Running Back Sleepers (2018 Fantasy Football)
Not that long ago, running backs dominated the fantasy landscape so much that the overall accepted rules for both scoring and lineups were changed to try to restore some balance to fantasy rosters. The shift to PPR scoring and three-receiver lineups did that, but right about the same time, the NFL itself began to treat the running back position as a replaceable commodity, where three-down feature backs became scarce, and teams embraced committee backfields.
Once again, times have changed. Now, talented young bell-cow backs are becoming more numerous and have once again become the most highly-coveted position in fantasy football drafts. A quick glance at current ADP shows the importance of these featured backs, but supply certainly can’t keep up with demand.
Now more than ever, finding potential difference makers deep in fantasy drafts is one of the most essential elements of a successful fantasy football draft. Knowing which undervalued sleepers to target is one of the most popular and proven formulas to fielding a championship roster. Let’s take a look at some sleeper running backs to earmark for the 2018 fantasy football season, and don’t forget to check out my quarterback sleepers and busts.
Alex Collins (BAL) RB20
Of all the running backs currently being selected in the fourth or fifth round of most fantasy drafts, Collins might have the best chance of returning RB1 numbers. After all, he’s already proven that he can do just that.
During the final five weeks of the 2017 season, Collins ran for 383 yards and four touchdowns, while catching 14 of 22 targets for an additional 135 yards, just when his fantasy owners needed it the most. In standard scoring formats, Collins was the RB7 during that stretch and RB11 in PPR leagues.
Collins didn’t even command double-digit carries until Week 5 and still ended up as a top-20 fantasy back last year. Now the undisputed RB1 for a Baltimore team that always seems to rely on their ground game first, Collins is in a great position to earn 300 touches and challenge for top-10 numbers.
Lamar Miller (HOU) RB22
Miller was very productive with limited touches in Miami but has been somewhat of a disappointment with a larger workload since joining the Texans. Miller’s lowest two yards-per-carry figures have come with the Texans, and he’s dipped to six touchdowns in both seasons after scoring 19 his final two years with the Dolphins.
Still, Miller is a solid all-around player and managed to quietly finish as the PPR RB16 last season. With D’Onta Foreman nowhere near playing as he continues to recover from a devastating Achilles injury, Miller has little competition for touches in the Texans’ backfield.
With a healthy Deshaun Watson calling plays, Houston’s offense has a ton of potential, and Miller stands to benefit. Four of Miller’s six scores last season came when Watson started. His ADP has started to creep up, but Miller still looks like a nice value as one of the last starting running backs off the board.
Jamaal Williams (GB) RB36
Mike McCarthy suggested the Packers would use a committee backfield consisting of Williams, Aaron Jones, and Ty Montgomery this season, but recent history suggests otherwise. Due to injuries, McCarthy was forced to give Williams an extended workload starting in Week 10 last season, but even after Jones got healthy, McCarthy used Williams as the clear-cut lead back, and Jones only received change-of-pace work.
From Weeks 10-17, Williams was a top-10 fantasy running back, averaging nearly 17 fantasy points per game and totaling five touchdowns. When Jones returned in Week 13, he never got more than four touches in any game.
Now Jones has been dinged up in training camp and will already miss the first two games of the season with a suspension. In Green Bay’s first preseason game, Williams played exclusively with the starters and made a touchdown reception. I think this is his backfield as the primary runner, and Montgomery will play a role as a receiving weapon. Williams’ superior running ability will put him in a prime position to win and maintain the bulk of Green Bay’s carries, and that makes him an immediate candidate to post RB2 numbers.
Matt Breida (SF) RB51
It’s no secret that Kyle Shanahan likes to utilize multiple running backs in his potent offensive scheme. In Shanahan’s stint with the Falcons, Atlanta implemented a two-back system beautifully, making both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman weekly fantasy options.
Carlos Hyde led San Francisco’s backfield last season, but he’s now in Cleveland, replaced by free agent addition Jerick McKinnon, who isn’t built to take a 250-carry workload. Breida flashed some glimpses down the stretch last season, running for 4.4 yards per carry and catching 21 passes in a secondary role.
Breida was off to a fast start in training camp and it looked like the 49ers were working to get both of their backs on the field at the same time until he injured his shoulder. He’s expected back by the opening of the season, but Breida is losing reps and could get off to a slow start or even lose touches to Joe Williams or Alfred Morris. Still, Breida is a reliable target in the mid-to-late rounds, not just as a handcuff for McKinnon owners, but as an intriguing young talent who could carve his way into a 10-12 touch role, making him a potential flex option in PPR leagues.
Theo Riddick (DET) RB54
Over the past several seasons, about the only thing we can correctly predict about Detroit’s backfield is that it is unpredictable. Despite the Lions usually fielding a solid offense, and a myriad different draft picks, the Lions can’t seem to get it right. While second-round rookie Kerryon Johnson checks a lot of boxes that suggest he’s fully capable of ending Detriot’s backfield misery, Ameer Abdullah, Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure, and others have all tried and failed to take control, leaving the Lions to perennially field a subpar rushing attack that utilizes multiple players.
Johnson should get the first crack at commanding the majority of carries, but he could lose short-yardage work to LeGarrette Blount. So far, Johnson has reportedly looked good in pass protection, but Detroit’s forgotten back, Riddick, looks like the best bet to field a positive return on investment.
The Lions love what Riddick can do as a change-of-pace rusher and receiver out of the backfield, and he continues to be an underrated fantasy option, especially in PPR leagues. Riddick has averaged 62 receptions over the past three seasons and finished as the PPR RB18, RB25, and RB26 dating back to 2015. Johnson is going to be involved, and it’s unwise to think Riddick won’t lose some targets, but he’s still a solid receiving threat who I think will get enough touches to have another underrated fantasy season.
Peyton Barber (TB) RB63
Second-round rookie Ronald Jones is attracting most of the attention, but Jones has struggled to acclimate himself to the NFL game, and Barber has taken advantage. Not only did Barber start and play extensively with Tampa’s first-team offense during their preseason opener, but head coach Dirk Koetter even named Barber his starting running back after the game.
Jones has struggled in pass protection, which isn’t shocking for a rookie. But the inability to be on the field in passing situations is a huge red flag for a rookie rusher trying to earn playing time for an offense that rarely uses two running backs.
Barber took over lead-back duties for Tampa beginning in Week 13 and fared well, garnering 335 yards on 78 totes and finishing as the PPR RB25 during that stretch. Barber likely will split reps with Jones and Charles Sims, but his ADP is so low at this point that there is nothing but upside in snagging him with the final pick of your draft.
Javorius Allen (BAL) RB61
After sitting out the entire 2017 season with a knee injury, expectations were that Kenneth Dixon would take over as the change-of-pace back behind Collins, but Dixon has been slow to get started in camp and has apparently fallen behind Allen for that role. Allen might already be a better option than Dixon, anyway. Even splitting time with Collins last year, Allen thrived, rushing for 591 yards, catching 46 passes, scoring six total touchdowns, and finishing the year as a surprising RB27 in PPR scoring formats. Dixon has been nursing a hamstring injury, and Allen appears to be in clear command of Baltimore’s RB2 spot, making him a fantastic bargain at his current ADP, which is later than Dixon’s.
Jeremy Hill (NE) RB73
No team has run for more rushing touchdowns over the past half-dozen years than New England, and Hill looks like he’s moved ahead of Mike Gillislee as the potential short-yardage specialist. Bill Belichick is a master at resurrecting players that are discarded by other teams and Hill could be the next to join that list.
Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead are the top-two options out of the Patriots’ backfield, but both players have been slowed in the preseason, which has opened the door for Hill to take some significant carries and move ahead of Gillislee, who punched in three touchdowns in Week 1 last season before fumbling away that role. Hill excelled as a short-yardage option in Cincinnati and could easily do so in a far superior situation with the Patriots. With an ADP that assures he’s going undrafted in nearly every fantasy draft, Hill is indeed worth a late-round flier and could be one of the biggest bargains of 2018.