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Mining for Fantasy Gold: Sleeper Running Backs

Ninety percent of conversations leading up to fantasy drafts each summer center around players likely to be drafted in the first handful of rounds. Will it really matter if you end up with Jamaal Charles, orRay Rice? Vincent Jackson, orHakeem Nicks? Probably not, but it's a persistent topic in columns and on podcasts. And while it's often said, "you can't win your league in the first two rounds of the draft, but you can lose it", the discussion always seems to center around the "how not to lose it" part, and neglect the rest. I'm here today to tell you how to win it! Sure, everyone has their "list" of sleepers. Those usually end up being a plethora of guys, with no firm commitments. Just a scroll of flyers so writers can say, "I was high on him" after they break out. In this article I'm going to give you two guys you have to get! Along with two other, low-cost/high-upside options.

Nothing in fantasy football leads to more success, and enjoyment, than getting an unbelievable value at running back. So you got Michael Vick off waivers for that one-in-a-million lotto ticket? Congratulations. Scrapped up Brandon Lloyd for his improbable rebirth? Again, nice work. As great as those two moves were, however, they don't happen very often. The probability of a similar recurrence this year is slim. Odds are, the Vick experiment was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, and while productive free agent wide receivers sprout annually, rarely is it to the extent Lloyd blew up. Running back, on the other hand, is a position whose top producers are much more varied from year to year. Thus presenting an opportunity for tremendous value for the keen-eyed, and well-informed.

Were you the owner who took a chance on Arian Foster in the fifth round, Darren McFadden in the tenth, or picked up Peyton Hillis last year? If so, you might not have toppled Vick owners for a title, but I bet you won some cash. And as you'll see in the draft examples below, this happens often within fantasy's glory position.


Matt Forte - ADP 28, Finish 2

Steve Slaton - ADP 47, Finish 8

Chris Johnson - ADP 36, Finish 11


Ray Rice - ADP 27, Finish 3

Ricky Williams - ADP 55, Finish 7

Thomas Jones - ADP 23, Finish 9


Arian Foster - ADP 26, Finish 1

Peyton Hillis - ADP 67, Finish 3

Darren McFadden - ADP 39, Finish 8

|STAR|ADP (average draft positions) are among running backs only, provided by

|STAR||STAR|Finish rankings are among running backs only, from my personal league that uses standard scoring, plus ppr (6pts/TD, 1pt/10 yds. Rush/rec, 1pt/rec, -1pt/fumble lost)

My obsession with finding these guys, and my subsequent success and jubilation, all started back on October 23, 2005. It only took one play. In a 52-17 loss no less. Frank Gore, a preseason and college favorite of mine, ripped off a 72-yard touchdown, and I knew. His time was now. The puttering Kevan Barlow would not be able to relegate Gore to the bench much longer, so I picked him up. To my utter dismay, it took head coach Mike Nolan six more grueling weeks than me to figure it out. In his first start versus Jacksonville, Gore had 19 carries, three catches and 136 total yards. The following week he punched in two scores. The team traded Barlow in the offseason and the Frank Gore era was officially born. Luckily the 49ers stunk, finishing 4-12, and no one seemed to notice what Frank was doing. The following year, I "reached" for him in the fourth round. He went on to set franchise records in rushing yards (1,695-led NFC), total yards from scrimmage (2,180), and score nine touchdowns, producing another fantasy title for moi. Two years later I snatched up Slaton, and the following year Rice, each producing similar results.

Last year I wanted Foster, but despite all my intuitions screaming at me to do it, and my prior success, I couldn't pull the trigger on him in the fourth round. By the fifth, it was too late. I had a very solid team, and took second place, but I was missing that one wildcard to put my squad over the top. I won't make that mistake again this year. The lesson: don't listen to all the other people, they're wrong! The preseason is important! And so are late-season, productive auditions. Without further ado, here are my...

2011 slam dunk sleepers.

1. Tim Hightower - Washington Redskins - ADP 39, provided by

No joke, I self-promote all my published articles. Thanks to Lieutenant Hightower, my friends and fantasy competitors won't be getting any text updates for this one. I want this guy. Bad! He is running amok in Washington this preseason. So much so, people are starting to catch on and forget all about Ryan Torrain. This is a good thing though, think Foster. Guys climb the ranks for a reason. The price will not catch up to the value, I promise. Hightower has said coach Mike Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme is similar to what he played under in college, and suits his one-cut, power running skills perfectly. Sure looks to be the case. Many owners are still high on Torrain because of the quality numbers he posted last year, but how high could his own coach be on him? Shanahan brought 129 running backs into camp, drafted two in April and traded for Hightower! I know the history this coach has of driving fantasy owner nuts with his rotations, but trust me, this is the guy. Top ten back guaranteed. Their offensive line looks terrific to boot.

2. Reggie Bush - Miami Dolphins - ADP 42, provided by

I can't believe I just typed that. You probably can't either. I've been burned by Bush in the past, as I'm sure many of you have too. Forget what you think you know. The former Heisman Trophy winner and number two overall pick has been a bust to this point in his NFL career. His move out of New Orleans might be just what the doctor ordered. He looks hungry for a fresh start, and an expanded roll. In his preseason debut Friday he looked very good running between the tackles, as well as doing his usual damage in the passing game. Miami has built a reputation as both an effective, and creative rushing team. Their offensive line was plowing open holes, without all-world left tackle Jake Long, and Bush figures to be the man running through them in 2011. The only competition he'll face for carries appears to be over-hyped rookie Daniel Thomas. He's a bigger guy who could get the majority of the goalline work and a share of the load, but this will prove beneficial to the smaller, fragile Bush. This will be his breakout year.

Two Guys to draft late for Value:

James Starks - Green Bay - ADP 36, provided by

Starks has been hurt the last week or so with an ankle injury, but it doesn't appear to be serious. It will simply slide his name down draftboards and increase his value. The sixth round draft pick out of Buffalo did essentially nothing in his rookie season last year, until playoff time rolled around. During the Packers' run to the Lombardi Trophy he served as their bell cow, toting the rock 81 times at a 3.89 yards-per-carry clip, with one touchdown. More than anything, my vote for Starks is a vote against returning starter Ryan Grant, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1 last year. Grant had three productive years in Green Bay, but the life of an NFL running back is a short and fickle thing. At 28 years old, coming off a devastating injury and subsequent surgery his time might be up. The Pack won the big one without him last year, and his slow start to the preseason is a sign of things to come. Take the youngster who earned his stripes against the league's stiffest competition.

Isaac Redman - Pittsburgh - ADP 75, provided by

While Starks' inclusion was a vote against his incumbent, the nod of Redman is not. I like Rashard Mendenhall just fine. This one is a gut feeling. Mendenhall had some minor injury issues in college at Illinois and essentially missed all of his rookie year in Pittsburgh after suffering a fractured shoulder in his first pro game. This year he's coming off a season in which he logged over 400 touches, regular and post-season combined, and his offseason Tweeting added some karmic baggage to shoulder. No pun intended. I'm not confident he'll hold up all year. Redman has looked like a beast in his early preseason action, very capable of handling the load if called upon. In limited duty last year he averaged 4.8 yards-per-carry. If he gets the chance to start, he'll run with it, literally.