frank Gore, Indianapolis

Matt Waldman: He’s old, I get it. For a running back, he’s been old for a while now. He’s also been slow for a running back since, oh…entering the league after sustaining two ACL tears at Miami. In fact, there are past and present NFL defenders with guilty consciences for thanking God that Gore suffered those two injuries as a collegian because if he arrived in the NFL fully intact, he might be one of the best ever. Due to those injuries that cost him his speed, Gore is “only” the standard that NFL coaches use to teach young runners how to read and set up blocks. He was “only” the No. 12 fantasy RB on a banged up Colts offense. The recent and repeated praise for Robert Turbin is a sign that Marlon Mack has much to learn about pass protection and inside running. I’m not counting on another RB1 performance from Gore, but his ADP is too low.

Mark Ingram II, New Orleans

Stephen Holloway: Ingram is a very interesting prospect this year. For his first three seasons in New Orleans, he missed a lot of games (11) and generally underperformed. He only had 356 carries over his first three seasons and even worse, had only caught 24 passes. His fourth season was his best by far, but he still fell short of 1,000 yards rushing. The Saints did not pick up his fifth year option and most thought he was one step from being released. However, the Saints gave him a new contract in 2015 and he again played well, and even though he missed four games his owners became more frustrated at his lack of use than his performance. Ingram was even better last year, but again had only 20 carries in one game. This season, the Saints added Adrian Peterson in free agency and drafted a talented rookie in Alvin Kamara. Ingram will again be in a running back committee, but he has always been in one. He has finished as RB15, RB15, and RB10 in the past three seasons, where he rarely had 20 carries in a game. He has turned into a solid receiver averaging 48 catches per season for the last two. He is still in an RBBC, but his ADP is well below his most recent three seasons. He should provide the best value of his career in 2017.

Rob Kelley, Washington

Andy Hicks: Every year fantasy owners look to running backs taken in the middle rounds of the NFL draft to be the savior for their running game. It rarely works. For every Jordan Howard, there are countless Kenneth Dixons. The rookie running back has uphill battles to learn a complex NFL offense and overcome issues that forced them into the middle or late rounds of drafts in the first place. The existing back who has proven their mettle has the advantage and that is the case with Rob Kelley in Washington. Samaje Perine will get all the buzz and will probably be drafted first, but Kelley demonstrated in his nine games starting that he is a more than capable back that should outperform his draft slot significantly.

Eddie Lacy, Seattle

Andy Hicks: This is the year that Eddie Lacy’s career could go either way. Out of the league or back to the form from his first two seasons. Lacy obviously remains a high risk pick, but the upside is much higher than his current draft position. If you pair him with Thomas Rawls then you should safeguard your investment, but focusing purely on Lacy, he has always performed when on the field. In his five games last year he overaged over 5 yards a carry and the year before had three 100 yard games when Green Bay wasn’t really interested in running the ball. There is no doubt that Seattle will want to run the ball, and often. They have depth at the position, but the lead runner will be Lacy. Don’t let him fall too far in your draft.

Samaje Perine, Washington

Jason Wood: Perine has lived in the shadow of his Oklahoma teammate Joe Mixon for years. The Bengals drafted Mixon in the second round in spite of an alarming history of violence toward women, which speaks to the elite nature of Mixon’s skill set. It was Perine – not Mixon – who ended his college career as the Sooners all-time leading rusher. Perine’s film doesn’t hint at greatness in the way Mixon’s does, but the film does show a decisive, powerful, and committed lead back. Washington is desperate for a difference maker in the backfield, and Perine will get the opportunity to displace Rob “Good but not great” Kelley quickly this preseason.

C.J. Prosise, Seattle

Daniel Simpkins: Prosise got hurt in his rookie year, but before that, he had a large share of the passing down work. At 220 pounds, Prosise is more than a scatback. He demonstrated prowess between the tackles and in catching the football before his injury last year. Though Seattle has demonstrated they prefer to use a committee approach since the departure of Marshawn Lynch, there’s a chance for an enlarged role if Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls get injured. Both Lacy and Rawls have struggled with multiple health issues throughout their careers, so if one or both go down, Prosise could be called upon to do more. As it stands, catching 60 balls may not be too lofty of a projection for Prosise.

Thomas Rawls, Seattle

Phil Alexander: The Seattle Times' Bob Condotta recently speculated Rawls and Eddie Lacy will "take a fairly equal share of the base down carries." This should have been the expectation all along, yet Rawls is being written off by the fantasy community, while Lacy continues to be drafted as an RB2. We're still only one season removed from Rawls leading the NFL in running back success rate, and only one playoff game removed from Rawls destroying the Lions for a 27-161-1 rushing line. At the very least, Rawls is one of the highest upside picks you can make in the double digit rounds. If Lacy gets hurt (again) or struggles with his weight (again), healthy Rawls still has RB1 potential.

Jonathan Stewart, Carolina

Jeff Haseley: My gut says the Panthers will use Christian McCaffrey more as a receiver than as a running back, at least until he proves he can be an effective option. He's also not an ideal size to take on a heavy load, but Stewart is. Carolina's offense will be difficult to predict and tough to stop if it is executed to plan. They will use both McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel to confuse defenses where the ball is going. Not only will defenses have to account for elusive speed weapons, but Greg Olsen over the middle or Kelvin Benjmanin on a one-on-one 15 yards down field. This all plays into the hands of Jonathan Stewart, who is among the best backs in the league in yards after contact. His yards will come a lot easier when defenses have to pay attention to outside threats. Don't be surprised to see Stewart reach 4.5 yards per carry, if not higher.

Terrance West, Baltimore

Andy Hicks: For the first time in years, the Baltimore Ravens didn't invest a 4th-round pick on a running back. That is good news for Terrance West. With Kenneth Dixon suspended for four games, Danny Woodhead a 32-year-old 3rd-down back who has basically missed two of the last three seasons and the other former 4th rounders occupying the bottom rungs of the depth charts, West has to be the bell cow to start the season. The Ravens open the season against four soft or potentially soft run defences and by the time Dixon is back he will have to wait in line. I’m not convinced long term, but West could surprise for 2017, especially in the crucial early weeks of the season.

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