Fantasy Football Slack and Forth: Late-Round Running Backs to Target

Finding diamonds in the rough at running back can be one surefire way of having a considerable amount of success in fantasy football.

Last year, both Austin Ekeler (63.9%) and Kareem Hunt (52.1%) appeared on rosters that made the playoffs in more than half of ESPN Standard Scoring Leagues. In 2018, each of James Conner, Phillip Lindsay, Nick Chubb, Aaron Jones, Matt Breida, Austin Ekeler again, and James White were on teams that made the fantasy playoffs in greater than 50% ESPN leagues. The best part? Not a single one of those players had an average draft position (ADP) higher than 91.6.

"Late-round" doesn't mean the same thing at every position. At quarterback, a ninth-round round selection can't quite be considered "late." The same can be said for tight ends. However, seeing as though 32 running backs have ADPs inside the top 75, per BestBall10s, we'll define "late-round" as backs currently being drafted after pick 75.

To help provide some options for dart throws at the position, I Slacked (Slack chatted? Chat Slacked? Slatted?) with fellow numberFire editor Austan Kas.

Here's what we had to say.

Elisha Twerski:
Our editor-in-chief, JJ Zachariason, laid out some trends to look for in order to find breakout running backs in fantasy football.

In his piece, JJ notes that just 6 of 39 “breakout” backs were handcuffs to players that were top-24 picks by ADP. That makes sense, given that these backups would likely need an injury to the stud ahead of them in order to have a clear path to production.

For the 39 runners in his study, the average draft position of the top back in their backfield has been pick 59.

In essence, my strategy will be to look for running backs who don’t have studs blocking their paths.

What’s your strategy for unearthing late-round gems at the position?

Austan Kas: I am similar. I don't really like going for the handcuff types like a Tony Pollard, because doing so assumes that, in this example, Pollard is gonna step right in and see big volume. Often times, that's not how it ends up working. I'm not saying handcuff-types are worthless, but I'd prefer to go after cheap backs who look like they're in timeshares or in crowded backfields as opposed to a guy who won't get hardly any touches unless the stud in front of him gets injured.

And I think that'll play out here in this convo as we get to some of the late-round backs I like.

Elisha Twerski: Exactly. I'm not a fan of relying on injury or suspension in order for the player in question to have any relevance.

Seeing as we're in agreement, who's the first back currently outside the top 75 in ADP that you're targeting?

Austan Kas: Derrius Guice is a guy I want to take a shot on later in drafts. I really loved him at LSU, and he's a former second-round pick who just hasn't gotten much of a chance due to injuries. In a small sample of 42 carries last year, he flashed a bit with 5.8 yards per rush and a 10-carry, 129-yards, 2-tuddie game. He also had at least two catches in each of his four full games.

But really this is all about talent and opportunity. While the Washington backfield has a lot of moving parts, none of them are super stiff competition for Guice. And sometimes a good way to get a cheap breakout back is by investing in a piece of what looks like a crowded backfield. I think Guice will get his fair share of touches, and if he delivers, he could see a bigger-than-expected role. At 78th overall (RB33), I'm more than willing to roll the -- dad joke alert -- Guice on him. I'm sorry if that bad joke ruined everything I just said.

Are you into Guice at all?

Elisha Twerski: Am I into Guice? Does a bear shit in the woods?

Let's take a look at his competition. Among running backs with at least 100 carries last year, Adrian Peterson ranked 34th in both Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry and Rushing Success Rate (i.e., the percentage of carries that lead to positive NEP for a team’s offense). Free agent-signee Peyton Barber finished 43rd and 44th, respectively, in those categories. Rookie Antonio Gibson is likely to be used primarily as a receiver, at least early on.

For those reasons and all the reasons you mentioned above, he is definitely worth the roll of the Guice (great one! *insert eye-roll emoji*).

Austan Kas: I'm most happy you recycled my joke. But yeah, there's plenty to like with Guice.

Is he your favorite cheap back, or is there someone else?

Elisha Twerski: He is my favorite as well, but there are some other guys I find myself ranking a lot higher than where they're currently going. One of those guys is Tarik Cohen.

There’s no sugar-coating it. Cohen did not have a 2019 season to write home about.

Among 62 backs with at least 60 carries, Cohen ranked 52nd in Rushing NEP per carry and 30th in Rushing Success Rate.

Cohen didn’t fare much better as a receiver. Out of 37 runners with at least 40 targets, Cohen finished bottom-six in Reception NEP per reception, Target NEP per target, Reception NEP per target, Reception Success Rate, and Target Success Rate.

However, the guy ahead of Cohen on the depth chart was just as bad, if not worse, in 2019.

Of the backs with at least 60 totes, David Montgomery finished 53rd in Rushing NEP per carry and 49th in Rushing Success Rate.

And it’s not like Montgomery was very effective as a receiver. Among 40 backs with 35-plus targets last, he ranked 21st in Reception NEP per reception, 30th in Target NEP per Target, 23rd in Reception NEP per target, 25th in Reception Success Rate, and 32nd in Target Success Rate.

On the other hand, Cohen is just a year removed from a season in which he finished as the RB11 in PPR leagues.

As a rusher, Cohen was above-average in both Rushing NEP per carry and Rushing Success Rate in 2018. But it’s as a receiver where he made the dough. Among running backs with more than 35 targets, Cohen ranked third in Reception NEP per reception, seventh in Target NEP per target, second in Reception NEP per target, and seventh in Target Success Rate.

Cohen received 64 carries and 104 targets last year, so he was still seeing usage despite his struggles. If Montgomery fails to improve, Cohen could see even more work this year.

If he can come closer to his 2018 efficiency, Cohen -- 96.69 ADP -- could be a steal, especially in any sort of format that awards points for receptions.

What are your thoughts on Cohen?

Austan Kas: I had Cohen on my shortlist, too. While I don't see him sniffing anything near the PPR RB11 he was in 2018, he's an excellent receiver, and the Bears' offense has to be at least a little better than it was last year -- right? Cohen could flirt with RB2 (top-24) numbers with some luck, but I think he's likely going to be a viable flex option most weeks.

Elisha Twerski: Only two teams had a worse Adjusted NEP per play last year than Chicago, so yeah, I do think they're going to be at least a bit better.

Seeing as though Cohen is currently, on average, the 40th back off the board, I'd say being a weekly flex option makes him a great value pick.

Who else is on your shortlist?

Austan Kas: Ke'Shawn Vaughn is kind of a wide-awake sleeper, and there's a lot to like here, especially for a guy going 86th overall (RB36).

The most obvious positive for Vaughn is that he landed in a great spot in terms of both opportunity and surrounding situation. After the Bucs' brass talked about needing to bring in backfield help, Tampa Bay took Vaughn in Round 3. While it doesn't sound like they're ready to completely bail on Ronald Jones, Vaughn should get on the field early and often, and that alone makes him appealing since the Bucs should be good on offense.

The dream here is that Vaughn outplays Jones and runs away with the job, a situation that could lead to the rookie breaking out in a big way. But even if Vaughn is just a narrow leader in a timeshare -- which is what our model projects -- he is worth the price. We have him as the RB31, and there's upside for more if he thrives early on.

I don't want to oversimplify things, but I'm always going to be interested in any cheap back who is expected to see decent volume in a good offense. That's what we have here.

Elisha Twerski: Damn you. Stop stealing my guys!

Austan Kas: Haha, well, if we're both on Vaughn and Guice, they definitely won't do much this year.

Elisha Twerski: Yeah...I'm already preparing to have to drop them before Week 3.

But in all seriousness, I could see both Vaughn and Jones being viable fantasy players this year.

I've seen a number of people on Twitter low on Vaughn because Bucs coach Bruce Arians "isn't fond of using rookie running backs," and I'm not sure what that's based on.

Yes, David Johnson wasn't used much right away, but he was sharing a backfield with Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington, both of whom were playing well at the time.

In his 15 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator, the only other two times Arians had healthy backs who were drafted inside the top-three rounds, they received 202 and 259 touches, respectively -- James Jackson in 2001 and William Green in 2002.

If Vaughn starts out looking like the best back, he could get a lot of usage in what should be an explosive offense. Just as a reminder, Peyton Barber -- who is an awful running back by nearly any measure -- garnered 154 carries and 24 targets. That's a lot of potential available usage for a team that could look to run more.

So yes, I'm right there with you on the Vaughn train.

Austan Kas: OK. So the floor is yours -- do you have another cheap running back you want to highlight?

I am all out, so I won't be stealing this one.

Elisha Twerski: Well, that would be a relief if you hadn't already swiped two of them. Now I'm all out.

I do think it's encouraging that we're looking at the same players. Gives us a clear shortlist of players to target.

Austan Kas: Yeah, I agree. But it does make me feel like these players might rise a bit once we get into August. There is some room for them to get a little more expensive and still be very appealing, however.

Elisha Twerski: Sure, their ADPs might rise, but they could still be worth it.

However, if they do get too expensive for my tastes, some guys I find myself targeting are Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida, and Chase Edmonds. Each of those players should have immediate roles and have shown the ability to step up if their names are called. And, best of all, they won't cost you much.

Shall we wrap it up with a couple of names you'd target if Guice and/or Vaughn get too pricey?

Austan Kas: Coleman is a guy I like, too. I'm not sure if he's any good, but he will be on the field for one of the best running games in the league. And if there's an injury to Raheem Mostert. Coleman could be extremely valuable.

Elisha Twerski: Standalone value and the potential for a huge role. What's not to like?

Austan Kas: Exactly.