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Identifying Running Back Value in the Middle Rounds of Your Fantasy Draft

RB2’s That Have RB1 Potential

Running backs might be somewhat devalued today with so many leagues starting three or four wide receivers and adapting PPR scoring, but it’s the relative scarcity at the position that makes the fantasy RB slot perhaps the most valuable position in fantasy football.

Last year, “Zero-RB” was all the rage, and there was value to be had by waiting to address your backfield. But with the emergence of rookie stars like Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard and the championship-winning dominance of three-down studs like David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell, that same strategy won’t work in 2017.

In fact, early ADP data has as many as five or six running backs going in the first round. Throw in the tendency of fantasy drafters to have a short memory, and elite running backs are going to continue to occupy Round 1.

This will have two main effects. First, there will be early value as top-notch wide receivers slip down the board. And secondly, many of us will have to hold off on running backs after we pile up on this terrific wideouts.

That means there will be a premium on targeting RB2-type of runners beginning in the third and fourth round of redraft leagues this draft season. So using current ADP data and my early 2017 Running Back Fantasy Rankings, let’s look at some second-tier running backs that could return RB1 value this season.

Marshawn Lynch

Oakland Raiders

Marshawn Lynch RaidersWhen last seen Lynch stumbled down under four yards-per-carry and only played seven games for the Seahawks and their haggard offensive line. That was 2015. Lynch retired, sat out last season, then decided to come back to play for his hometown Raiders.

What makes Lynch an intriguing play for Oakland is that massive offensive line, which Football Outsiders ranked as one of the best in football. Last year, Jalen Richard rushed for 5.9 ypc, and DeAndre Washington 5.4 behind that line. Meanwhile, pedestrian talent Latavius Murray has been down at 4.0 yards-per-tote for two straight years behind that same line- yet Murray scored 12 touchdowns last season.

If Murray can hit paydirt a dozen times in this offense, a well-rested Marshawn Lynch should easily be able to produce weekly RB2 numbers.

Marshawn Lynch Career Stats
Year TM G Rush Yds Y/G Avg 100+ TD Rec Yds TD
2007
13 280 1115 85.8 4 3 7 18 184 0
2008
15 250 1036 69.1 4.1 3 8 47 300 1
2009
13 120 450 34.6 3.8 0 2 28 179 0
2010
16 202 737 46.1 3.6 0 6 22 145 0
2011
15 285 1204 80.3 4.2 6 12 28 212 1
2012
16 315 1590 99.4 5 10 11 23 196 1
2013
16 301 1257 78.6 4.2 3 12 36 316 2
2014
16 280 1306 81.6 4.7 5 13 37 367 4
2015
7 111 417 59.6 3.8 1 3 13 80 0

Isaiah Crowell

Cleveland Browns

In each of his three seasons, Isaiah Crowell has increased his carries and receptions. As a pass catcher, Crowell is an underrated factor. In fact, he was ninth among running backs in targets last season and finished with a healthy 40 grabs.

But it’s as a runner that Crowell is an intriguing fantasy option. According to Pro Football Focus, Crowell was third in the NFL in yards-after-contact last season, and he averaged a robust 4.8 yards-per-carry behind Cleveland’s mediocre line.

Now the Browns made a real effort to improve their O-line, and Crowell is set to finally eclipse 200 carries and, if the trends continue, should catch over 40 passes. If he can keep up his current touchdown pace in 250 touches, Crowell will approach RB1 status.

Isaiah Crowell Career Stats
Year TM G Rush Yds Y/G Avg 100+ TD Rec Yds TD
2014
16 148 607 37.9 4.1 0 8 9 87 0
2015
16 185 706 44.1 3.8 1 4 19 182 1
2016
16 198 952 59.5 4.8 4 7 40 319 0

Spencer Ware

Kansas City Chiefs

Spencer Ware was a bit of a disappointment last season, as he missed a couple of games and his touchdown numbers were cut in half. After the Chiefs spent a third-rounder on Kareem Hunt, some analysts felt that Hunt could challenge for the starting role.

According to Rotoworld, a local Chiefs beat writer said Ware would command the most carries and act as a feature back. It’s a bit early, but a resounding vote of confidence is reassuring, and head coach Andy Reid has vocally supported his fourth-year veteran.

Look for Ware to bounce back this season and produce on nice return on his current mid-round fantasy draft investment.

Spencer Ware Career Stats
Year TM G Rush Yds Y/G Avg 100+ TD Rec Yds TD
2013
2 3 10 5 3.3 0 0 0 0 0
2015
11 72 403 36.6 5.6 1 6 6 5 0
2016
14 214 921 65.8 4.3 1 3 33 447 2

Bilal Powell

New York Jets

Powell might be the biggest steal of the 2017 season. Powell was the RB17 in PPR leagues in 2016, despite getting fewer touches than teammate Matt Forte. Powell was far more effective than Forte, and heading into 2017, he’s expected to command the lion’s share of both carries and targets from his 32-year-old teammate.

The Jets might be one of the five worst teams in the league, but that doesn’t mean they can’t produce some nice fantasy production. With a limited group of wide receivers, New York could easily give Powell 20+ touches per game. Combined with his excellent receiving ability, that puts Powell into PPR RB1 territory.

People are starting to figure this out, as Powell’s ADP has been creeping up. Still, in the early stages of the 2017 fantasy draft season, he’s an excellent bet to outproduce his draft slot.

Bilal Powell Career Stats
Year TM G Rush Yds Y/G Avg 100+ TD Rec Yds TD
2011
2 13 21 10.5 1.6 0 0 1 7 0
2012
14 110 437 31.2 4 0 4 17 140 0
2013
16 176 697 43.6 4 1 1 36 272 0
2014
15 33 141 9.4 4.3 0 1 11 92 0
2015
11 70 313 28.5 4.5 0 1 47 388 2
2016
16 131 722 45.1 5.5 2 3 58 388 2

Mike Gillislee

New England Patriots 

This one doesn’t come without an element of risk- but all of fantasy football does really…especially this late. By prying Gillislee- who led the NFL with a healthy 5.7 yards-per-carry average- away from Buffalo, the Patriots shrewdly both hurt their AFC East rivals by signing away a key contributor and replaced LeGarrette Blount, who led the NFL with 18 scores last season, with a much better and younger player.

Gillislee, who scored eight rushing touchdowns in just 101 totes last season for the Bills, is expected to be New England’s lead back and command most of the first-and-second down carries. More importantly, he’s in prime position to cash in New England’s frequent red zone trips with a high touchdown role.

The risk here is that the Patriots somehow bring Blount back into the fold, or use Rex Burkhead or even James White in that capacity. Still, Gillislee’s power and already well-established scoring prowess make him a very intriguing addition to any fantasy backfield, and one with a ton of upside in the 9th or 10th round.

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New beginnings….#tunnelvision

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Mike Gillislee Career Stats
Year TM G Rush Yds Y/G Avg 100+ TD Rec Yds TD
2013
3 6 21 7 3.5 0 0 0 0 0
2015
5 47 267 53.4 5.7 0 3 6 29 0
2016
15 101 577 38.5 5.7 0 8 9 50 1

Other mid-round rushers that offer significant upside: C.J. Anderson, Samaje Perine, Ameer Abdullah, Paul Perkins, Derrick Henry

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