What do these three running backs have in common? Well, all of them ranked in the top 25 in fantasy points at the position in PPR leagues last season. None were drafted to be prominent parts of most fantasy teams, either. When a player has a versatile skill set that allows them opportunities in the pass attack, well, sometimes that player can outperform some of the "big names" ... not to mention his average draft position (ADP) ... and turn into a tremendous draft bargain.
For those of you in such formats, I have a few potential middle- to late-round runners to target for your 2015 squad. A lot of these names promise to be much better than the season two premiere of "True Detective". Not that I'm going to stop watching (Rachel McAdams), but I already miss the tremendous chemistry we saw between Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in Season 1.
Anyway, back to those PPR running backs...
Justin Forsett, Baltimore Ravens: No one is going to mistake Forsett for a middle-rounder after he broke out in 2014, but he could be worth as much as a second-round selection in 2015. Think I'm nuts? What were backs like Larry Centers, Charlie Garner and Michael Pittman known for during their time in the pros? All three were productive as pass-catchers, and all of them played for offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. Oh, and Matt Forte caught 102 balls under Trestman last season. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Forsett ended up catching 70-plus passes for the Ravens in 2015.
Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals: Ellington missed four games last season due to injuries, but he still finished in the top 20 in fantasy points at his position in PPR formats. In fact, he would have ranked ahead of LeSean McCoy and Lamar Miller if you project his average points scored over a full 16-game schedule. While the addition of rookie David Johnson is a cause for some concern, Ellington is still seen as the "linchpin" of this backfield. No one is really talking about the Clemson product either, so you could end up stealing him in the middle rounds.
C.J. Spiller, New Orleans Saints: Spiller, unlike Ellington, is all the rage in fantasy land right now. While he's barely ever reached his full statistical potential, his move to the Saints has some people drooling over him like he was Alexandra Daddario (yes, I'm on a "True Detective" kick). But when you consider the team lost over 100 backfield targets in addition to trading Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills this offseason, it's obvious that Spiller could see a ton of opportunities in the offense. Oh, and did I mention that he has Drew Brees throwing him the football now?
Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals: Jeremy Hill has earned a lot of praise in fantasy circles, but owners shouldn't forget about Bernard ... especially in PPR formats. The North Carolina product has hauled in a combined 99 passes in his first 29 NFL games, and he'll no doubt see more than his share of chances in that department next season. In fact, Bernard is a good bet to put up 50-plus receptions even with Hill in the lead of this talented backfield mix. He could produce No. 2 fantasy running back numbers at the cost of a high-end flex starter in most 2015 drafts.
Shane Vereen, New York Giants: The Giants' backfield is crowded with Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams also in the mix, but Vereen looks like the best bet to lead the trio in catches. He's earned rave reviews in offseason workouts, so much so that some beat reporters get the feeling that he'll see a bigger role than what was initially projected. Owners should also keep in mind that Jennings, the team's No. 1 back, is 30 years old and not exactly durable. Regardless, there's a very good chance for Vereen to see in excess of 60 targets under offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo.
Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions: Abdullah has a legitimate chance to end up being the top running back in Detroit next season, but for now Joique Bell is atop the depth chart. That leaves the rookie to compete with veteran Theo Riddick for opportunities in the pass attack. I like Abdullah to emerge from that competition and replace Reggie Bush as Bell's complement, and that's on the lower end of my personal expectations. Even in a worst-case scenario, the Nebraska product should haul in around 40 passes. The best-case scenario would make Abdullah a serious draft bargain.
Reggie Bush, San Francisco 49ers: Carlos Hyde is the back to target in San Francisco, but don't forget about Bush in leagues that reward points for receptions. The USC product figures to see plenty of chances to rack up receptions as Hyde's complement on a Niners team that could be playing from behind more often. If he can stay on the field and out of the trainer's room, Bush is a good bet to put up around 50 catches for new coach Jim Tomsula. The good news is that the veteran isn't likely to cost most fantasy owners in 10-team leagues more than a middle- to late-round pick.
Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons: Did you know that Jacquizz Rodgers posted 50-plus receptions in two of his final three seasons in Atlanta? Those opportunities are now likely to fall into the lap of Freeman, who is battling rookie Tevin Coleman for the top spot in the team's rebuilt backfield. Freeman, who hauled in 30 passes on just 37 targets in his rookie campaign, figures to lead the duo in receptions in his sophomore campaign. He could even put up closer to 50 catches in a best-case scenario, making Freeman a potential PPR flex starter who could come with a late-round tag.
Charles Sims, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: There was some buzz surrounding Sims earlier this offseason, but recent reports suggest that Doug Martin has had a tremendous offseason and remains the favorite to start. That sort of scenario would leave Sims to his more natural role, a pass-catching, change-of-pace runner who would also be used to spell his veteran teammate. If he can etch out that sort of role in the offense, Sims could produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 catches. This is still a backfield situation for fantasy owners to monitor in the summer months.
Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns: I have always loved me some Miami (FL) running backs, and with good reason. Johnson is the latest member of the "U" to watch, as he's been impressive in offseason camps and compared to Gio Bernard because of his skill set. Johnson has even seen some reps lining up as a wide receiver, which goes to show how good he can be as a pass-catcher at the NFL level. That's not to say that he'll pass Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West on the depth chart in the preseason, but it does prove that he's someone to target during the late rounds as a deep sleeper.
Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com and NFL Network and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Have a burning question on anything fantasy related? Tweet it to @Michael_Fabiano or send a question via Facebook!