3 Second-String Running Backs Who Deserve to Be on Your Fantasy Team
In days of yore, second-string running backs were only valuable as handcuffs. If you'd drafted a featured back who was especially prone to injury, conventional fantasy football wisdom stated, it was important to lug along some replacement-level player who'd ride the virtual pine until the big guy tore his ACL, or got a concussion, or suffered a Lisfranc fracture, whatever that is. (It's this.)
But in recent years, the running back universe has undergone something of a sea change. We continue to see more and more of those dreaded running back committees. And, yeah, in one sense, they make everybody's lives a little harder. No longer can we look at most NFL teams' depth charts and know with a fair degree of certainty who's going to be touching the ball this week, or how often. Like it or not, it's the norm nowadays for a team to split carries amongst at least two backs, and it's not going away.
Here's the flip side, though: if you're able to identify the handful of "second-string" running backs who are likely to rack up some serious time on the field, you can take advantage of that production for a bargain-bin price. Let's take a look at three prominent second bananas who offer some tremendous fantasy value.
Joique Bell, Detroit Lions
Nominal Lions starter Reggie Bush might have the pedigree, but in 2013, Joique the Unpronounceable made a major splash, racking up just under 1,200 total yards while scoring eight times. What can we expect from him this year?
Well, for starters, it should be noted that this is more of a timeshare than a true starter-backup relationship, which bodes well for Bell. (He’s got rhymes!) The two running backs finished with a similar amount of carries (224 for Bush, as opposed to 167 for Bell) a season ago, and an even more startlingly similar amount of receptions (54 to 53).
This is pretty interesting, seeing as the stereotypical two-headed monster in the NFL has emphasized different roles for the two runners - think of the “Thunder and Lightning” moniker that’s seemingly been applied to dozens of tandems over the years. Unlike those combos, Bush and Bell are both decent runners with pass-catching abilities, and yet they both had prominent roles in the Detroit offense.
What’s more, Bell actually managed a higher Net Expected Points total than Bush in comparable action (30.60 for Bell, as opposed to 22.02 for Bush), yet he’s going, on average, about two rounds later than Reggie according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com. If Joique sees anything close to the volume of work he had in 2013, that price tag will be well worth it.
Danny Woodhead, San Diego Chargers
Every year, Danny Woodhead is underdrafted. And every year, he’s made fantasy owners pay for overlooking him. He’s virtually unstoppable in PPR leagues - he caught an unreal 76 passes last year, trailing only Pierre Thomas in receptions among running backs - and even in standard scoring, his 1,034 total yards and 8 touchdowns in 2013 made him an extremely valuable asset.
In fact, you wouldn't be completely insane to argue that he’s got higher upside than fellow Charger Ryan Mathews, who scored one fewer touchdown than Woodhead and only about 400 more yards despite racking up 179 more rushes. The NEP discrepancy between the two is even starker: a Total NEP of 45.07 for Woodhead, versus just 18.03 for Mathews. That's largely due to the volume of Woodhead's receptions (which tend to result in higher NEP), but it's still eye-opening, is it not?
Don’t get me wrong: Mathews will get his. He’s an archetypal lead rusher, and his Rushing NEP was actually higher than Woodhead’s. But Woody is increasingly the type of playmaker we’re seeing in the NFL: someone small and speedy who can catch the ball in space and make things happen. Considering his tremendous production in 2013, it’s likely we’ll see more of the same this season. And that means a steal for you in the eighth round.
Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles
Speaking of that small, speedy “space” guy archetype, the man who basically invented it is looking to reinvent himself in Philadelphia. Following his weakest season since joining the Saints several years ago, Darren Sproles is a calculated risk in 2014. He’s 31, but he’s a young 31 after backing up Ladainian Tomlinson early in his career. It’s also hard to forget how hobbled he was last year after an ankle sprain, amassing just 824 total yards and 4 touchdowns. What should we make of him?
It’s hard to say. There’s one big knock against Sproles this year: he’s now backing up Lesean McCoy, possibly the best running back in the game, as opposed to operating in a committee with Pierre Thomas and (gulp) Mark Ingram. Considering Shady’s estimable talents as a pass-catcher, it’s not difficult to envision a future where Sproles is relegated to mop-up duty.
But you can’t forget how seldom Sproles is actually utilized as a running back. Last year, he rushed the ball only 53 times while being targeted 89 times. In fact, he lined up as a receiver almost as often as he lined up in the backfield. Who’s to say he and McCoy couldn’t spend most of their time on the field together?
Bottom line is, it’s likely that Sproles’ unique skill set will keep him on the field much more often than his place on the depth chart would indicate. Otherwise, Chip Kelly’s ingenious offensive mind probably wouldn’t have brought him to Philadelphia in the first place.