Fantasy Football 2021: Sleeper Running Backs to Target in Late Rounds
Running back is a make-or-break position for fantasy football players.
If the stars you select in fantasy football drafts fail to live up to expectations or get injured, you could be in a difficult spot.
To avoid any let down at the position, you have to find some sleeper prospects at running back in the late rounds of fantasy drafts in August and early September.
Since most teams have two-back systems, some of the best sleeper plays are ones who split production with fantasy draft picks from the first three rounds.
The latest influx of rookies should provide fantasy depth as well. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Najee Harris will receive the bump into the first few rounds, but a majority of the first-year running backs will be around in the late rounds.
With that in mind, you have to find the right player who may not make an impact in Week 1 but could be the hot waiver-wire selection at some point in the first half of the season.
Javonte Williams and Michael Carter are among the rookie candidates who could make an impact on their first NFL teams.
Jamaal Williams could end up as one of the most underrated pickups of free agency.
Williams made the move from one NFC North team to another by joining the Detroit Lions from the Green Bay Packers.
The veteran running back is expected to back up D'Andre Swift, but he could play a decent-sized role as the Lions work out their identity under first-year head coach Dan Campbell and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn.
In 2020, Detroit had a decent one-two punch of Swift and Adrian Peterson. The pair combined for 1,125 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. Swift had 521 yards and eight scoring plays off 114 carries.
Detroit should look to establish a consistent rushing attack off the bat in Week 1 to provide some comfort for Jared Goff in his new offense. The quarterback does not have a great cast of wide receivers around him since Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. departed in free agency.
The Lions could feel comfortable with running the ball more since they selected Penei Sewell in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft and given they have some veterans across the offensive line.
Williams was a solid No. 2 behind Aaron Jones in Green Bay last season. He had 505 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns. He could be in for more scoring runs in 2021 since Swift split the touchdown production evenly with Peterson in 2020.
The former Packers running back should be trusted more than some first-year players or other backups because he appears to be in a good situation and put up decent totals a year ago.
AJ Dillon is expected to fill the role Williams had with the Packers a year ago.
The second-year back out of Boston College will not eclipse Aaron Jones' production in the ground game, but he should be called upon in a supporting role.
Green Bay totaled 2,118 team rushing yards in 2020, with 505 of them coming from Williams. Since Jones can't play on every snap, Dillon could receive every chance to prove his worth in the No. 2 spot on the depth chart.
Dillon may provide added fantasy value in the passing game if he is able to take up the role Williams had in support of Aaron Rodgers in the short-throwing attack.
A year ago, Williams had 31 receptions for 256 yards. Jones had 47 catches for 355 yards. The two running backs combined for three receiving touchdowns. If Dillon improves on his pass-catching ability to make up for Williams' departure, Green Bay should run an offense similar to what it had a year ago.
Were Dillon to record around 500 rushing yards, add 30 or so catches and find the end zone on a handful of occasions, he could be a solid third running back to have on your roster to spell starters on bye weeks or come in for injured players.
The Buffalo Bills' running back situation will be one of the most closely monitored situations throughout training camp.
Zack Moss split time with Devin Singletary in 2020, which may be the case again as the Bills look to make another run into the postseason.
Moss had 481 rushing yards and four scores in his rookie campaign, and he was used more toward the back end of the campaign ahead of Singletary. Even though that stretch of games hinted at some promise for Moss as a fantasy contributor in 2021, he should be listed on one of the middle tiers of running back rankings.
Buffalo has a pass-heavy offense, and Emmanuel Sanders' addition gives it one more weapon for quarterback Josh Allen to work with. The running attack is still secondary in the team's offensive approach, but the Bills need to establish some sort of ground game to keep defenses honest.
Singletary should hold the edge in the passing game. He had 38 catches compared to Moss' 14, and that may relegate the second-year man to a backup work load at the start.
Moss is worth a latter-round selection because of how many points the Buffalo offense should produce. The Bills had 15 games with 20 or more points last season, and they will need some depth in scoring production, especially in the red zone.
Moss' advantage in touchdown runs over Singletary is a promising sign, and if he earns more rushing yards, he could be a pleasant surprise as a No. 2 running back on most fantasy teams.
The North Carolina Tar Heels sent two fantastic running backs to the NFL via the 2021 draft.
Javonte Williams was taken with the 35th overall pick by the Denver Broncos. Williams ran for 1,140 yards and 19 touchdowns last season in the ACC.
The second-rounder is competing for first-team snaps with Melvin Gordon III, but even if he takes the starting job, he resides on an offensive unit that has questions at quarterback.
Drew Lock has been a disappointment in his first two seasons in Denver. The AFC West team added Teddy Bridgewater for competition in the offseason after the Carolina Panthers traded for Sam Darnold. Lock had 16 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions in 13 games last year. If he starts again, the Denver passing attack could have its limitations.
If opposing defenses are not threatened by Lock's pocket presence, they could focus in on stopping the rushing attack to get Denver off the field in a hurry.
Gordon had 986 rushing yards, nine touchdowns and 4.6 yards per carry in 2020. Even if his production dips, Williams may not produce high enough totals to warrant a high selection in fantasy drafts.
Harris is the only rookie running back to trust in the opening few rounds because the starting role is his to lose in Pittsburgh.
Williams could take over the No. 1 spot on the depth chart from Gordon, but the Broncos may be inclined to line up the veteran next to Lock to provide some comfort and experience to give the third-year man the best chance to succeed.
Michael Carter was chosen two rounds after his former North Carolina teammate.
Carter turned in back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for the Tar Heels, and he recorded a single-season high of nine touchdowns last year.
The running back is part of a New York Jets corps that also includes La'Mical Perine and Tevin Coleman. Perine was New York's third leading rusher behind Frank Gore and Ty Johnson in 2020. Coleman came over from the San Francisco 49ers in the offseason, but he has dealt with his share of injury issues.
If Perine and/or Coleman fail to impress, Carter should work his way into a larger role in the backfield.
The Jets are likely one of the few teams that you will stay away from in the opening rounds of fantasy drafts because they are not expected to be good. No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson may put up decent totals in his rookie season at quarterback, but the Jets are viewed as the worst team in the AFC East.
Free-agent addition Corey Davis is probably the safest fantasy pick at wide receiver, but even he comes with some questions because he has to be a No. 1 wideout instead of a supporting piece, as he was with the Tennessee Titans. Davis' production could take a hit if Wilson experiences some growing pains under center.
If the Jets rely on their running game to support Wilson, Carter could be in line for some snaps early on. He could gain more playing time as the season progresses if the Jets try to see what they have for the future.
Carter is in a less ideal situation than Williams, but there is a path for him to go from late-round fantasy pick to depth piece in a few months.
Statistics obtained from Pro Football Reference.