Hidden RB Gems
There is nothing more valuable to your team than an elite running back. It is why you spend your top five fantasy pick taking whoever you think has the best chance of finishing there.
But what if you didn’t have to?
Fantasy football is just like the stock market. You can invest in big companies like Ezekiel Elliott or Saquon Barkley, but it will cost a lot since they are established, and therefore the possible upside is limited. To get the premium payout, you need to find the next big company before they “breakout”. Just ask those who drafted Alvin Kamara in 2017. Hitting on these fliers, especially at running back, can single-handedly win your league.
There are many types of breakout backs, like Christian McCaffrey last year, that jump from tier 2 to tier 1. However, in this article, we want a home run, a late round back that can be a fantasy stud.
Listed are twelve of the best late-round running back campaigns since 2012. These running backs were all drafted outside of the top 36 (RB4 or lower), and finished inside the top 10, or the top six over the second half of the season.
So what can we learn from this? There is no secret formula for finding the next big thing at running back. However, a lot of these running backs do share similar characteristics. Here are five things you are looking for when finding a breakout running back. Not all of these guys have all five properties. This is simply to guide you in the right direction to make educated decisions come draft day.
Though there is no set-in stone rule that better offenses equal better fantasy running backs, but there is definitely a correlation.
This is clear as soon as you see the duplicate Broncos running backs at the top of the list. With Peyton Manning at the helm, the Broncos were the league's No.1 offense. When an offense scores that much, even the most average running backs can succeed for fantasy purposes.
Just look at Damien Williams last season, who was the RB3 in fantasy when he became the Chiefs (No.1 offense) starter. Neither Knowshon Moreno or C.J. Anderson were generational talents, but they piggy-backed off their team's success. Dion Lewis had a breakout with the Patriots in 2017, and then was almost irrelevant with the Titans the following year. LeGarrette Blount had 18 rushing touchdowns in the elite Patriots offense in 2016. Yes, EIGHTEEN. He was scoring touchdowns faster than Tony Romo was injuring his back.
Back to the point (no pun intended), all but three of the offenses in the table above were top 6 in points per game in their respective seasons. The talent of a late round RB could become irrelevant if they are on a good offense.
No Established Lead Back
When drafting a late round upside guy, you are likely not getting the back people are expecting to immediately be the starter. You are looking for a backup that can dethrone the lead guy, and it is much easier to overthrow someone who is unproven than established. Though drafting handcuffs, like Deangelo Williams and James Conner from the Steelers, can have its rewards, it is more likely for an RB1 finish when the back can play their way into the lead role.
Just look at the running backs on that chart. Alfred Morris was behind Roy Helu and Tim Hightower. Moreno and Anderson were behind Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman. David Johnson was behind Andre Ellington. Jordan Howard was behind Jeremy Langford. Dion Lewis was behind Mike Gillislee, James White, and Rex Burkhead on the Patriots depth chart. None of these names are Hall of Fame running backs.
The point is, aside from the Bell situation, just handcuffing a stud back does not usually garnish RB1 production. Identify situations where the "starter" has not proven they can be effective or handle a full workload.
Alvin Kamara built a role in the offense through the passing game, and had over 80 receptions, propelling him from borderline RB1 to elite. Dion Lewis also built his role in the Patriots offense in the passing game. If Johnson and Anderson had started 16 games, then seven of the twelve guys would have had over 50 receptions. Aside from the breakouts listed, players like James White in 2018, Danny Woodhead in 2015, and Darren Sproles in 2011, had top ten seasons through almost exclusively passing game work.
The truth is, more and more offenses are looking for pass-catching in their backs, so it not only increases their chances of becoming the starter, but increases both their floor and ceiling once the job is achieved.
Good Offensive Line
Okay, I know what you are thinking. No way I am going to scout out every offensive line in the league to find a late round fantasy running back. The fact is, you don't have to. Pro Football Focus (PFF) releases offensive line rankings before, during, and after the season that help predict and calculate who the best offensive lines in the league are. According to these rankings, all of the guys in the table above had top 20 offensive lines, and nine had top 10.
This is no coincidence, better offensive lines improves fantasy production. This strongly relates to the characteristic about good offenses. Though the Browns were by no means an elite offense last season, it made sense that Nick Chubb had an outstanding rookie season, behind the league’s 2nd best offensive line. The Falcons struggled offensively in 2015, but the offensive line was still ranked fourth in the league.
Though offensive lines are hard to predict due to injury, certain teams like the Patriots and Steelers have been elite for nearly a decade, and talent still largely dictates where an O-line will finish. So, just take a look at the preseason O-line rankings by PFF, or last season’s ranking, to help guide you in the right direction.
At other positions, fantasy owners often over-hype rookies as the "unknown" or "exciting", just to watch them be largely ineffective for fantasy purposes. However, this is not the case at running back. Even in early rounds, elite running backs like Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, and Saquon Barkley came at discounts their rookie year because people were scared of the unknown. More often than not at running back, this is a mistake.
Of the twelve names listed above, all but 4 were 23 or younger. Also, six were rookies. The two second year guys, Freeman and Conner, both did not see the field enough. Even Dion Lewis, who was 26 at the time of his breakout, still hadn't seen a full season on the field due to injuries. So, when looking for breakout running backs, focus on young guys who we haven't seen enough of yet, because if we have, and they didn't win the job, it is unlikely they do so now.
Generally, you are not going to see a standout first round NFL draft talent late in your draft. Of the eight first and second year breakouts, all but Nick Chubb were drafted in round 3 or later. So, a lot of the guys aren't predicted to be elite talents, and the best you can do is narrow down the options using the other characteristics, and take your shot.
Late-Round RB Targets
So, now that we have gone through what you are looking for with breakout running backs, here are some who may fit the bill this season. These are guys currently being drafted as RB4s who could finish inside the top 10 (ADPs taken from fantasyfootballcalculator.com).
D’Onta Foreman (RB #42)
Yes, my first late-round target is a guy who had fewer rushing yards last season than I did. And no, though I clearly have the athletic prowess to be an NFL running back with my 5.60 40-yard and 135 pound frame, I am no pro. However, Foreman truly defied all expectations last season by rushing for -1 yards on 7 carries, so my 0 yards on 0 carries just edged him out.
Though running forward is crucial in having a top 10 running back campaign, Foreman ran plenty forward in college, becoming only the second Texas Longhorn player (Ricky Williams was the first), to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season. This earned him a 3rd round pick by the Houston Texans in the 2017 NFL draft. Foreman had a solid rookie year behind Lamar Miller before tearing his Achilles in week 11. Few remember that Foreman was establishing himself as the better running back, shown in this week 11 game, where he had 10 rushes for 65 yards and two touchdowns.
Though Achilles injuries are tough to recover from, especially for running backs, Foreman is still extremely young, and does not need to be an NFL star to surpass the aging Lamar Miller, who has been less than impressive in his time in Houston. The Texans lack of action when it comes to adding running backs in the offseason suggests their confidence in Foreman. Though there is plenty of risk with him, the upside of being the lead back on what should be one of the league's most high powered offenses cannot be ignored.
Damien Harris (RB #46)
If there was a sixth characteristic, it would have been being at the bottom of the Patriots depth chart. For three straight years, a Patriots running back drafted outside of the top 30 has finished inside the top 10, with LeGarrette Blount in 2016, Dion Lewis in 2017, and James White last year.
Though the Belichick running game looks predictable as ever this year with Sony Michel expecting to take early down work, and James White to handle the passing downs, the Pats did what they do best on NFL Draft Day, and shocked the world by taking running back Damien Harris in round 3. We don't know much about Bill Belichick, but we do know that when he's not spying on the Giants, he is using every running back on his roster, and can make any of them look good.
With Michel struggling to stay healthy, and White having an exclusive passing down role in the offense, Harris could see some major goal line work, plus more if he can compete with Michel for early down touches. Harris is not the most exciting of prospects, but he was reliable, earning more playing time than first round pick Josh Jacobs under Nick Saban last season. Belichick has shown that he appreciates reliability in the past, carving out roles for guys like Blount, Burkhead, and White. Every running back on the Pats roster has RB1 upside, and Harris is the cheapest shot at it.
Justice Hill (RB #53)
“Run the damn ball.” These words, though known for being screamed at Pete Carroll after the 2015 Super Bowl, were also the philosophy of the Ravens offense last season. With Lamar Jackson looking as incapable at passing the ball as Kobe Bryant, the Ravens were the most run-heavy in the league over the second half of last season. With a solid defense, and Lamar Jackson still at the helm, the Ravens are likely to lead the league in rushing percentage once again.
Though Jackson will take a lot of that work himself, and newly signed Mark Ingram has been solid throughout his career, Justice Hill, a fourth-round pick in this season's draft, could be the most talented back on the team. Hill, who was extremely efficient at Oklahoma State (starting over Chris Carson), and shined at the combine, complements Ingram's skill-set well, and he could carve out an Alvin Kamara-like role in this offense.
Likely the better pass-catcher of the tandem, and possibly even the better runner, it is very possible Hill becomes the leader of this committee. Though many don't think Hill can emerge with the crowd of veterans around him, the same was said about Nick Chubb last season. Talent wins out, and if Hill has the talent, the volume in this offense can carry him to fantasy stardom.
Carlos Hyde (RB #47) / Darwin Thompson (RB #59)
Remember when I said good offenses leads to fantasy running back success? Well, calling the Chiefs offense "good" is like saying Adrian Peterson has "bad" parenting techniques. It's a criminal understatement.
Speaking of criminals, the loss of Kareem Hunt leaves a vacancy in the backfield of the league’s best offense. The Chiefs will likely see some regression, but still are among the best in the NFL. Their success translated to fantasy stardom at running back last season with Hunt and Damien Williams (RB3 when starting) both being elite fantasy options.
What makes Hyde and Thompson (rookie drafted in the 6th round) more intriguing is that Williams, previously an undrafted free agent who, prior to last season, had never seen over 50 carries nor 4.0 yards per carry, is the only guy in front of them. We have no history of Williams producing, or being able to withstand a full workload and stay healthy. Head Coach Andy Reid (speaking of unhealthy) is known for always having a workhorse back, and if Williams can't be the guy, Hyde or Thompson will fall into one of the most valuable spots in fantasy football.
Bruce Anderson (Undrafted)
In the current world of fantasy football, true "sleepers" are increasingly rare, but Anderson, an undrafted free agent, classifies as one. Also, the Buccaneers have not had a relevant fantasy back since Doug Martin.
However, this has the potential to change this year, as the Buccaneers upgrade from Dirk Koetter to Bruce Arians, which, especially for running backs, is like going from thin to double stuff Oreos. I mean, Arians made Andre Ellington look good in fantasy, which is almost as impressive as what George Kittle, one of my main sleepers last season, did to make me look good at fantasy.
With Arians, and in what should once again be a high scoring offense, the starter on the Bucs has significant upside. Though Anderson will be at best third on the depth chart heading into pre-season, his competition, Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones II, have not impressed in the past. Though it is possible that Jones establishes himself as the leader, it would not surprise me if the do-it-all Anderson could get his chance.
Anderson is what the Bucs offense needs, a guy who will take the holes that he is given and catch passes (his route tree saw significant improvement in college). Anderson will likely be undrafted in most leagues, and his path to RB1 upside makes him worth the late round flier.
Others receiving votes:
With Dalvin Cook seemingly being unable to stay on the field, and the Vikings looking to be among the most run heavy in the league, Alexander Mattison could be an interesting sleeper in the Latavius Murray role, with top 10 upside if Cook goes down.
Speaking of not staying on the field, No.4 overall pick Leonard Fournette has had similar troubles in Jacksonville, who drafted Ryquell Armstead as Fournette's backup. If Fournette misses time, or continues to be ineffective on the field, Armstead could be among the leaders in carries per week in the run-heavy Jaguars offense.
Speaking of early-round disappointments, Ronald Jones II and Rashaad Penny look to bounce back in their sophomore campaigns, and though I like Anderson in Tampa and Carson in Seattle, Jones and Penny have the pedigree and talent to win the starting job.
Todd Gurley has pedigree and talent, but also seemingly has arthritis, and if he continues to be limited in his workload, Rams running backs Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown could see major touches on what could be the best offense in football.
The Bills are not going to be the best offense in football, but they could be significantly improved, and with only the competition of "ageless" Frank Gore and "shady" Lesean Mccoy, rookie Devin Singletary could take the job in Buffalo.
Steelers running back James Conner, though elite from a fantasy standpoint last season, has not proven he is a top durable NFL running back, leaving opportunity for rookie Benny Snell and pass-catcher Jaylen Samuels to be involved in possibly the best situation for fantasy running backs.
Dirk Koetter's offenses are definitely not the best situations for fantasy running backs, but with an injury prone Devonta Freeman, rookie Qadree Ollison is interesting in deep leagues.
With Melvin Gordon possibly holding out, Justin Jackson could see the early down work in a high-powered Chargers offense.