Here are my top 5 “sleeper” running backs of the year. Like I’ve said before, RBs are pure gold in most leagues, and many a flyer is taken trying to find the next Dom Davis or Priest Holmes…guys who came seemingly from nowhere to become true fantasy difference-makers.
Due to the immense demand for productive players at this position, be prepared to pay a little more for these sleepers than for those at other positions. There’s a fine line between speculating and flat out overpaying for an unproven ‘sleeper’ here, so use your best judgement. I find that playing a hunch often works out, but don’t look over proven producers at other positions. The guys here are not top 30 players in your draft, and a couple will likely be available at pick 80…or even later. After all, that’s what makes them ‘sleepers’, right? Ok, here’s the list:
Julius Jones RB Dallas Cowboys
“This is my twin brother, Julius” – Arnold Schwarzenhagger, Twins 1988
No, they’re not twins, but Julius is the younger bro of Bears back Thomas Jones, and he’s someone you need to look at. Julius has had an interesting preseason in the fantasy world. After the NFL draft, he was touted as being Tuna’s choice as the starter, and in the minds of many, the next Curtis Martin. At that point, he was as high as a top 20 pick in many redraft mocks of the time. How quickly things change! After the ‘Boys signing of Eddie George, Julius’ stock dove faster that that of Enron in ’01. Both of these valuations were exaggerations of the true situation, but Jones is selling WAY too cheaply now and is worth a look if you can snag him as your #3 RB. I love Eddie George, he’s actually one of my favorite players due to his attitude and durability. But 3 yards and a cloud of dust just isn’t going to cut it for very long in Big D. Believe me, Eddie’s in town due to Jerry Jones, not Parcells. Jones is far more skilled at this point, and based on what I’ve seen in camp, he’s ready to produce immediately. The knock on most rookie backs is that they have a tough time picking up the blitz and getting their QB beheaded in the process. No such problems with young Julius. Expect George to get 10-12 carries a game early in the year and become almost an afterthough after a few games. Jones is an incredible value pick for you if you can snag him at #50 or later. Watch some stooge with a ’99 cheatsheet draft George early, then snag JJ later…you’ll look like a champ by Halloween!
Ron Dayne RB New York Giants
I can hardly believe I’m saying anything good about his guy, but he’s worked himself up to ‘sleeper’ status. The guys I watch ball with on Sundays call him “Fat Dayne”. After being the Heisman winner a few years ago at Wisconsin, he’s been an absolute waste of flesh in the pros. I mean, a real steaming pantload! A slovenly tub of goo with a 40 time measured with a sundial. A man so slow and fat, it took him two trips to haul ass! In other words, he wasn’t one of the Giants stronger players.
OK…now that’s out of our collective systems…
Dayne has lost somewhere between 20 and 30 pounds (depending on who you listen to), and is still powerful enough to move the pile. There’s a new general in Jersey, and his name is Tom Coughlin. He loves a power back who can control the clock, and he absolutely detests fumblers. With Tiki Barber having some of the more slippery mitts in the game, Dayne has a chance to snag 15+ carries a game and be the goal-line back. Of course, I saw him fumble on the goal line on consecutive carries last week, and the next time that happens he’ll be headed back down to the Krispy Kreme for good. But we’re talking sleepers here, and “Fat Dayne” might just become a spot starter for you fantasy team. Assuming your league doesn’t have an idiot in it that drafts only Giants and Jets, as many ESPN leagues seem to for whatever reason, keep your eye out for this guy very late…pick 100+. You could do worse. Or maybe you couldn’t. We’ll see. Watch Dayne either become a real player, or complete his transformation into ReRun from Good Times. Stay tuned…
Tyrone Wheatley RB Oakland Raiders
I don’t expect to see Tyrone at the Pro-Bowl this year, but he’ll likely see the bulk of carries for the Black and Silver…at least early in the year. Someone has to tote the rock for them, and Wheatley is the best of a rather sorry bunch. I can see him having a very solid first ½ of the year, then fading as he tires, the Raiders fall out of contention once again, and the Justin Fargas tryout begins. If he’s around late, draft ‘em and wait for a big game, then deal him to your local face-painting Al Davis fan. Or maybe the meathead Jet-Giant guy will remember him and think he’ll look just dandy in his backfield next to Vinny T and Richie Anderson. Either way, you win!!
Musa Smith RB Baltimore Ravens
I’m not sure why, but I’m much more worried about the plight of Jamal Lewis than most. This is a Federal case, and the Feds have a conviction rate of well over 90%. We’re not dealing with home-perming Marcia Clark or hammerheads in Eagle, Colorado here . Unless he starts squealing on his peeps, and quick, I fear that Jamal may quite soon have more concerns about his backside protection than ever before. “I must protect this house!!!” Ouch!!
That being the case, the Ravens may be in need of help at RB. Musa Smith is a talented young back from Georgia (think Herschel, Terrell…Olandis?), and he’s the likely ‘beneficiary’ of Lewis’ absence, should things come to that. Chester Taylor may get some carries too…see how this plays out in the preseason. At press time, Lewis is scheduled for a November trial. Lawyers have a way of postponing things, so this whole discussion may become a non-issue for the purposes of the 2004 season. But if it’s the very last round and you’re torn between drafting your backup Tight End, or taking a flyer on Musa…go crazy, young man!! And if you own Jamal…a REALLY cheap handcuff available here. You DID read my handcuffing article, didn’t you?
Tatum Bell RB Denver Broncos
Here’s a guy who was going extremely highly in Dynasty rookie drafts earlier this year, but who has fallen like a stone as of late due to the seemingly annual uncertainty in the Denver backfield, and the current opinion of many that Quentin Griffin is the starter-of-the-moment. But don’t forget, the Broncos drafted Bell in the 2nd round this year, and when was the last time you heard a coach rave in the preseason about how a rookie would start from the first game? And especially a spin-master like Shanahan! Bell is lightning-quick and has some Portis-like qualities about him for sure. He’s not someone who can take 25 carries every week, but as Portis proved the last couple of years, you don’t need a ton of carries to be a productive fantasy player behind the Broncos line. Evil Shanahan is extremely difficult to read, and expect an Excedrin 1000 headache trying to guess who will get the carries from week to week. But if it’s Bell, he has top 5 RB potential. He’s listed at the #46 RB in the current FantasySharks cheatsheet. No other player in fantasy football has this kind of upside drafted with such a late pick. Like I said, you may kill yourself trying to pick the right week to start him…but when you pick the right one, chalk up the W!!