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5 sleeper running backs to consider in 2021 fantasy football leagues

While the definition of fantasy sleeper has changed over the years, these five running backs look like decent bets to outperform their average draft position.

Washington Football Team Mandatory Minicamp Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Finding value at running back can prove tricky given that many fantasy managers prioritize the position like it’s still 2001. But the value still exists at multiple tiers, and identifying it correctly can provide one of the biggest advantages in fantasy football.

Looking for sleepers for fantasy football doesn’t mean uncovering players no one knows — that doesn’t happen anymore. Rather, finding sleepers in the modern sense involves highlighting players that should outplay their average draft position (ADP). Accordingly, instead of using the term “sleeper,” we instead use “value” to underscore the point.

Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team

Despite Antonio Gibson registering more receptions than carries in college — 44 catches and 33 rushing attempts — the Washington Football Team deployed him like a traditional running back in 2020. Gibson ran the ball 170 times for 795 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, far outpacing his 36 catches for 247 yards.

But while Gibson didn’t see major action as a receiver during his rookie campaign, he remains highly skilled as a pass catcher. Washington understands this too, and offensive coordinator Scott Turner saw what a dual-purpose back can do for an offense during his time with Christian McCaffrey and the Carolina Panthers. Gibson, a spectacular athlete in his own right, should thrive in a similar role.

Presently, Gibson’s ADP places him as a fringe No. 1 running back in fantasy and outside the first round. If he stays healthy, he should finish much above those expectations.

AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers

Since the Green Bay Packers hired Matt LaFleur as their head coach in 2019, the offense has heavily featured two running backs. For the past two seasons, Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams have enjoyed the benefits of LaFleur’s scheme with the former ranking among the best fantasy producers at the position and the latter finishing inside the top 40 both years.

But while the system remains in place, the tandem does not. Jones signed a lucrative multiyear deal with the team in March, leaving Williams to leave for a payday elsewhere.

With Williams gone, 2020 second-round pick AJ Dillon should slide right into his spot. While the role alone should prove enough to make Dillon a top-40 finisher at running back (assuming Aaron Rodgers returns to the team), he offers more upside than his predecessor. Dillon’s size and athleticism make him extremely different to take down as he demonstrated during a breakout performance against the Tennessee Titans late last season. Dillon should produce better than Williams and, in the process, outperform his ADP (currently 36th among running backs).

Michael Carter, New York Jets

Many moons have passed since the New York Jets last had an effective running back. While those troubles stem from more than the personnel, the team understood it needed to improve the talent level in the backfield or risk another problematic ground game.

In that spirit, the Jets took North Carolina’s Michael Carter in the fourth round. Even before training camp, Carter has taken the early lead in the running-back competition and has a strong chance to start from Day 1. Normally, such a scenario would send the rookie’s draft stock flying, but the modest expectations for New York have kept it somewhat in check. As long as that remains the case, he offers decent value.

Darrell Henderson Jr., Los Angeles Rams

Under Sean McVay, the Los Angeles Rams have leaned heavily on one running back rather than a full committee approach. Though the offense used more running backs in 2020, that resulted primarily from injuries forcing McVay to shift from one ball carrier to the next.

The Rams appear set to use Cam Akers as their lead back in 2021, leaving Darrell Henderson Jr. as an afterthought. However, Akers has already missed time during his brief career and might struggle to stay on the field. Accordingly, Henderson stands just one injury away from walking into one of the better tailback roles in the league. Given that he currently sits just inside the top 50 among running backs in ADP, he presents plenty of upside.

Mike Davis, Atlanta Falcons

Seemingly half the NFL has employed Mike Davis at some point, and he joined a new team this offseason. That club, the Atlanta Falcons, has little else in the way of proven talent at running back and moved to an outside-zone heavy ground attack this offseason. That situation favors Davis, who thrived in a similar role for the Carolina Panthers in 2020 during Christian McCaffrey’s prolonged absence.

Barring a late addition to the backfield, Davis seems well positioned to put up career numbers and finish better than his current ADP (27th among running backs).