10 Undervalued Running Backs With a Ton of Fantasy Football Potential
Fantasy owners are shying away from early-round running backs due to the high bust rate at the position. While these bust rates are true, what many folks fail to realize is that, after Round 5 or 6 of a standard fantasy draft, the bust rates of running backs become exponentially worse.
This, however, doesn't mean that you shouldn't draft running backs in the middle rounds of your fantasy draft. In fact, the numberFire football crew thinks there's still a ton of value to be had at the position throughout Rounds 6 to 12 this season. Take a look.
Terrance West, Cleveland Browns
Sitting at number two on the Browns running back depth chart, Terrance West presents an interesting value on draft day. Backfield mate Ben Tate is being taken nearly three full rounds higher than West in fantasy drafts, and while Tate clearly has the talent to be a lead runner in Cleveland, he hasn't proven to show sustained periods of good health.
In four seasons, Tate's missed an entire campaign due to an ankle injury, three games with a hamstring injury, and was put on injured reserve again at the end of last season with a rib injury. I highly doubt Tate will be able to hold up under the workload of a full-time starter in the NFL.
Currently being taken as the 34th running back off the board at the beginning of Round 8 according to Fantasy Football Calculator, Terrance West has the talent and explosiveness to break out as a rookie even if doesn’t immediately get the starting role in Cleveland. And if things go West's way and he does see 250-touch volume, I like him as a true breakout candidate with RB2 upside in 2014.
Steven Jackson, Atlanta Falcons
A season ago, Steven Jackson was a second-round fantasy selection. After 12 games and 537 rushing yards with his new Falcons team, Jackson finds himself at the end of Round 6 in fantasy drafts according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com.
While many would consider Steven Jackson a geriatric running back with little upside at age 31, I see him as a geriatric running back with an easy shot at 250-plus carries. And any running back in a high-powered passing offense will have ample opportunity to score, which is what Jackson did last year - seven total touchdowns in 12 games, the most he's had since 2008 - despite the Falcons seeing such poor game scripts.
You may be scared off by injury, but when Jackson returned back to reasonable health last year, he competed. And he competed well. From Weeks 12 through 16 (five games), Jackson finished with four top-24 running back performances. He scored 16.9 PPR fantasy points or more in three of those games (top 10 games), with the fourth coming in at 12.9 points. It wasn't so much that he was overly effective - his Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per rush was a bottom-tiered -0.08 - but he scored. And let's be honest, Jackson's never been a running back you love for efficiency. At least now, in Atlanta, his opportunity to score should be plentiful.
Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills
By Leo Howell
Fred Jackson has improved with age, something you can't say about most running backs in today's NFL.
Almost any time fantasy football analysts talk about running backs, they're bringing up the young up-and-comer with "potential" and "opportunity." Which is why a proven producer like Fred Jackson is falling into the 9th and 10th rounds of fantasy drafts.
He'll not receive every carry that the Bills have to offer, because C.J. Spiller is the lead back (for good reason). But he's carved out a role as a top choice to get rushing attempts in a run-heavy offense in Buffalo.
The Bills had a pass-to-run ratio of 1.04 last year, which was the third-most run-heavy in the NFL. Only the Seahawks and 49ers ran the ball more often than the Bills. That's because E.J. Manuel isn't going to be a 40 pass attempts per game kind of quarterback, and the Buffalo stable of running backs is more than impressive.
That includes Jackson, who finished fifth among the 22 running backs with 200 or more carries using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric last season. He's reliable and efficient, something that can't be said about most other backs available in the middle rounds of fantasy drafts.
Pierre Thomas, New Orleans Saints
By Joth Bhullar
Last year, Pierre Thomas finished with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage with 5 touchdowns and 77 receptions. In standard scoring leagues, he ended inside the top 25 at the position, and in PPR leagues, he finished even higher.
With the Darren Sproles and Lance Moore out of the picture, it’s reasonable to expect Thomas’ numbers to spike. While rookie Brandin Cooks may replace some of what Sproles and Moore did last year, there will be plenty leftover in both the passing and running game for Pierre to once again be a productive fantasy player.
Sproles and Moore had 108 receptions between them last year for a total of 1,061 yards, and if Thomas can even capture 10 percent of that production, he'll easily finish in the top 20 at the position, with potential for much more. Sean Payton’s distribution of carries tend to be muddled, but fellow running backs Khiry Robinson and Mark Ingram pose little threat to Thomas’ third-down receiving duties. Thomas is being drafted as the 31st running back off the board according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com, but I'm fine with believing he can be a top 20 back.
Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals
Mining for mid-round value at running back can be a difficult venture. Most options in this range are not clear-cut starters and/or are accompanied by question marks regarding age, health or ability. But a name that stands out to me is Bengals rookie Jeremy Hill.
Giovani Bernard is the first option in Cincinnati, and for good reason. He's an explosive talent capable of ripping off huge gains at any time. And while Bernard has been hyped as a “300-plus total touch” guy by beat writers this off-season, the team spent real draft equity to acquire Hill in the second round of this year’s draft. He’s going to play a role.
Hill’s college production was extremely impressive. In his two seasons at LSU, Hill averaged 6.2 yards per carry and had 28 rushing touchdowns playing the majority of his games against SEC defenses.
Hill is currently the RB42 in 12-team PPR leagues, and the 9.11 pick overall according to Fantasy Football Calculator. If Hill does indeed see 200-plus carries this season he should easily outperform his ADP and provide substantial value for fantasy owners.
Danny Woodhead, San Diego Chargers
It’s almost cliché at this point to call Danny Woodhead underrated and overlooked, and yet here we are with Woodhead going as the 39th running back off the board in standard scoring leagues. This, of course, is happening despite finishing last season 19th in fantasy points among running backs in standard scoring, and 12th in PPR leagues.
Looking more closely at the stats, these numbers don’t come as much of a surprise. Woodhead is quietly one of the most utilized red zone receiving threats in the league, giving him big touchdown potential. His 23 targets in the red zone last year have him tied for seventh in the NFL (across all positions), and only three targets below league leaders Jimmy Graham and Calvin Johnson.
Woodhead also saw plenty of volume last year, posting a career-high 106 carries (despite starter Ryan Mathews playing in all 16 games) and ranking fourth among running backs in targets with 87.
When you combine that kind of touchdown potential and volume with Woodhead’s efficiency (ranked second among running backs in 2013 in Reception Net Expected Points per target, and first in the same category in 2012), you get a player ready for another big year.
Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins
I'm throwing the "s" word around too frequently these days, but I think there's merit in the post-hype type of sleeper. One of my favorites this year is Lamar Miller. I talked about Miller in detail a few weeks ago, and found plenty of reasons to like him.
The Dolphins have a completely revamped offensive line, which will be a year removed from tons of drama and horrid play. And don't forget that Miller's athletic ability vaulted him into the third round last season. You can get him this year in the seventh.
Last year, Miller finished with a Rushing NEP of -17.55, dreadful by all standards. However, the presence of Bill Lazor as the new offensive coordinator suggests the Dolphins should run more like the 2013 Eagles than the 2013 Dolphins.
People will be scared off based on last year and the incoming of Knowshon Moreno, but Moreno is already facing knee problems, is overweight, and may not be ready for the start of the season. Whether you love Miller's style or not, starting running backs are always welcome at just a seventh-round price tag.
Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots
By Sean Wirth
Let me preface my section with this: Everything I’m about to say and argue for is with the hope Stevan Ridley somehow fixes his fumbling problems, even just slightly. Like, maybe, two fumbles. You think you can handle that, Stevan?
Two years removed from a top five rushing season, Stevan Ridley enters Patriots camp as the lead rushing back…again. We all remember Ridley’s breakout 2012 campaign that saw him achieve a total Rushing NEP of 11.25, good for fifth among eligible backs, and a Success Rate of 49.66%, which ranked second. We also remember his downtrodden 2013 year.
But just how bad was Ridley’s 2013 season? From our numbers, it actually wasn’t as miserable as one might think. Ridley had a -0.07 Rushing NEP per rush, which may sound frightening, but that was good for 24th among eligible backs last year (low-end RB2 territory). He also had the fourth-highest Success Rate of 43.63%.
With LeGarrette Blount gone to Pittsburgh, and Brandon Bolden barely clinging to a roster spot, there are 558 offensive snaps, or 46.5% of all offensive snaps by a Patriot running back, up for grabs. Those snaps will more than likely be split between Ridley and Shane Vereen, in Ridley’s favor. With an average draft position as the 29th running back, Ridley is a very low-risk, high-reward player. He’s got the perfect opportunity to replicate his 2012 season, and allow many fantasy football owners to cash in on their mid-round lottery ticket.
Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers
By Joe Redemann
Normally we advise avoiding muddy situations for your fantasy running backs, but in this case, the Carolina Panthers' confusion is your clarity. Oft-injured punchline Jonathan Stewart is – reportedly – healthy for the first time in years, and will step back into a team where the most legitimate pass-catcher is likely veteran tight end Greg Olsen. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which the Panthers go very run-heavy, maximizing Stewart and aging teammate DeAngelo Williams (who put together a paltry -6.52 Rushing Net Expected Points in 2013) as their primary driving forces on offense.
There's almost certainly a prominent role waiting for Stewart, but we shouldn’t be concerned about him needing massive volume to be useful. Over his first four (relatively) healthy years in the NFL, he averaged only 181 rushes, but 6.10 Rushing NEP per season, which would have been good for a 10th-place ranking among running backs with 150 or more carries in 2013. Add into this Stewart’s well above-average pass-catching ability, which has achieved him an average of 11.57 Reception NEP per season (17th among 2013 running backs), and you have a dangerous, multi-talented weapon for quarterback Cam Newton and head coach Ron Rivera to utilize.
The question on Stewart has never been talent; it’s always been durability. If he can stay healthy this season, his current late 12th-round cost is a steal. Being drafted outside the top 50 at running back, he has top 20 upside.
Editor's Note: You may notice that there are only nine RBs listed. We removed David Wilson from the list, given his career-ending injury.