It’s that time of year again were we start putting our fantasy pitchers, catchers and outfielders to rest in our mind and we wake the beast of gridiron obsession. Like slow moving fantasy zombies we browse magazine racks at the local Wal–Mart or Gas Station for Fantasy Football Magazines with promises of previously unknown knowledge. This will be no different. Commissioners from all around begin to dread the schedule conflict of every coach in the league just to make draft day and time. Coaches in those same leagues still can’t figure out how the draft works or the leagues’ rules. Each one of us will beam with confidence as “MY” team looks great on paper. ESPN sees a spike in viewer numbers as well as NFL network. A tidal wave of speculation and prognostication is surfed by eager players clicking away on lap tops, PCs, and electronic media just looking for that one guy who can put their team on top. Welcome to Fantasy Football season.
In this article I’ve decided to cover some obvious to maybe not so obvious running backs as potential sleepers. When I mention sleepers, I mean players who can contribute to your team at some point in the season as a stash or sneaky starter. I also wanted to educate and review this season’s crop of running back rookies. So let’s get started and enjoy!
Montee Ball: Denver Broncos
Ball seems an obvious rookie starter and has been very productive in college. Denver felt comfortable enough after drafting the Wisconsin running back to let former starter Willis McGahee go. I would really like to think Ball as the next Edgerrin James. Most likely this is for not. There are a few knocks on him to point out. One of the reasons he did fall to the 2nd round of the draft was his lack of top end speed. But note at the rookie combine he posted a 4.66 40 which was respectable for 19th out of 33 tailbacks who worked out that day. The other knock on Ball was his massive workload at Wisconsin; he amassed 924 carries in 4 seasons for the badgers. It’s reminiscent of former Lions back and first round pick, Kevin Smith, who out of college amassed 405 carries in three seasons at Central Florida. 405 of those carries came in his final year at Central vs. Ball’s final year at Wisconsin with 356. Plenty of tread on Ball has been worn. The plus side of this is that Ball more than proved he is capable of staying healthy with the heavy workload. Durability is not the issue…yet. So why would Montee be a sleeper? Easy, because people are worried about him sharing carries with a bulkier Ronnie Hillman and quickly fading Knowshon Moreno. Hillman had his chance last year and as of early OTAs, Hillman had been getting a lot of carries for negative yardage. To put that to rest Elway declared Ball as a 3 down back and Hillman as “Change of Pace”. The other answer is more than a few in your league immediately and ignorantly thinks, “Ron Dayne”, as they have been burnt by the former Wisconsin product. Ron Dayne he is not, by any means. Don’t let Ball fall too far as he will be grabbed earlier than you think, as anyone associated with Peyton Manning’s offense will.
Vick Ballard: Indianapolis Colts
Ballard could be a big time sleeper. Though he is not a flashy running back, he has nothing but opportunity coming out his ears. Yes, I know, Indy media has Ahmad Bradshaw inked in as the starter. Did anyone notice that Indy was also the only team somewhat serious about signing Bradshaw? Both backs are about the same size and stature, but Ballard is younger and healthier. In Bradshaw’s 6 seasons, only twice did he reach the pinnacle 1,000 yards. Not to mention a back whose main tools, being his feet and legs, have suffered multiple injuries. Let’s not forget that Bradshaw also shared his workload with Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward. He was unable to beat those two outright for the job and only once, in 2011, did he get it full time. I’m not so sure a team would pencil in a guy, so fragile, as “starter”. Ballard on the other hand did share backfield duties with a diversity of backs, often replacing an injured and pedestrian Donald Brown. His rookie year he managed 814 yards and 2 TDs respectably in a time share. He also proved he can play full time and produce, as he did vs. a tough Texans defense for 105 yards week 15 and in the playoffs vs. Baltimore for 91 yards. I see another time share until injury to Bradshaw and a sneaky pickup.
Le’veon Bell: Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh and running backs are like Nutella and Graham Crackers; they’re just meant to be together. Bell could be the real deal in Steel Town. He’s big (6’ 2” 230lbs), he’s fast enough (low 4.48 40), and strong. How strong? The Michigan State back ran for 1,700 yards last year; of those about 900 yards were after contact. That is a true measurable, due to the rarity of the holes to be the same in the NFL as they were in college. He can run inside and out, catch the ball and could be heavily relied on in Todd Haley’s offense. Bell faces little to no competition for carries which means he could be in line for some very solid numbers. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was the top rookie by season’s end. All Bell does is run over defenders that get in his way. The knocks on him is that he is a little slow on picking up the blitz and the Steelers offensive line is pretty weak, but that’s okay because his Spartan Line was awful too. He makes up for it as a spectacular pass blocker and receiver out of the back field. UPDATE: As of the release of this article Le’veon Bell suffered a Lisfranc injury and is expected to miss 6 – 8 weeks. Steelers are expected to go with Isaac Redman at running back. I’m not sold.
Giovani Bernard: Cincinnati Bengals
Benjarvus Green-Ellis may need a neck brace after the preseason. Just over his should and coming up fast, is first running back taken overall in the 2013 draft, Giovani Bernard. The former Tar Heel is an explosive threat, but at 5’-9” and 206lbs, he may just be a change of pace back the Bengals have been looking for. Bernard is extremely elusive and can explode around the edge. When working in space he is nasty, which makes him a big threat on special teams. He is phenomenal out of the backfield as a receiver and draws comparisons to Darren Sproles. On the surface he looks great but he does have problems with pass blocking and he did tear an ACL in 2010. Most likely it will be the dreaded “running back by committee” (RBBC) scheme in Cincy. At best it could be a 50-50 time share in the beginning of the season and Bernard overtakes the starting role by midpoint. Still, there are plenty of touches to go around as last year Bengals Backs touched the ball 401 times.
Andre Brown: New York Giants
I know David Wilson’s fantasy stock is rising but lets’ not forget that the G-Men love RBBC. It was no mistake that the Giants avoided exposing Wilson early on. Wilson has tremendous upside and tremendous downside. Although Wilson averaged about 5 yards per carry he only scored 4 rushing touchdowns on 71 attempts. Wilson will spell Brown at the goal-line and the short-yardage situations. Brown was on a tear prior his November ’12 broken fibula. In that short time the former practice squad back had 73 attempts for 385 yards, a team leading 5.3 yard average, and 8 touchdowns. Whereas Wilson had trouble with Blitz pickups, Brown did not. Knowing how to protect the QB will keep you on the field longer. Those flaws for Wilson will lead to more touches for Brown. Neither back will be a number one, but fantasy number wise its Brown’s for the taking in the Thunder and Lightning scheme.
Bryce Brown: Philadelphia Eagles
When Chip Kelly was hired as Head Coach of the Eagles one could be sure that he would have no problem running the ball. In the last 4 years that Kelly coached the Ducks they had a 62-38 run-to-pass ratio. Sick, I know. Just last year alone, Kelly’s Ducks averaged 315.2 rushing yards per game, third-highest in the nation. To make a Kelly offense tick he emphasizes the run and then run some more. Most likely LeSean McCoy will benefit from this, yet the heavy workload makes McCoy a risk with his recent injuries. When McCoy did miss time it was the former 7th round pick, Brown, who averaged 4.9 yards per carry as an explosive runner. The unfortunate and unimpressive part of Brown’s game was his 4 fumbles in which he lost 3. When McCoy did return to health he supplanted Brown as the starter. McCoy isn’t known as an injury prone player but another concussion could sideline him for a significant time. Even if McCoy manages to stay healthy the whole season, there will still be a huge role for backup Brown who at 6’-3” 223lbs, could steal goal-line carries from the smaller McCoy. The fumbling issues should also be corrected by season start, thus gaining more confidence by the coaching staff and finding creative ways to get both versatile backs on the field.
Jonathan Franklin: Green Bay Packers
It’s a well known fact that drafting a player in the first and second rounds of the draft don’t necessarily mean that player is best fit for your system, it’s more like getting a blue chipper you hope plays well in your system. It’s the players chosen in rounds 3 through 5 that you find your Pro Bowlers and system guys. Did anyone notice that Packers GM, Ted Thompson, jumped back into the fourth round and made a trade with the Denver Broncos to nab UCLA’s all time leading rusher, Jonathan Franklin? I did. A Lacy and Franklin combo could be nasty in an Aaron Rogers – led aerial attack. Franklin is a totally different runner than Lacy. Lacy is more your power back and thrives off contact, whereas Franklin is speedy and able to change direction quickly. The knock on Franklin is his size at 5’-10” and 205lbs, and he will be competing for the backup role alongside veterans James Starks and Alex Green. I doubt they will be much competition. I don’t see Franklin overtaking Lacy for the starting role unless injury occurs. I do however see the shifty back getting about 10-12 carries a game. A solid and productive back.
Mike Gillislee: Miami Dolphins
Without a doubt the Dolphins running back job belongs to Lamar Miller as it’s his job to lose. On the other hand there is plenty of doubt to who belongs at the number 2 back position. So far that position belongs to Daniel Thomas. Gillislee is a deep sleeper, but a strong senior season at Florida, where he led the SEC in carries (244, and a strong Senior Bowl showed he is a capable primary back. Potentially he shows the talent to be the Dolphin’s dark horse at the skill position. Though he’s not speedy, he is a “one-cut and go” back who has patience to wait for his blockers and burst to drive. Though he has shown pass catching ability, it does need some fine tuning. He is excellent in picking up the blitz and could be asked to play in case of ineffective and just about bust, Daniel Thomas. The reality is, Daniel Thomas is the 2nd back behind Miller until the coaching staff tire of his tip toeing through tackles routine. You can wait on Gillislee and stash mid season.
Mike Goodson: New York Jets
I’m going to try and touch this mess that is the New York Jets. First off they let an overrated Shonn Greene walk via free agency and replaced him with Mike Goodson and Chris Ivory. First let me say I don’t trust in Goodson, but he is a sleeper. Second of all, he needs to show up to Jets camp. Deep sleeper…snooze. The Jets preseason will be a three-way competition between Ivory, Goodson, and McKnight; whom I will cover later. To be honest Goodson hasn’t been productive since his stint with the Panthers and only last year got 35 carries in spot work for an injured Darren McFadden in Oakland. To Goodson’s credit, Oakland was so bad last year; nobody could look good running the ball.
Darren McFadden: Oakland Raiders
Yes he is a sleeper. Let me ask you this; how many coaches will let McFadden slide just due to his slide in production and being injury prone? McFadden is a sleeper…even though he’s never played more than 13 games in a season. He has lost the confidence of fantasy players’ game wide. He is definitely not worth investing in early, we know that, but Oakland has decided to go back to a Power-Run scheme vs. the previous ill-suited Zone scheme. Others forget that McFadden is only turning 26 this August, thus he still has potential in his prime. In 2010 and 2011, McFadden was bona fide #1 Fantasy running back averaging 5.2 yards or more a carry. That being the case, fantasy owners must be comfortable with the knowledge knowing McFadden won’t play a full season. If your okay with that than maybe you can get a resemblance of his 2010 production of 1,157 rushing yards 7 touchdowns, and 507 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns. Just a quick observation, the Raiders offensive line coach is former Jets offensive coordinator and Dolphins head coach/offensive line coach, Tony Sporano. Miami’s running game under Sporano averaged more than four yards per carry in five of his eight years, peaking at 4.4 in 2009. As the Dallas Cowboys run coordinator and O-Line coach he got big production from the likes of Julius Jones and Marion Barber. I’ll let you chew on that for a bit.
Reshard Medenhall: Arizona Cardinals
After trying to return 9 months post ACL it looked like Medenhall’s tires all but worn out. In his years with the Steelers he never was anything that popped or compelled you to think he was elite talent. Well, unless you count production. Medenhall’s game is about the goal-line where 28 of his 31 career touchdowns have been goal – to – go situations. Now he finds himself in Arizona with new head coach and former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Under Arians, Medenhall averaged 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns per season. Reshard should get plenty of goal-line looks this season as long as he can keep playing time distance from Ryan Williams and rookies Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington.
Eddie Lacy: Green Bay Packers
So all he has to do is beat out incumbent starter Dujaun Harris…serious. Lacy is considered the prototypical cow-bell back. Meaning he can carry the ball and the offense. Albeit an every down back, Lacy has yet to be adept to the passing game, and that may be holding him back from being named starter, well initially. Every year it‘s about comparisons and every year people want to know who is the next Adrian Peterson. Last year it was supposed to be Trent Richardson, but I argue it was Doug Martin. Lacy seems to have it all; power, size, and balance. Lacy also lacks pass protection, inconsistent vision, and breakaway speed. A very powerful runner though he is no A.P.. As fascinating as Lacy is, One must remember that this is Aaron Rodgers team. That being said, if Eddie can’t protect his star QB, then he won’t stay on the field every down. Coaches won’t tolerate just chipping defenders in pass protection. As a runner, Lacy’s ability to elude defenders is nothing short of impressive. He is hardly a one-trick pony either, displaying stop-start ability and a quick spin move. He excels pushing the pile and breaking tackles, doesn’t tap dance on contact and finishes runs. His power allows a team to punish defenses between the tackles. Lacy is a very reliable short yardage option who thrives on the inside game but is versatile enough to make it to the corner seam and make defenders miss. Now all he needs to do is win the starting job in Green Bay.