You've heard the adage “It's a passing league”. To an extent, it's a truth. Play calling has been ramped up, and more teams are passing the ball more often. It's the reason that Late Round Quarterback has become the prevailing winning strategy, and it's the reason that starting your draft with multiple wide receivers has become not only en vogue but also the reason that it's viable from a mathematical perspective. However, if you're starting your draft with Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas and Jordy Nelson, you're going to have to nail some later-round running backs in order to have a truly strong anti-fragile squad. Going Zero RB sounds awesome, but isn't viable if you aren't able to hit on sleepers.
With that idea in mind, here are five league-winning runners, available after the third round of 12-team drafts based on current Average Draft Position (ADP).
Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans
Each of the last three seasons, we've seen a rookie runner finish as a RB1. These players are drafted later than their veteran counterparts due to a perceived lack of stability in both their role and skills. Alfred Morris and Doug Martin in 2012, and Le'Veon Bell and Zac Stacy on a per-game basis in 2013 all were league-winning selections for owners who took a chance on them.
A common thread for predicting rookie breakouts is agility score, which a prospect's short shuttle and 3-cone times combined. All four of those players had an elite or close to elite agility score. Bishop Sankey clocked an outrageous 10.75 time, which puts him in an elite historical comparison group. Sankey wasn't drafted to an explosive offense, but neither was Martin or Bell. Agility score is also highly correlated to future ability as a receiver, something that is incredibly important to fantasy value. We saw Trent Richardson struggle last year, primarily because he was a total zero in the passing game. If Sankey's talents translate to something close to 30 receptions -- which they should -- fantasy owners should be salivating to own him. Per Pro Football Focus, the Titans' O-line graded out as the fourth-best run blocking unit in the entire league last season, which bodes well for Sankey's efficiency on a per-carry basis. Additionally, there is some math to support the idea that a running quarterback opens up lanes for his running back, and one of the only things Jake Locker does well is run the ball.
Sankey offers an elite proposition that you don't normally find with running backs available in fourth round. He is clearly the most talented running back on his own team, his team invested significant draft capital to acquire him as the first running back off the board, he'll run behind an elite offensive line and based on his collegiate workload, will be fully capable of shouldering both the normal early-down work and passing downs without a problem. If you take anything away from this article, it's that Sankey is an elite value back in fantasy drafts.
Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals
Hill being second on this list is primarily why the wide receiver-heavy approach in the early rounds makes people uncomfortable. Unlike Sankey, Hill is not the best runner on his team and has competition for his role in BenJarvus Green-Ellis. That said, Hill still has a real shot at fantasy football relevance. Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus predicted that the 2014 Bengals will be the most run-heavy team in all of football, which benefits Hill. Both BJGE and Giovani Bernard were fantasy contributors last year, and with Hill in the grinder role in Hue Jackson's offense, the Bengals' overall productivity will rise. Green-Ellis does things coaches love, like not fumble and provide locker room leadership. Hill can do things fantasy owners love, like run for a lot of yards and score touchdowns.
Hill's Scouting Combine metrics don't portray him as an elite player, but you don't have to be at the running back position. You must be durable and have the ability to catch passes. Hill accomplished both of those feats at LSU. Bernard is likely never going to receive a team's full running back workload due to his physical stature, so as long as Hill dispatches Green-Ellis, he already has a safe fantasy floor. In OTAs, BJGE was running with the third team while Hill was with the second. As we've gotten closer to training camp, we've begun to hear murmurs that Green-Ellis may be a cap cut and that the Bengals have worked some offensive formations with both Gio and Hill on the field together. None of the running backs on this list have the elite ceiling of Sankey, but Hill can be acquired in the ninth round or later of most drafts. If he approaches 180 carries, and goal-line work is included in that tally, then he will have been a screaming value at his current ADP.
Knile Davis, Kansas City Chiefs
Last season, Jamaal Charles was the only player to lead his team in carries, receptions, targets and yards. This season, he's being drafted as the first overall pick, as he should be. Therefore, it would seem crazy to draft his backup and count on him for fantasy production, right? Wrong, rhetorical-question-asking third-person guy. Beyond the obvious injury concerns of a smaller running back who has already torn his ACL receiving a second straight year of a backbreaking workload, Davis is one of the most physically talented players in all of football, not just at the running back position. Coming out of college, Knile's speed score of 124.5 was the highest of the 2013 class with one of the best 40 times (4.37) by a running back since they became official at the NFL Scouting Combine.
In his only career start, Davis blew away the Chargers in Week 17 -- a game San Diego needed to win, by the way -- with 27 carries, 81 yards and two touchdowns. He ended his first pro campaign with a disappointing yards per carry, which some could interpret as a lack of explosion. But I think it's more likely an indictment of the noise level inherent in YPC. If you take a step back and look at his 1st & 10 yards per carry, a different picture emerges, as Davis averaged 4.11 YPC on 41 totes. I like looking at 1st & 10 YPC to see what a runner is able to do when the defense is geared for the run, and when he's on an equal playing field to others at his position. Charles was of course better, with 5.54 1st & 10 YPC, but we should expect that. Charles is one of the best running backs in football.
Drafting Davis in a re-draft league is hoping for a few things. Initially, that he is able to siphon off the rest of the running back duties from Charles, something like a 70/30 split. More importantly, if Charles is forced to miss any games at all, you have an instant RB1. Andy Reid proved last season that his offense works well with Alex Smith's skill set and that he is committed to getting whoever is starting at running back plenty of touches. I would file Knile Davis away as fantasy football's No. 1 handcuff for 2014.
Chris Polk, Philadelphia Eagles
The second-string running back for the team with the second best yards per play in 2013, the best offensive line by a significant margin (per Pro Football Focus), an elite quarterback, and that ran the fourth most times in all of football last season is going undrafted in 12-Team PPR leagues. I assume that the signing of Darren Sproles is the reason that no one is paying attention to Chris Polk, but much as Sproles stayed in his role in New Orleans whether it was Pierre Thomas or Mark Ingram toting the rock, I expect Sproles to get strictly passing-down work in Philadelphia's system. When Eagles management and Chip Kelly had the choice to keep Bryce Brown in his role behind LeSean McCoy, they traded Brown away. It is my assumption that they realized they already had a talented secondary runner in Polk.
Polk passes all the physical thresholds for a running back, with above average size, average speed, and an average agility score. Even if he wasn't at those thresholds and was more of a Shonn Greene-esque runner, you would still want shares of him just based on situation. The equation for drafting handcuffs should never be on just talent alone. Polk is in an elite situation, perhaps the best in all of the NFL for a running back. Nick Foles has established himself as elite leading Kelly's offense, he's running behind an incredible line and he has no competition for the job behind McCoy. The obstacles Polk has to overcome are two UDFAs in Matthew Tucker and Henry Josey, neither of whom is scary from that perspective. While Polk doesn't have the crazy physical traits that Knile Davis does, he is in a better position if the lead runner in front of him goes down. I'd save Polk for the very end of my benches in normal re-draft leagues, but in 14-team formats or best-ball leagues, Polk is a guy that I'm viewing as a must-own, given his low cost and upside.
Lance Dunbar, Dallas Cowboys
I'm almost hesitant to write anything about Lance Dunbar because I don't want the secret of how good he'll be to get out to the fantasy football public. Scott Linehan, who has been in charge of the Detroit Lions' high-volume passing offense the last few seasons, is now calling the shots for the Cowboys' offense. Linehan's offenses have consistently been in the top-third of the league in pass attempts, and with perhaps the league's worst defense and the best quarterback Linehan has ever coached, we can't expect that to change. What we can expect, however, is for Dunbar to have PPR flex value and a RB1 ceiling if DeMarco Murray suffers his annual three-game injury.
While Dunbar's time as a pro has been limited due to his own injury issues and the excellence of Murray, he was impressive last year in limited time, averaging 5.0 yards per carry. He also has a history of catching passes in college (97 receptions at North Texas), which is what is really important. Over the last five seasons in Detroit, Linehan's second running back (Joique Bell, Maurice Morris and Kevin Smith) averaged exactly 100 carries and 44 targets in the passing game. Those are already passable flex numbers, which doesn't include the possibility of a DeMarco injury or the sheer volume that the putridity of the Dallas defense will create. The Cowboys are going to have more 35-28 games than any team in the league and Dunbar will be a direct beneficiary. You want as many pieces of this offense as you can get, and Dunbar represents the cheapest option for investment. In any format -- Dynasty, re-draft, daily, keeper, best ball -- Dunbar is a priority add (or hold, or buy) after the 12th round.