Dynasty Sleepers: Running Backs (2019 Fantasy Football)

by Raju Byfield | @FantasyContext | Featured Writer
May 15, 2019

Royce Freeman was better in 2018 than he’s given credit for

One of the quickest ways to turn your dynasty team around, or stay on top of your league, is to hit on sleeper running backs. At running back, the bulk of the sleepers are often the rookies and sophomores, and this year is no different. We will take a look at some notable running backs who could be game changers for your dynasty squad in 2019 and beyond. Here are the ground rules: to qualify for this list you have to be ranked outside the top- 25 in ECR, and you cannot be a consensus first-round rookie draft pick.

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Rookies

Justice Hill (RB – BAL)
Justice Hill joins a talented backfield in Baltimore. He was drafted to have a role, and will likely be given one as soon as he adjusts to the speed of the NFL game. Hill will form a dynamic one-two punch with Mark Ingram for a Ravens team that will be looking to devastate opponents via the ground game. The fastest back at this year’s NFL Combine, Hill will play the dash to Ingram’s smash. He profiles as a future RB2 who could quickly carve out an even time split with Ingram as soon as this season.          

Darrell Henderson (RB – LAR)
A talented back who posted eye-popping averages of 6.17 yards before contact and 1.67 yards per route run in his final college season, Darrell Henderson seems to have found himself one of the worst possible landing spots. He has immense talent, which will help him maintain his mammoth dynasty upside. That upside, however, is contingent on Todd Gurley’s knee taking a turn for the worse. The more likely scenario is Henderson becoming an elite backup and handcuff. He has the talent to generate standalone value, but when Gurley is at his best, he will be hard to siphon touches from. Henderson looks like a deep league flex option with the talent to develop standalone RB2 value.

Devin Singletary (RB – BUF)
Devin Singletary is an interesting case. On talent, he is arguably a top-five running back in this draft class. However, he landed in a crowded depth chart where he is not the top talent. The fact he is not able to make that claim means he will likely have to wait until 2020 to be afforded a true starting opportunity.

Aside from the problems a potential draft addition from the 2020 class would pose, T.J. Yeldon, a talented back in his own right, will still be on the team come next year. Regardless, it may have been a blessing in disguise that Singletary landed in a backfield with LeSean McCoy and future Hall of Famer Frank Gore, as he will get to learn from two of the best backs of the last decade. A potential game-changing bench stash, Singletary has elite contact balance, and the ever -down skill set to emerge as the lead back for Buffalo in 2020.

Benny Snell (RB – PIT)
Benny Snell landed in an underrated spot for fantasy value. James Conner was a valuable fantasy back, but left something to be desired as far as his actual play on the field. He ranked 36th in the league with just 1.16 yards created per carry, and saw a lot of his value come through the air.

Conner averaged a pedestrian 3.625 yards per carry against playoff teams, further cementing the Steelers’ desire for an upgrade on early downs. Conner and Jaylen Samuels are more versatile than Snell, but he is the superior option as a lead back. Reach for Snell as early as the mid second to ensure you land a player who could quickly become the Pittsburgh Steelers’ new starting running back.

Darwin Thompson (RB – KC)
Thompson could become a fantasy monster in Kansas City. Although he was not drafted to start, he will be given the opportunity to compete for touches. Thompson is an explosive back with good contact balance, and the soft hands to shine in the Chiefs’ offense. He has the upside to operate as the lead back and is someone that should be stashed in deeper dynasty leagues. James Williams is getting a lot of love and is even coming off the board first in some rookie and startup drafts, but it is Thompson who has the every-down skill set.

Myles Gaskin (RB – MIA)
Myles Gaskin is an interesting spot for fantasy value. Popular sleeper Kalen Ballage took a backseat to Frank Gore in 2018, and would likely be in line for the lead back role if Adam Gase was still in town. With a new coaching regime in place and having drafted a talented back in Gaskin, there will be a legitimate competition for the early-down role.

Kenyan Drake has already stated that he is preparing to play a James White role, and that is likely the exact role he will be afforded, giving Ballage and Gaskin the opportunity to fight for lead back duties. Gaskin has the talent and tape to suggest that he has the potential to be named the starter before the season is over. He is a high-upside bench stash that you can roster at the tail end of your rookie drafts or land as a free agent.

Alexander Mattison (RB – MIN)
Mattison is in a prime spot to generate some dynasty value. Not only does he play behind a back that has dealt with injury issues throughout his short career, but he has the skill set to play a complementary role. After putting up only 22.3 rushing attempts per game in 2018, the sixth-lowest total in the league, the expectation is that the Vikings dramatically increase their rushing attempts in 2019 and beyond. Their 2018 number was a drastic change from their 30.4 attempts per game in 2017, which tied them for the third most.

A return to 486 carries would still allow Dalvin Cook to soak up close to 300 carries and leave at least 150 for Mattison (eight-to-10 per game). Mattison is a strong dynasty stash, not only as a top-tier stash and handcuff, but as a player who should be able to produce enough to garner standalone dynasty value. He is an exciting runner with soft hands who should take hold of the number two job in Minnesota immediately.

Sophomores

Ronald Jones (RB – TB)
Ronald Jones cannot possibly lose another season of work to Peyton Barber, right? Jones was a massive disappointment in 2018 and now serves as a cautionary tale for dynasty owners to pursue talent over the appearance of an immediate role. Jones showed some juice at USC, and while he profiles more as a long-term committee back, the Buccaneers’ running back depth chart is still wide open. They mysteriously passed on running backs round after round, even drafting a kicker when names like Rodney Anderson, Trayveon Williams, Mike Weber, and Myles Gaskin were still on the board. Jones, a 2018 second-round pick, will have only Barber, a post-decline Andre Ellington, and UDFA Bruce Anderson to beat out for the lead role job. Anderson should be the biggest concern and is someone Jones owners, or prospective owners, should look to stash at the end of their drafts.

Kalen Ballage (RB – MIA)
Kalen Ballage will have the first shot at playing the ‘Sony Michel role’ in Brian Flores and Chad O’Shea’s Patriots South offense. Myles Gaskin is lurking, and he’s ready and able to steal his job, but Ballage has already proved that he can get it going when game flow allows for it.

Kenyan Drake will likely hold steady at his 150-180 touch mark, with at least a third of that coming in the passing game. In this scenario, Ballage will have up to 15 carries per game based on the Dolphins’ 2017 and 2018 splits. The upside, however, is 22-24 carries if the Dolphins can stay competitive and run the ball as much as the Patriots did last year (31.2 per game). Game script is likely to be a make-or-break factor as far as Ballage’s ability to establish any consistency, so I hope the Ryan Fitzpatrick/Josh Rosen tandem can help sustain drives.

Royce Freeman (RB – DEN)
Royce Freeman is one name I did not believe would qualify for this list. Freeman saw his rookie season derailed by monumental game flow issues thanks to an incompetent season-long performance from system QB and career backup, Case Keenum. Phillip Lindsay and Devontae Booker were both viewed as superior receiving back options, leaving Freeman with less than 10 touches in all but four of his games.

Freeman put his true upside on full display by averaging an impressive 4.7 yards per carry against stacked fronts. He actually averaged more yards created per carry than Phillip Lindsay, edging him out 1.28 (30th) to 0.98 (45th). Freeman stunningly was also the more elusive back, holding a 24.3% juke rate to Lindsay’s 18.5%.

Both of these backs will get a chance to eat if Joe Flacco or Drew Lock can help the Broncos sustain drives. Freeman is a solid buy low for returning leagues and is a solid low-cost, high-upside sleeper for startups. He has the talent and was drafted for the starting role in Denver, so he will likely get the opportunity to compete for it.

UDFAs

Karan Higdon (RB – HOU)  and Damarea Crockett (RB – HOU)
Karan Higdon went undrafted, but that afforded him the opportunity to seek out the best possible scenario. Enter the Houston Texans. The Texans declined to add any running back talent during the draft, instead opting for fullback Cullen Gillaspia. With a rapidly declining back in Lamar Miller and D’Onta Foreman on his last chance, Higdon and fellow UDFA signee Damarea Crockett both have the opportunity to grab the reins in this backfield.

Crockett is the measurable guy. He 6’0″ and 225 pounds, has a 37-inch vertical, and ran a 40 timed as low as 4.40 at his pro day. Higdon disappointed at the NFL Combine, and while every other back on the roster is 220+ pounds, it is Higdon who may instantly be the Texans’ toughest interior runner, despite weighing in at only 206 pounds.

Higdon may not have the size for a workhorse role like Crockett does, but he has the college production and tape to suggest he can operate in a lead back role. One of these two backs has the chance to emerge as the starter in Houston if D’Onta Foreman cannot run with his opportunity. Keep them both in mind as stashes in the final round of your rookie drafts or as players to target as priority free agents.

James Williams (RB – KC)
James Williams, much like Darwin Thompson, landed in the perfect spot for fantasy value. As a rich man’s James White, Williams could become a PPR monster in the Chiefs’ offense. Williams may never become the starter in Kansas City, but has the talent to grab a hold of the passing down job. He is the most electric receiving back on the team and has the skill set to thrive with Patrick Mahomes. He will have to beat out soft handed rookie Darwin Thompson for the role, but has a leg up on the JUCO transfer who will likely need time to adjust to NFL game speed, especially as a runner.

Williams hauled in more than three times as many passes as Mecole Hardman caught in his career. Williams is a player every dynasty owner should be looking to stash at the tail end of their dynasty drafts. If Tyreek Hill is banned, released, or suspended, expect Williams to be part of the committee that the Chiefs use to replace his talent.

L.J. Scott (RB – BAL)
Scott is a poor man’s Le’Veon Bell. It is likely that the fellow Michigan Spartan patterned his game after Bell, as he realized the two share similar builds and skill sets. Scott is going to be buried in this backfield, but has a chance to emerge by 2021 when the Ravens have an out in Mark Ingram’s contract. Scott could theoretically step into Ingram’s vacated role and form an exciting one-two punch with Justice Hill. Scott is the prototypical AFC North back and is a strong late round, or priority free agent, as someone you could squirrel away at the end of your bench or taxi squad.

Post-Hype

Carlos Hyde (RB – KC)
Carlos Hyde landed in a perfect spot for his dynasty value. After being jettisoned to the Jacksonville Jaguars when the Cleveland Browns finally realized Nick Chubb not only had more upside, but was a better option at that time as well, Hyde landed on his feet. In Kansas City, he only has Damien Williams, Darrell Williams, and Darwin Thompson to beat out for lead back duties. Hyde will likely only have a year as lead back, and will see his upside limited by the presence of the Williams trio and Darwin Thompson, but is still a strong dynasty option for 2019. Hyde should find his way to RB2 value this season as the starting running back in a Patrick Mahomes-led offense.

There will likely be a sell-high window this season that every Hyde owner should take advantage of regardless of situation. Hyde has talent, but the Chiefs are all but certain to bring in one of the highly touted 2020 rookie running backs, rendering every back on the roster to a change of pace role at best. Keep this potential scenario in mind in your dynasty drafts.

D’Onta Foreman (RB – HOU)
D’Onta Foreman has one last shot to run with the starting job in Houston. Lamar Miller is best suited for a change of pace role at this point of his career, and the only competition the Texans brought in are UDFAs Karan Higdon and Damarea Crockett. If Foreman fails to impress, expect Higdon and then Crockett to step up. If he does, we could be looking at an RB2. Foreman is a bit of a post-hype sleeper, as he has appeared in columns like these in years past, but he still seems to be flying under the radar in 2019.

The Texans have averaged 28.3 carries over the past two seasons, giving whoever secures the lead back role in this offense steady RB2 upside. Foreman was a highly productive college back who ran for over 2,000 yards at a 6.3 YPC clip in his final season at Texas. He is the first Texans back to pursue in dynasty formats.

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Raju Byfield is a featured writer for FantasyPros. For more from Raju, check out his profile and follow him @FantasyContext.

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