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Five Very Deep Running Back Sleepers


The important parts of the preseason are over and now it's time to finish up your drafts and get ready for the upcoming NFL season. You've got your draft boards ready to go and you know who you arere interested in picking in every round.

But, do you know who needs to be on your watch list? The guys who won't have much value Week 1 but can be useful pieces down the line this season?

Let's look at five very deep sleepers at the running back position.

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Ty Montgomery - New York Jets

Montgomery is still being drafted outside the top-70 at running back on a lot of sites, which seems wild to me. He's the main backup to Le'Veon Bell in what should be an offense that focuses extensively on their running backs, and Montgomery's history as a wide receiver makes him one of the most valuable pass-catching backs in the game.

The team's also said that Montgomery and Bell will split time early in the year. I don't necessarily think that hurts Bell, because talent-wise he's one of the NFL's top backs and should be putting up strong per play efficiency, and because the Jets should end up near the top of the NFL in running back touches.

Montgomery also can split out wide to help out quarterback Sam Darnold. Remember that tight end Chris Herndon IV is suspended for the first four games, so Montgomery can be a short-yardage option who helps out in that phase of the game for now. Look, in 2016 Montgomery had 121 offensive touches for 805 yards and three touchdowns. We saw that he could put up strong numbers when pressed into a bigger role. I get that Bell is a dominant back, but Montgomery will be sprinkled in plenty, and he'll produce in those snaps.

 

Damarea Crockett - Houston Texans

Is Crockett a deep sleeper after the Lamar Miller injury?

Texans head coach Bill O'Brien has suggested that he feels comfortable with the team's current rotation at the position. That rotation is...interesting. Based on The Athletic's Aaron Reiss's 53-man projection for the team, that rotation features Duke Johnson, Taiwan Jones, Gregory Howell Jr., and Crockett, who's projected to make the roster over fellow undrafted rookie Karan Higdon. Howell and Jones are special teams guys. Johnson will get the first crack at the starting job, but you have to wonder if his efficiency will be affected by an increased workload since he's spent his NFL career as a third-down guy. We could pretty easily see Crockett end up as the guy getting early-down work and red zone work.

The Texans backfield opened training camp looking a lot different, with Miller as the starter and D'Onta Foreman as the team's main backup. When Foreman was waived, it was Crockett who absorbed his work in practice. While Higdon's been getting work earlier than Crockett in preseason games, Crockett's played a lot better, and he's got a huge chance to be this year's breakout UDFA. He won't be putting up the same numbers Miller would have, but he'll get enough work to be a fantasy flex option by the middle of the year.

"Lol Carlos Hyde"

 

Alfred Blue - Jacksonville Jaguars

"Hahahahahahahaha," you, the reader, are thinking. "Alfred Blue. Hahaha."

I get that. But the Jaguars are a run-heavy team with a quarterback who's arguably not a top-20 passer, and their top running back, Leonard Fournette, has dealt with injury issues throughout his brief NFL career.

"But," you say, "the Jaguars drafted Ryquell Armstead, and the lack of usage for Armstead in the preseason is evidence that Armstead is the backup in Jacksonville."

I also get that. But if Fournette -- one of the league's true workhorses -- goes down, the Jaguars are going to rotate Armstead and Blue in, and the idea that the veteran back in this scenario ends up seeing more usage isn't some wild idea. I mean, the Texans were splitting Lamar Miller's carries with Blue down the stretch last year. Alfred Blue is the ultimate "wait, why did he have 12 carries today?" guy. Blue doesn't really do much well, but he does carry the ball and Jacksonville would be set up better for him to produce and get touches than Houston was. If Fournette goes down, Blue's got a pretty clear path to touches and that's worth something on it's own.

 

Dontrell Hilliard - Cleveland Browns

The Browns traded Duke Johnson to Houston, opening up room for Nick Chubb to be The Guy in Cleveland. Kareem Hunt will be in the backfield too, but he opens the year with a 10-week suspension.

When Hunt returns, he'll get usage on this team, especially as a change of pace back and receiving option. But he won't be back for awhile still, and there's room for someone to get passing-down usage until then.

Hilliard isn't Duke Johnson, and the Browns aren't going to use him as much as they used Johnson, but he should see the field some over those first 10 games.

Hilliard didn't have a carry last season, but he was targeted 10 times, catching nine of those for 105 yards. He was seventh among running backs in fantasy points per opportunity, though...well, the sample size was so small that we can probably ignore that.

What I don't want to ignore: Hilliard was in the 74th percentile at the running back position in college target share. He can get involved in the passing game. He won't be Duke Johnson, but I can see him getting four or five targets her game and a handful of carries when Chubb needs a rest.

 

Dare Ogunbowale - Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I really hope Dare Ogunbowale has a good year, in large part because his sister, Arike Ogunbowale, is one of the WNBA's top rookies and Dare is a big supporter of her.

But there are also plenty of non-Arike reasons why I think Ogunbowale has a good year with Tampa Bay, and a couple of those reasons happen to be ahead of him on the depth chart.

Peyton Barber.

Ronald Jones II.

That's the top-two back rotation in Tampa. Barber was 76th among backs in production premium, 57th in yards per touch, 113th in fantasy points per opportunity. Barber's play last year screams "don't give him a big role in 2019."

But he has one because his backup was even worse last year. I'm still a slight believer in Ronald Jones II, but his rookie year was bad. Jones had a preseason that was so bad that the Buccaneers looked at it and said "alright, Peyton Barber is our starter," and then in nine games, Jones had 23 carries for 44 yards and a touchdown. He had seven catches for 33 yards. That's...not great.

I think Jones improves enough to be mixed into the offense, but I think that number-one role is up for grabs. Barber could easily drop to third on the depth chart because of Dare Ogunbowale.

Ogunbowale hasn't really been that good this preseason as a runner, but he did have a pair of rushing touchdowns in the preseason opener and Ogunbowale can be the most efficient of this team's backs. Among backs, he was in the 85th percentile in target share in college, and his ability to be used as a receiver was on show in the team's preseason meeting with Miami when he caught three passes for 54 yards. Ogunbowale seems to be the best receiving back on this team, and I think the coaching staff will also come to that conclusion.

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