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Fantasy Football Sleepers: Running Back (2021)

Aug 14, 2021

A “sleeper” is a term that you’ll hear a lot about if you play fantasy sports. The definition varies a little bit from person to person, but the basic idea of a “sleeper” is that it is a player that people are overlooking and who is undervalued in most leagues.

Last year, we had quite a few sleepers in late-round running backs like James Robinson (RB – JAC), Antonio Gibson (RB – WFT), Nyheim Hines (IND), and Myles Gaskin (RB – MIA) – all of whom made a big difference for their fantasy teams. Once again the running back position has quite a few potential sleepers for the 2021 season that could make all the difference in your leagues. So without further ado, let’s dive in and take a look at some running backs whose current ADP is RB24 and lower (0.5 PPR) and are currently undervalued in fantasy drafts.

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Damien Harris (RB – NE): ADP RB32
Damien Harris is just flying under the radar right now because of the narrative that it’s always a bad idea to draft Patriots running backs. He quietly had a good season last year where he took 137 carries for 691 rushing yards (5.0 YPC), created 1.70 yards per touch (9th best among RBs), had seven carries for 15+ yards (18th best among RBs), and posted a juke rate of 28.2% (8th best among RBs).

Harris has also been talked about as the lead back all offseason, with a recent report from training camp saying that he “led the RBs in all periods.”

Considering over the course of Josh McDaniels’s 236 game career as an offensive coordinator or head coach his running back room has averaged 24.32 carries, 103.95 rushing yards, 0.85 rushing touchdowns, 5.16 receptions (7.10 targets), 45.06 receiving yards, and 0.28 receiving touchdowns per game, the clear lead back of the team has a lot of value.

We’ve seen running backs such as LeGarrette Blount (RB – FA) in 2016 have monster fantasy seasons in McDaniels’s offense when they get the majority of the carries, and it’s certainly looking like Harris is going to be the bell-cow on the ground for the team. Add in an offensive line that is once again projected to be one of the best in the league and you have all the ingredients for Harris to outperform his current draft ranking.

James Conner (RB – AZ): ADP RB38
His teammate Chase Edmonds (RB – AZ) has the higher ceiling on paper with his pass-catching ability but it looks like James Conner will be put in the better spot to capitalize on his draft value. He’s projected to take on the role Kenyan Drake (RB – LV) had last year as the between the tackles & goal-line back considering he broke tackles on 20.1% of his touches and had 27 red zone carries that he took for 68 rushing yards and six touchdowns. In this role for the Cardinals last year, Drake had 56 carries inside the 20 (4th most in the NFL) and finished as the RB12 in standard, RB14 in 0.5 PPR, and RB16 in PPR.

In addition, James Conner has been pretty productive when he’s healthy. Last year he finished as RB25 in standard (10.0 fantasy PPG), RB26 in 0.5 PPR (11.3 fantasy PPG), and RB27 in PPR (12.7 fantasy PPG) and in each of the last three seasons, he has seen at least 116 carries and caught at least 34 passes. Conner is going near his floor right now (RB38), and could potentially be a cheap RB2.

Kenneth Gainwell (RB – PHI): ADP RB62
Kenneth Gainwell is a very good late-round pick because he will immediately see playing time with his pass-catching ability. During the 2019 college football season, Gainwell caught 51 passes for 610 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns (14 games). Given Miles Sanders (RB – PHI) dropped 13.5% of passes thrown his way last year, Gainwell should take over this role rather quickly.

The second thing to like about Gainwell is his running-back friendly coaches. Over the course of his 48 games as the Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator, new Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni saw his RB room average 24.08 carries, 110.33 rushing yards, 0.83 rushing touchdowns, 5.85 receptions, 7.31 targets, 42.42 receiving yards, and 0.17 receiving touchdowns per game. And over the course of new offensive coordinator Shane Steichen’s 24 games as the Los Angeles Chargers offensive coordinator, his RB room averaged 24.08 carries, 99.33 rushing yards, 0.54 rushing touchdowns, 8.29 receptions, 10.17 targets, 67.46 receiving yards, and 0.21 receiving touchdowns.

Both coaches rank in the top 10 in running back opportunities per game and have seen pass-catching backs thrive in their offenses: Nick Sirianni with Nyheim Hines (12.1 fantasy PPG in PPR in 2020), and Shane Steichen with Austin Ekeler (RB – LAC) (16.5 fantasy PPG in PPR in 2020). Kenneth Gainwell projects to be the best fit for the pass-catching role in this offense. Clearly, there is some potential value in this backfield.

Lastly, Kenny Gainwell has gotten some positive reviews out of Eagles’ training camp. Quarterback Nick Mullens (QB – PHI) has said that Gainwell has “done a great job and he’ll keep getting the ball”. Rookie teammate Zech McPhearson said that Gainwell is “really shifty. He’s definitely good with the ball in his hands.” There have also been reports that Gainwell has seen the most touches in the passing game of the Eagles running backs in training camp and Gainwell has talked about how he loves “the opportunity I can get being split out, being a pass catcher as a running back. A guy that can just go out and run routes out of the backfield.” Everything is looking great for Gainwell going into 2021 and you should keep him on your radar late in fantasy drafts.

Qadree Ollison (RB – ATL): ADP RB85
Qadree Ollison is more of a sleeper for 16+ team leagues, but still worth mentioning in his article. As of right now, Ollison is the RB2 on the Atlanta Falcons. Given the current starter, Mike Davis (RB – ATL) is 28 years old and has been a journeyman/backup his entire career, there is a decent chance that one of the other Atlanta Falcons backs takes over the starting job at some point during the 2021 season.

Ollison has the 6’1”, 228-pound build that makes him the most likely to handle a majority of the goal line touches and between the tackles carries if Davis is unable to go or simply not performing up to expectations. He’s worth a dart throw in deeper leagues.

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Eli Grabanski is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Eli, check out his archive and follow him @3li_handles.

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