14 Deep Sleepers at Running Back - 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 4 Votes

Austin Ekeler, LA Chargers

Dan Hindery: Through the first 13 weeks last season (when he broke his hand), Ekeler was the RB36 in PPR leagues. There is no reason he cannot approximate the same level of fantasy production while again backing up Melvin Gordon III in 2018. Ekeler provides a solid flex week option who can put up RB4. However, what makes Ekeler especially appealing is that in addition to being useful even if he remains a backup, he is a potential league-winner should Gordon get hurt. Ekeler’s explosiveness and pass-catching ability in the Chargers productive offense would profile as a fantasy RB1 in any games Gordon was to miss.

Justin Howe: For whatever reason, many expected Ekeler to lose his change-of-pace job outright to a seventh-round rookie who's yet to practice. As it is, Ekeler sits firmly entrenched as Melvin Gordon III's caddy - and that's a big deal in terms of fantasy value. Gordon is a workhorse who often requires a breather and suffers his share of nicks and bruises; most have forgotten that his first two NFL seasons both ended early due to knee injuries. And Ekeler was dynamite as his spell-man last year, averaging 5.5 yards-per-carry and 10.3 per reception. He even took over whole chunks of games from a gassed Gordon at times. He looked electrifying in his 2018 preseason debut (64 yards on 7 touches), too. Ekeler was a SPARQ dream as a 2017 prospect, with a 94th-percentile Burst Score and an 84th-percentile Agility Score. He doesn't deserve this treatment; target him confidently as an RB5/6 in Round 16 or so.

Jeff 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.

Jason Wood: Melvin Gordon III has become a productive 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. In that scenario, Austin Ekeler’s fantasy value will remain subdued. 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. Ekeler caught 27 passes for 279 yards and three touchdowns and averaged an impressive 5.5 yards per rush on his modest 47 attempts. For a guy who played sparingly, racking up 539 yards and five touchdowns was a notable achievement. Ekeler looked as good as former Charger Danny Woodhead as a third-down option, and in today’s fantasy landscape any running back with 50-catch potential should be rostered.

Player Receiving 3 Votes

Peyton Barber, Tampa Bay

Ryan Hester: Ronald Jones II II is getting all the buzz after being selected in this year’s NFL draft, but Jones is struggling mightily in the passing game so far in camp. Barber is going to be Tampa Bay’s Week 1 starting running back. If he can hold it – even for the first four to six games – he can easily profit at this draft price. Barber lost weight in the offseason, which should help his quickness and tackle-breaking ability. The coaching staff trusts him, and it’s his job to lose.

Dan Hindery: While Chris Carson has generated huge buzz and a top-100 ADP splitting first-team reps with Rashaad Penny, Peyton Barber continues to fly much further under the radar despite dominating the first-team reps ahead of Ronald Jones II. In fact, Jones played just one snap with the starters. Dirk Koetter has explicitly stated that Barber is the starter and his ADP has barely budged. While that should slowly begin to change as the season gets closer and the hype for Barber builds, he remains a massive draft bargain for those drafting in August.

Justin Howe: Barber remains a bottom-rung guy in terms of ADP, often sticking on the board well into Round 15. I think that's a mistake; he enters the season atop the Buccaneers depth chart, and at the moment he stakes a stronger claim to touches than rookie Ronald Jones II. Jones is a slightly-built guy without a workhorse resume - I can't realistically project him beyond 150-175 carries and 20ish receptions. Even if he hits those marks, he'd still leave a near-equal number of touches for his backfield partner. And the team seems plenty satisfied with Barber in that role, refusing to add any real free agency help.

Players Receiving 2 Votes

Frank Gore, Miami

Matt Waldman: I looked six times for Frank Gore is the Top 150, and I still think I’m missing him. He’s the best runner on Miami’s roster. Gore is serving as finishing-school-by-example Kenyan Drake and the Chicago Stockyards is more refined that Kalen Ballage’s game. Gore is old but he remains in tremendous shape. He runs under tremendous control whereas Drake’s undisciplined style of play is an injury waiting to happen. Gore won’t deliver consistent runs beyond 25-30 yards at this point in his career but he’ll convert first downs and touchdowns in ways Drake and Ballage can’t even dream at this point of their conceptual infancy at the position.

Jeff Pasquino: Is Gore going to run the ball forever? At age 35, you would have to think that the end is coming soon, but for now, Gore is considered the co-starter in Miami (with Kenyan Drake). That may not mean much for a lackluster offense, but considering that Gore can be picked up well after 45-50 running backs are selected, sign me up for that value play.

Chris Ivory, Buffalo

Andy 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 expected starter in LeSean McCoy may have legal issues and suspension to worry about, but even then, like Ivory, is now over 30. It is hard to see McCoy approaching 300 carries this year if he is allowed to. Ivory has over 1000 career carries and can carry a load, as was demonstrated by this seventh-ranked finish in 2015 with the Jets. It will be hard to start Ivory in the early part of the season if McCoy is playing, but he will play and contribute every week.

Jason Wood: I don’t expect the Bills to be a good football team. Drafting running backs from bad teams is rarely a blueprint for fantasy success. However, LeSean McCoy is undeniably the centerpiece of the Bills offense, and the team would have no choice but to give Ivory a heavy workload if McCoy gets hurt. Injury risks aside, McCoy’s pending legal woes related to accusations of abuse further cloud his ability to play all 16 games. 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.

Bilal Powell, NY Jets

James Brimacombe: Even in a bad offense over the last two seasons, Bilal Powell still found a way to turn in back to back seasons as the 23rd and 25th top running back. The running back competition in New York doesn't look too harsh for Powell at the moment with Isaiah Crowell struggling and Elijah McGuire banged up.

Andy Hicks: Bilal Powell has had the kind of career that a fourth-round running back should dream of. He is entering his eighth year as an NFL player and for the last two years been a borderline fantasy starter. Out goes Matt Forte and Isaiah Crowell arrives for the Jets and with an injury to Elijah McGuire, Powell has to be the favorite for the role of the third-down back and maybe more. He had a career-high 178 carries last year and over the last two seasons has had 309 carries for an average of 4.8 yards a rushing attempt. In the 14th round that sounds like a steal.

Spencer Ware, Kansas City

Ryan Hester: In 2016, Ware started off the season like a typical Andy Reid running back. He was the overall RB6 in fantasy points per game through Week 7. Then Ware suffered a concussion in Week 8 against Indianapolis and wasn’t really the same. Of course, Kareem Hunt’s incredible 2017 won’t allow Ware to take the job back entirely, but Ware has significant upside in the event of an injury to Hunt. Any week Hunt would miss, Ware would be projected as a high-end RB2 at worst. That’s worth a late-round flier.

Jason Wood: In 16 career starts, Spencer Ware has 286 carries for 1,324 yards (4.6 yards-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 he can be a No. 1 fantasy option. He’s done it before.

T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville

James Brimacombe: Yeldon is still a very nice compliment to Leonard Fournette and should still be a valuable player for the Jaguars with a lot to offer in the passing game. Yeldon rushed the ball 49 times last season compared to 182 and 130 times in his first two seasons but he did a lot more with his opportunities averaging 5.2 yards-per-carry.

Jeff 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.

Players Receiving 1 Vote

Javorius Allen, Baltimore

Andy Hicks: One of the most underrated backs in fantasy football is the 3rd 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 3rd down back. So far relying on Dixon has been a fruitless exercise with 2 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 2 of his last 3 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.

LeGarrette Blount, Detroit

Matt Waldman: The Lions offensive line should be better and Blount is still a quick, agile, and intelligent decision-maker. If Kerryon Johnson doesn’t improve as a pass protector or gets hurt during the year, Blount can step in and be the lead back. Considered a plodder, Blount has elite stop-start quickness, which is rooted in light and precise footwork and great hip mobility. If he were truly a plodder he wouldn’t have as many big-play runs that he’s collected during his career and he wouldn’t have been a successful kick return specialist for Bill Belichick in New England. He’s a proven bargain for fantasy owners.

Chase Edmonds, Arizona

Matt Waldman: Edmonds' style of play and physical talents are in the spectrum of Giovani Bernard and Brian Westbrook. He performed well enough during the spring that the Cardinals taught him all of David Johnson’s responsibilities in the offense. It makes Edmonds the most likely option to replace Johnson as the featured back if the superstar suffers an injury. The Cardinals lack a proven offensive line but Edmonds’ ability to deliver in space as a receiver as well as a runner should make him a good bet for starter production if called upon.

Corey Grant, Jacksonville

Phil Alexander: Grant never exceeded 17 percent 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, Chargers

Daniel Simpkins: Even though they picked up his fifth-year option, the coaching staff’s frustration with how average Melvin Gordon III has been 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.

Samaje Perine, Washington

Dan Hindery: The injury to starter Derrius Guice creates an enormous opportunity for Perine to take on a hefty workload behind what should be a solid offensive line. Third-down back Chris Thompson has said he won’t be fully healthy until November, which leaves Perine and Rob Kelley competing for the lead role. Perine has the talent to win the job outright. A 2017 fourth-rounder, Perine showed some flashes as a rookie. He had a pair of 100-yard games despite laboring behind an offensive line that had been decimated by injuries. Perine was also surprisingly effective as a pass catcher, pulling in 22 of 24 targets. The realistic chance to see almost 20 touches per game makes Perine a prime target in the middle rounds of drafts.

Theo Riddick, Detroit

Will Grant: There are a lot of questions surrounding the Detroit backfield, and rookie Kerryon Johnson feels like the back that’s going to emerge as the top fantasy option. But that’s not a done deal, and LeGarrette Blount is a battering ram. Riddick is the receiver that the Lions look to out of the backfield and he’s likely to see plenty of passes thrown his way again this season. If Johnson falters or Blount starts to show his age, Riddick is the guy who is going to directly benefit. He presents a lot more upside than guys like ty Montgomery, Doug Martin or Donta Foreman and all of them are being drafted well before Riddick.

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