Running Backs Sleepers: James Cook, Joe Mixon, David Montgomery (Fantasy Football) (2024)

If you’re employing a Zero RB strategy with your fantasy football draft, you must be selective and very intentional with the running backs you select. Since you’ll be drafting a running back much later than one typically would, your first running back should have plenty of outs to be a top-10 running back this season or have a legendary running back season. The odds of drafting a 20+-point-per-game running back from the mid-to-late rounds are rare. Kyren Williams (21.3) did it last season; before that, Alvin Kamara (19.7) came the closest in 2017.

While drafting a 20+ fantasy-point-per-game scorer is the true ceiling outcome, getting a running back who can pace your roster with the wide receiver firepower and elite quarterback is the goal. In the last couple of seasons, we’ve seen running back prices get cheaper and cheaper, thus lowering the opportunity cost of selecting backs from normal elite wide receiver ranges to having the ability to draft running backs with massive upside toward the end of the wide receiver window. We’ll list a handful of backs who can keep your roster strong from the running back position with minimal-to-low opportunity cost in fantasy drafts for 2024.

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Zero RB Running Backs to Draft

James Cook (RB – BUF)

2023 was a tale of two seasons for James Cook, who thrived in the back half of 2023 when Joe Brady was installed as Buffalo’s offensive coordinator following the firing of Ken Dorsey. From Weeks 1-10, Cook averaged 14.8 touches per game and was the RB29 with 11.8 fantasy points per game (PPG) under Dorsey’s offensive direction. From Week 11 to the end of the season, Cook’s touches ramped up with a renewed focus on the run game and in particular, Cook. He earned 20.4 touches per game and was the RB11, averaging 16.4 PPG.

James Cook is becoming an elite weapon. pic.twitter.com/kVEXI7DhfI

— Jon Helmkamp (@JonHelmkamp) December 17, 2023

Cook’s profile is further enhanced by his ability in the receiving game, notching an excellent 1.45 yards per route run last season — the same number as one of my favorite running backs this season, Jaylen Warren. Cook was also one of the most efficient backs in the league last season as he finished ninth in raw rushing yards expected and eighth in success rate per, NFL Next Gen Stats, which measures the percentage of rushing attempts a back is gaining more yards than expected.

The elephant in the room with Cook is the touchdown upside, which is a thin bet considering the Bills were happy to use the elderly Latavius Murray in those situations and drafted Ray Davis in the fourth round in the 2024 NFL Draft. While touchdowns are a fluky thing to prognosticate in fantasy football, Cook’s lack of utilization in that area does give some pause. Cook only received 13.4% of Buffalo’s carries inside the 5-yard line, the fourth-worst mark of 49 qualifying backs who received 100+ rush attempts last season.

By drafting Cook, you’re getting a package of some projectable volume, efficiency and a multi-faceted skillset in the fifth round. A running back profile like Cook’s used to only be available in the third round or earlier. As the RB14 in FantasyPros’ expert consensus rankings (ECR), he’s a dark-horse running back who, with some touchdown regression, can put up 20+ PPG this season. The lack of goal-line opportunity is already baked into his price on draft day, but if he outperforms that, we’re sitting pretty with a league-winner.

Joe Mixon (RB – HOU)

I’ve been completely hands-off with Joe Mixon for this decade because of his draft day price and what you’re getting when spending that draft capital. We’ve needed to draft Mixon in the first two rounds of drafts for some time and that price was far too prohibitive. Mixon has long been an inefficient running back in a great situation with the Bengals. While Mixon has been a top-10 back the last three seasons in fantasy scoring, he’s been a career stat compiler and his success hasn’t been tied to efficiency by any stretch.

Fast forward to 2024 and Mixon just keeps getting away with it. How? Well, he was set to be cut by the Bengals but the Texans said, “No, we want to give you a seventh-round pick.” Houston then paid Mixon $16 million in guaranteed money and sits atop a depth chart on a team that many are incredibly bullish about for 2024. Some guys have all the luck, right?

Mixon’s 2024 draft day price is no longer inflated. Anything but. He’s a fifth- or sixth-round pick that should be able to take full advantage of how often the Texans will have the opportunity to score. Mixon was 15th among 49 qualifying backs in success rate last season and has been respectable in terms of his receiving ability with a 1.01 yards per route run (YPRR) mark in 2023. He’s also been the only running back to finish in the top 12 in PPG the last three seasons. But we’re not playing 2021, 2022 and 2023 fantasy football in 2024.

Joe Mixon's efficiency numbers could improve in 2024

HOU O line upgrade (per @FantasyPtsData)

Weeks 9-18 last year
12th in adjusted ybc/att (CIN was 16th)

Among 49 qual RBs last year

Mixon was 23rd in MTF/att
10th in zone run success rate

Zone run rate last year:
CIN 39.2%…

— Derek Brown (@DBro_FFB) June 18, 2024

Let’s call a spade a spade: Mixon is a volume play through and through who should continue his brand of compiling with double-digit touchdown upside in a rising, efficient Texans offense in 2024. You just don’t have to pay a super-premium price for it on draft day vs. where you had to select him for the better part of this decade. That makes him an excellent starting point for the Zero RB running back room.

David Montgomery (RB – DET)

When drafting running backs to complement a Zero RB roster, you’ll need to create a running back room that complements one another. We’ve hit on a couple of backs that can be excellent bets for the entire season, but if you’re looking to pair some floor with upside later, David Montgomery represents one of the safest bets you can make when it comes to projections.

Montgomery finished as the RB15 in fantasy points per game while sharing the running back workload with Jahmyr Gibbs, who is ranked as the RB5 in ECR. You can’t argue with Montgomery’s 1,000 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in 2023. You also can’t argue with his RB5 ranking in success rate. Montgomery was a workhorse for the Lions. With the team returning virtually every important skill-position player in 2024, the song remains the same from last season to this season.

Yet, somehow, we can get Montgomery as a screaming value in the middle rounds as the current RB19 in ECR. A 1,000-yard back who scored double-digit touchdowns on a Lions offense that was sixth in the NFL in EPA per rush last season is somehow universally undervalued. Pairing Montgomery with efficiency stars like Tyjae Spears or Jaylen Warren is an awesome way to begin your running back room if you’ve loaded up on wide receivers, an elite quarterback and an elite tight end.

Running Backs Sleepers: James Cook, Joe Mixon, David Montgomery (Fantasy Football) (2)

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Running Backs Sleepers: James Cook, Joe Mixon, David Montgomery (Fantasy Football) (11)

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Running Backs Sleepers: James Cook, Joe Mixon, David Montgomery (Fantasy Football) (2024)
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