Deep Sleepers: Running Backs - Footballguys

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 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

T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville

Bloom: The Jaguars backfield was one of the most productive in the league last year, and that applied whether Leonard Fournette was on the field or not. Corey Grant is explosive and a name to remember, but Yeldon is the more accomplished receiver and pass blocker and more likely to be the third-down back and backup to Fournette - who has struggled with foot/ankle issues each of the last two years. Yeldon gives you a share of one of the most productive backfields in the league and won’t cost more than one of your last picks.

Brimacombe: T.J. Yeldon benefited in his role on the team with the addition of Fournette last year. As far as volume goes, of course, Fournette ate into Yeldon's role, but as far as efficiency goes it was a major plus for Yeldon. He only rushed the ball 49 times compared to 182 and 130 times in his first two seasons, but Yeldon did a lot more with his opportunities averaging 5.2 yards a carry.

Howe: On a personal note, my early best ball rosters contain a wild amount of Yeldon; I typically target him as my RB6 in the final rounds, and he’ll likely blow past that ADP. Yeldon was dynamic as a change-up guy behind Leonard Fournette, averaging 5.16 yards per carry. He caught 4+ passes in 4 of his 10 games, too, keeping Fournette on the bench in a lot of late-season passing situations. The Jaguars have no other true backups on their roster, and Fournette’s lingering ankle problem could open the door for 125+ touches. Late-round running backs are shots in the dark, but Yeldon looks most likely among them to contribute.

Parsons: Leonard Fournette is a weekly injury risk. His ankle has been balky dating back to LSU and his no-nonsense playing style evokes contact and a myriad of hits on the average play. Also, Fournette profiles as a functional, but not higher level receiver, limiting his work in the passing game. In the three games without Fournette, Yeldon averaged 80 total yards and three catches. Also, Yeldon as the primary hurry-up back and pass-catcher had at least four receptions in 4 out of 10 games. With a run-first approach and elite defense, Yeldon is on the short list of flex-viable backs without an injury in front of them and gets extra value due to Fournette being one of the most likely backs to miss a few games in any particular season.

Pasquino: In deeper drafts, every viable backup running back is going to be snapped up. That includes Yeldon, who has had solid games as a starter when called upon to lead a backfield. Leonard Fournette has had some injury concerns in the past, making Yeldon one play away from being a solid fantasy flex play in most every fantasy league format.

Waldman: A starter talent, Yeldon got hurt early in his career and the team tagged him as an immature player who was slow to approach the game like a professional. In 2017, Yeldon turned that issue around and re-earned the trust of his team. When he earned playing time late in the season, he performed well. The Jaguars want to pound the ball and Yeldon is no scat back at 226 pounds. He’s a patient runner with good burst, who can carry the load and catch the ball. Leonard Fournette’s ankle has been giving him problems for the past two to three years and it’s unlikely to get better. If Fournette’s career takes the trajectory of a shooting star, Yeldon could earn a second chance as the starter.

Player Receiving 4 Votes

Austin Ekeler, LA Chargers

Hindery: Ekeler is an ideal late-round draft pick because he should carry some value as a what-the-heck flex as is and he is also one injury away from potentially being an impact fantasy player. He has earned comparisons to Darren Sproles and Danny Woodhead from those within the organization and should be the primary third-down back for the Chargers. In the backup role last season, Ekeler scored double-digit fantasy points in five games (PPR scoring). The loss of Hunter Henry will help ancillary players like Ekeler who will have to help pick up the slack in the passing game. Even in a backup role, Ekeler should catch at least 40 passes in 2017. If Melvin Gordon III goes down with injury (as he has two of the last three seasons), Ekeler could explode. He averaged 5.5 YPC last season (47 carries for 260 yards), over 10 YPR (27 receptions for 279 yards), and scored 5 times. While Ekeler probably wouldn't be a 25-touch back should Gordon be injured, he would almost certainly be the lead back in a committee (with Justin Jackson and others filling in) and contribute fantasy RB1 numbers in PPR scoring given his explosiveness and pass catching ability.

Holloway: Austin Ekeler was an undrafted free agent signing for the Chargers last year. He was lightly used early in the season but began to be more involved as the season progressed. His most significant playing time came in an eight-game stretch ending in Week 15 when he broke his hand. During that stretch, Ekeler averaged 21 snaps per game, rushed 41 times for 5.5 YPR, caught 18 passes for 190 yards, and scored four touchdowns. His role will be limited as long as Melvin Gordon III stays healthy, but Ekeler's skills will keep him involved regardless of Gordon's status. Ekeler can be a factor, particularly in PPR scoring leagues.

Pasquino: Melvin Gordon III owns the backfield for the Chargers, but Los Angeles likes to keep him fresh by giving Ekeler plenty of playing time. Ekeler is more of a scat-back type - becoming most effective with the ball in the open field, and he found the end zone five times last season despite only getting 74 touches. As with many backups, his value will skyrocket should Gordon miss time, but Ekeler has value even if he is just a part-time player.

Wood: Melvin Gordon III has become a fantasy commodity, but there is always the sense Los Angeles isn’t 100% committed to the veteran. As Gordon approaches free agency, it’s entirely possible the Chargers will run him into the ground and worry about 2019 later. But if Gordon gets hurt, or the Chargers think it’s better for Gordon’s value down the stretch to use a committee approach, Ekeler showed last year he can be helpful. He caught 27 passes for 279 yards and three touchdowns and averaged an impressive 5.5 yards per rush on his modest 47 attempts. Ekeler looked as good as, if not better than, former Charger Danny Woodhead on third downs, and in today’s fantasy landscape any running back with 50-catch potential should be rostered. Without a Gordon injury, Ekeler could surprise with fringe RB3/flex value in PPR formats. With a Gordon injury, Ekeler would vault into RB2 consideration.

Player Receiving 3 Votes

Doug Martin, Oakland

Hicks: Doug Martin had two top-three fantasy seasons and four horrible years with Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers had finally seen enough and let him go. He lands on his feet though with the Oakland Raiders, behind a 32-year-old starter in Marshawn Lynch and a new coach who will be committed to the run. As his best years indicate, Martin has a very high upside, and in this situation, he will be a steal for relatively no draft capital. For a player at the crossroads of his career, Doug Martin has to perform or just fade away. This is one of the better gambles in fantasy this year.

Waldman: Jon Gruden adding Martin as the No. 2 back to Marshawn Lynch and exchanging ball-handling fullback Jamize Olawale for lead blocker Keith Smith is a strong indication that Oakland wants to run the ball a lot this year. It has the line to do it and it acquired two good blocking receivers in Martavis Bryant and Jordy Nelson. The Raiders have a strong offensive line and if the team can commit to the run early, which it didn’t do last year despite remaining competitive in the first 15-25 minutes of several games to do so, the Raiders’ plan to overpower base nickel packages can work the same way it did for the 49ers and Seahawks just a few years ago. Martin still has elite skills, but he wore out his welcome in Tampa. Now behind a line that helped Lynch earn strong fantasy production during the final seven games of 2017, Martin can do the same in 2018 if Lynch falters.

Wood: The Raiders look like a train wreck in the making. If you want to avoid the entire roster, no one would blame you. But rather than avoid the team like the plague, consider a late round flier on Martin. Marshawn Lynch was entirely unimpressive in his return to the NFL last year, and now he’s on a team with a worse supporting cast, arguably the worst offensive coordinator in the league, and question marks on the offensive line. Meanwhile, Doug Martin played his way out of Tampa Bay but has had not one but two career stints as an elite fantasy player. You won't get good odds on Martin being relevant this year, but at his price, he’s a far smarter bet to surprise than his stablemate Lynch.

Players Receiving 2 Votes

Javorius Allen, Baltimore

Brimacombe: Javorius Allen touched the ball 199 times in 2017 (153 rushes/46 receptions) and ranked as the 27th-best fantasy running back. Add in 841 total yards (591 rushing/250 receiving) with 6 total touchdowns makes him prime value as the last-drafted running back. The depth chart in Baltimore has both Alex Collins and Kenneth Dixon who will battle with Allen, but even with those two backs, Allen will surely carve out a role which could include 5-10 touches per game.

Hicks: One of the most underrated backs in fantasy football is the third-down back who catches over 50 balls in a season and will run the ball as well. With the retirement of Danny Woodhead, Javorius Allen will be battling Kenneth Dixon for the role of the third-down back. So far, relying on Dixon has been a fruitless exercise with two suspensions and an injury history. The projected lead back in Alex Collins is also hardly etched in stone. Allen is not going to be the best running back in the NFL, but in two of his last three seasons, he has over 130 carries and 45 catches. At his current asking price, he is worth taking late for his upside as a borderline RB2.

Peyton Barber, Tampa Bay

Bloom: Ronald Jones II II may well be the most productive rookie running back not named Barkley from this class, but there’s a long way to go before he has a chance to realize that potential. Barber proved himself to be a capable runner and upgrade from Doug Martin last year, and if Jones gets hurt this summer or otherwise shows he isn’t ready for prime time, the team will turn to Barber as a lead back. It’s possible, if not likely, that Barber will be the lesser part of an RBBC when the season opens and one of the first players you drop in the Week 2 waiver wire run, but the late round price makes him worth an end-of-the-bench spot to see how Jones starts living up to his draft slot right away.

Haseley: Interest in Peyton Barber is not a knock on rookie Ronald Jones II, but more of a testament to Barber's versatility as a rusher and, more importantly, a receiver in the Bucs offense. When in doubt, the running back with better receiving skills tends to rise ahead of the less versatile back, especially from a fantasy perspective. We saw this first hand in Washington with Chris Thompson catapulting Rob Kelley and Samaje Perine. The same could happen in Tampa Bay with Barber, who most people have looked past with the selection of Ronald Jones II. If Jones fails to learn the nuances of the league, struggles to learn the playbook, has difficulty with pass protection or has ball security challenges, Barber is in a prime seat to take advantage.

Chris Ivory, Buffalo

Hicks: A back to consider late in drafts this year is Chris Ivory. With Buffalo having inexperienced quarterbacks and an uncertain receiving corp, expect the ball to be run hard and often. The unquestioned starter in LeSean McCoy, like Ivory, is now over 30. It is hard to see McCoy approaching 300 carries this year. Ivory has over 1000 career carries and can carry a load, as was demonstrated by his seventh-ranked finish in 2015 with the Jets. It will be hard to start Ivory in the early part of the season, but as his workload increases expect him to be a popular free agent add. If you draft deep, grab him late and reap the benefit as the season unfolds.

Wood: Don’t expect the Bills to be a good football team. And know that drafting running backs from bad teams is rarely a blueprint for fantasy success. However, the LeSean McCoy continues to come off draft boards as a No. 1 fantasy asset, and it’s mainly because the Bills are projected to drive the ball through McCoy both as a runner and receiver. Whereas McCoy is risky at his current draft position, Ivory intrigues as a last-round option, who could give you a chunk of McCoy’s production in his stead. Ivory isn’t a world beater, but he’s an experienced veteran with plenty of fantasy relevant performances in prior stints as a part-time starter.

Players Receiving 1 Vote

Matt Breida, San Francisco

Howe: Breida took on 126 touches as an undrafted rookie, a total made even more impressive when we realize it came during Carlos Hyde’s only 16-game season. One would have to like his chances of hitting that mark again behind inconsistent starter Jerick McKinnon. Kyle Shanahan rides his backfield heavily in both phases of the offense, so even in a worst-case scenario, Breida looks like an ideal RB4/5 target down the board.

James Conner, Pittsburgh

Pasquino: Sometimes taking a clear handcuff to an elite running back is the right play late in a draft. Le'Veon Bell is not indestructible, and if he gets banged up and misses any time, Conner instantly becomes a fantasy starter. Plain and simple, that’s great value late in drafts.

Mike Davis, Seattle

Waldman: Davis earned significant playing time down the stretch in 2017 after injuries decimated the Seahawks depth chart. He’s a powerful runner with starter-level burst and one-cut ability. He’s also the best third-down back on the team as a receiver and blocker. Davis is one of those talents who had an uneven college career due to conditioning and injury, and it cost him the draft stock to earn a higher privilege of opportunity in 49ers camp. As a result, his mistakes cost him more than higher-round options. Davis will earn playing time on passing downs this year, and he could do enough to earn a greater role for a team more open to competition than most.

Kenneth Dixon, Baltimore

Bloom: Dixon’s 2017 was wiped out by injury and suspension, but the Ravens didn’t release him and they didn’t invest in the backfield this offseason. They used Dixon over Javorius Allen in 2016 once he was healthy, and there’s little doubt that Dixon is the more talented runner and equally, if not more, capable in the passing game. Alex Collins is the lead back, but the Ravens have fed their running backs in the passing game and should be able to support two fantasy-relevant backs. It’s also possible Dixon could play well enough to force a full-blown RBBC with Collins. The minuscule ticket price makes it worth to see where this leads.

Corey Grant, Jacksonville

Alexander: You'll have to strap on a pair of hip waders to go digging for deep sleepers at running back this year, but Corey Grant warrants a look and will go undrafted in most leagues. Grant never exceeded 17% of the Jaguars offensive snaps in a game last season, yet was still able to clear 50 rushing yards three times. He was also a key reason Jacksonville was able to hang with New England in last year's AFC championship game, turning three receptions into 59 receiving yards. Grant owes his big-play ability to blazing straight-line speed (he ran a 4.27 40-yard dash at Auburn's 2015 Pro Day), but he's also deceptively strong and finishes runs well. With Chris Ivory now in Buffalo, Grant will see more snaps by default. And with Leonard Fournette's history of nagging lower-body injuries, there could be a handful of games where Grant operates as the team's lead back. T.J Yeldon would remain in the mix, but it’s telling that in the three games Fournette missed last year, Yeldon was never trusted for more than 11 carries.

Justin Jackson, LA Chargers

Simpkins: Even though they picked up his fifth-year option, the coaching staff’s frustration with how average Melvin Gordon III has been is almost palpable. Looking behind Gordon on the depth chart, there is only a seventh-round pick and two undrafted free agents. Of those options, seventh-round draft selection Justin Jackson is the one that is most likely to earn the significant complementary role. Things that Jackson has that Gordon lacks are electric speed, the ability to change direction quickly, and elusiveness to make defenders miss. If Gordon ends up in the coach’s doghouse or if he gets hurt, Jackson could end up being a season winner for the owner who was willing to take a late flier on him.

Jonathan Stewart, NY Giants

Miglio: Saquon Barkley is getting all the attention in New York, but what if the Giants decide to ease him into the NFL? He could be the next Ezekiel Elliott, taking the league and fantasy football by storm. Or he could be mired in a timeshare with a guy who has made a career of mucking up backfields. Stewart is two years removed from scoring nine touchdowns in 13 games; he could have value beyond Barkley's handcuff this fall.

Spencer Ware, Kansas City

Wood: In 16 career starts, Spencer Ware has 286 carries for 1,324 yards (4.6 per carry), 39 receptions, 452 receiving yards, and nine total touchdowns. That’s a stud by any measure. Yet, Ware is being ignored in drafts thanks to the emergence of Kareem Hunt. Hunt, if healthy, is going to remain a bell-cow and push Ware into obscurity. But any No. 2 on a team with a propensity to run the ball is draftable, and Ware is among the most proven backups in the league. We don’t have to guess what Ware would do if Hunt gets hurt. We know Ware can be a No. 1 fantasy option. He’s done it before.

Jordan Wilkins, Indianapolis

Haseley: Someone is going to emerge in Indianapolis as the preferred fantasy back to own and many are not sold on Marlon Mack. Insert Jordan Wilkins, a 1,000-yard rusher from Ole Miss who found success against SEC defenses. At 6'1 and 217 pounds, Wilkins fits the role and could wind up earning more rushing shares than Mack or fellow newcomer, but more of a situational back, Nyheim Hines.