Of course, fantasy football is won in a broad sense by cramming a roster with as many productive players as possible. This sometimes happens (or doesn’t happen) out of circumstance: injuries, suspensions, and late-round shockers can make a roster much stronger or weaker than expected. The only way it can be planned and executed on purpose is to extract value from each opportunity, each draft pick, each time. That's a wild goal and too high a bar to set for us mortals. But at the very least, we're looking for more sleeper hits than high-round misses.
It’s been argued quite well that the middle rounds are a pitiful wasteland to chase running backs, and I tend to agree. I don’t find it wise to stockpile a bunch of handcuff guys, either; they wind up wasted picks more often than not. Instead, I’m more apt to lock in 2-3 predictable workhorse backs early, then take later stabs at big (if longshot) value.
To that end, I poured over the backs likely to be available beyond the RB50 range in a PPR format – where late-round value is rare. Here are three names that jumped off the page - actually, just one name, plastered over three value-packed guys.
D'Andre Swift is a dazzling prospect, wildly athletic, and versatile in the mold of Aaron Jones. Many are expecting an RB1 season and drafting Swift accordingly in early leagues, but new Lions coordinator Anthony Lynn has already thrown cold water on that appeal:
“Jamaal [Williams] is what I'd call a classic 'A' back… My 'A' backs are normally my bigger backs. They can run between the tackles, block probably a little better than a 'B' back; they can also run the perimeter. I can leave those guys in there for all three downs."
Sure, it seems questionable to so glibly announce you’ll be pulling the dynamic Swift off the field for the plodding Jamaal Williams more than you have to. Still, the ex-Packer sure looks poised for a prominent role right off the bat. By claiming the Adrian Peterson/Kerryon Johnson role from down the 2020 stretch, Williams would draw noticeable usage and likely the bulk of the goal-line role. More importantly to his value, though, he’d serve as a strong handcuff to Swift, who lost three games to a frightening concussion last year and is off to a rocky medical start in camp.
Should Swift miss time, Williams likely won't face much competition to speak of; he'd all but dominate this backfield. The team waited until Round 7 to draft a prospect in Jermar Johnson, and as of mid-August, has skipped over all the priority free agents. (A cup of coffee with Todd Gurley went nowhere in June.) Perhaps they'll revisit Gurley or another veteran body during the preseason, but the chances of finding a golden nugget come down with every passing day. Most likely, it'll be a cheap No. 3 back who contributes on special teams, leaving Williams firmly entrenched as the team's RB1b.
Williams isn’t a particularly impressive runner (just 4.0 career yards-per-carry) but developed a reputation as a dependable three-down chess piece in Green Bay. Over the 14 times he was called on for half the Packers’ snaps or more, Williams averaged 13.8 touches (2.9 receptions) and found the end zone 7 times. Reliable in pass protection and able to run routes down the field, Williams shouldn’t have a hard time carving out a similar workload under Lynn.
Williams has been creeping up boards of late; I don't often see him slip into the 10th round anymore. That's better, but he does, at times, still fall behind some questionable names. To rank him properly, savvy drafters will be watching Lions camp once Swift returns to get a grasp on how touches are splitting up. At a floor of 10-14 weekly touches, Williams will pay off this modest draft value, so you’ll never regret taking him. And an injury to Swift would offer an easy weekly RB2, at a minimum. He’s a more sensible play than ADP-mates like Tony Pollard or J.D. McKissic, and his path to upside is just as clear as either's.
David Montgomery closed 2020 as a true usage king, taking on 25.7 touches a game from Week 12. It was good for the PPR RB3 spot over that span, and it catapulted him into top-20 running back territory in early 2021 drafts. That may be shaky science, though, as Montgomery hasn’t produced at those levels when the Chicago backfield has been healthy and stocked. As a 2019 rookie, he turned 267 touches into a ho-hum RB24 finish.
Montgomery is a useful back, quick-footed and versatile in the ways coach Matt Nagy values. But he’s also stretched a bit as a ball hog and best suited in a committee role. He certainly isn’t the same receiver with Tarik Cohen active, either, dropping from 31.2 yards a game to 13.0. And that says nothing of the addition of Damien Williams to the depth chart.
The team brought in the ex-Chief Williams, who missed Nagy by one year in Kansas City, presumably for depth purposes. (He did play under his new coordinator, Bill Lazor, for two years in Miami.) Williams was never spectacular in either stop, save for a Super Bowl LIV performance (133 total yards, 2 touchdowns) that arguably should’ve won MVP honors. But he’s at least dynamic enough to scratch out a role spelling Montgomery while catching 25-30 passes as a floor.
As Tarik Cohen struggles out of the gate after ACL surgery - and has he ever - Williams is in line to see even more use through the air. After all, Cohen caught 150 balls from 2018-19. And should Montgomery go down to injury, it would be Williams, not Cohen, in line for an expanded, three-down role.
If all goes to plan in Chicago, it’s doubtful Williams will win anyone a fantasy crown in 2021. But his ceiling as a viable PPR flex can’t be ignored in Rounds 13-15 of a draft, where many competitors will be shrugging and locking in their defenses.
This Williams isn't known as a great runner (or receiver) either. He was undrafted as a "plodder" for depth purposes only - he never reached 200 yards in a season at LSU - Williams quickly emerged from a pretty uninspiring pile of late-rounders and last-gap veterans on the depth chart. He's now firmly entrenched in his role as the No. 2, with little real competition in place. But when prized starter Clyde Edwards-Helaire is healthy, Williams is fairly useless on fantasy rosters. He'll be the first easy cut for most managers once bye weeks and/or injuries hit.
Still, Williams definitely boasts speculative value this late in your draft. Some of your leaguemates will be drafting kickers over the final 2-3 rounds, and there won't be many better upside plays on the board than Williams. He's shown more explosiveness as a Chief than he did in school, and he's risen into the ranks of fantasy's elite true handcuffs. And there's no denying the touchdown upside for anyone drawing heavy snaps for this juggernaut offense.
Edwards-Helaire lost a chunk of time late in his rookie season, and Williams didn't miss a beat filling in. He started and drew 30+ snaps 4 times down the home stretch, averaging 10.5 carries, 3.3 targets, and 10.8 PPR points a game. Those aren't fantasy-winning numbers per se, but they're consistent in a flex spot whenever Williams is called into action. Even as a pie-in-the-sky handcuff, that's generally a clearer path to value than a kicker, or a WR5 reclamation project, or (yuck) a fourth quarterback. Those picks typically produce zero to few fantasy points; Williams is one injury or benching from spending a stretch as an RB2 (or better).
Andy Reid looks poised to enter 2021 with a clear two-man rotation in the backfield: Edwards-Helaire dominating, but Williams the unquestioned No. 2. It's hard to imagine camp-level bodies like Jerick McKinnon, Darwin Thompson, or Elijah McGuire disrupting the chemistry of this offensive machine. Of course, in this breakneck Kansas City offense, it'd be hard for their RB1 to not post usable fantasy numbers - with big touchdown upside. Over the past three years, in the Patrick Mahomes II Era, Chiefs running backs have averaged 17 touchdowns. Some of that has been due to the complementary talents Reid has pieced together so well. But it's also because the Chiefs have run the league's fifth-most plays from inside the 10-yard line. With Reid, Mahomes, and the rest of the dazzling company creating so many scoring chances, whoever is taking snaps in this backfield will be fed the ball quite a bit near the goal line.
A late-round pick can't return fewer than zero points for fantasy managers, and that's exactly what the vast majority do. That's because many are buried on their depth charts, only noteworthy due to name value or past draft status. But the ones who check off the important boxes - a great team, a path to volume - can outdo their ADPs exponentially. Burning one of these near-useless picks on the right kind of Hail Mary - like Williams here - is the only efficient way to use them.