By Chet Gresham - @ChetGresham
Many a season has been won by a dark horse coming into the light mid-season and tearing up your fantasy league, so when you are stocking up on late-round fliers, you need to do your research and pick as if you are selecting your first-rounder.
For running backs, opportunity is one of the biggest components in giving you fantasy value. Of course, a player can get his opportunity and then sleep through a meeting and never see the ball again, but the opportunity has to be there first. The backup running backs below can be had fairly cheaply, i.e. late in drafts, yet have a decent shot at playing time at some point in the season and aren't horrid.
Duke Johnson, RB, Browns
Duke Johnson has been hurt most of training camp with a hamstring injury, but finally returned to practice recently. His injury might be the best thing to happen if you want to draft him like I do.
So far, neither Isaiah Crowell or Terrance West have been able to win the starting job in camp, and running backs' coach Wilbert Montgomery has not been happy with either. That leaves Johnson a wide gate to walk right through - if he can.
Last season, West started six games while Crowell started four, but Montgomery wants a true starting back, and Johnson could be that guy. On film, his ability is evident. At 5-foot-9, 207 pounds, Johnson is often considered "just" a third-down back, but watching him play, his skill set is much more. As a between-the-tackles runner, he is decisive and has tremendous burst through the line. Johnson rarely shows concern for his well-being, which might get him injured, but could also get him the starting job. Outside the tackles, he has good hands and elusiveness.
Johnson is set up to be a three-down back. Will he last 5+ seasons as an every-down back? There's a decent chance the answer is no, but he could easily pull of a couple of very productive seasons as a lead back.
The Browns were one of the best rushing teams in the league last year. They weren't efficient, but they were committed. They rushed the sixth-most times and scored the fourth-most rushing touchdowns. Cleveland hid its quarterback(s) with defense and rushing. The team's offensive line is one of the best in the business, and Johnson is well-versed and hitting the right holes from breaking Miami's all-time rushing record.
Just today, Johnson is getting praise from reporters who are watching him practice, so the hype train might start churning soon. Thankfully, his ADP is still insanely low as the 50th running back off the board, so grabbing him in your local league might not cost you much. I'll be drafting him as soon as I get a little itch that someone else might take him.
Javorius "Buck" Allen, RB, Ravens
Javorius "Buck" Allen is currently behind Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro, but that fact should help you get Allen late, and it's not the worst news you could ever get because of one Mr. Marc Trestman, who I will invoke once again. I like Justin Forsett this season that I have him as my No. 11 running back, and if Forsett were to get injured, all you'd need to do is replace Forsett's name with Allen's, but with more upside.
At 6-foot, 220 pounds, Allen is much larger than Forsett, but has just as good, or possibly better, receiving ability. Allen won't beat him out in elusiveness, but he'll catch anything thrown his way, and Trestman's offense throws the ball early and often to its running backs. If Forsett goes down, you can pencil Allen in for 4-5 receptions per game.
Zach Zenner, RB, Lions
The Detroit Lions have used a delineated running back situation - using an early down back and a third-down back - recently, and they are set up to do the same thing again this year. We all have seen what Ameer Abdullah has done in training camp and preseason, and there is no doubt he is the receiving back with an opportunity to win some early down runs from oft-injured Joique Bell.
The question is: if Bell were to continue to miss time, would the Lions then just go all-in with Abdullah as the every-down back or try to continue splitting the carries? That's where Mr. Zenner comes in. Zenner is 5-foot-11, 223 pounds, but for his weight, he has gifted physical attributes. He is very much a downhill, early down runner, but also has good hands and is good in pass protection. He could step into Joique Bell's role without the team missing a beat.
But will Zenner even make the team? That is still an open debate. He is a much more gifted early down runner than Theo Riddick or George Winn, but Riddick is entrenched in the back-up pass receiving role and Winn is a good special teams player. I believe offensive talent wins out here and Zenner makes the team, but if he were cut, his stock could really rise if the right team picked him up. Hello, Texas.
Zenner has already shown his ability in preseason with 17 rushes for 77 yards and six receptions for 60 yards and one touchdown in two games. He's very much a lottery ticket in redraft leagues this season, but I don't mind playing the lottery when it barely costs you anything like Zenner will right now.
Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Panthers
Cameron Artis-Payne has the enviable position of being the best handcuff for Jonathan Stewart this season. Yes, the Panthers have Fozzy Whitaker and Mike Tolbert still, but those two are in no way feature backs, while Artis-Payne at least has some potential in that spot.
Artis-Payne's upside if Stewart is injured still isn't off the charts, but a starting running back is a starting running back, and all it will take for that to happen is Stewart getting injured, which we know is not all that far-fetched.
Matt Jones, RB, Redskins
Matt Jones has been turning heads in the preseason as he's totaled 82 yards on just 13 carries with one reception for 11 yards and has looked powerful and decisive in his runs. He's the best early down back Washington has besides Alfred Morris, so it's hard not to see him getting the bulk of the work if Morris were to be injured. But, Jones looks like he'll be able to get on the field as a third-down back, which is a little counterintuitive when picturing a 6-foot-2, 231-pound player. Coach Jay Gruden has talked up Jones' hands, saying, "You think of him as a big, power-type back, but Matt's done some things out in space that have been very, very impressive, making moves on the second level, in the passing game, running some option routes on linebackers. He's got natural hands."
Alfred Morris does not have "natural hands," well, they are probably the same hands he was born with, but I don't think that's what Gruden was referring to. So, Jones does have an avenue to touches even while Morris is healthy. As long as he continues to pass block well, which he has so far in camp, he should be able to hold of the much more diminutive Chris Thompson. We've already see Robert Griffin III get knocked out of a game, and pass blocking will be a major concern.
You can also add in the probability that Washington will be behind in many games and will need its passing back in the game. Yes, Morris continues to work on his receiving skills, but even though he has the same hands his momma gave him, they aren't as natural as Jones'. Plus, Morris is on the last season of his contract, and if Jones could replicate Morris' early down ability while also being able to stay on the field for third downs, he could continue to get more early down work as a test for seasons to come, especially if Washington is quickly shoved out of the playoff race.
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