Heading into fantasy football drafts, handcuffs with elite upside like Tony Pollard and Alexander Mattison can no longer be considered running back sleepers. Even backs with receiving upside like James White and Giovani Bernard have seen their ADPs rise in recent weeks. Here are a few names that are rarely mentioned and available in the final round of just about every draft. For shallower leagues or those with small benches, these running back sleepers don’t have to be drafted but should be on watch lists.
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Running Back Sleepers
Austin Ekeler is being touted as another Alvin Kamara-esque running back whose high-volume receiving role could provide strong RB1 production in PPR formats. However, neither Kamara nor Ekeler have ever eclipsed 200 carries in a season over the course of their careers thus far, leaving ample opportunity for the No. 2 running back in their respective backfields. So why is Latavius Murray‘s ADP hovering around the 11th or 12 round while Justin Jackson is often going undrafted?
In the six games that Ekeler missed last season due to a hamstring injury, no Chargers running back showed enough to command a heavy workload. But prior to a knee injury in Week 9, Jackson was the starter from Week 5 onward. Recent training camp reports also indicate optimism for Jackson solidifying the no. 2 role behind Ekeler for 2021:
“Before training camp, it seemed like Jackson was the odd man out in the running back room, but that is furthest from the truth. Jackson has been taking a lot of the higher-up reps. He has taken advantage and shown out. He is making plays taking hand-offs, and catching passes. If he stays healthy, he will be second in command behind…Ekeler.”
Other recent reports also state that Jackson “has received the majority of the load as RB2” and confirm that Jackson “appears to be the leader in the race for the RB2 role behind Ekeler.” Prior optimism for sophomore Joshua Kelley and sixth-round rookie Larry Rountree seems to have waned, but Jackson’s ADP in fantasy drafts hasn’t yet caught up to his ascendance on the depth chart.
Jackson has RB2 upside if Ekeler were to miss time again in 2021, but there’s room for a complementary role for Jackson even with a healthy Ekeler, and that could be more fantasy-relevant than in years past considering the upgrades Los Angeles has made to their offensive line this offseason. The Chargers signed center Corey Linsley in free agency and drafted first-round rookie left tackle Rashawn Slater to field an above-average line for the coming season. Depending on the usage split in the red zone, Jackson could become a touchdown-dependent standalone flex play on top of being an unheralded handcuff, making him one of the best running back sleepers to target thus far in the preseason.
Jerick McKinnon is beginning to overtake Darrel Williams in ADP, but by most accounts, Williams remains the No. 2 running back in the Chiefs’ backfield. Early on in training camp, there were positive reports for McKinnon, but they also indicated that Williams continued to get first-team reps behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire. In fact, various beat reports discuss the likelihood of McKinnon beating out Darwin Thompson for the no. 3 running back spot on the depth chart but not the possibility of him overtaking Williams as the no. 2 back.
The Chiefs seem to be impressed by what McKinnon has shown thus far in camp, particularly as a receiver, but McKinnon’s recent opportunities with the first-team offense came during the couple of days during which Williams missed practice with a minor knee injury. However, there’s little concern about Williams long-term, as he’s already returned to training camp following his brief absence.
The running back handcuff for an elite Kansas City offense with Patrick Mahomes at the helm has been coveted in recent years, but the Chiefs’ rushing attack offers even more fantasy upside in 2021. As with Jackson and the Chargers, the Chiefs made major upgrades on the offensive line this offseason with a flurry of moves, including trading for Orlando Brown and signing Joe Thuney. Some are touting McKinnon on their list of running back sleepers, and he should be rostered as well if Edwards-Helaire were to miss time. That said, Williams is still the better bet to work in behind a healthy Edwards-Helaire and see more goal-line opportunities in the event of an injury to Edwards-Helaire.
Trey Sermon is a hot name whose ADP has risen into the sixth round, as 49ers fans and fantasy football fans alike are excited about the third-round rookie who’s likely to see significant work alongside Raheem Mostert to start the season. He’s a perfect fit for Kyle Shanahan’s zone scheme, and Sermon has the size to be the preferred red-zone back over Mostert. In fact, it’s been reported that Sermon has received “more reps with the starters than all the other rookies combined” and “clearly belongs with the starters”. It would be remiss, though, to exclude the fact that the same report gave a rave review of sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell:
“As well as Sermon has played, Mitchell has played even better. He currently is the second-best running back on the team after Mostert. Almost all of Mitchell’s runs gain big yards.”
The excitement around Sermon is warranted, and one reason has been Mostert’s poor track record for staying healthy. The 29 year-old running back missed eight games last season due to knee and ankle injuries and also played through a number of injuries in 2019. If Mostert were to miss time this coming season, Mitchell could see significant snaps even as a rookie. A recent camp report stated:
“While Sermon is more of a first and second-down back, Mitchell is a speedster who could work himself into a role as a third-down back due to his pass-catching skills. Mitchell had five receptions in the 49ers’ first six practices to lead all running backs.”
That’s one path to fantasy relevance for Mitchell. Another is the fact that like Mostert, Sermon carries a lengthy injury history as well both during his college career and dating back to high school. Since 2015, Sermon has suffered a back fracture, two MCL sprains, a complete LCL rupture, and a posterior dislocation of the SC joint. With Jeff Wilson already likely to miss half the 2021 season or more following a torn meniscus in May, Mitchell could be a fantasy starter sooner rather than later if Mostert or Sermon were to miss any time. Few are talking about the other rookie running back in San Francisco, but don’t forget about Mitchell among the late-round running back sleepers.
My fellow Fantrax analyst Al Calo makes a compelling case for Salvon Ahmed as the no. 2 in the Dolphins’ backfield, but I will respectfully beg to differ here. As Al mentioned in his article, Ahmed was indeed a workhorse when Myles Gaskin missed time in 2020. However, in just his second game filling in for Gaskin in Week 11, Ahmed injured his shoulder and proceeded to miss three games thereafter.
Both Gaskin and Ahmed are talented backs, but with both weighing in at sub-200 lbs., it’s fair to wonder if their availability, or lack thereof, in 2020 prompted the Dolphins to sign Malcolm Brown in free agency. Brown is a veteran presence for this Miami backfield, but the 5’11, 222 lb. veteran might also be better suited to complement Gaskin on early downs. Indeed, reports out of training camp indicate that both Brown and Ahmed will factor in behind Gaskin but with “goal line and short yardage work for Brown”, and the Dolphins’ first official preseason depth chart lists Brown as the no. 2 running back.
Neither Brown nor Ahmed were efficient runners last season, but Brown averaged 1.5 yards after contact per carry (YAC/Att) on 101 rushing attempts compared to just 1.0 YAC/Att for Ahmed on 75 rushing attempts. And surprisingly enough, Brown was a more efficient receiver as well, logging 7.7 yards after the catch per reception (YAC/R) on 23 catches compared to 6.5 YAC/R for Ahmed on 11 catches. Brown could have weekly touchdown upside for deeper leagues, and he ranks above Ahmed on my list of running back sleepers as the Miami back to roster if Gaskin were to miss time.
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