Fantasy Football Sleepers & Busts: Running Backs
Get good value for some and beware of others
By: Athlon Sports | 8/24/11, 7:00 AM EDT
Tennessee's Javon Ringer
Athlon Sports looks at the sleepers and busts at the quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end positions this week. These are the players we think you can wait on and still get solid production from and the players we think have an average draft position (ADP) that is too high for what you will get in return.
Take a look at the pros & cons of all of the potential first-round RBs.
But if you miss out on one of the top RBs or get one, go elsewhere for a few rounds and then look to get another one or two later, here's who we have as the sleepers to look out for and the busts to avoid. These are in no particular order. Check out the Athlon 280 to see who is where, as well as our current preseason RB rankings.
See more of Athlon Sports value players, overvalued players and top rookies in our Best Bets story
Shonn Greene, New York Jets
No RB disappointed fantasy folks more in 2010. Greene failed to build on the terrific 2009 playoff run and couldn’t even get relevant when LaDainian Tomlinson slowed down midway through the year. With LT another year older, though, Greene should get more opportunity this time around. We have to be wary after a mere 4.1 yards-per-carry average and two TDs last year, but the previous production wasn’t imaginary. Greene must show better instincts for finding the hole, but offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer says Greene is ready to “explode.”
Mark Ingram, New Orleans
Yeah, things are crowded in the Saints backfield. The team didn’t jump back into the first round for a committee back, though. Sean Payton’s debut season in 2006 saw Deuce McAllister draw 51.7 percent of carries. No player has surpassed 40 percent since. Pierre Thomas was that kind of runner for half of 2008 but can’t stay healthy. Ingram was a strong, highly dependable runner in college and should be the guy Payton leans on to lead the rushing attack in 2011. TDs will come.
Cedric Benson, Cincinnati
Last season brought Benson career highs in carries, receptions and rushing TDs. It was the first time he played all 16 games. He also managed just 3.5 yards per carry. The low TD total came despite the third-most red zone carries in the league; the two RBs ahead of him each scored at least 12 times. Cincinnati figures to have Andy Dalton under center, and the short-yardage blocking must get better. Benson will continue to be a high-carry back but will be hard-pressed to generate much greater production.
Daniel Thomas, Miami
Thomas doesn’t come with big-play speed, but he can be a punishing between-the-tackles runner. He averaged a strong 5.2 yards per carry over two seasons as Kansas State’s starter and was particularly productive in the red zone. Thomas scored two TDs or more in eight of 13 games en route to 19 scores for the 2010 season. He isn’t a special receiver but did catch 52 passes over the two years. Assuming Reggie Bush cannot be the workhorse back, which he is not, Thomas should lead the Miami backfield in carries and stand first in line for TDs behind a rising O-line.
Ryan Grant, Green Bay
James Starks is the exciting new guy scaring folks off of Grant. Starks wasn’t exactly Shonn Greene from the ’09 playoffs, though. Grant isn’t the big-play threat some other backs are, but he comes with two 1,200-yard seasons behind him. He converted 11 TDs in 2009 despite only tying for 14th in the league in red zone carries. He’s the proven player and is recovered from his September ankle fracture. There’s no reason for the Packers to marginalize him, even if a few carries go the kid’s way.
Joseph Addai, Indianapolis
Fantasy owners seem to treat Addai as some dude riding Peyton Manning’s coattails. He might not be a special runner, but Addai has produced as a receiver, goal line back and pass protector. In 2009, he ran for 10 TDs and amassed the league’s seventh-most red zone carries. He scored all of his three receiving TDs from inside the red zone. Last year brought the best rushing average since his rookie year. Addai’s biggest challenge has been health. He has reached 230 carries only once in five seasons.
Fred Jackson, Buffalo
Jackson’s coaches always take a bit of time to realize his value. A new staff in 2010 waited until Marshawn Lynch was gone to finally give Jackson more than nine carries in a game. Then he averaged 17.3 over the final 11. That would have ranked 11th in the league for the season. C.J. Spiller will get more work in his second year, but Bills coaches would be foolish to go away from Jackson constantly. He has averaged at least 4.2 per rush every year behind lackluster lines and has topped 30 catches in three straight seasons.
Beanie Wells, Arizona
Two years ago, he was the first-round pick set to save the Arizona running game. Last year he was ready to build on some late-season success after a slow start in 2009. Now Wells is a well-conditioned question mark who needs to put it together in real games to be trusted. The talent is certainly there. Wells is a big, fast back on a team seeking a lead runner. With Ryan Williams out for the year and Tim Hightower traded to Washington, this might be his last chance in the desert. Three thoughts post Williams injury: With no one there to push him do we get same old Beanie? Can he handle the role he has failed to handle so far? And if the team tries to acquire more depth, what will Wells' role be? If he can answer the first two positvely then he's worth a shot.
James Starks, Green Bay
After basically missing the regular season, the rookie drew 81 postseason carries. He was effective, with 123 yards to ice the Eagles and 52 on just 11 carries in the Super Bowl. He wasn’t explosive, though. Starks averaged just 3.9 yards per rush and had only one run of 20 yards or more. Against Philadelphia, he topped 10 yards on only two other carries. Coaches love him, but we have yet to see what the kid brings to the table that Ryan Grant doesn’t.
Mike Tolbert, San Diego
Tolbert was a bit of a novelty before last season. His teammates loved his TD dances. Fans might have known him best for his 66-yard TD reception in 2009. Last year, though, he emerged as Peyton Hillis Lite after Ryan Mathews got hurt. Tolbert delivered near the goal line, tying for sixth in the league in rushing TDs, and caught 25 of his 29 targets. Word is that the Chargers want to split carries between he and Mathews this year.
Reggie Bush, Miami
His percentage of team rushes slipped every year since 2007, down to 9.5 percent in 2010. Some of that is injury, which combines with Bush’s running limitations to lower his fantasy value. That said, he’ll always be a high-reception guy. Bush was on pace for 68 last year had he played all 16 games.
Brandon Jacobs, New York Giants
The early season story was Jacobs flinging his helmet into the stands and disappointing on the field. By the end, he had a personal-best 5.6 yards per carry. Jacobs also produced his largest rate of 20-yard runs. His performance motivated coaches to promise more carries for the big man in 2011. Jacobs doesn’t fill a true goal line role but gets enough work for non-PPR production. Injuries must be accounted for with Jacobs, though, as last year was the first time in five years he played every game. He re-negotiated his deal with the Giants, actually for less money so the team could re-sign Ahmad Bradshaw, but did so with a reported caveat that he get more carries than he did in 2010. Reportedly this will be a shared backfield, making Jacobs a good mid-round pickup.
Javon Ringer, Tennessee
Ringer was a very productive runner in college and has looked solid in short work as a pro. The reason he’s relevant, though, is that Chris Johnson is among the few true NFL workhorses. A devastating injury to Johnson would shove a ton of work someone’s way behind a pretty good line. The question is whether Ringer can hold off rookie Jamie Harper. Ringer has averaged an impressive 4.9 yards per carry so far in the NFL and might benefit from the lockout limiting workouts. Harper has looked solid in preseason, but Ringer would get the starting nod if there were no CJ this season. The longer CJ holds out the more likely it is Ringer becomes that starter, and who's to say even if Johnson did show up right before Week 1 he would stay healthy. There's not a massive sample size to gain research from those backs that holdout and come back right at the start of the season, but with no offseason whatsoever to get ready, the chances of an injury have to increase dramatically. Ringer and Rashad Jennings will probably be the favorite handcuffs this year, and you will probably have to go earlier than you would like for them.
Michael Bush, Oakland
Bush’s career 4.4 yards-per-carry average through three seasons shows that he can be an efficient back overall. His seven red zone TDs showed his effectiveness as a goal line back. A similar role could produce bigger numbers this year. Bush drew nearly one-fifth of his runs last year in the red zone for a team that scored the sixth-most points in the league. That came despite a struggling passing game that should be better in 2011. If Darren McFadden gets hurt again, Bush can deliver in a feature role.
Roy Helu, Washington
Projecting Mike Shanahan’s backfield plans can be frustrating but also quite rewarding. The coach is well-known for believing he can turn late-round backs into rushing stars, and he packaged three picks for the chance to do so with Helu in 2011. The former Husker averaged 5.9 yards over 578 carries in college, including 6.6 per rush as a senior. Helu is the kind of downhill runner Shanahan likes and brings good speed when he has room to get going.
Delone Carter, Indianapolis
At 5'9", 225 pounds and with more short-area quickness than speed, Carter perfectly fits the short-yardage profile. Perhaps just as important, scouts say he’s already impressive in pass protection. Those qualities will help him get on the field for the Colts, who could use more power in the backfield and always value blocking. Carter lacks experience and proven ability as a receiver, but his skill set and 24 college rushing TDs make him a good complement for Joseph Addai.
Tim Hightower, Washington
Was the second-round selection of Ryan Williams a bigger knock on Beanie Wells or Hightower? Perhaps the answer is “both,” but the Cards seem determined Hightower wouldn’t be the feature back as they shipped him off to Washington. He topped 13 carries only twice last year. Most alarming is the fact that Hightower stopped getting passes. A year after ranking second in RB receptions, he finished just 30th in RB targets. But now he is in the lead in the snafu that is the Washington Redskins backfield. He is probably going too high in drafts because Mike Shanahan is so fickle with his backs, but if you can get him after in the ninth round and beyond, it's probably worth the risk.
Kendall Hunter, San Francisco
Anthony Dixon might get more work when Frank Gore is healthy, but Hunter should be the handcuff target. He topped 100 carries in three of four seasons at Oklahoma State and finished each of those seasons with a rushing average of 5.7 yards or better. Hunter surpassed 1,500 yards and ran for 16 TDs in each of his two full starting seasons. His size (5'7", 200) is a bit scary, but Hunter runs tough inside. That might wear him down quicker after a few pro seasons but is helpful early on.
Jerome Harrison, Detroit
For a few years in Cleveland, Harrison looked like a guy who just needed a chance. He flashed big-play ability and then enjoyed that absurd stretch to close 2009. His 106 carries and 561 yards in three games gave way to a disappointing start to 2010, though. Harrison quickly ceded the starting job to Peyton Hillis and was shipped to Philly. It’s hard to imagine Harrison as more than a complementary piece now, but it’s also hard to believe the upside has disappeared. One thing he has going for him: He went to Detroit after rookie Mikel Leshoure went on IR with an Achilles injury. So the Lions were obviously looking for another back to tote the rock with Jahvid Best. After what Harrison did in 2009 and basically sitting in neutral in 2010, there is a good chance that he could fill the role Leshoure was drafted to perform.
Thomas Jones, Kansas City
Jones was expected to play goal line vulture to Jamaal Charles in 2010 and basically did that. He wasn’t special in the role, though. Among RBs with at least 100 total carries, 15 others saw a higher percentage of their rushes come in the red zone. Starters and younger, more productive short-yardage guys finished ahead, despite the Chiefs scoring nearly 25 percent more points than in 2009. Jones got a surprising amount of between-the-20s work, putting forth a lackluster 3.7 yards per carry overall. It is going to be a tough schedule for the Chiefs this year, much tougher than last, and particularly tougher against the run. Jones could either be there to pound out the tough yards or take on a bigger role if the smaller Charles gets roughed up during the year.
Willis McGahee, Denver
Talk about a player who knows his role. In 2009, McGahee got 29 of his 109 carries in the red zone. His TDs fell last season, but we can pin at least part of that on the decline of the Baltimore line. McGahee is a short-yardage specialist and has been pretty good at it the past three years. Only eight players had more rushing TDs over the past three seasons, and each carried at least 197 more times than McGahee. There seems to be no love for Knowshon Moreno coming from the run-friendly John Fox and the new Broncos coaching staff. We wouldn't be surprised to see McGahee get 12-15 carries a game and become the feature back in the Mile High city.
Kraig Lumpkin, Tampa Bay
The Bucs will need a change of pace from the plodding LeGarrette Blount. Kraig Lumpkin could be that change. He could fill the void that Cadillac Williams left. Williams had 125 rushing attempts and 46 catches last season. Lumpkin is currently in a battle with veteran Earnest Graham and rookie Allen Bradford. Both Lumpkin and Bradford (keep an eye on who wins the backup RB job) would serve as spectacular late, late round fliers.
Mike Goodson, Carolina
Not much good emerged from Carolina last year, but Goodson was a bright spot. He ranked second on the team with 40 catches and produced two 100-yard games among his three starts. Goodson topped 20 carries in each of those two outings but likely isn’t a high-carry prospect. He is a top-shelf speedster who matched Chris Johnson’s 57 targets last year despite inconsistent use over the first six games. He’ll be a more consistent piece of a run-heavy offense in 2011, particularly if DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart propensity to get injured remains..
Montario Hardesty, Cleveland
There are two main factors working against Hardesty: His ACL tear last summer and Peyton Hillis’ ensuing beastly performance. It might also seem worrisome that the coach who drafted him is now gone. The team president and GM, however, are not, and new head coach Pat Shurmur has stated his desire for a two-headed running game. Hardesty is a 225-pounder with 4.49 speed who averaged 12 yards per reception as a college senior. If healthy, he’ll be a threat. Plus, Hillis (back) and newly acquired Brandon Jackson (turf toe) are already dealing with injuries in preseason.
DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys
It’s fair to wonder whether Murray has already hit his ceiling. He arrived at Oklahoma as an exciting big-play threat and averaged 5.8 yards per carry over his first two years. Murray also dealt with injuries every year in college, though, and averaged just 4.2 yards per rush over his final two seasons. Murray did go for double-digit TDs in three of four years and turned in huge receiving numbers. His best bet might be to settle into a third down role for the Cowboys and marginalize Tashard Choice. The role could be bigger if Choice is shipped out, though.
Tashard Choice, Dallas Cowboys
Finally. Marion Barber is gone. Time for Choice to step into a more prominent role in a cleared-out backfield. Wait, DeMarco who? Choice has spent three years looking like the Cowboys RB most likely to consistently help fantasy owners. At the same time, Jason Garrett has been cutting down his work. Choice went from a few promising 2008 starts to fewer than 85 total touches each of the past two years. His best bet might be primary goal line work until Felix Jones’ next injury. He's a sleeper if he ends up on another team; perhaps old NFC East rival Arizona would be a good fit to replace Ryan Williams.
Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots
The Patriots' preseason hero thus far, Ridley doesn’t come with the speed or moves to become a feature back but is a hammer at the line of scrimmage. He scored 15 touchdowns last year for an LSU team on which no other RB or receiver surpassed four rushing and/or receiving. He’ll serve as early insurance for BenJarvus Green-Ellis and figures to replace the 2010 breakout player whenever BJGE leaves. Ridley is a good fit for Bill Belichick’s committee approach.
Joe McKnight, New York Jets
For most of his rookie season, McKnight was best known for puking during training-camp conditioning drills. Perhaps some folks were more aware of him disappointing coaches with his slowness in picking up the offense. Either way, he made no real impact until a 32-carry, 158-yard Week 17 performance against Buffalo. After the season, Rex Ryan referred to McKnight as a special talent. The second-year player should push LaDainian Tomlinson for third down duties.
Isaac Redman, Pittsburgh
Redman’s profile says goal line horse. His usage says otherwise, though. After not touching the ball as a rookie, Redman averaged 4.8 yards per carry last year but took only 10 of his 52 handoffs in the red zone. He caught passes in five of the final eight games. Redman won’t vulture TDs as long as Rashard Mendenhall is healthy and will have trouble finding much more work at all. His all-around play in 2010, however, suggests he could step in solidly should injury befall the starter.
Ben Tate, Houston
A year ago, he looked like the odds-on favorite to lead the Houston backfield. The Texans traded up to draft Tate in 2010’s second round, and his speed-power combo looked potentially special. A broken leg later and Arian Foster is a No. 1 fantasy pick. Now Tate will have to compete with Derrick Ward for backup duties. Camp will tell us if he’s all the way back, but Tate will have had more than a full year to recover. He should carry more upside than the veteran Ward.
Jamie Harper, Tennessee
If Chris Johnson's holdout extends much longer than most of us fantasy players would like (and it already had), then Harper has a chance to be a TD vulture. The rookie from Clemson looked solid in the second preseason game and the reps leading up to the season can do nothing but help. He might be worth keeping an eye on even if CJ is back in time for Week 1, still running as that vulture role.
Jamaal Charles, Kansas City
This time last year, many were skeptical of Charles’ chances of building on his late-2009 run of astounding production. Everyone believes now. There is no more explosive back in the NFL. He actually increased his yards per carry with a growing workload each of the past two years. Of the 23 RBs with at least 200 carries last year, none came within 1.2 yards of Charles’ 6.4 average. He has probably hit a ceiling there but should see more red zone work than the meager 20 carries of last year. He sits as a potential bust due to the brutal schedule. The Chiefs play seven defenses that were top 10 against the run in 2010 — six of those seven come prior to the fantasy playoffs and then they get the Jets to start the fantasy playoffs.
Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants
Bradshaw proved his toughness in 2010, playing through nagging injuries while garnering a career-high 276 carries. A bad left ankle sapped his second-half effectiveness, though. Bradshaw averaged 5.3 yards per carry over his first seven games, 3.7 per carry over the final nine. His foot and ankle issues date back to college and led to offseason surgery for the second straight year. He should be fine heading into the season, but coaches are concerned about his workload. Fantasy owners should worry about another second-half swoon. Talk in the preseason has been of a 50-50, 60-40 split with Brandon Jacobs. That's not good news. Neither is losing the receiving threats down the middle in Steve Smith and Kevin Boss. Add in Dallas, Washington and the Jets in the fantasy playoffs, and we're a bit skiddish.
Peyton Hillis, Cleveland
No one expected anything near Hillis’ 2010. We should have expected good things, though. As a college fullback, Hillis was the leading receiver on a team that included Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and receiver Marcus Monk. Pressed into starting duty for the Broncos as a 2008 rookie, Hillis ran for five TDs in less than four full games and turned in a 100-yard receiving game. Montario Hardesty will return and steal some work this year, the question is how much. Hillis and Denver receiver Brandon Lloyd have been the poster boys for fantasy busts in 2011, and Hillis seems to be nudging Lloyd off of that poster so he can have it outright.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, New England
No one can complain about anything from BJGE’s 2010 breakout. An effective complementary back previously, he seized his opportunity and tied for the second-most rushing TDs in the league. There’s reason to expect less work, though. He drew 50 percent of the Pats’ carries in 2010, the first time since 2004 that any player did so. Otherwise, the team became known for spreading it around its backfield. Sure enough, the draft added Shane Vereen and big back Stevan Ridley. There’ll be work, just not as much.
Jahvid Best, Detroit
Turf toe injuries to both feet limited Best’s effectiveness as a rookie. He returned to full strength this offseason and says his speed is back. The team drafted Mikel Leshoure so the two could share the backfield. Leshoure goes down and the team signs two more backs in Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell. All signs point to Best not being the bell cow of the backfield. He has already been banged up in the first two presason games. He does, however, have big-play ability and receiving skills as only five RBs caught more passes last year (and that was with Best dealing with turf toe injury times two).
Knowshon Moreno, Denver
Moreno hasn’t been what the Broncos expected when they took him in the first round of the 2009 draft. Injuries have stunted his growth, but more important, Moreno hasn’t shown the big-play ability critical for an early first-round back. He has been a quality receiver, so good that the team has split him out wide on occasion. Moreno caught more passes than Adrian Peterson and MJD last year despite missing three games. Only four RBs produced a better receiving average. That will help Moreno contribute numbers in a more complementary role in 2011. Willis McGahee in that backfield is a major buzzkill for those hoping this would be the year Moreno finally broke out.
Ryan Mathews, San Diego
The knock on Mathews heading into his rookie year was his injury background in college. Sure enough, a Week 2 ankle sprain knocked his entire season off track. A wrist injury later in the year also required offseason surgery. Mathews ceded work to Mike Tolbert and struggled in pass protection when on the field. He did bounce back for five TDs over the final four games, including a huge Week 17. That was the only game, though, in which Mathews surpassed 20 carries or reached 80 yards. We’re left wondering if he can translate his talent to the pros. And word from Norv Turner in training camp that he is leaning heavily toward a split-carry backfield does not bode well for Mathews, particularly with the mid-third round ADP he currently carries.
More Fantasy Football Cheat Sheets and Rankings:
2011 Fantasy Football Rankings: Top 280
2011 Fantasy Football Rankings: Top 240 w/ IDPs
2011 Fantasy Football Rankings: Quarterbacks
2011 Fantasy Football Rankings: Running Backs
2011 Fantasy Football Rankings: Wide Receivers
2011 Fantasy Football Rankings: Tight Ends
2011 Fantasy Football Rankings: Kickers
2011 Fantasy Football Rankings: Defense/Special Teams
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