Arguably running back is the most important position in fantasy football. If you lose your stud, like say David Johnson last year or missing Ezekiel Elliot in the middle of the season, it can really hurt your fantasy team.
That is why finding sleeper running backs in the later rounds is so important and can actually help you win your fantasy league. Just ask those lucky people who wound up drafting Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt last year.
However, this season is much different than previous years because of the depth at the running back position. So, which five running backs are people forgetting about and are currently undervalued?
Jay Ajayi, Philadelphia Eagles
Ajayi didn’t light the world on fire like many had hoped last season when he was traded from the Dolphins to the Eagles. Including the playoffs, Ajayi averaged just 13.8 carries in his final six games last season, and that was with LeGarrette Blount still getting about eight attempts per game as well. Blount is now a Detroit Lion, and the Eagles didn’t draft or sign any RBs in the offseason because they seem to be pleased with what they have in Ajayi (he did average 5.8 yards per carry). Ajayi has a clear path to be the Eagles' lead back on a team that should be leading late in the majority of their games. He should see around 15 carries per game behind an elite offensive line and he could even see an expanded role in the passing game, as Darren Sproles is no sure thing after returning from a torn ACL and broken arm and is 35 years old. You could do a lot worse than Ajayi as your RB3.
Alex Collins, Baltimore Ravens
Picked up off the scrap heap last year by the Ravens after his release from the Seattle Seahawks, Collins ended up being one of the best fantasy adds of the waiver wire in 2017. After the way he performed last year, the Ravens would be silly not to use him as their feature back this season. Yes, Kenneth Dixon will be back from injury/suspension and Javorius Allen is still there, but the truth is that once given the opportunity last season, Collins was one of the most efficient backs in all of football. According to Pro Football Focus, he ranked sixth in the league in breakaway percentage, as 36.3 of his runs went for 15 yards or more. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry, which ranked in the top five among players with at least 140 carries. He also forced 34 missed tackles on running plays and 10 when he caught the ball. Collins is a good running back, he's only 23 years old, and the Ravens still have Joe Flacco as their starting quarterback, so they figure to be a run-first offense once again. Baltimore ran the ball 43.6 percent of the time last season, good for 12th in the NFL.
Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans
Most of the attention the Titans are getting this season surrounds the new coaching staff and how they are going to help Marcus Mariota take that next step. It’s also assumed that Derrick Henry is going to be the bell-cow running back similar to DeMarco Murray's role two years ago. But it’s Lewis who has more fantasy upside than either Mariota or Henry. He signed a four-year deal this offseason and you can bet that he is going to be a focal point of Tennessee's offensive game plan, especially their passing attack. Henry has recorded a total of 32 targets in 31 career games; Lewis beat that last year as part of a four-man rotation in New England. Right now Lewis is being drafted at RB27 and Henry at RB16, so you can see where the value is and why it might be worth it to wait on drafting RBs this year.
Rashad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
No one should be surprised that the Seahawks used a high draft pick in April to take a running back. The Seahawks' offense is based on running the ball, and they struggled mightily last year in that department. They became the first team since at least 1990 without a red-zone rushing TD by an RB. After running the ball 39.8 and 40.6 percent of its offensive snaps in 2016 and '17, expect Seattle to get closer to the 48.3 percent it posted in '15 when it last had a legit ground game and a decent offensive line. Penny has competition in Chris Carson and he had surgery to repair a broken bone in his finger, but the Seahawks didn’t spend a first-round pick for college football's leading rusher last season to watch from the sidelines and he's expected to be ready by Week 1. He might split carries with Carson to start, but Penny is the more talented back and should be a great RB2 before the end of this season.
Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts
Last year, Mack (above, right) backed up 34-year-old Frank Gore, while playing with a torn labrum. Just by being the starter in an Andrew Luck-led offense Mack will easily be able to produce better numbers than Gore last season and provide more fantasy value than his current ADP, which is at RB40. Among running backs with at least 90 rushes in 2017, big-play Mack ranked sixth in percentage of runs of 10-plus yards (12.9) and also averaged a league-leading 13.5 yards after the catch. Explosiveness like that should help him fend off fourth-round pick Nyheim Hines for passing down work in what should be an improved and potentially potent Colts offense.
-- Written by Michael Horvath, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Horvath is a Canadian who also happens to be a fantasy football (not to be confused with CFL) and fitness nut. Follow him on Twitter @realmikehorvath.
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