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Yahoo's 2018 Fantasy Football Sleepers: Running Backs

For a sizable chunk of 2017, New England’s Rex Burkhead was more than just FLEXY SEXY in .5 PPR leagues. More of the same is on tap in the follow up. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

“Sleeper” is a complicated and often misused word spout ceaselessly in fantasy. Anyone who tells you Rashaad Penny qualifies is a run-of-the-mill Captain Obvious who deserves decisive ridicule. For this exercise, we’re focused on UNDERVALUED options available outside the overall top-75, according to ADP.

Andy: Giovani Bernard, CIN (132.8 ADP, RB50). OK, maybe Gio is too established and well understood to fit anyone’s definition of a sleeper. But his draft price is absurd, relative to various other running backs who figure to catch 50-plus passes and receive 100-120 carries. Bernard was a much more efficient runner than Joe Mixon last season (4.4 YPC vs. 3.5) and he remains a key committee member in Cincinnati. We’re treating Mixon as if he’s an every-down, all-situation running back, yet Bernard is still in the team picture. If Mixon again struggles behind a suspect O-line, Gio could see an uptick in touches. In any sort of PPR format, Bernard has a decent weekly floor. 

Brad: REX BURKHEAD, NE (80.6 ADP, RB34). Check, baby, check. Rex ‘n effect is about to shake investor rumps. Yes, the buzz surrounding Sony Michel has already shattered eardrums throughout Fantasyland. I greatly respect the rookie’s skill set, but it seems unlikely OC Josh McDaniels will take a sharp, sudden turn in his backfield philosophy. It will almost certainly remain a timeshare featuring Burkhead, Michel, James White and whoever lands a roster spot between dead weights Jeremy Hill and Mike Gillislee. Best guess: Michel heads up the committee totaling close to 15 touches per game with Burkhead chipping in roughly 11-14 grips. Most importantly, if the youngster’s fumbling issues persist, which for a time were problematic during his days at Georgia, many of Burkhead’s projected touches will come inside the red zone. Juicy.

When gifted a similar workload last season, Burkhead proved quite valuable. From Weeks 8-14, he crossed the chalk seven times and averaged 68.2 total yards per game, good for the 11th-best output in .5 PPR. Equally impressive, he ranked RB7 in yards per touch (5.5), RB12 in fantasy points per opportunity and RB4 in catch percentage. Bottom line, slotting somewhere inside the RB top-24 is easily repeatable for my hair-challenged hombre.

It’s assumed Michel outperforms him, but not by enough to warrant a 40-pick difference in ADP. Burkhead, a bargain in the middle rounds, is one of the finest RB3/RB4 targets in re-drafts.

Dalton: AARON JONES (87.41 ADP, RB37). He’s currently dealing with a hamstring injury and opens the season with a two-game suspension. But Jamaal Williams got just 3.6 YPC last season compared to Jones’ 5.5, and while the plan is for Ty Montgomery taking over passing down work, he hasn’t been able to stay healthy playing the position. There’s hardly any guarantee Mike McCarthy makes the right decision, but Jones is clearly the best running back on Green Bay’s roster, and a featured role in what should be among the league’s top offenses with Aaron Rodgers back brings massive upside. The Packers’ defense should also be much-improved, and their offensive line projects as one of the league’s better units, so this situation is ideal (although newcomer Jimmy Graham could steal some short touchdowns).

Jones’ 6.1 YPC against base fronts last year ranked second in the NFL, as did his breakaway run rate (7.5%). He still needs work in the passing game, both as a receiver and blocker, although he added bulk to his lower body during the offseason in hopes of improving in pass protection. Jones looks like a potentially elite talent in an offense that’s going to score a bunch of points with thoroughly mediocre competition at RB, and yet he remains cheap at draft tables thanks to the suspension (weeks in which Williams will face a couple of tough run defenses against Minnesota and Chicago). Jones could be a true difference maker in 2018 fantasy leagues, and it wouldn’t surprise if he cost something like a second round pick next year.

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Scott: ISAIAH CROWELL (96 ADP, RB41). I can understand why the crowd might be cool on Crowell. He was in Cleveland for four years, the NFL’s Siberia. The Jets aren’t expected to be a 2018 contender, either, and that could mean messy game scripts. And Crowell is already into his fifth pro season, and backs don’t have the longest of shelf lives.

Ah, but the price is cheap. And Crowell wasn’t exactly run into the ground in Cleveland (737 carries in four years), so the tires have tread left. He’s a handier receiver than some realize, with 68 catches the last two years. And while Bilal Powell will certainly have some role in the New York backfield, Elijah McGuire recently had a setback (busted foot) in camp. The Jets might have one of the tidiest backfield depth charts when the season opens.

No, Crowell isn’t a sexy, home-run, yell-it-from-the-rooftops pick. But we need some boring value plays, too. He qualifies there. Somehow he managed 4.5 YPC the last two years, in the Cleveland chaos, and ranked as high as RB14 in 2016. He’s mildly underrated as draft season heads to August.

Liz: C.J. ANDERSON, CAR (92.7 ADP, RB39). Not the flashiest choice, but a solid one.

Coming off of a 1,000-yard season, Anderson has plenty left in the tank. Last year, the 27-year-old ripped off nine breakaway runs (#13) and managed a top-thirteen juke rate (28.6%). That number figures to increase, as he’ll be trading up from Trevor Siemian/Brock Osweiler/Paxton Lynch to the ultra-mobile Cam Newton, which should open up holes and provide the Cal product with extra running room.

Replacing Jonathan Stewart, Anderson is likely to average upwards of 13 totes per contest. Assuming he stays healthy (which is distinctly possible given a reduced workload) and that he’s slightly more efficient than Stewart was in his age 30-season, I’d expect Anderson to close out 2018 in the RB25-RB30 range. That’s quite a bargain considering his late eighth-round draft price.

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