The Top Running Back Sleepers for 2019 Fantasy Football

by Nick Ercolano July 10, 2019

The Top Running Back Sleepers for 2019 Fantasy Football

A lot of my season-long drafts this year will look something like maybe an RB in the first round and then the next 4-5 rounds filled with safe, productive WRs and a top tier TE. Or maybe two wonderful WRS and pray to the gawds some combination of Marlon Mack, Aaron Jones, Kerryon Johnson, Derrick Henry fall to me in the 3rd/4th rounds, then the next 2-3 rounds, again are safe WRs and a TE. Once you start getting into the later rounds, you want upside. Running backs ARE upside in fantasy football.

I'll try to keep this to guys getting picked at pick 100 or later, otherwise I'd go on all day about Rashaad Penny, Royce Freeman and Latavius Murray, but they're not true sleepers, they're mid-round picks, almost 6th rounders in 12-team leagues. That being said, if they fall to you at great value then hell yeah, Cop Cop Cop.

There will always be sleepers that come out of nowhere. The Philip Lindsays, the Gus Edwards but in my opinion, there are a few things when it comes to looking for sleeper running backs that give you the highest probability of hitting on them - first and foremost is an ambiguous backfield. This is super important to help you separate running backs in the later rounds that you should draft vs. not drafting and a lot of this has to do with handcuffs vs. guys that can actually overtake their backfield.

In my draft guide, the BDGE 2019 Season-Long Draft Guide, which is available right now on www.bigdogsdraftguide.com - I have a Top Sleepers article broken down by position, but also three different sections. There are the actual top sleepers, the guys I go very in-depth on and really love as sleepers, then there's the:

Guys I like, but not enough to put my name on it so that when y'all come back next year and be like "THIS GUY DIDN'T BREAKOUT GIVE ME MY MONEY BYKE" - they are listed on this particular list because they are names to know and if you're on the clock later in your drafts one of these guys is a good option over someone not on this list. But lastly, we have the:

Yeah, we all love Ryquell Armstead behind Leonard Fournette. And Carlos Hyde and Darwin Thompson behind Damien Williams, but let's be real - there's no fuckin chance those guys make an impact this year in fantasy football without an injury to the guys ahead of them. We don't draft players based on waiting for an injury - you're wasting roster spots - we want those spots for upside, guys who have the chance to work their way into the starting role. 

So, back to the original point, drafting players in ambiguous backfields, so the starting job or at least something like a big role maybe 50/50 split a realistic thing come the start of the year. **LOOKING AT PRESEASON SNAP COUNTS WITH THE FIRST TEAM IS SO BIG** It's how we knew C-Mac was the workhorse last year, it's how we knew to stay away from Ronald Jones, it's how we knew that Chris Carson was VERY MUCH A THING despite everyone saying it couldn't happen because of Penny's 1st round draft capital.

Building on that, and these aren't black and white like if they don't check all these boxes then they're not a candidate, but the more they do, the better % chance you have of hitting. The second thing I look for is a good offense, obviously, or a good team overall. Goes without saying. Lastly, I'm looking at guys that have workhorse size, and great weight-adjusted speed, basically a three-down skill-set. Because that's where the upside would be. Like, yes there can be a slow, or small running back to take over a backfield, but their upside is not that of a workhorse. Think of Marlon Mack last year. Great offense, very ambiguous backfield to enter the year and the guy is nearly 215lbs, run in the 76th percentile for WASS. This is what would've made you be able to see David Johnson a few years ago when he broke out.

It's why you're going to know about:

1. JAYLEN SAMUELS this year. - Pittsburgh Steelers

Current ADP: 101 Overall, RB42

Samuels is massive at 6’0-225, and running a 4.54 40-yard dash places him in the 82nd percentile for weight-adjusted speed score. He doesn’t lack in burst or agility, either. But the main thing to point out here is the college target share in the 97th percentile.jaylen samuels 2019 fantasy

Jaylen Samuels is a passing-down savánt. And if there’s one thing the Steelers are going to need to replace Antonio Brown with, it’s just that. Samuels played a total of 39 snaps through Week 12 of the 2018 NFL season. But with the Steelers starting running back James Conner battling injuries, Samuels stepped up in a big way. In the three games Conner missed (Weeks 14-16), Samuels saw 18, 21 and 15 touches (18/game), caught 4 passes/game, averaged nearly 110 total yards/game with a monster 172-yard performance against the Pats. Conner returned in Week 17 and Samuels took a backseat in the rushing department, getting out-carried 14-2, but out-targeted Conner 8-3. Jay-Same finished the year with 26 receptions on 29 targets. Those 26 receptions are more than Lamar Miller, Mark Ingram, Chris Carson, Jordan Howard, AP, Marlon Mack, Derrick Henry had in the entirety of 2018, despite Samuels playing on just 20.8% of the Steelers plays last year. J-Sam is a phenomenal pass-catcher, and if there’s one facet of James Conner’s game that could use some improvement, it’s that. Conner is a grinder. A bully, with the potential for highlight plays. He caught 55 passes last year, but that was on 71 targets, a 13% lower catch rate than Samuels posted. Conner had 4 drops, 7th highest total among RBs.

So, while the end of seasons receiving numbers look good for Conner, he was far from efficient with that volume and far less efficient than what a guy like Samuels would bring to the table if given the same opportunity. We’re banking on the Steelers staff to recognize this opportunity... So, why am I confident that's going to happen? Well...The Steelers hired a guy this offseason named Eddie Faulkner to take over as their running backs coach. Prior to joining the Steelers, Faulkner spent six years, 2013-18, at North Carolina State University as the school’s tight ends/fullbacks/special team coordinator. Guess where Jaylen Samuels went to school and played running back/tight end? North Carolina State University. If there is anyone that knows how to use Samuels, and will advocate for the use of Samuels, it’s literally this guy. You couldn’t name a better person on planet earth.

Bottom-line: Jay-Sam is a great pass-catcher in an offense losing 169 targets from AB and another 40 from Jesse James. But, we’re talking about Samuels as if he’s going to be the Steelers’ James White. Samuels also has workhorse size at 6’0, 225, as I previously stated. And they were not afraid to use him as the workhorse when Conner was out.

Chances of Conner being out? I don't know - he finished his rookie season on the I.R. after messing up his MCL. That was after he tore his MCL in college too and needed surgery. Last year he missed 3 games with the ankle issue. I don't know how cancer works tbqh, but is it possible that someone who courageously fought through cancer might have less stamina and durability than someone who didn't? Yeah, I'm not questioning his heart, but maybe his body has trouble handling the NFL for 16 games? ANd towards the end of the year, where we've seen all these injuries happen he's not equipped to make it through the full season. I'll have to see what Dr. Jesse Morse says about it in the injury write-ups he's doing that are exclusive to the Big Dogs Draft Guide but I think there might be something very interesting here that we'll be surprised to learn.

 

[INSERT TEAMSTAKE? - Either Here or After Malcolm Brown]

Malcolm Brown - Los Angeles Rams

[INSERT TEAMSTAKE?]

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Dion Lewis - Tennessee Titans: Lewis caught 59 passes last year. Even when Henry took over down the stretch Lewis remained heavily involved in the passing game, averaging nearly 4 receptions/game over the Titans L6 games. Henry will never be a pass-catcher, so I expect Lewis to get 100+ carries and another 50+ receptions and be a super useful, underrated piece in PPR leagues.

Ito Smith - Atlanta Falcons: A natural pass-catcher (88th percentile college target share) in what projects to be an elite offense behind an RB (Freeman) who has dealt with a ridiculous number of injuries over the last two years. HC Dan Quinn already said this offseason that Ito Smith should see a significant increase in his touch totals in 2019.

Ronald Jones/Peyton Barber - Tampa Bay Bucs: All reports out of camp peg RoJo as a new player - makes sense coming in the league in 2018 as the youngest running back in the draft: he wasn't ready. And reality smacked him right in the face during his rookie season. With Arians coming in, this offense projects to be more efficient than previous seasons, and Barber is also super underrated for what he accomplished last year - from an efficiency metric, he made plenty of defenders miss and was far more elusive than people realize. Don't let his lack of GL opportunities and awful offensive line play fool you. Either guy can assume the starting running back role and run with it. Keep a close eye on this camp battle.

Damien Harris - New England Patriots: I feel like the Pats wouldn't waste a 3rd-round draft pick on a running back without intention behind it, especially a year after using their 1st on Sony. We're well aware of Sony's knee issues but I think this goes beyond depth and spells bad news for Rex Burkhead, who brings a similar skill-set to the versatile rookie RB, Harris, with less size. Even when Sony was on the field last year, Burkhead saw his fair share of double-digit touch games which is certainly in the range of outcomes for the former Crimson Tide back, and if Sony's knee acts up, it's wheels up and dicks up for the Pats rook.



Nick Ercolano
Nick Ercolano

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