The old saying goes that you can't win your league in the first round, but you can lose it. Here, we're focusing on the first part of that saying. It means that you'll take an expected guy early in the draft, and get fine production out of him, but so will everyone else.
It's later in the draft -- eying up-and-comers and returning veterans and guys in new situations -- where you really make your bones. The first rounds are crucial, but the later rounds are the most important.
With that in mind, we're looking at some running back sleepers, guys who aren't going in the first round but who could be one of those win-your-league guys late. You can always pick your own -- this is more art than science -- but here are a few names to consider:
Rashad Jennings, New York Giants
Injuries are always going to be a part of the equation when considering Jennings, and that's why he's not an obvious early pick among running backs. He's never played 16 games in a season (though last year was his first as a starter, so his opportunity to play 16 games has historically been limited). But in 11 games last year, he reached double-digit fantasy scoring four times. He had at least five points in each of the first five games before injuries ruined his season (his one- and zero-point outings in Weeks 14 and 15 came when he was obviously still injured). Now, he gets to be part of what could be an incredible offense in New York, with Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle, Larry Donnell and Shane Vereen. A rising tide lifts all boats.
David Cobb, Tennessee Titans
If you're drafting Bishop Sankey this year, good luck to you. He was capital-T Terrible last year, when his only real competition was Shonn Greene. Part of the problem was his poor work in pass protection, and now he has a rookie quarterback coming out of a system program, so pass protection will be even more important in 2015. Enter Cobb, who has his own problems -- he's not a jackrabbit-type runner, he won't catch a lot of passes -- but he should offer far more in pass protection, meaning he'll be on the field more. We know Sankey isn't good. Cobb? He might be.
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Running back rankings for standard leagues
There are more questions among running backs entering 2015 than in many recent years. What does that mean for fantasy football draft strategy in standard leagues? We've got running back rankings to help you.
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Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills
I have expended a lot of energy this preseason talking about how we have an aging group of running backs -- the group of key guys 29 and older includes Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett, Frank Gore, Rashad Jennings and several others. Here, though, I'm flipping that around. Jackson is 34, which is the curdled-milk stage of most running backs. Still, he's had more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage in five of the last six years, supplementing occasionally modest rushing totals with regularly strong receiving. With the Buffalo quarterback situation -- the triumvirate of EJ Manuel, Matt Cassel and Tyrod Taylor is horrifying -- a running back who can catch checkdown passes could be crucial. Jackson will still be relevant even with LeSean McCoy in the fold.
Travaris Cadet, New England Patriots
We all saw how the Patriots used Shane Vereen for years. He was on the field regularly as a "running back," even if all he was doing was catching passes. Danny Woodhead, Darren Sproles. We all know the type. This year, the Patriots have LeGarrette Blount (doesn't catch passes), Jonas Gray (doesn't catch passes), Brandon Bolden (special teams only), James White (ditto) ... and Cadet, who caught 38 balls for New Orleans last year and could fill the Vereen role in the New England offense. It's a Patriot running back, and you never know how that might shake out, but he could provide sneaky value late.
Khiry Robinson, New Orleans Saints
Robinson is slotted behind Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller on the New Orleans depth chart entering the season, which is somewhat akin to being Sam Bradford's backup quarterback -- you don't have a job quite yet, but you know the injuries are comin'. Ingram's history as a productive running back is only about two-third of last season, while a broken collarbone derailed Spiller's season. Robinson will see some real action this season, one way or another.
Lorenzo Taliaferro, Baltimore Ravens
You probably trust Justin Forsett as a starting running back -- he had six-plus fantasy points 14 times in 16 games last year, with at least nine points 12 times. And now he has Marc Trestman as his offensive coordinator, which must be manna from heaven for a running back. The flip side is that he's a 29-year-old running back who had 1,692 rushing yards total in five years before exploding for 1,266 last year. He's not the most known commodity, and finished 2014 with two bad games in his last three. Behind him on the depth chart is a bunch of nothing, with Taliaferro the best of the bunch.
Daniel Herron and Vick Ballard, Indianapolis Colts
If things break right for the Colts this year it could be a tremendous offense, with two quality tight ends, about a hundred decent receivers, maybe the game's best quarterback and Frank Gore heading up the running game. But Gore looked clearly past his prime in San Francisco last year, and another year of tread on the tires probably won't help that. Herron and Ballard both had productive times in their past -- Herron finished strong last year, while Ballard had a strong 2012 before injuries ruined his 2013 and 2014. If Gore is done or close to it, both guys might flash in 2015.
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