If there’s one position at which we cannot possibly go too deep in our search for sleepers, it’s running back. This is where chaos truly reigns.
Austin Ekeler, a player who has finished among the top-five fantasy backs in consecutive years, was originally signed by the Chargers back in 2017 as an undrafted free agent. His backstory isn’t particularly unusual, either. In fact, since 2010, we’ve seen 17 different undrafted running backs produce 32 individual seasons of at least 1,000 scrimmage yards.
If actual NFL scouting departments can’t get this position figured out, what chance do the rest of us have?
As fantasy managers, we need to repeatedly take late swings at this spot in our drafts, because late-round breakouts are absolutely guaranteed. It’s often the rookies who deliver the best ROI — think Tyler Allgeier and Isiah Pacheco in 2022 — so any list of sleeper backs needs to feature a few first-year fliers.
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(Important reminder: We’re only talking deep sleepers in this series, players available in two-thirds of Yahoo leagues. If you came for Elijah Mitchell and James Cook content, you are in the wrong place. Here, we’re drilling a bit deeper, looking for lightly rostered players with clear paths to fantasy relevance. Like this gentleman, for instance …)
Bigsby was a third-round pick out of Auburn who was plenty productive over multiple collegiate seasons and he’s producing daily highlights in his first NFL camp:
He’s also a weirdly perfect complement to Travis Etienne, a talented rusher who’s had his issues near the goal line and as a receiver. Bigsby has drawn steady praise for his route-running and receiving ability throughout the summer, including camp sunshine from Doug Pederson himself. There is simply no way Bigsby won’t have a role in his first season.
We aren’t trying to scare you off Etienne, just for the record. He’s a fun back coming off a huge first season. But let’s not assume Etienne is the only viable fantasy starter in Jacksonville’s backfield.
Like Bigsby, Miller is a 2023 third-rounder with ideal size and a collegiate resume that’s plenty impressive. He gained over 1,500 total yards at TCU last season, finding the end-zone 17 times and never delivering a dud performance, regardless of opponent. Taking Miller to the ground never seemed like an easy experience:
Miller, Jamaal Williams and the freshly signed Kareem Hunt will each have opportunities in September while Alvin Kamara is suspended, so the rookie belongs in the opening week flex discussion. (Hunt was pretty dreadful in Cleveland last year, so let’s not assume he’ll be relied upon.) Miller should be a final-round dart throw for someone in every 12-team league.
Even if JK Dobbins was having a normal camp for the Ravens — which he definitely is not — Edwards would remain a player of interest in our game. He’s been a circle-of-trust back for Baltimore since he entered the league as an UDFA in 2018. Edwards has averaged at least 5.0 YPC in every pro season while seeing 10 touches per game. He’s nearly two full years removed from his ACL injury, too. Dobbins has never been anything close to an every-snap running back for the Ravens, so a rotational role for Gus is basically locked in.
Chase Brown, Cincinnati Bengals (6%)
Brown feels a bit under-hyped at this stage — perhaps because he was under-drafted as a fifth-round pick. He was, without question, one of the elite backs in college football last season, though. Brown rushed for 1,643 yards for Illinois on 328 carries and he absolutely crushed the toughest matchups on his schedule (146 yards vs. Iowa, 140 at Michigan). He’s currently in a battle to step into Samaje Perine‘s former role with the Bengals, which is no small thing; Perine gained 681 scrimmage yards on 133 total touches last season. Cincinnati coaches seem pleased with what they’ve seen from Brown to date, so keep him in your end-game plans.
Just to get the obvious part out of the way: Josh Jacobs is one of the best and most elusive runners in the NFL, a player who deserves all the work he can possibly handle. He’s been a missed-tackle machine since he entered the league. Whenever he returns to the Raiders — assuming it happens in time for opening week — he will be the unrivaled top guy in the team’s backfield.
Jacobs just won a rushing crown and gained over 2,000 scrimmage yards. He’s phenomenal.
But the longer Jacobs remains in his current uncomfortable standoff with the Raiders, the more seriously we have to take White, a second-year back with good size and power. White was a terror at Georgia, you might recall:
White has operated as the No. 1 back for Vegas while Jacobs remains away from the team, earning valuable reps and relentless praise from coaches. He might very well claim a non-trivial supporting role, if/when Jacobs returns.
Warren is yet another UDFA success story. By the end of his first NFL season, he was consistently playing over 40% of the offensive snaps for Pittsburgh in a situational role. He handled 43 touches over the final four games, gaining 220 total yards. Warren averaged 4.9 YPC last year (which was 1.1 more than Najee Harris) and gained 3.1 yards after contact per attempt. He’s simply a good back, productive in his role, and he’s taken a significant slice of the backfield responsibilities away from Harris. Warren has a path to standalone value in deeper fantasy formats, plus he’s an injury away from ranking as a weekly RB2.