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Very Deep Sleepers: Benny Cunningham (Rams)

Jul 19, 2016

Nov 22, 2015; Baltimore, MD, USA; St. Louis Rams running back Benny Cunningham (36) runs through the line during the fourth quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Baltimore Ravens defeated St. Louis Rams 16-13. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Benny Cunningham might have more value in redraft and dynasty leagues than people realize

Benny Cunningham might have more value in redraft and dynasty leagues than people realize

R.C. Fischer discusses deep sleeper candidate Benny Cunningham of the Rams.

This piece is part of our article program that features quality content from experts exclusively at FantasyPros. For more insight from R.C. head to Fantasy Football Metrics.

Why is it no one cares about the Todd Gurley handcuff? There are five running backs that have been separated into their own special tier in 2016 – the elite of the elite.

First round redraft picks all – Le’Veon Bell, Gurley, David Johnson, Adrian Peterson and Ezekiel Elliott. Most fantasy GMs also care deeply about acquiring their handcuffs…except in Gurley’s case, it seems.

DeAngelo Williams is a must-have for possessors of Bell. Williams stepped in for the injured Bell last year and made you mostly forget about. Williams’s 2015 efforts are not easily forgotten…nor is Bell’s sudden rash of scary injuries.

Peterson is awesome, but so is Jerick McKinnon…and McKinnon is being taken in redrafts as Peterson insurance, and with thoughts he might be an RB3 in PPR formats riding along with Peterson all season.

Everyone loves Elliott (except for me), but an Elliott-lover’s passion is not so white-hot that they won’t cover their expensive rookie bet with a Darren McFadden protection plan. I saw a recent poll where about one-third of people felt Chris Johnson would be the Cardinals’ starting running back in 2016, confirming that one-third of people are delusional. David Johnson believers tend to grab CJ2K in case DJ3K (my nickname for Johnson, trademark pending: 1,000+ rushing, 1,000+ receiving, 1,000+ return yards) experiences any turbulence.

What about Gurley (insert crickets chirping here)?

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Current FantasyPros expert consensus rankings (PPR):

Ranked ahead of Cunningham (No. 244) by the experts: Nate Washington (No. 231), Brian Hartline (No. 232), and Knile Davis (No. 236). All three Jamaal Charles ‘handcuffs’ are ranked ahead of Cunningham.

Why no love for Cunningham? My argument here for Cunningham is not just a ‘next in line’ argument, although that adds a lot to the strategy. I would like to argue that Cunningham could excel if/when given the opportunity…and that he could be a “Very Deep Sleeper “shock that matters as a PPR back WITH Gurley healthy and being a star.

It’s been a strange, sad, redemptive journey for Cunningham to arrive as ‘mattering’ in the NFL. He was close to becoming a college superstar, but injuries snuffed out the developing story.

In 2011, as a junior, Cunningham started to take over as the lead running back for Middle Tennessee State, but was hampered in-season with a foot injury. It was in 2012, as a senior, that he started showing signs of ‘special.’

Cunningham split time with several running backs against McNeese State on Opening Day of the 2012 season, and he was not on the tip of anyone’s tongue in college football circles. All that was about to change over his next four games. Next up, at Memphis, a solid 11 carry for 57 yards and two TDs day, and still splitting time with other running backs.

His third game of the season, at Georgia Tech, the Middle Tennessee State Raiders shocked the Rambling Wreck (who made it to the ACC title game that season) with a 49–28 upset. Cunningham ran for 217 yards and five TDs.

Suddenly, Cunningham found the national spotlight. Two games later, another 200+ yard rushing effort versus Florida International.

After Opening Day 2012, Cunningham went on a four-game run averaging 141.5 yards rushing, 27.3 yards receiving (168.8 combined yards), 2.3 catches and 2.8 TDs per game. 11 TDs in the four-game stretch, no less than two TDs in any game, also catching four passes in each of his final two games.

During the final game of the four-game stretch, against Florida International, racking up 230 yards rushing, Cunningham suffered a patellar tear, and was done for the season. He was on pace for 2,000+ combined yards and possibly 30 TDs in that 2012 season and an obvious Conference Offensive Player of the Year honor…all wiped away by injury.

Gone too was any ‘draft status.’ He was not able to earn an invite to the NFL Combine, nor could he have participated if he wanted to due to rehab.

Cunningham worked his way back to have a late-in-the-process Pro Day. He ran a 4.5+ 40-time, benched an astounding 26 reps, and when scouts re-looked over his small, highly effective final college season spurt – he finally caught some prospect ‘buzz.’ He still went undrafted, but played so well in the 2013 preseason, that the Rams were forced to keep him on the 53-man roster.

He was the team’s starting kick returner…less than a year away from major surgery done by Dr. James Andrews. In Week 9 of his rookie NFL season, he ran for 109 yards and a TD, his first 100-yard NFL game. He gained attention with a lofty 5.6 yards per carry on 47 carries his rookie year.

The next season, in 2014, Cunningham earned a split role in the Rams’ backfield. He caught 2.8 passes per game, catching 87% of his targets. He was the team’s power runner, main kick returner and leading receiver out of the backfield.

I scouted Cunningham at Middle Tennessee State for the 2013 NFL Draft. I can tell you this – that guy can catch a football.

I have often proclaimed that Cunningham was the plus-size version of Shane Vereen (back when Vereen’s exploits as a receiver out of the backfield were radical, not typical as they are today). Cunningham is a solid runner with decent athleticism and nice power. He can also be that RB-WR hybrid out of the backfield if needed…a very large hybrid version, which makes him a unique weapon.

In 2015, Cunningham was the Week 1 starter for the Rams. He caught four passes for 77 yards against Seattle.

He would average 3.3 catches per game in the first three games for the Rams in 2015…until some guy named Todd Gurley took over. From Week 4 on, Gurley caught 21 passes, Cunningham 16…and Tre Mason had 16 catches in that span.

The Tre Mason factor was what you might have been wondering about. Tre Mason is not ‘shining’ in the NFL. He was a fumbling (three fumbles/93 touches in 2015), 2.8 yards per carry mess in 2015. He’s not as big, as fast, as strong, or as natural a receiver as Cunningham…other than that Mason is a peach.

Oh, and Mason was charged with four misdemeanors on a traffic stop this offseason…culminating in Mason refusing to get out of the car or identify himself, and thus he was tasered to get him out of the vehicle, where marijuana was present. I’m not sure Mason will be with the team/NFL this season. Let’s go ahead and assume Cunningham is first in line for the role as backup to Gurley.

If Cunningham is the true backup/handcuff to Gurley, then isn’t he worth more than a 240th pick/undrafted in a redraft? The Rams are a run-first team under Jeff Fisher. If something unforeseen happened to Gurley before opening day/in-season, Cunningham, an unrestricted free agent to be, could shock the fantasy world.

If Mason disappears, and you give Cunningham most/all of Mason’s touches – last season, the two of them combined for 2.8 catches and 41.8 yards per game (working with Gurley most of the season) – not far from RB3-useful in a 12-team/PPR league. If return yards count in your league – Cunningham is one of the top kick returners in the league.

Cunningham might be much more fantasy-valuable in 2016 than he is being given credit for today. He might also be a Very Deep Sleeper to stash in dynasty for his pending 2017 free agency.

If you needed more circumstantial evidence that something could be here — this offseason, as a restricted free agent (which means difficult to sign away from his current team), only one team invited Cunningham in for a discussion…the New England Patriots.

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