Fantasy football owners are always looking for sleepers, though the definition of the word varies. Call them underranked, underdrafted, or simply potential steals, but one thing is certain — you need to hit on a few to win a fantasy championship. Running back sleepers are arguably the most important type to have circled on your draft cheat sheet, and thankfully, breakout RBs come in a variety of packages.
Things are no different in 2020, as it’s not hard to find more of these calculated dart throws. Rookies or younger backs behind shaky veterans — see Devin Singletary and Miles Sanders from 2019 — tend to be good sleeper targets. Whether they are potential RB2s or someone deeper in the rankings, it’s all about looking for potential opportunities.
DOMINATE YOUR DRAFT: Ultimate 2020 cheat sheet
At running back, there also tends to be attrition because of age or injuries, which open up the door for current backups to have bigger roles. Smart managers stash handcuffs with upside. Here are 16 potential breakouts to consider at various points during your draft:
2020 FANTASY SLEEPERS:
6 QBs | 14 WRs | 10 TEs | 5 D/STs | One from each team
Fantasy Football RB Sleepers
Darwin Thompson, Chiefs
With Damien Williams opting out, rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire is in the driver’s seat for feature touches. Although former Raider DeAndre Washington and Darrel Williams are also in the mix behind Edwards-Helaire, Thompson, who had considerable rookie buzz of his own at this time last year, still carries more upside than both. Washington is currently No. 2 on the depth chart, so Thompson must prove in camp that he can provide the best running and receiving juice behind Edwards-Helaire.
Joshua Kelley, Chargers
Austin Ekeler is the non-traditional feature back and despite his massive balanced production as a runner and receiver last season (224 touches, 1,550 scrimmage yards, 11 TDs), but he did it with hyperefficiency, averaging only 14 touches per game. Through his 204 touches in 12 games, current Bronco Melvin Gordon averaged 17 touches. So, there’s a good chunk of complementary power work to be had. Justin Jackson is getting the first crack at it. He has flashed at times filling in for Gordon, but he has limited pop and hasn’t proved to be durable. Kelley, in contrast, is an explosive rookie with fresh legs. With better upside, he carries the more ideal value behind Ekeler as a RB5.
2020 STANDARD FANTASY RANKINGS:
Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | D/ST | Kicker | Superflex | Top 200
Matt Breida, Dolphins
The Dolphins blew up their backfield in an unexpected way in 2020. Instead of investing in a promising rookie to replace the post-Kenyan Drake mess of Kalen Ballage, Patrick Laird and Myles Gaskin, they traded for the former 49er Breida and signed the former Eagle Jordan Howard. Howard, not much of a receiver, is tabbed for the early-down power duties, while Breida, with his speed and quickness, is the change of pace who can also provide outlet juice in the passing game.
Howard is set to see the red-zone work, which will give him a little more standard value because of TD potential, but Breida, for a spread-leaning offense that’s bound to be a bigger trailer than scorer, can get busy in PPR formats supplementing DeVante Parker, Preston Williams and Mike Gesicki. Given his big-play ability, Breida could potentially break out even more if he can stay healthy.
Alexander Mattison, Vikings
Mattison the rookie was as impressive as his founding-father sounding full name, He made the most of “his shot,” supporting and filling in for Dalvin Cook, turning 110 backup touches into 544 scrimmage yards and a TD in 13 games. Cook didn’t hold out from Minnesota’s camp looking for his desired new contract, but Cook, who averaged nearly 22 touches per game in 2019, still has yet to have a fully healthy season in the NFL. Mattison averaged 8.5 touches last season in an offense that will likely run around 48 percent of the time again.
Should health or money keep Cook off the field, Mattison would be immediately elevated to RB1 status, making him a must-have — and expensive — handcuff.
DRAFT STRATEGY AND RANKINGS TIERS:
Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Tight End | D/ST
Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Buccaneers
The offseason vibes haven’t been great for the rookie from Vanderbilt. He started his first training camp on the reserve/COVID-19 list, on top of hearing coach Bruce Arians saying he is comfortable with Ronald Jones as the Bucs’ lead back and Dare Ogunbowale resuming his receiving role to help Tom Brady. The team also signed LeSean McCoy Arians is concerned about trusting Vaughn, especially in pass protection. That said, Jones is nothing special, McCoy is ancient, and Ogunbowale has a limited skill set.
This seems like a backfield situation to avoid, but because of the offense’s high-scoring upside, Vaughn is worth a late-round stash because things can go quickly south for Jones.
Update: With the Buccaneers signing Leonard Fournette, Vaughn’s sleeper potential has taken a serious hit and he’s not worth drafting outside of dynasty formats.
Boston Scott, Eagles
This is a PPR alert for a back who seems ideal for the “Sproles Role” — confirmed by the fact Scott was drafted by one of Sproles’ former teams (the Saints) and now works for another. With Jordan Howard gone, second-year lead back Miles Sanders is in line to see 250-300 touches. Scott was key for the Eagles as a hybrid back down the stretch last season when their wide receiver corps was a depleted mess, and they would like to keep him involved as a unique cog for the passing game.
With Corey Clement still in the mix behind him, it would be a committee should Sanders go on the shelf as opposed to Scott seeing a suddenly expanded role, but in a prolific offense behind Sanders, Scott could easily get something like 100 carries and 50 catches, giving him flex appeal.
2020 PPR RANKINGS:
Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | Superflex | Top 200
Zack Moss, Bills
The rookie is an upgrade from Frank Gore in complementing Devin Singletary as a power runner. Singletary, who averaged 15 touches per games as a rookie, remains the speed/quickness back in the committee, and the Bills plan to keep him busy in the passing game for Josh Allen. Moss showed some complete skills at Utah and has underrated burst. He can both pound between the tackles and finish drives in the red zone, but he also can catch passes on early downs if needed.
Given this is a pretty situational split, Moss has some flex appeal and can raise his profile to an RB2 should Singletary have more durability issues.
Duke Johnson, Texans
David Johnson, coming over in the DeAndre Hopkins trade with Arizona, is tabbed to be Houston’s new lead back replacing Carlos Hyde, who replaced Lamar Miller. In Bill O’Brien’s offense, that role has usually meant around 250 touches per season, or an average of just fewer than 16 per game. Duke Johnson looked good with about half as many touches (127) during his first Texans season in 2019. David has shown signs of real wear and tear from his past heavy volume as a runner and receiver and will turn 29 in December. Duke is a couple years younger and always has been a timeshare back. Although he established himself as a great receiver in Cleveland, Duke doesn’t get enough credit for his pure running ability.
Duke probably is set for minimal role when David is healthy and effective all-around, but that’s far from guaranteed. Because of Duke, Deshaun Watson was willing to check down a lot more than usual. He’s a good fit for the scheme and the Texans shouldn’t mind trusting him should David not deliver in his big role.
Chase Edmonds, Cardinals
Kenyan Drake was brought back to remain Kliff Kingsbury’s lead back after he produced at a high level coming over in midseason to replace David Johnson. Edmonds, who had a flash as Johnson’s top backup before Drake was acquired, remains a strong No. 2 for 2020. Drake’s volume suggested the Cardinals would be OK giving him more than 300 touches, but keep in mind he never came close to that workload with the Dolphins.
The Cardinals did draft Eno Benjamin for further backfield insurance, but Edmonds looks like a good fit for Kingsbury to the point they would be fine with simply plugging him into a key role should Drake go on the shelf. File Edmonds under another premium handcuff, and keep Benjamin in mind should he look good early.
FANTASY DRAFT STRATEGIES:
Snake draft | Auction | Best ball | Dynasty | IDP
Antonio Gibson, Washington
Washington’s backfield has been thrown a training camp curveball with the release of Derrius Guice. Somehow, there’s still a camp crowd with Adrian Peterson, Peyton Barber, J.D. McKissic and Bryce Love. Then there’s also the rookie Gibson, a non-traditional option for Scott Turner’s offense as a running back/wide receiver hybrid. They want to see what Gibson can do catching passes in open field. The problem is, that may be lead to only a handful of touches because Gibson doesn’t offer the power option of either Peterson or Barber or well-rounded game of Love, coming off a major right knee injury. There also are some concerns about Gibson being trusted in the passing game when he’s not catching passes.
Where there’s some optimism for Gibson is that Washington is starved for impact receivers after Terry McLaurin with Steven Sims Jr. emerging as the next best option. With Chris Thompson gone, there are targets to be had to support them out of the backfield. It’s hard to see Gibson carving out too a big of a role unless the backfield committee gets really pared down, but given the unpredictability of this situation, everyone bears watching.
UPDATE: Peterson has been released by Washington, so Gibson has a great shot at taking on the heaviest workload in this backfield and should be moved up your rankings accordingly.
La’Mical Perine, Jets
With Frank Gore positioned behind Le’Veon Bell for Adam Gase, here’s digging even deeper for one final sleeper. The rookie Perine is third on the depth chart after Gore but ahead of Kenneth Dixon. Bell doesn’t exactly have a big fan in Gase and Gore is 37, coming off not doing much with the Bills. Perine is an excellent receiver who can hold his own on early downs. He’s a good late-round stash in deep PPR leagues.
MORE FANTASY FOOTBALL:
Auction values | IDP Rankings | Projections | Mock draft simulator | Team names
AJ Dillon, Packers
Dillon is an unusual talent. The rookie from Boston College comes in as a very effective power back with rare speed and explosiveness, but despite that burst, he offers little-to-nothing as a receiver. The key to Dillon’s value in Green Bay will be whether the team continues to carry Jamaal Williams behind Aaron Jones. Williams saw nine touches per game as an interchangeable fill-in for Jones across running and receiving situations, getting half as much work. There was some good receiving and red-zone production, but the dropoff came in not having the same big-run juice as Jones. That’s what Dillon can better provide, making him the higher-upside handcuff to Jones.
Damien Harris, Patriots
Sony Michel, on the physically unable to perform list now, could be shelved for a while with a foot injury. The team just signed Lamar Miller, 29 and a year removed from a major knee injury. Rex Burkhead is a good swing reserve, but he turned 30 in July. Brandon Bolden opted out for the season. That leaves James White in his unchanged primary receiving role. Harris, after an invisible rookie season, has every opportunity to work himself into the power back mix. It’s hard to read whether the Patriots have any confidence in him to get significant carries in Year 2. Harris has a wide range of outcomes, from replacing Michel to being buried on the depth chart again.
Ryquell Armstead, Jaguars
The Jaguars didn’t pick up Leonard Fournette’s option for next season. In transitioning to Jay Gruden’s offense, they also got Gruden’s favorite back, Chris Thompson, to cut big time into Fournette’s heavy receiving work from last season. Thompson’s arrival is a big dent to what Armstead could do as a Fournette fill-in. He’s now looking at a limited backup power back role. But given Thompson’s shaky durability history and the fact Fournette might be traded at some point, Armstead makes sense a lottery-ticket RB5.
UPDATE: The Jaguars released Leonard Fournette on Aug. 31, pushing Armstead into the presumed starter’s role. That raises his value to a borderline RB2 with the upside for more if no back emerges to really challenge him. Devine Ozigbo and rookie James Robinson also have value as late-round sleepers.)
UPDATE 2: Armstead will miss the start of the season after being placed on the COVID-19 reserve list. He still has potential value upon returning to the field, so he’s worth holding onto until then.
Anthony McFarland, Steelers
The Steelers aren’t sold on James Conner being a workhorse after seeing him break down with multiple injuries last season. Benny Snell Jr. looked OK as a power back, and Jaylen Samuels conrtibuted as a mildly effective receiver. The Steelers liked the home-run ability of Kerryth White in limited work. Knowing all that, they drafted McFarland, also a speed- and quickness-oriented back. McFarland can reel off long runs, but he isn’t built for pounding and needs to develop in the passing game. With the Steelers wanting to ease Conner’s load with less of Snell and learning toward cutting Samuel, McFarland’s rookie upside makes him best RB6 choice of the bunch behind Conner.
Ito Smith, Falcons
Smith was a major disappointment in trying to be the new Tevin Coleman for Devonta Freeman last season. He looked good in limited work, but he was operating in Dirk Koetter’s ineffective rushing offense with shaky blocking and a neck injury limited him to seven games. Now he’s the default No. 2 back to Todd Gurley, who is no longer the bastion of durability. Smith isn’t a particularly inspiring handcuff in a pass-happy offense where he won’t catch much, but it seems likely some backup Atlanta RB will get significant touches at some point this season. Brian Hill is also in the mix.