To be a true sleeper, you have to sneak your way under the radar, such as Phillip Lindsay, CJ Anderson, and Arian Foster all did before. The odds are stacked against you, and you need a lot of things to go your way to be successful.
In order to find possible sleepers from this year’s group of undrafted free agents, I needed to examine how previous undrafted running backs made their way onto NFL starting rosters. I found that all sleepers had one of the following two things in common — They were invited to the NFL Scouting Combine or ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash.
In addition to what is mentioned above, sleepers often found their path to stardom because the starting running backs of the teams they were on were weak or the depth chart was thin. Knowing this, I ignored teams like the New Orleans Saints (Alvin Kamara) the New York Giants (Saquon Barkley) or anywhere a power back already dominates the touches.
I scanned through the stats and video of 40 undrafted free agents. Of those 40, six made my initial list of possible sleepers. Of those six, I consider one to be a desperate reach, three are possible flex candidates, one is a solid must-have backup, and the other is my ultimate sleeper pick of the bunch.
Bruce Anderson, TB
Anderson is 5’11” 210 pounds. He ran a 4.58 40-yard dash, had a 31 vertical jump and managed 22 bench presses. These are average numbers for a running back, but he also had a 7.23 three-cone drill, which puts him on the below-average side for lateral movement.
Watching his tape confirms all of this. He was the leading rusher for the undefeated FCS champion North Dakota State Bison. He used his blocks and got what was given to him. He sometimes pushed too hard, but it was enough to help his team win games, and what else do you want? He has little-to-no competition behind Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones.
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THREE FLEX CANDIDATES
James Williams, KC
5’9”. Just under 200 pounds. He’s on this list purely as a flex because he had 300 rushes at Washington State to go with his 200 catches. 4.5 speed, and great agility in the open field. Now that the Chiefs need to replace several players on offense, anyone with this kind of versatility is intriguing.
LJ Scott, BAL
He has been billed as “the next Le’Veon Bell”, and I can see the comparison. He is very patient with his blocks and gets whatever the defense gives him. He made defenders miss and broke tackles along the way at Michigan State.
Scott is not very fast nor quick, but at 6’0” and 227 pounds, he uses great technique and always falls forward. Baltimore is a running team and this squad will need depth at the position to make that happen. One knock is that Scott only holds the ball in his right hand. Being predictable with the ball is bad, hence why he’s a flex at best.
Check out a sample of his patience with his blockers below.
Lexington Thomas, IND
Thomas is a flex and nothing more. He’s a smaller guy, standing at 5’8” and only weighing 175 pounds, but he was never hurt all through college despite the fact that he touched the ball over 1,100 times at UNLV.
He can run and catch, and has a lightning fast 4.47 40 yard time, though very little lateral movement in any of his tape. I love the coaching staff in Indianapolis, so I think they’ll find a great place to use his talent.
ONE MUST-HAVE BACKUP
Alex Barnes, TEN
If you own Derrick Henry, I think you better find a way to draft Alex Barnes. He is big enough to take a pounding at 6’0” 226 pounds, and does everything that Henry can do — run downfield, through and around blockers at the second level.
Dion Lewis is the only other running back worth mentioning on the Titans roster, and he can’t do the same thing that Barnes can do. I think Lewis will retain the third-down and change-of-pace roles. Barnes will spell Henry once in a while, but he’ll also be the primary backup to Henry should anything go awry.
I’ve already examined this player in-depth in a previous article. Click here to read my analysis of Alex Barnes.
ULTIMATE SLEEPER PICK
Karan Higdon, HOU
Higdon is 5’9”, 206 pounds. He’s light enough to have elite speed while being just big enough to take on constant contact from the defense. His 1.55 ten-yard split shows how fast his initial quickness is, and was tied for fourth-best at the combine among running backs. His 40-yard dash of 4.49 was tied for fifth-best, and his broad jump of 123 inches was seventh-best.
He has the size and measurables, and was the leading rusher and co-captain for Michigan the past two seasons. He had eight games of over 100 yards rushing his senior year.
Higdon wasn’t hurt or injured to the point where he needed a lengthy recovery, and wasn’t in any legal trouble. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors, and was originally projected to be selected between rounds three and five.
So why did Karan Higdon go undrafted? He has been described as a “no-frills runner” by scouts, and doesn’t have many catches (16) to go along with his 471 rushes in his career at Michigan. This is something that will have to be coached up, but there are several running backs who made a living without being able to catch (Frank Gore, Jerome Bettis, Shaun Alexander, etc).
Other than that, there wasn’t much bad information I could find on him. In fact, he came across as a well-balanced individual, with a good head on his shoulders, who was a leader amongst his teammates.
Higdon signed with the Houston Texans, who have traditionally been a zone-blocking team that has helped benefit the likes of Arian Foster and Lamar Miller, both one-cut runners over the past decade. Higdon isn’t a one-cut runner, but there is evidence that Houston may be looking to change all this going forward.
First of all, Houston drafted two offensive linemen with two of their first three selections in the 2019 NFL draft. Tytus Howard, an offensive tackle from Alabama, and Max Scharping, an offensive tackle from Northern Illinois, were both noted to be grinders with excellent run-blocking skills.
Secondly, the Texans drafted Cullen Gillaspia, a fullback from Texas A&M, in the seventh round of the draft. Fullbacks are lead blockers, and lead blockers aren’t used in zone-blocking schemes.
All of this tells me that the Texans may be looking to switch up their scheme to more of a power scheme this season. And what better way to try things out than to sign an undrafted running back? This way, the team isn’t all-in on the scheme change.
On the above play, it’s goal line formation so everyone knows it’s coming. There is a pulling guard and lead blocker hitting off-tackle right in this man-blocking play, so all Higdon has to do is allow his blockers to set up and hit the hole as hard as he can.
He slows up just a tad which allows his blocks to fully develop. He hits the hole and lowers his body as he drives through the first defender. He sees a second defender and stutter-steps to slow down so he can regain composure to run on the inside. Then he turns on the jets and uses his remaining downfield blocker to help gain as many yards as possible.
I love this play. Michigan used a double-tight formation vs Wisconsin all day with success. Wisconsin changed from a 3-4 to a 5-2 defense and purposely crashed their right side end to force the runner outside. The wham block, which would normally be used on the right defensive end, is now ineffective and the linebacker has a clear shot at the runner.
Higdon uses his elite quickness and power to get away from the defenders at the line of scrimmage. He outruns another defender while running left, and then escapes another tackler cutting inside. Notice on this move that he protects the ball by bringing it inside his body and away from the defender? Brilliant move and split-second decision-making.
He then regains his composure and runs another five yards before getting pushed out of bounds. But the damage has been done, and Higdon single-handedly gave Michigan another set of first downs.
This is the same formation and same play again, this time against a Michigan State team that knows it’s coming. They blew it up and Higdon still manages to turn it into a big gain. No explanation is needed as you watch his power and speed take over.
The only thing in front of Higdon is an older Lamar Miller and a backup in D’Onta Foreman who is still recovering from an Achilles tear. History shows that this type of injury affects a player for the rest of his career, so Foreman may never become the type of player he was drafted to be.
In my opinion, Higdon is well worth a fourth-round flyer. His upside is bigger than any other undrafted free agent running back I can find, and he can easily be flipped for a first rounder if he is ever given the chance to show off his skills. If you are looking for a way to improve your team on the cheap, look no further than my ultimate sleeper pick of Higdon.
You can follow his opinions on Twitter @MikeEHavens