Fantasy Football 2014: Top 5 Early Sleepers at Running Back

Kyle PappasContributor IIApril 18, 2014

Fantasy Football 2014: Top 5 Early Sleepers at Running Back

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    Mike Groll

    As far as fantasy football philosophy is concerned, few theories contend no position is more pertinent to one's success than running back. With the options being generally rather talent-strapped, the room for error when selecting a back for your championship hopes is extremely small.

    Sure, it's fun to have a big-arm quarterback and electrifying wideouts, but it's all for naught if your backfield situation is unstable.

    If you're lucky enough to snag a pair of top-tier backs, you'll likely have the inside track to your league's playoffs. If not, you could endure weeks for fruitlessly combing the waiver wire for unclaimed talent.

    But fear not—if you do happen to whiff on securing a couple of capable backs early, a few names who should be available in the later rounds are capable of carrying your squad to the promised land.

    Last year, those names included Eddie Lacy and Zac Stacy. In 2012, it was Doug Martin and Stevan Ridley. Every draft is bound to include several overlooked, underrated players who appear destined for fantasy obscurity. This year is no different.

    With the 2014 NFL draft ostensibly lacking any premier RBs who can make an immediate impact, it's never too early to begin picking out potential overachievers before the season starts in September.

    Here are some backs who have the potential to outplay their draft position this season.

Honorable Mentions

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    Charles Rex Arbogast

    Pierre Thomas

    In 2013, no New Orleans back hauled in more receptions than Thomas—that includes the now-departed Darren Sproles

    Despite his role among a four-man backfield rotation, Thomas managed to surpass 1,000 total yards and provide a significant boost for fantasy owners down the stretch. With Sproles gone to Philly, Thomas will look to build on his career-high 224 touches in 2014.

    While Mark Ingram may receive slightly more carries, pass-catching duties out of the backfield should fall nearly exclusively on Thomas' shoulders. He'll command a substantially higher value in points-per-reception formats.

    If you do end up with Thomas, don't bank on a wealth of touchdowns—most of those will go Ingram's way. Also, rookie Khiry Robinson showed promise toward the end of last season and will have the opportunity to earn more carries this season.

    Consider Thomas to be a high-risk, high-reward option in 2014.

     

    Ben Tate

    Arian Foster's unfortunate season-ending back injury midway through the year opened the door for Tate to flaunt his competence as an every-down back. Since it was also his contract year, the timing couldn't have been better. 

    He didn't blow anybody out of the water, but he did demonstrate enough promise to become the most heavily sought-after free agent on the market at his position. Now set to assume starting duties in Cleveland, he should have the opportunity to flourish in real life, as well as for fantasy owners.

    The Browns signed fullback Chris Pressley earlier this week—surely to serve as Tate's lead blocker. They didn't have one on their roster for the entire 2013 season. It shows a renewed commitment to a ground game that was seemingly abandoned following Trent Richardson's sudden trade to Indianapolis early last season.

    But although Tate makes for a nice middle-round addition, the presence of Chris Ogbonnaya is worrisome enough—particularly in PPR leagues—to consider passing on Cleveland's new addition. Moreover, the Browns' 27th-ranked scoring offense won't provide him sufficient goal-line opportunities, and that's where the hard-nosed back will earn his value.

     

    Steven Jackson

    Yep, I'm going there. Though Jackson again missed several games due to injury in 2013, he was surprisingly efficient when on the field. 

    Oft-labeled a bust, he showed up for fantasy owners down the stretch, accumulating more points than Adrian Peterson, Alfred Morris and Frank Gore over their last six games. He did this sans Julio Jones and behind arguably the weakest offensive line in the league.

    With Roddy White hobbled as well, defenses routinely stacked the box against the Falcons; this won't be the case moving forward. Jones should be back for the start of 2014, and Atlanta's O-line presumably can't be worse than it was last season. Toss in Jackson's goal-line prowess, and double-digit touchdowns become a legitimate possibility.

    Backup Jacquizz Rodgers' brief stint as feature back in 2013 confirmed he's not an every-down back. Sure, he'll be used to occasionally spell the 30-year-old Jackson and swipe some catches out of the backfield, but it shouldn't be enough to scare owners away. Jackson's age and injury history, however, are, which is why he lands just outside of the top five.

5. Trent Richardson, Indianapolis Colts

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    When evaluating potential sleepers, the name of the game is value, and in that respect it might not get better than Richardson. ESPN.com's Matthew Berry ranks him 95th in his top 200 for 2014 behind names such as Giants' backup David Wilson and the rapidly aging Maurice Jones-Drew.

    Richardson shook up the fantasy world in early 2013, after then-Browns general manager Michael Lombardi unexpectedly shipped him to Indianapolis in exchange for a first-round draft pick.

    Most Richardson owners rejoiced, anticipating that Indy's increasingly potent offense would spread defenses vertically and thus create additional running room for the former third overall pick. No such luck.

    Instead, he looked like a shell of his former self, appearing sluggish and at times utterly incompetent. By Week 11, he found himself on the wrong end of a timeshare with perennial underachiever Donald Brown. He eclipsed 60 yards rushing in exactly one game and recorded double-digit points only twice, making a strong argument for the dubious "Fantasy Bust of the Year" honor.

    But with Brown now in San Diego and a shaky Ahmad Bradshaw as his only competition, Richardson is a sneaky candidate for a bounce-back year in 2014.

    With the ineptness that he displayed last season, it's easy to forget that he had an extremely successful rookie campaign in a laughable Browns offense just two years ago. Prior to that, he was labeled as one of "three sure-thing players" in the 2012 draft class.

    In all fairness, averaging 2.9 yards per carry over a full season can cause things like that to slip one's mind.

    But with Reggie Wayne returning from injury and Hakeem Nicks inked through free agency, the Colts are primed to own one of the most dangerous receiving corps in the NFL. Considering the amount of success that the milquetoast Knowshon Moreno experienced this past season under similar circumstances, one can fully expect Richardson to become a primary beneficiary.

    So, feel free to write off his 2013 output as nothing more than a sophomore slump. Grab him as a possible flex in the eighth or ninth round and watch him ascend to high-end RB2 status by year's end.

4. Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins

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    USA TODAY Sports

    You may recall that Miller was a popular sleeper pick in 2013 before proving unable to shake his frustrating timeshare with the less-gifted Daniel Thomas. A lethal combination of pass-blocking deficiencies and general ineffectiveness made sure of that.

    Even when he did receive a reasonable amount of touches, he struggled, logging several Chris Johnson-esque stat lines. With the addition of Knowshon Moreno via free agency this offseason, one may assume that Miller's stock would take even a larger hit.

    That's simply not the case.

    Yes, Moreno is among the top pass-blockers in the league. Yes, he had a career season in 2013, surpassing 1,500 total yards and reaching double-digit scores. And yes, he finished fifth among all running backs in standard leagues last season. But don't be fooled.

    He is an average runner at best—his inflated numbers were due to Denver's historic season on offense. Of his 242 carries last year, only 50 occurred with more than six defenders in the box. Heck, Danny Woodhead could pass as a feature back against those numbers.

    While the season may well begin in a 50-50 timeshare, expect Moreno's role to be reduced primarily due to shotgun formations as the year progresses.

    Miller appeared to be on the verge of getting over the proverbial hump several times last season but was unable to string together consecutive impressive outings. Then again, you'd be hard-pressed to find a back who could have, given Miami's highly publicized distractions concerning its offensive line.

    But 2014 is a new year and organizations generally tend to have short memories with 220-pound backs who run a 4.4 40-yard dash, per NFL.com. Miller will be provided ample opportunity to earn more carries. With a visibly improved Ryan Tannehill and revamped, refreshed O-line, look for Miller to thrive in his third NFL season.

    Additionally, goal-line vulture Thomas is likely out of the equation, meaning Miller—barring injury—is essentially guaranteed to improve on his paltry two touchdowns in 2013.

    Don't be spooked by the timeshare; Miller is far and away the better back here and will be treated as such. Limited touches may frustrate owners initially, but they'll be rewarded for sticking it out as the playoffs approach.

3. Toby Gerhart, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Seven. Point. Nine.

    That's how many yards Gerhart averaged every time he touched the rock in 2013. Now, pause. Take a second to reflect on just how ridiculous that number is.

    It's insane. Preposterous. Madden-esque.  

    Sure, he benefited from his role as Adrian Peterson's change-of-pace back. And yes, 36 carries represent a relatively small sample size. But there'd be more cause for skepticism had Gerhart not quietly been one of the league's more impressive backups over the past four seasons.

    Since he was firmly planted behind a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Peterson, it has been relatively easy to sweep him under the rug. But now in Jacksonville, Gerhart will get his long-overdue shot at heading an NFL backfield.

    "But, it's Jacksonville. Isn't that where fantasy careers go to die?" Recently, yes, but there are a couple of reasons to be optimistic about Gerhart's new situation.

    First, the Jags' horrid start to the season makes it easy to neglect the fact that they were among the league's most improved squads later in the year. The O-line single-handedly salvaged a washed-up Maurice Jones-Drew's season, entitling him to fantasy semi-relevance for at least one more year.

    Still, make no mistake: At this juncture of their respective careers, MJD is no Gerhart. With the recent acquisition of former Pro-Bowl guard Zane Beadles to boot, there is reason to believe that Jacksonville's ground attack will continue that improvement into 2014.

    But the most pressing concern with Gerhart lies on the opposite side of the ball. Can the defense keep games close enough for the offense to maintain an effective run game? It's a fair question, and one that'll likely make or break the career backup's season.

    The good news is that Jacksonville can only get better from last year. The bad news is that last year was really, really awful. With 24-plus points allowed in two-thirds of their contests, the Jaguars routinely abandoned the ground game by halftime.

    But a generous cap situation has enabled Jacksonville to upgrade on D as well. The additions of Ziggy Hood, Chris Clemons and Red Bryant to its 29th-ranked run defense should be enough to keep games competitive next season.

    Gerhart isn't a sexy pick. He's not flashy, doesn't possess blazing speed and probably won't win you any weeks by himself. What he is, however, is a quality RB2 who will produce for his owners week in, week out.

2. C.J. Spiller, Buffalo Bills

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    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    Ah, the curious case of C.J. Spiller

    Prior to last season, he was pegged as a mid-first-round pick by several fantasy experts. And why not?

    He dazzled in 2012, running for 1,244 yards on an astounding 6.0 yard per carry. Moreover, he proved to be one of the league's top pass-catching backs, picking up 459 yards through the air on only 43 receptions.

    In ESPN standard leagues, he finished eighth among all backs in total fantasy points, despite having 37 fewer touches than any other player in the top 10.

    Yes, he looked nothing short of a sure thing heading into 2013. Except he wasn't.

    For many, the choice boiled down to either Spiller or Jamaal Charles—a decision that either haunts you to this day or carried your team to fantasy nirvana. If you were swayed by Buffalo offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett's remarks that the Bills would "give [Spiller] the ball until he throws up," per The Howard Simon Show on WGR 550 (h/t ESPN.com), you're not alone.

    The aging Fred Jackson was a much bigger asset to the Buffalo offense than originally anticipated. He ended with more touches, touchdowns and, ultimately, fantasy points than the highly touted Spiller.

    The flashes of brilliance that he displayed in 2012 were few and far between. The lightning-quick cuts through the hole? Gone. The jaw-dropping elusiveness in the open field? No more. It was enough for ESPN.com's NFL Insider Matt Williamson to conclude that Spiller "can't be a workhorse back."

    Not only can Spiller be a workhorse back, he'll become one by the end of 2014. He was hampered by a nagging high-ankle sprain all last season, which hindered his cutback ability and breakaway speed. He'll enter this season fully recovered and entering his physical prime at 27 years old.

    The lateral and breakaway speed will return, as will his fantasy relevance.

    Ultimately, the backfield split presents the biggest threat to Spiller's value. Jackson far exceeded expectations last year and received the majority of Buffalo's red-zone opportunities. However, he'll enter this season at 33 years old—his football hourglass likely down to its last grains of sand. Anticipate that the injury-prone veteran's touches will drop significantly next season.

    In what was clearly a down year, Spiller actually still finished with 4.6 yards per carry in 2013—better than the likes of Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson. He did this behind a rookie quarterback and while plagued by a bum ankle. The situation surrounding him will only improve next seasonand with it, his value as an every-week back.

    Look for him to make a bid to regain his spot among the fantasy elite in 2014. He still owns the tools that made him a consensus top-10 selection just a year ago and should begin the season with a chip on his shoulder.

    A projected fifth-round pick this year, you could do much worse at RB2. 

1. Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals

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    USA TODAY Sports

    If you didn't get around to watching any Arizona Cardinals games last season, it's understandable; they're in a smaller market and were one of only four NFL teams without a Monday night game.

    But unfortunately, that also means you probably missed the opportunity to check out one of fantasy's budding superstars in rookie Andre Ellington.

    Ellington, a sixth-round selection out of Clemson last year, began 2013 as nothing more than an afterthought. Despite limited carries early on, he impressed offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin enough to earn a timeshare with starter Rashard Mendenhall by Week 8. 

    Although Mendy still received the lion's share of touches, it was apparent that Ellington was the better, more explosive back of the two.

    With Mendenhall now retired, presumably reading Steinbeck in a Portuguese coffee shop somewhere off the Tagus River, Ellington is poised to assume leading duties in Arizona's backfield. Though common thought says that the unproven Stepfan Taylor may join him in a backfield platoon, he'll only pilfer a minor amount of touches.

    Think somewhere along the lines of what Roy Helu was to Alfred Morris for the Redskins last season—an 80/20 split with a handful of goal-line opportunities going to Taylor.

    Ellington has drawn comparisons to superstar Jamaal Charles; Taylor is reminiscent of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. There should be little doubt for Goodwin of which guy needs to receive the bulk of the carries.

    Also, there's no need to fear the second-year blues with a player like Ellington.

    While many rookie backs initially stumble into success due to lack of available game film, Ellington's versatile skill set makes him one of the safest bets to avoid taking a step back in 2014. Possessing an impressive mixture of finesse and strength, it's difficult to identify any truly exploitable weaknesses in the 25-year-old's game.

    He is a legitimate NFL back and more than simply a product of opposing defenses' unfamiliarity.

    He routinely found running room behind a questionable offensive line, displaying vision and awareness far beyond his years. Arizona has placed a clear emphasis on improving that line this offseason, which should make Ellington's job even easier.

    Despite splitting carries with Mendenhall, he averaged just north of 13 touches per game over the last five weeks of 2013. In the midst of a tight playoff race, that reflects the respect and confidence that Ellington gained as the season wore on.

    Now free of the Mendenhall ball-and-chain, look for Ellington to earn in the ballpark of 20 touches per week—more than enough for him to provide a substantial fantasy impact.

    Though already underprojected as an early fourth-round pick, he's liable to fall even further due to lack of name recognition. Take Ellington with confidence and reap the benefits of weekly borderline-RB1 numbers.

    He offers little risk while still maintaining the possibility of high reward—a rare combination in a fantasy sleeper. Ultimately, it's one that propels him above the rest as 2014's early No. 1 running back dark horse.