Seasoned best ball drafters know the feeling: The panic creeping in after missing out on mid-round running backs -- more and more are calling them Dead Zone RBs -- you had eyed as potential values.
You sweated out the middle rounds, hoping and praying your running back stayed on the board, only to have him sniped by a fellow dastardly Dead Zone drafter. Now you’re left with what one might call late-round dart throw running backs -- guys with no guarantee of anything beyond spotty regular season usage outside an injury to their backfield’s starter.
Deciding which late-round running back to draft can often feel like a process-less exercise. And yes, sometimes it is exactly that. But there are environments and backfield situations that make some late-round backs (far) better than others. Some might not be obvious to best ball drafters who don’t pore over post-NFL Draft news and nuggets from OTAs.
We know backs like Tony Pollard and Alexander Mattison are in line for hefty workloads if the starters ahead of them miss time in 2022. Mattison (tenth round ADP) and Pollard (seventh round ADP) aren’t exactly late-round guys for that reason. The same goes for Melvin Gordon and Rhamondre Stevenson, ninth round running backs who would inherit a mouth watering role in their representative backfields under the right circumstances. Ronald Jones, Kareem Hunt, Dameon Pierce, James Cook: All of these backs have their upside partially baked into their average draft positions in best ball leagues.
Below are three running backs going in the 12th round or later who have excellent chances to emerge as what we in the industry call “league winners.”
Tyler Allgeier (ATL)
Underdog ADP: 152.8
In his first season at the helm, Falcons head coach Arthur Smith was unable to establish the run the way he did as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator. Atlanta had the league’s fifth highest pass rate while leading (57 percent) and their leading rush was a converted wideout who totaled a mere 618 yards on the ground. Following years of an unapologetically run-first approach as the Titans play caller, I think we can write off 2021 as an outlier for Smith. There’s nothing to indicate he’s seen the analytical light.
ESPN’s Michael Rothstein reported in May that the Falcons will likely use Cordarrelle Patterson as a receiver (imagine that) and a change-of-pace backfield option rather than a between-the-tackles back -- a role that left C-Patt beaten and bruised by the final six weeks of last season. Patterson did not relish the role.
A change in usage for Patterson is possible because Atlanta drafted BYU RB Tyler Allgeier in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft. A walk-on who first played linebacker at BYU in 2019, Allgeier exploded in 2020 for 1,131 yards and 13 touchdowns on just 150 rushing attempts. Only two running backs with more than 150 rushes (Michael Carter and Khalil Herbert) had a higher yards per carry than Allgeier.
He did a lot with a little in 2020, and followed that with 1,606 yards and a nation-leading 23 touchdowns on 276 carries in his final season at BYU. Kenneth Walker and Lew Nichols were the only college RBs with more rushing yardage than Allgeier. He ranked first among Power Five running backs in yards after contact, and was fourth in missed tackles forced during his collegiate career.
Back to Rothstein: The Falcons beat writer believes Allgeier is positioned as the team’s early-down rusher to start the season. It’s a role that’s not exactly reflected in his mid-12th round best ball ADP. He’s already the Falcons’ most natural goal line back after the team released Mike Davis in May. Last year, Atlanta was abominable when they sniffed the end zone paint, managing just two running back rushing touchdowns inside the five yard line all season, both from Davis. There’s simply no way Smith -- a supreme advocate of the tough-nosed offense -- won’t make great efforts to correct that in 2022.
Will the Falcons be good enough in 2022 to supply a steady workload for Allgeier? Probably not. Atlanta will stink out loud once again. Thankfully, Allgeier’s ADP doesn’t require the team to vastly improve and create the sort of game script that will regularly lead to 20-touch games for their rookie back.
Tyrion Davis-Price (SF)
Underdog ADP: 165.6
It’s Wandering Eye Szn for Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan, who -- like his father -- takes immense joy in vexing fantasy managers by giving major workloads to relatively unknown ball carriers. Last year it was Elijah Mitchell. In 2020 it was Jeff Wilson. The 2019 season saw Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Matt Breida alternate as fantasy-viable backs in Shanny’s run-first offense. Shanahan will do whatever it takes to put fantasy gamers on tilt.
It would hardly be a shock if Shanahan’s eye wandered toward big-bodied rookie RB Tyrion Davis-Price, drafted by San Francisco with the 93rd pick in the 2022 draft after leading LSU's backfield in each of the past two seasons. When a Shanahan-coached team drafts a running back, we must adjust.
ESPN’s Nick Wagoner, a Niners beat writer, recently said the team "envisions [Davis-Price] emerging as a bigger, more powerful complement" to Mitchell as the season progresses. The team’s drafting of Davis-Price was reportedly based on their struggles in short yardage situations: In 2021, the Niners ranked 29th in third-down run conversion percentage, gaining a first down on a meager 42.4 percent of their rushing attempts on third down.
Forget that Shanahan’s conservative offense is boring and predictable on third down and short (the 49ers had a -31 percent pass rate over expected on third and short in 2021). That’s beside the point. They got Davis-Price because the team wants to keep running it up the proverbial gut on third and one or two or three. You may not like it, but this is what peak head coaching performance looks like for a guy who calls plays like it's 1987.
This is the team that in 2021 had a 45 percent pass rate while holding the lead; only the Eagles and Saints were more run-heavy while ahead. Davis-Price could easily position himself as the Niners’ No. 2 backfield option, ahead of Trey Sermon and Jeff Wilson, and see a solid workload as Shanny’s primary early-down banger -- a valuable role in an offense that runs it so often in the red zone. Davis-Price was quietly a solid NFL prospect, posting a 90th percentile speed score and an 83rd percentile 40-yard dash at the Combine. He was fed an average of 17.3 carries per game in LSU wins last season, averaging 90.9 rushing yards in said contests.
Mitchell last year missed time with a shoulder injury, a rib/chest injury, a finger injury, and a brain injury. While that’s not predictive of Mitchell’s 2022 availability, another season of missed games here and there for the presumed Niners RB1 could mean Price-Davis sees a starter’s workload now and again. He would crush his best ball ADP in such a scenario.
Perhaps it goes without saying but you’re not drafting Price-Davis if you’ve already taken Mitchell, unless, of course, you snagged Mitchell at a severely reduced ADP.
Nyheim Hines (IND)
Underdog ADP: 142
This is the start of my perennial touting of Hines, who gets more offseason hype than any No. 2 back should. Nevertheless, we persist.
We have Colts head coach Frank Reich and Indy beat writers issuing weekly fantasy alerts for Hines, we have the team talking up Hines’ role as a pass catcher, and we have a more competent quarterback in Matt Ryan -- who has a tantalizing history of targeting running backs. It’s all too much for me to resist. I’m weak, I’ll admit that.
Reich recently likened Hines' 2022 usage to how he was deployed with Philip Rivers under center for Indy in 2020. In case you’ve somehow forgotten, Hines in 2020 was third among running backs in targets and receptions, trailing only J.D. McKissic and Alvin Kamara. He was graded by Pro Football Focus as 2020's top receiving back. Hines took a step back in 2021 with Carson Wentz at quarterback for the Colts, seeing 53 targets to Jonathan Taylor's 48. Hines had a depressingly low four games with five or more targets last year, and two games with more than seven rushing attempts. His usage, in short, cratered during the Colts’ disastrous and mercifully short-lived Wentz era.
Commitment to Hines -- who last year signed a hefty extension -- as an offensive contributor in 2022 could give him something of a fantasy floor while Jonathan Taylor leads the team’s backfield. Hines’ upside would lie in Taylor missing time, a nightmare scenario for the Colts, no doubt, but one that would probably give Hines 20 touches a week. Hines, who had 18 touches (and ten targets) in a late-season spot start for Taylor against the Titans in 2020, has shown decent efficiency as a fantasy producer, ranking as a top-20 back in fantasy points over expected since the start of the 2020 season.
There’s no reason to take Hines in best ball drafts if you drafted Taylor in the first round, since Hines’ upside hinges on Taylor’s availability, or lack thereof.