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Deep Sleeper Running Backs to Target in 2017

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Deep Sleeper Running Backs

Every fantasy football season there are under the radar players that come out of nowhere and help their respective owners into the playoffs. Finding a deep Running Back sleeper can win you a championship, but what nowadays, is considered a sleeper?

What is a Sleeper?

“Typically, a late-round pick or waiver-wire selection who exceeds his statistical expectations and becomes a prominent option in fantasy leagues. A sleeper can be a rookie, such as Anquan Boldin in 2003, or a player who has yet to live up to his potential, like Jeremy Maclin. Third-year wide receivers often are good candidates to be sleepers because many take a couple of years to develop” — definition courtesy of NFL.com.

However, this series will cover deep sleepers. A deep sleeper, in my opinion, is a player targeted in Rounds 12 and beyond in fantasy football drafts. The bargain basement if you may.

In part one of this series, we will take a look at some deep sleeper running back targets. If you remember, Chicago Bears RB Jordan Howard, who finished ninth in fantasy scoring amongst RBs in 2016, was primarily an undrafted waiver wire add. He didn’t have an ADP last season. The same could be said of former Buffalo Bills RB Mike Gillislee, who finished 27th in fantasy scoring at his position.

What if you found those gems late in the draft rather than vying for their services with other league owners on waivers? A fantasy season could be made or saved in the latter rounds of the draft. So, let’s take a look at some of my potential late-round studs for the 2017 campaign.

Joe Williams

San Francisco 49ers

Williams was the 121st overall pick (fourth round) in the 2017 NFL Draft by the 49ers. During his collegiate days at Utah, he rushed for 1,884 yards and 18 touchdowns since 2015, with the bulk of his production coming in his 2016 senior campaign (1,407 yards and 10 TDs).

Although the 49ers still employ the oft-injured Carlos Hyde — he’s only played in 34 of a possible 48 career games since 2014 — he appears to have fallen out of favor with 49ers brass before taking a snap with the new regime at the head. He was the subject of trade rumors before the start of April’s draft. While Hyde’s value with the club seems to be dwindling, Williams joins the team as a highly touted commodity. Per CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco, head coach Kyle Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner “desperately wanted Williams and convinced general manager John Lynch to reconsider Williams’ exclusion from the team’s draft plan.” Maiocco also believes the rookie has a “legitimate chance to immediately unseat Hyde as the team’s top running back.”

Even if Hyde enters the 2017 season as the starter, and he is fully expected to, Williams could still see playing time as the team’s top rusher due to the former’s aforementioned injury concerns. Plus, Hyde is entering the final year of his rookie deal. If the 49ers truly view Williams as their future, they’ll likely want to see what he can do on the field in an expanded role, which translates to a greater amount of touches.

At his current 12.09 ADP, Williams could be one of the steals of the draft at running back. Not only could he eventually out seat Hyde as the starter, but he has the full support of the coaching staff. However, although Williams has plenty of upside, he is a rookie that has never taken an NFL snap. Unless the 49ers name him their starter, I’m not reaching for him. I’m content with selecting Williams at his early 12th round ADP.

Jonathan Williams

Buffalo Bills

Jonathan WilliamsWilliams is a relatively unknown player unless you’re a Bills fan. He spent the bulk of his 2016 rookie season stuck behind LeSean McCoy, and Mike Gillislee on Buffalo’s No. 1 ranked rushing attack. He finished the year with 28 touches for 94 yards and a touchdown while appearing in 10 games. Williams was far from a fantasy-relevant asset.

However, in the offseason, Buffalo’s backfield changed. They lost Gillislee, a restricted free agent, to the New England Patriots, receiving fifth round draft pick compensation in return. They also did not address the running back in the draft. In fact, the only notable addition to the position was veteran fullback, Mike Tolbert.

What does this all mean? Well, barring a change in personnel or injury, Williams is poised to open the 2017 season as McCoy’s primary backup, bolstering his fantasy value. Why? Well, let’s go back to Gillislee’s impact behind McCoy in 2016. In 15 games, he received 101 carries for 577 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging a whopping 5.7 YPC. He also added nine receptions for 50 yards and another score as a receiver. Those are solid numbers for a handcuff. Gillislee finished the year as the RB27 in standard scoring formats with 116.6 fantasy points.

On June 29, Williams received news off the field, that will boost his value entering the season. He learned that he would not face disciplinary action from the NFL after being found not guilty stemming from a 2016 DWI charge. Williams avoided a possible four-game suspension as a result.

Currently, Williams holds a 13.07 ADP (157th overall). However, I value him seven spots higher than his RB54 ADP. He is my RB47 in my rankings. I believe he will emulate Gillislee’s 2016 statistical production, give or take a trip across the goal line. With New England’s Dion Lewis (13.08 ADP) and Oakland’s DeAndre Washington (13.10 ADP) behind him, it’s not even close. I would roll with Williams all day.

Darren Sproles

Philadelphia Eagles

Sproles is coming off of an unexpectedly sound 2016 campaign with the Eagles. He rushed for 438 yards on 94 carries and a pair of touchdowns while producing a 52-427-2 stat line as a receiver. It was his best statistical season from a fantasy football perspective since 2012, finishing as the RB30 in standard scoring systems with 110.5 fantasy points.

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Although he entered last season as Philadelphia’s No. 2 RB/ primary receiver out of the backfield, he led all of the team’s rushers with 865 total yards. Why does this matter? Well, he is in a similar situation heading into 2017. He is currently behind LeGarrette Blount as the Eagles’ No. 2 RB on the depth chart, and will likely assume a similar role in the offense as well. Now, the difference between Blount and Mathews is that the former is not as injury prone as the latter by a mile. In fact, while Mathews missed 16 games since the 2014 campaign, Blount only missed four.

Some would think Blount’s presence will completely erase Sproles’ fantasy value. I mean, he is coming off of a 2016 season with New England in which he set career highs in carries (299), yards rushing (1,161) and touchdowns (18). However, keep in mind that Blount will turn 31 on Dec. 5 and could begin to regress due to his age, as the majority of NFL RBs do. He also played in a Patriots system that exploits a player’s strengths, while shadowing their weaknesses. Plus, Blount is nearly invisible as a receiver out of the backfield — he only caught 7 targets for 38 yards in 2016 — whereas Sproles excels in that aspect of the game.

Although the Eagles RB depth chart is crowded with players that include Blount, Sproles, Mathews, Wendell Smallwood and Donnel Pumphrey, I fully expect the veteran scat-back to have another stellar season. For one, although Mathews is still a member of the club, the Eagles are expected to release him once he is medically cleared for football activities to avoid paying him a $1.5 million injury settlement that will count against the salary cap. If and when the Eagles part ways with Mathews, there will be one less mouth to feed.

Sproles presently owns a 14.03 ADP, which is absurd for a player who is the No. 2 running back option in a volatile backfield. Will the Eagles use Blount as their early-down back and Sproles on third, or will they employ an RBBC? In either case, Sproles’ value does not change. He will have a role in the offense, whether it’s solely as the primary receiver out of the backfield or if they involve him on the ground as well. Sproles is my RB39, valuing him 22 spots higher than his RB61 ADP. I am targeting him over Baltimore’s Terrance West (RB44) and Indianapolis’ Marlon Mack (RB50).

I hope you enjoyed the first installation of my deep sleeper series. Stay tuned for part two, which will cover the wide receiver position.

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About the author

Anthony Cervino

Anthony Cervino is a lifelong NFL enthusiast, especially of the Dallas Cowboys. He has been infatuated with the game since childhood and was introduced to fantasy football as a young teen. Back then, the league commissioner typed out the weekly newsletter and used the Daily News to tally scores. In a statistic-driven game of fantasy football, Anthony believes that sometimes you have to rely on that good ole gut instinct. Anthony resides in New Jersey where he lives with his wife, son and a pomeranian that is named Roman (after Tony Romo). When Anthony is not immersed in the NFL or fantasy football related activities, he enjoys bodybuilding and spending time with his family. Anthony is committed to giving you his best analysis and most accurate statistics to help you win championships. Don't hesitate to tweet Anthony @therealnflguru about anything NFL or fantasy-related topics. He will always respond in a timely fashion.

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