Written by: Cody Manning
The running back position is the arguably the most important position on fantasy football rosters. It is very important that owners find two to three (depending on if your league has a flex position) backs that they can count on every week to put up consistent numbers throughout the season. You can find two quality guys in the upper half of your draft, but injuries happen, as well as players not living up to expectations. That’s why you want to hopefully land some steals when you round out the bottom part of your roster. If you can land a player that explodes on the fantasy scene, not only does it make your roster better, but you can also plug and play that player if a starter gets hurt or is having an inconsistent season. While players like Jerick McKinnon, Alex Collins, and Kenyan Drake are the popular sleeper picks, I look at three lesser-known backs that I think could potentially pay off as the season heads towards the playoffs for fantasy leagues.
Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears
The human joystick– that’s the nickname that Tarik Cohen earned prior to coming into the NFL last season. He showed flashes of his potential throughout his rookie season, finishing with 370 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns, 53 receptions, 353 receiving yards, and a receiving touchdown. According to PFF, Cohen lead all running backs by having the highest percentage of runs that went for 15+ yards. His explosive playmaking ability has the Chicago Bears new head coach, Matt Nagy, being quoted as saying he’s “giddy” about what Cohen can do within his offense. After taking advantage of Tyreek Hill’s and Kareem Hunt’s abilities in Kansas City, I am sure Nagy has big plans for his young back in 2018.
While Jordan Howard is the presumed lead back in Chicago, Howard does have his issues with catching the ball. Because of this, Cohen should see plenty of opportunities to see the ball thrown his way. I do believe Cohen has more value in PPR leagues compared to standard scoring leagues, so depending on your league format, don’t reach too high for him if you’re not going to get any points when he catches the ball. I look at Cohen like Darren Sproles: he may not get a lot of rushing yards for you, but he can put up some big numbers in the air. With an ADP that places him in the 7th round, if you get to that point of your draft and you need a back, then I wouldn’t hesitate to draft Cohen on your roster.
Corey Clement, Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles found themselves a steal in their UDFA out of Wisconsin in Corey Clement. Prior to last season, the team didn’t expect much out of the young back, but as the season went on, Clement found himself a role within the offense and was a big part of their successful 2017 campaign. Clement’s rookie numbers included 321 rushing yards, 4 rushing touchdowns, 10 receptions, 123 receiving yards, and 2 receiving touchdowns. During the biggest game of the year, the Super Bowl, he had a memorable performance when he finished 108 total yards and a touchdown as the Eagles went on to win the Lombardi Trophy. Since then, the organization saw LeGarrette Blount leave in free agency which cemented Clement as the number two back on the roster behind Jay Ajayi. The Eagles used a running back by committee last year and should use both backs throughout the 2018 season.
While Ajayi will enter the season as the lead back, if he doesn’t seize the role, then I expect Clement to have a bigger role as the season goes on. Ajayi is entering the final year of his contract, so unless he is having a stellar season, the Eagles may want to groom Clement for 2019 as we head towards the end of this year. Ajayi also does have his past health concerns with his knees and if they resurface, then that will push more touches Clement’s way. I wouldn’t draft Clement with the expectations that he will be in the starting lineup early in the season, but with the intention that he will explode as the season goes on. With an ADP that places him in the 10th round of fantasy football drafts, he could be a steal for owners that pull the trigger on him as they round out that bottom part of their roster.
Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos selected Royce Freeman during the third round of this year’s NFL Draft. Freeman was a 4-year starter at Oregon. During his college career, he had 5,621 total rushing yards, 60 rushing touchdowns, 79 receptions, 814 receiving yards, and 4 receiving touchdowns. Prior to the draft, they cut C.J. Anderson, who has been their lead back over the last few years. Because of this, there is an open competition in the Broncos backfield that will be going on during training camp and preseason. Freeman enters a great situation where he could see tons of touches during his rookie season. Freeman will be battling with Devontae Booker and De’Angelo Henderson for the lead role.
Booker is expected to enter training camp as the number one back, but, he has had opportunities in the past and never really seized the opportunity when it was presented to him. Broncos head coach, Vance Joseph, has been quoted saying that Freeman can absolutely win the lead job. This situation will need to paid attention to as the preseason progresses. I view Freeman as a player that could be the Broncos starter Week 1 or may have to split duties in a running back by committee role at the beginning of the season. As we go through the season and he gets more comfortable in the offense, I think he will end up demanding most of the touches out of the backfield. Fantasy football owners may jump at the rookie names like Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice, and Rashaad Penny, but may regret overlooking the lesser known Freeman as the owner that takes him may have found himself a potential fantasy Rookie of the Year nominee.