Unlike the previously covered positions; tight end and quarterback, the running back position seems to always offer up some of the most rewarding sleepers. While the wide receiver position similarly offers its fair share of productive sleepers, the talent pool at running back is thinner in comparison and often times harder to predict.
After your Arian Foster’s, Adrian Peterson’s and Doug Martin’s of the world are drafted, there are a number of under the radar backs who will be available late. Plenty of those running backs will spend the majority of their season on a bench, only worth a spot start. Others go on to have seasons that propel them up future draft boards, and in many cases, take their team far in the playoffs. Value picks at this position specifically, are crucial when it comes to long term success in fantasy football.
The following five running backs are players I feel strongly about given their ability and new environment. Those deemed “Honorable Mention” are deep sleepers who are an injury away from being a productive starter.
Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
Giovani Bernard is an elusive back who can catch balls just as well as carries it. The rookie back out of North Carolina had 1,228 yards in 10 games last season and caught 92 passes over the last two years. Pair that with the 31 touchdowns scored the last two seasons and you have yourself the first running back taken in the draft.
Bernard won’t be the starter Week 1 but he’ll certainly get the chance to prove himself in Cincinnati. Of any rookie running back in the NFL, Bernard is the most likely RB to finish the season as a starter in my opinion. Bernard’s incumbent, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, 28, has been consistently average over the last three years and his job security instantly came into question when the Bengals decided to draft a running back in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft. The 5-foot-10, 205 lb. back is seven years younger and does many things Green-Ellis has never done. Don’t shy away from taking a chance on this rookie. He’s someone who, when given the chance, could put himself atop the draft board as soon as next season.
David Wilson, New York Giants
With Ahmad Bradshaw gone, David Wilson takes over as the starting running back in New York. The 22-year-old sophomore back is a former track star who happens to be a tantalizing breakout candidate this season. Wilson was able to do a lot with a little last year and the Giants are hoping he can do even more with the added workload.
Wilson had five touchdowns in just 75 touches last season. A solid rate of return for any rookie back. To put that in perspective, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, DeMarco Murray and Steven Jackson all reached the end zone the same amount or less than Wilson did despite 100-150 more touches last year. In the 71 rushing attempts Wilson had last year, he accrued 358 yards; which gave Wilson a yards per carry average of 5.04 yards.
If he’s able to do anything close to what he did last year with the added workload, there’s few limits to what he could finish with this year. If you can make him your second running back in the third or fourth round take a chance on Wilson. Handcuffing his backup Andre Brown is highly recommended given the investment you would have to put in Wilson.
Montee Ball, Denver Broncos
The only situation that would have been better for rookie running back Montee Ball would have been him getting drafted to play behind Peyton Manning five years ago. Ball offers an array of skills that make the transition from NCAA to NFL a rather smooth one. He’s got the receiving and blocking skills necessary to play three downs, while also having a nose for the end zone that put him atop all rushers in FBS history with 83 scores.
Ronnie Hillman was named the Broncos’ “starter” but we all know that won’t last for long. Hillman didn’t live up to his hype of being fantasy relevant in 2012 and also has been disappointing during the preseason thus far.
Denver will certainly be a team that focuses on the pass game but an aging Manning could use a decent running back that instantly becomes the best back Manning has had since Edgerrin James. Don’t be surprised if Ball rushes for over 1,000 yards and scores double-digit touchdowns. The Mile High City has found their running back of the future in Montee Ball. If you’re in a keeper league, mirror their investment and grab Ball early.
Daryl Richardson, St. Louis Rams
With Steven Jackson trading in his blue and gold for some black and red, Daryl Richardson will get every chance to be an every-down back. Richardson is more Faulk than Jackson, given his smaller size and speed, but backups Isiah Pead and Zac Stacy will function as motivation to sustain his new title.
Similar to Wilson, Richardson averaged nearly five yards a carry last season. An added workload should mean great things if he can maintain that pace. Pead and Stacy offer legitimate promise at the next level so buyer beware. But if Richardson can continue to prove his worth to head coach Jeff Fisher and his coaching staff, Richardson may be one of those backs that have people scratching their head wondering how they missed him? The offensive line is a work in progress but better than years past. There aren’t many guys worth drafting from this Rams team, but Richardson is one Ram I have gone after and will go after in the 9th-10th round range in my leagues.
Rashard Mendenhall, Arizona Cardinals
New coach Bruce Arians made it known early on how excited he was to be adding Rashard Mendenhall to his backfield–and for good reason. Before he gave us a reason why he shouldn’t be on Twitter, Mendenhall was a tough, hard-nosed runner who had 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2010. The following year was a bit of a letdown but he still managed to reach the end zone nine times. For whatever reason, Arizona has struggled to produce an elite fantasy running back. And because of that I think he’s being ruled out strictly based on association.
I’ve seen him ranked and/or drafted behind guys like Jonathan Stewart, Chris Ivory and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. This shouldn’t be happening. Injuries are a concern with Mendenhall but most backs taken around the same time as him have similar track records. Arians also doesn’t plan on using a running back by committee, so you don’t have to worry aboutvultured carries and goal line scores. Mendenhall is the ideal third or fourth back to have on your roster.
Jacquizz Rodgers, Atlanta Falcons
Jacquizz Rodgers has added some bulk to his 5-foot-6 frame and in a backup role last year he had 53 catches for 402 yards. If starting running back Steven Jackson were to go down, Rodgers instantly becomes a must start in PPR leagues.
- Ben Tate, Houston Texans
- Bryce Brown, Philadelphia Eagles
- Bernard Pierce, Baltimore Ravens
These three are must-drafts if you take the running back starting ahead of them with your first pick. Taking one or two of them to block a handcuff is never a bad thing to do either. Using a late-round pick in this way is great fantasy football insurance and highly recommended, especially in deep leagues.