DeMarco Murray’s breathtaking 1,845-yard, 13-touchdown season is an outlier in today’s NFL, and it's highly unlikely to see a repeat of that performance from any running back in 2015. The new Philadelphia Eagles' lead running back benefited not only by being completely healthy, but also from a very rare amount of rushing attempts, an All-Pro quarterback and wide receiver capable of stretching defenses, and stellar play from arguably the NFL’s best offensive line.
It was the kind of serendipitous season few players are fortunate to have, especially the number of times the Dallas Cowboys called Murray’s number in the huddle. His 392 carries were the highest in a single season since 2006, when former Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson totaled 416 attempts, and his 1,789 yards didn’t even lead the league. When Chris Johnson broke the 2,000-yard mark in 2008 he had 358 attempts, and Adrian Peterson garnered 2,097 yards off 348 attempts back in 2012 as the sole threat in the Vikings limited arsenal.
Instead, what we’ve seen over the last few years is a platoon system in the backfield, with a few twists. Some teams have been blessed with two above-average rushers capable of splitting carries to avoid fatigue and injury. Others have a top-five running back complemented by a fleet-of-foot quarterback.
To illustrate the point, you need only look at last year’s top rushing offenses. Seattle was No. 1 last season with 172.6 yards per game thanks to Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson, followed by the outlier year from Murray and the Cowboys at 147.1. Then the Jets, with no other options, were next up at 142.5 yards with Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson splitting carries at 198 and 155, respectively. The 49ers had Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick, who combined for 259 of the squad’s 470 total attempts last season, and the Texans divvied up 260 carries to Arian Foster and 169 to Alfred Blue and rushed more than any other squad with 34.5 attempts per game, according to TeamRankings.com.
Continue down the list and you’ll see Cincinnati (Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill), Carolina (Cam Newton, Jonathan Stewart, and DeAngelo Williams), and Baltimore (Justin Forsett, Bernard Pierce, Lorenzo Taliaferro) all achieved great success by spreading carries out rather than allowing one back to take all the punishment at the line of scrimmage.
As we discussed last week when we delved into this year’s sleeper wide receivers, fantasy owners can no longer expect a first-round running back to carry their lineup like in the past. There are exceptions like Murray and even former Eagle LeSean McCoy from last season, and most likely Peterson in his return this year, but owners are better served selecting two above-average backs in the late rounds than putting all their hopes into a Jamaal Charles or Eddie Lacy.
Snagging a second tier starting running back and then pairing him with a complementary rusher is an excellent strategy this season that should allow owners to use one of their top two picks on a stud wide receiver or top flight quarterback to balance out their starting lineups.
Using FantasyPros average draft positions (ADP), we’ve identified this year’s top sleeper running back candidates, or unheralded players that owners are neglecting in drafts before the start of the fantasy season.
Once again, let’s make the “sleeper” definition clear.
For our purposes, a sleeper doesn’t necessarily mean a player no one’s ever heard of before. Instead, it can be a player who dropped off last season or over the course of the last few seasons, and could be an undervalued commodity in fantasy drafts and is ready for a comeback in 2015. Or rather, it’s a player expected to give very little this season but explodes to the delight of the owner smart or lucky enough to land them.
Here’s 11 sleeper running backs for the 2015 fantasy football season.
Lance Dunbar, Dallas Cowboys (No. 227 overall)
With Murray gone someone has to benefit from the Cowboys amazing o-line, and at first it appeared Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle would lead the platoon. But both have dealt with injuries before and during training camp, opening up a chance for Dunbar to shine. At 5-foot-8 he’s small in stature, but Dunbar has the pass-catching skills to be a solid RB2 or flex play this season, while splitting carries with McFadden or Randle whenever they are healthy. Last season, Dunbar totaled 18 receptions for 217 yards and he should have more opportunities this year.
C.J. Spiller, New Orleans Saints (No. 68)
A major injury after nine games shut Spiller down last season, but he lands in maybe the best place possible. The former Bill is now a Saint, and his skill set is eerily similar to former favorite target of Drew Brees, Darren Sproles. Spiller has proven he can gobble yards like a traditional back, and make plays out of the backfield, except this time he has a former All-Pro quarterback feeding him the ball. Spiller’s the ideal candidate to pair with a Lacy, Charles, or a McCoy.
Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns (No. 87)
One of the few things the Browns have done right over the last decade is assemble an excellent o-line. And last year they had a solid triumvirate at running back in Crowell, Terrance West, and Ben Tate, who combined for 425 of the squad’s 477 total attempts. This year Crowell’s making a play to be the starter, and there’s little to suggest he won’t at least be the No. 2. In PPR leagues its best to avoid Crowell, but in standard leagues he’s a back capable of eating up yards at 4.1 per carry and as a red zone threat.
Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 99)
Two long years ago Martin burst on the scene with 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns in his rookie year, but he’s missed 15 games the last two years due to injury. But did you know that even after missing five games last year he still led the Bucs with 494 yards? That had much to do with Tampa Bay’s glaring deficiencies at quarterback and an offensive line that allowed 52 sacks and couldn’t run block. The Bucs could start two rookies on the line this year, second-round picks Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet, which raises some red flags until you remember the success Lacy and Murray had last season when rookies took over for injured veterans in Green Bay and Dallas.
Martin’s unlikely to equal or better his rookie year numbers, but he’s a solid RB2 in fantasy drafts and in the 10th round or lower he represents very little risk and lots of potential rewards. He’s also getting rave reviews in camp so far.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons (No. 113, No. 78)
Here are two backs who should both put up solid seasons in a rejuvenating year across the board in Atlanta. If you’re in a PPR league, Freeman’s your guy after he snagged 30 balls off 38 targets for 238 yards and two touchdowns in his rookie year. New head coach Dan Quinn has even praised Freeman for his route running. His 3.8 yards per carry aren’t so bad when you consider he only got 65 attempts behind veteran Steven Jackson. Now Jackson’s gone and Freeman and Coleman will battle it out for starter duties.
On the other hand, Coleman’s a more traditional back who will fit nicely in standard leagues. New Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan got better than 1,200 yards out of Steve Slaton in his rookie year in Houston in 2008, and more than 1,600 yards from Alfred Morris in his rookie year with the Redskins. Coleman’s clearly in excellent hands, which is why he’s going higher than Freeman right now.
David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals (No. 147)
Like Coleman, Johnson’s a power running back in play for at least the No. 2 role in his rookie year. He averaged better than 5.4 yards per carry in his final three seasons at Northern Iowa. Johnson and starter Andre Ellington have both missed time with hamstring injuries, but Johnson can still be a factor later in the season, even if the Cardinals are considering adding veteran and former Titan and Jet Chris Johnson. Owners probably won’t have to spend a pick on Johnson, but an early waiver pick-up or free agent addition and stash might be in order depending on how big your bench is.
David Cobb, Tennessee Titans (No. 157)
Cobb needs only to beat out last year’s underwhelming rookie rusher Bishop Sankey, who tallied 3.7 yards per carry and only one rush of 20-plus yards. Cobb did receive some flak in camp recently, according to Scout, but when his number is called later this year Cobb can benefit from rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota’s incredible rushing abilities.
Lorenzo Taliaferro, Baltimore Ravens (No. 217)
Justin Forsett had the season of his life in 2014 with a career-best 1,266 yards at 5.4 yards per carry and eight touchdowns, and the chances of him repeating that effort seem very slim. Taliaferro put up 4.3 yards a carry for 292 yards and four scores last season, and seems a better fit as the power back in standard leagues while Forsett fits the PPR bill after 44 receptions last season. Bernard Pierce is also gone making Taliaferro the outright No. 2 back. Baltimore will be looking to spread the ball around after Torrey Smith skipped town, Steve Smith a year older, and few other proven options at receiver.
Cameron Artis-Payne, Carolina Panthers (No. 218)
The former Auburn standout who led the SEC with 1,608 yards and 303 carries last season was buried at No. 4 on the Panthers first released depth chart out of camp. But at some point he will be a factor. The Panthers have one of the best rushing attacks in the league because they can plug in a number of backs behind Cam Newton, and with DeAngelo Williams now gone Artis-Payne will have an opportunity at some point this season.
Roy Helu, Oakland Raiders (No. 222)
After four years in Washington, Helu moves on to the Raiders where he’s presently behind Latavius Murray and Trent Richardson. It’s a fair assumption, unless Richardson can save his career, Helu will have the No. 2 duties and serve as the pass-catching back this season. Other than 2012, when he only played in three games because of injury, Helu’s averaged better than 40 receptions and 369 yards per season. Last year the Raiders running back trio of McFadden, Murray, and Maurice Jones-Drew tallied 64 receptions for 426 yards and no touchdowns off 94 targets.
Clearly Oakland has a role and need for a player like Helu, and this season he might be an excellent RB3 in the flex spot.