When one plays in a point-per-reception league, there are several ways to build a championship-caliber team. One way that has proven to be the most consistently effective for this guy is to stock up on wideouts and target less heralded running backs with a penchant for catching passes.
In 2017, two of the top three backs are pass-catching phenoms in Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson. Owners picking beyond of the top three won’t have a snowball’s chance in you know where to land either of these dudes, and that is perfectly fine if you know how to make up the difference.
Unlike in roto fantasy baseball, where gamers must fill categories by drafting an eclectic blend of players with varied skill sets, most fantasy football setups do not require such a draft strategy. Consider this strategy to be something along the lines of “Zero RB Theory” but with a twist. It isn’t that you should be down on or looking to avoid top running backs, it’s that there is much more value in picking early at wideout and then back-filling the running backs with those who specialize in catching the rock.
Season-long totals are awesome and all, but it doesn’t matter if they come in just a few games (Jay Ajayi is a great example from last year). Sure, you’ll blow out an opponent an look like a rock star for a couple of games, but what are you doing in Week 16, hmm?
A quick look at the 2016 numbers:
- 21 RBs were targeted at least 50 times, and two-thirds caught at least 44 passes
- Only one of the 11 RBs to catch 50-plus balls failed to score a touchdown; those 10 backs combined to average 3 TDs
- Of the 13 backs to haul in 45 balls, each one averaged at least 5.8 PPR points per game just from their catching alone
- 11 of the 17 backs to average 3.0 or more receptions per game had 2016 ADPs later than Round 5
Target these backs in 2017 drafts
Since Week 6 seemed to be the starting point of finding PPR value last year, it becomes the somewhat arbitrary point in which to start our search.
Based on Average Draft Position (ADP) figures, in PPR drafts, we start seeing some potentially dynamic contributors coming into focus.
Bilal Powell, New York Jets (ADP: 6th round)
Powell is arguably the best pass catcher on the entire roster. This team is starved for wideouts, and while the quarterback play is sketchy, it shouldn’t be much of a concern for a running back. His biggest threat is a 300-year-old dinosaur with a billion miles on his legs in Matt Forte. Powell is a fine RB2 if you load up on receivers in the early going.
Danny Woodhead, Baltimore Ravens (ADP: 6th round)
Returning from serious injury at his age (32) is not ideal, but Woodhead has made a career of defying odds and catching swing passes along the way. Baltimore has nothing to speak of at tight end right now; those looks could go to Woodhead. Despite the injury risk, he should be a contender to lead his position in receptions as a second fantasy back.
Theo Riddick, Detroit Lions (ADP: 7th round)
Riddick is coming off dual wrist surgery but was nothing short of a gem in his 10 games played last season. He is the only running back to average at least five catches per game and scored more through the air (5) than Frank Gore did on the ground (4) in six fewer contests. As long as Riddick earns a clean bill of health by draft time, add him with full confidence as an RB2 or flex.
C.J. Prosise, Seattle Seahawks (ADP: 8th round)
Finally healthy, Prosise will be a fantasy asset in 2017. He enters Year 2 with a better grasp of the system and more time as a running back after being a converted receiver. The Seattle receiving corps remains suspect behind Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham, just waiting for someone to step up for a larger role. Prosise is an RB3 all day long and twice on Sundays.
Jamaal Charles, Denver Broncos (ADP: 8th round)
JC attempts to rise once again — OK, that was a touch too dramatic. He just needs to catch a few passes per game and stay on the field. Charles is a risk-reward buy in the middle of drafts. We know what he can do when healthy, and it isn’t exactly like Denver’s crop of backs are world-beaters. Be happy with anything exceeding flex value but guard against injury.
James White, New England Patriots (ADP: 9th round)
Only the aforementioned Bell and Johnson were targeted more at the position than White’s 86 looks. The Patriots have more weaponry this year, so look for his involvement to depreciate a tick. He is still a fine fit in this system, which has included pass-catching backs every year, to garner weekly flex attention.
Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns (ADP: 11th round)
Perhaps the best sleeper in this grouping, Johnson is at a clearance price. Cleveland threw to him 74 times last year, which was the fifth most in football for running backs. He has virtually no competition for third-down touches by other running backs on the roster, and the third-year back is poised for an even better season. He caught 53 balls without scoring — an anomaly. Cleveland’s wideouts are not appreciably better, either. Johnson is an RB3 with big upside.
Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals (ADP: 13th round)
Returning from the torn ACL will be the biggest hurdle. Bernard is a better blocker, at least right now, than Joe Mixon. The Bengals saw what happened last year when Andy Dalton went down to injury. By midseason, Gio will be in normal form and should have a healthy grasp on the third-down chores. He is a sneaky value buy as a fourth back for top-heavy squads.
Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles (ADP: 13th round)
The ageless scatback continues to get the job done. While he finished sixth in targets last year, gamers should anticipate a drop in production this season. There are more weapons in the offense, and Carson Wentz’s systemic understanding should alleviate the need for more checkdowns. Donnel Pumphrey could be Sproles’ biggest enemy as the coaching staff takes a look at the future of this position.
Chris Thompson, Washington Redskins (ADP: 14th round)
Thompson is so far under the radar that it must be built on top of him. The ‘Skins have endured tremendous turnover at wide receiver, losing its top two targets in the offseason. Jordan Reed is a wonderful weapon at tight end, but we all know he is made of glass. There will be a need for familiarity, which will lead Kirk Cousins to Thompson even more than the 62 times he was targeted in 2016. Few late-round PPR sleepers offer more room for profit.
Charles Sims, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ADP: 14th round)
In 2015, Sims was a top-20 PPR back. Last year, injuries robbed him from reprising his role, but he still finished T8 for per-game receptions (3.4) in his seven appearances. Doug Martin is a coin toss each year. O.J. Howard is special but a rookie. Sims has the trust of Jameis Winston, and gamers need to share that appreciation on draft day. Sims is a stout buy for an RB4, but beware of inconsistency.
Jalen Richard, Oakland Raiders (ADP: 15th round)
Another one of those late-round guys whose ceiling is sky high … Richard has a 31-year-old, human wrecking ball ahead of him — one that hasn’t played in more than a year. Marshawn Lynch will not be a regular three-down option in Oakland. This is where Richard comes in and can shine. Oakland’s passing game is begging for someone to step up behind Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. Richard is smart investment anytime after Round 10.
Donnel Pumphrey, Philadelphia Eagles (ADP: 15th round)
As mentioned before, Sproles, 34, is not getting any younger and could cede work to the rookie. Pumphrey was a do-everything back at San Diego State and is already jumping off the screen during offseason workouts. The coaching staff will find a creative way to use him — this is, after all, the same system to give us PPR masterpieces like Brian Westbrook, Darren Sproles, Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy.
T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP: 15th round)
Opportunity is important in fantasy football. Yeldon saw a lot of chances last year but failed to convert enough to excite gamers. Rookie Leonard Fournette is getting all of the fantasy love, and rightfully so in standard scoring, but Yeldon could be nearly as productive in PPR. Jacksonville threw to him 68 times, or seventh most for RBs, last year. He caught 50 balls, but for only 312 yards, and scored just once. Increase those latter two stats by a smidge to create a top-30 fantasy back at a bargain price.