The offseason is in full swing, which means the fantasy football community is busy trying to find this year’s running back sleepers. While you can build the foundation for your team in the draft, leagues are won and lost on the waiver wire. The best way to avoid having to deal with the waiver rush is to beat everyone to the punch and roster players that have a path to outperforming expectations. This doesn’t mean that the five aforementioned players will have breakout seasons, just that the possibility exists.
Note that, in order to qualify for this list, the player had to have an ADP outside of the top 150. If you’re looking to find someone like Michael Carter or Trey Sermon on this list, they are not here because they are currently being drafted within the first 15 rounds of 10-team leagues. Also, note that all ADP data was taken from FantasyData.com, and some variation in ADP is inevitable depending on where you look.
Fantasy Football: Five Running Back Sleepers For 2021 NFL Season
Ty Johnson (ADP: 248)
Considering his price, I am going to be owning a lot of Ty Johnson in 2021. The New York Jets backfield is an absolute disaster right now, but somebody will have to emerge from the pack. While it is far from a popular opinion, I believe that somebody will be Maryland’s Ty Johnson. The former Detroit Lion played very well in limited snaps last year, averaging a healthy 4.7 yards per carry on 54 totes and finishing with a respectable 69.1 PFF grade. By comparison, J.K. Dobbins had a 72.0 PFF grade last year.
Johnson obviously isn’t going to set the rushing record, but he has a very easy path to the lead role in a decent offense. Zach Wilson should be an upgrade on Sam Darnold, Robert Saleh is undoubtedly an upgrade on Adam Gase, and improved weapons in the passing game mean longer drives and more scoring opportunities. Johnson beat La’Mical Perine down the stretch for touches last year, and all he has to do is be better than the corpse of Tevin Coleman and a Day 3 rookie in Michael Carter. Seeing as he is basically free, this is a risk well worth taking.
Big 2021 for Ty Johnson? Seems like a scheme fit in the new #Jets offense pic.twitter.com/rkYsFgLAPO
— NYJ MIKE (@NyjMike) March 8, 2021
Wayne Gallman (ADP: 165.3)
No matter who it is, “San Francisco 49ers starting running back” is always a fantastic tool in fantasy football. The only problem is trying to figure out who that guy might be on a week-by-week basis. Kyle Shanahan loves to switch around his running backs, but Gallman has a fairly clear path to playing time.
With Jeff Wilson injured, the only other veteran of note on the roster is Raheem Mostert. The San Francisco 49ers can save over $3 million in cap space by cutting the speedy veteran, which would Gallman the veteran leader on the depth chart. Even if Mostert remains with the team, he’s entering his age-29 season and has never had more than 137 carries in a single season.
Of course, there is the x-factor of third-round rookie Trey Sermon. If Sermon hits the ground running, he could very well earn the backup spot behind Mostert. However, historically speaking, players selected in the back of the third round need some time before they’re ready to contribute. We know Gallman is a solid NFL running back – he played well in relief of Saquon Barkley last year – and betting on Sermon immediately being better than Gallman is betting on Sermon being an outlier. While the rookie will probably see more work towards the end of the season, Gallman should receive plenty of early-season opportunities.
Wayne Gallman puts the @Giants ahead! #TogetherBlue
📺: #NYGvsPHI on NFLN/FOX/PRIME VIDEO
📱: https://t.co/W5bCPYgMfo pic.twitter.com/9EFMwBZK0t
— NFL (@NFL) October 23, 2020
Giovani Bernard (ADP: 151.4)
Throughout his time with the New England Patriots, Tom Brady always had a reliable pass-catching back. That option wasn’t there during his first season in Tampa Bay, but that didn’t stop Brady from throwing to his running backs. Tampa Bay running backs combined for 118 targets last year, and almost all of them looked hideous. Ronald Jones finished as PFF’s worst receiving back in the league, and Leonard Fournette wasn’t far behind him. As the cherry on top, both players also ranked near the bottom in pass blocking, which is a very important trait when your quarterback is entering his age-44 season.
Even at his advanced age, Giovani Bernard is still the best receiving back on this roster. The former Bengal finished his final year in Cincinnati with 47 receptions for 355 yards and three touchdowns, and he’s no slouch between the tackles. He should see the vast majority of the third-down work, and that role will always have value with Brady at quarterback. Don’t forget, it was only three years ago that James White finished as the RB7 in PPR.
Next man up! The O-Line and Giovani Bernard were #BetterTO53THER in Sunday's win! @FifthThird | #SeizeTheDEY pic.twitter.com/HKgUSfCIKc
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) November 4, 2020
Sony Michel (ADP: 164.1)
Picking Sony Michel is admittedly a longshot, but hear me out. If Michel stays on the Patriots, then I don’t think he will do much of anything for fantasy football. However, there is a pretty decent chance he doesn’t end up on the Patriots at the start of the season. New England is one of the favorites to land Julio Jones, and some rumors across the league believe that the Patriots are offering a second-round pick and Michel in exchange for the perennial All-Pro. If this deal ends up going down, then Michel should be a very important piece of a high-scoring offense.
While Michel doesn’t have the best reputation in the fantasy football community, he’s actually coming off of a pretty strong season. While injuries limited him to just nine games, he averaged 5.7 yards per carry and would have been PFF’s RB9 if he had enough snaps to qualify. If that version of Michel makes his way to Atlanta, he could easily put up a solid fantasy season.
Kalen Ballage (ADP: 238)
Look…I know. Nobody wants to play Kalen Ballage in 2021, and with good reason. The Pittsburgh Steelers running back is a very unremarkable talent, and the team just used a first-round pick to take over the backfield. Najee Harris will be a fantasy-relevant player this year, but head coaches love to make their rookies earn playing time. Jonathan Taylor is obviously better than Jordan Wilkins, but the two were splitting snaps for the majority of the early season.
Mike Tomlin loves to use a workhorse back, and that could very well be Ballage in the first few weeks of the season. Targets matter more than anything else in fantasy football (especially in PPR leagues), and Roethlisberger simply doesn’t have the arm to stretch the field, which means more targets for the running backs. I’m not saying that Ballage will even be an RB2, but he could be a fine flex play in the early parts of the season. Considering you have to give up literally nothing to get him, he’s not a bad option in league with multiple flex spots.
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