Top 5 sleeper RBs who woke up in time for the 2017 fantasy season

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May 23, 2017 by coachcarter717

(Courtesy of Getty Images)

Written by Carter Cotrupi

Come one and come all to the grand adventure that is Coach Carter’s really early Fantasy Football predictions for the 2017 season (the official title is a work in progress).

Call this a hot take because I am predicting 2017 to be the year of the running back. With the introduction of rookie of the year Ezekiel Elliot last season and the recent RB draftees, the 2017 NFL season should be littered with offensive production largely due to the number of great running backs available to play. Second only to the quarterback in the number of times they touch the ball, running back’s play help determine the play-style and pace of the offense on a weekly basis.

If there is one thing you can count on in your fantasy draft this year, it’s that Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliot and David Johnson will be snatched up in standard leagues faster than you can say “auto-draft,” but what happens when you’re stuck with the seventh pick out of fourteen people? Who should you look at while your work buddy with the third pick spams the group chat with “16-0” chants after landing Antonio Brown?

Believe it or not, there are ways to win your fantasy league without loading up on the biggest names available. A smart fantasy owner shines in the third round after all the elite talent is seemingly off the board.

There were running backs that no one had ever heard of prior to last season. Some of these players came off the bench after many seasons of waiting to shine while others went undrafted and showed coaches around the league why they deserved to hear their names called alongside their peers.

To prepare for those dreaded middle rounds in your fantasy draft, I have made a list (in no particular order) of the top five running backs who made their presence known last season. More specifically, these are the running backs who started the 2016 Season out of the top-20 rankings for fantasy production.

1.Tevin Coleman

Pros: Let’s all be honest: no one expected Tevin Coleman to compliment the Falcon’s offense as well as he did last season. Sitting in the shadow of Devonta Freeman, Coleman made the best of his limited touches in 2015. Clearly, he impressed the coaching staff enough to earn more playing time alongside Freeman in 2016. Not only did Coleman show off his versatility as a pass-catcher, he competed for red-zone carries all season with Freeman. From a fantasy perspective, Coleman was a constant headache to any Freeman owners in their leagues.

(Courtesy of Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports)

Cons: Coleman is Atlanta’s RB2 with RB1 potential on any other team. The flip side to his positive fantasy value is the likelihood of it being tethered to Freeman’s production once again. That is why they call it a running back “committee.” Common sense will lead you to pick up Freeman before Coleman nine times out of ten.

Two Cents: Neither Freeman or Coleman are workhorse running backs. At the end of the day, they are part of a committee and both deserve their places among the projected top 20 running backs this year. This pick is more tailored for those of us that get stuck with the middle of the snake in the draft. One more pick spent on drafting Freeman means a better chance at grabbing Coleman when he falls into the mid-3rd-4th rounds. You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who would hesitate on drafting Coleman if he should fall past the 4th round. Any player that contributed to last season’s top offense in the league has a good chance to make another impact in 2017.

2. Jordan Howard

Pros: In his rookie season, Jordan Howard started as nothing more than a waiver-wire pickup for deeper leagues. By the end of the year, Howard was putting up consistent top-10 RB fantasy points. After Chicago let Matt Forte walk off to New York, Jeremy Langford was expected to be the star of the show. However, Langford got sidelined early and Howard possessed the better strength and endurance needed to withstand the high workload that comes with being a feature back.

(Courtesy of Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune)

Cons: The unstable quarterback situation in Chicago means that John Fox’s playbook should read “Give the ball to Howard” for the second-straight season. Everyone has their limits, and my concern is that the Bears are desperate to break into the playoff scene and could overwork their young star running back if they cannot find a group identity on offense. The 2017 Bears are without Alshon Jeffrey and feature lifelong backup QB Mike Glennon under center.

Two Cents: Howard’s skill-set transcends John Fox’s ridiculous draft strategy this year and he should be seriously looked at as a solid tier-2 rusher with elite potential. Even if the Bears stay as lukewarm as they were last season, Howard should get enough carries each game to cement his RB1/2 status. Simply put, Bears fans can throw away their Jay Cutler voodoo dolls and start working on building some personal shrines dedicated to the future of the franchise that is Jordan Howard.

3. Jay Ajayi

Pros: “Arian Foster is the key to the Dolphins offense in 2016,” they said. Well, four games, 55 yards rushing and a leg injury meant an early retirement for the veteran RB. In stepped the English-Nigerian Jay Ajayi and the rest was history. Fantasy owners (like me) who missed on picking up Ajayi after Foster’s career-ending injury had to endure the sight of the second-year RB becoming only the fourth player in NFL history to rush over 200 yards in three games in a single season.

(Courtesy of Bill Ingram/The Palm Beach Post)

Cons: Ajayi is not shy about his desired production going into next season. Chances are he will not be available after the third round in your draft, unless you play in a three-man league. Miami’s offense was on fire last season and has retained many of the key pieces that contributed to their playoff-bound squad. Ajayi’s third 200-yard game came at the expense of Ryan Tannehill’s injury that caused the signal-caller to miss the last few games of their season. With Tannehill back alongside his receiving weapons, Miami could look to spread out the offense to keep from wearing out their star rusher (keyword, “could”).

Two Cents: After David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliot and Le’Veon Bell are off the board, Ajayi should be next. He is knocking on the door to the elite club and 2017 could be the year when he gets the password to enter.

4. Melvin Gordon III

Pros: There was heavy praise heaped on Melvin Gordon after he fell just 41 yards shy of breaking Barry Sanders’ all-time FBS single-season rushing record in 2014. When he was drafted in 2015 by the Chargers, everyone waited anxiously to see what the former Wisconsin Badger would achieve in his rookie season. Gordon delivered an average starting rookie performance before sustaining a season-ending knee injury. Expectations were low once it was revealed that veteran Danny Woodhead would take the starting role heading into the 2016 season. After Woodhead tore his ACL in Week 2, Gordon took over and never looked back.

(Courtesy of Bret Davis/USA TODAY Sports)

Cons: In just two NFL seasons, Gordon has sustained multiple knee and hip injuries. While not quite classified as “injury prone,” caution should be used when drafting Gordon as an RB1/2 in the 2nd-3rd round. If Keenan Allen is any indication, the Chargers have a recent history of losing star players in key seasons.

Two Cents: Melvin Gordon is one of the only players on the LA Chargers roster that you can trust to put up consistent fantasy value. He is a riskier top-10 RB1 pick that comes with a high ceiling if he can stay healthy all season. Look for him to go by the end of the 3rd round and don’t think twice about taking him if he falls into the 4th.

5. Robert Kelley

Pros: Affectionately nicknamed “Fat Rob”, undrafted rookie Rob Kelley bulldozed his way through a few productive games last season as a starter for the Washington Redskins in place of the injured veteran Matt Jones. His best performance came from an improbable 42-24 victory over the Green Bay Packers, where he rushed for 137 yards and three touchdowns, expanding his ceiling and highlighting his starting potential. Redskins head coach Jay Gruden says the plan is to start Kelley behind Kirk Cousins on the first-string offense going into 2017.

(Courtesy of Jason Behnken/AP)

Cons: Also according to Gruden, Chris Thompson, veteran backup for Washington, will remain in his primary third-down and pass-catching roles which will slightly cut into Kelley’s fantasy numbers depending on the opponent. If Kelley is not able to replicate production similar to the Green Bay game as a starter, he could be at risk to split time more time with Thompson and Matt Jones who, despite his fumbling issues, remains on the depth chart with nowhere to go but up.

Two Cents: Barring a serious injury or slump in play, Kelley is unlikely to face Jones as serious competition for the time being. With Kirk Cousins auditioning for his free agency status in 2018, you can expect a high level of intensity coming out of this offense. Kelley is the ground-and-pound running back necessary to wear down an opposing defense, so expect Fat Rob to get his fair share of carries. RB2 projected to go in the 3rd-4thround.

Stay tuned for more top 5 lists for the 2017 Fantasy Football season!

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