Looking for sleepers for fantasy football isn’t about finding players nobody has heard about, because that isn’t happening. When we talk about sleepers, we’re highlighting players who should outplay their average draft position. Instead of the term “sleeper,” we can replace it with “value” and still be on the right track.
Running back is a position I want to get a stud early, but you also want some lottery tickets later in drafts, as there is a lot of upside out there if playing time breaks in their favor. There are also some backs set to lead their backfields, but are still being discounted for various reasons.
James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers
Update Sept 4: Tomlin says he prefers to have a feature back, and all signs point to Conner being the guy at camp. Conner has started to get more touches in camp and should get the bulk of the carries as long as he’s healthy.
Update Aug 27: Benny Snell has seen a significant up-tick in his workload at training camp as the Steelers are being cautious with Conner given his injury history, according to reporter Mark Kaboly. Snell has looked much improved in camp, but head coach Mike Tomlin “is pretty much committed to Conner as the lead back” and is “not much into the running-back-by-committee approach.”
Conner’s ADP is just too low for me not to put him in a sleeper article. He is currently going off as the 28th running back, behind a host of players who aren’t assured the lead back job. The Steelers gave Conner reassurance when they didn’t draft his replacement, instead, adding a receiving back late when they drafted Anthony McFarland Jr. Conner’s injury history is scary, but with Ben Roethlisberger returning from injury, the offense will be ten times better and even ten games out of Conner is going to be worth a lot in this offense.
Jordan Howard, Miami Dolphins
Update Aug 18: Miami’s running backs coach said Howard’s role hasn’t been defined yet last week, but ESPN’s Cameron Wolfe thinks the former Philadelphia Eagles back could get 50 percent of the Dolphins’ carries while Matt Breida gets 35 percent of the work.
The Dolphins were by far the worst rushing offense in the league last year but have started their rebuild, adding offensive lineman and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. What they didn’t add n the draft was a running back, instead acquiring Howard and Matt Breida in the offseason. They will be the one-two punch for Miami, with Howard as the lead back. Breida is a more dynamic back, but hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Howard is more suited for the lead role and the bulk of the carries and as the 34th back off the board, there is value there.
Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams
Update August 27: Henderson is dealing with a hamstring injury but is expected to split carries with Akers if he’s healthy by Week 1, according to The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue. The rookie might not be the top option, but has a good chance to get a healthy workload without a star to depend on in the backfield.
Update Aug 18: Akers is expected to get an early chance to prove that he can replace Todd Gurley as the Rams’ next feature back, according to ESPN’s Lindsey Thiry. He has more upside than the rest of his team’s running backs at this point.
Fantasy players, including myself, have been high on Darrell Henderson. When Todd Gurley was let go, visions of 80-yard Henderson touchdowns danced in our heads. But, that was before Akers was drafted in the second round. He should quickly become the lead back and see good usage under Sean McVay. Henderson and Malcolm Brown are a concern, but they only gave Henderson 93 snaps all last season while Brown should remain the backup. Akers is also used to running in a zone blocking scheme at Florida State and rookie running backs have the easiest transition to the NFL of any of the offensive positions.
Alexander Mattison, Vikings
Update Aug 19: The Vikings and Dalvin Cook have broken off negotiations but Cook will still play in Week 1, per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. Mattison will need Cook to miss time for real fantasy value this season.
Update Aug 18: Mattison is getting most of the first-team reps while Dalvin Cook negotiates his next contract with the Vikings. If a deal doesn’t get done, Mattison could be in for a career year.
Dalvin Cook reported to training camp but there is still a real chance he stages some kind of holdout. Cook is on the last year of his rookie contract and does deserve to be paid more, but everything is up in the air at the moment. Add to a possible holdout, Cook’s injury history isn’t great. He’s played in just 29 games over his first three seasons. Last season Mattison got a good amount of work in relief of Cook, rushing 100 times for 462 yards and a touchdown his rookie year. If Cook misses any time, Mattison is set up for a good workload in an offense designed for running backs to succeed.
Antonio Gibson, Washington
Update September 4: Washington released Adrian Peterson on Friday, and the veteran running back thinks the team is going all in on Antonio Gibson. It’s too soon to say Gibson is going to be the Christian McCaffrey of the Washington offense, but it would appear he’s going to get a significant opportunity.
Update August 27: Gibson is getting a “fair amount” of first-team reps in practice. He’s gotten carries and caught some passes. His versatility could make him an enticing gadget player, but it’s unclear how many touches he’ll get.
Update Aug 18: Gibson’s value has been rising since Guice was released. He is seen as a utility player, but could be given an opportunity to compete against Adrian Peterson and others, according to ESPN’s John Keim.
Washington has Derrius Guice and Adrian Peterson at running back, but they also have a new head coach in Ron Rivera. There is no telling how Rivera will evaluate his backs and he is invested in Gibson, having drafted him 66th overall. Guice can’t seem to stay healthy while Peterson is way past his prime. The rookie has played hybrid roles as a receiver and running back in college, but is going to start his NFL career as a running back. If he can get snaps and touches, he’ll likely be more useful in PPR leagues, so I would steer clear of him in standard leagues. But, he is a dynamic playmaker and a ton of upside if he can get a chance. At his ADP as the 52nd running back off the board, I’m all in.