Fantasy Football Preview 2013: Top 5 Running Back Sleepers

Eric Mack@@EricMackFantasyFantasy Football Lead WriterAugust 13, 2013

Unlike quarterback, where players can slip simply because the entire position is so deep, a list of running back sleepers is filled out with players who have their warts. After all, there has to be a reason, or several, why the masses aren't drafting these backs as sure-fire starters in fantasy football.

So, this sleepers list requires some small leaps of faith.

Our "breakout running back" lists will be made up of fantasy options a lot of people like, because there are many reasons to. These sleeper picks, on the other hand, are going to be more about players drafters don't necessarily like that much. That is the definition of a sleeper: a player sometimes falling in drafts for unjustified reasons.

So let's get to the list.


1. Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints

ADPYahoo (119.1) | ESPN (109.6) | CBSSports (98.3) | SI Top 300 (81)


Why Are We Sleeping?

Ingram isn't a receiving back and PPR gem like teammate Darren Sproles, nor is he a picture of health. He has dealt with some nicks as a pro and wasn't even atop the Saints depth chart to start training camp (Pierre Thomas was).

This has been a historically pass-happy offense, and the running game is merely a change of pace or a way to run out the clock in blowouts—of which the Saints didn't have many last season.

Finally, Ingram's 3.9 yards per carry through his two nondescript seasons don't have anyone truly targeting him in fantasy.


Why Shouldn't We Be?

Ingram, who has been a victim of circumstance and opportunity, is still a Heisman Trophy-winning talent—yes, there is still ability hereand he is decidedly younger and more physical than Sproles (30) or Thomas (28).

Offensive guru Sean Payton is back, but he watched the Saints struggle last season without a running game, and he vowed to bring more to that area of the attack this year. The Saints are not going to become a ground-and-pound team in any way, but balancing the attack some can make Ingram more productive for fantasy owners—especially near the goal line.


What Should We Expect?

You are not going to get 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns, but you won't have to draft him as a fantasy starter either. Ingram is a ninth- or 10th-rounder in ADP on the major draft sites—getting 800 yards and eight touchdowns out of that draft position is good value.

Heck, if Ingram can win the featured-back role and the Saints offense stalls inside the 5-yard line, 10-plus touchdowns is possible from this late-round running back.


What Should We Do?

Avoid Sproles and Thomas in drafts and wait the many rounds later to capitalize on Ingram's potential breakthrough. This will be the latest he is on the board in fantasy drafts in his three seasons, and Year 3 should have been viewed as his make-or-break year all along.

Draft him as a backup running back, but expect him to earn your trust as he earns that of Payton and the Saints.


2. Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers

ADPYahoo (89.7) | ESPN (64.7) | CBSSports (62.2) | SI Top 300 (62)


Why Are We Sleeping?

Mathews and his fragile stigma have been a picture of fantasy frustration in his first three seasons. He cannot stay healthy, and many fantasy owners have been left bitter by their early-round Mathews picks in the past three years.

Even the most loyal apologist has to be avoiding him now.

Also, the presence of Danny Woodhead figures to take some of the receptions Mathews mustered in Norv Turner's screen-heavy offense. That and Woodhead's effectiveness elsewhere in the passing game should lessen Mathews' PPR value.


Why Shouldn't We Be?

Most of Mathews' injury woes have been of the freak variety—even if you have to classify him as injury prone. Expectations have been lowered to a reasonable level now, and Woodhead's potential timeshare should help mitigate the beating Mathews will take.

It is far too easy to be left bitter here and ignore the fact Mathews has a career 4.4 yards per carry and combined for almost 1,600 yards and 50 catches in 14 games in 2011.


What Should We Expect?

You have to expect some frustration with injury and losing some third-down touches and receptions to Woodhead in the passing game. But you should also expect a 1,200-yard (rushing), 50-catch, 500-yard (receiving) and 10-touchdown back to be on the board after Round 5.

At that cost, you should assume the risk to potentially reap the reward.


What Should We Do?

It will take some intestinal fortitude, but Mathews has a higher ceiling than the running back or receiver you are going to pick around his draft position.

If you are still waiting on a running back in Round 5, Mathews is going to be a risk worth taking.


3. Daryl Richardson, St. Louis Rams

ADPYahoo (118.6) | ESPN (115.5) | CBSSports (103.3) | SI Top 300 (94)


Why Are We Sleeping?

There is just too much love for Isaiah Pead, last year's second-round pick, and Zac Stacy, who starred at Vanderbilt and was drafted in the fifth round this year.

Richardson was a mere seventh-round pick in 2012, and despite holding the backup job to Steven Jackson last season, he hasn't been named the starter in what has promised to be the dreaded by-committee running back situation. 


Why Shouldn't We Be?

The Rams allowed Jackson to leave, didn't sign a free-agent back and didn't draft a running back until Round 5 this past April. You don't do those things without feeling comfortable with what you have already. The Rams couldn't have known what they have in the seldom-used Pead a year ago, so the logic follows that they feel Richardson is a viable starting running back in the NFL.

There will be a committee here, but Richardson is the leader of it as the incumbent, and Jeff Fisher has historically relied heavily on a featured back.

Richardson's 4.8 yards per carry as a rookie show he is a lot better than the masses give him credit for being.


What Should We Expect?

Richardson should start Week 1 over Pead, who will serve a one-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and Stacy, who hasn't impressed much in training camp to date.

Stacy might earn some goal-line carries, but Richardson has the breakaway ability to run away with this job and rush for 1,000 yards.

Those candidates are rarely on the board in Round 8 and later. In fact, Richardson might be the last true NFL starting running back to get picked in fantasy drafts.


What Should We Do?

If you miss out on Mathews in Round 5 or Ingram in Round 9, make Richardson one of your backup running backs. There just aren't enough fantasy owners who respect what he was able to do as a rookie.

He even forced the potential future Hall of Famer Jackson to the bench at times last season.


4. LaMichael James, San Francisco 49ers

ADPYahoo (116.6) | ESPN (143.3) | CBSSports (147.3) | SI Top 300 (162)


Why Are We Sleeping?

The 49ers still have veteran Frank Gore to do almost all of the lifting in their offense, particularly in the red zone and at the goal line. Also, James is technically third on the depth chart behind third-year Oklahoma State product Kendall Hunter, who is coming off an Achilles injury. James has been classified as an undersized back not fit for every-down duty coming out of Oregon.


Why Shouldn't We Be?

James looks like he has filled out on his 5'8" frame, perhaps setting him up to be more than a mere change-of-pace back behind Gore.

Hunter (5'7") is still smaller than James, so if something significant happens to the 30-year-old Gore, it should be James taking over as the early-down back and Hunter remaining the shifty, change-of-pace guy.

This is a bit speculative for you, perhaps, but Hunter also needs to prove healthy and effective to regain his No. 2 status behind Gore.


What Should We Expect?

You should expect Gore to suffer through an injury-plagued year, especially at 30. Gore had myriad injury issues when he was young, so it is pretty unlikely that he makes it through the heavy workload the 49ers put on their running attack.

His backups will be valuable late-round fantasy picks. James is younger, more physical and healthier than Hunter, so consider him a great handcuff option for Gore owners or a potential 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown breakout if Gore succumbs to injury sooner rather than later.


What Should We Do?

You have to consider the 49ers' unit one of the best running games in football. That makes Gore's backups must-have picks in the later rounds.

James is a better value in Round 9 or later than Hunter or even Gore will be at the rounds in which they are picked.


5. Ronnie Hillman, Denver Broncos

ADPYahoo (119.4) | ESPN (134.4) | CBSSports (102.6) | SI Top 300 (181)


Why Are We Sleeping?

The Broncos were supposed to give Hillman the featured role a year ago, but the San Diego State product couldn't beat out the 31-year-old Willis McGahee or the much-maligned Knowshon Moreno.

That doesn't say much for Hillman, particularly when the Broncos pulled the trigger on college touchdown record-holder Montee Ball in this April's draft. While McGahee was released and Hillman was labeled the change-of-pace back by John Elway this spring, Moreno was very productive down the stretch.


Why Shouldn't We Be?

Despite the expectation that Ball will be the Broncos' featured back—Ball will be drafted as though he is the starter—it is still Hillman who was atop the depth chart heading into the preseason.

Hillman served his apprenticeship and will likely be the back of choice in passing situations because he already has a year under his belt in the pass-protection schemes for Peyton Manning, around whom Denver's entire attack still revolves.


What Should We Expect?

Ball will at least be the short-yardage and goal-line back, but Hillman can be productive on third downs and in the passing game. His shiftier, speedier nature might even give him a decent chance to hold off Ball and Moreno—who's often in coach John Fox's doghouse—as the featured back.

Hillman can combine for over 1,000 yards and break some big plays as a late-rounder in fantasy.


What Should We Do?

If you draft Ball—or just need a potential starting back for depth—consider Hillman in Round 9 or later.

This is a productive Broncos offense, and Fox is still a defensive guy who likes to run the football.

Manning can get that offense to the 1-yard line often, too, so if Ball doesn't hold up in his first season as a pro after all those college carries, Hillman might even emerge as a 10-touchdown threat.


Honorable Mentions

There are dozens of backs to be had at reasonable values in drafts. Outside of those sleeper reserves above, you might find that these backs prove to be valuable starters relative to their draft positions.

  • Reggie Bush, Detroit Lions: He will be of particular interest in PPR leagues because 80-plus catches is possible for the most pass-happy team in the NFL.
  • Vick Ballard, Indianapolis Colts: Everyone expects Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) to prove healthy and start, but Bradshaw has never stayed healthy. Ballard will be drafted as a fantasy backup who can perform like a starter.
  • Rashard Mendenhall, Arizona Cardinals: They had an awful offensive line and running game a year ago, and the Cardinals also drafted some backs to compete for time. Still, Bruce Arians signed Mendenhall to be an every-down back and says he wants to roll with a featured guy. That is Mendenhall, who will be on the board for a while.
  • Ben Tate, Houston Texans: He will back up one of the elite workhorse backs for one of the most run-heavy teams in the NFL. If something happens to Foster, Tate can erupt into a 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown monster—in a contract year, no less. 
  • Knowshon Moreno, Denver Broncos: Everyone will be picking Ball and Hillman, but Moreno was still the featured back down the stretch last year. The veteran is still just 26 years old and can be a huge surprise fantasy contributor in the late rounds.

If you want a deeper, wider-angle view of the running back position, check out the running back primer at Also, you can hear this writer chat about the nuances of the position on his Fantasy FatCast: RB rankings.

Follow @EricMackFantasy

Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, is the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this season. Follow him on Twitter @EricMackFantasy, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game. You can also listen to him on his podcast that he deprecatingly dubbed the Fantasy FatCast.