I’m taking a deep dive into three of my favorite running back sleepers for 2017. By definition, the term “sleeper” means someone who has gone unnoticed and suddenly attains value. Well, that’s exactly what I’ve got for you here. Each of these guys might have been on your radar in the past, but have mostly been forgotten by the dynasty community. Now is the time to pounce on these players while the price is low and before they turn into the dynasty stars that we know they can become.
Mike Gillislee, Buffalo Bills
Mike Gillislee, New England Patriots
Mike Gillislee had perhaps the least talked about 8 touchdown season in the history of the NFL in 2016. Gillislee was great around the goal line, but he also excelled in brief stints filling in for the often injured LeSean McCoy, averaging 5.7 yards per carry (ypc) on the season. This was also the highest average ypc average for any running back in the NFL with more than 100 carries. This isn’t the first time Gillislee has shown what he can do either, as he averaged the same 5.7 ypc on 47 rushes in 2015.
The Patriots have picked up on this knowledge and have slightly exposed Gillislee to the rest of the world by signing the 26-year-old to an offer sheet. This deal will pay him a little more than $6 million over two seasons with $4 million of that coming in the first year. This offer was frontloaded to deter the Bills from matching the offer. Considering Buffalo already owes star LeSean McCoy around $9 million per year for the next three seasons, there was no way the team could match New England’s offer. At 4:00 on Monday afternoon, Gillislee was officially a member of the Patriots. Maybe this should not come as a surprise since New England similarly raided Buffalo signing former Bills WR Chris Hogan in the 2016 offseason.
My expectations have only increased with Gillislee now headed to New England. The Patriots have a plethora of pass catching backs on the roster such as James White, Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis, so their need is at short yardage and goal line. Belichick and company seemed to have hand picked Gillislee to take over this role, replacing Legarrette Blount. Blount did pretty well for himself in 2016, rushing for 1,161 yards and 18 TDs. Blount is now a 30-year-old free agent looking for a big contract thus New England decided to go with the younger guy. While he is much smaller than Blount’s 250-pound frame, Gillislee is more efficient inside the red zone, scoring TDs on 10.7% of his carries inside the 20-yard line. Blount scored on 9.2% of his similar touches inside the 20. Due to his increased coverage after signing in New England, Mike Gillislee might no longer be considered a true sleeper. Still, there is still a long ways to go before earning the trust of the ultimate fantasy killer, Bill Belichick.
Daniel Lasco, New Orleans
Part of my reasoning for liking Daniel Lasco stems from my great dislike of Mark Ingram. Ingram is regarded as a Top 10 back for fantasy purposes, though I think that value is significantly overstated. For starters, Ingram has topped 1,000 yards just once in his 6-year career. That 1,000 yard season came in 2016, which is also only the 2nd time in his career that he was healthy enough to play in all 16 games. Coach Sean Payton may be tiring on the 27-year-old Ingram as well, benching him in 2 games after fumbling issues last season. Ingram is signed through 2018, but New Orleans could cut him loose before next season with just $1.5 million in dead money. The 30-year-old Tim Hightower took a significant chunk of Ingram’s touches over the last 2 seasons, averaging 115 carries per year while scoring 8 TDs during that time. Fortunately, Hightower signed with San Francisco in the offseason.
Ok, back to my boy Lasco. He may have been a 7th round pick in the 2016 draft, but the former California Golden Bears standout has everything it takes to be a star in the NFL. At 6’1”, 205 lbs, he is the prototypical size you want in a power back. Lasco has also proven to be a three-down back while in college, rushing for more than 1,100 yards and catching 33 passes during his Junior season. The Saints carried five different running backs on their 53 man roster during 2016 so playing time for Lasco was sparse and came mostly on special teams. His season came to an abrupt halt when he suffered a hamstring injury in Week 8, ending his rookie year before it could begin. The most recent news is that Adrian Peterson has signed with New Orleans. This signing is a blow to Lasco’s immediate value but is probably worse for Ingram. Peterson is 32 years old and may be on his last legs. Regardless of this signing, I will continue to hold Lasco.
Darius Jackson, Cleveland Browns
Darius Jackson was one of my favorite players entering the 2016 rookie draft. He even ended up in one of the best landing spots for any rookie running back when he was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. This would have been great except that Dallas drafted that other guy named Zeke Elliott at #4 overall. Jackson first hit my radar when he dominated the scouting combine, running a sub 4.4 40-yard dash along with a 41-inch vertical jump. To put it into perspective, the 41-inch jump was the 6th best by a running back in the last 10 years. Doing this with his 6’0” 220 lb frame makes the feat even more impressive.
Jackson is an athletic freak at the very least, but can he play football? The Cowboys took a chance on him in the draft but released him to make room for Jerry Jones’ other man crush, Darren McFadden. Cleveland was quick to scoop him up off waivers after that.
In the video below, Darius Jackson puts on a show displaying his superb size and speed combo. Despite playing against inferior competition at Eastern Michigan, Jackson’s pure athleticism makes me believe he has what it takes to play in the NFL. At the :50 mark in the video, Jackson shows his power by taking a handoff and completely demolishing the opposing safety on his way to the end zone. Around 1:51, you’ll see his speed as he outruns the entire defense for a 64-yard score. My favorite part comes at 3:03 when Jackson lines up wide and catches a long bomb down the sideline. A running back must be able to catch out of the backfield in today’s NFL, and Darius Jackson can do just that!
As a Browns fan myself, I’ll be the first to admit that the words “Cleveland Browns” are not typically associated with the term “fantasy success.” Second year Head Coach Hue Jackson seems determined to change that by building one of the most dominant offensive lines in the league behind LT Joe Thomas. He is a future Hall of Famer and the cornerstone of the franchise itself. Cleveland was also able to resign LG Joel Bitonio while picking up C JC Tretter and RG Kevin Zeitler in free agency.
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block in my plan for Darius Jackson to succeed is the fact that the Browns currently have Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson on the roster. Crowell had a breakout season in 2016, rushing for 952 yards and 7 TDs. However, the 4th year back has yet to sign his restricted free agency tender and has not shown up for any of the voluntary workouts as of the time of this writing. Read into that what you want, but I smell a holdout.
Duke Johnson was a 3rd round pick in 2015, but Hue Jackson was not part of the regime that brought him to Cleveland. Many experts predicted a breakout for Johnson in 2016, but his role decreased in his second year when he received 31 fewer carries than he had in 2015. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think I see a legitimate opportunity for Darius Jackson to succeed in Cleveland.
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