Three Sleeper Running Backs
August 13, 2014 | Jeff
Injury issues and inconsistency at the running back position can be maddening for fake footballers over the course of a 13 game regular season race. Last season, players like Doug Martin, Arian Foster and (grab a bucket) Trent Richardson all doomed fantasy squadrons and left owners wearing out the waiver wire like an old two button Nintendo controller. On the bright side, many of those same fake footballers, with our help (wink), were able to snag some late-round running backs that kept their teams above water and allowed them to sail into the fantasy playoffs. Did you snag Pierre Thomas in the 1th round last year? Joique Bell in the 13th? If your hand is raised at his very moment, then you understand the impact a late-round running back can have on a fantasy team. So what about this season? Let’s jump right in and check out three sleeper running backs who could boost your roster in 2014.
Average Draft Position
If you have been reading our Training Camp Notes here at The Fake Football, you know I like to squeeze in any J-Stew updates I can get my grubby mitts on. No matter what his latest ailment happens to be, I always look forward to the pending return of Jonathan Stewart to the Carolina backfield. Of course, the major issue here is that we have been stuck in that waiting phase since 2011 like Garth Algar waiting for his Sports Illustrated football phone. The good news is that Stewart’s perennial brittleness has driven his ADP so low that he is now essentially a free running back in fantasy drafts. If he blows a hammy or gets wrecked with a high ankle sprain in Week Two, just dump him and hit the waiver wire. Losing a 16th round pick certainly won’t cause your fake football squad to crumble. Ok, we all know Jonathan Stewart has had piles of injury issues, but what about his upside?
The sleeper appeal of Jonathan Stewart rests in his residence (Carolina) and his repertoire (pass catching). First, lets talk about the Panthers. Two things we know about Carolina head coach “Riverboat” Ron Rivera is that he is no stranger to a craps table and he likes to run the football. Using our handy Offensive Coordinator Spreadsheet, we see that the last three seasons have been loaded with work for DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and fat Mike Tolbert. Since 2011, the Carolina offense has been firmly entrenched in the top half of the NFL in rushing attempts and finished 3rd, 9th, and 11th in team rushing yardage. While the goal line carries are unfortunately reserved for Carolina’s ginormous quarterback, the work between the 20’s is plentiful for Panther backs.
If you put that mouse (or scrolling finger) to work, the second thing you’ll notice about Carolina is that the Panthers backfield rakes in the receptions. In the last three years, there has been an average of 60 receptions spread between Carolina backs, headlined by our main man J-Stew in 2011, when he hauled in 47 receptions. In 2013, 47 catches would have placed Stewart right on the heels of such three-down studs as LeSean McCoy (52 receptions) and DeMarco Murray (53 receptions). Nobody will confuse Stewart with those two first round fantasy selections, but the skills are there. In addition, if you can close your eyes and take the leap of faith required to ignore his injury plagued 2012 and 2013 seasons, you’ll find that Stewart averaged 4.6, 5.1, 4.3, and 5.4 yards per carry in his first four NFL campaigns.
He is certainly not without his warts, but at the tail end of a fantasy draft you will be snagging one serious upside running back in Jonathan Stewart. After all, the “what if he stays healthy” card is good enough to keep Arian Foster’s ADP sky high, so why not give Stewart a shot?
Average Draft Position
This next sleeper running back is a savvy selection that depends on where your fantasy league is hosted. If you play at ESPN, go ahead and skip this section as the world wide leader (in what exactly?) has McCluster listed as a wide receiver. If you happen to play at Yahoo, MyFantasyLeague, or CBS, you’re in luck! Remember last season when Terrelle Pryor clawed his way into starting fantasy lineups on the back of his rushing skills? Remember watching his T-Rex throwing motion and wondering how you were possibly starting him at the position labeled “quarterback?” Well this year, Dexter McCluster will have the same sneaky impact as a running back, most notably in PPR leagues.
McCluster is now playing his foozball in Tennessee under the watch of new head coach Ken Wisenhunt. The Wiz spent some time as the top dog in Arizona before serving as San Diego’s offensive coordinator in 2013 and turning Philip Rivers into a weekly fantasy starter. In the middle of orchestrating Rivers’ bounce back season, Wisenhunt also turned little Danny Woodhead into a certifiable PPR beast. Woody only handled 106 rushing attempts, but he hauled in a whopping 76 catches, good for second among NFL running backs behind Pierre Thomas. So what makes us think McCluster can do the same thing this season in Tennessee?
On the surface, the backfield setup in Tennessee seems somewhat similar to the 2013 backfield in San Diego. There is a younger early down back (Ryan Mathews/Bishop Sankey), a slug veteran back to handle a few carries (Ronnie Brown/Shonn Greene), and a crazy fast running back with serious speed and receiving skills (Woodhead/McCluster). Beyond the surface, McCluster’s history of usage in the NFL suggests that he is more than ready to take on an increased role in the passing game. In Kansas City, McCluster averaged just over 50 catches per season since 2011 and showed he has the speed to rack up YAC yards as he finished fifth among NFL running backs in 2013 with 9.6 yards per catch. If McCluster is indeed worked into a Woodhead-esque role for the Titans, he could snare 60+ receptions this season and be a fine bye week plug-in at the very least. For the bargain basement price of free, you can’t go wrong here.
Average Draft Position
Ingram is a tad more sought after than our first two sleeper running backs, but that doesn’t mean his current ADP doesn’t pack a truckload of potential. Using the fantasy football world’s obsession with previous year’s stat lines dictating present ADP’s, we are getting some nice value with Ingram in drafts at the moment. In 2013, Ingram was limited to action in only 11 games due to injury, so he was largely out of the spotlight in New Orleans. Darren Sproles was up to his usual pass catching shenanigans while Pierre Thomas was busy hauling in 77 catches himself and leading the Saints in rushing attempts. So Ingram’s 2013 season was lost…or was it? Ingram still manged to rumble for 4.9 yards per carry in his limited action and actually averaged more rushing yards per game than Thomas. Although he never fully entered the fantasy forefront outside of a couple decent games, Ingram was still useful to the New Orleans backfield.
This leads us to the 2011 and 2012 seasons, which are the best examples of what we can expect from Ingram this season. In both ’11 and ’12, it wasn’t Thomas, but Ingram who led the Saints in rushing attempts and I think we can bet on that happening again this season. The departure of Sproles opens up another 50-60 carries in New Orleans, so there will be more work to go around and I am willing to bet that Ingram is the lead back behind Drew Brees. Pierre Thomas will still collect his catches on third downs, but the early down and goal line work will go to Ingram. It’s not a stretch at all to believe that Ingram will carry the ball north of 160 times this year with a respectable touchdown total in tow as well.
The only minor wrench in this story is youngster Khiry Robinson. Robinson has gathered some serious steam this offseason, which has actually catapulted his ADP ahead of Ingram’s. If you encounter any of these people drafting Robinson ahead of Ingram, kindly direct them to The Fake Football, or ask them to join your league. If the “youth” appeal of Robinson is luring you in, please consider that Ingram is just one week older than Khiry Robinson and has two extra seasons of NFL experience. In New Orleans’ first preseason game last week, Ingram handled eight carries, while Robinson received five carries himself as Pierre Thomas sat out. Both players found the endzone, but Ingram tallied 83 yards to Robinson’s 23 yards. This is a split that will only grow wider as the season wears on. Be sure to chuckle during your draft as Robinson gets selected while Mark Ingram waits patiently in your draft queue.