The difference between winners and losers in Fantasy Football can often be attributed to a keen attention to detail. While other players are zoning out towards the tail-end of drafts debating which kicker or defense they’re going to take, this is the perfect time for you to pick up the steal of the draft and grab that elusive late round gem. Running backs are constantly a premium commodity in fantasy football, and today we are going to take a look at eight late-round running backs worth stashing at the end of your draft.
Data for average draft positions (ADP) is courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator and is subject to change as we get closer to the regular season.
Average Draft Position: 12.06
While all the attention in the Bengals backfield is focused on how Joe Mixon will handle a larger workload in his sophomore season, Giovani Bernard is currently being overlooked. Bernard has been a solid contributor in an otherwise unimpressive backfield for the Bengals in recent years.
Since entering the league in 2013, Bernard has averaged a solid 4.2 yards per attempt on the ground. Where Bernard has truly stood out however and should continue to see work regardless of Mixon’s presence is in the passing game. Football Diehards Podcast host, Justin Lonero, made a solid note on Twitter that Bernard sits behind only Le’Veon Bell, Matt Forte and DeMarco Murray in running back reception totals over the last five seasons.
There are plenty of backs in the league now who fit that “pass catching specialist” template. When looking at their average points per game (PPG) over the last four seasons, Bernard stands out as a tremendous value. Here’s a look at where players with similar roles sit at the end of June based on their average PPG and ADP:
- Chris Thompson: 9.8 PPG / 7.02 ADP
- Duke Johnson: 10.9 PPG / 8.06 ADP
- Theo Riddick: 10.9 PPG / 12.01 ADP
- Giovani Bernard: 11.9 PPG / 12.07 ADP
Bernard has an average rank of RB25 over the last four years in PPR leagues, which makes his expert consensus ranking of RB47 on FantasyPros.com incredibly low. Even in Bernard’s 10-game 2016 season he still managed to finish as RB40 in PPR leagues. Mixon didn’t exactly run away with the starting job last season, averaging just 4.4 yards per touch while Bernard managed 5.7 yards per touch, which was good for sixth best amongst running backs last year, per PlayerProfiler.com.
While Mixon does have the skill set to be a potential three-down back, it’s hard to imagine the coaches just kicking Bernard to the curb. When looking at the landscape of players at the end of the drafts, Bernard offers an especially enticing upside. He can slide right into a flex spot in deeper leagues and also will serve as an extremely valuable handcuff in the event that Joe Mixon were to go down with an injury. If you’re looking to go with the Zero RB strategy in drafts this season, Giovani Bernard is your guy.
Average Draft Position: 11.10
There has been a big shakeup in the backfield for the Detroit Lions this offseason. New head coach, Matt Patricia, added fellow-former Patriot, LeGarrette Blount to the mix. The team also spent a second-round draft pick on Auburn running back, Kerryon Johnson. While these moves should spell disaster for perennial fantasy sleeper, Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick’s role should remain safe.
Riddick is one of the leagues top pass-catching running backs on a team that has ranked top-2 in passing percentage in each of the last three seasons, per FFToday.com. Last season, Riddick flashed some impressive elusiveness by ranking sixth amongst all running backs in juke rate, per PlayerProfiler.com.
Riddick has managed to finish inside the top-26 running backs in PPR leagues in each of the last three seasons. We saw his ceiling in 2016 when he averaged 16.2 PPG in PPR leagues, which was eighth best amongst RB’s that year. You’ll also see above that Riddick’s average PPG over the last four years (10.9) are still on par or higher over the last four years than those of Duke Johnson (10.9) and Chris Thompson (9.8), who are being drafted well before Riddick.
The biggest problem with running backs like Theo and his friends here is consistency. These guys are generally vulnerable to game flow and can see their roles vanish on a week-to-week basis. They’re also smaller-bodied backs, making them more susceptible to injury. It’s not worth risking a mid-round pick on someone like Chris Thompson this season when you’ve got essentially the same player in Theo Riddick waiting in the 12th round.
A great strategy that I have used constantly with players like Riddick is packaging him in trades with another player to try and secure someone with a more consistent role. Look for teams with shallow RB depth and try your best to make a deal. Selling high on Riddick after a big game mid-season is a great way to get the most out of your investment in the late rounds of drafts.
Average Draft Position: 13.04
We barely hit the tip of the iceberg in the first season of the Kyle Shanahan era for the 49ers last year. The spotlight is on Jimmy Garoppolo as he enters his first full season with the team after an impressive end of season performance. The team also went out and gave running back, Jerick McKinnon, a 4-year, $30 million deal. But there’s another running back you may want to set your sights on this season towards the end of your fantasy football drafts.
Shanahan’s most recent claim to fame is his “creation” of the Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman combination from when he was the offensive coordinator for the Falcons. In 2016, Freeman and Coleman ranked RB6 and RB19 respectively in PPR leagues under Shanahan. Could we see similar production this season from Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida?
While McKinnon’s current ADP has soared into the range of where you would potentially find a workhorse back, that workload simply isn’t likely for him. McKinnon has never seen more than 159 carries in a season. What’s more troubling is when you look over the last two seasons where McKinnon had his highest carry totals of his career (159 and 150), he only managed 3.4 and 3.8 yards per attempt those years respectively. If the Vikings believed in McKinnon to successfully handle a large workload, they wouldn’t have gone out of their way to sign Latavius Murray and draft Dalvin Cook in the second round last season. They also wouldn’t have made McKinnon battle jobbers like Matt Asiata for carries in previous years.
Matt Breida came on strong towards the end of last season and could be the perfect complement to McKinnon in what will likely end up more of a committee scenario. Breida managed double-digit carries in only five games last season, but responded with 4.7 yards per attempt in those opportunities. Breida also quietly logged five top-25 finishes amongst running backs last season despite his smaller workloads. When looking at the stacked 2017 rookie running back draft class last season, Breida actually posted the highest SPARQ score among all eligible participants. He also ran a lightning-quick 4.39 40-yard dash speed, according to Rotoworld.com.
Everyone is expecting a big jump in offensive production this year for the 49ers, but there really aren’t any proven playmakers on offense outside of Pierre Garçon. And honestly, Garçon is more of just a solid possession receiver than a big playmaker. There is kind of a blank canvas here, somewhat similar to the new offense the Colts are trying to rebuild. Matt Breida can make a name for himself if he can prove to be a versatile weapon on offense for Shanahan to use. Breida comfortably beat out last season’s fourth-round draft pick, Joe Williams, for RB2 duties in Santa Clara last season and could be a steal in this year’s fantasy drafts if he lives up to his unavoidable Tevin Coleman comparison.
Average Draft Position: 14.09
Funny how it was about this time last year where Spencer Ware was a presumed feature running back, and Kareem Hunt was barely working his way onto sleeper lists. The tides sure have turned as a Ware went down for the season with a tear to his PCL/LCL while Hunt went on to lead the league with 1,327 rushing yards.
Ware proved the year before however that he could also be productive with a sizable load. He totaled 921 yards and three touchdowns on 214 carries over a 14 game span in 2016. Ware also managed 33 receptions for 447 yards and two more TD’s. That was all despite being slowed by a mid-season concussion that apparently left lingering effects all season.
When comparing Ware and Hunt, there is no doubt that Hunt is the better player here. He has a very firm grasp on starting duties in this backfield. But something that did raise an eyebrow that FantasyPros.com writer, Mike Tagliere, mentioned on Twitter was that “Even though Kareem Hunt tallied just one carry in Week 17, he finished with 90.7 percent of the team carries in 2017. Just four running backs have cracked the 79 percent mark over the last three years.” So, you have to assume there may be some wiggle room for Ware to mix in as long as he bounces back from his injury well. That, and as long as he is able to hold off newcomers Kerwynn Williams and Damien Williams (no relation).
What you are really banking on by selecting Ware as a running back to stash at the end of your draft is his handcuff value. If anything happens to Kareem Hunt this season, Ware would immediately lock back into RB1 duties. Spencer Ware is slightly more valuable than your run of the mill handcuff however since you know he can deliver solid numbers.
Average Draft Position: 14.03
Every season we doubt Frank Gore. Whether he’s too old or his offensive line stinks, its always something. But guess what? The guy proves his doubters wrong every year. Sure his yards per attempt have dipped below 4.0 each of the last three years. But the guy was still toting the ball an average of 261 times per season over the last three years with the Colts. He also averaged 33 receptions per season during his three-year stint with the Colts and totaled 19 total touchdowns.
So now, let’s focus on what is negatively impacting Gore this season. He’s been shipped off to a very appropriate place for an elderly running back; Miami, Florida. While the warm weather and humid conditions at his condo in Del Boca Vista should do wonders for his achy joints, the crowded backfield he is now facing in Miami will not be quite as welcoming. Gore will be fighting off Kenyan Drake, who is coming off a breakout season. There is also former Arizona State running back, Kalen Ballage, who was selected in the fourth round of this season’s rookie draft. To put this age gap into perspective a little bit, Kalen Ballage was only 9 years old when Gore entered the league in 2005.
While Drake did have success in a larger role last season, he is still unproven beyond that and was forced into a timeshare with Damien Williams at first last year until Williams got hurt. That, paired with the fact that the team brought in Gore and took Ballage in the middle of the draft has to cause a little concern for Drake’s overall workload.
Gore showed he still had some wiggle last year as he ranked 12th in evaded tackles and 16th in yards created (yards generated by the runner after the first evaded tackle) amongst running backs last season, per PlayerProfiler.com. He also managed eight weekly top-25 running back finishes last season in fantasy. Gore has totaled over 1,200 yards from scrimmage in every season since 2006 and has been selected into the Pro Bowl five times in his illustrious career. It’s hard to imagine him coming to the Dolphins just to ride the pine.
Gore has defied the odds every year after he crossed the dreaded “30-year old running back” mark and could very likely do the same again this season. While training camp will give us a better idea of what kind of usage the Dolphins have in mind for Gore, his current ADP in PPR leagues makes him a solid stash at the end of drafts to bolster your running back depth.
Average Draft Position: 11.03
Nyheim Hines has actually seen his ADP creep up a little higher than I had anticipated when I first started looking into the former NC State running back. Hines has already generated a good deal of hype after impressing beat writers and coaches alike during minicamp. Hines was noted as being amongst the most active players on offense, lining up as a slot receiver and out wide along with his usage out of the backfield. Hines has also been tabbed for usage in special teams as a kick returner. Opportunity is King when looking for production in fantasy football.
The only downside that needs to be noted about all this fluff regarding Hines recently is that he was likely more active in minicamp because the team was without incumbent starting running back, Marlon Mack. Mack is currently recovering from shoulder surgery. It wasn’t revealed until after the draft that apparently Mack played his entire rookie season with a torn labrum.
Nyheim Hines flashed an incredible 4.38-second 40-yard dash at this year’s combine. His best comparable player according to PlayerProfiler.com is C.J. Spiller. While that may seem like a kiss of death for Hines, Spiller was able to manage some pretty amazing numbers in Buffalo before fading into irrelevance. While Hines does possess a versatile skill set, he doesn’t fit the mold of an every-down back at only 5’8″ and 198 lbs.
Marlon Mack has size on his side at 5’11” and 210 lbs, but inconsistent production last season left a lot of questions heading into his sophomore season. The torn labrum could help explain his 3.8 yards per attempt last year. Mack was a little dependent on breaking big runs last season to pad his stats, as he had five games with a single run of over 20 yards. At the moment, a committee is expected to form between Hines and Mack. The only wild card in the mix is former Ole Miss running back, Jordan Wilkins, whom the team selected one round after Hines.
As with everything in Indianapolis, the entire offense’s production will live and die by what type of player Andrew Luck will be if/when he makes his triumphant return to the field. Things are looking up right now. With Luck under center, Hines could thrive on an offense completely devoid of proven playmakers outside of T.Y. Hilton and, dare I say, Jack Doyle? Hines is a high upside late round stash, especially in PPR leagues, who gives me a little bit of an Alvin Kamara Light feeling deep in my gut.
Average Draft Position: Undrafted
Austin Ekeler is a player who provides some very intriguing upside at the end of drafts. At the moment, Ekeler is going undrafted in most 12-team mock drafts. This is kind of a fitting scenario for a running back who also came into the league as an undrafted talent. While so much stock is put into college credentials at this time in the preseason, it is not everything. Just ask Arian Foster, Joe Perry or Priest Holmes; all running backs who took the league by storm despite being undrafted out of college.
While it would be a stretch to say that Ekeler is about to join that elite group of legends, he did prove last season that he could hold his own in today’s NFL. Ekeler proved to be a versatile weapon averaging 5.5 yards per attempt on the ground along with plus pass catching ability. His 1.33 fantasy points per opportunity ranked 10th best amongst all running backs last season, according to PlayerProfiler.com. Where Ekeler really stood out last season was his nose for the end zone, having scored five total touchdowns on only 74 total touches. While Ekeler is due to see some regression in the touchdown category, it is a testament to his extreme efficiency.
Melvin Gordon is still the unquestioned workhorse in the Chargers stable, but Ekeler proved that he could push Gordon last season and should earn more work. Last season, Ekeler actually out-scored Gordon in three separate weeks and finished as a top-3 running back in Week 10.
What has helped keep Gordon afloat is his usage in the red zone and being force-fed targets in the passing game. This is a perfect example that all you need is extreme volume at average production to be a top running back in fantasy football. The downside to Gordon’s massive workload is that he has had trouble staying healthy and producing solid numbers consistently all season.
There is a gaping hole in the Chargers passing game as 114 targets have been vacated by the departure of tight end Antonio Gates and injury to Hunter Henry. With unproven replacements currently at tight end and unreliable wide receivers outside of injury-prone Keenan Allen, Ekeler could look to capitalize there.
Ekeler’s immediate value lies as more of a handcuff in the event of an injury to Melvin Gordon. But, Ekeler showed well enough last year that he can be a huge asset in a change-of-pace role. He could be a legit candidate for a Duke Johnson type of role where he see’s 75-80 carries and closer to 75 targets in the passing game.
The Chargers offense ranked top-4 in offensive yards per game last season, but bottom-10 in rushing yards per game. A clear indicator that Gordon isn’t quite getting the job done. Watch how Ekeler battles rookie, Justin Jackson, in training camp to get a better feel for his usage. At the moment, however, Ekeler is a great late round stash.
Average Draft Position: 13.02
What if I told you that you can grab a player at the end of your draft who has ranked top-6 in rushing touchdowns each of the last two seasons? Because with Latavius Murray, that’s what you get. Things may look a little different in the Vikings backfield this season with Dalvin Cook returning from a torn ACL, but does that really mean that Murray will be completely cast aside?
Latavius Murray finished last season as the RB20 in standard leagues despite the fact that he didn’t really start mixing into the backfield rotation heavily until Week 5. Murray also achieved RB20 numbers despite splitting the backfield with Jerick McKinnon all season. When looking at Murray’s red zone usage, he ranked top-5 in carries inside the 20-yard line and goal-line carries last season. There isn’t a whole lot of wiggle to Murray’s game as a very North-South runner, but the guy gets the job done and is a bruiser at the goal line.
While Murray likely won’t see as much opportunity with Dalvin Cook in the mix, some research does point the other direction. First, we have to look at the fact that Cook only lasted four games last season before going down with an injury. If this is a sign of things to come, Murray could be a league-winning handcuff if Cook gets hurt again, especially now that McKinnon isn’t with the team.
The second thing that is interesting is that offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo, has been involved in offenses that operate committee running back scenarios over the last three seasons. Jess (@majesstik1) has also pointed out on his amazing projections and notes on Twitter that the most carries by an RB1 on an offense JDF has been a part of was only 185 by Isaiah Crowell in 2015.
While Dalvin Cook obviously has the skill set of an every-down back and proved he could be very productive with a full workload, you have to think there is still room for Latavius Murray to get his. 10-12 touches per game is probably a fair estimate for Murray to start, but his real value lies immediately in him keeping his role in the red zone. Murray provides more value in standard leagues as he isn’t really useful in the passing game, but would be an immediate RB1 in the event of another Dalvin Cook injury.
DeMarco Murray – Murray is still a free agent at the time of this article being written. If you are active early in best ball leagues or any type of early drafting format, Murray is a steal in the late rounds. Despite looking like he had slowed down last season and everyone throwing in the towel on him, he still finished as the RB20 in PPR leagues last year. Murray declined a tryout with the Saints recently and is being smart and selective by waiting for a bigger role. This all but guarantees he lands somewhere where he can likely return RB2 or Flex value at worst in fantasy leagues. The long period of time spent as a free agent may cause a misperception of Murray’s actual value in drafts for the upcoming season. Stay tuned to see where he lands and we will follow up as soon as he signs.
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Thanks for Reading
John Ferguson is an avid fantasy football fanatic with 10+ years of experience in competitive leagues and DFS. Ferguson specializes in draft strategies, trade negotiations (Buy Low/Sell High), DFS value picks, and sports betting amongst other parts of football analysis. He follows the Oakland Athletics closely as a diehard fan and enjoys spending quality time with his beautiful wife and three children. A native of Monterey, California, Ferguson now calls Quintana Roo, Mexico home.