Many people say that the most important position in fantasy football is running back. The reason behind this is that the depth at running back is always very thin due to running back committees, more passing teams, and even a lack of elite talent at the position. However, if you are the type of drafter that will stock up on elite wide receivers, grab a stud quarterback, or even a tight end early in the draft, then you are going to need to be filled in on running back sleepers that could have big years in 2012. You are somehow going to need to be able to draft starting caliber running backs in the middle rounds. Not an easy task, unless some of your late round picks at RB turn out to be gold. Here are five running backs that you can draft in the middle to late rounds and that have the potential to give you tremendous value.
1. Doug Martin
While Doug Martin isn’t a traditional sleeper, he is still going in the fifth to seventh rounds of many drafts. He can easily play like a second or third round type running back, so if you’re sitting there in the fifth or sixth round without a running back or with only one, Martin would be a wise choice for your team.Tampa Bay’s new head coach, Greg Schiano, will emphasize the ground game with his new team. Whoever is behind Josh Freeman will see many opportunities to run the football and also be involved in the short passing game.Also, Martin has been showing nothing but good things in training camp so far, and the coaching staff has already hinted that Martin will not just start in 2012, but be a three down back. LeGarrette Blount should still spell Martin during games, but Martin should see the bulk or carries at the start of the season to prove himself to his new team. Then, if he plays well, the sky is the limit for Martin in his rookie season.
Prediction: 1350 rushing yards, 8 touchdowns, 450 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns
2. Peyton Hillis
While Hillis still might not be a guy you steal at the end of your draft, he’s still a guy who’s going in the middle rounds of most drafts that can give you a lot of reward, especially if he falls even farther. Hillis had a huge year in 2010 when he had over 1600 total yards and 13 total touchdowns. The next year, the Madden Curse caused him to battle injuries and contract issues to have a disappointing year, especially based on where he was going in drafts. However, Hillis should have a big role in Kansas City this year. Jamaal Charles is the number one back there and even though he’s coming off an injury, he looks healthy and should be ready to go this year. Whether Charles is back to his one hundred percent old self is another story, and while I think he will be back to his old self enough to be a complete stud again, the Cheifs might be careful in the early going this year. Also, in Charles best season (2010, where he rushed for over 1400 yards), he only got 230 carries. While that’s not a bad number at all, Thomas Jones actually got more carries as a Chief in that same season. Yes, Jones was a fine player in 2010, but if a clearly superior player got 15 less carries than Thomas Jones in that player’s best season, then what will happen when that player is coming off of an ACL tear?Peyton Hillis battled a curse, injuries, sickness (haha), and poor relations with his team. He’s still the same player that had a big year in 2010, and he’s going to a team that will surely give him the ball early and often. I would not be surprised to see him get over 240 carries this year, and I think a safe bet is at least 200 is you’re conservative.
Prediction: 1100 rushing yards, 7 touchdowns, 270 receiving yards, 1 touchdown
3. Evan Royster
Will Mike Shanahan ever make the expected decision when it comes to a running back? Probably not. This time around, it looks like either Roy Helu or Evan Royster will get the starting nod at running back at the start of the season in 2012, with Tim Hightower a safe bet to get carries whenever he gets healthy. I think that whoever starts at running back in Washington will be a good fantasy play next year, provided you get him at a good value. However, Roy Helu is going pretty high in many ESPN drafts for a guy who won’t even be starting his team’s first preseason game. Evan Royster is one of my sleeper picks because, at least for now, you can get him a much better value and his ceiling is probably a but higher than Helu’s based on talent. Now, if Shanahan starts Royster based on that ceiling, then this pick would be phenomenal. Royster could have a big year this season, especially late in the season when he gets more looks based on good performance. Hightower should be nowhere near the football when there’s guys like Helu and Royster on the team, especially when that team is rebuilding with a rookie quarterback. I think either Helu or Royster will have a big year, but if your draft is coming up soon I would stay away from Helu in the mid rounds, get two other running backs that you feel you could start most weeks, and draft Royster in the late rounds.
Prediction (hopefully): 1250 rushing yards, 6 touchdowns, 400 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns
4. Ryan Williams
Beanie Wells had a fine year last year (thanks in large part due to two big game against the Rams and Giants), but he has always been an injury concern. In fact, he just had his first practice with the Cardinals after having knee surgery in the off season. Beanie Wells is still a solid fantasy starter option going into 2012 (a shaky option in PPR leagues, though), but if Wells gets hurt this year and misses any number of games, Ryan Williams could step in and have some big games. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he slowly stole carries away from Wells during the year.Williams was a second round pick in 2011 and then he got hurt in the preseason and missed his entire rookie year. They brought the talented back to Arizona to compete with Wells, and now since Williams is healthy again he can finally do that. Williams would be considered a pretty deep sleeper for this upcoming year, and you could definitely get him in the last two rounds of your draft. If Beanie Wells experiences injuries next year, Williams could be a really good back to have on your team.
Prediction: 821 yards, 5 touchdowns, 210 receiving yards, 1 touchdown
5. Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith is currently going in the fourteenth round at the earliest in ESPN standard leagues, which could turn out to be a big mistake to everyone that does not draft him earlier than that. Right now, Jahvid Best is being drafted earlier than Smith, which is somewhat surprising. Best has been an injury concern his entire career, is currently injured right now, and is not even guaranteed to be the starter heading into 2012. Yes, all three Detroit running backs are injury risks, including Smith, Best, and Mikel Leshoure, but if you want Best on your team you are going to have to spend a higher draft pick than Kevin Smith, who I think will have a more productive year if healthy. Kevin Smith has a history of injuries, but also a history of being a productive running back. He almost had 1000 rushing yards in 2008, and he did a good job in the ground last season when given opportunities. He’s also a big producer in the passing game (like his teammate Best), which is important in the Lion’s offense. Basically, whoever is given the chance will be a productive fantasy back in Detroit. I would say that Kevin Smith will get that chance early and he will produce, thereby receiving the majority of the playing time all year. And this could be the last player you add to your team besides a kicker. Prediction: 900 yards, 7 touchdowns, 500 receiving yards, 5 touchdowns