It's not likely that rookie Cleveland Browns running back Terrance West will beat veteran Ben Tate out for the starting job, but that doesn't mean he's not a solid value sleeper in fantasy football drafts this season.
Tate still occupies the No. 1 spot on the Browns' unofficial depth chart after two preseason games, but West has continued to show flashes of potential and playmaking ability through training camp and the first half of the preseason.
West's current average draft position is 88.1 overall and 35th among running backs. That's only eight spots behind Tate, suggesting that rather than taking both backs and handcuffing them, owners are selecting either Tate or West in his own right. While selecting West much higher than Round 10 could be a gamble—unlike other second-stringers, aside from an injury to Tate he likely won't take over as the feature back in Cleveland this season—taking him around that point is a high-value, high-reward bet.
In keeper leagues, West's value is even higher. The Browns signed Tate to a two-year, $6.2 million deal in March with the expectation that he would start. But West, with the skills he has displayed since the draft, is being groomed to take over the starting job when Tate's contract is up.
Don't underestimate the potential returns of handcuffing Tate and West, which mitigates any of the risks involved with taking one of them alone. Their complementary styles of play, with West's scoring propensity and compact build and Tate's downhill running style, could lead Cleveland to use them as a one-two punch in the backfield.
In fact, NFL.com fantasy analyst Michael Fabiano targeted West and Tate as a possible handcuff pairing back in May.
If West continues to improve in pass protection and route running, he can become the Browns' third-down back, but he shouldn't be limited to that role.
West impressed throughout all of training camp, displaying his toughness as well as his skilled footwork, as this Vine by the Browns shows.
In the Browns' first preseason meeting against the Detroit Lions, West had a quiet night as far as his box score, with 10 carries for 22 yards. For what it's worth, Tate's night wasn't much more notable, with six carries for 25 yards, and that might be expected throughout the preseason as coach Mike Pettine tries to narrow down his starting quarterback competition.
To see how well the two work in tandem, check out this video of West and Tate's carries against Detroit.
West did display some qualities that don't show up on the stat sheet against the Lions, however. Rotoworld's Josh Norris liked West's decisiveness.
Against Washington, the Browns let their backs out of the box a little more. West had fewer carries for more yards: eight for 31.
West was helped off the field after Monday night's game, but there has been no word so far about whether his injury is anything to worry about. Still, fantasy owners should clear his injury status before drafting.
And speaking of injury histories, owners with West stashed safely on their benches could have an ace up their sleeve if Tate falls injured in 2014. His own injury history includes a broken ankle in his rookie season in 2010 and now infamously playing through four broken ribs in 2014, though he still amassed 771 yards.
For his part, West knows about durability; he rushed 413 times at Towson last year for 2,509 yards and 41 touchdowns. If he has even a quarter as many carries in 2014, he'll prove to be a valuable addition for savvy drafters.
Why take West over other potential sleeper running backs—such as those named by ESPN, like the Cincinnati Bengals' Jeremy Hill or Oakland Raiders' Latavius Murray? West's sheer potential, based on his production at Towson and what he's shown throughout training camp, as well as his path to a sizable workload in the NFL weigh heavily.
Hill is still listed as the third-string running back on the Bengals' unofficial depth chart behind Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. And while Hill may see an increased role after Ellis leaves, he won't get as many touches as West figures to get while he's behind those two.
Similarly, Latavius Murray sits behind Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden in Oakland—both of whom, taken together, also make for a nice handcuff pairing. Murray doesn't figure to see many touches in that backfield, whereas West could be sharing time with Tate immediately as the Browns No. 2 back still fighting for a No. 1 role.
Owners will have their choice of late-round sleeper running backs in a draft full of them, but West should be at the top of that list.
Average draft position information courtesy of FantasyFootballCalculator.com.