While no one can deny the top tiers of the 2012 running back class are the weakest we've seen, maybe ever, the depth at this position overall is actually respectable.
Perhaps that shouldn't surprises us; not only are teams using RBBCs with regularity, but we have a decent group of veteran running backs that may see their production fall off as the year moves along, coupled with talented youngsters, waiting in the wings to capitalize on an opportunity to start.
The first tier of running backs (The Contenders) below are those I feel are sleepers or undervalued players we need to keep an eye before draft day. In the second tier of runners (Fringe Prospects) are those options I feel aren’t quite a full-on sleepers but they could be as the season moves along
Please Note: ADP numbers below are from Fantasy Football Calculator as of July 26th.
Ronnie Hillman (44th, 12.08) -
If anyone is still holding out hope that Knowshon Moreno is going to amount to anything, it’s time to move on. With that in mind, current starter Willis McGahee is on his last legs and will likely breakdown by the time we reach the end of October.
Hillman will be his replacement as long as he can round out his game in pass protection and I expect that to happen this month.
One argument that can be made is Coach Fox tends to stick with this veteran running backs to a fault. Remember McGahee wasn’t a draft pick by Fox (nor Moreno), and based recent reports, we should feel good about Hillman’s development.
Make sure you stash Hillman away towards the end of your draft; he’s worth holding for the upside when he takes over the starting job. Hillman would have instant RB2 value if he wins the job.
Stevan Ridley (35th, 9.06) -
Those concerned about Ridley’s value after the Joseph Addai signing in the spring can feel a little better after Addai’s release. Look for the Patriots to remain a pass heavy team, but Ridley should lead the team in carries (taking majority of snaps in camp), and has good odds of posting over 10 touchdowns.
Consider him more of a rotational flex play in standard leagues, but he could find his way into a regular starting job for your team, if his fumbling issues go away.
The addition of full back Tony Fiammetta is a nice improvement for the running game as well. Fiammetta helped DeMarco Murray in Dallas last year, and should have a positive impact on Ridley’s production.
Trent Richardson (9th, 2.04) -
Yes, we should expect Richardson to breakout in his rookie year and I have no problem with him going as a top ten pick. We are in a thin time at running back, especially for bell cow backs, which is exactly what Richardson is.
A throw back for sure, Richardson also has the explosion to be a top five fantasy back, but maybe that’s wishful thinking in his rookie season.
Then again, no team around the league is likely to give him any respect until he earns it on the field, and that could play to his advantage. If certain teams make the mistake to not consistently load eight in the box, Richardson will make them pay dearly, and he’s likely to do it even when they focus on him.
DeMarco Murray (10th, 2.05) -
It’s a little concerning that the Cowboys lost full back Tony Fiammetta to the Patriots but I do like Lawrence Vickers and bringing in offensive line coach Bill Callahan is a big move. Still, the Cowboys offensive line will be shuffling around this preseason and we need to keep a close eye on what is going on.
Even with all that, Murray will be the feature back, and has the luxury of playing in a potent offense, where defenses will be forced to respect the passing game. Factor in the major improvements in the secondary, and the Cowboys defense is primed for a big year under Rob Ryan.
These factors and the fact that Murray won’t have competition for red-zone touches, makes him a solid top ten on my board. Expect bigger things from Murray in the future and he should deliver on his prime ten draft status.
Rashard Jennings (53rd, 14.06) -
One of my favorite sleepers this summer, Jennings is already being talked about more in fantasy circles with Maurice Jones-Drew going through what could be a lengthy holdout. Recently Head Coach Mike Mularkey singled out Jennings as one of the standout players from OTA’s.
I was big on Jennings last summer, because he flashed in 2010 when given a chance and MJD was coming of microfracture knee surgery. Unfortunately, Jennings tore his ACL, but has had a full year to recover and looks healthy enough to start if needed, and play well.
Like Hillman, Jennings should be considered a RB2 if given a chance to start. This makes him a must have hand cuff if you should select Jones-Drew on draft day.
Doug Martin (20th, 5.03) -
A big time talent that will likely be a future top three fantasy back in the future, Martin will still have to compete with LeGarrette Blount for time this year. Blount is a fighter and he impressed his new coaching staff this summer, so the odds of Martin taking over as a feature back aren’t certain at any point during the season.
Still, Martin will get the third-down role in the offense, as he’s a solid pass catcher and a better pass protection than Blount.
Furthermore, Martin is a better running talent and doesn’t figure to have issues protecting the football, something that has been a big problem for Blount in the past. Look to Martin as a low-end RB2 on draft day with RB1 upside should he land a full-time job.
Ryan Williams -
Like fellow second year running backs off serious injuries in Leshoure and Green, we need to pay close attention to Williams in training camp. Williams has the skill set to overtake Beanie Wells as the starter. Wells is likely to miss most of the preseason with a bump knee.
The Cardinals did nothing significant this off-season to give added dept to the running game and that should be considered a positive sign as to how the team views Williams rehab.
Kevin Smith (not listed) -
It’s probably past time to give up on Jahvid Best as he’s still yet to be cleared for contact at the beginning of training camp after a mid-season concussion against the 49ers. While it is encouraging that Mikel Leshoure is practicing from the start of camp, he will be suspended the first two weeks and isn’t a given to play well, coming of an Achilles injury.
Smith has a history of health problems in his own right but has proven to be effective when given regular snaps.
Another positive sign for Smith is that he’s taking the first team reps in camp, not Leshoure, so if this continues we should be talking about moving Smith up as a possible top 35 running back. If Best misses all of training camp, Smith would be a top thirty option.
David Wilson (41st, 11.06) -
Wilson has the game to be a RB1 in the future and while he still has some things to iron out in his game, his explosiveness and determination are already getting the attention of coaches and teammates. We need to keep a close eye on Wilson as he battles for the backup job to Ahmad Bradshaw, with the likes of Danny Ware and Da’Rel Scott and Andre Brown.
If Brown, Scott and Ware fail to impress and Wilson develops patience as a runner and good pass blocking technique, we could see a breakout rookie season.
Bradshaw has had foot issues for a few years now and while I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a strong first half of the season, we should expect him to break down. If you feel you can stash Wilson as a backup late in the draft, it would be a good hold.
Jacquizz Rodgers (49th, 13.08) -
We shouldn’t give up on Michael Turner just yet, but I expect him to wear down as he did a year ago. Rodgers may not have much fantasy starting value in the first half of the season, but if given a chance, he could help you win a championship, especially in PPR leagues.
With the Falcons expected to trend more towards the passing game, it is Rodgers skill set that fits that style of offense, not Turner.
Delone Carter (not listed) -
Many are jumping on the Donald Brown bandwagon but I still believe in Carter and he would be a better fit in the Colts new physical running game. Brown isn’t likely to hold up for a full season, and it’s not guaranteed that he will win the job out of the gate.
Maybe Carter is a name you pass on at your draft but don’t give up on this guy just yet. There is a reason he stood out to various draftnicks a year ago and had us talking about a potential breakout rookie in Indianapolis.
Things didn’t workout well last year, with Peyton Manning out of the lineup, but with Andrew Luck around, the Colts running game has the foundation to provide consistent production.
Alex Green (not listed) -
A good training came will be important for Green and he has the skills to pass James Starks as the starter at some point. My main problem with Green is that he’s coming back from an ACL injury last year, but if he has a good camp, this is a player we need to keep on the radar.
Roy Helu (26th, 6.08) -
Only in a Mike Shanahan offense will you find a player that actually makes my sleepers and bust list in the same year. Evan Royster was taking snaps with the first team to begin camp, but I believe this was more to test and push Helu.
Helu is the top talent in the Redskins ground attack, and while he will likely fall in and out of favor, his upside when starting is solid with RGIII under center, is a firm RB2. The running quarterback will draw attention from the defense as they are probable to use a linebacker to spy on him at all times as a running threat.
This will make things even easier in the running game, and when Helu is in, he will be a great start. When he’s out, he won’t be worth much but a mid round pick is a fair value for this risky option.
Mikel Leshoure -
Looking past his Achilles injury and his off the field problems, Leshoure has a great opportunity to succeed in the Lions offense, upon his return from suspension. This team is desperate for a physical presence on the ground to pound out some tough yards and Leshoure is the man for the job.
We should expect him to be the goal-line option as well, and if he can rebound from his injury (not a given) we could be looking at a consistent top 25 back.
Evan Royster -
Yeah, Royster took the first-team reps and at some point he’s likely to get some time in as a starter. Still, look to Helu to win this job by the end of August and we shouldn’t view Royster as more than a selection at the end of your draft for depth.
Still, his temporary promotion to the first team is a positive and he did play well at the end of last season when given a chance. He can be a starting flex option if and when get gets a chance to start.