It has come to our attention that many of you smarties are aggressively and purposefully avoiding all running backs in Rounds 3-6, having accepted that it is — as the kids are saying — the position's dead zone (RBDZ).
Without question, the running back pool beyond the upper tiers has always been a minefield. No argument there. Last year, the dead zone is where we talked ourselves into Mark Ingram, Le'Veon Bell, Devin Singletary, and various other bad ideas. In the same rounds, we could have been drafting Stefon Diggs, DK Metcalf, or Darren Waller. Um ... whoops.
However, we should also note that David Montgomery, D'Andre Swift, and Cam Akers* could be found in the RBDZ last season, and each of those guys contributed to title-winning fantasy rosters. So it's not accurate to say that everything in the dead zone is dead or dying. It's just a tough area of the draft in which to find backs who will outproduce the receivers selected in the same range.
(*OK, it's almost cheating to mention Akers here. He was a monster in the final weeks, but a total non-factor prior to November. He was dropped in hundreds of thousands of leagues, in fact, so the teams he carried to championships weren't necessarily the ones that drafted him.)
For our purposes here, we're going to look well beyond the RBDZ entirely. These names may or may not fit your definition of a "sleeper," whatever that is, but all of them slip past the top-100 picks in a typical Yahoo draft. Get 'em late if you're hunting upside options (which, of course, you should always be doing).
A.J. Dillon, Green Bay Packers
We were only treated to one game of full-workload Dillon last season, but that lone performance was all kinds of fun:
Dillon basically north-south'd the Titans defense into submission, rumbling for 129 total yards on 22 touches. He obviously won't serve as a workhorse runner for Green Bay this season after Aaron Jones re-signed with the team, but he's also more than a mere backup. Jamaal Williams averaged 155.5 touches per year for the Packers over the past four seasons, carving out a meaningful role alongside Jones.
At 245 pounds, Dillon somehow has 4.5-speed and a 41-inch vertical, so he's not really your standard human. It's easy to imagine him dominating in goal-to-go situations. (Aaron Rodgers threw seven 1-yard touchdowns last season and a dozen covering three yards or fewer, so it's not as if this team is always looking to steamroll defenses at the goal-line.) Dillon should be flex-worthy immediately, and he has win-your-week upside if or when Jones is sidelined.
Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys
Every point that applies to Dillon is relevant here as well. Pollard has enough of a supporting role behind Ezekiel Elliott to remain of interest for fantasy purposes — the team's head coach has already said as much. He handled 129 touches last season and we shouldn't expect his role to shrink. Pollard has rushed for 890 yards on 187 career carries (4.8 YPC), occasionally humiliating entire defenses:
We'd regularly rank Pollard as a top-10 back if Zeke missed time. You want him as a late flier, no question.
Malcolm Brown, Miami Dolphins
Most of us considered Myles Gaskin a huge offseason winner after the Dolphins failed to sign a brand-name free-agent back, then passed on the elite runners in the draft. But with one preseason game in the books, um ... uh-oh.
All of a sudden, Gaskin looks like he's something other than a featured runner.
Brown was on the field for most of Tua Tagovailoa's snaps in Miami's preseason opener, handling goal-line work (unsuccessfully) and catching his lone target. Gaskin ran behind Brown, while Salvon Ahmed ultimately had the most productive game (71 total yards, TD). Head coach Brian Flores says he likes 'em all.
It's certainly possible that August usage doesn't tell us anything about the regular season, but the simplest explanation here is that Brown will, in fact, get a fair amount of early down work. He's a bigger back than either Gaskin or Ahmed, arguably better suited to hold up over a full season of between-the-tackles running. If he's the goal-line/early down runner for Miami, he clearly deserves a place in the fantasy conversation.
Jamaal Williams, Detroit Lions
OK, we have now arrived at the fantasy-viable-running-backs-on-icky-teams portion of the article. If you play in the sort of smallish league in which you don't need to worry about the Lions or Texans backfield, look away. I'm certainly not going to give you a hard sell on Williams, a perfectly fine rotational back who was productive enough in Green Bay, if not unusually splashy. Instead, I'll just remind you that Lions head coach Dan Campbell absolutely loves the guy and it's clear Williams will have a non-trivial role in the offense.
Phillip Lindsay, Houston Texans
Sometimes, a preseason depth chart actually doesn't lie. Lindsay ran ahead of David Johnson in Houston's preseason opener, playing eight of the 10 snaps that went to starters. No one's gonna promise you a huge season from any Texans skill player, of course. But Lindsay has a pair of 1,000-yard rushing seasons on his resume and he's averaged 4.8 YPC over three NFL seasons. It's easy to make the case that he's simply a more effective runner than DJ at the moment. Johnson himself seems to have accepted the fact that his role will be significantly reduced.
Lindsay's ADP is guaranteed to rise in the weeks ahead, but, for now, he's a terrific value. We can't reasonably expect receiving volume — that's probably still DJ's department — but Lindsay has a path to 900-or-so yards on the ground.