There’s no doubt that the running back has quickly become the most valued position in fantasy football, with 14 out of the first 20 picks in PPR leagues being starting running backs. Being able to find a “sleeper” running back outside of these first 14 runningbacks can prove to be an invaluable asset for depth or for trade purposes. In particular, there are three quality sleeper running backs I am attempting to target late in my drafts.
I think it’s important to understand why so many people are attempting to draft so many RBs so early. Last year, in 2019 PPR leagues, the “premium” RBs (Aaron Jones, Dalvin Cook, Ezekiel Elliot, Austin Ekeler, Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, Derrick Henry) averaged a little under 20 PPG (McCaffery averaged 30 which blows my mind). Mark Ingram and Nick Chubb were next up with approximately 16 PPG, which is nearly a 20% decrease in points. This leads you to the second tier of running backs (Miles Sanders, Josh Jacobs, Joe Mixon, Le’veon Bell, Todd Gurley, etc), who were all around 14 PPG. Drafting one of those premium backs gives you a 30% point advantage over a tier 2 starter, which ends around RB 20. Wide receivers and quarterbacks have a way more stable core. For receivers, we don’t see a 30% fall off from the premium receivers until you exit the top 30. Quarterbacks have a quicker fall off, but most standard leagues only draft one quarterback so there are more than enough solid fantasy options.
The top RB 1 options(McCaffery, Zeke, Cook, Barkley, etc) are talented running backs who have the sole control of their backfield. Finding a runningback of their talent as a sleeper is always difficult, however finding options who are in position to take the bulk of snaps is not. One of the most important things I look at is the opportunity for success. This is why I believe David Johnson can finally return to his 2016 form, as he is the primary option for a Texans offense that will need to generate offense without DeAndre Hopkins. It is also why I believe David Montgomery will be able to out-perform his draft position by a large amount as the sole option on the Chicago Bears. Jerick McKinnon also has a chance to become a huge contributor to one of the leagues top rushing offenses.
David Johnson: Currently being drafted at RB 20 (according to FantasyFootballCalculator), David Johnson has a legitimate chance at finishing in the top-10 RBs. Finishing as RB1 in 2016 and RB10 in 2018, injuries have prevented him from succeeding in 2017 and 2019. I feel like most fantasy owners have been burned by him at least once in the past few years (I know I have), but I believe he is worth one more shot. Bell, Fournette, Carson, Gordon, and Gurley are all being drafted slightly ahead of David Johnson. However, unlike Carson and Gordon, Johnson represents the clear-cut starting RB in his backfield. Bell is forced to rush behind a nearly brand-new offensive line who get 14 padded practices to gain chemistry and face one of the hardest schedules in football. Fournette’s breakout season last year was fueled by his high volume of targets and receptions. However, the signing of new OC Jay Gruden’s favorite third down back, Chris Thompson, doesn’t bode well for his pass volume.
David Johnson comes to a team that just provided Carlos Hyde a 1,000 yard season behind a run-blocking offensive line that ranked slightly above average with the addition of Laremy Tunsil (per Football Outsiders). On the Cardinal’s offensive line that was ranked one spot below the Texans, Johnson was able to reach RB 7 through 6 weeks before his injury in 2019. He showed he could be a reliable pass catcher after his 2017 wrist injury, and continued to show his explosive running until he went down with an injury. By the time he recovered, HC Kliff Klingsbury was focused on seeing what the Cardinals had with RB Kenyan Drake, and benched Johnson for the season. Bill O’Brian made a career-deciding trade when he sent Hopkins to the Cardinals in exchange for David Johnson and draft picks. If David Johnson fails, Texans fans will be calling for O’Brian’s head. It is in his best interest to set Johnson up for success, and by trading that much, I feel like that is his intention. If David Johnson can avoid freak injuries, I believe he will easily surpass his RB 20 ADP and should give you that “premium” RB point advantage.
David Montgomery: Montgomery has an ADP of 42, putting him at RB 23. I completely understand if you want no part of the Bear’s offense (except for Allen Robinson of course). Trubisky essentially became a national joke with his terrible 2019 season. David Montgomery, who was drafted as a top-30 pick last year, largely disappointed with his RB 25 finish. The Bear’s offensive line was a large part of his struggle. Projected to finish as a top-10 unit, the line had the 28th worst run blocking metrics in the NFL (per Football Outsiders). David Montgomery was in the bottom 30 for yards before contact, as the line struggled to communicate and make the right blocks. The Bears offensive line made multiple improvements, signing two former top-50 picks and drafting a couple depth pieces. If they can exceed their atrocious finish last season, Montgomery should see a huge increase in rush yards.
There are many positives for Montgomery other than an improved line. In 2019, he gained 44% of his yards after contact. Montgomery, who was one of the best tackle-breakers in all of NCAA history, was 6th in the NFL with 28 broken tackles. Now, his rehab doctor reported he dropped 4% body fat and gained one pound, which means he put on a huge amount of muscle in the offseason. His new-found strength should prove a huge asset in the red zone as well. In fact, Montgomery led the NFL by taking 85% of his team’s red zone carries, the highest in the NFL. If Trubisky can fix some of his struggles (which Chicago beat writers are saying he has), Montgomery should see way more scoring opportunities to improve his 6 touchdowns in 2019. While Montgomery may not have the proven ceiling of David Johnson, he is the only lead back left on the draft board past the third round. A prolific college runner, Montgomery has the chance to explode and give you a massive advantage in your league. He faces a league average rushing strength of schedule (per FantasyPros). At the worst, he retains his RB 25 spot from last season, and you get what you drafted. But if you are able to grab a WR or two before this pick, I think he offers a safe floor with a high ceiling.
Jerick Mckinnon: McKinnon hasn’t been fantasy relevant since his Vikings days three years ago, but you wanted a sleeper right? With an ADP outside of the top-170, he is likely going undrafted in nearly all leagues. The 49ers seemed to have found their lead back in Raheem Mostert, but I wouldn’t be so sure. Remember, two seasons ago, Kyle Shanahan signed McKinnon and made him a top-5 paid back in the league. When he tore his ACL in the last practice of the preseason, Shanahan said he was worried because his whole playbook was designed around McKinnon. One of the highest scoring offenses in the league with a lead back sounds like fantasy football gold. It’s why people are so enticed by Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The 49ers beat reporters are saying McKinnon looks great in camp, and still appears to have his game-breaking speed and agility. He has been taking multiple passes and it appears like he will play a swiss army knife role in Shanahan’s offense this year, lining up all over the field.
For essentially a free pick, you get a handcuff with possible stand-alone value in an offense that dominated with the run last season. Mostert has struggled with injuries in the past and Tevin Coleman was wildly inefficient last year. If Jerick McKinnon looks like what Shanahan paid so much for years ago, I wouldn’t be surprised if he finishes in the top-30. We saw what Shanahan could do with UDFA Matt Brieda just based on his speed. If McKinnon is given similar opportunities, he should pull off big plays left and right. After not playing for two seasons and taking heavy heat from 49ers fans left and right, I wouldn’t be surprised if McKinnon plays with a chip on his shoulder this year.
With running backs all being drafted so early, it is difficult to find a supposed “sleeper”. I believe that David Johnson and David Montgomery will both outperform their ADP by a wide margin, and provide extreme value in one of fantasy football’s most desired positions. While McKinnon may not amount to anything this season, he has the potential to be the lead back for the 49ers. He is the one late dart throw I am taking in many of my leagues just to hold onto, solely because of what I perceive his ceiling to be. Of course, many others may disagree, and if you do let us know on Twitter!