Dynasty Sleeper RBs (Fantasy Football)
For the first installment of this dynasty sleeper series, all attention was directed towards the quarterback position. This time around, the spotlight will focus in on running backs that are currently being overlooked as the 2017 regular season approaches.
Ameer Abdullah (DET)
Despite concerns that the Detroit Lions would promote backfield competition this offseason via free agency or the NFL Draft, Ameer Abdullah currently sits atop the team’s depth chart. As a former second-round pick in 2015, the running back owns a noteworthy pedigree out of Nebraska.
To this point in his career, Abdullah has been unable to deliver on his expensive price tag because of durability issues. In fact, last season he was forced to miss 14 regular season contests due to a torn foot ligament that eventually required surgery.
Abdullah has since recovered from the foot ailment and is now medically cleared to resume football activities. Detroit’s GM Bob Quinn clearly has faith in the 23-year-old, as he has publicly confirmed that Abdullah will be the team’s starting running back in 2017. Even with such a promising outlook, Abdullah is best viewed as a sleeper until he earns more work than Theo Riddick and Zach Zenner on a consistent basis.
Riddick projects to maintain his passing-down role in which he recorded 53 receptions last season, while Zenner could be in the mix for short-yardage or goal-line work to round out Detroit’s backfield pecking order. This leaves Abdullah in an excellent position to carve out a role for both rushing and passing situations in his third career season.
Giovani Bernard (CIN)
After suffering a torn ACL in Week 11 last year, Giovani Bernard will face an uphill battle to return before the 2017 season commences. Unlike last season, the 25-year-old running back now has added competition to battle with on passing downs in Joe Mixon.
Albeit a controversial selection, the Cincinnati Bengals elected to pick Mixon in the second-round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Based on the Oklahoma product’s dynamic skill set out of the backfield, Bernard is no longer guaranteed a high-volume role on offense.
Due to his durability and workload concerns, Bernard is an appealing sleeper to acquire in dynasty this offseason at a discounted price. While Mixon could steal work from Bernard in some passing-down situations, Jeremy Hill appears to be more vulnerable to losing a spot in Cincinnati’s backfield rotation.
After all, Bernard has contributed a minimum of 680 yards rushing and 43 receptions in all three of his career seasons prior to 2016. Volume will remain a concern in a crowded backfield, but Bernard’s versatility can at least provide flex value for fantasy football purposes in 2017.
Jonathan Williams (BUF)
Given the departure of Mike Gillislee from Buffalo to New England, Jonathan Williams stands as a clear option to earn an expanded role in 2017. Don’t let the tailback’s fifth-round pedigree from 2015 be a concern, as Williams rushed for 1,190 yards and twelve touchdowns in his final season at Arkansas in 2014.
After he registered a mere 27 rushing attempts as a rookie last season, Williams is firmly in the sleeper conversation as he enters his sophomore campaign. LeSean McCoy is the unquestioned starting running back in Buffalo, but he has missed five regular-season games over the past two years and is set to turn 29 years old this offseason. While these factors work in favor for Williams’ short-term outlook, those that own shares of the 23-year-old running back in dynasty should remain patient for better long-term dividends in the future.
Wendell Smallwood (PHI)
In a rather surprising turn of events, the Philadelphia Eagles opted against selecting a running back in the early stages of the 2017 NFL Draft. This bodes well for the fantasy value of Wendell Smallwood, but he will still face competition to become the team’s starter.
Fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey is a versatile running back out of San Diego State, who could emerge from Philadelphia’s backfield as the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher. Darren Sproles is also expected to be given an ample amount of touches moving forward; he generated 865 all-purpose yards on offense in 2016 in large part to his 52 receptions.
On paper, it appears as though Philadelphia could implement a committee approach to the running back position in 2017. Based on Smallwood’s versatile skill set and usage rate as a rookie last season, he could be given a larger role as a sophomore. Remember, the West Virginia product managed to deliver a 4.1 yard per carry average on 77 carries in his first NFL campaign.
Even more, Smallwood recorded a minimum of 70 yards in two of the three games in which he received double-digit rushing attempts last season. It is far from a guarantee that the 23-year-old emerges in 2017, but he deserves recognition as a sleeper candidate nonetheless.
Jonathan Stewart (CAR)
Already being written off due to the added presence of Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, Jonathan Stewart figures to offer sleeper appeal in 2017. Sure, he can only be relied on as a short-term asset in dynasty. At the same time, he recently signed a two-year, $8 million contract with an extension that will keep him in Carolina until 2019. While he can no longer be valued as a surefire asset, the franchise clearly has plans to utilize the nine-year veteran despite adding talent to its backfield this offseason.
Coming off of a campaign in which he finished as the RB29 in PPR formats, it could be difficult for Stewart to replicate the 824 yards rushing and nine touchdowns he posted last season. Regardless, the 30-year-old running back is expected to serve as an early-down threat in Carolina’s rushing attack. Contending dynasty teams should consider trading for Stewart’s services as he attempts to improve on a paltry 3.8 yard per carry average from 2016.