Three Buzzworthy RBs
Buzz is an interesting thing when it comes to fantasy football. Every offseason, as August rolls around, certain players start to pickup buzz in the fantasy football community. Different factors like fantasy writers who find positive trends, beat writers creating fluff pieces, and quotes from coaches and teammates all play a role in each player picking up buzz.
Sometimes the buzz is warranted and sometimes it is not, but either way, you will have to pay more to acquire one of these players. As I’ve preached on multiple occasions, winning in fantasy football is all about drafting for value. Every player has a true value, and it is up to you to gauge that value and avoid overpaying for a player who has picked up too much buzz.
In this piece, we will look at three running backs who have not received much buzz at all thus far. That’s a good thing, though, because they actually do deserve your attention. For different reasons with each player, the fantasy community has not caught on yet. If you’re in a dynasty league, target them now if you don’t own them, and guard them closely if you do. For redraft and keeper leagues, keep them on your radar from this point on.
I’ve broken them down into categories: an overlooked veteran, a post-hype sleeper, and an under the radar young talent.
The Overlooked Veteran
There wasn’t a single 2013 auction that I participated in, mock or real, where any owner spent even 5 percent of their budget on Thomas. Even after the season had finished, I’m still not sure people realize where Thomas finished in 2013, while posting career highs in reception (77), receiving yards (513), and receiving touchdowns (3). Meanwhile, in half point PPR leagues, which are trending and becoming more popular with each passing year, he finished as the 19th-best running back, or a back-end RB2. Turn those scoring settings into a full point PPR and he finishes as the 16th-best, or mid-level RB2. In either setting, Thomas provided an incredible return on the meager investment his owners shelled out.
Because Thomas is not flashy, his strong finish in 2013 is likely to be overlooked in 2014 drafts. It may surprise you to hear that Thomas is quite effective with the ball in his hands independent of his blockers. Last season, Thomas finished with the 18th-best elusive rating (42.2) out of all running backs who played 25 percent or more of their team’s snaps. He also forced 21 missed tackles on his 147 carries, but even more impressive were the 22 missed tackles he forced on just 77 receptions.
Thomas’ value derives primarily from his role as a pass-catching back, and he’s quite excellent at it. Thomas caught 77 of his 82 targets, only dropping three passes all season, as the other two were charted as “uncatchable”. He finished with the eighth-highest YPPR (1.70), which measures the number of yardage a running back picks up on a per route basis.
Most importantly, Thomas’ role in the passing game is set to grow. Last season, Thomas was charted with 310 snaps in route, which is an increase from the 220 he ran in 2012 and the 206 he ran in 2011. The extra pass routes led to a major increase in targets, as he saw a bump to 82 total target in 2013, after being targeted just 45 and 55 times in the two seasons before.
Last season, Darren Sproles racked up 71 catches on 86 targets and 265 total snaps in route. While some have previously speculated that rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks might take over Sproles’ role, head coach Sean Payton threw cold water on that idea at his OTAs press conference when he confirmed that the team views Cooks strictly as a wide receiver. This leaves the door open for Thomas to see an increased amount of snaps in route, which should lead to more targets and more receptions.
Thomas seems likely to provide a major return on your investment in half and full point PPR leagues.
The Post-Hype Sleeper
Wilson doesn’t fit the bill as a classic post-hype sleeper, because his role has gotten worse heading into 2014. The Giants added Rashad Jennings and underrated rookie Andre Williams at running back this offseason. However, Wilson’s surrounding situation has actually improved. In addition to several depth signings, the Giants also added two new starters along the offensive line, including projected left guard Geoff Schwartz, who finished as our eighth-best guard overall in 2013.
The real hope for Wilson derives from new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and the offensive system he has created. The first set of OTAs this past week gave us our first glance at what the new Giants offense might look like. Beat writer Jordan Raanan came away with this overall observation of the offense—“west coast based featuring plenty of 11 personnel, three-step drops, quick-timing horizontal patterns, and screens.” It would seem fair to assume that this offensive scheme is based on the idea of getting the ball out in space to the skill position players who can make yards happen after the catch.
There is a now a glimmer of hope that McAdoo will utilize Wilson as an offensive weapon in space, something we have seen work very effectively for many running backs with a similar skill-set to his. Before the offensive line collapsed in 2013, there was a lot to be excited about with Wilson based on his production in 2012. Back in 2012, Wilson displayed the fifth-best breakaway percentage in the NFL (48.3), turning six of his 71 carries into gains of 15 yards or more, totaling 173 yards. He also has the ability to make people miss in the passing game. On Wilson’s four total receptions in 2012, he forced three missed tackles. If utilized in plays designed to get him the ball in space, like a screen pass, swing pass, or wheel route, Wilson has the breakaway speed to turn it into a touchdown.
This Wednesday, Wilson will undergo an MRI that will confirm whether or not he is cleared for contact. The results are hard to predict, but he is confident from what he’s heard thus far that he will be good to go. If cleared, he could provide great value, especially in PPR formats.
The Under-The-Radar Young Talent
As I write this, Cowboys beat writers and new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan have already started to drop puff pieces and quotes about Dunbar. That is to be expected though, as they continue to search far and wide for any kind of silver lining for the team’s 2014 prospects after Sean Lee’s season-ending injury in OTAs. There’s still time however, and Dunbar’s hype will cap out at a certain point anyway due to his perceived role and the fact that he’s still an unknown.
From a talent standpoint, Dunbar is a lot more effective with the ball in his hands than you may have thought. He first caught my eye against the Raiders last season with his ability to explosively accelerate through his cuts. Check it for yourself in this highlight clip.
Although he only had 37 touches on offense, he made the most of them, taking his 30 carries for 150 yards and his 7 receptions for 59 yards. Dunbar had an incredible 3.77 Yco/Att (yards after contact per attempt), which was good for sixth-most in the NFL. He also registered our fifth-best elusive rating (112.0), while adding 11 missed tackles on his 37 total touches. There is clearly some untapped potential here.
Aside from potential, he enters the 2014 season in a sneaky good situation. Recency bias will have some owners forgetting that before last season, Demarco Murray had been injured every single year of his career dating back to high school. Murray’s upright running style leaves him prone to injury.
Even if Murray does make it through the season unscathed, Dunbar has a real chance to make an impact on passing downs and in specific offensive packages. Linehan’s offense has featured two back systems, as recently as last season with Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. Bryan Broaddus of Cowboys.com claims that Linehan has already fallen for Dunbar’s skill-set. Get on board before the hype starts to catch up.
If you want to know any of my other evaluations on skill position players, continue the conversation, or yell at me for someone I missed, you can find me on Twitter @DanSchneier_NFL.
Editor’s Note: Be sure to check out our new Mock and Companion Draft Tool! Utilizing our updated player projections, run a quick mock draft and see where this year’s crop of free agents are coming off the board in early fantasy football drafts.