Football is in the air and it’s never too early to focus on your fantasy team. This may be among the best years for sleeper value at the running back position. Though there is still much which can happen from now until kickoff, here is an early look at the top 10 sleeper picks for 2012.
TRENT RICHARDSON (Browns): Richardson will be coming with high expectations so his sleeper status is a bit understated. However, he is not a sure-fire early draft pick and the Browns make nearly any player a sleeper status pick. Why Richardson may deserve higher round consideration is his potential work load. He will immediately be a 3 down back, contributing in both the run and pass game. In today’s NFL a 3 down back is a rarity and instantly puts Richardson among a nearly extinct group of players. Also in his favor will be two quarterbacks whom are young and developing. Using Richardson as a check down safety net could become a common occurrence on a team which lacks wide receiving threats. The drawback here is if the Browns will be able to move the ball enough so Richardson actually sniffs the red zone. Regardless, Richardson has double digit potential based on projected touches alone. You could do much worse for a running back #2 or Flex spot.
DOUG MARTIN (Buccaneers): Though Richardson is likely to split time with incumbent Legarrette Blount, the front office did not jump back into the first round for Martin to play a backup role. Like Richardson, Martin is considered a NFL ready 3 down back. Regardless of his actual number of carries, Martin is likely to see the majority of red zone carries. The Bucs may have struggled to see the end zone last season but things will change this year. With Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks paving the way, expect plenty of touches for Martin inside the 10 yard line. Martin was selected as the future of the team at running back and should earn some noteworthy touches day one. Martin should be selected as a high end flex starter with weekly RB #2 potential. There would be no surprise here if he exceeds all expectation and leads the team in fantasy points.
PEYTON HILLIS (Chiefs): Few fantasy studs have had a bigger fall from grace than Hillis. After leading many a team to the fantasy playoffs two seasons ago, the back found himself looking for a home this year. Home is now with the Chiefs, whom await the return of king Charles. Although Charles will be the back selected highest, don’t be surprised if Hillis outscores him. Take a look at the 2010 season in which Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones shared the load. Jones actually came away with 15 more carries and despite rushing for nearly 600 fewer yards, he scored one more touchdown (6) than Charles. Jamaal Charles believes he will be ready for OTA’s but the team won’t be rushing him back into a heavy work load immediately. Expect Hillis to see at minimum an even split early on as Charles tests his knee in real time action. Hillis is younger and has more of a nose for the aging Thomas, so he should see plenty of opportunity in the red zone and is more likely to break longer runs than Thomas did. Charles will likely once again hold the yardage advantage, but total fantasy points may not be that far apart. With Charles projected as an early round selection, Hillis carries tremendous value as a mid round pick up. A scenario for Charles owners who also draft Hillis could be starting the tandem every week. The Chiefs ran the ball 556 times compared to 475 pass attempts in 2010. In 2011, that number fell slightly to 487 rushing attempts vs. 500 pass attempts. Given there was no Jamaal Charles, that is still a very appealing ratio for selecting Chiefs running backs.
CURTIS BRINKLEY (Chargers): With Mike Tolbert gone to Carolina and waning belief in Jacob Hester ever being a starter in the NFL, Brinkley becomes the sure fire backup to Ryan Mathews. Brinkley is a speedy, Sproles like back who has the potential to be used as such on the west coast version of the Saints. Also playing into Brinkley’s upside is Ryan Mathews tendency to get injured. Mathews has yet to play a full season and has yet to break double digits in touchdowns. Last season, Tolbert and Brinkley combined for 61 catches versus Mathews 50 out of the backfield. Expecting Brinkley to horde those 61 touches should put him at about 200 total touches on the season if we use Tolbert’s numbers from last year. If Mathews once again falls to injury, that number could go up significantly. Also, the reality of the Chargers becoming a more balanced run/pass team looms large. With the loss of Vincent Jackson to Tampa, nobody is sure if Robert Meachem can really fill the void. Outside of Antonio Gates, there will be much to prove in terms of the Chargers wide receiving corps. The result could be a Chargers team which joins the rest of the AFC West foes as a run focused organization. Even if it’s not by choice.
TAIWAN JONES (Raiders): Jones supplants Michael Bush as the Raiders backup to oft injured Darren McFadden this season. Like Mathews, McFadden has been an even bigger injury issue for his team. The result was Bush ending up as the Raiders lead rusher with 256 attempts, 977 yards and 7 scores. Jones is very similar to Jamaal Charles in terms of his elusiveness and speed. His ability to hit a home run at any point makes him at minimum a handcuff to McFadden owners with a mountain of upside. The Raiders have a talented but underachieving receiving corps which could continue their reliance on the run. Like the Chiefs, the Raiders may want to conserve McFadden for the long haul which equates to a healthy amount of touches early on for Jones. At minimum, Jones is among the best bye week plug in’s you can have on your roster. At best, he is a player who becomes the next DeMarco Murray.
JOSEPH ADDAI (Patriots): Addai joins the mix in New England, joining forces with Vereen, Woodhead and Ridley. Though all these backs have potential for how the Pats offense runs, none are as complete as Addai. With the “Law Firm” now in Cincinnati, Addai should become the lead back in one of the most potent offenses available. Addai has averaged 39 receptions and 307 yards per season the last four years. This is a far contrast to what the Patriots have been used to since the days of Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk, days in which the Patriots thrived. Expect Addai to be used heavily in this role and see the majority of snaps among all Pats running backs. As seen with Benjarvis Green-Ellis’ touchdown prowess, the threat of Brady makes life much easier for any back in the red zone. Addai carries the most bang for your buck this season given he is unlikely to be selected before the 4th round.
CHRIS RAINEY (Steelers): Rashard Mendenhall is expected to begin the season on the PUP list which leaves the Steelers with Redman as the most likely starter. The current roster of Steelers backs are far from explosive, something Rainey can deliver. As evidence by the new look pass happy Steelers, Rainey fits right in. Though his diminutive stature will be something to get used to, Rainey offers the ability to be a presence catching out of the backfield once he gets into open space. Though this will most likely be his specialty, the Steelers will look to find creative ways to get him the ball. The potential to become a Percy Harvin type of player is there for Rainey, who steps right in as perhaps the most versatile back in Pittsburgh. As a late pick up for depth, Rainey serves as a nice fill in should injury strike your lineup.
JAMES STARKS (Packers): Yes, the Packers have Aaron Rodgers and they are a pass first team. That doesn’t mean running the ball won’t be a priority this season. The Packers know their Achilles heel has been their one dimensional offense and will be looking to take steps to keep defenses from sitting on their heels. The Packers only carried the ball 395 times compared to 552 pass attempts. Those rushing attempts were split nearly perfectly down the middle last season between Starks and Grant. Now that Ryan Grant is searching for a new home, Starks will take over as lead back. The gap between him and the rest on the Packers roster is huge and secures his status as a 3 down back this season. Presuming as much, Starks should hit the 250 carry mark and has the potential to rack up nearly 1,000 yards. The problem is if he will get enough red zone opportunities to make him fantasy worthy. John Kuhn has been the primary culprit, snagging 4 scores last season while Grant and Starks totaled only three. If Starks can prove his ability to stay on the field, he could be in for a career year. There is no way to argue Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball as much as possible. That being said, the ceiling on Starks is only so high. Still, Starks is as solid a RB #3 option you will be able to find.
BENJARVIS GREEN-ELLIS (Bengals): The “Law Firm” comes in as the Bengals unquestioned starter unless he falters in camp. Bernard Scott failed to prove he was worthy of taking the starting role last season and Cedric Benson is still looking for a new team. That leaves Ellis likely to see the majority of the 273 carries Benson took last season. The possibility for even more production is there now that Jerome Simpson is gone, leaving A.J. Green as the only true threat at wide receiver. Especially since running the ball effectively is of utmost importance in the AFC North. Green-Ellis has never truly been able to display his rushing abilities in New England and now gets a chance to turn loose in Cinci. Due to the sheer volume of touches expected and his clear cut role as starter, Green-Ellis should be on your roster as a mid-round pick.
JAHVID BEST (Lions): Best will be among the most forgotten #1 RB’s come draft day unless he has great showings in early pre-season. Even if he does, the fear of injury given his history will prompt most fantasy owners to avoid him as a starter. Best was one of the best runners early in the season before injury and has the potential to do the same this year. With Mike Leshoure facing legal issues and Kevin Smith taking a secondary role to Best, you could do far worse. Bottom line is that Best has been declared healthy and should be treated as such. Common perception will most likely see him drop far lower than his value which makes him a sleeper candidate. If you can get Best as your third back, you are sitting pretty. The injury history will be something to keep in mind, but how many times have similar stories (Beanie Wells, Willis McGahee) turn out just fine? Consider Best a great value for where he will be selected.