Under-the-radar backup RBs who could wind up with fantasy value
To handcuff or not to handcuff has long been debated in the fantasy community, and I’m not here to sell or sway you on the merits. You don’t need me or anyone to tell you that Tevin Coleman or Derrick Henry would have immense value if Devonta Freeman or DeMarco Murray were to be sidelined for an extended period. But if we’re drafting a player in the single-digit rounds, that’s not so much a “handcuff” as it is a player we’re simply counting on to produce standalone value as a potential weekly lineup option.
So with that being said, in this space you won’t find names like Coleman, Henry, Duke Johnson, C.J. Prosise, Kareem Hunt, or even Darren McFadden (whose current ADP is a topic in and of itself). Instead, these are 10 running backs currently available in the double-digit rounds of fantasy drafts that offer RB2 or flex potential in a true handcuff scenario.
As a quick aside, during the season I’ll be bringing back the Handcuff Index and running a weekly “On the Radar” series, honing in not just on fluid backfield committee situations but also spotlighting deeper names at WR and TE. We’ll break down cues from usage and performance trends using PFF signature data to identify those lightly owned players who may be on the cusp of fantasy relevance, or next up in the event of an injury. The aim, of course, is to unearth the most worthwhile roster stashes before the mad dash to the waiver wire, so you can know to let everyone else rush after Michael Pittman while you simply insert Earnest Graham.
(*All ADP data is from Fantasy Football Calculator 12-team PPR settings)
Ty Montgomery was truly electric with the ball in his hands last season. He’s also virtually impossible to project in terms of his 2017 workload (hence his inclusion on my most overvalued list). The former wide receiver logged double-digit carries in only one game last season, and Williams – one of three running backs the Packers drafted – has already been pushing Montgomery for first-team reps. A productive runner between the tackles at BYU, Williams earned the No. 5 run grade in this year’s draft class and was No. 2 in blocking grade. Conversely, Montgomery’s 64.6 blocking grade last season ranked 49th among RBs, and protection can’t be understated when it’s Aaron Rodgers in the crosshairs.
I’ve been wrong about this for like five straight years, but Frank Gore has to break down at some point, right? Here’s the thing: the ageless wonder did show signs he was beginning to fade in 2016, as his pedestrian 15.8 elusive rating ranked next-to-last among 53 qualified RBs. The fact that the Colts had the highest percentage of rushing yards before contact (51.9 percent) yet Gore averaged only 3.9 YPC illustrates that there was meat left on the bone. He’s also now 34 and has averaged 294 touches over the past 11 seasons. Enter rookie Mack, a human highlight reel out of USF whom coach Chuck Pagano recently said “jumps off the tape.” Mack ranked fifth in this year’s draft class in breakaway percentage (52.3 percent) and 12th in elusive rating (93.4).
Nobody has touched the ball more than LeSean McCoy (2,085) since 2010. And last season, only the Dallas Cowboys ran the ball more times than the Bills did behind their unstoppable run concepts. You may be only vaguely familiar with Williams, who now replaces Mike Gillislee as McCoy’s primary backup. After all, Williams sat out all of his 2015 season at Arkansas due to a foot injury, which sapped his draft stock last summer. But the previous season, he led the nation in missed tackle rate (once every 3.2 rushes). A favorite best-ball option of mine and many of my peers, Williams shined in his first preseason action last week and, more importantly, he finally retired that awful No. 40 jersey in favor of a more palatable No. 31.
Foreman won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back after rushing for 2,028 yards this past year at Texas. A big-bodied back with some finesse (forced 64 missed tackles on 323 attempts), Foreman was drafted by his hometown Texans to spell Lamar Miller on early downs (he also led this year’s RB draft class in pass-blocking efficiency). If nothing else, his ADP makes for an enticing hedge for those not quite sold that Miller can blossom in the Texans’ zone-blocking scheme. Given a career-high workload of 299 touches last season, Miller finished 49th out of 53 qualifiers in elusive rating and posted the lowest fantasy points per opportunity of the top-20 fantasy RBs.
Alfred Morris, Dallas Cowboys
Darren McFadden enters his age-30 season coming off yet another injury-riddled season, although he is currently going off draft boards in the eighth round. Let someone else in your league take that bait, and instead take a flier on Morris five rounds later. While Morris comes with his own question marks, he carries much less risk given his ADP. And for what it’s worth, Cowboys reporter Todd Archer recently said it is possible Morris winds up with more touches, although Dallas could very well go with a committee if and when Ezekiel Elliott serves his six-game suspension. For their careers, Morris has averaged more yards after contact (2.6 to 2.4) and logged more 1,000-yard seasons than McFadden despite playing four fewer seasons, and he’s never ran behind a line like the Cowboys’.
Hometown hero and cancer survivor Conner was drafted by the Steelers in the third round to replace DeAngelo Williams. Although Conner still must work his way up the depth chart after a hamstring injury and then a sprained shoulder limited his practice reps, he recently returned to action and has been hitting the juke stick to embarrass defenders. Earlier this summer, I tabbed Conner as a deep sleeper rookie, largely due to the fact that Williams was given a bell-cow workload when called upon to sub in for an injured Le’Veon Bell. Before battling a torn MCL and a Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis, Conner trailed only Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon in PFF grade in 2014.
We’re into dart-throw territory now and are looking for that potential winning lottery ticket with our final non-kicker/DST pick. With the Eagles recently releasing (as expected) Ryan Mathews and LeGarrette Blount having a quiet camp, Smallwood’s name is an interesting one to monitor. Darren Sproles’ role won’t change, but Smallwood is a former collegiate standout who has been running like a man possessed in padded practices and could certainly work his way into consideration for the Eagles’ open early-down gig. Smallwood led the Big 12 in rushing in 2015 and did catch 68 passes over the course of three years at West Virginia, where he earned the sixth-best run grade of the 2016 draft class and ranked fifth in pass-blocking efficiency.
Richard didn’t just average 5.9 YPC as a rookie, he was PFF’s most elusive runner and was second in both yards after contact (3.6) and missed tackle rate (once every 4.1 rushes). Seven of his 83 carries went for 15 or more yards, and his primary hurdle to a bigger piece of the pie, Latavius Murray, is now in the North Star State. However, fantasy drafters have been rather bullish on Marshawn Lynch, drafting Murray’s replacement as a fringe RB1/RB2. The obvious caveat here is that Lynch is now 31 years old and was out of football last year after his body failed him in 2015. The “Beast Mode” moniker is well earned, of course, considering Lynch has broken 66 more tackles than the next-closest RB since 2013 – and that includes his year off. But can he still withstand the punishment that his running style invites?
Nothing to see here, right? Especially with a wrist injury that will keep second-year Booker out until right around the start of the season. Considering how pedestrian he looked for much of his rookie season, it’s easy to forget that he did lead the Broncos in rushing. It’s also easy to forget that Denver averaged a league-worst 1.15 yards before contact per attempt last season. The Broncos’ front office spent the offseason reconfiguring the O-line, which could feature four new starters. Mike McCoy also returns for his second stint calling the offense in the Mile High City, and he’ll replace some of Gary Kubiak’s zone blocking with power-blocking concepts. Our draft analysts saw lead-back potential after Booker posted the third-best overall RB grade in the 2015 draft class despite running behind a Utah OL that didn’t create much yardage before contact. A few months back, I laid out the case for Booker as a post-hype sleeper, which you can check out here.
I’ll double down on another one of my late sleeper rookies and give a shout out to UDFA Breida, who is already working as the 49ers’ second running back, ahead of summer buzz rookie Joe Williams. Breida, this year’s SPARQ star of the NFL draft, shined in his preseason debut, holding up in pass protection and pacing all RBs last week with six forced missed tackles. Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee observed that Breida had more highlights than Williams (and oft-injured Carlos Hyde) at spring practices, with Barrows noting Breida’s pass-catching ability in particular, an area that Williams was not asked master at Utah. Kyle Shanahan has been known to feature multiple running backs, but he’s also not shy about leaning heavily on a late-round rookie (see Alfred Morris’ 1,613 rushing yards as a sixth-round rookie in 2012).