The relevant running backs available in free agency have been signed, and no new faces went to Arizona, New Orleans, Philadelphia, or Washington. That means there is still a valuable role that firmly belongs to the incumbent secondary running backs on those teams. The current MFL10 average draft position of those players, however, does not reflect the likelihood that they are fantasy relevant contributors. I believe these four undervalued running backs can serve as arbitrage plays on more highly drafted pass-catching running backs such as Giovani Bernard, Duke Johnson, Charles Sims, and Theo Riddick.
Available at the very end of drafts, much like Riddick or Bilal Powell last year (who had the tenth and second highest win rates for all running backs, respectively), I believe the following players have a fantastic chance of returning their late-round value in abundance.
Last season, I wrote about why Andre Ellington‘s average draft position was insane. Okay, maybe not literally insane, but I compared the way people viewed him to a psychological test that is intended to reveal subconscious biases. Reality hit Ellington’s believers Week 1 like the 3:10 to Yuma, and it has clearly left people irreparably burned. It seems obvious now, but even Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians didn’t seem to accept that Ellington will probably never be a workhorse. It’s impossible to know what Arians truly thinks now, but we do know he liked Ellington enough to go into each of the last two seasons with him as the team’s starting running back. We also know that with one year left on his rookie deal at a paltry $675,000, he will almost assuredly be on the team’s roster next season.
Although health has always been unclear — and a devastating detriment to Ellington’s career — he’s still been active for 37 games in three years, and has touched the ball in every single one of them. Even though Chris Johnson was re-signed, he only saw thirteen targets last season despite being active for eleven games and starting nine of them. Presumed starter David Johnson is without a doubt an incredible receiver, but when he comes off the field, it seems unlikely to be in situations where C. Johnson would be the preferred back over Ellington.
No running back saw more than 65.7 percent of their team’s snaps last season (Devonta Freeman), and only six running backs saw 60 percent. I think it’s fair to say some combination of other running backs will see upwards of 40 percent of the Cardinals’ snaps, which in 2015 was 26 per game. Ellington’s career pace of 0.370 fantasy points per snap projects to 9.6 FPS per game on 26 snaps. That’s more optimistic than our Sim Scores app, which says the ceiling is 8.2 FPS per game, however five of Ellington’s fifteen closest comparables have at least two receptions per game. Only thirty running backs had 32 receptions last season, and only fifteen had 43, which is the 16-game pace of Ellington’s career average of 2.7 per game.
It’s fair to point out that Ellington has never played 16 games in a season, but then it would also be fair to introduce the potential of a D. Johnson injury as a counter to that. This aligns with what Justin Winn explains about investing in crowded backfield running backs “who are likely to benefit from unpredictable changes, or at the very least not lose value and thus gain value relative to the RBs who do suffer.”
Another running back I believe aligns with that mentality is the Saints C.J. Spiller. Similar to the Cardinals with C. Johnson, New Orleans has re-signed Tim Hightower in a role that presumably is Mark Ingram‘s backup. I detailed last month why I am still fading Ingram, and a big part of it is Spiller:
“Through Week 9, Ingram had 37 receptions compared to Spiller and Khiry Robinson‘s combined 41. That rate of 4.11 receptions per game is roughly quadruple Ingram’s 1.06 receptions per game prior to last season.
While Robinson and fantasy playoff hero Hightower are both unrestricted free agents, Spiller isn’t going anywhere after they guaranteed him $9M last offseason, including a $5M signing bonus.1 Saints’ general manager Micky Loomis and head coach Sean Payton have both already come out with supportive comments about Spiller going forward. Both also felt the need to express that Spiller’s 2015 was the result of his preseason knee injury lingering all year, not an organizational lack of faith in his talent and ability.
While Spiller’s injury history may seem poor, he’s been active for 83 of 96 possible games in his career (86.5 percent), compared to Ingram having been active for 62 of 80 possible games (77.5 percent). Spiller also has at least 33 receptions in four of the last five seasons, something Ingram had never done prior to 2015.”
The Saints, with game scripts saddled to their atrocious defense, had 55 more offensive plays than the Cardinals last season, and attempted 105 more passes. Currently the cheapest of the four running backs mentioned in this article, I believe Spiller is in the exact same situation he was last year when his ADP was in the fourth round.2
Darren Sproles is in a very similar situation to Spiller and Ellington, with DeMarco Murray having been traded to Tennessee, and Ryan Mathews being left as the presumed starter. While new Eagles head coach Doug Pederson’s offense will probably not resemble Chip Kelly’s, it’s encouraging that Sproles averaged 117.5 touches and 47.5 receptions in his two Philadelphian seasons.
Having always produced exceptional rates of fantasy points per touch, Sproles improved his remarkable streak of being at least RB36 overall to eight consecutive seasons. He is one of only four players to hold such an active streak, along with Frank Gore, Matt Forte, and LeSean McCoy. He was also an even bigger boon to rosters last year than Riddick was, having finished one spot higher in win rate, as the eleventh best running back.
There are a few issues here, though, that are a bit more worrisome. First is the obvious bet against history, continually diminishing chances of sustained success for any player, and the age cliff (he turns 33 in June). Additionally, while offenses that Pederson was on the staff of have produced phenomenal seasons for their primary running back (I am in love with Mathews, as I wrote about following the Murray trade), the Eagles ran the second most plays in football last season with 1,103, and the Chiefs ran the second fewest with 955. That drop in volume could make Sproles increasingly irrelevant, and speaks to another issue, which is his contract.
Kevin Cole wrote about how Sproles has one of the easiest-to-cut contracts, and with Eagles general manager Howie Roseman significantly remaking the roster in the wake of Kelly’s ouster, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him released in favor of an incoming rookie. If Sproles can remain on the roster with no significant rookie competition, and retain his ADP, he will be a steal.
Another player that owners will have to sweat through the draft is the Redskins’ Chris Thompson. I believed Thompson complementing Matt Jones has always been general manager Scot McCloughan’s plan for this season. Accordingly, the only running back move they have made in free agency thus far is tendering Thompson. Per Walter Football, of 19 prospects the Redskins are known to have met with, only one, Josh Ferguson, is a running back (they also met with Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who is listed by Walter as an RB).
Should Thompson keep that role, he should reprise a workload that saw him 24th among all running backs last season in both targets and receptions, despite only playing in thirteen games. His 3.7 targets per game was more than some workhorses, including Lamar Miller, DeMarco Murray, Latavius Murray, and Darren McFadden. That per-game pace would provide 59 targets over a full season, something only fifteen running backs had in 2015.
Among them, were Danny Woodhead, Sproles, Riddick, and Powell — hopefully Thompson will find himself in the intro of this article next year, mentioned as 2016’s version of those players.
- Robinson has signed with the Jets, and as mentioned above, Hightower is back in New Orleans. (back)
- Per My Fantasy League ADP data for all 2015 MFL10, MFL25, and MFL100 drafts having started at any time. (back)
- The average three-cone time for RBs was used because Ferguson injured his hamstring and did not complete it. (back)