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Five Running Back Sleepers to Target

Players from all 32 teams have reported to their training camps, which has inspired many fantasy managers to increase their participation in best-ball leagues. Some of you are also preparing your strategy for upcoming drafts in redraft leagues.

It is highly recommended that you remain flexible in your decision-making based upon the flow of every draft. But your treatment of the running back position will be critical, regardless of how you proceed during your draft process. Because your backs will play an integral role in determining the success of your teams. This includes the selection of backs for your roster that might be labeled as sleepers.

The term sleeper is evolving, and this designation does not imply that you are not familiar with these particular players. A growing percentage of fantasy managers have become adept at absorbing a mammoth amount of knowledge while researching their options prior to each draft. That has shifted the definition for the term sleeper toward describing players that are primed to exceed the expectations of their ADPs. With that explanation established, here are five backs to target after your drafts have progressed beyond the early rounds.

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Damien Harris, New England Patriots

ADP: 80/RB32

As a reminder, the term sleeper does not imply that you are unfamiliar with Harris. But it does suggest that he is being underrated at his current ADP (80/RB32). Harris had been available until Round 9 during the May draft process. But he is still worthy of selection at his rising ADP (Round 7) due to his impending role as the Patriots’ primary rusher. Harris began functioning as the team’s RB1 last season, after returning from hand surgery in September. He immediately registered 100 yards during his first matchup (Week 4), then assembled 471 yards (78.5 per game) during his first six games.

That vaulted him to fifth overall in yardage entering Week 11. Harris was also tied for second in rushes of 20+ yards while also generating 100+ yards during three of those contests. He also established season-highs in yardage (121) and attempts (22) in Week 10, before his statistical momentum diminished from Weeks 11-14 (13 attempts/55 yards per game).

Weeks 4-10 Attempts Yards Yards/Gm 20+ 100+
Dalvin Cook 126 660 132 3 3
Derrick Henry 119 627 104.5 5 3
Ronald Jones II 106 588 84 4 4
James Robinson 112 479 79.8 2 2
Damien Harris 85 471 78.5 4 3
Josh Jacobs 114 448 74.7 1 2
Kareem Hunt 95 429 71.5 0 1
Kenyan Drake 81 393 78.6 4 2
Todd Gurley 110 387 64.5 2 1
Ezekiel Elliott 92 353 58.8 1 0
Clyde Edwards-Helaire 71 346 57.7 2 1
Mike Davis 78 338 48.3 1 0
Alvin Kamara 73 333 55.5 3 0

Harris still led the Patriots in each category during that span, before being sidelined from Weeks 15-17 (ankle). He finished the season as New England’s leader in yardage despite performing in 10 matchups (691/69.1 per game) and should resurface with an extensive workload in Week 1.

The presence of James White will limit Harris to minimal involvement as a pass-catcher. However. his usage in the red zone could expand. Harris was entrusted with 21 red zone carries, which was exactly half of Cam Newton’s team-high total (42). Those opportunities also fueled Newton’s 12 touchdowns. But a transition from Newton to Mac Jones under center would alter the touch distribution inside the 20.

The Patriots selected Rhamondre Stevenson during Round 4 of April’s NFL Draft, and the newcomer should pilfer carries during the season. But his eventual role will be more problematic for Sony Michel, than Harris. Michel averaged a career-high 5.4 yards per attempt during 2020, after averaging 4.1 during his first two seasons. But he missed seven matchups (quad), while Harris surpassed him on the depth chart. Stevenson should also leapfrog Michel, which will accelerate Michel’s path toward irrelevance. These factors have eliminated Harris’ competition for New England’s RB1 duties, which positions him to provide an appealing return on your investment.

 

Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens

ADP: 114/RB42

Edwards enters his fourth season with a role that is both defined and secure. He is also operating within a Baltimore offense that has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to the ground game. The Ravens paced the NFL in run play percentage for a second consecutive season during 2020 (55.9%), after finishing third in 2018. This has propelled Edwards to 700+ rushing yards during all three seasons while accumulating 414 attempts (9.6 per game), and 2,152 yards (45.2 per game) during that span.

That includes the career-highs that were generated last season in attempts (144/9 per game), and rushing yards (723/45.2 per game). Edwards also averaged 9.6 attempts, and 50.5 yards per game from Weeks 8-17, which coincided with the evisceration of Mark Ingram’s workload in the rushing attack. Edwards and Dobbins combined for 205 attempts, 1,156 yards, and 12 rushing touchdowns during that sequence, while Ingram averaged a minuscule 5.5 carries and 18.5 yards per game.

Edwards also averaged 10 attempts and 67.4 yards per game from Weeks 13-17, while finishing 12th among all backs in yardage during those contests (337). He also produced a career-best six touchdowns during 2020, after being entrusted with 25 carries inside the red zone, and a team-high nine carries inside the 5.

Lamar Jackson led Baltimore in attempts during 2020 (159/10.6 per game) and finished ninth overall in rushing yardage (1,005/67 per game). Dobbins finished third in attempts behind Jackson and Edwards (134/8.9 per game) but was second in yardage (805/53.7 per game). He should commandeer a higher percentage of carries than Edwards during his second season. But the season-long totals for both backs could be uncomfortably close for proponents of Dobbins at his current ADP (27/RB15).

Edwards' 22 career targets underscore his lack of involvement as a pass-catcher. However, Edwards finished seventh among all backs in Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average) and will retain consistent usage in Baltimore’s run-heavy approach. Any increased deployment of the Ravens’ passing attack will not alter the ground-oriented strategy that is the foundation of their offense. Edwards' workload and value would also rise substantially if Dobbins would experience an extended absence during the season.

 

Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts

ADP: 124/RB45

There should be no hesitation in seizing Jonathan Taylor as your RB1 during the middle portion of Round 1. But Hines will also receive opportunities within the Colts’ backfield rotation. Hines has proven that he can deliver highly productive outings. This elevates him among the most viable options once your drafts have advanced to the double-digit rounds, particularly if you are building a roster in best-ball leagues.

He has procured an ongoing role as an effective receiving weapon since arriving in Indianapolis (2018) while averaging 4.5 targets, 3.5 receptions, and 25.6 yards per game. He has also finished among the top eight at his position in targets during two of his three seasons.

Weeks 1-17 Targets Targ/Gm Rec Yards YAC Red Zone
J.D. McKissic 110 6.9 80 589 507 8
Alvin Kamara 107 7.1 83 756 731 14
Nyheim Hines 76 4.8 63 482 475 12
Ezekiel Elliott 71 4.7 52 338 360 7
Mike Davis 70 4.7 59 373 418 11
David Montgomery 68 4.5 54 438 396 10
Chase Edmonds 67 4.2 53 402 330 11
Austin Ekeler 65 6.5 54 403 473 8
Aaron Jones 63 4.5 47 355 365 10
James White 62 4.1 49 375 440 6

This includes his usage and production last season, when Hines was third in targets (76/4.8 per game) receptions (63/3.9 per game) receiving yards (482/30.1 per game), and yards after catch (475). He was also second in red-zone targets (12) while finishing among the top five in scoring three times from Weeks 1-10.

Hines led the Colts’ backfield in all receiving categories, while Taylor was a distant second - 40 targets (2.7 per game), 36 receptions (2.4 per game), 299 receiving yards (19.9 per game), and five red-zone targets. Hines was also second in rushing yardage (370/23.8 per game), and touchdowns (3), while Taylor easily led the team in each category (232 attempts/15.5 per game), (1,169 yards/77.9 per game).

Marlon Mack finished 10th overall in rushing yards (1,091/77.9 per game) during 2019. But a Week 1 Achilles injury abruptly concluded his 2020 season, while limiting him to a microscopic 11 snaps, four attempts, and 26 yards. Mack remains just 25-years old. But the roles of Taylor and Hines will create two major obstacles that will restrict Mack's ability to accumulate touches in the Colts' attack.

Indianapolis will transition from Philip Rivers to Carson Wentz under center, while former offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni has been replaced by former quarterbacks coach Marcus Brady. But Frank Reich will still call the plays, which should keep Hines consistently involved as a component in the Colts’ offense. He also delivers big-play ability that should produce sizable scoring during various weeks of the season. That supplies the incentive to target him when your drafts have entered Round 11.

 

Latavius Murray, New Orleans Saints

ADP: 127/RB46

The 31-year old Murray is another veteran with whom you are already familiar. But he received the sleeper designation due to his potential to outperform his current ADP.

Sean Payton’s specific blueprint for redesigning the New Orleans offense remains highly uncertain as the Saints enter Week 1 without Drew Brees under center. However, it is clear that the Saints will be navigating through the regular season with a dearth of proven receiving weaponry beyond Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. This was destined to become a factor in the strategy for this year’s aerial attack even if both players remained in the lineup.

Now, Thomas will be sidelined for multiple weeks following his ankle surgery. This intensifies the shortage of dependable receiving options following the departures of Emmanuel Sanders, and Jared Cook. The tandem had combined for 142 targets, 98 receptions, 1,230 yards, 1,388 air yards, and 12 touchdowns in 2020, and the challenge of replacing those two players has been compounded by the absence of Thomas. This reduction of resources leaves Tre’Quan Smith and Adam Trautman  as the most logical recipients for redistributed targets.

2020 Targets Targ/Gm Rec Yards TD
Alvin Kamara 107 7.1 83 756 5
Emmanuel Sanders 82 5.9 61 726 5
Jared Cook 60 4 37 504 7
Michael Thomas 55 7.9 40 438 0
Tre'Quan Smith 50 3.6 34 448 4
Marquez Callaway 27 2.5 21 213 0
Latavius Murray 26 1.7 23 176 1
Deonte Harris 25 2.8 20 186 1
Adam Trautman 16 1.1 15 171 1

This increases the likelihood that Payton will expand his reliance on the Saints’ ground game. That will involve Kamara, who should approach last season’s 19.6 touches per game average regardless of whether Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill is spearheading the offense. But it should also provide Murray with a steady role while he operates with favorable weekly touch totals.

Murray eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2015, but managers have become increasingly apathetic toward drafting him as anything beyond a handcuff in recent years. However, Murray has averaged 55.4 total yards per game during his two seasons with the Saints.

If you extract Week 17 of last season when both backs were inactive (COVID), Kamara has only been sidelined for two contests since Murray’s arrival in New Orleans (Weeks 7-8-2019). But Murray capitalized on his opportunity to perform as the team’s primary back during those matchups (48 attempts/221 rushing yards/18 targets/14 receptions/86 receiving yards/4 touchdowns), while finishing at RB1 in scoring (half PPR) during that two-week span.

Murray will be operating behind one of the NFL’s most effective offensive lines, which is anchored by tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead. This supplies a massive incentive for Payton to rely on this unit, which can reduce the impact of the depleted receiving arsenal. It also sustains the importance of both Kamara and Murray, while compelling managers to target Murray at his Round 11 ADP.

 

Kenny Gainwell, Philadelphia Eagles

ADP: 190/RB57

Gainwell was Antonio Gibson’s teammate at Memphis during 2019, when he led the Tigers in rushing attempts (231/16.5 per game), and rushing yardage (1,459/102.2 per game). Gainwell’s yardage total placed him 12th among all backs, while he also collected 51 receptions, and generated 610 yards as a receiver. He opted out of the 2020 regular season, but still became the ninth rookie to be selected during April’s NFL Draft.

Philadelphia secured Gainwell in Round 5, which infuses him into an environment that already contains a primary back. Miles Sanders led the Eagles in rushing attempts (164/13.7 per game), and rushing yardage (867/72.3 per game), despite missing four contests due to injuries (knee /hamstring). Sanders also led the backfield in targets (52/4.3 per game), although he only caught 28 of those passes (2.3 per game).

The Eagles will reshape their offense under the aforementioned Sirianni, who selected Shane Steichen as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator.  Steichen served in that capacity with the Chargers (2019-2020), and will join Sirianni in reconstructing a Philadelphia attack that ranked 24th last season (334.6 yards per game). The Eagles were also ninth in rushing (126.7 per game), and 21st in targets distributed to their running backs (17.3%).

Gainwell will need to ascend beyond Boston Scott and Kerryon Johnson on Philadelphia’s depth chart in order to capture an ongoing role. However, he completed the 40-yard dash in 4.44 during his Pro Day and possesses sufficient speed to generate sizable gains. He could also siphon targets from Sanders, whose inefficiency as a receiver resulted in a 53.8% catch rate. There are divergent opinions surrounding Gainwell's pass-blocking proficiency. But he has demonstrated the potential to block effectively, which will improve his chances of remaining on the field.

Gainwell also absorbed experience while operating in RPOs (run/pass option) as part of Memphis' spread offense - which should be beneficial with Jalen Hurts guiding Philly’s attack. Hurts will enter Week 1 with just 275 snaps as a starter. But his dual-threat capabilities deliver enticing upside, while his rushing ability will allow Sirianni and Steichen the opportunity to design plays that accentuate the strengths of Hurts and Philadelphia’s other skill players. This should include Gainwell, which supplies the rationale for targeting him at his Round 16 ADP.



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