by Russ Bliss (7/12/12)

Fantasy football has changed in recent years. Whereas in years past it was hard to find to a quality starting RB past the first few rounds, there are now plenty to be found. In 2011, only 5 fantasy points per game on average separated the 5th ranked RB from the 25th ranked RB. Only 3 points per game separated RB ranked 11th and RB ranked 31st. With so many teams using multiple RB's instead of relying on a single workhorse back, the position is deeper than ever before. Two of the RB's listed in my 2012 Top 10 fantasy football RB rankings article, Fred Jackson and Reggie Bush, have an average draft position (ADP) of the 3rd and 4th rounds respectively. But even looking past round 5, there are plenty of great potential fantasy football sleeper RB's to be found who could contribute and play a good role as a fantasy starter in 2012.

1) Willis McGahee, Denver Broncos: Usually I shy away from RB's who turn 31 years old in October, but 2011 marked the first time in the last 4 seasons McGahee had more than 170 carries in a season. This means he has had less wear and tear than most primary RB's at that age. In 2011, McGahee averaged 4.8 yards per carry while rushing for 1,199 yards. His 2011 total of 4 rushing TD's should go up now that Tim Tebow won't be taking so many of the goal line carries away from him. While he isn't considered a great fit for Peyton Manning's type of offense, it's a good bet that the Broncos will rely on their rushing attack early in the year to take pressure off of Manning. The Broncos did draft Ronnie Hillman to compete with Knowshon Moreno and Lance Ball behind McGahee, but when Denver runs, more often than not it will be with McGahee as their lead RB. 1,000+ yards and 6-8 TD's aren't a far stretch to imagine for McGahee and considering his ADP is about the 65th player off the board (3rd pick of round 6 in a 12 team league; 26th RB selected) that's some good value.

2) James Starks, Green Bay Packers: Currently, the Packers haven't brought back Ryan Grant and only have Alex Green (returning from season ending knee surgery from 2011), Brandon Saine, and precious little else behind Starks heading into training camp. Starks is in a great position to be the lead RB for a team with a passing attack that prevents opponents from focusing much on the run. The Packers are talking up Starks as being prepared to take his game to the next level and if he can avoid the minor injuries that have plagued him the last 2 seasons, a big year could be in store for him. Aaron Rodgers and John Kuhn will steal some of the short yardage TD's, but the majority of the rushing yards are there for Starks to lay claim to. He also is improving as a receiving option and could provide some additional value with receiving yards. Starks' current ADP in 12 team standard leagues is as the 73rd player selected (11th pick of round 6; 29th RB selected). Considering his potential, and lack of real competition for significant playing time, Starks could be one of the great steals for those who don't use their early round picks on multiple RB's.

3) Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots: While everyone knows the Patriots for their pass happy offense, they have been one of the more successful teams rushing the football as well over the years. 2011 was the first time in many years the Patriots weren't one of the top 13 rushing offenses. With BenJarvus Green-Ellis gone, Ridley is expected to be the lead RB, and also handle short yardage and goal line carries. Green-Ellis scored 24 rushing TD's the last 2 seasons and now those carries are going to go to Ridley. Ridley is a better runner than BGE and has shown great promise when given the football more than a handful of times in a game. In 2011, in the 4 games he received 10 or more carries, Ridley averaged 6.27 yards per carry. While Ridley will split time with Shane Vereen, Ridley is expected to be the primary and if he is getting 10-15 carries per game, and all the goal line work, Ridley could surprise with strong consistent fantasy numbers. With an ADP as the 85th player selected (1st pick of round 8 in 12 team leagues; 34th RB selected), Ridley represents a high value pick as a RB3.  

Some others who are being drafted late that I really like as well (ADP's and draft positions are based on a 12 team league with no ppr):

Peyton Hillis, Kansas City Chiefs: Everyone is giving a lot of love to Jamaal Charles coming off a torn ACL, but they're forgetting about Hillis. Even before Charles' injury, the Chiefs preferred using another RB in short yardage and goal line situations, and that used to be Thomas Jones. Hillis is a much younger and stronger runner than Jones was and can also take turns in a rotation with Charles.
ADP: 78th player selected; 6th pick of round 7; 31st RB selected.

Donald Brown, Indianapolis Colts: With Joseph Addai gone, Brown gets to be the primary RB in a contract season. He's disappointed in the past, and there's also Delone Carter there who could steal the top spot from him, but few things have provided better motivation for a player's best season than a contract that is expiring at the end of the year.
ADP: 77th player selected, 5th pick of round 7; 30th RB selected.

DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers: Between the timeshare and the presence of Cam Newton, it's hard to rely on either of these RB's to be consistent week to week, but both are fully capable on their own to be top 12 fantasy RB's if thrust into a feature role. Maybe Newton's rushes get scaled back some in 2012 and that would lead to more rushing attempt for both of these guys. And if an injury were to happen to one, the other would take over as a true feature RB. While their situation is not ideal, the upside both represent given their ADP's in 2012 is very high.
Williams' ADP: 88th player selected, 2nd pick of round 8; 35th RB taken.
Stewart's ADP: 90th player selected, 4th pick of round 8; 36th RB selected.

See the 2012 fantasy sleeper WR's