7 PPR RB Sleepers
Are you ready for a thrilling list of RBs who are going to win you a 2020 fantasy football championship?!?
Well, sorry. That’s not what you’re about to find.
What you will find below, though, is a group of RBs with chances to play prominent receiving roles -- the kind that leave you surprised at the end of the season by just how high they finished.
Duke Johnson disappointed vs. expectation in 2019, but his 44-410-3 receiving line pushed him to RB35 in PPR, despite Johnson ranking just 49th among RBs in carries.
Royce Freeman delivered 4 half-PPR starter weeks and topped 11 PPR points 7 times thanks largely to his 43 receptions. He caught 4+ passes in 7 contests.
James White has finished 23rd and 7th among PPR backs the past 2 years, despite not reaching 100 carries in either campaign.
None of those 3 guys shows up in the list below. But you can find similar players with receiving profiles that present upside well beyond their draft prices.
Matt Breida, Dolphins
ADP: 8.10 (RB43)
Breida says he’s the fastest player in the NFL … and last year’s stats back his claim. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, no one beat his top speed of 22.3 mph on an 83-yard TD run against the Browns.
More importantly, though, the Dolphins traded a 5th-round pick to acquire this former undrafted free agent in April. They added him to a backfield that allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick to lead the team in rushing last season. Fellow import Jordan Howard, meanwhile, has seen his receptions per game decrease in each of his 4 seasons. Howard went from a high point of 1.9 catches per contest as a 2016 rookie to just 1.0 per outing with the Eagles last year.
Breida ranked 37th (among 62 qualifying RBs) in Football Outsiders’ receiving DVOA as a 2017 rookie. He then checked in 2nd in that category in 2018 and would have ranked 13th last year if he’d caught enough passes to qualify.
Miami has seen WRs Albert Wilson and Allen Hurns opt out for the coming season, freeing up a sneaky number of targets in an offense that only returns 2 players who saw more than 62 looks last year. Wilson ranked 3rd on last year’s team with 62 looks while Hurns checked in 5th at 47, and they missed a combined 5 games.
Breida should easily lead the backfield in receiving, and he’s been no slouch as a runner. Breida ranked 5th among RBs in FO’s rushing DVOA as a rookie and then 23rd in 2018, beating Howard in each of those seasons. (Howard topped Breida in 2019.)
Nyheim Hines, Colts
ADP: 13.01 (RB52)
There’s a crowded backfield in Indy, but Hines still looks like the best receiving bet among Colts backs. Marlon Mack’s receptions per game have declined in each of HC Frank Reich’s 2 seasons, down to just 1 catch per outing last year. And that came on a Colts team with no player topping 72 targets. (Jack Doyle and Zach Pascal tied for the lead.)
We’re optimistic for rookie Jonathan Taylor to see more receiving usage than he did through most of his college career. But Taylor’s top season in that category found him ranking just 5th among Badgers with 26 receptions in 2019.
Hines didn’t prove particularly efficient as a receiver last year, but Reich doesn’t sound like he’s planning to drastically alter the young RB’s role.
“We know how it goes – that Nyheim (Hines) could go a couple of games with a relatively small amount of touches and then all of a sudden, he has 10 catches in one game,” Reich said in May. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there is a game this year that Nyheim Hines has 10 catches.”
That number is probably a bit of coachspeak, but Reich also said new (old) QB Philip Rivers has “an uncanny ability to get the ball to the backs” in the passing game. Rivers figures to supply more checkdowns than Jacoby Brissett -- and perhaps a lot more.
In his 2 seasons as fill-in starter, Brissett has totaled 73 scrambles (36.5 per year). Rivers has averaged just 10.5 scrambles per season for his career, with fewer than 10 in each of the past 5 years. And Rivers has combined that with good sack avoidance. Checking down to his RBs has played a big role.
Rivers’ Chargers ranked top-11 in RB target share 4 of the past 5 years -- including #1 in 2019.
Chris Thompson, Jaguars
ADP: 16.03 (RB62)
Thompson has caught at least 35 passes for 5 straight years, despite missing 3+ games in 4 of those. He spent that whole time working under Jay Gruden (minus 6 weeks after Washington fired Gruden last year).
Now the former Washington HC is coordinating the Jacksonville offense, and the Jags signed the back who has averaged 3.4 receptions per contest under Gruden. That climbed to 3.9 over the past 3 seasons.
The Jaguars threw a whopping 100 targets at Leonard Fournette in 2019. It’s no surprise that he ranked 5th among RBs in receptions. But Football Outsiders rated Fournette just 42nd among 49 qualifiers in receiving DVOA. Pro Football Focus graded him just 45th at the position in receiving, with his lowest grade in 3 seasons.
Washington threw more than 21% of targets to RBs each of the past 3 years. Jacksonville has sent even more that way over the same span, ranking top-10 in RB target share each of those seasons. Don’t be surprised if Thompson beats Fournette in targets per game this year.
Jamaal Williams, Packers
ADP: 17.03 (RB63)
We have Williams projected 20 spots higher in our PPR rankings than his current ADP at the position. The only way we’ll be that wrong on our outlook is if the Packers plan to simply marginalize a guy that played a pretty big role in 2019 and lean heavily on AJ Dillon.
The rookie is certainly likely to have a significant role after Green Bay grabbed him in Round 2, but Dillon caught just 21 passes over 3 seasons as a workhorse back at Boston College. So he’s not likely to be a factor in that area.
Williams, meanwhile, barely trailed Aaron Jones in receiving usage through most of last season. Over his 13 healthy games, Williams averaged 3.4 targets. Jones averaged 3.6. He scored all 6 of his TDs from inside the red zone, including 4 TD catches from inside the 10-yard line. His 11.2 PPR points per game ranked 34th among RBs.
Williams likely won’t repeat that TD rate in 2020 and figures to lose opportunities to Dillon. But his current ADP says he’ll be a non-factor, leaving only upside.
Antonio Gibson, Washington
ADP: RB51 early in Round 11 in FFPC; early Round 15 in BB10s as WR
No one really knows what Gibson’s role will look like this year. How could you? This is a different type of prospect, a speedster who delivered as a runner, receiver and kick returner at Memphis last year -- but also barely touched the ball in college. Gibson totaled just 44 receptions and 33 rushing attempts across 2 seasons with the Tigers.
Washington, though, chose Gibson with the 2nd pick of Round 3 and announced him as a RB. Only 6 backs left the board before Gibson. RBs with much more college touches and production -- such as Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Zack Moss and Darrynton Evans -- went behind him.
HC Ron Rivera said shortly after the draft that Gibson’s “got a skill set like Christian (McCaffrey).” Of course, no one worth listening to would say that we should expect Gibson to come close to McCaffrey’s career arc. McCaffrey was a much more productive college back and a top-10 NFL Draft pick. But the comparison of their skill sets points to the coaching staff’s optimism for Gibson and likely motivation to get him on the field.
The other factor helping Gibson’s opportunity is his situation. Washington’s RB depth chart appears led by Derrius Guice and Adrian Peterson: one a 3rd-year back with just 49 total touches through 2 seasons; the other a 35-year-old. Washington’s lead receiving back of the past 5 years, Chris Thompson, has moved on to Jacksonville. The entire roster returns just 2 players who cracked 50 targets last season: WR Terry McLaurin (93) and WR Steven Sims (56).
So it’s easy to see Gibson’s path to upside. His draft price could differ widely by format, though. The rookie is going 51st among RBs in FFPC ADP so far, early in Round 11. In BestBall10s drafting, meanwhile, Gibson carries a WR designation. His ADP there sits early Round 15. That makes Gibson a strong value, especially because his hybrid skill set provides 2 paths to regular touches.
At either level, Gibson carries value potential vs. his initial cost.
Jalen Richard and Lynn Bowden, Raiders
Check our RB rankings page, and you’ll see “N/A” for the ADP on each of these Vegas receiving backs. That’s because you need to be in a deep draft for either to come off the board at all. And that kind of format is where they make sense.
Neither Richard nor Bowden is likely to become a player you will consider for a weekly lineup. But there’s room for either to draw decent receiving volume for best-ball leagues.
The Raiders let DeAndre Washington walk in free agency after he ranked 2nd among the team’s RBs in targets last season. Washington’s 41 sat just 2 behind Richard’s team lead. Josh Jacobs ranked 3rd and checked in 47th among all RBs. Perhaps the Raiders give him more passing-game work in his 2nd season … but perhaps they don’t.
Vegas gave Richard a 2-year extension this offseason and then spent a 3rd-round pick on Bowden. The Kentucky alum spent last year as a QB after moving over from WR, but the Raiders plan to play him at RB. And just this month, OC Greg Olson indicated they plan to move Bowden around the formation. In doing so, he of course mentioned Taysom Hill -- because that’s what coaches are contractually required to do this offseason.
There’s likely not room for consistent Bowden touches in 2020. But the plan for a varied role makes him attractive as a late best-ball pick and worth watching as a potential waiver option.
Richard, meanwhile, has led 2 straight Raiders backfields in targets. That included drawing 81 looks in 2018, HC Jon Gruden’s 1st year. I don’t believe that kind of ceiling remains for Richard. But he’s worth an end-of-draft look in a deep PPR league.