Fantasy Football Sleepers: Running Backs To Grab In The Middle Rounds

Nicholas RoddyCorrespondent IAugust 30, 2010

Fantasy Football Sleepers: Running Backs To Grab In The Middle Rounds

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    Does this look familiar? Remember fantasy owners, LaDainian Tomlinson is still alive.Nick Laham/Getty Images

    A few years ago, it was impossible to win your fantasy football league without having a bonafide stud running back.

    That is not the way leagues work nowadays, thanks to the influx in quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Matt Schaub.  Owners are now waiting until the third round to select their first running back, and it often pays off in the end. 

    For example, say you took Andre Johnson and Drew Brees with your first two picks in your fantasy draft last year.  In the third round, you took a flier on Thomas Jones or Ryan Grant.  Looking back on it, chances are that team won it all.

    With owners gradually takings chances on their draft day, the sleepers are becoming more and more important.  Took Eddie Royal in the eighth round last year?  Chances are you lost.  However, if you took Ray Rice in that same round, your winning odds went up exponentially.

    Here are a few of this year's "Ray Rice" sleepers to help you win your fantasy league, and hopefully bring in some cash too.

Darren Sproles

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    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    With the departure of LaDanian Tomlinson and arrival of rookie Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles is quickly becoming a sexy mid-round sleeper.

    Mathews is currently going in the first two rounds of most fantasy drafts, placing a huge amount of pressure on an unproven running back.  

    Dave Richard, Senior Fantasy Writer for CBS Sportsline, did a study on the effectiveness of rookie running backs in the NFL. He came up with some intriguing numbers. In 2009, guess how many rookie running backs ran for 1,000 yards.  The answer?  Zero.  Only one had over 1,000 total yards.

    The fact is that rookie running backs do substantially worse than fantasy owners think.  Will Ryan Mathews be one of the few to crack the century mark?  Maybe. But chances are he won't.

    Sproles is a very capable second running back for the San Diego Chargers, and will be used plenty more now that LT is out of town.  He is definitely worth a middle round selection, especially in leagues that reward return yards.

LaDainian Tomlinson

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    LaDainian Tomlinson departure left a hole in San Diego, but filled a much-needed void in the New York Jets' offensive plan.

    The Jets carried the ball over 600 times last season.  I'll give you a second to re-read that sentence. 

    To be more accurate, they ran the rock 607 times.  The second team, the Tennessee Titans, ran the ball 499 times.  If you are bad at math, that is a difference of 100 carries.

    However, Leon Washington and Thomas Jones, the top two running backs in the Jets' system last season, are no longer with the team. 

    Even if the Jets cut their carries by 100, does Rex Ryan really expect Shonn Greene to be the recipient of over 300 carries?  The Jets need Tomlinson to carry the ball at least 150 times.  They simply cannot put that kind of load on Greene's shoulders.

    And as ESPN's fantasy guru Matthew Barry said, "LT is not dead". He can still hit the double-digit touchdown mark and be a perfect flex option on fantasy teams.  He becomes increasingly important in PPR leagues.  Remember, this is the same LT that once caught 100 passes.

Tim Hightower

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Tim Hightower is simply a tank.  The Arizona Cardinals' goal-line running back will most likely be doing plenty of these touchdown celebrations this season.  

    Now that Kurt Warner has packed his bags and hung up his cleats, the running game will become much more important to the success of the Cardinals.

    Beanie Wells is undoubtedly the premier back in the offense, but NFL teams are now relying on two or more backs to carry the workload, instead of pounding the same guy 330+ times a year. 

    The former Richmond Spider is a perfect sleeper because of his knack for end-zone and soft hands out of the backfield.  In his first season in the NFL, he ran the ball 143 times for 399 yards.  Last season, he ran the ball the same amount, but this time for 598 yards.  He is obviously improving his game.  He even caught 63 passes last season, good for second among running backs.

    In PPR leagues, this guy is a stud.  But in any type of league, he definitely deserves a spot on your roster.

Fred Taylor

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    I know, I know.  How can a 34-year-old running back in a pass-happy offense be a sleeper?  Well just hear me out.

    The New England Patriots have a plethora of running backs, and quite frankly, none of them are that good.  If one of them can get the bulk of the carries, he could be a star.

    For a few years now, Bill Belichick has rotated backs like Tiger Woods has rotated mistresses.  However, Fred Taylor is looking like the starter for the 2010 Patriots offense. 

    With a healthy Tom Brady and Wes Welker, along with a consistently stellar Randy Moss, the Pats will need to rely on a running back to get in the end zone and open up the field.

    If Fred Taylor can grasp that starting job and keep it for any length of time, look for him to get anywhere from 800 to 1,000 and six touchdowns.  That could be good enough for a middle to late round sleeper to stash on your bench as a bye week fill-in.

Jerome Harrison

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    Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    Jerome Harrison finished his 2009 campaign on an absolute tear.  

    In his final three weeks, he rushed for 286, 148, and 127 yards respectively.  Add a total of five touchdowns, and he has quickly become a household name in the fantasy world.

    And that's the problem with fantasy football today. A few years ago, sleepers were your own. You watched the games and analyzed the stats, and found your perfect sleeper for the following season. Nowadays, ESPN is announcing the sleepers on TV specials and stealing all your thunder.

    With Jamal Lewis out of the Cleveland Browns' offensive scheme, Harrison is the primary back for the Dawg Pound.  

    He is currently going around the fifth or sixth round in fantasy drafts, so look for him to be a third running back or starting at the flex position.  If he can come anywhere close to his final three weeks of his 2009 seasons, fantasy owners will be jumping with joy.