7 Late-Round Running Backs to Target This Season in Fantasy Football Drafts
Fantasy football owners know the importance of the running back position. And, typically, if you want an elite back, you have to be willing to spend early-round draft picks on the position.
But that doesn't make later-round running backs worthless. This is especially true if you allow situations to develop -- perhaps these late-round rushers aren't ready to carry the load right away, but time will allow them to grow a role in their respective offenses.
So, which running backs are some of the numberFire staff writers targeting late in drafts this year? Take a look.
David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
From JJ Zachariason
We now have a two-season sample of Andre Ellington. The first of these seasons looks great -- Ellington was an efficient back who wasn't exactly asked to carry the load for his Cardinal offense, but was heavily-targeted out of the backfield (considering his rookie role) and create big plays.
The second season? Not so great. Last year, Ellington was the least efficient rusher in the NFL among running backs with 200 rushes according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. Really, the only reason he was at all fantasy relevant was because of volume -- this is especially true in PPR leagues, as he was targeted 64 times through the air, third most among 200-plus attempt backs.
Whether his inefficiency was due to a foot injury or not, the Cardinals went out and drafted David Johnson in the third round of May's NFL Draft. Many have compared Johnson to Ellington, but it's important to note what the Cardinals need and what Johnson has that Ellington doesn't: size.
Johnson weighs over 20 pounds more than Ellington, and has four inches on him. He's also faster, clocking in a 4.5 40-yard dash versus Ellington's 4.61.
Given what we've seen from Ellington, a Giovani Bernard-like role in the Cardinals offense makes loads of sense. Johnson, meanwhile, can play Jeremy Hill, seeing more ground touches and playing more of the typical running back role.
In PPR leagues, Ellington could still reach value in the middle of the fourth round. But if I'm spending on a Cardinals' back, I'd rather go with the cheaper 10th-round rookie -- the one who's more physically gifted than the player ahead of him on the depth chart, and the one who could, when it's all said and done, lead the team in rushing attempts.
Lance Dunbar, Dallas Cowboys
From Graham Barfield
The case for Lance Dunbar is a simple exercise in risk versus cost. Since DeMarco Murray's departure, Dallas' backfield has essentially devolved into a fantasy quagmire mired with more question marks than tangible answers.
On one hand, Joseph Randle projects as the Cowboys feature back, but that comes with a great deal of unknowns. First, Randle has just 105 career carries to his name and just two of those attempts account for 20.7% of his 507 career rushing yards. That's an incredibly small sample of work to justify Randle's RB25 (47th overall) average draft position.
If Randle flames out, is simply ineffective, or Dallas signs a veteran in training camp, then fantasy drafters essentially just lit a fourth-round pick on fire.
Dunbar is basically free (undrafted on FantasyFootballCalculator.com) and, like Randle, has a small sample of carries that we can use to form an opinion on (just 80 attempts in three years). And here's the fun part: Dunbar and Randle have both been less-than-stellar in their miniature workloads, as Dunbar has a career Rushing NEP per attempt of -0.05, while Dunbar's career Success Rate (46.8%, which measures the percentage of runs that contribute positively towards NEP) is superior to Randle's (36%).
Again, the main thing here is cost and randomness. If Dallas does indeed sign a veteran, or if they deem Randle unworthy of starting at some point forcing an unpredictable running back-by-committee, pitvoting to the cheaper option (Dunbar) may save you a future headache.
Reggie Bush, San Francisco 49ers
From Scott Barrett
Right now, Reggie Bush has an average draft position (ADP) behind current projected backups David Johnson, Ryan Mathews, and Darren McFadden and projected pure pass-catching backs Danny Woodhead, Duke Johnson, and Shane Vereen.
What I like about Reggie this year is the same thing I liked about Reggie in 2013; I see him as more of a 1A or 1B running back in his offense than just the third-down back his ADP would imply he is.
Last season, Carlos Hyde (currently with a fourth-round ADP) was our 12th least efficient runner in terms of Rushing NEP per rush among all 54 running backs with at least 80 rushes. In terms of Reception NEP per target, he ranked second worst among all 82 backs with at least 10 catches.
Bush is coming off an injury-plagued 2014, but over the three seasons prior, he averaged the following line per year: 222 carries, 1,026 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry, 44 catches, 365 receiving yards, and 7.33 total touchdowns.
I'm going to preface my next point by saying it's a ridiculously small and outdated sample, but in his only two other seasons as an offensive coordinator, current 49ers offensive coordinator Geep Chryst has never had a running back who has rushed for at least 400 yards. He did, however, have two consecutive seasons where a running back caught at least 45 passes and 350 receiving yards.
More largely based on Bush's recent comments and an increase in negative game script due to the loss of an unusual number of veterans, I do believe Reggie Bush will be a major feature of the 49er receiving game. Beyond that, he's talented enough to at least eat into a large portion of Hyde’s carries (assuming Hyde is even the starter [which I'm not.])
Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
From Aaron Watson
Jay Ajayi was widely considered to be a top-three talent in the 2015 NFL draft, behind only Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon. He was a creative and powerful between the tackles runner with the speed to get to the edge and an exceptional pass catcher out of the backfield, profiling as a true workhorse back.
But reports about a degenerative knee condition surfaced in the spring, causing his draft stock to plummet until he was finally selected in the fifth round by the Miami Dolphins. The knee injury is expected to limit the length of his NFL career, but isn't viewed by most to be an injury that will affect him in the short term.
Incumbent starter Lamar Miller is an effective back who the coaches have always seemed to dislike, sharing carries with the ineffective Daniel Thomas in 2013 and starting the season behind Knowshon Moreno in 2014 until an injury forced the Dolphins to feature Miller.
Yet, despite no real competition in the backfield last season, Miller only received 216 carries all year and never had more than 19 in a game. While he was effective as a runner, posting a Rushing NEP per rush of 0.06 (sixth in the NFL in 2014), the team seemed reticent to rely on him as a focal point of their offense. The former Hurricanes back is a quicker player who doesn't run with the power the coaching staff seemingly prefers, which makes Ajayi, a naturally more powerful back, a great option to supplant Miller as the primary back for in Miami.
While a timeshare is likely, the Dolphins are looking to feature a run-heavy attack that is attempting to mirror the Chip Kelly system in Philladelphia, a team that also jettisoned a talented "elusive" player in LeSean McCoy for the decisive, power running of DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews. Miami ranked only 22nd in the NFL last season in rushing attempts, a number they would love to improve upon if they can find a power back to feature.
Miller won't disappear in 2014, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him reduced to more of a Giovani Bernard role in favor of Ajayi. The rookie is a back I love to target late in drafts, and not just as a handcuff for Miller, but as a potential breakout candidate as the season progresses.
Javorius Allen, Baltimore Ravens
From Tyler Buecher
One of my favorite late-round gambles at running back is Baltimore's fourth-round pick Javorius "Buck" Allen.
Backing up Justin Forsett in new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman's pass-friendly offense, there's plenty of potential for the running backs to not only get their share of carries, but a healthy dose of receptions as well.
Over the 10-year span of Trestman being either an offensive coordinator or head coach, his running backs have combined to average over 100 receptions from the position each year. Matt Forte and his 102 receptions last year proved Trestman's scheme to get his backs touches is no farce, and there's no reason to think this streak will end in Baltimore.
Forsett has been far from a perfect model of health, as the soon-to-be 30-year-old journeyman's last two stops in Houston and Jacksonville ended both in knee and foot injuries. Forsett saw only 65.7% of the team's offensive snaps last year, which may lead to Allen seeing snaps initially in a reserve role, but could expand as the season (or injuries) goes on. Allen is a terrific one-cut, downhill runner who is a viable receiving threat out of the backfield, as shown in his 41 receptions in his final collegiate season at USC.
If Forsett goes down for any amount of time, Allen stands to benefit from a tremendous opportunity rushing behind Pro Footbal Focus' fourth-best run blocking offensive line while receiving a litany of targets in the passing game.
Montee Ball, Denver Broncos
From Tony DelSignore
Just one year ago, Broncos running back Montee Ball cost you a first-round pick in fantasy drafts. In standard leagues, Ball was the 10th player off the board.
An injury and some faulty play caused Ball to flop hard last season and disappoint many fantasy owners in the process.
This season, Ball is being taken at pick 11.02 in standard leagues, a far cry from his first-round status in 2014.
Sure, C.J. Anderson is the incumbent starter, but there's a new head coach and new offensive coordinator in Denver that have no ties to either one of the running backs.
What if C.J. Anderson goes down in preseason? Montee Ball would instantly be given the keys to a Peyton Manning-led offense.
Last season, Denver ranked eighth according to our Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points metric. With one injury or change in philosophy, Ball would have RB1 upside at RB5 price.
For my money, Ball is one of the best late-round running back targets this season due to his high upside as a handcuff. Don't allow last season's disappointment to stop you from taking a flier -- he's cheap, and could be a huge return on your investment.
Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns
From Joseph Juan
Last season, Browns head coach Mike Pettine showed the league that regardless of your pedigree -- whether you're highly paid free agent veteran, or an undrafted rookie free agent -- if you have the talent to start in this league, then you will for his team.
And if you're Cleveland Browns rookie tailback Duke Johnson, this is all just music to your ears.
With the best hands and route running among the three backs on the roster --Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West combined for just 20 receptions all last season -- Johnson is already all but guaranteed the pass catching role on this offense. In that sense, Johnson has often been compared to Bengals tailback Giovani Bernard (there's another comparison), and the expectation is that he'll be used in a similar fashion to start the season.
Beyond this, camp reports have also stated that the team has had Johnson lineup at wideout, often with Crowell on the field. Hey, when the best receiver on your roster is Dwayne Bowe, you'll take all the help you can get. All this will ensure that Johnson gets a healthy dose of touches in this offense
But Johnson has the potential for so much more than being just a pass-catching specialist. Indeed, once he steps onto the field, Pettine is going to have a hard time keeping him off of it.
That's because, as I've written previously, Duke Johnson is this team's most athletically talented tailback with a skill set that matches perfectly with the zone blocking scheme first year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo wants to run. With the best agility scores among the running backs on the Browns roster, and having demonstrated great cutting ability in his days at Miami, Johnson will thrive in a system that will ask him to make that sudden cut into the hole that the offensive line has opened up in front of him. And with a line that was ranked 7th in run blocking according to Pro Football Focus last season, and who now has Pro Bowl center Alex Mack back from injury, the holes for Johnson should be plenty.
While second-year man Crowell is projected to take the early down work ahead of West and Johnson, his fumbling issues last year combined with the vows from this coaching staff to use a heavy rotation at running back gives Johnson a golden opportunity to showcase his talents and seize the starting role early on. And given the run heavy approach many are expecting out of Cleveland, if and when Johnson becomes this team's lead back, fantasy football managers willing to spend a late round draft pick on him will have quite a pleasant surprise on their hands.