A fantasy draft is all about obtaining the most value with each selection. Value is available throughout a draft, and grabbing it is one of the most important keys to a successful fantasy team. This article specifically targets deep sleeper value (players that can be found very late in a fantasy draft). To point out this value, we asked our staff to look deeper than the Top 150 and identify players that should significantly outperform their late draft position. These players should be your targets after the 12th round of your draft.
Here are the running backs who received the most deep-sleepers votes:
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And here are all of the players mentioned and the reasons why.
Players Receiving 10 Votes
Jerome Ford, Cleveland Browns
Ben Cummins: Ford saw very limited play as a rookie, rushing just eight times for 12 yards in 2022. His playing time in his sophomore year remains uncertain, but it's worth noting he handled 236 touches for 1,539 total yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior at the University of Cincinnati in 2021. Ford is plenty capable of carving out a Kareem Hunt-esque role in Cleveland’s offense this year and would be a smash should something happen to Chubb.
Matt Waldman: A skilled runner with the potential to develop into a reliable receiver, Ford runs hard and makes good decisions between the tackles for a young prospect. The Browns have one of the league's best offensive lines, which will make Ford's job easier if he's called upon to start in Nick Chubb's place. That "if" is bigger than it may appear this summer because players like Dalvin Cook, Kareem Hunt, Ezekiel Elliott, and Leonard Fournette don't need a full training camp and have the skills to perform at a high level if called upon. If Ford earns the right to be the true No.2 behind Chubb, the infrastructure will support fantasy starter production.
Dave Kluge: Murmurs out of camp are that Ford will be in line for a larger workload in year two. The team let Kareem Hunt walk in free agency, and Ford is RB2 on the depth chart behind Nick Chubb. Chubb’s 37 targets last year were the most he’s seen since 2019, the year before Kevin Stefanski arrived. Since Stefanski arrived in 2020, there has always been a complementary back to Chubb’s early-down and goal-line role. Hunt was horribly inefficient last year, which pushed Chubb into a more prominent role. Stefanski may go back to a committee approach in 2023. Even if he doesn’t, Ford makes for a premiere injury-away target.
Joseph Haggan: Ford was a bellcow back in college, turning in 1,539 total scrimmage yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior. Though he only played 14 offensive snaps as a rookie, the Browns obviously feel comfortable with him. Even though Kareem Hunt left in free agency, the Browns did nothing to bolster the position. Ford did show some open-field shiftiness and elusiveness as a rookie in the return game. He averaged 24.1 yards per kick return, ranking 6th in the entire NFL as a rookie. Chubb can handle a heavy workload, but for longevity reasons, it's in their best interest to give him a breather. Hunt turned 158 touches into 678 total yards and four touchdowns. If Ford earns a Kareem Hunt-like role, he actually holds some stand-alone value as a flex.
Craig Lakins: Ford had a quiet rookie season as the Browns' third running back but seems poised to take over the primary backup role in 2023. Kareem Hunt has moved on in free agency, and Ford was given a silent vote of confidence from the Browns' front office when they came out of the NFL Draft without taking a running back. He's an injury away from a big role in Cleveland's offense.
Daniel Harms: Kareem Hunt has left the building! That means Nick Chubb FINALLY gets the pass-catching duties, right? To an extent, yes, but Ford is the next guy in line to inherit the Kareem Hunt role and has the tools to be trusted and productive in the role. While the touch split *should* be much more in favor of Chubb, Ford will look to earn more as the season goes along. The Browns let both Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson walk in free agency, eluding to the comfort the team has in Ford, who was my RB4 in the 2022 draft class. Size, speed, and power are hallmarks of Ford’s game, and as the direct backup to Chubb, his skillset is one to target.
Gary Davenport: One of two things is going to happen in Cleveland this year. Either Nick Chubb is going to sail past last year’s career-high 302 carries and become a “workhorse” running back in the truest sense, or Ford is going to see more action than some expect. Given what we’ve seen from head coach Kevin Stefanski over his time in Cleveland, the latter would appear more likely. Ford wasn’t a factor on offense last year, but we are talking about a 5-foot-11, 220-pound back who piled up over 1,500 total yards on 236 touches with 20 touchdowns in his final year at Cincinnati. He’s, at the very least, a dirt-cheap insurance policy against a Chubb injury.
Jordan McNamara: Jerome Ford was a day-three selection in 2022 but will step into an injury-away role behind Nick Chubb in Cleveland's offense after Cleveland let Kareem Hunt walk in free agency. Cleveland's offense should be better in 2023, with Deshaun Watson under center for the season.
Chad Parsons: Cleveland continues to support Ford as the RB2 behind Nick Chubb. Kareem Hunt is gone, and no notable addition has been made. Ford has Alabama recruiting pedigree and the size to project a quality workload if Chubb misses time. Also, Cleveland should take an offensive step forward with a full offseason and no distractions for Deshaun Watson.
Jeff Haseley: There is growing anticipation for the performance of Jerome Ford, a second-year running back for the Browns. With Kareem Hunt's departure from Cleveland, Ford is expected to step up and take on his role. Ford possesses a balanced set of skills in both rushing and receiving, and his physical attributes - standing at 5'10 and weighing 210 pounds - make him capable of handling a heavier workload if necessary. Despite his limited experience in the NFL, Ford's talent and ability are undeniable. He demonstrated his potential during the 2022 preseason, and now he's eager to prove himself in the regular season.
Jaylen Warren, Pittsburgh Steelers
Jason Wood: Warren outperformed Najee Harris in many underlying performance metrics last year, even though Harris remained the workhorse when healthy. The Steelers' offense raises a lot of questions. If Kenny Pickett doesn't make a significant leap forward, it'll be tough for any tailback to deliver big fantasy numbers. But in a world where most are drafting Harris as a must-start player after last year's disappointment, Warren should be a high-priority pick in the later rounds. If you're ranking the league's presumptive RB2s, Warren should sit high on the list as both a handcuff and a potential high-volume star if injuries open the door.
Ben Cummins: Warren was good as a rookie. On a per-touch basis, he was superior to Najee Harris at shedding/avoiding tackles, producing big-play runs, breaking tackles, and being an efficient route runner and pass catcher, according to numerous statistics. Warren has endeared himself to Pittsburgh’s coaching staff and is ready for a larger workload in 2023.
Nick Whalen: In 2022, Najee Harris rushed for -0.49 YPC under expected. His two-year NFL average is -0.35 YPC under expected. Jaylen Warren's overall 2022 PFF grade was slightly higher than Najee Harris, and Warren had the third-highest receiving grade among all running backs. The receiving ability is alone worth the gamble, but if Pittsburgh gets frustrated with Harris, then it's wheels up for Warren's value.
Sigmund Bloom: Warren pretty much forced his way into a committee with Najee Harris as the season went on last year, and all reports out of Steelers OTAs indicate that he has picked up where he left off and will make this a two-man backfield. The Steelers also started running the ball better in the second half of the year and should have an improved offense this year, boosting the value of the 1A back role.
Craig Lakins: There should be optimism around the Steelers' run game with an improving offensive line and the addition of mammoth tight end Darnell Washington in the draft. While Najee Harris remains the main beneficiary, Warren has looked explosive in OTAs and is primed for a second-year leap.
Phil Alexander: Dating back to 2018, Najee Harris has picked up a total of six foot and/or ankle injuries, including three since entering the NFL in 2021. The bumps and bruises haven't cost Harris to miss a start, but you have to wonder if last preseason's Lisfranc sprain is a precursor to a major injury now that he's handled 694 total touches over the last two years. Injury predictions aside, Warren is no slouch. Per The Athletic, he finished first in expected points added (EPA) per target and rush as a rookie, and he has reportedly starred at OTAs. It's likely Warren has carved out a role next to Harris in Pittsburgh's backfield. If injury were to thrust him into a starting role, Warren instantly becomes a weekly low-end RB1, making his upside disproportionate to his current ADP.
Gary Davenport: In many statistical categories, Warren actually out-performed Najee Harris in 2022—he gained over a yard more per carry, averaged two more yards a reception and was a much more elusive player in the open field. This doesn’t mean that Warren is going to supplant Harris as Pittsburgh’s lead back, but an argument can be made that Warren has earned a larger role in the offense. At the very least, fantasy managers who invest an early pick in Harris should look to Warren late on draft day as insurance. But Warren also has some stand-alone value of his own, especially with the “Zero RB” crowd.
Matt Montgomery: If you are an undrafted free agent and a veteran coach gets you 70+ carries, you are not going to just be tossed aside. Last year, we saw the emergence of Jaylen Warren even after the fantastic rookie year we got from Najee Harris. He now has proven he can play the position as a dual threat in an offense with a young Quarterback. As Kenny Pickett becomes more and more comfortable playing in the NFL, he should improve upon his accuracy and confidence, which we all know usually comes from checkdowns and short yardage throws. This will only help Warren’s opportunities for targets and carries. Look for Warren to improve on his rookie year numbers and add to the touchdowns this season.
Jordan McNamara: Injury-away running backs are highly valuable in fantasy football. If there is an injury to the starter, the injury-away running back can step into the role of starter and provide spot starts for your fantasy team. Warren is among the cheaper injury-away running backs behind Najee Harris. Pittsburgh's offense should take a big step forward in 2023, Harris should be in line for a big opportunity that Warren could fill in the event of an injury.
Player Receiving 6 Votes
Tank Bigsby, Jacksonville Jaguars
Jason Wood: Travis Etienne is being drafted as a No. 1 fantasy running back, which is within his range of outcomes, but it's not a guarantee. Head coach Doug Pederson has generally favored a committee approach, but the Jaguars lacked viable alternatives to Etienne in 2022. Enter rookie Tank Bigsby. He's set to play a key role immediately and could push Etienne back into a timeshare. Their playing styles differ, making it probable that Bigsby will feature in sub-packages, including short-yardage and goal-line situations. Any No. 2 tailback in a solid offense should be drafted, and Bigsby has the talent to shine as the lead back if Etienne gets injured.
Ben Cummins: Appropriately called Tank, Bigsby is tough and plays physically when needed. He also repeatedly put impressive cuts and jukes in the open field on film as he has good vision and decisiveness that allow him to plant his foot in the ground and explode upfield. Auburn utilized Bigbsy on outside runs, and he proved he's capable of getting to the edge and hitting home runs. He offers some of the best contingent value in the league playing in an offense led by Trevor Lawrence should something happen to Travis Etienne, and it wouldn't be that crazy to see Bigsby outplay Etienne at some point this season as well.
Chad Parsons: High-profile backup running backs are the type of players who can win fantasy leagues if the starter misses time. Bigsby likely wins the RB2 job in Jacksonville by October at the latest and has the athletic and size combination to replicate a high percentage of Travis Etienne's stat line. Also, Bigsby has touchdown upside even with a healthy Etienne if the backfield splits like Detroit's with Bigsby in the Jamaal Williams to D'Andre Swift role.
Sigmund Bloom: The Jaguars spent a third-round pick on Bigsby, so they think highly of him. Travis Etienne has already acknowledged that other backs will get more work this year, and at least one Jaguars beat writer thinks that Bigsby could get more touches than Etienne in a game, depending on who has the hot hand. The Jaguars preferred James Robinson as a goal-line option before they dealt him to the Jets last year, and they could prefer Bigsby in that role this year. There are a lot of paths of value for the rookie.
Daniel Harms: Travis Etienne was one of the worst goal-line and short-yardage running backs in the NFL last season. The Jaguars want to use him as a big-play threat between the 20s and will definitely get him those chunk gains. This situation could easily evolve into a similar scenario that we witnessed in Detroit last season, and the main benefactor of that? Tank Bigsby. He could score more touchdowns than Etienne this year based on that alone. The Jaguars throw to their running backs at one of the lowest rates in the NFL too, and with the “more valuable” touches possibly being taken over by Bigsby, he’s a name you’re going to want to watch for.
Andy Hicks: Teams that spend a third-round pick on a running back when they have an established starter always attract interest. When the starter in Travis Etienne is probably more effective in the 15-20 touches a game range, the opportunity exists for the backup. Bigsby has to beat out some veterans, but the upside is there. Great value
Players Receiving 4 Votes
Malik Davis, Dallas Cowboys
Dave Kluge: Our Jeff Bell just wrote a fantastic article on Davis, and you should check it out. But as it stands, Tony Pollard sits atop the depth chart with Davis behind him. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Cowboys add another back before Week 1, making this take age terribly. But if they go into the season with their depth chart as is, Davis is in line for a lot more work than most people realize.
Hutchinson Brown: The Cowboys didn’t use rookie Malik Davis much last year, but in his limited touches, he did show off flashes. Go watch his highlights; there are some really good plays in there. Ezekiel Elliot had over 230 carries in 2022, and the Cowboys have not replaced him this off-season. While Tony Pollard is great, he has never had 200 carries in his career and is a smaller running back. Dallas could decide to heavily involve another body in the backfield again this year. Assuming the Cowboys don’t add a running back to the roster, Davis is the clear candidate for that job. Adding on, he could be a great asset if Pollard does miss time with an injury. Davis is set up to be a solid handcuff option in a great offense with the potential to have some solid stand-alone value if Dallas decides to work him into a committee with Pollard. At RB70 on Underdog? That is a SMASH pick!
Phil Alexander: Dallas has been reluctant to give Tony Pollard many more than 15 total touches per game, which makes his backup more than just injury insurance. Select Davis at the end of fantasy drafts as long as most of your league mates fail to realize he's No. 2 on the Cowboys' depth chart. Just hope Dalvin Cook doesn't sign with Dallas and stick a pin in this idea.
Chad Parsons: Ezekiel Elliott might be back for Dallas, but until that occurs, Davis is the in-house RB2 projection. Ronald Jones II has been tough to trust in any depth chart standing during his career, and Davis had some successful run in 2022 as a non-pedigreed depth option when needed. Tony Pollard is returning from injury, and Dallas projects as a strong offense to boost Davis.
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