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Running Back Sleepers for 2021 Fantasy Football

Three different types of sleeper running backs for you to target in your fantasy drafts this year.

With so many fantasy players putting so many hours of research into their drafts, identifying sleepers that are on very few people’s radars are hard to find without being called a hot take artist. In my mind, a sleeper is simply a player who I believe will outperform their ADP to an extent that means they’re not only draftable, but likely to be in your lineup every week.

When we consider the running back position, there are two considerations when coming up with sleepers. Its either the RB2 that can take a backfield over but probably needs an injury to clear the path for them, or the unclear running back by committee where there is a clear talent imbalance where one player (normally a rookie), will take over quickly when the games start.

With this in mind, I’ve got three players I consider sleepers who I believe will outperform their current ADP and be important fantasy pieces.

The Late Round Rookie Who Becomes a Valuable Fantasy Asset

Kenneth Gainwell, Philadelphia Eagles

Gainwell opted out of the 2020 season at Memphis but was hugely productive in 2019 when he took over the backfield, totaling over 2,000 scrimmage yards and 16 total touchdowns. He was so productive that he kept Antonio Gibson to a primarily pass-catching role in the Memphis offense, and if what Gibson achieved as a rookie in Washington tells any kind of tale, then the Eagles may have secured the bargain of the draft (Gainwell was a fifth-round pick).

He’s undersized for the position (5-foot-9), so may need to wait and work for his opportunity, but as Miles Sanders saw a drop off in production after his rookie season, Gainwell has the tools to step in and all value as a fantasy prospect, especially in the passing game. I’ve been snagging Gainwell in rounds two and three of my rookie drafts where I can and in redraft, I am more than happy to take him two or more rounds ahead of his current 14th round ADP.

The Free Agent Who Clicks in a New Offense

Giovani Bernard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

What did the best team in football in 2020 miss? Not much, but a reliable pass-catching back could have had them humming even earlier in the season. As we all know, Tom Brady has made stars of those type of guys over the years, and in fantasy leagues they have offered you a decent floor to fill put your flex spots.

In year one in Tampa, Brady targeted his running backs 115 times, fifth most in the NFL, but the work was split mainly between Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette. They combined for 62 catches for 384 yards (just 6.3 yards per reception) and only 2 touchdowns. Enter Giovani Bernard.

Bernard is coming off the back of his most productive fantasy season since 2015 as he stepped up in the absence of Joe Mixon to finish as the RB31 last year in .5PPR. As well as putting up 416 rushing yards, Bernard reeled in 47 catches for 355 yards (7.6 yards per reception), and 3 touchdowns from an ever decreasing talent pool of quarterbacks in Cincinnati. With the evergreen Tom Brady throwing Bernard passes, he could carve out a nice role and be a reliable flex play in a new home. With a 12th round ADP, Bernard is a late round option I’ll be looking to draft everywhere this season.

The Veteran Who Outperforms a Bad Situation

David Johnson, Houston Texans

This one would carry some major risk if David Johnson, the de facto RB1 for the Texans, wasn’t currently going as the RB34 in the 7th round. The Texans are a team to swerve hard in fantasy this year, with major question marks about the roster and overall prospects for the season ahead. Yes the Texans have signed approximately eighteen different running backs this offseason, but none offer the three-down potential of Johnson.

Last year, Johnson finished as the RB19 in .5PPR last year in just 11 games, with 885 scrimmage yards and 7 touchdowns (13.2 PPG, RB15). Health will always be a concern for Johnson, but with that 7th round ADP, if you draft him as your third or even fourth running back, there is weekly RB1 upside that you can find from the RB2/flex position.