Early fantasy running back sleeper ideas
The NFL combine. Free agency frenzy. Already the 2017 season looks wildly different than the 2016 season Players moved, retired, and some are still stuck in limbo.
And yet it’s never too early to start placing your flag on some of the bargains for the upcoming season.
When it’s this early, I go directly to the stats. I look for players that didn’t get the volume, whether that be due to team composition or injury, but who still put up great averages. It’s the spark, the statistical images of hope, that grab my attention.
And then I look at situation. All players need volume to be fantasy relevant on a consistent basis. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the running back is an every-down bell cow, those players won’t be sleepers. But it does mean that the player needs a specific role. That’s why I put some pairings in this article. These duos are going late in drafts but will have a fantasy impact.
Here are some early sleeper running backs that you should keep in mind as the off-season progresses. I took my ADP data from Fantasy Football Calculator and as always, my stats from Pro Football Focus.
Frank Gore, Indianapolis Colts (Current overall ADP: 57, 25th RB)
Every year I write at least one piece where I tell readers that Gore going too low in drafts. Every year I’ve been right. Since his sophomore season in 2006, Gore has produced at least 1,000 total yards of offense every single year. In 2016, he rushed for 1,025 yards and four touchdowns and caught 38 passes for 277 yards and four additional touchdowns. Oddly enough, 2016 was his best year as a receiving back since 2010. He’ll be 34 years old at the beginning of the season. He only averaged 3.9 yards per carry in 2016 and 3.7 in 2015. He isn’t going to be the No. 1 running back in the league, but he will be one of the most consistent RB2/flex options on the board. If you want to take risks elsewhere, Gore is a steady player you can take late.
Danny Woodhead and Terrance West, Baltimore Ravens (ADP: 104/166, 41st/56th RB)
I am incredibly surprised that Woodhead’s ADP is as low as it is. The big Oswelier/Browns trade overshadowed quite a bit of free agency, but the Ravens landing Woodhead was a big deal. It was also a bit of a head-scratcher for the Kenneth Dixon believers, until the team announced that Dixon would be suspended for the first four games due to violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Last season Woodhead tore his ACL and was on the sidelines for most the season. In 2015, he led all running backs with 80 receptions for 755 yards and six touchdowns. He finished that year as the 3rd highest scoring running back in PPR leagues. This year he’ll play with a different team and he’s 32 years old. To expect him to be a top-five fantasy option is a stretch, but you can pencil him in for landing in the top-20, maybe even top-10, especially in PPR formats.
I’m also bringing Terrance West into the conversation because there was an assumption toward the end of last season that Dixon was the de facto starting running back of the future. Not only does the suspension put a literal pause on that being a reality, but this opens the door for West to make some noise. Last season Dixon averaged 4.3 yards per carry, 2.9 of which came after contact. His 87.3 PFF elusive rating was the second-best in the league among running backs who played in at least 25 percent of their team’s offensive plays. But West wasn’t exactly a scrub. He averaged 4.0 yards per carry, 2.6 yards after contact. The real problem for both players was that they didn’t get the volume. Between the two of them, they only averaged 17.56 carries per game. It’s a weird situation that got weirder with the Woodhead signing, but if West gets the first crack at being on the field, and continues to have a low ADP, he’ll be very useful for fantasy players.
DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, Oakland Raiders (ADP: 190/NR, 61st/Not ranked RB)
Richard’s ADP falls outside of the overall top-200. That is absurd. The Oakland Raiders let Latavius Murray walk, so that means (for now at least) it is Washington and Richard time. And yes, I’m excited. Richard had the No. 1 PFF elusive rating of 2016 at 90.7. On 83 carries he forced 21 missed tackles. On 29 receptions, he forced seven missed tackles. Seven of Richard’s 83 carries went for 15 or more yards, 40.9 percent of his total yardage came from those breakaway runs. But right behind him was Washington. Seven of Washington’s 87 carries went over 15 yards and 37.7 percent of his production came from breakaways. Imagine if these two players could get more than 100 carries apiece… We’ll have to wait and see how the landscape changes through camp as to who will be the main ball-carrier, but for now, both players offer a lot of fantasy production and are going entirely too low in drafts.
Mike Gillislee, Buffalo Bills (ADP: 99, 39th RB)
Gillislee’s value will drop because people are worried about the new regime in Buffalo. Rex Ryan was unceremoniously removed late last season, the team took out the pool table and the coaching staff is all about sticking to business. And bringing in their own guys. Gillislee recorded 627 yards and nine total touchdowns on 110 touches in 2016. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry for two seasons in a row. This season he averaged 3.3 yards after contact, the third-most in the league among running backs with at least 75 carries. Sure, the Bills signed fullback Patrick DiMarco and fullback-plus Mike Tolbert in free agency, but neither of those backs will offer the kind of efficiency that Gillislee offers. And yes, LeSean McCoy is the undisputed bell cow, but Gillislee is at worst the best handcuff in the league, and at best, a complementary goal-line back that could win you your league at the flex position like he did in 2016.
The NFL Draft will come at the end of April and more changes will occur, but for now, these guys are on my list.