We've almost made it, folks. The NFL regular season is just over a month away and fantasy draft season is ramping up.
With football's imminent return also comes one final month to perfect #theprocess. For those who have been drafting since the 2021 season concluded in February, August is the month to correct any mistakes you may have made along the way.
Part of perfecting this draft process is knowing how to tackle each round of your draft. Sure, the early rounds are where you're going to find all of your stars, but you're at a massive disadvantage if you don't know how to target the later rounds.
I recently concluded my articles on better in best ball wide receivers and better in best ball running backs. Wanting to stick with running backs a bit more, I decided to take a look at some late-round running backs (and some going undrafted) whom we should consider adding with the final few picks of our drafts.
Why Late-Round Running Backs?
Admittedly, this article could've gone one of two ways. But as a Zero RB truther, I'm prone to lean toward late-round running backs. We probably all should be.
For starters, we know that the running back position is extremely volatile. The premise of Shawn Siegele's 2013 article Zero RB, Anti-Fragility and the Myth of Value Based Drafting centers on running back volatility and the idea of using it to our advantage by taking calculated shots on late-round running back targets.
Running backs are subject to ungodly amounts of punishment, and as a result, are often susceptible to injuries. Said injuries can subsequently open the door for a backup to emerge into a meaningful fantasy role and turn into a coveted league-winner.
In Week 17 of last season — otherwise known as the fantasy football championships — your top-five PPR running backs were Rashaad Penny, Najee Harris, Darrel Williams, Boston Scott and Devin Singletary. Per Best Ball 10 ADP, Harris was the only back to carry top-24 draft capital (21.8 ADP), while Singletary was the next highest-drafted back of the group with a 129.3 ADP.
In my Running Backs Better in Best Ball article, I touched on player PPR points compared to their "better in best ball points," and found that a handful of leaders in BB points were nowhere near the leaders in total PPR. The reason for this is these players were seldom the lead backs on their teams but made the most of their situations when called upon. Below are the leaders in rank differential (PPR rank minus BB points rank), which indicates players who excelled at making your lineup when given the chance.
It's worth noting that this part of the article, while written from the perspective of best ball, is intended to serve a purpose for redraft leagues. If players are excelling in BB points, it means they are finding their way into lineups. If they're finding their way into lineups, it means they're often putting forth highly-productive weeks.
You'll notice players like Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry on this list — they snuck in due to their high levels of efficiency in their limited games played. But several players on this list saw limited action last season but were impressive when active.
At the top of the list in differential is Duke Johnson. Johnson appeared in five games for the Dolphins last season. You wouldn't have wanted him on your roster in most weeks, much less in your starting lineup. However, Johnson fell into the Dolphins' starting role in the season's final four weeks and twice ripped off top-12 weeks. For the sake of fantasy purposes, his Week 18 game against the Patriots in which he scored 19.2 PPR points was useless to most fantasy managers, but his 25.7 points in Week 15 against the Jets certainly pushed a few teams through to the next round of the playoffs.
When Henry was ruled out for the season, Dontrell Hilliard started five games and turned in three top-24 weeks, which included a 20.3-point outburst in Week 12 against the Patriots. Cleveland's D'Ernest Johnson also turned in an impressive few games last season, finishing as a top-12 back in each of the three games he served as the Browns' lead back.
This is a short way of saying that late-round running backs are of significant value. When we know a backup running back is set to see a significant workload, we want them in our lineups. And those workloads are often easy to predict. Nobody was surprised to see Rashaad Penny draw 25 carries in Week 17. Same goes for Darrel Williams, who rushed for 14-88-2 in a week when Clyde Edwards-Helaire was out with an upper-body injury.
Late-round receivers can provide league-winning weeks as well, but their sporadic spike weeks are far more difficult to predict. Because of this, they're seldom making our redraft lineups. I'm willing to go out on a limb and guess most reading this article weren't starting Kristian Wilkerson (20.2 PPR, WR9) or Cyril Grayson (20.1 PPR, WR10) in Week 17. I'd bet most don't even know who Kristian Wilkerson is.
Late-round running backs matter. Adding one of these players to an already strong lineup can lead to explosive weeks if their volume translates to coveted fantasy points. Here are some options for 2022.
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The Late-Round Guys
Brian Robinson (WSH) - 175.1 ADP
I've done my best to steam up Brian Robinson's ADP this offseason. Washington drafted Robinson in the third round of this year's draft and appears ready to jam him into a three-headed committee. Fantasy managers love Antonio Gibson, but head coach Ron Rivera doesn't seem to care. His desire to replicate the DeAngelo Williams/Jonathan Stewart Carolina days is no secret, which leads me to believe Robinson could see a significant role at some point. While I don't think Robinson has much stand-alone value with Gibson and J.D. McKissic both healthy, an injury to either would put Robinson in a position to see 10+ touches. If Gibson were to go down, Robinson becomes a lock to handle early-down and goal-line work. From an athletic standpoint, Robinson leaves much to be desired. But we've seen plenty of underwhelming backs turn in meaningful production when given the opportunity.
D'Onta Foreman (CAR) - 183.2 ADP
The Chuba Hubbard experiment in 2021 fell pretty flat last season. From an efficiency standpoint, Hubbard ranked 126th among running backs in fantasy points over expectation (-5.7) despite ranking 33rd in expected fantasy points (145.3). Probably not the biggest fantasy player, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule still saw enough of Hubbard to know that the team need an upgrade behind Christian McCaffrey. Enter D'Onta Foreman, who is more than three years removed from a torn Achilles suffered in 2018 and posted a strong 2021 campaign with Tennessee (133-566-3). From Weeks 12 to 17 Foreman averaged 13.8 points per game, finishing as a top-24 back in four of five games. Over that span, Foreman also ranked 10th in missed tackles forced (16) and was 28th in yards after contact per attempt (2.85). Should CMC miss time this season, Foreman should be the favorite to see early-down work, but Hubbard may have some PPR value on third downs. For his career, Foreman has just 18 receptions in 26 games. Hubbard ran 178 routes and totaled 25-174-1 through the air last season.
Marlon Mack (HOU) - 181.1 ADP
Rex Burkhead (HOU) - 217.8 ADP
Is rookie running back Dameon Pierce a worthwhile pick at his 124.6 ADP? I'm not sure. But I'm also not willing to stick around and find out. There's a rich draft price to pay for acquiring Pierce, who is likely to be playing in a bottom-five offense quarterbacked by Davis Mills.
The Texans signed Marlon Mack to a one-year deal this offseason and opted to keep last year's fantasy hero Rex Burkhead on the roster. At some point in the season, it wouldn't be surprising to see Pierce secure the RB1 job — but it may not come as early as Week 1. With Mack and Burkhead being virtually free to acquire, I'd much rather take shots on these guys, who, yes, play in the same underwhelming offense as Pierce. For those who took the plunge on Burkhead late last season, they were rewarded with a 28.9 point performance in Week 16 — and a less impressive 13.9 point performance in Week 17, which was still good for RB24 on the week. Should either Mack or Burkhead secure a meaningful role for the majority of this season, they will prove to be the easy values over Pierce.
Sony Michel (MIA) - 190.9 ADP
Shortly after losing Cam Akers to a torn Achilles the Rams went out and made a trade with the Patriots for Sony Michel. Fading Michel in fantasy has been an easy decision for much of his career. For starters, he was on the Patriots. In addition to that, the veteran running back has averaged 3.0+ yards after contact per attempt just once in his career and isn't known for his big-play ability. Heading into his fifth season, Michel's ADP is at an all-time low, but understandably so. He finds himself in a crowded backfield that includes Chase Edmonds, who signed a two-year, $12.6 million contract this offseason, and Raheem Mostert, who signed with the team to reunite with now-Miami head coach, Mike McDaniel.
Michel has the lowest ADP of this group, but he's worth a deep stash if he's able to make the roster out of camp. Mostert's injury history makes him a questionable pick, even now, and incumbent Myles Gaskin appears to be the least-liked guy in the room. Last season with the Rams, Michel rushed for 208-845-4. After underwhelming early in the season, he finished as a top-24 back in four of his final six games which included three games of 100+ yards from scrimmage.
Any 49ers Running Backs not Named Elijah Mitchell
The expectation is that the 49ers will run the ball early and often in Trey Lance's first season as a starter. Drafters are relatively high on second-year back Elijah Mitchell (62.3 ADP) but have faded the majority of this backfield into the later rounds. Rookie Tyrion Davis-Price, whom the 49ers drafted with the 93rd-overall pick in this year's draft, looks like a solid candidate to serve as the team's RB2, but we thought the same thing of Trey Sermon after the team drafted him 88th-overall in 2021. The narrative surrounding this backfield is dizzying. Sermon reportedly worked out with Dalvin Cook this offseason and put on a few pounds — the good kind — while Davis-Price and some other guy named Jordan Mason have all been solid at times.
All these reportedly talented backs, and I haven't even mentioned Jeff Wilson, who is still hanging around and may once again find a way to emerge as a late-season stud. I was also just informed that JaMychal Hasty is still on this roster. Please send help.
Given Kyle Shanahan's history of running back usage, one of these late-round backs could emerge as the Week 1 starter and nobody would bat an eye. Nevertheless, at least one of these guys will earn RB2 duties, immediately making them a high-upside stash. My guess is that Hasty and Mason are ultimately on the outside looking in, but I'm taking shots on Sermon, Davis-Price and Wilson late.
Chris Evans (CIN) - 211.7 ADP
Ah yes, a running back in a good offense who isn't facing competition from a dozen other guys! Captain America traded in his shield for a football helmet when the Bengals selected him in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. The former Michigan Wolverine rushed 17 times for 77 yards as a rookie and caught 15 passes for 151 yards and two scores — averaging an impressive 10.1 yards per reception. You may have noticed his name on the BB points list from earlier. Heading into his second season, Samaje Perine will have a chance to retain his RB2 role in camp, but head coach Zac Taylor hasn't ruled out Evans usurping Perine at some point.
During his time at Michigan, Evans averaged 5.6 yards per carry and forced a missed tackle on 26.4 percent of his rush attempts. He also possesses elite athleticism.
Even if Perine does secure the RB2 job in camp, I'd still bet on Evans to get a shot if Mixon were to miss time. A 20th-round ADP feels far too late for a back that could eventually see a significant opportunity share in one of the league's best offenses.
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The Undrafted Guys
D'Ernest Johnson (CLE)
After last year's stellar performance in limited starts, D'Ernest Johnson returned to the Browns on a one-year RFA tender for $2.433 million. Presumably stuck behind Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt — who reportedly is staging a "hold-in" in efforts to secure a new contract — to enter the season, ESPN's Jake Trotter noted in June that Johnson could be a trade candidate during camp. Johnson being traded would be the ultimate upside scenario for anybody who drafted him this offseason. Should he be traded, it would likely be to serve as a starter or key player in a timeshare, and Johnson appears to actually be #goodatfootball.
In his three games as Cleveland's lead back, Johnson rushed for 368 yards and two touchdowns while forcing 12 missed tackles and averaging 3.26 YCO/A. Fantasy managers have no problem taking shots on potential RB3s like Sony Michel, Jerick McKinnon, Chuba Hubbard and Zamir White. Yet for some reason, a bonafide stud (at least we think) in Johnson has been off the radars of most drafters. If you have some time between your draft and the start of the season, Johnson is a high-upside stash in what should be a run-heavy offense sans Deshaun Watson.
Dontrell Hilliard (TEN)
Hassan Haskins (TEN)
Speaking of run-heavy offense, the Titans should remain of the league's most run-oriented teams in 2022. Since 2019, the Titans rank second in the league in neutral rush rate (49%) with Derrick Henry finishing as the RB3, RB5 and RB1 in points per game over that span. After Henry's season-ending injury in Week 8, the Titans had a neutral rush rate of 51% through the remainder of the season, leaning on a bevy of backs to replace the fallen King. As previously mentioned, both D'Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard saw success with Henry out. The duo combined for seven top-24 weeks in the final 10 weeks of the season, with both backs averaging double-digit points per game. Hilliard may enter the season as the immediate backup to Henry, but we also can't rule out 2022 fourth-round pick Hassan Haskins. Last season at Michigan, Haskins rushed for 270-1,327-20 while forcing 53 missed tackles with an MTF rate of 19.6%. He brings tremendous size (6'2/228) to the Titans and is built for an aggressive rushing attack. Born and bred in the physical Big Ten, Haskins serving as the early-down replacement for Henry feels like a good bet to make in drafts.
Steelers Running Backs — Anthony McFarland?
Najee Harris is the unquestioned bell cow in Pittsburgh, but for the second-straight season, drafters have shown little interest in securing his replacement. We'll draft the backups for almost every running back in the league, but any Steelers back outside of Harris is a forgotten man.
Of the veterans behind Harris, Benny Snell is the only one being drafted, but OurLads.com has Anthony McFarland listed as the team's RB2. McFarland has seen some work with Mitchell Trubisky and the first team in training camp, with reports of his early performance appearing mostly positive. McFarland and Snell struggled early in their careers, but somebody has to take the mantle if Harris were to go down. During his days at Maryland, McFarland rushed for 245-1,648-12, averaging a solid 6.7 yards per carry. The former four-star recruit from the 2017 class was an early declaration for the 2020 NFL Draft and is just 24 years old heading into this season. Pittsburgh's offense could be a nightmare at the quarterback position this season, which could put an emphasis on the running backs with or without Harris active.