Identifying Sleepers - Running Backs
By Jeff Tefertiller
June 15th, 2010

As we stated in the earlier articles, fantasy owners are eternally searching for the next emerging sleeper candidate. All fantasy owners want to be the one that discovers the next big thing. This is the third installment of a series that explores how to find sleepers in your fantasy league. We will examine sleepers at the running back position. This position is the most important in fantasy football and the most difficult to find sleepers. Since every league is different, this series will concentrate purely on standard scoring, 12-team leagues. The methodology of looking for running back sleepers will be the same as it was for the quarterback position. We will try to find players that meet at least one, hopefully several, of these rules. Below is the list that will be employed to identify sleepers:

  • A player cannot be considered a sleeper if you never would start the player given any circumstance in a normal league.
  • The potential sleeper must be able to produce at least two starting levels higher than pick used (i.e., WR5 has to have ability and situation to produce at WR3 level, if not better). There is no need drafting a back as RB4 on your team that can only hope to attain RB3 status. For quarterbacks, one starting level is enough.
  • The very best sleepers rely on few other things to happen. A NFL RB2, who only needs one injury (or to outplay one player) is more attractive than one who is a RB3 or even RB4, regardless of talent.
  • Every sleeper is judged purely based on potential outcome versus pick used. This is relatively simple - it is a matter of risk versus reward.
  • Fantasy owners need to look for anything that has changed in situation: changes in teams, changes in personnel in front of player, changing in coaches, etc.
  • One key for future breakout can be the points per game stats for an injured player from the year before.
  • Now, let's start exploring the running back position for sleepers. We will break these down by their draft position (ADP), and look at the options. First, let's look at players drafted as fantasy RB3s who are not drafted in the top 30 backs. We will only consider those that are capable of landing in the Top 20, possibly Top12, at season's end. In last year's article, we identified Cedric Benson, Tim Hightower, and Darren Sproles as potential sleepers. Benson had an ADP of RB31, but finished as RB16 ... a very solid fantasy RB2. Hightower finished as RB23 but had a RB41 ADP. He, too, was a fantasy RB2 at a great price. Sproles outplayed his ADP but still only finished as a low-end third fantasy back at RB35 overall. It was good to "hit" on all three and garner two fantasy starters at great prices. Can we do so again?

    1. Fred Jackson finished the 2009 season as RB15 but is being drafted as RB32 after the Bills' selection of C.J. Spiller in April's NFL Draft. The reason for optimism for Jackson is that he, not Spiller, is the better runner between the tackles and will get the larger share of the carries than the rookie. Jackson has produced when given the opportunity and offers versatility in the receiving game. The new offense employed by coach Chan Gailey will move Spiller all over the field to take advantage of his speed and talent. But, it should be Jackson who leads the team in carries and rushing yards. Also, with a Marshawn Lynch trade seemingly likely, Jackson would be the main beneficiary. He is a steal as RB32 off draft boards.
    2. Justin Forsett is being selected to be fantasy teams' fourth running back but has high upside. With an ADP of RB47, Forsett is being under rated. Of the current ball carriers in Seattle, Forsett has the best chance to break out. While many question his ability to carry a heavy workload, Forsett has been productive when given a chance. He has only had four games where he carried the ball ten or more times. In those four contests combined, Forsett carried the ball 63 times for 397 yards and three rushing scores. He also added nine receptions for 54 yards in those games. Those are fantasy RB1 numbers with an average of only fifteen carries per game. New Seahawks coach Pete Carroll knows how to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers. Julius Jones and Leon Washington are the only other running backs in Seattle. Jones is a shadow of his overrated past. Washington may struggle getting back onto the gridiron quickly. He has a rod in his surgically repaired leg after a nasty compound fracture. Many look at Forsett's size (5'8", 194 pounds) and think he is "small". Forsett, like Maurice Jones-Drew, is short, but definitely not small. Jones-Drew is better running between the tackles than Forsett, but the time for minimizing Forsett for his size has passed. He is a good fantasy option this season.
    3. Michael Bush is also being drafted as a RB4, but has a legitimate shot at finishing the season as a fantasy starter. His ADP of RB41 is very inexpensive for a ball carrier who should be the leading rusher on his team. Justin Fargas is no longer an Oakland Raider, leaving just Bush and Darren McFadden to carry the load. McFadden has not proven he can be consistent or productive over the course of a season. Bush is in position to rack up the carries this season. The added stability at quarterback, with the addition of Jason Campbell, will only help the Raider offense sustain drives and score more often. Bush is a bigger back, able to punish defenders but is quick enough to break some long gains.

    Each of the above ball carries has a good chance to be in the Top 20 fantasy backs if given the opportunity. They are good sleepers as a fantasy RB3 or RB4 with plenty of upside. Now, we will look at backs drafted as RB5, but can finish in the Top 24 (fantasy RB2) if the situation provides.

    1. Bernard Scott is entering his second season with the Cincinnati Bengals. The team only has Scott and starter Cedric Benson at the position. Scott should see meaningful touches this season, especially on third downs and obvious passing situations. He only logged 74 carries as a rookie and should see his role expanded with Larry Johnson now playing in Washington. Benson carried the ball 301 times last year, the most of any season so far in his career. Even if Benson duplicates this workload, there are plenty of surplus touches available for Scott. Johnson and Scott combined to tote the rock 152 times last year. Scott is talented and could be a fantasy starter, even with only 152 carries. There are other viable fantasy starters who carry a similar workload. Pierre Thomas, for example, has yet to carry the pigskin 150 times in a professional season, and he has twice finished seasons as a fantasy RB2.
    2. With an uncertain future, Marshawn Lynch has an ADP of RB51. While he is a huge risk because of the nonsense exhibited last season, there is great upside. Even with the troubled 2009 season, Lynch finished as RB49. This is after finishing as RB12 and RB15 his first two seasons, respectively. These good years in 2007 and 2008, running behind ineffective offensive lines, illustrates the great value for this pick used on Lynch. Drafting him as your fantasy RB5 means that there is little invested, yielding potentially great value. In addition, as noted above, there is growing optimism that Lynch will be traded out of Buffalo. This is good news for perspective fantasy owners. There are several good situations for him to land and regain his hold as a fantasy starter. This is the time to get Lynch at a great price.
    3. Javon Ringer is being drafted as the 70th back off the board so far this offseason. He is a great gamble in the last rounds of a fantasy draft. Ringer was drafted in the fifth round of the 2009 NFL Draft even though the Titans had Chris Johnson and LenDale White coming off good seasons. They must have seen something they liked. A year later, Tennessee traded White away for virtually nothing. This leaves Ringer as the sole backup to Johnson. The Titans' star carried a heavy burden last season, touching the ball more than 400 times on offense, with 358 carries and 50 receptions. There is no way the club can continue to give Johnson that type of workload and expect him to hold up. Expect Ringer to get carries each game and be the primary beneficiary if something were to happen to Johnson. Those wondering if the 5'9", 205-pound Ringer is himself big enough should check out his college numbers. Ringer carried the ball a whopping 390 times as a senior at Michigan State. Yes, that number is correct. The Spartans ran their star back an average of 30 times a game ... and he did not disappoint. Ringer did wear down under the large number of carries, but is back healthy. He is a great sleeper this season, not to mention Chris Johnson insurance.

    Fantasy football owners are encouraged to draft safe and solid RB1 and RB2 for their teams. The place to take a chance on a sleeper comes with RB3 and later. The above backs have the ability and situation to make their owners very happy.

    Please feel free to email me at tefertiller@footballguys.com with any questions or comments. You can also find me on Twitter.