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Finding starting running backs after the third round is a difficult task for most fantasy owners. Eighteen years of data illustrate the point.
Here is analyst Russell Clay's (formerly of Pro Football Focus and Dynasty League Football) tally of the average draft round composition for running backs earning top-12 PPR production:
The ADP of Top-12 PPR Running Backs (2000-2017)
|7th and later
With 81 percent of top-12 PPR running backs selected from the first three rounds of drafts, you better take two or three within the first 36 picks if you want the best odds of acquiring at least a pair of first-tier fantasy runners.
Clay's average draft round composition for top-24 PPR runners from the same period reveals that 28.5 percent of these runners are available after the third round. Although the odds of finding an RB2 in a 12-team format is 10 percent higher than an RB1, it's still a riskier proposition for those who draft by numbers.
If you're a low-risk drafter in a format that starts only one or two running backs and two or three receivers, this data is important information. Even if the past three years has been an outlier to the longer trend, there isn't enough data to lean too hard on recent seasons as a true shift in round composition. It means you're likely drafting a pair of backs during the first three rounds.
If you're in a PPR league that allows you to start 1-3 runners and 4-5 receivers, acquiring a top-12 running back is not as important to build a successful team. Hitting on a single top-24 back — an RB2 in a 12-team format — and acquiring multiple top 12 and top 24 starters at positions other than running back is a proven team-building tactic. This has been the mission of Upside Down Drafting (UDD) since the early 2000s.
Even if you abide closely to the odds and never adopt the UDD strategy, every fantasy owner needs serviceable running back depth that produces at no worse than an RB3 value in 12-team PPR formats. Despite the lower odds, they're available every year:
Below the Radar PPR Backs — 7th Round and Later with at Least 48 Receptions (Source: Fantasy Football Calculator)
|Theo Riddick (2017)
|Duke Johnson Jr (2017)
|Jerick McKinnon (2017)
|Alvin Kamara (2017)
|Chris Thompson (2017)
|Tarik Cohen (2017)
|James White (2016)
|T.J. Yeldon (2016)
|Theo Riddick (2016)
|Bilal Powell (2016)
|Darren Sproles (2016)
|Chris Thompson (2016)
|Giovani Bernard (2015)
|Shane Vereen (2015)
|Devonta Freeman (2015)
|Duke Johnson Jr (2015)
|Darren Sproles (2015)
|Charles Sims (2015)
|Fred Jackson (2014)
|Fred Jackson (2013)
|Danny Woodhead (2013)
|Pierre Thomas (2013)
|Jacquizz Rodgers (2013)
|Knowshon Moreno (2013)
|Joique Bell (2013)
There are at least two dozen backs with ADPs lower than the sixth round who earned top-36 PPR production at the position without the reception requirements who weren't included in the list above. This includes backs who were close to reception cutoff:
- LeVeon Bell (2013)
- Ahmad Bradhsaw (2014)
- Andre Ellington (2014)
- Benny Cunningham (2014)
- Justin Forsett (2014)
- Darren Sproles (2014)
- David Johnson (2015)
- DeAngelo Williams (2015)
- James Starks (2015)
- James White (2017)
The list above illustrates how much of an outlier 2015-2017 has been compared to the complete 18-year data range. Even so, 2013-14 — regarded at the time as the period where fantasy analysts had already tossed dirt on the shallow graves of the running back position — had several backs that qualified (or were incredibly close) for this list.
Although the data reveals that early-round picks at running back are most fruitful, fantasy owners also have an incredible tool at their disposal to help them spot the best of the rest below the radar: Their eyes.
When trained in the craft of the game and the position, it's incredible what they can uncover. This week's Gut Check profiles 10 running backs with significant PPR upside who are available after the seventh round.
Duke Johnson Jr has a seven-round ADP and everyone mentions Patriots running backs like James White and Rex Burkhead. They'll be excluded from this list for the sake of other options who are more likely overlooked or written off.
10. Green Bay's Backfield
Any individual from the trio of Jamaal Williams (ADP 91), Aaron Jones (ADP 99), and Ty Montgomery (126) is the least appealing choice of this top-10 list. Aaron Rodgers has a strong vertical game, and the workloads of these three backs are among the most difficult projections of the 2018 preseason.
All three runners are good receivers. Montgomery was drafted as a wideout and earned 44 catches in 2016 — mostly as a check-down option from the backfield and the slot. Williams proved reliable with 25 receptions as a rookie — 20 of them earned during a 5-game span.
Jones only earned nine catches last year, but he has great hands and has a lot of strong film at UTEP.
You can find more displays of his receiving prowess here and in the video above.
The issue for Green Bay's backs is the opportunity for significant volume. Since 2010, no runner has earned 48 receptions in a season. Montgomery, James Starks, Eddie Lacy, and Brandon Jackson have come close with totals between 40-45 catches. Lacy and Starks combined for 63 catches in 2015 and 60 in 2014, but that's the most that a backfield duo has earned in recent seasons.
One back must emerge as the featured option and there's no real standout heading into training camp. Williams is this writer's favorite because he has the best all-around game and the light came on for him in November. If he plays quicker in August, he could pull away from the group.
However, Jones isn't that far behind Williams as a talent. He was more explosive and adapted quicker as a ball carrier. His pass protection issues limited him. The same can be said of Montgomery's blocking. If either one becomes as good of a blocker as Williams — a tougher task than many realize, because it requires a physical mentality without the ball that many backs lack and strong conceptual understanding of blitzes and line calls — Williams could wind up the No. 3 option.
It's that close of a competition. If drafting based on skills, Williams is the pick as of now. If drafting based on physical upside, Jones is the pick. If drafting based on value, go with Montgomery. Until we see early returns from training camp, it's wisest to go with the value option — especially if the Packers need to move Montgomery back to receiver due to the loss of Jordy Nelson and a lot of young options who might not be ready for a big role this year.
9. Mike Davis
As the 86th back off the board (ADP 289), Davis is effectively a free agent in most drafts. It's not a surprise given that Seattle drafted Rashaad Penny in the first round and Pete Carroll is gushing over the physical condition of last year's camp wonder Chris Carson.
Yet one of the truths of fantasy football is that the running back position is volatile due to high injury rates. If Marshawn Lynch or C.J. Prosise could have stayed healthy, we may have never seen Christine Michael, Thomas Rawls, Chris Carson, J.D. McKissic, C.J. Spiller, or Davis in the Seattle lineup between 2015-17.
A proven receiving talent at South Carolina, Davis earned 66 receptions in 25 starts during the 2013-14 season. He earned 15 catches in 6 games last year despite having little rapport with Russell Wilson as a practice squad option who the Seahawks elevated to the active roster in Week 11.
Teams generally operate from the perspective that early-round picks earn the greatest opportunities to succeed and fail based on their investment in the player and the reps in practices and games it affords. As a corollary, late-round picks and free agents are camp bodies with limited opportunities to succeed and greater opportunities to fail based on the same biases that work against them.
Davis is one of those talents with early-round skills, but injuries and conditioning made him a late-round pick who acclimated slowly in San Francisco. Once a free agent, the label sticks and the lack of opportunity that often accompanies it.
Davis performed well during the final two months of 2017, but the Seahawks cut and re-signed him during the offseason while drafting Penny — a good receiver. It's likely that Davis is considered a last-resort option on the depth chart. However, Seattle's recent history with injury and giving the best performer opportunities, regardless of draft status, means Davis is a worthwhile late-round pick in deep leagues or a first-call waiver wire option who should be monitored closely as we head into training camp.
8. NYHEIM HINES
The rookie from N.C. State has an athletic-stylistic profile that's a mix of Ronnie Hillman and Chris Thompson. Washington's runner is a better athlete, but both have excellent breakaway speed and talent as receivers. Hines is a competent runner between the tackles, but it's unlikely that an NFL team will rely on him in this capacity.
At this point, the Colts are using Hines all over the field, acclimating him to a role similar to Thompson's. This Twitter feed has a packaged set of six short film breakdowns of the rookie's game.
The Colts targeted its backs 82 times last year and split the majority of those looks between Frank Gore and Marlon Mack. When Andrew Luck was healthy, the backs earned more targets but the splits remained even among 2-3 backs.
Although Hines is exciting, Indianapolis has told the media multiple times that this would be a true committee among Mack, Turbin, Hines, and possibly Jordan Wilkins. It will take big plays early and often from Hines to change the minds of the staff — and possibly injuries as well.
At this point, he's still worth an investment as an 11th-round option (ADP 136, RB 51). However, his value is rising and there's a risk his price soon exceeds his value based on a healthy depth chart.
Baltimore's top two running back options are worth investment this year. After Alex Collins earned top-15 fantasy production at the position last year, Dixon has become a forgotten man in the hobby with an ADP of 193 as the 64th back off the board.
Dixon's talent and skills make a 16th-round price tag an excellent value. As a rookie, he earned 30 receptions in 12 games — 21 in 4 games alone — and he's an agile runner with good contact balance.
Collins earned 23 receptions in 15 games and didn't begin earning targets until the final 9 weeks of the year. Collins has good hands but Dixon is a more natural receiver who often lined up on the perimeter at Louisiana Tech.
This video includes several receptions from the backfield and as a downfield option.
Although Javorius Allen earned most of the volume with 46 grabs in 2017, his target volume decreased significantly as Collins' volume increased.
There's a real possibility that Collins builds on his success and prevents Dixon and Allen from having a significant role. However Dixon has the talent to push Collins for the job and at worse, force a committee.
If you find Collins' price too high but value the ground game — especially with Marshal Yanda healthy — Dixon makes a sound late-round pick with potential to earn 50-60 receptions and top-36 PPR value as Collins' complement. If Collins gets hurt, Dixon can take this job and make it a full-time role.
6. T.J. Yeldon
Leonard Fournette had some rookie baby fat last year and still managed a top-12 season — including 36 receptions. He enters mini-camp at his peak playing weight at LSU.
However, Jene Bramel speaks the truth: As big, strong, and fast as Fournette is, he still has to plant hard on those loose ankle ligaments that aren't going to get any tighter. It may not be this year but as his career progresses, Fournette's ankles will become a detriment to fantasy owners.
Enter Yeldon (ADP 191, RB63), who caught 50 passes in 2016 and still managed 30 receptions during Fournette's rookie season. Last year, Yeldon caught at least four targets in five games and had three games with at least six targets.
A former second-round picks with the size of an every-down runner, the Jaguars cited Yeldon's immaturity as a reason for losing trust in him as a future starter. Last year, Yeldon turned things around and earned the praise of his staff.
Most only think of Yeldon as the back who only managed one top-30 fantasy season at his position during his first two years as a significant contributor to the offense. Keep in mind that Yeldon also played for teams that struggled along the offensive line and its quarterback alternated off-seasons with diligent work and diligent partying.
With Fournette's ankle issue, a hard-charging style, a maturing quarterback, and an improved offensive line, Yeldon is well worth the investment as a 16th-round reserve with every-down upside and equal — if not greater — versatility as Fournette.
5. Doug Martin
Jon Gruden will throw to running backs who can catch the ball. During Gruden's tenure as Philadelphia's offensive coordinator, Eagles backs earned 87 targets in 1996 — Ricky Watters caught 51 of them. In 1997, Gruden's offense targeted running backs and fullbacks 169 times with Watters and the late Kevin Turner earning 48 catches apiece.
As head coach of the Raiders from 1998-2002 and Buccaneers from 2003-2008, Gruden continued using the running backs in the passing game. Several of these seasons yielded notable PPR performances:
- 1998: Napolean Kaufman (36 targets, 25 catches) and Harvey Williams (39 targets, 26 catches).
- 1999: Kaufman (25 targets, 18 catches) and Tyrone Wheatley (38 targets, 21 catches).
- 2000: Kaufman (24 targets, 13 catches) and Wheatley (34 targets, 20 catches).
- 2001: Charlie Garner (91 targets, 72 catches) and Wheatley (16 targets, 12 catches).
- 2002: Michael Pittman (86 targets, 59 catches) and Mike Alstott (48 targets, 35 catches).
- 2003: Pittman (121 targets, 75 catches) and Thomas Jones (31 targets, 24 catches).
- 2004: Pittman (65 targets, 41 catches) and Alstott (41 targets, 29 catches).
- 2005: Pittman (46 targets, 36 catches), Alstott (38 targets, 25 catches), and Carnell Williams (25 targets, 20 catches).
- 2006: Pittman (76 targets, 47 catches), Williams (44 targets, 30 catches), and Alstott (38 targets, 21 catches).
- 2007: Earnest Graham (69 targets, 49 catches) and Pittman (39 targets, 26 catches).
- 2008: Warrick Dunn (68 targets, 47 catches) and Graham (33 targets, 23 catches).
Of the 13 seasons that Gruden was an offensive coordinator or head coach, 8 featured at least one back with significant production in the passing game. Marshawn Lynch is an excellent receiver, but his work as a runner between the tackles and pass protector often limits his ceiling. It's more likely that Martin gets a shot to become the primary receiver from the backfield.
Martin is quicker than Lynch and Gruden has often paired runners in the backfield to create mismatches. Martin began his career with a 49-catch, 472-yard rookie season but injuries, new coaching staffs, and the desire to use specialty backs like Charles Sims and Jacquizz Rodgers are reasons that Martin has never built on that rookie production.
As seen above, there's enough history with Gruden's offense that Martin (or Lynch) could shine brightly in the passing game. There's also the possibility that they split targets and it caps the upside of both runners in PPR leagues.
Even so, Martin still has high-end starter skills and athletic talent behind a good offensive line. Lynch proved the same last year. Whether Martin earns a shot to compete for playing time or substitutes for an injured Lynch, the upside is worth an 11th-round pick (ADP 141, RB 52).
He'll turn 36 next week, he's coming off an injury-ridden season, and the Eagles have Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement. He's also the No. 8 running back in NFL history when it comes to yards from scrimmage and when he was healthy, he played well.
Only a season removed from a 52-catch year that made him a PPR starter in 12-team leagues, the Eagles re-signed Sproles and beat writer Elliott Schorr believes he'll have a significant role in the offense.
Sproles has been a top-30 PPR fantasy back for five of the past six seasons and three of those years he finished as an RB1 or RB2 in 12-team PPR formats. If you're going to discuss his age with an ADP of 202 as the 65th back off the board, you've lost perspective on risk-reward.
3. Bilal Powell
The fantasy populist movement likes Elijah McGuire. He's a competent player who might grow into more, but Powell remains the better all-around option. Thomas Rawls is a wildcard and his summer trajectory ranges from opening-day starter to street free agent late-August.
Look for Powell to remain the change of pace to Isaiah Crowell. If Rawls is cut, he'll be the only back with the every-down skills to spell an injured Crowell. Although there's another popular expectation that the Jets are squeezing Powell out because the team sees him as a complementary back, it might be better if folks consider that labeling as an affirmation of what he has always been and not a demotion.
Because of the potential for fans and analysts to think Powell is on the way out, look for him to exceed expectations and earn a similar workload to 2015-17 if Rawls falters. Powell earned borderline RB2 production in PPR formats twice during this three-season span.
The Bengals declared Joe Mixon the feature back and the pronouncement has kept Bernard's value low (ADP 115, RB45). While Mixon is a better receiver than Jeremy Hill ever was during his peak as fantasy football's No. 10 runner in PPR formats in 2014, Bernard was also the 16th-ranked option.
Unless the Bengals make Mixon their LeVeon Bell and completely shut out Bernard, there will be enough touches for Bernard to be a fantasy factor. Bernard only earned 105 attempts and 43 receptions last year as the 28th-ranked PPR back in 2017. Keep in mind that Bernard was returning from an ACL tear, and Mixon only earned 178 carries behind a bad offensive line.
When Hill was the co-starter with Bernard, his carry totals were in the 220 range and Bernard's in 150-170 with 40-55 receptions. Although Mixon has good hands, Bernard is the savviest route runner and an underrated pass protector.
Reading zones and finding openings as well as beating man coverage are skills that often take time for running backs to develop. It makes Bernard the safest offensive option on this team — even if his upside isn't the highest.
If the ground game falters again, Bernard will earn more time on passing downs. If Tyler Eifert can't get healthy, Bernard will be needed to complement Tyler Kroft — and the Bengals have been good at using Bernard and the tight end on the same side of the field to create horizontal stretches of the zone defense that will favor both players.
The only way Bernard earns fewer opportunities than last year is if Mixon becomes a 300-touch player. That figure ranges somewhere between possible and likely because of Mixon's talent and youth.
At the same time, a 220-carry season from Mixon would still be an increase of nearly 50 carries, which still leaves room for Bernard to earn the fantasy volume of a PPR starter. However, Bernard's ADP remains low enough that even if his production drops as Mixon's rises, he remains compelling depth with top-15 upside if Mixon falters.
1. Theo Riddick
Yours truly thinks about new head coach Matt Patricia. Will he bring elements of the Patriots offense to Detroit?
He already has with the hiring of former Patriots assistant Jeff Davidson, who will coach the offensive line. Blount has also been an element of successful Patriots ground attacks.
The Lions want to be a physical running team. The Patriots have been a physical running team. They've been among the league leaders in the use of personnel sets that dictate power running.
It hasn't stopped them from earning production from James White and Dion Lewis in the passing game — production that benefitted fantasy owners. Theo Riddick is a more dangerous receiver and open-field runner than White who also can work the slot. The fact that Jim Bob Cooter remains the offensive coordinator also works in Riddick's favor.
Since Cooter took over the offense in 2015, Riddick has been the No. 18, No. 25, and No. 26 PPR back. With the Lions using a platoon system this year, Riddick has a good chance of earning 50-60 catches once again. With an ADP of 118 as the 46th RB off the board, his peers in the same range are backs like Bernard, Montgomery, Clement, and White.
Bernard has more upside as an every-down player and less competition, but Riddick has a higher floor.
Only half of the backs on this list have every-down potential, which is why they're under the radar. If you make 1-3 strategic choices with these options — especially varying the choices among backs with high floors-low ceilings and low floors-high ceilings — you'll build depth that can at least sustain your team if you're forced to deal with lean weeks. At best, you'll land a surprisingly effective weekly starter with top-12 potential.