Fantasy Sleepers

Jody Smith’s Most Undervalued Fantasy Running Backs of 2016

Sleeper Running Backs

The days of loading up on three-down, bell-cow running backs to power your fantasy squad to a ground-oriented championship are long gone. In fact, the pro and fantasy games have become so pass-heavy that running backs are now disregarded almost as much as tight ends used to be.

Jody Smith’s Early RB Sleepers for 2016

The days of loading up on three-down, bell-cow running backs to power your fantasy squad to a ground-oriented championship are long gone. In fact, the pro and fantasy games have become so pass-heavy that running backs are now disregarded almost as much as tight ends used to be.

That indifference to rushers leads to nice value for savvy drafters to exploit. Everyone knows to grab the handful of remaining workhorse backs that rack up playing time and fantasy stats, but after those guys are gone, we need to be able to recognize potential bargains in the next tiers of tailbacks.

Looking beyond the first couple of rounds, here are some running backs that you’ll want to focus on trying to add to your fantasy squads this season.

Ryan Mathews

Philadelphia Eagles 

Ryan Mathews FantasyWhen it comes to overlooked starting running backs that can be had in the middle rounds, Ryan Mathews looks like a good bet to exceed his ADP. Last year, Mathews quite simply outplayed DeMarco Murray. In fact, Murray finished the season as the No. 8 running back in terms of efficiency, and was No. 3 in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA).

Now that Chip Kelly is in San Francisco, the Eagles pace will slow down, and that will lead to more carries for Mathews. New head coach Doug Pederson will install a West Coast Offense that looks like a favorable fit for Mathews skill-set.

And since the new regime in Philly didn’t bring in any competition until adding fifth-round West Virginia rookie Wendell Smallwood, Mathews’s role as the main runner on first and second downs looks relatively secure. At 220 lbs., Mathews also looks like the best bet to be the short-yardage and goal line runner of choice.

Mathews has his own checkered injury history, but boats a career 4.47 yards-per-carry total, and has shown to be an underrated pass-catcher, though Smallwood and incumbent Darren Sproles are expected to be much more involved in the passing game. As long as he can stay healthy, Ryan Mathews looks like a solid choice as an RB2/3 target in the middle rounds of 2016 fantasy drafts.

The aforementioned Wendell Smallwood is also an appealing late-round flier who has a chance to carve out a role in training camp. Keep an eye on his development and pounce if he beats out Sproles for Philly’s RB2 role.

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Duke Johnson

Cleveland Browns 

Duke Johnson BrownsUpon accepting the head coaching gig in Cleveland, noted offensive guru Hue Jackson stated that Johnson and teammate Isaiah Crowell were “as good as I’ve seen in a while.” That’s high praise from a coach that has led his teams to finish 2nd, 7th, 6th and 13th in rushing yards, and 2nd, 7th, 2nd and 4th in rushing touchdowns.

In short, Jackson is a smart coach that understands that he needs to adapt his offenses to fit his personnel, rather than forcing players to adjust to a scripted system. In particular, Jackson likes to commit to strong a rushing attack, and believes two quality runners are better than one.

That leads us to Johnson, who exceeded expectations as a rookie last season for a moribund Browns offense. Johnson was limited to 379 rushing yards, but made up for that by chalking up 74 targets as a receiver. Johnson’s 61 receptions and 534 yards were both top-5 numbers for running backs.

Expect Jackson to utilize Johnson and Crowell in a similar manner as he used Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard in Cincinnati. Duke Johnson should be featured heavily in the passing game for Cleveland, and will be primed to once again be an undervalued RB2 in fantasy.

Along with Duke Johnson, Isaiah Crowell could also be an interesting sleeper candidate as the first and second down banger, but Crowell can be had much later in drafts. 

LeGarrette Blount

New England Patriots 

LeGarrette BlountThe value in spending a late-round pick on Blount isn’t necessarily about what the Patriots have done to improve, it’s about what they didn’t do. Namely, they didn’t draft a competent replacement, or add any big-bodied back via free agency.

That means Blount’s role as the first and second-down runner and between-the-tackles grinder should be secure for at least one more season. Blount will be the back of choice for a team that spends a lot of time in the redzone. In fact, no team has rushed for more touchdowns over the past decade than New England.

Dion Lewis should be back to take on his role in the passing game, so Blount isn’t likely to produce a ton of PPR points, but what he can do is grind out another season of 600-800 rushing yards and 6-8 scores, which is pretty good production for a running back that is largely being ignored in redraft leagues.

C.J. Spiller

New Orleans Saints

CJ SpillerAfter severely falling below lofty expectations last season, few fantasy owners want anything to do with C.J. Spiller, who is largely going undrafted in many early fantasy drafts. With a mere 351 yards from scrimmage in his New Orleans debut, it’s easy to see why Spiller is maligned.

But looking deeper, Spiller actually played a pretty significant role in the passing game. Despite a knee injury that quietly affected him all year and ultimately limited him to 13 games, Spiller still caught 34 balls for the Saints, including a memorable game-winning long touchdown reception in Week 4.

Spiller’s injury-hampered pace last year would have put him at 41 grabs, a number that would have put him in the top 15 in the league. The Saints have always used their backs as pass-catching weapons, first with Reggie Bush and then with Darren Sproles. Spiller is in that same mold, and fully healthy could easily exceed four receptions per game.

He could also see a larger role as a ball-carrier behind starter Mark Ingram, who has missed 3+ games in four of his five career seasons. Spiller was a dangerous change-of-pace runner in Buffalo who averaged 4.97 yards-per-tote for the Bills and was always just a play away from taking it to the house.

If given more of an opportunity with the Saints, Spiller is quite capable of rekindling some of that big-play magic, and with a ADP that is criminally low, there’s almost no downside to throwing out a late-round pick on a high-upside player in a favorable, and fantasy-friendly situation.

Other Running Back Sleepers

Latavius Murray was called “much maligned” by Rotoworld, but he finished the 2015 season as the No. 10 scoring running back in PPR leagues and the Raiders waited until the fifth round to address depth behind Murray in DeAndre Washington, who might take away some receptions, but is unlikely to get many carries in an offense that is on the verge of breaking out. Murray looks like a solid RB2.

Don’t forget about how good Arian Foster has been when healthy. If Foster manages to sign with a quality offensive team (think New England or Indianapolis) he could be a huge steal with an ADP that is in the middle rounds and falling.

The Seahawks are being noncommittal about the health of starting RB Thomas Rawls. The club spent three late draft picks on other runners, but it’s C.J. Prosise who is expected to take over on passing downs and as a change-of-pace runner in the Fred Jackson mold. Prosise looks like a good candidate to catch 35-40 balls right out of the gate.

Consider second-year rusher Tevin Coleman a high-upside hand-cuff. Recall that it was Coleman who began 2015 as the starter before going down with an injury that opened the door for Devonta Freeman to star. Coleman was this regime’s draft choice and chosen starter, but has been usurped. However, Freeman’s play tailed off in the season’s second half, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the two Falcon rushers enter into a committee. It also wouldn’t be a shock to see Coleman reclaim the starting gig at some point.

Houston rookie scatback Tyler Ervin is going to be an interesting, and potentially dangerous option as a slot receiver and weapon out of the backfield for a team that is really trying hard to transition into a fast offense.

Detroit’s Zach Zenner looked great in the 2015 preseason and with Joique Bell no longer with the club, Zenner is the favorite to act as the between-the-tackles big back for the Lions. Bell scored 16 touchdowns for Detroit from 2013-14 in a similar role.

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