Draft Prep: Five Running Back Sleepers in 2019

Erik Smith looks at five running back sleepers to target in your upcoming fantasy football drafts.

Identifying sleeper running backs is tough in 2019. With the fantasy community scouring their spreadsheets and game film for the next Alvin Kamara, everyone has been considered at this point in the offseason. Those who have been identified as sleepers have already seen their draft stock shoot up the ADP lists (hello Darrell Henderson). However, there are still interesting names late in drafts to target as potential returns on investment. None of these players likely steps into an every-down role week one, or else they would be drafted in the first five rounds. But the following players could see a huge fantasy breakout in 2019 if just a thing or two falls their way.

 

Alexander Mattison (Minnesota Vikings, #ADP 164)

 

A third-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft, Mattison looks like a direct replacement for Latavius Murray and a compliment to starting running back Dalvin Cook. Mattison is a bruising between the tackles runner from Boise State that could carve out a goalline role from the start. If the often injured Cook misses any time, Mattison would be the next man up and showed at Boise State that he could handle a heavy workload. The rest of the depth chart is very weak, meaning that this is Cook’s and Mattison’s backfield to share. The Vikings are preaching a renewed commitment to the running game, which could give Mattison enough work to be more than a handcuff if he continues to impress the team in his preseason work.

Murray’s role over the past two years has been a valuable fantasy asset. When he filled in for the injured Cook in 2017 and 2018, Murray posted the following rushing statistics in his games started for the Vikings.

 

Date Rush Att Rush Yds Y/A TD
2017-10-09 12 31 2.58 0
2017-10-15 15 28 1.87 0
2017-10-22 18 113 6.28 1
2017-10-29 19 39 2.05 0
2017-11-12 17 68 4 1
2017-11-19 15 95 6.33 2
2017-11-23 20 84 4.2 1
2017-12-03 16 76 4.75 0
2017-12-10 9 14 1.56 0
2017-12-17 20 76 3.8 1
2017-12-23 21 69 3.29 0
2018-09-23 2 1 0.5 0
2018-10-07 11 42 3.82 0
2018-10-14 24 155 6.46 1
2018-10-21 15 69 4.6 2
2018-10-28 13 56 4.31 1
2018-11-04 10 31 3.1 1
Avg/Game 15.12 61.59 0.65

 

With an average line of 15 carries, 62 rushing yards, and a 65% chance at scoring a rushing touchdown, Murray was a relatively dependable option when Cook missed time. If Mattison, a younger and higher drafted running back, can improve on Murray’s mediocre 3.74 yards per rush, Mattison could have an even higher ceiling in the event of a Cook injury. And if Cook stays healthy, Mattison could still be a significant part of the offense, as the Vikings want to run as much as possible, and would be wise to keep Cook fresh by limiting his touches at times. Mattison makes an intriguing late-round stash in 2019.

 

Darwin Thompson (Kansas City Chiefs, #189 ADP)

 

A sixth-round rookie running back out of Utah State, Thompson finds himself on 2018’s best offense by both points scored and yardage gained in Kansas City. The depth chart ahead of him is very thin, led by Damien Wiliams and rounded out with Carlos Hyde and Darrel Williams. Damien Williams has missed some time in camp with a hamstring injury, and while it doesn’t appear serious, the injury reinforces the notion that Williams has never had over 50 carries in a single season in his five year NFL career, casting doubt on his ability to be an every-down workhorse. Hyde has bounced around the league over the past two years, playing for three different teams. After shockingly receiving 88 targets with the 49ers in 2017 and only turning them into a paltry 350 yards receiving, the Browns and Jaguars ignored him in the passing game in 2018, as he only drew 16 targets in 14 games played. Finally, Darrel Williams is an undrafted player out of LSU who played six games for the Chiefs last year, who profiles as a between the tackles runner.

The depth chart appears open for Thompson to make an impact, as his passing game talents fill a different role than Hyde and Darrel Williams serve. An injury to Damien Williams could clear the way for Thompson in the passing game, which is worth an end of the draft flyer. At 5’8″ and with a 74th percentile SPARQ score, Thompson could bring explosiveness to the backfield on passing downs and when playing from behind. Thompson likely lacks the profile to ever completely take over the backfield, but in the league’s most high powered offense he’s worth a stash at the end of your bench. Nyheim Hines on the Colts is a realistic comparison, who finished his rookie season as the RB27 in PPR leagues on the back of his 81 targets. Taking shots on players like Thompson on fantasy football’s best offenses is always a smart move.

 

Miles Sanders (Philadelphia Eagles, #80 ADP)

 

I profiled Sanders in my The Five Fantasy Football Sleepers You HAVE To Draft writeup on Monday, so he obviously makes this list as well.

The Eagles don’t strike me as the type of organization that would spend a second-round pick on a player that they won’t utilize, especially when it’s at the generally devalued position of running back. So the selection of Miles Sanders as the 53rd overall pick in this year’s draft should set off alarm bells for fantasy owners. Sanders is a 77th percentile athlete according to Player Profiler, immediately giving him a higher upside than his competition in the Philadelphia backfield.

Competing for the job with Sanders is Jordan Howard, who the Eagles only gave up a 202o 6th round pick to acquire from the Bears. Howard brings nothing to the table in the passing game, limiting his upside and usage in an offense that should be able to throw on even the best of defenses. Recently signed Darren Sproles is certainly a nuisance for those looking to draft Sanders, but the 36-year-old pass-catching running back was limited to six games last year due to injury, and received very little interest on the open market this offseason. The remaining competition is Wendell Smallwood, a fifth-round pick from 2016 that may be in danger of not making the roster, and Corey Clement, an undrafted player who just recently returned to the field from a knee injury. While the sheer number of options available to the Eagles is concerning for those looking to draft Sanders, none of those players even remotely resembles the all-around difference-maker that Sanders could turn into.

 

 

Sanders is being selected as the 32nd running back in drafts, typically going off the board towards the end of the seventh round. Sanders showed explosiveness at Penn State that makes him an intriguing pick at that cost. He was able to hurdle defenders on runs and break big plays, as well as split out wide and convert first downs as a pass-catcher. His overall ability gives him an opportunity to take over a backfield that could be among the most diverse and explosive in the NFL, with an excellent quarterback and offensive line to help support Sanders in his rookie year.

Sanders likely won’t be a bell-cow running back, but very few players are in 2019’s NFL, and those players are taken in the first round of fantasy drafts. With an ADP around pick 82 overall, Sanders has the potential to look like the steal of the draft in retrospect.

 

Damien Harris (New England Patriots, #125 ADP)

 

Harris also made my list of the top five sleepers of 2019. Traditional fantasy football advice pertaining to Patriots runnings backs is to take the least expensive player on draft day. The reason being that the Patriots are unpredictable with their running back usage, making an early-round fantasy investment at the position risky. However, the Patriots have ranked in the top 5 in offensive points scored in each of the last nine seasons, making the primary New England running back a lucrative role if you can land it.

Unless you want to draft Rex Burkhead this year, who struggled with injuries in 2018 and may be fighting for a roster spot this year, Damien Harris is your man. The third-round pick out of Alabama is going anywhere from pick 100 to 125 overall in fantasy drafts, well behind teammates Sony Michel and James White. With White focusing primarily on the passing game work, and Michel already showing early-career knee problems that are a carryover from college, Harris could sneak his way into a significant role on one of the leagues finest offenses.

Harris showed good burst at the combine, though is not an elite athlete overall. He shared work with first-round pick Josh Jacobs at Alabama and is a versatile player that can contribute on the ground, in the air, and in pass blocking, making him a rookie that should be able to earn the trust of the coaching staff quickly. Reports out of camp reinforce the notion that Harris will be a quick contributor.

His versatility makes him an interesting option when compared to the lack of versatility from the other primary Patriots running backs. Michel was a zero in the passing game last year, with a minuscule 11 targets in 13 games. And while White is a talented pass catcher, he’s a limited rusher, as he set a career-high last year with just 94 carries in his fifth season in the NFL. Harris looks like the primary backup to both White and Michel, making him an easy selection in the 9th or 10th rounds of fantasy drafts. An injury to either White or Michel could lead to a massive season for Harris at a value cost in drafts.

 

Jaylen Samuels (Pittsburgh Steelers, #135 ADP)

 

While the rest of the teams in your draft chase established running backs on poor offenses like Adrian Peterson or Peyton Barber, take a shot on a young player with upside in a top fantasy offense, like Samuels. I’m still high on James Conner, so this is not to say I’m avoiding him as a result. In fact, with Antonio Brown’s 168 vacated targets and the lackluster wide receivers used to replace him, I could see quarterback Ben Roethlisberger relying more heavily on the running backs in the passing game, potentially giving the Steelers two fantasy relevant running backs in PPR leagues. Samuels showed flashes last year of upside worth rostering in 2019.

When Samuels took over for the injured Conner down the stretch of 2018, he flashed ability that should spark the interest of fantasy owners in all leagues. I’ve included the final game of the season as well when Conner returned, as you can see that Samuels had established a role even with Conner back from injury.

 

Date Rush Att Rush Yds Y/A Rush TD Tgt Rec Rec Yds Rec TD
2018-12-09 11 28 2.55 0 7 7 64 0
2018-12-16 19 142 7.47 0 2 2 30 0
2018-12-23 12 53 4.42 0 3 3 11 1
2018-12-30 2 2 1 0 8 7 40 0

 

While Samuels isn’t likely to develop a big touchdown role with Conner and rookie thumper Benny Snell Jr. ready to fill the goalline role, Samuels showed capable of taking on a larger rushing workload last year. Coupled with his two seven-catch games in the last four weeks of 2018, and Samuels looks like he could develop into a flex option, while a serving as an upside handcuff option in the event that Conner suffered an injury. Samuels is yet another example of a talented running back to target in one of the leagues premier fantasy offenses, which should be your primary targets at the end of drafts.

 

(Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire)

2 responses to “Draft Prep: Five Running Back Sleepers in 2019”

  1. Kyle G. says:

    Mattison came out of Boise State, not BYU right?

    • Erik Smith says:

      You are correct. That’s what I get for scheduling myself for articles while I’m on vacation, a little too much time on the beach I guess! Thanks for catching that for me.

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