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A common mistake among fantasy managers is using late-round picks on sleeper wide receivers. Outside of rare circumstances, late-round receivers aren’t a good investment. More likely than not, that guy will sit on your bench putting up mediocre production before you drop him from your roster. In the occasions that they do make it into your lineup, the point totals are probably inconsistent. But because receivers regularly outperform their draft stock, they may appear good picks. But drafting the WR91 and getting WR37 production probably won’t help you win your league.
The wide receiver position is driven by talent. An elite wide receiver will get open and command targets which turn into fantasy points. Multiple good receivers on the same team often cause a coach to change their scheme and pass more frequently. While the position is still a victim of quarterback play, coaching tendencies, and other factors, preseason consensus rankings usually look similar to season-end finishers, barring injury. If a star receiver is injured, his vacated targets will usually spread among the rest of the team’s pass catchers. Simply put, wide receivers are easier to project for than other positions.
Late-round running backs, however, offer league-winning upside every year. Due to the position's nature, running backs get injured more frequently. The roles among backfield mates can be volatile, and running back workloads are tough to project in the preseason. This makes late-round running backs a sound investment.
A running back of average talent can easily find himself in a volume-driven role that’s great for fantasy. That’s not to say every running back on this list isn’t talented, but situations outweigh talent when it comes to fantasy production from running backs. All the backs on this list are a tweaked ankle away from finding themselves in a lucrative situation. While season-long finishes may be disappointing, the spot starts from these running backs could provide huge spike weeks. And since fantasy is a weekly game, that’s what you’re trying to find.
Returning to the “drafting the WR91 for WR37 production” example, what if you drafted the RB91 and got RB37 production? It doesn’t sound great. But what if that running back was guaranteed high-end volume for half the season? What if you knew you could get double-digit fantasy points in 7-of-8 games down the stretch? What if that back outperformed first-round draft picks over the second half of the season? You’d be ecstatic, right? Well, that’s precisely what Isiah Pacheco did just last year.
Drafted as the RB91 in 2022 drafts, Pacheco finished as the RB37. But from Week 12 onward, he averaged 12.8 fantasy points per game and was the RB14. An injury to Clyde Edwards-Helaire opened the opportunity for Pacheco, and he rewarded plenty of fantasy managers with championship trophies. Although he didn’t do it for an entire season, he finished the year's second half outscoring Dalvin Cook, Aaron Jones, Ken Walker III, Leonard Fournette, Travis Etienne Jr., and Joe Mixon.
Stand-alone value, in addition to the contingent upside, makes any team’s RB2 an excellent player to target in your draft. For this article, though, the focus will be on cheaper players - the guys with almost no stand-alone value who are essentially free in drafts.
Jerome Ford, Cleveland Browns
Nick Chubb played a full 17 games last year but missed seven in the two seasons prior and now heads into his age-28 season. Dating back to Kevin Stefanski’s days in Minnesota, he’s never shied away from feeding a backup running back. Alexander Mattison was an elite injury-away running back behind Dalvin Cook. Over Stefanki’s tenure in Cleveland, we’ve seen Kareem Hunt and D'Ernest Johnson provide massive spike weeks in Chubb’s absence. Ford was limited to special teams last year but displayed good speed at the Combine following a solid career at Cincinnati. Assuming the Browns don’t add to their backfield, Ford is one of the best late-round targets.
Trayveon Williams, Cincinnati Bengals
Chase Brown and Chris Evans are the young and sexy names in Cincinnati, but Trayveon Williams likely slots in as Joe Mixon’s backup. Brown and Evans are likely to assume special teams duties this year. Williams was just rewarded with a second contract from the Bengals and will probably get the first crack at a backup gig. Samaje Perine saw 38 carries and 14 targets over his two starts last season. That type of workload on a high-powered offense would give Williams a sky-high floor and ceiling.
Keaontay Ingram, Arizona Cardinals
James Conner was tagged with the dreaded “injury-prone” label early in his career and has continued to miss games ever since. He has never missed fewer than two games in a season and averages 3.3 inactive games yearly. As the Arizona Cardinals nosedive into a rebuild, they did nothing to address their backfield this offseason. A 28-year-old Conner sits atop the depth chart, and Keaontay Ingram lands behind him. Corey Clement and Ty'Son Williams are also on the roster, but the young, bullish Ingram likely sees backup duties. Ingram is a big-bodied back who profiles for a potential three-down role. His rookie season wasn’t much to write home about. Still, he averaged 5.8 yards per carry in his senior year at USC, and the Cardinals felt comfortable enough with him at RB2 to overlook the position in the Draft or free agency.
Zach Evans, Los Angeles Rams
It’s hard to imagine that the Los Angeles Rams can be much worse than last year. Offensive line woes and injuries to their key players set them up for a horrific Super Bowl hangover. But with Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp expected to be back and healthy this year, things should hopefully open up for the run game. Cam Akers looked decent down the stretch last year and should only improve as he distances himself from the Achilles injury. But he is just as susceptible to injury as any other back. Head coach Sean McVay has shown his penchant for leaning heavily on a single back from Todd Gurley to Darrel Henderson to Akers. Zach Evans, a sixth-round rookie, profiles to back up Akers in 2023 and could be in line for some decent spot starts.
Jaylen Warren, Pittsburgh Steelers
A bit undersized and not relatively athletic, Jaylen Warren is a natural runner. Despite playing through a foot injury last year, Najee Harris played a 17-game season. But his limitations allowed Warren to get some additional snaps, and he looked great when he did. Warren averaged 4.9 yards per carry to Harris’ 3.8 and outpaced him in yards after contact, broken tackle rate, and rushing yards over expectation per attempt. That’s not to say Warren will take the job from Harris, but he’s an impressive back who looks like he’d fare well with starting duties.
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