Late-round running backs to target on Zero-RB teams

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Almost three years ago, Shawn Siegele proposed the Zero-RB theory to fantasy football drafting. The concept centers on exploiting both the fragility of and decline in reliability with the running back position, and the ascension in both the depth and scoring of wide receivers.

It's best to read more of Shawn's fantastic work to get a handle on the concept than let me blabber through it. While I'm not a full Zero-RB theory user in every draft, I do firmly believe drafting wide receiver-heavy teams are the way to go and are here to stay.

With that in mind, if you're primarily drafting wide receivers in the first five to six priority rounds, you're waiting to fill your RB1, RB2 and RB3 spots until the seventh round or later. However, not all running backs fit with a Zero-RB or wide receiver-heavy team. There are certain types of backs we mine the later rounds for. So here we'll explore multiple running back options for these specific teams that come with a Round 7 or later ADP on Fantasy Football Calculator.

Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals (ADP - 7.02)

In his three years with the Bengals, Giovani Bernard's fantasy finishes in standard leagues are as the RB16, RB18 and RB21 from 2013 to 2015. However, he currently carries an ADP of RB31, so he's priced below his career floor to this point. It's hard to tell yourself the story wherein his outlook is much worse this season than in years past.

Having caught 148 passes over the last three seasons, Bernard's primary role is as a receiving option out of the backfield. The Bengals lost 30.7 percent of their team's passing targets from last year when both Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu left in free agency. Since then their star tight end underwent surgery and is highly questionable for Week 1 and one of the players set to replace the vacated duo, Brandon LaFell, also might need to go under the knife to fix a ligament tear in his hand. With questions throughout the pass-catching corps, Bernard could push for a career high in catches this season.

That receiving work obviously makes Bernard more appealing in PPR leagues, where he's finished no worse than RB18 throughout his career. However, his volume in the passing game also gives him a secure floor in standard leagues. In that format, Bernard finished with seven or more points in nine of his 16 games.

As long as Jeremy Hill is healthy and entrenched as the early-down hammer, Bernard is just a rather boring floor play in fantasy this season. And there's nothing wrong with that. All of your picks don't have to carry league-winning upside in an ideal scenario, particularly when on a Zero-RB team that sort of firepower will be in your wide receiver corps. However, Bernard does have a path to that sort of upside if Hill were to get hurt. Already established as the receiving back, he's at least competent enough as a runner to pace the team on the ground.

Rashad Jennings, New York Giants (ADP - 7.03)

For much of last season the Giants backfield was an unpredictable train wreck and a completely hands-off proposition for fantasy owners. The team split the work four ways without any clarity in the distribution. Earlier this month, New York Daily News' Ralph Vacchiano reported "it's clear" from talking to their running back coach that New York will scrap that four-way committee and that Rashad Jennings is the No. 1 running back.

We got a glimpse late last year what a Jennings-centered backfield would look like. Over the last four weeks, the Giants woke up and ditched that nonsensical split and gave Jennings 21.5 touches per game. The veteran back thrived with the workload scoring as the RB3 overall in fantasy during that stretch.

With the addition of Sterling Shepard to the already dynamic duo of Eli Manning and Odell Beckham, the Giants are destined to be a top-10 offense this season. They were already sixth in points scored and 11th in plays run last season. You want a running back attached to an offense that will break the scoreboard like that.

If Jennings truly will be a workhorse for the Giants, he's a steal at his current ADP. Health questions aside, if a Zero-RB team can lock-in a potential 15-plus touches per game back in the early going of the regular season, that's a huge win.

Charles Sims, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ADP - 9.02)

Charles Sims is probably one of my personal favorite picks in fantasy this season. Few seem to recognize just how good Sims was in his role last season. He totaled 1,090 yards from scrimmage, doing most of his work on his 51 receptions. His receiving work gives him a viable floor in fantasy for Zero-RB teams. Sims was already the RB22 in standard leagues last year in a part-time role last year. He scored out as a weekly RB2 or better in five weeks with nine games of seven or more points and six in double digits.

It's that locked-in receiving work that also gives Sims a tangible real path to upside, however. If something were ever to happen to Doug Martin -- both injuries and inconsistent play dogged him two of the last three years -- Sims would inherit the vast majority of the rushing work for the team. If that were the case, Sims could easily finish as a RB1 this season.

A similar occurrence went down with Devonta Freeman in 2015. Freeman was the pass-catching back for Atlanta in the first two games, whereas Tevin Coleman started off as the early down banger (29 carries through six quarters). When Coleman went down in Week 2, Freeman absorbed the entirety of the rushing work in addition to his receiving duties. Freeman went on to average 27.3 touches per game over the next four weeks. That sort of scenario is without question in the range of outcomes for Sims.

Looking at his rate stats as a receiver, Sims is just as effective as Freeman as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. Freeman ranked fourth in the NFL among running backs who played at least 50 percent of their team's snaps with an average depth of target of 2.8. Sims came in just behind him with 2.7. Sims made more plays downfield, averaging 8.6 yards per target to Freeman's 6.3. He was also better in the open field, averaging 9.7 receiving yards after the catch to his counterpart's 5.9.

Sims is also more than capable as a runner averaging the third-most yards per carry (5.0) among backs who handled more than 100 rush attempts. He might not be the ideal feature back, but he has the skills to do so on a theory basis if something happens to Doug Martin. Given his safe floor and clear path to upside, Sims is a must-have asset for Zero-RB teams in the later rounds. He offers a steady complement to your wide receiver firepower if all factors remain stable, but could also present a Devonta Freeman-like league-winner if chaos ensues.

Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns (ADP - 9.07)

Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com insisted all offseason that Isaiah Crowell could run for 1,000 yards this season. It seems off, but under Hue Jackson it's not that wild. Jackson is both a run-favoring coach and a talent-maximizer.

The Browns won't be in a ton of run-heavy game scripts, as they project to be a below .500 team. However, in the weeks they can play it close, Crowell has value as the clear early-down starter over receiver Duke Johnson. Given the difference in their ADPs (Johnson - 6.12), drafters should take their chances on chasing high-volume weeks with Crowell.

Bilal Powell, New York Jets (ADP - 9.09)

I made the case for Bilal Powell as one of the most underrated fantasy assets around earlier this week. He was a tremendous asset for the Jets, who brought him back on a deal nearly identical to Matt Forte's free agent contract.

Powell offers a similar proposition to Charles Sims. He can give you a safe floor with his pass-catching prowess but offers fringe RB1 upside in the event Forte gets hurt. Now 30 years old, the veteran back battled knee injuries last year and a nagging hamstring this offseason.

The Jets under Chan Gailey love to spread the field but lack receiver depth beyond Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall. That could lead to packages where Forte is the slot receiver and Powell is the pass-catcher in the backfield. The 2015 Jets were 11th in time of possession while leading, per Football Outsiders, but ranked 13th in the NFL in pass attempts. If the Jets take a step back as a team for any reason, their passing volume could crack the top-eight in the NFL in 2016, which would open up plenty of receiving work for the running backs.

LeGarrette Blount, New England Patriots (ADP - 9.09)

How much do you like to chase touchdowns? The mercurial Blount has 16 rushing touchdowns in his last 33 games with the Patriots. His usable weeks are rather telecasted too. If you project New England for a slobberknocker type of contest where they can barrel through an inferior opponent, then Blount is in play. As a red zone hammer in one of the NFL's best offenses, you can do worse with a late Zero-RB pick.

Terrance West and Javorius Allen, Baltimore Ravens (ADP - 12.09 and N/A)

Someone from the Ravens backfield will end up mattering for fantasy. As it stands today, Terrance West's drum beat continues to build hype and he could win the job as the early-down banger and handle red zone work. That would give Zero-RB drafters some early season relief. The Ravens open up the season against the Bills, Browns and Jaguars. All three had trouble stopping the run in 2015, ranking 30th, 26th and 17th in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric.

Meanwhile, Buck Allen is essentially free and looks locked in as the pass-catching back regardless of who handles the early down work. Allen was far and away the superior receiver to Justin Forsett last season. The Ravens defense is not the unit it once was and Marc Trestman's offenses always finish in the top half of the NFL in pass attempts. Allen should walk into a 50-plus catch season in 2016.

Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles (ADP - 13.01)

The elder statesmen of the Eagles backfield, Darren Sproles isn't finished as a fantasy contributor just yet. After rumors circulated of a potential trade after the draft, the new Eagles regime re-signed Sproles to a contract extension and he drew nice reviews from camp while rookie Wendall Smallwood and Ryan Mathews battled injuries.

Mathews will be the lead back on this team when he's healthy, but we know that's about as massive an if as there is in the NFL. Sproles is one of the best pass-catching running backs of the last generation and running backs racked up a whopping 193 receptions over the last three seasons in Doug Pederson and Andy Reid's offense in Kansas City. This is a far better fit than fantasy owners seem to realize and Sproles could offer sneaky starting appeal in PPR leagues for Zero-RB drafters.

Spencer Ware, Kansas City Chiefs (ADP - 13.07)

Spencer Ware is one of the only handcuffs I like in fantasy this season. He offers potential standalone value as a red zone and goal line vulture from Jamaal Charles. One of the most powerful running backs in the NFL, Ware could barrel through the red area for a few more touchdowns than many expect this season.

In the event that Charles gets hurt again, Ware showed he has RB1 potnetial last season as he usurped Charcandrick West. It's been Ware, not West, running as Charles' backup this offseason. The Chiefs are one of the most run-heavy teams in the NFL and Ware could be a breakout star if he took over a feature back role there.

Chris Thompson, Washington Redskins (ADP - N/A)

Matt Jones is a popular mid-round pick as Washington's new workhorse running back. That is the most likely scenario but Chris Thompson will have a role on this team and he was a fixture with the first team offense in the preseason opener. Jones dropped three passes as a rookie on just 23 targets, while Thompson caught 80 percent of his 44 targets in 2015 with a 3.1 average depth of target.

Washington is stocked with passing weapons and figure to throw the ball a ton this season. Per Warren Sharp, the team called a passing play on 72 percent of their snaps when behind in the second half. Thompson will be on the field for all of those plays and will be Kirk Cousins' safety valve. Rich Hribar of Rotoworld recently intimated that it would not be a stretch to see Thompson lead the NFL in running back catches and compared his outlook to what we saw from Theo Riddick last season. In that scenario, Thompson would offer RB2 value for free to teams that draft wideouts early.

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Matt Harmon is an associate fantasy writer/editor for NFL.com, and the creator of #ReceptionPerception, who you can follow on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB or like on Facebook.

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