In the game of dynasty fantasy football, we often find ourselves adding depth to our rosters in the later rounds – that depth typically consists of youthful players. Whether it’s rookies who aren’t expected to produce immediately or sophomore players who are holdover hopefuls from the previous year, dynasty owners do love their youngsters. In fact, they can’t get enough of them. Eventually those older players are going to fall off the cliff and if you haven’t added viable, young depth, a few sad seasons could be in store. While that is not necessarily a strategy I utilize consistently, it seems to be the going standard, or mindset, of the dynasty community. The idea of loading up on younger players is smart, but it’s not the only way to build a team. Depending on positional needs, there are undervalued players to be had, commonly available via a cheap trade or through some waiver wire mining. In the end, these players could prevent your team from tanking if one of your “starters” goes down. I typically refer to players of this type as “Insurance Policy” players. In this article, I will highlight three running backs who fit the label.
McCluster was the first hand-picked player of the Ken Whisenhunt regime in Tennessee. The free agency period opened and McCluster was a Titan before anyone knew of Tennessee’s intentions. As a whole, the fantasy football community shrugged its shoulders at this move, but if the situation is looked at a little more in depth, a few interesting things pop out. The first being Dexter McCluster was mostly used and designated as a wide receiver or kick returner in Kansas City. Soon after signing, the Titans announced McCluster would be used more in the backfield and now holds the running back tag. This is important, because as we all know, acquiring effective running back depth can be some of the most volatile landscape to maneuver. Recently, wide receivers have come to the forefront of nearly all fantasy formats. In redraft, just a year or two ago, it was blasphemy to take more than one wide receiver in the first round. Now it seems as if half the first round is receivers. This ties into Dexter McCluster since he went from an overwhelmingly saturated position to one that is very thin after the top 10-12 running backs are gone. Some may argue running backs are less valuable, and that is partially true, but in most leagues, a team must start two running backs or more. That in itself sets the value on running backs higher than most want to admit. An owner must have running backs, as much as it appears to disgust the fantasy community.
Personally, I still prefer having a deep stable of backs to carry my team. McCluster is in a very good situation and playing for a coach who loves to utilize smaller running backs in the open field. If you mention Ken Whisenhunt and Dexter McCluster in the same sentence, you can bank on someone mentioning Chargers running back Danny Woodhead. Now, McCluster isn’t quite as good as Woodhead, but that doesn’t mean he won’t have a nice role in Tennessee. In fact, I think the Titans backfield could resemble San Diego’s closely. Bishop Sankey plays the Ryan Mathews role, Shonn Greene is the bigger, short yardage back like Ronnie Brown and Dexter McCluster is similar to Woodhead in size and potential usage. I know people find it annoying to see players compared one for one, but in his case, the backfields really show some mirroring. In San Diego, the three mentioned running backs combined for 546 total offensive touches. As you can see, Danny Woodhead was a major part of this attack, mainly through the air. He carried the ball 106 times for 429 yards, but had 76 receptions for 605 yards.
If Dexter McCluster can just get 75% of those touches this season, he’s looking at 163 combined carries and receptions. Given the recent comments from the Titans on using a running back by committee (RBBC) approach, McCluster has a chance to see a lot of work. As a side note, Tennessee may be playing from behind often, and if that’s the case, McCluster may cut into Sankey’s touches later in games. McCluster is well worth a roster spot on your team, even though he’s considered a third down back. For more on Dexter McCluster’s sleeper appeal, check out this article by DLF’s own Steve Wyremski.
Forsett fits well-within the “deep sleeper” realm, but he is worth keeping a close eye on. Why? There are two reasons. The first being Gary Kubiak (who coached Forsett in Houston) is the new Ravens Offensive Coordinator. The second reason is the Ravens backfield is full of question marks right now. With Ray Rice’s lack of production and suspension, plus Bernard Pierce’s pathetic 2.9 YPC in 2013, the Ravens were compelled to draft running back Lorenzo Taliaferro. They also brought in Forsett via free agency, but before we dig into the information that helps lead to a positive outlook for Forsett, let’s have a quick review of his career offensive touches.
*Note: In 2008 (Forsett’s rookie season), he didn’t receive any offensive touches.
There’s no doubt, Forsett’s best seasons from an opportunity standpoint came in 2009 and 2010, especially in the passing game, when he played for Seattle. What jumps out is the very solid YPC average from year to year. Despite situational changes, including playing on different teams, Forsett has done a nice job when given the opportunity. However, our focus will be on the 2012 season, when he played for Gary Kubiak.
In 2012, Arian Foster got the majority of the offensive touches, with Ben Tate and Forsett splitting duties as the backup. Most people would likely assume Tate had the upper hand, but interestingly, Forsett was the better player behind Foster. According to Pro Football Focus, Justin Forsett actually had the best PPO (Fantasy Points per Opportunity) of all the Houston running backs that year. He also had the highest PPSnap (Fantasy Points per Snap).
Sure, this is “old” data, but it’s still relevant, because it shows what the Kubiak/Forsett connection can offer. It shouldn’t be assumed that Pierce will be the best option behind Ray Rice in the Baltimore offense, either. The Baltimore offensive line was terrible last season, but Pierce performed poorly when he was given his opportunities. Taliaferro shouldn’t be overlooked, but he won’t be playing the same role within this offense as Forsett. Forsett is basically a change of pace back with some really good quickness and ball skills. The battle between Cierre Wood and Forsett is much more comparable, but Forsett should have the upper hand. As was mentioned previously regarding McCluster, there is still fantasy value in third down backs playing the joker role and that should not be discounted.
James Starks, RB GB
Starks is the ideal “Insurance Policy Player.” The latest comments by Packers running backs coach Sam Gash made all Eddie Lacy owners’ ears perk up, because he essentially said Green Bay won’t hold Lacy back. They will run him into the ground and the specific quote was, “He’ll last as long as he’s meant to last.” The plans to increase Eddie Lacy’s usage in the offense is great news for his owners. There is just one thing that should be on everyone’s mind, and that is, with more collisions and more cuts, there’s an increased chance for injury. Don’t misconstrue this as someone wishing harm on a player, because that isn’t the case at all. Hopefully, Lacy can hold up and become one of the best running backs in the league for a few years, but what if he doesn’t remain healthy? What if he can’t sustain his violent running style with more touches coming his way?
The Packers thought enough of James Starks to re-sign him this off-season. They have a very savvy front office that doesn’t like letting valuable homegrown assets walk away, but this signing was more than that. Starks was one of the best running backs in the league as far as turning limited opportunities into fantasy points. He is also more elusive than he gets credit for, along with having good hands. Of Starks’ 99 total touches last season, he forced 22 missed tackles and he posted a solid 76.9% catch rate on 13 targets, hauling in 10 receptions. This along with an impressive 5.5 yards per carry average on 89 carries, paints Starks in a glowing light that isn’t just hype.
The point of this chart isn’t to pit Lacy and Starks against one another. It’s rather to show the elusiveness of Starks. He is a player who, given the chance and when fully healthy, can make things happen. We’ve seen it on several different occasions, but using the most recent information from 2013, Starks is a solid player to own on your team. In fact, the case can be made to own Starks on his own and not just as insurance for Lacy owners. Of course, you won’t know when to necessarily start him, but given his past production, he is definitely worth a shot if you’re in a bind. The most optimistic way of looking at things as a Starks owner, is if Eddie Lacy were to go down with injury or fatigue, Starks would be the top option in a run game that faces light defensive boxes due to Aaron Rodgers being at the helm of a pass-heavy offense in Green Bay.