As with every year, running backs will have to deal with injuries and teams will have committee backfields to split touches amongst all of the running backs. Each year has a completely unknown running back randomly emerge and become a fantasy football star such as Phillip Lindsay, Chris Carson or Damien Williams. Some of the backfields are more predictable and will produce solid RB2/flex options with additional upside such as Mark Ingram, Latavius Murray and James White last year. This article will not talk about the backfields that traditionally produce two fantasy starters (New Orleans, New England, San Francisco) but focus on the lesser known players. The top of this list will of course contain players who have established roles that could rise to prominence with an injury ahead of them. Each of these players have some standalone value until their time comes to start also. Each of these players are not extremely high upside picks such as Darwin Thompson, Justice Hill, Tony Pollard, Alexander Mattison or Justin Jackson but are being massively underrated at their current average draft position (ADP).
Austin Ekeler, RB, Los Angeles Chargers
Yes, this may be an obvious start but we have to talk about Ekeler at his current ADP. Many do not consider Ekeler the handcuff, as everything we have heard in terms of news for the Chargers backfield indicates Justin Jackson will fill in for the Melvin Gordon role. This means Ekeler resumes his normal role, but likely with a slight bump in targets and carries. Ekeler was not his efficient self when forced to start and his Pro Football Focus rating took a nosedive over the last few weeks of the season. Volume does matter a significant amount for running backs and it boosted his value dramatically when given additional touches. It seems the Chargers learned that he is suited for his normal role. When given a prominent role, he scored in three out of his last four games.
In ½-point point per reception (PPR) leagues, Ekeler was the 13th ranked running back in points per game after Melvin Gordon was injured and the 27th ranked running back in total points before the Melvin Gordon injury. Ekeler is currently being drafted across all sites as the 30th ranked running back and is being drafted as the 104th overall player in Yahoo leagues. Either way, it is clear that especially in Yahoo, he is being valued way below his floor. There is no reason to believe Ekeler will not have positive game scripts with a passable offensive line and more targets with the departure of Tyrell Williams. He could be a solid RB2, RB3 or flex on your team right away if you load up on wide receiver early.
Dion Lewis, RB, Tennessee Titans
Many experts list their top steals of the draft and consider Lewis to be one of them if you need a safe option on the bench during a bye. The main issue with Lewis is his lack of touchdowns compared to Ekeler. This likely comes from the fact that the Titans regularly play from behind and produce a poor game script for the run game. Lewis has an above average to solid offensive line (if everyone can stay healthy this year) which is vital to his production. If Ryan Tannehill takes over later in the season and Derrick Henry becomes injured from taking 25-plus runs per game like the coaches say, then Lewis could be thrust into a higher role and turn out higher RB2 numbers.
Both of these “ifs” are completely plausible scenarios. Lewis had 917 total yards and 59 catches last year which are solid numbers for a player being drafted as the 51st running back across all sites in PPR leagues. He was the 29th ranked running back in ½-PPR when starting last year and the 30th ranked running back overall last year. He is not a high upside player but is worth consideration at his ADP in larger sized leagues or as a safe plug-in during bye weeks. You have players such as Peyton Barber, Carlos Hyde and Kalen Ballage going ahead of him in drafts which seems a little silly.
Jalen Richard, RB, Oakland Raiders
This is a very quiet player few are talking about and he is my top sleeper. Richard has had fantasy relevant production despite not starting a single game. With some luck, Richard has even less competition for his touches and catches. Isaiah Crowell was signed to the Raiders to compete with his touches and now he has a torn Achilles tendon. Doug Martin, the team’s leader in touches last year, was also placed on Injured Reserve leaving Richard is the No. 2 running back behind Josh Jacobs.
Another plus for Richard is that Jacobs has never handled a massive workload in his college career and it is unknown if he can do that at the NFL level. Josh Jacobs has rushed for 1,491 yards in college, spread over 40 games in three years. Running backs in the NFL are given more than his 251 college career rushing attempts in a single year. Ezekiel Elliott had 381 attempts last year alone for reference. Many experts are questioning his ability to handle a massive workload that Jon Gruden will likely give him. I have real questions on how many games Jacobs will play or even how many touches in a game he can handle.
Last year can be looked at as Richard’s absolute floor for this upcoming year. Many experts are doubtful that Jacobs will be given as many touches as Doug Martin last year. Richard is easily ahead of DeAndre Washington, the only other running back, on the depth chart also. Richard has 866 yards last year coupled with 68 catches but just one touchdown. Touchdown rate is always expected to regress to the average with running backs according to many experts. If we look at rankings, Richard was the 34th-ranked running back last year in ½-point PPR scoring ahead of Latavius Murray and Mike Davis. Richard was the 29th ranked running back in full point PPR for last year while competing with three other running back threats.
Richard actually lead the team in receptions last year and the next two receiving options are no longer on the team. Having Antonio Brown to work the middle of the field and Tyrell Williams to work the deep part of the field should help open up receiving for Richard also. Tight ends also regularly compete with running backs for targets and with Jared Cook gone, Richard should have more targets. Richard is being drafted as running back 66 and the 223rd player overall in leagues. This is absolutely criminal and he will massively produce this draft value regardless of injuries.
Others to Consider
Royce Freeman was considered for the list but his lack of receiving production (72 yards) is too concerning to make the top of the list. He could easily take over Phillip Lindsay’s role if he were to be injured as he is a smaller running back. Freeman apparently has cut his weight down as well to be quicker. The coaching staff could make Freeman a fantasy relevant player but I do not currently see it happening. As the 36th running back off the board and 98th overall, there are significantly better options such as Matt Breida, Marvin Jones, or a high upside running back such as Tony Pollard, Justin Jackson or Darwin Thompson.
Jamaal Williams was considered also due to his 670 yards last year and the tie to the Green Bay offense. As a Green Bay fan and someone who watched him closely since his arrival, I believe he will be edged out by Dexter Williams by the end of the season. Even if Aaron Jones misses games as he usually does, Jamaal Williams still does not present enough upside to draft as he was only fantasy relevant for two games last year. Dexter Williams is a deep sleeper that could be taking Aaron Jones’ place if he is injured.
Mark Ingram currently owns the Baltimore backfield and will be force fed touches. Justice Hill still could have some minor production alongside Ingram. If Ingram is injured later in the year, Hill could be a RB1 for any team with massive upside. Gus Edwards is now currently listed as the second running back on the depth chart but watch for Hill moving up in the season. Other players are much better values at ADP and Ingram has shown to be durable.