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2016 Fantasy Football Sleepers: Running Backs to keep an eye on in your upcoming drafts

APC begins our fantasy football coverage for 2016 with a look at some under-the-radar running backs who should be on your roster depending on your league format.

New England Patriots v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

By now, most fantasy junkies have purchased three or four different magazines and have scoured the internet looking for the rankings. Trying to see what the experts are predicting for players this year as we enter the Fantasy Football draft season. July is somewhat of an unofficial start to the league year in fantasy circles with August being the time when league draft their teams. The most common date for drafts is around the third weekend of the NFL Preseason, but some leagues are well ahead of that. As we begin the rush of fantasy drafting, here are some running backs that are not going in the first round, but should be somewhere in your thought process as you seek value after the first three rounds.

Dion Lewis, New England

Dion Lewis is getting no love for the great start he had to last season. Lewis is entering his fifth season, second in New England. Lewis moved past James White to take the third down/receiving back role vacated when Shane Vereen left for the Giants. Lewis fell out of our focus because he was injured in November when he tore his ACL. Now, Lewis is back and was making cuts at practice in June at Patriots camp. The fear is still that maybe he lost something. If the injury had been earlier in the season (like Jordy Nelson’s preseason injury) we might all feel a lot better about Lewis.

He is projected as a low-end RB2 on ESPN (Ranked the 19th running back), but falls out of starting consideration on CBS (#23), Yahoo (#24) and Pro Football Focus (#22). Dion Lewis gave us a somewhat small sample size last year, but in those games he was very good. Lewis played in seven games and started six of them. He finished with 238 yards rushing (with a 4.8 yards per carry), 36 receptions for another 388 yards and four total touchdowns. In a standard scoring league he had 86.6 points, of an average of 12.37 points per game. Lewis has even more value if you play in a PPR or Half PPR league. In a PPR league Lewis got you 122.6 points in those seven games or 17.51 points per game (a Half PPR format saw 104.6 points, 14.94 points per game).

Remember that a third down back in New England is not like the third down back elsewhere. New England uses that third down, pass catching back on all three (or four) downs. Lewis, if healthy, should be a solid RB2 and a possible RB1. Do not go get him in the first round, but if he is there in the fifth, he could be the steal of the draft. Yahoo has Dion Lewis’ ADP (average draft position) at 85.6 right now. That means you might be able to pick him up in the eighth round in a standard league. In ESPN, however, the higher ranking means his ADP is higher as well. ESPN shows a current ADP of 56.0 for Lewis.

Ameer Adbullah, Detroit

Here is a name that was highly touted last year, but there is very little noise surrounding Abdullah this year. With Joique Bell currently sitting at home, Abdullah looks to be a more full-time option. Theo Riddick is still there to share the load, but Abdullah should be getting more of the carries and his pass catching ability means he will be on the field more. Even the addition of Stevan Ridley does not dissuade me on this call.

Abdullah has great field vision and is a great cutter. People look at his 597 rushing yards from last season and remember him as failing them. Fantasy football is about projecting. Much like an NFL contract negotiation, we do not draft past performance. You are drafting because of what you think will happen this year. Abdullah is going to improve and he will enter this season as clear starter. He also adds pass catching yards (he had 25 catches last year). Expect him to be very involved in the offense.

Abdullah is projecting as a tenth round pick now (ESPN ADP 100.1, Yahoo ADP 101.7) and most sites have him projected somewhere between 27th and 32nd among running backs. Abdullah is being treated, and viewed, as a backup with some flex potential, but he could very easily become your RB2.

Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland

Crowell has been hidden in Cleveland. The arrival of Hue Jackson as the new head coach bodes well if you are looking for a commitment to running the football. Jackson will likely insist on running the ball and he will involve running backs more in the passing game.

Crowell had 117.4 points (standard scoring) in 2014 and 118.8 points in 2015. His production increased slightly and he was still valuable even though his total touchdowns dipped last year. An increase bringing Crowell closer to 140 point would make him a borderline RB2.

Crowell will be sharing carries with, and surrendering pass downs to, Duke Johnson. Still, the reason he is in this list is the projection. Crowell is projected on most sites and magazines as somewhere in the last 30s to early 40s among running backs. The ADP projects he will be picked in the 12th or 13th round. He is a safe RB3 who could give you some favorable match ups through the year and might turn into an RB2. The risk is slight for where he is going and he will likely outperform as a back up.

Kenneth Dixon, Baltimore

Dixon has far more value if you are in a keeper league. Do not burn an early round pick on Dixon, as he will be available late. Dixon is a rookie and will have to contend with a host of individuals in the Baltimore backfield. The Ravens still have Justin Forsett (entering his ninth season), but the 30-year-old back has really just had one big season and missed the last six games with a broken arm last year. Lorenzo Taliaferro returns as another back with potential. Taliaferro is fighting with recent additions Terrance West and Trent Richardson to just make the roster.

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl - Arkansas State v Louisiana Tech Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Kenneth Dixon is a pretty deep sleeper. He is projected to be in the no-man’s-land between the 40th best running back and unranked by some sources. Still, he is getting picked in the 12th or 13th round. Dixon is a short, thick back with decent speed and great field vision. This is based, admittedly, entirely on his time at Louisiana Tech (where he ended his career with the second most touchdowns in NCAA history). He should be a decent player with pass catching ability, a nice fit at a flex position with an upside as a possible RB2. As a keeper, Dixon presents you the chance to have the likely future starter of the Ravens. John Harbaugh generally likes to have a feature back and Dixon, with his pass catching ability and field vision, is well positioned to be that guy going forward.