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Fantasy football sleepers 2017: 5 high-upside running backs to grab in later rounds

Having the edge at running back is normally the difference between the bottom and top of most fantasy leagues. Here are five high-upside running backs who should be on your radar going into draft time. Check out our full 2017 fantasy football preview draft guide!

NFL: Carolina Panthers-Rookie Minicamp Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Running back has become one of the more difficult positions in fantasy football to project. Most owners need a few lucky breaks to go their way to end up with a championship. Normally this starts by drafting a deep stable of running backs who will give you options throughout the entire season. These five tailbacks below all have potential to outperform their average draft position.

Todd GurleyLos Angeles Rams

Gurley enters his third season with many question marks due to his up-and-down play over the last two years. He excelled in his rookie season, rushing for 1,106 yards on 229 carries and 10 touchdowns in only 13 games, but took a step back in 2016 with only 885 yards and six touchdowns in 16 games. I attribute most of this to Jeff Fisher’s atrocious play calling and lack of creativity. Fisher has since been fired, and the Rams hired Washington offensive coordinator Sean McVay to take over as head coach. I expect him to do a complete overhaul of the offense that will create some easier running lanes for Gurley.

Gurley did take major strides in the passing game throughout 2016 by doubling his receptions and yards from 21 catches for 188 yards (2015) to 43 catches for 327 yards last season. If he can get back to over 1,000 yards on the ground with that type of receiving production, Gurley could climb back up the running back rankings quickly. The Rams did make some moves to bolster the offensive line and now have some of the most creative young coaches on their offensive staff. Gurley is not the biggest "sleeper" due to his obvious talent, but his value with many fantasy owners has dropped dramatically due to last year’s production and he could be a steal in rounds three to five.

Mike GillisleeNew England Patriots

Gillislee was signed over from division rival Buffalo this offseason. The running back’s downhill, bruising style suggests he was brought in to replace the production of LeGarrette Blount, who led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns in 2016. He won’t be without competition as New England also has Dion Lewis, James White, and Rex Burkhead on the roster. Gillislee was impressive in spot duty when LeSean McCoy was injured a few times last season and has shown he can be a bell-cow back when called upon (577 yards, nine touchdowns on 101 touches in 2016).

I expect a similar amount of touchdowns with more yards in his first season with Tom Brady. Look for Gillislee in later rounds with potential to become an RB2, but more realistically expecting flex production.

Christian McCaffreyCarolina Panthers

McCaffrey enters 2017 as one of the more intriguing running back prospects in this year’s rookie class. His believers will say Jonathan Stewart last played 16 games in 2011 and that the Cardinal standout is the perfect multi-positional weapon (RB/WR) Cam Newton needs to take his game to the next level. The critics will harp on the Panthers’ below-average offensive line and that you shouldn’t take an RB as high as No. 7 in the draft.

I do agree that drafting a running back at No. 7 is too high. However, McCaffrey makes up for that reach with his versatility in running routes and the return game. Stewart will inevitably be that pain-in-the-ass touchdown vulture taking away points from time to time, but I still think McCaffrey will be an RB2 in 2017. He will be utilized a lot like Ty Montgomery was in Green Bay last year and should alleviate some pressure off of Cam Newton by keeping linebackers off balance.

Adrian PetersonNew Orleans Saints

Peterson is the definition of a late-round flyer after moving on from the Minnesota Vikings this offseason to the New Orleans Saints. The Vikings offensive line was decimated by injuries last year in addition to Peterson’s second major knee injury in three years. Yes, there is reason for caution, but I’ve also seen him run for 2,000 yards one season removed from an ACL tear. The man is an absolute beast.

My reasoning for Peterson being on my potential sleepers list correlates to how much easier it will be to move in the Saints elite offense. Drew Brees is by far the most talented quarterback Peterson has played with since Brett Favre was suiting up for the Vikings. Brees will keep that eighth man out of the box, opening up large running lanes Peterson hasn’t seen in years. Mark Ingram will certainly pose competition for carries but Sean Payton rotates running backs like crazy. A one-two punch of Peterson and Ingram could be a potent addition to an already elite offense.

Dalvin Cook – Minnesota Vikings

I won’t write much on Cook because he should be available in very late rounds or as a free agent. The Vikings line was horrendous last year, some in part due to injuries, and they addressed that this offseason through the draft and free agency. Minnesota has both Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon on the roster, so Cook will have to compete for touches. This guy is electric in the open field, and the Vikings need to find a way to get the ball in his hands in space. I look for Cook to be a mid-to-late season bloomer and could be an explosive player for a fantasy playoff run.