Running Back Sleepers (2022 Fantasy Football)
I’m constantly amused at the impassioned debate that occurs every year over terminology in fantasy football. One of the biggest flash points is the term “sleeper.”
You can’t write an article or a Twitter post calling a player a sleeper without at least one person taking issue with it in the comments. “Hey, that guy isn’t a sleeper. EVERYONE knows to draft him!” “He’s not a sleeper, he’s a breakout!” Etc, etc.
It’s all very serious stuff, apparently.
That being said, I do think it’s helpful to lay out some guidelines for what I consider to be a sleeper. If I led off this column by talking about everyone’s favorite preseason darling, Dameon Pierce, I’d be sure to face some blowback. Pierce currently sits at RB30 in Average Draft Position — and he’ll probably be even higher soon — so let’s set the cutoff at RB40. Besides, if I was going to hype an RB going in the RB35 range, I’d much prefer it to be Rhamondre Stevenson, who I believe has legitimate top-12 RB upside.
If you want to hear my case for Stevenson, toss me a line on Twitter and we can talk it out. In the meantime, here are my favorite sleepers at the position, currently going RB40 or later.
If you want to dive deeper into fantasy football, be sure to check out our award-winning slate of Fantasy Football Tools as you navigate your season. From our Start/Sit Assistant – which provides your optimal lineup, based on accurate consensus projections – to our Waiver Wire Assistant – which allows you to quickly see which available players will improve your team, and by how much – we’ve got you covered this fantasy football season.
Look, we all love Breece Hall. He was pretty clearly the most talented rookie running back in this draft class, and his future is bright. But everything we’ve seen and heard coming out of Jets camp has pointed to Hall beginning the year on the short end of a committee with Carter serving as the lead back.
Perhaps Hall will make some headway on Carter as the season progresses, but as it stands, Carter is the one with the best shot to provide RB2 value in the early going. In the seven weeks of the 2021 fantasy season in which Carter played at least 50 percent of the snaps, he finished as the RB29, RB23, RB19, RB1, RB32, RB13, and RB16 in 0.5 PPR formats. That’ll work.
Between injuries, Covid, and backfield competition, Henderson’s 2021 campaign was a bumpy ride. But make no mistake: when he served as the Rams’ lead back, he was a very valuable fantasy contributor. In the 10 games from Weeks 1-12 where he played 60+ percent of the snaps, Henderson finished as a top-20 fantasy RB seven times — and a top-5 RB twice. Even when counting two late-season games where he hardly played, Henderson finished as the RB19 in fantasy points per game in 0.5 PPR formats (min. 10 games).
Henderson ultimately lost the starting job to Sony Michel, and then to a returning Cam Akers. But Michel is no longer around, and Akers has been hampered by a soft tissue injury that has put him a little bit behind Henderson, who has dealt with a similar issue of his own. Sean McVay has deemed both players “good to go” for Week 1, but it is no slam dunk that Akers will play ahead of Henderson. Akers returned from a torn Achilles faster than anyone could have anticipated, but he didn’t show the same explosiveness as he had before the injury and averaged fewer than 3.7 yards per carry in all five of his appearances in 2021.
When both have been healthy this summer, Akers and Henderson have split first teams reps pretty evenly, suggesting McVay will once again go with a hot-hand approach. That makes Henderson the far superior value at ADP, with the potential to earn RB2 value once again this year.
Some of the air has come out of the Pacheco hype balloon now that Ronald Jones has made the Chiefs’ 53-man roster, but I’m sticking with the rookie.
A seventh-round draft pick who didn’t put up big numbers in college at Rutgers, Pacheco may not have the resume of a future star, but we should all know by now that running back production often comes from unheralded players. Pacheco has earned rave reviews in Chiefs training camp, drawing comparisons to former Chief Kareem Hunt, among others. He’s also been getting plenty of reps with the first-team offense, including on passing downs, where he is sometimes deployed in the slot.
But this isn’t just a bet on Pacheco himself. It’s also a bet on the Chiefs’ offense as a whole — and a bet against Rojo and Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
It used to be taken as an article of faith that Andy Reid produces elite fantasy RBs, but Kansas City hasn’t had a top-20 fantasy RB since Hunt back in 2018. Maybe, just maybe, that has something to do with Edwards-Helaire, who simply hasn’t looked like a first-round talent over his first two NFL seasons. The answer to improving this middle-of-the-road rushing attack is also unlikely to come from Jones, who performed erratically during his four years in Tampa Bay, did not see time with Kansas City’s first-team offense during the preseason, and reportedly made the 53-man roster by the skin of his teeth.
There is still an upside to be found in the Chiefs’ backfield, and Pacheco is the one who possesses it.
I was driving the Mostert train even before the Dolphins cut Sony Michel, and now his path to RB2 value is even clearer.
Chase Edmonds is technically the top back in Miami, and he is a skilled player who should perform well for fantasy managers. But Edmonds does not profile as a bell-cow back who will handle a heavy rushing workload. A good portion of his usage will come through the passing game.
That leaves plenty of rushing work available to Mostert, one of the fastest players in the NFL. Mostert appeared in just one game during his final season in San Francisco due to a Week 1 knee injury, but he was extremely productive on limited snaps during the prior three seasons. From 2018-2020, he rushed 275 times for 1,554 yards and 11 TDs, averaging 5.65 yards per carry. He finished as the RB26 in fantasy points per game in 2020 and the RB24 in total points in 2019 despite only playing 55 percent or more of the snaps in four games.
You could argue that a big part of Mostert’s rushing success in San Francisco was due to run-game mastermind Kyle Shanahan. But new Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel comes directly from the Shanahan school, having served as an offensive assistant under Mike and Kyle Shanahan for most of the last 17 years, including the last five years with Mostert in San Francisco.
Yes, Mostert is 30 years old and brings a lengthy medical history to the table, but if you believe there are any NFL running backs who don’t come with injury risk, I’ve got a fine bridge to sell you down in the Florida Keys. You won’t find a stronger Week 1 fantasy option who comes cheaper at the draft table.
You could replace Wilson’s name with Tyrion Davis-Price or even Jordan Mason, depending on the latest news blurb from our hard-working News Desk at FantasyPros. This pick is less about the player and more about the situation.
If you dismissed Wilson as a mediocre talent, you likely missed out on the 119 total yards and a touchdown that he put against the Falcons during the fantasy playoffs last year. And his epic three-touchdown game against New England in 2020. And the back-to-back two-touchdown games he registered in 2019. And the back-to-back games with 96+ yards that got his career up and running in 2018. You get the point.
Elijah Mitchell is the clear lead back in San Francisco at the moment, but that job title is always written in pencil with Kyle Shanahan at the helm. Add in Mitchell’s long list of maladies and Shanahan’s penchant for rotating backs, and San Francisco’s backup RB becomes a must-roster player. Davis-Price may have been a Day Two pick in this year’s draft, but 49ers beat writers seem to believe Wilson is firmly established as the team’s RB2. He’s in the mix for RB3/flex value right out of the gate and could be an RB1 if Mitchell were to go down.
There have been few hotter topics on NFL training camp social media that the health status of JK Dobbins, who is now more than a year removed from tearing his ACL last summer. It’s gotten to the point where two people can look at the same video and draw opposite conclusions, like a Rorschach test. Even Dobbins himself has weighed in to vehemently deny that he is walking with a limp.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh has continually said that Dobbins is progressing, but he’s remained non-committal on his top running back’s status for Week 1. Even if Dobbins does suit up, he’s unlikely to shoulder a heavy workload early in the season.
The Ravens have finished as a top-three rushing offense in all four seasons that Lamar Jackson has been their quarterback. This year, they’ll reportedly re-commit to the run-heavy game plan they employed in 2019 when they rushed for nearly 1,000 more yards than any other team. Yes, Jackson himself will be responsible for a good chunk of that production, but there are few backfields in the league that project to be as effective on the ground as Baltimore’s. Whoever is leading the Ravens in carries should provide weekly RB2 value, at worst.
For a while, it looked like Dobbins’ direct backup would be Mike Davis, but then the Ravens also brought Kenyan Drake on board. Drake was woefully underutilized by the Raiders last year, but he put up nearly 1,100 total yards and 10 TDs for the Cardinals in 2020, good enough to finish as the RB14 in 0.5 PPR formats. He is simply a more dynamic player than Davis, and although Las Vegas miscast him as a passing down back, he is more than capable of running between the tackles and at the goal line. Those are critical skills to have on a team that doesn’t frequently throw the ball to its running backs.
Drake will have to play catch-up with the playbook before he can overtake Davis but expect it to happen sooner than later. Once it does, Drake will have a similar stash appeal to Jeff Wilson as the direct backup to a starter with elevated injury risk in one of the league’s premier rushing offenses.
Sony Michel (RB – LAC)
Austin Ekeler is a terrific player in both fantasy and reality, but he is not built to be a true everyone-down workhorse. The Chargers seem to recognize that fact. After failed experiments with Joshua Kelley, Larry Rountree, and Isaiah Spiller, they may finally have found a back in Michel who is capable of effectively spelling Ekeler.
While Michel hasn’t quite turned into the star that fantasy managers were hoping he would be when the Patriots took him in the first round in 2018, he has rushed for at least 845 yards in three of his first four seasons in the league, despite limited playing time. He did some of his best work at the tail end of last season, assuming bell cow duties for the Rams over the final six weeks of the regular season and providing fewer than 3.7 yards per carry over that stretch.
In L.A., Michel has an excellent opportunity to earn a sizable share of the early-down, between-the-tackles rushing work, including at the goal line. In what projects to be one of the league’s best offenses, that should be enough of a role to create some RB3/flex appeal, and if Ekeler were to go down, Michel’s value would shoot up even higher.
You’d be forgiven for wanting to skip past the section on Burkhead. Am I really recommending a 32-year-old backup running back on the Texans? Why yes, I am.
While everyone and their mothers have been falling head over heels to draft Dameon Pierce, Burkhead’s positioning on the depth chart has gone completely overlooked. Houston has parted ways with Marlon Mack and now has only Dare Ogunbowale and Royce Freeman on the roster behind Pierce and Burkhead.
While Pierce is obviously the first Texans RB that should be drafted in fantasy leagues, Burkhead does look set to begin the season as Houston’s passing down back. That could be a sizable role on a team that had fewer than 3.7 yards per carry last season — and a defense that allowed the sixth-most points to opponents.
Unless the Texans drastically improve on both sides of the ball, we can expect to see a lot of negative game script again this season. That could mean a lot of Burkhead playing over Pierce, much to the frustration of fantasy managers across the land. Burkhead can absolutely eke out some RB3/flex value in PPR formats, and he has as good a shot as anyone to assume early down duties if Pierce were to get injured.
These guys don’t each get their own blurb, but they are some of the top pure lottery tickets to keep tabs on in 10- and 12-team leagues. While it is unlikely that any of them provide consistent standalone flex value, they each have a relatively clear path to RB2 value if their teams’ starters miss time. Each currently sits second on his team’s depth chart, with the exception of Johnson, who is the third back for a potent Browns rushing attack that should be able to support two fantasy-viable RBs at any given time.
If you like what you see here, you can get more of my thoughts on draft-day values, waiver wire pickups, buy-low/sell-high candidates, rest-of-season player values, and more by subscribing to fewer than 3.7 yards per carry and going to ROSrankings.com. I’m also always happy to talk about anything fantasy-related on Twitter @andrew_seifter.
If you want to dive deeper into fantasy football, be sure to check out our award-winning slate of Fantasy Football Tools as you navigate your season. From our Start/Sit Assistant – which provides your optimal lineup based on accurate consensus projections – to our Waiver Wire Assistant – that allows you to quickly see which available players will improve your team and by how much – we’ve got you covered this fantasy football season.