Running backs have always been drafted early and often but that doesn’t mean fantasy owners can’t find some bargains in later rounds. Alfred Morris is a perfect example of a later round running back that paid off huge last season. Here are five running backs with an Average Draft Position (ADP) of Round 14 or greater that have a chance to make a fantasy impact in 2013.
Joique Bell, Detroit Lions (ADP: Round 16)
Bell is one of the most undervalued players heading into fantasy drafts. There’s a belief that Mikel Leshoure is guaranteed to be Reggie Bush’s backup, so he’s being selected seven rounds higher than Bell. Based on Leshoure’s past performance and injury history, he’s not a lock to win the backup job.
Leshoure has struggled to produce since the Lions selected him 57th overall in the 2011 draft. Last season he opened as Detroit’s clear No. 1 back and plodded his way to a 3.7 yards per carry average. With the Lions throwing the ball so much, the versatile Bell eventually got more playing time and became a valuable asset in PPR leagues, catching 52 passes and rushing for 414 yards.
Bush is now clearly the man in Detroit but Bell has a similar skill set, so if Bush were to get injured, he could step in and the Lions wouldn’t have to change their offense. Detroit may want to run the ball more this year but the way the Lions’ offense is currently constructed they’ll still be a pass-first team. That’s a situation better suited for the pass-catching Bell than the slow-footed Leshoure.
Bell was a fantasy surprise in 2012 and while his role will be reduced with the addition of Bush, he should be getting selected higher than Round 16 as Bush’s potential handcuff. Don’t be shocked if Leshoure is even a surprise training camp cut at some point.
Let someone else in your league waste a mid-round pick on Leshoure, while you wait and take Bell much later in the draft. He represents the better value down the line if Bush gets injured.
Michael Bush, Chicago Bears (ADP: Round 15)
There’s no question that with Marc Trestman taking over in Chicago the days of Bush eating into Matt Forte’s touches have come to an end. Forte is a perfect fit for Trestman’s offense and will be on the field as much as possible. That could be both a good and bad thing for fantasy owners.
While Forte will be a fantasy monster this year, especially in PPR formats, the extra touches could become a concern as the season goes on. That’s why Bush being the 62nd running back off the board is crazy. When you add up all the touches running backs get in Trestman’s offense, Forte should be a Top 10 pick but his handcuff shouldn’t go 50 spots later.
Bush likely won’t be as much of a touchdown vulture as he has in recent years but he’s still one of the better fantasy handcuffs to own. Yet Bush is being drafted behind the likes of Marcus Lattimore and DuJuan Harris. Heck, Lattimore isn’t even going to play this season in a loaded 49ers’ backfield.
Bush is also an underrated receiver for a bigger back. In 2011 he caught 37 passes for the Raiders, so should something happen to Forte, Bush can be a productive receiver in Trestman’s new wide open system. He may not be Forte but Bush is a pretty good pass catcher in his own right if used in that role.
Bush isn’t a fantasy stud but the guy has value and he plays in an offense where the starting running back will put up a lot of fantasy points most weeks. To get a player like that in Round 15 isn’t a bad deal for astute fantasy owners.
Mike Gillislee, Miami Dolphins (ADP: Round 16)
Are you looking for this year’s Alfred Morris? If so, Gillislee could be your guy.
Lamar Miller is entrenched as the Dolphins’ starter entering the season but to say he’s far from a lock is an understatement. Miller only carried the ball 51 times for 250 yards as a rookie. There were also concerns about Miller coming out of Miami.
Once considered a first round draft pick, Miller’s stock dropped because he lacks great vision and his runs tend to either be all or nothing. Regardless of physical talent, vision remains the No. 1 quality required by a running back for long-term success in the NFL and the jury is still out on Miller in that department.
Miller does have positives though. He has great straight line speed and Miller is an excellent receiver out of the backfield. He will also get every chance to succeed in Miami but should Miller struggle or get injured, Gillislee will only have to beat out Daniel Thomas for a majority of touches.
Thomas has been a disaster so far in Miami and that’s not likely to all of a sudden change this season. Expect the more talented Gillislee to be the fantasy running back of choice over Thomas should something happen to Miller.
Like Morris, Gillislee isn’t a sexy runner so he doesn’t blow people away in any one area. However, he sees holes open up, has a quick one cut running style and gets stronger as the game goes on. Gillislee is a tough runner in general but he’s extremely hard to tackle in the fourth quarter when those valuable fantasy garbage points are accumulated.
When looking for a deep sleeper we have to evaluate a player’s situation. Gillislee is going into a great situation for a rookie. The only things standing between Gillislee and fantasy relevance are an unproven second-year player and a third-year bust. The fifth-round pick doesn’t need a lot to happen in order to get on the field and help fantasy owners this season.
LaMichael James, San Francisco 49ers (ADP: Round 14)
There’s a logjam of talented runners in San Francisco led by Frank Gore but with an ADP of pick 165, James offers up the most value of the group for fantasy owners.
James was inactive for the first 12 games of his rookie year before an Achilles injury to backup Kendall Hunter finally got him on the field. Once he saw some playing time, James didn’t do a whole heck of a lot, rushing for 125 yards on 25 carries and catching three passes.
So why should we care about James this season with both Gore and Hunter in the same backfield? For one, Hunter is coming back from that Achilles tear and if history is any indicator it will take him some time to regain his form. In the past running backs returning from a torn Achilles have been slower to recover than players at other positions. Because of their need to cut running backs tend to lack that initial burst upon returning.
The other reason to think James could have more value this year is because the 49ers’ offense will have many different looks now that Colin Kaepernick is the undisputed starter. Remember, Kaepernick didn’t start until Week 11 last year, so the San Francisco coaches were adjusting their offense late in the season for him. Now they’ve had all offseason to build the offense around the multifaceted Kaepernick.
This should be a boost to James because while Kaepernick proved to be much more than a running quarterback, his ability to run the spread offense could carve out a role for James who exceled in that system at Oregon. Plus, Jim Harbaugh has said he wants to get the ball to James out in space this season, so expect him to be used more in passing situations.
Gore is still the 49ers’ bellcow but James is a playmaker on one of the NFL’s best teams. His role should increase in 2013 and with Hunter just nine months removed from his Achilles tear James is one Gore injury away from seeing a hefty number of touches. Add it all up and James is worth a shot later in the draft.
Denard Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP: Round 16)
These experiments where college quarterbacks switch positions almost never work. There’s a laundry list of Scott Frosts, Pat Whites, etc. to more than cancel out Kordell Stewart and Antwaan Randle El. However, Robinson may buck the trend because in college he was actually a running back playing quarterback.
Robinson was a great college player but he was never a great college quarterback. This was proven last year. Once Michigan finally made the switch to Devin Gardner at quarterback, they became a much better football team. Robinson could always run the ball but as a passer he took the game back 30 years to Wishbone quarterbacks of the 1980s.
What Robinson does possess is amazing field vision. He doesn’t have classic running back size but few players see the field as a runner like Robinson does. He likely won’t ever be a full-time back because of his size but his vision, speed and quickness make him a special kind of offensive threat from the running back/receiver positions. Now it all depends on whether or not the Jaguars use him right.
A guy like Danny Woodhead – who doesn’t have nearly the physical skills Robinson does – had fantasy value with the Patriots despite being a role player because New England knew how to utilize his skills. If Jacksonville can do the same with Robinson, he’ll be an asset to fantasy owners even though he won’t touch the ball 20 times a game.
The Jaguars aren’t a team loaded with offensive playmakers. One would think they’ll be looking to get the ball into Robinson’s hands as often as possible. Plus, Maurice Jones-Drew is coming off the tricky Lisfranc injury, so his health is still a question mark entering the season.
Robinson also has the added bonus of being listed as both a running back and receiver in most leagues, giving fantasy owners added flexibility with him. When you’re sitting there at the end of your draft looking for players with upside, Robinson is worth rolling the dice on. He could pay off big.