Fantasy Football Sleepers: 5 Running Backs You Can't Afford to Miss

Alex Joseph@alex_brosephAnalyst ISeptember 2, 2011

Fantasy Football Sleepers: 5 Running Backs You Can't Afford to Miss

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    As more and more NFL teams adopt the running back by committee philosophy, more and more fantasy teams become less dependent on drafting running backs early.

    It is easier to find sleepers at this position than ever before, but time and time again running backs are getting snatched up in the first four rounds. 

    This season, the running backs taken from around the fifth round through the ninth round will all share similar production. Does that make them sleepers?

    No way. It makes them decent flex options that we are already aware of. So who are the real sleepers? Or as I like to say, "What running backs are comatose this season?"

    Here are five decent comatose running backs you should strongly consider looking at this season. 

Mike Tolbert, San Diego Chargers

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    Average Draft Pick (ESPN): 96.2

    Projected Stats (ESPN): 677 Rushing Yards, 113 Receiving Yards, 10 TDs

    With Ryan Matthews underwhelming for most of last season, Tolbert stepped into a starting role and proved that he could handle a full workload.

    Even though this happened, Matthews has returned to the lineup completely healthy and looks to be the starter for the Chargers once again. After all, the Chargers can't just give up on Matthews two years after they spent a first-round draft pick on him.

    That leaves Tolbert in a designated backup role yet again. Matthews is sure to get the bulk of the carries at the beginning of the season, but Tolbert, who is 243 pounds of muscle, should see a lot of goal-line carries. 

    This will give Tolbert a lot of touchdown chances, which, of course, are the most important aspect in fantasy football. 

    If Matthews underwhelms again, though, look for Tolbert to step up again and become a fantasy impact player. 

Daniel Thomas, Miami Dolphins

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    Average Draft Pick (ESPN): 99.1

    Projected Stats (ESPN): 853 Rushing Yards, 216 Receiving Yards, 4 TDs

    I really had no intention of using Daniel Thomas on this list, solely because I thought he would have been taken a lot higher in fantasy leagues.

    He's going in the 10th round on average. Reggie Bush's ADP is 85.8. Does he really deserve to be almost 14 picks higher than Thomas? 

    The answer is no. Even though Bush currently sits ahead of Thomas on the Dolphins' depth chart, that doesn't negate the fact that he has never been an every-down type of running back in the NFL. Is that suddenly going to change with a new team? 

    Bush will get his carries, but he will also be a valued receiver out of the backfield as well as a return man. He can't do everything. 

    This leaves room for Thomas to step in and make the most of his time. He will likely be getting the majority of the carries by the end of the season, and that may even begin in the early weeks. 

    Thomas is going to be better than his ADP of 99.1 would have you believe. 

Danny Woodhead, New England Patriots

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    Average Draft Pick (ESPN): 130

    Projected Stats (ESPN): 423 Rushing Yards, 321 Receiving Yards, 5 TDs

    Danny Woodhead was an unlikely fantasy contributor last season. He finished with six touchdowns, was used at wide receiver and averaged double-digit carries for the Patriots during their most crucial stretch of the year.

    Of course, Woodhead played backup to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but he proved he was still worth consideration as a flex option. 

    This season looks about the same for Woodhead, but he's still barely being drafted (if at all) in all fantasy leagues. 

    In fact, he may have an even better season than before. Because he proved himself last year, Woodhead should see more carries and get more looks from QB Tom Brady

    The five touchdowns that ESPN has projected for Woodhead is likely on the low side. 

    Woodhead will yet again be a fantasy sleeper. 

Roy Helu, Washington Redskins

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    Average Draft Pick (ESPN): 145.8

    Projected Stats (ESPN): 509 Rushing Yards, 122 Receiving Yards, 4 TDs

    Roy Helu Jr. has looked great in the preseason. In his second preseason game, Helu exploded for 101 yards on 14 carries. 

    With the arrival of Tim Hightower, Helu's exciting running style will have to be eased into the rotation, but if he continues to impress, Mike Shanahan will have to give him carries. 

    Helu has been the backup since day one. Before Hightower arrived, Helu was playing backup to Ryan Torain. When Torain went down with a hand injury, the Redskins decided it would be a good idea to pick up Hightower. 

    Needless to say, Helu hasn't really been given a chance to be the starting running back. This is likely due to his underdeveloped blocking style. He is a rookie, so it will take him awhile to get adjusted to the NFL.

    With that being said, Helu has all the tools to be a promising running back this season, and with Hightower's history of underwhelming performances, he might get his chance sooner rather than later. 

LaRod Stephens-Howling, Arizona Cardinals

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    Average Draft Pick (ESPN): 170

    Projected Stats (ESPN): 256 Rushing Yards, 386 Receiving Yards, 2 TDs

    This definitely seems like the biggest reach on paper. LaRod Stephens-Howling has never been a fantasy dynamo, but he's in line to see an increase in production this season.

    Tim Hightower is now with the Washington Redskins and rookie Ryan Williams is likely out for the season with an injury, so that just leaves Stephens-Howling and Beanie Wells to patrol the Arizona Cardinals' backfield. 

    Wells is the current starter, but his underwhelming first two seasons with the Cardinals as well as his proneness to injuries leaves little to desire.

    Stephens-Howling is currently one of the premier kickoff returners in the league, but with the new kickoff rule in place, Stephens-Howling may need to find a new niche.

    There's no way his shifty and elusive running style won't come in handy. He will likely be best this season as a receiver out of the backfield or even in the slot, but he could also rival Wells for carries later in the season.