2016 Undervalued Running Backs

 In Blog, Running Backs, Sleepers, Underrated Players, VBD

People often ask me: “What’s your draft strategy?” My typical response: “Draft good players.”

The follow-up question often is something like this: “But seriously, how are you so good at this? How do you draft a good team?” My response is typically something like this: “Dude, just draft good players that will outperform the spot where you draft him.”

This is my simple advice!

Draft good players that are likely to outperform their draft slot. Whichever owners in your league are able to draft players that out-play their average draft position (ADP) are the owners that will win a lot of games! As I have stated before, fantasy football is all about value.

And there is no position more important in most leagues than Running Back.

So, who are those undervalued players at the RB position for the 2016 season? Here is my list of RB’s that are being drafted later than they ought to be drafted, based upon my top 300 rankings list.

NOTE: This article assumes 12-team leagues using ESPN Standard Scoring. ADP values from FantasyFootballCalculator.com.

 

Player Team/Bye ADP Kenny’s Grade
Adrian Peterson Min/6 Mid-to-Late 1st Rd Early 1st Rd
Jamaal Charles KC/5 Early-to-Mid 2nd Rd Late 1st Rd
LeSean McCoy Buf/10 Late 2nd Rd/Early 3rd Rd Late 1st Rd/Early 2nd Rd
Doug Martin TB/6 Mid-to-Late 2nd Rd Late 1st Rd/Early 2nd Rd
Jonathan Stewart Car/7 Mid-to-Late 5th Rd Mid-to-Late 3rd Rd
Giovani Bernard Cin/9 Mid-to-Late 6th Early 5th Rd
Jeremy Langford Chi/9 Early-to-Mid 7th Early 5th Rd
Melvin Gordon SD/11 Mid-to-Late 6th Rd Late 4th Rd

 

Adrian Peterson
Peterson is not a huge value this season, being that he’s still going to cost you a 1st-round pick, but he’s dropping into the later portions of the 1st round in a lot of mock drafts, and he’s being drafted after many players that should not be going ahead of him.

He is the best RB of this era. Over the past decade, many RB’s have come-and-gone, and some of them have even been great for a few seasons, but Peterson has outlasted all of them. In each season that he has played more than one game, he has scored double digit touchdowns and over that span he has averaged 1,466 rushing yards. He is the epitome of excellence and consistency.

If you are in a league that starts 2RB and 3WR (not including flex), then I understand going for an elite WR in the early portion of the first round, but if your league’s base starting lineup is 2RB and 2WR, then the WR position is of equal value to the RB position, but the scarcity at RB is far greater overall, meaning having an elite RB on your team will make a greater impact in the long-term than having an elite WR.

If I end up in any leagues where I will be starting the same number of RB’s and WR’s, then I’ll be taking Peterson with a top two draft pick, not a WR. I recommend you do the same. (Note: I have Gurley and Peterson pretty much tied as the best RB for 2016).

The only knock on Peterson is his age. He is on the wrong side of 31, which is the age where we begin to see a dip in production for many RB’s. Very few running backs have been able to produce quality numbers after that age, and father-time is undefeated. However, Peterson is a freak of nature athlete, far superior to most players. He has done things we have rarely seen from a RB. For example, in December 2011 he tore his ACL, and the very next season he rushed for more than 2,000 yards. If there’s any player that can extend beyond the typical age-31 barrier, it’s Peterson.

What did we see on film in 2015? There was no difference between 2015 Peterson and 2012 Peterson. I recently re-watched Peterson’s last six games of 2015, including the Vikings playoff loss to Seattle. In those games, Peterson still ran hard, he still had the top-end long speed, he still cut hard, and his vision seemed better than ever. There was zero signs of him slowing down at all. Also consider, due to his off-the-field issues, he missed all but one game of the 2014 season, which in essence, gave him a year off, so he doesn’t have as much wear-and-tear as you might think. Peterson was awesome last year, and there is no reason to believe he won’t be awesome in 2016. If you can draft Peterson in the 2nd half of the 1st round, you’re getting good value.

 

Jamaal Charles
For those of you drafting in the early part of the 1st round in a typical snake-draft, you very well might have the chance to draft Charles in the later portion of the 2nd round, which is great value. Of course, if you’re in a league with someone like me, he won’t last until late in the 2nd round.

I know many people are worried about Charles due to the fact that he’s coming off the ACL injury, but all of the RB’s have question marks. Other than Todd Gurley and Adrian Peterson, I have concerns about most of the RB’s being drafted in the 1st and 2nd rounds. But Charles is a great player. A special talent! His acceleration and his ability to stop-on-a-dime make him appear to be impossible to tackle at times. And I expect Andy Reid to continue to rely heavily on him, both in the running and passing game.

Of course, he’s coming off the second torn ACL of his career, so recovering from that injury could impede him. But his field vision and his cut-back abilities are off-charts amazing, and those aren’t skills you lose due to a knee injury. In 2011, Charles suffered an ACL injury. He came back in 2012 to be the NFL’s fourth leading rusher (he finished 7th overall in fantasy production), and in 2013 he finished as the #1 RB overall (in both standard and PPR formats).

Through the first five games of the 2015 season, Charles was the 2nd best fantasy running back in the NFL, just 0.3 points per game behind Devonta Freeman. And the Chiefs’ offense proved it could be very RB-friendly; after Charles went down for the season, the Kansas City RB’s combined for 14.7 points per game. I expect the Chiefs to have similar or better production this upcoming season, and Charles will be the beneficiary. I know that it is a slight gamble to just assume that he’s going to be right back to normal from day one, but if he is 100% healthy, Charles will be in contention for #1 overall fantasy player in 2016. Drafting Charles in the mid-to-late 2nd round is very good value.

 

LeSean McCoy
Speaking of field vision and stop-on-a-dime ability, the only player in the NFL who might be better than Charles in those areas is LeSean “Shady” McCoy. Often times, when RB’s cut back across the field, their success heavily depends on when the RB chooses to cut back and what running lane the RB chooses. Shady chooses wisely nearly 100% of the time; and once he’s in the open field, he’s better than most RB’s in the league. As an Eagles fan, I had a front row seat to watching his impressive talents for six seasons.

When it comes to raw athleticism, speed, and football IQ, Shady is easily much better than several of the players being drafted ahead of him right now in mock drafts. Lamar Miller, Devonta Freeman, Mark Ingram, and Eddie Lacy are all being drafted ahead of him, but when you watch Shady on film, it is clear that he’s is better than all four of those guys.

Throughout the off-season, some people have been nervous about the other RB’s on the Bills’ roster cutting into Shady’s production, but the events of the off-season and training camp have solidified him as the workhorse running back in Buffalo; and he’ll be running behind the 10th best offensive line in the NFL (according to our friends over Pro Football Focus).

The issue with Shady going into 2016 is his health. In seven NFL seasons, he has played all 16 games in only three of those seasons. I think partially it has to do with his running style, where he’s always trying to keep plays alive, sometimes making him susceptible to getting blind-sides by larger defensive players. I expect him to miss 1-2 games per year for the rest of his career, but when he’s on the field he’s electric and will put up quality RB1 numbers. If you can draft McCoy in the 2nd round (or even the 3rd), you’ll be getting good value.

 

Doug Martin
Martin finished as the #3 RB overall in fantasy football last season, in just about every league format, so I am surprised that he isn’t being selected in the 1st round going into this season. But I guess the fantasy community has not forgiven his 2013 and 2014 transgressions.

Martin was a top pick in the NFL draft by the Buccaneers in 2012 for a good reason, because he’s good at football. He’s got that stocky and strong frame while still being incredibly quick footed. He’s a hybrid of Frank Gore and Emmitt Smith. He was great as a rookie racking up nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 12 total TD’s. We all loved Martin. But, much like a romantic relationship that’s gone bad, the fantasy football community fell out of love.

Martin followed up that fantastic rookie campaign with two lackluster seasons filled with injuries and inconsistencies. I don’t think Martin has a soft-tissue issue that would make him more susceptible to future injury (ala Arian Foster), I just think it was bad luck. As for the bad play we saw at times, it was partially his fault and partially the fault of the team around him.

Heading into the 2015 season, many people were nervous to draft Martin, myself included. I didn’t trust that he could stay healthy or play consistently for an entire season. I seriously considered drafting him in multiple drafts last summer, but each time I ended up drafting someone else. I passed him up for players like Andre Ellington, CJ Spiller, Joique Bell, Ameer Abdullah, and Giovani Bernard. Ouch!

I avoided Martin going into 2015, and he made me regret my decisions. He stayed healthy, played with consistency, and showed us that his rookie season was not a mirage. Martin has all the tools to be a top-3 fantasy RB again, and the team around him seems to be getting better, so that should help. The biggest knock against Martin going into 2015 was the potential for injury, and while he remained healthy for all 16 games, that concern has not faded completely from the minds of many people, so that has depressed Martin’s value.

The biggest concern I have heading into 2016 is the presence of Charles Sims. He had 166 touches last season and three games with double digits carries, and Sims looked good for most of the season when he had chances. I expect Sims’ workload to continue to grow, especially in the passing game. This is bad news for Martin. But as QB Jameis Winston progresses, and as the Buccs open up the offense under new head coach Dirk Koetter, the overall offensive production should get better for everyone. I am a big believer in Winston’s talent, so I think there will be more targets and touches to go around in Tampa, and eventually more touchdown opportunities for every player. Martin should be drafted around the 1st/2nd round turn, but he’s dropping into the 3rd round in a lot of drafts. That is good value.

 

Jonathan Stewart
When you watch Stewart play on the film, you see that he is one of the best backs in the NFL. RB’s that are 235 lbs. ought not be able to move as quick as he does. In fact, when I consider the overall athleticism of all NFL running backs, Stewart might be at the top of the list. I love his style of play and love his fit in the Carolina system.

Over the course of his NFL career, each season that he has played more than nine games, he has gone over 900 total yards from scrimmage. This is especially impressive when you consider the fact that he split carries with DeAngelo Williams for seven seasons. In 2015, his first season as the primary back, Stewart played in just 13 games, but he rushed for 989 yards, which is the second highest of his career, and he scored six TD’s, which is the most he scored since scoring ten TD’s way back in 2009. His raw talent, combined with the quality of the rest of the Carolina offense, makes him a shoe-in to repeat those stats again, which makes him a decent RB2.

But there have always been two issues whenever we consider Jonathan Stewart. The first is his injury history. In eight seasons, he has played all 16 games only three times, and he hasn’t done it since 2011. Now, to his credit, while he missed three games last year, the Panthers intentionally kept him out of Weeks 16 and 17 because they wanted to keep him safe and fresh for the playoffs. It was mostly a precautionary measure. And what did he do when he returned to action in the divisional round of the playoffs against Seattle; he ran 59 yards on first play from scrimmage and then three plays later he punched it into the end zone.

The other major issue with Stewart is the lack of touchdown potential because of the presence of other weapons. Whenever the Panthers are inside the red zone, they’ve got multiple quality options. Cam Newton is always likely to scoop up a handful of touchdown opportunities. Greg Olsen is a good option deep in opponents’ territory. And Mike Tolbert is a TD vulture. If anyone is a fan of the Carolina Panthers, this is a very good thing. But if you are fantasy owner of Jonathan Stewart, this is bad.

But even with those other TD options on the roster, I think it is likely that Stewart still scores 6-8 TD’s. Stewart is worthy of a mid-to-late third-round pick in most league formats. But he is being drafted two full rounds later than that. I’ve actually seen him go as late as the 7th round in some mock drafts; which is ridiculous. And consider this: If things break right for Stewart, like maybe he scores double digit touchdowns (as he did in 2008 and 2009), then he has the potential to be a top-five fantasy running back. His upside is far greater than any RB being drafted in the 5th or 6th round. Stewart is a great value at that point in the draft.

 

Giovani Bernard
There are some people within the fantasy football community that are down on the Bengals for a variety of reasons (ie: losing OC Hue Jackson, WR Marvin Jones, tougher schedule, etc.). It is definitely possible that the Bengals regress to some extent, but I’d be shocked if their offense regressed a lot.

The Bengals are a good team which includes an elite WR in AJ Green, a good TE in Tyler Eifert, and the fourth best offensive line in the NFL (according to Pro Football Focus). Andy Dalton is not an elite QB by any means, but he’s adequate. Whenever I see a team like this, I typically want to own the best RB on the team, and that is clearly Giovani Bernard, not Jeremy Hill.

I’m not saying Hill is bad, I’m just saying that, overall, Bernard is better. Some people might say that Bernard is only better than Hill in PPR formats, and I vehemently disagree. Plain and simple: Bernard is better at football than Hill. Bernard is a shorter guy at 5’9″ but he does not have a smallish frame; he’s 208 and runs strong in between the tackles when called upon. Bernard is super quick and has nice field vision; in a lot of ways he’s a poor-man’s LeSean McCoy. He’s also a very good receiver out of the backfield, which makes him a big part of the passing game.

In Bernard’s rookie season (2013), he racked up more than 1,200 yards from scrimmage and scored 8 TD’s. He was being drafted in the 2nd round of many drafts going into his sophomore season (2014). He gained more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage in just 13 games, but Jeremy Hill became the primary TD scorer on the team that season. Last season, Bernard again racked up more than 1,200 yards from scrimmage compared to Hill’s 873 yards, and when you watch the Bengals’ games on film, it is clear that Bernard is the more athletic player when compared to Hill.

Hill, of course, scored 12 TD’s last year compared to Bernard’s 2. But in 2014 Bernard scored 7 TD’s in 13 games, with Hill on the roster. Add to this, history tells us that Tyler Eifert should regress when it comes to TD’s scored (Eifert scored 13 TD’s in 2015, but a total of 2 TD’s in his previous two seasons). Bernard is going to score more than 2 TD’s in 2016. He’ll also have more catches than Hill and certainly more yards. Also consider, if Hill were to to get injured, Bernard would likely produce quality RB1 numbers. Bernard is easily worth a 5th round pick in most standard leagues (and slightly higher in PPR formats). But he’s being drafted in the 6th round, and sometimes even falls into the 7th round. Draft Bernard, you’ll be happy.

 

Jeremy Langford
I wasn’t sold on Jeremy Langford for most of this off-season. But I recently went back and watched all of his carries from last season. I’m actually impressed. And I’m surprised that most of the fantasy football community seems to be unsure about his talent. He’s not a spectacular player by any means, but I think he’s going to be decent overall. At least, decent enough, to keep from losing John Fox’s confidence.

When I was watching his game-tape, the first thing that stuck out to me was his size and frame. He looks like a smallish slender guy. But then I looked up his height and weight: 6’0″ 208 lbs. I literally said aloud, “Where does he keep that weight.” He is much bigger than I realized. And he proved that he has more strength than his slender frame might lead you to believe. Every time he ran into a pile, the pile moved forward.

In addition, Langford could turn into a very good receiver out of the backfield. He runs good routes and he is smooth in the open field (he was actually moved to WR in college for part of a season before being moved back to RB). That should keep him on the field and give him more opportunities to rack up more yards from scrimmage. He’s not a game-breaker, but he looks like he has what it takes to be a quality RB2. If I ended up with Langford as my second running back (especially in PPR), I would be perfectly fine with that. I don’t think he has RB1 upside, but I’m also pretty confident that he’s not going to be a bust. A running back of this caliber easily should be going in the fourth or fifth round, but he’s being drafted in the sixth or seventh. That’s good value.

 

Melvin Gordon
Gordon is very nice value this season. He has one of the widest ranges of outcome of any player that you might expect to draft this summer, so that makes him a little risky, but when you consider his upside, he’s a no-brainer.

When you watch this guy on film, you can see the talent. Interestingly enough, he reminds me of the player he replaced in San Diego, Ryan Mathews. Similar style, but Gordon has even better burst than Mathews. Gordon can be a star in the NFL, but he must correct his one major problem: fumbles! If he doesn’t get that fixed, he won’t see the field as much as needed to be an RB1.

The San Diego Chargers have the absolute worst offense of line in the NFL, and they’ve done nothing to change that fact. Also, the presence of Danny Woodhead makes a lot of people nervous, as it should, but some people are over-hyping Woodhead. Woodhead is a below average player and several of Woodhead’s TD’s were very “flukey” in nature. While Woodhead has certainly carved-out a role for himself in that offense, there is just no way that he can repeat that production. This is good news for Gordon.

Gordon had 217 touches last season and more than 800 yards from scrimmage, in 14 games. But he had a grand total of zero touchdowns. That’s virtually impossible in today’s NFL. Even with Woodhead on the team, and with the bad offensive line, if Gordon has the same amount of touches, he’s bound to score 3-4 touchdowns, by accident. Now, if you consider Woodhead’s likely regression, and assume some progression for Gordon as he heads into year two, then Gordon could easily get 900+ yards from scrimmage and 6-7 total touchdowns. Those numbers could make him a solid RB2 option.

Next, consider what might happen if some things were to break in Gordon’s favor. What if the offensive line plays better and the team stays relatively healthy. Or what if Woodhead got hurt? (Not rooting for that, but just considering it). Gordon would have a legitimate shot at giving you quality RB1 production. When you consider his talent and upside, he is easily worth a 4th or 5th round pick. But right now, he can be had for a sixth, and sometimes he even drops into the seventh round. That’s good value.

 

Conclusion
Many writers have jumped onto the “zero-RB” train, where they avoid RB’s in the early rounds. I am not all-aboard that train by any means, as I still lean towards RB’s early in drafts in most league formats, but with these value RB options available this season, I am okay if you choose to wait a little bit to draft RB’s and just scoop up some of these great values.

 

Edit: This article was edited on August 22, 2016 to correct grammar errors.