Many so-called ‘experts’ will tell you a fantasy draft is made with your first couple picks. However, those who have been doing fantasy football for a long time would say that’s hogwash. Of course, you can strike gold early on and those picks can go a long way in you winning, but many times it’s the last two or three position picks you choose that can make or break your draft and add much needed depth to your roster. You should take these just as seriously as your early round picks! After all, guys like Nick Chubb, James Connor, David Johnson, Phillip Lindsay, and Tarik Cohen are just a few running backs who broke out in the last few years when they weren’t even listed in fantasy experts’ top 50. There will be a few more of those guys out there this year that you should keep an eye on. Trying to figure out who they will be is the tricky part as a lot depends on injuries and their adapting to the offense.
All that being said, here’s a look at five running backs who could prove to be very valuable for your fantasy team in the late rounds and are worth taking with one of your last picks:
1) Ito Smith, Falcons
For the last four years, it was Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman dominating the Falcons’ backfield. In 2016 and 2017, the two combined for roughly 1,500 yards each season on the ground. However, an injury to Freeman last year thrust Ito Smith into action. The Falcons liked what they saw, enough to allow Coleman to explore free agency and sign with San Francisco. As a result, Smith now becomes the number two back in Atlanta.
Smith, a product of Southern Miss, carried the ball 90 times last year for 315 yards and scored four touchdowns. However, he posed a bigger threat in the passing game, hauling in 27 receptions for 152 yards. With Freeman now entering his sixth year, wear and tear becomes a concern and it should provide Smith plenty of opportunities to get more carries and put up fantasy points, especially in PPR leagues.
Some in the organization consider Smith as the future of Atlanta’s backfield. While he doesn’t have the breakout speed that Freeman has, he possesses great ball-handling skills and more power. He will likely be used a lot as a third down back and could get a lot of goal-line looks. He is definitely worth a pick in the late rounds.
2) Darrell Henderson, Rams
If you draft Todd Gurley with your first pick, Darrell Henderson is a must have for your lineup in the later rounds, assuming he prevails in the backup job. Any time you take a star running back with the first pick, you should always take that team’s number two back, especially if you’re in a dynasty league. That’s one of the golden rules of fantasy football.
C.J. Anderson is no longer a part of the Rams and the team hung on to Malcolm Brown to be there as one of Gurley’s backups. Brown is a solid back, but he hasn’t gotten much playing time over the last couple of years and hasn’t shown much when he has. The Rams didn’t draft Henderson early in the third round to play on the practice squad.
Henderson is a very talented back out of Memphis that McVay will likely use as a change of pace for Gurley. Signs were shown last year of the Rams’ concern with Gurley and his health. He tore his ACL at Georgia and his knee kept him out some time towards the end of last season. The days of Gurley getting a heavy workload in McVay’s offense are likely over. He will still dominate, but they will rely more on a second back, and Henderson fits that role well.
Keep an eye on the preseason to see how Henderson does. He may lose value if he struggles some, which means Malcolm Brown should be your late round target. But whoever the Rams’ backup is, they need to be on your late round radar.
3) Ronald Jones, Buccaneers
The Bucs drafted Jones in the second round in 2017, but came away disappointed by his lack of progress his rookie season. Jones played in just nine games and only carried the ball 23 times for 44 yards in 2018. Jones was a high draft pick for many in last year’s fantasy draft, but has all but dropped off the radar in 2019 as Peyton Barber figures to start the season as the Bucs’ number one back.
A change in the coaching staff and low expectations give hope for the talented Jones. There is a lot of promise there, particularly out of the backfield as a pass-catcher, and Barber is not seen as a long term option for the Bucs. They still will try to fit Jones in with Barber as a 1-2 combination. Expect Tampa Bay to do all they can to propel Jones into the top running back spot to avoid wasting a 2nd round pick.
If he can match his potential, Jones could put up some nice fantasy numbers in 2019 behind a solid offensive line in Tampa. The talent is there; it’s just a matter of gaining confidence and showcasing it in the NFL. They’re going to give him opportunities, especially as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, so it’s worth banking on him cashing in. Make sure to follow his progress in preseason though, to see if there’s development.
4) Alexander Mattison, Vikings
Another one of the third-round rookie backs, Mattison figures to start the season as the number two back on the depth chart behind Dalvin Cook. However, if you’ve had Cook before, you know his durability issues. In two seasons, Cook has yet to complete a full season’s worth of games, playing in just 15 of them.
The Vikings are obviously concerned about Cook’s health which is why they took a running back in round 3, one that is filled with lots of potential. Mattison is a prodigy out of Boise State where he racked up nearly 3,000 yards in two seasons and averaged 4.9 YPC. Some say he is a bigger dual threat out of the backfield than Cook as he has strong pass-catching ability. A year ago, Latavius Murray shined in Cook’s absence. Now with Murray gone, expect Mattison to fill in for him and steal the show should Cook continue to struggle with his stamina.
5) Justice Hill, Ravens
Hill is a playmaker on a Ravens’ offense that is going to run the ball a lot with Lamar Jackson at quarterback. Hill has the potential to have a lot of chemistry alongside Jackson in the run-pass option game given his speed. The Ravens also have Gus Edwards and Mark Ingram, but Ingram’s age is a concern and Edwards hasn’t carried the load before. They’re solid backs, but Hill has potential to shine as an explosive back in this type of offense. He ran for over 3,500 yards in three seasons at Oklahoma State, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and scoring 30 times.
Hill was impressive at the combine. He ran the 40 in 4.4 seconds and is shifty and can maneuver his way through holes and make plays in the screen game. Similar to Tarik Cohen, he will complement the power game of Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards well and add some speed and shiftiness to the offense. Baltimore will rely a lot on the run game this year, so expect Hill to get plenty of opportunities and rack up some PPR points.
Keep an eye on training camp and preseason. There will be reports coming from camp about coaches being impressed with some of the deeper backs on the depth chart and guys rising, while others start falling. I was fortunate enough to nab Phillip Lindsay before the season started last year because of media reports glowing about how he looked in the preseason. Then after game 1, everybody wanted him. Luckily, I already had him.
Keep an eye on starters’ hamstring and groin issues as well. While they may say they’ll be fine when the season starts, those things don’t go away and many times coaches will air on the side of caution early in the season, paving the way for sleepers to break out. McCoy’s hamstring issues in the preseason nagged him all season last year, and if you had him like I did in my dynasty league, you know he was a disappointment.
Also, coaches love youth. They want fresh legs and don’t want to overuse older backs. Backs in their late 20s and early 30s are running out of battery life. Therefore, look at guys like Devin Singletary, D’onta Foreman or Chase Edmonds who are young talents and are behind more veteran guys.
Winning fantasy leagues takes a lot of homework and studying and not just banking on your top couple picks. With a strong bench and some good late round sleepers, you can give yourself a chance at winning your fantasy league. So don’t leave early after your first few picks in a live draft. Stick around and make each pick count. It could win you a trophy.