Written by Kyle Timothy

Many moons ago, I traded Austin Ekeler for basically a ham sandwich. I bought into all the takes that his prowess as a third-down back would never translate to much value dynasty-wise; never would he ever be the guy for the Chargers. But then the Chargers traded away Melvin Gordon.

Damn.

And the guy who gave me a ham sandwich just won our 14-team dynasty super flex league.

DAMN.

I believe that experience is the best teacher, so here is my lesson for you: third-down backs win championships.

Let me back up a bit. My league is a full PPR league, we have a three-round draft where 95 percent of the chosen players are rookies, and we have a healthy disdain for each other in the group chat during the season. When I traded Ekeler away, folks thought it was a pretty fair trade. 

In hindsight, we see that’s not the case. The RB position has evolved right along with the game, and if your back isn’t catching passes on the reg, you’re probably falling victim to the ol’ RBBC trick. Third-down backs have become the workhorses, and Ekeler was perhaps the first example of that change…

Okay, you got me. This is definitely not the first time a pass-catching back has become the centerpiece of a backfield operation. We can look all the way back to the turn of the century when Marshall Faulk was the top back of 2000 with 81 receptions (in just 14 games, I might add. What a legend!). But Faulk was a usual suspect. Finding the guys that seemingly come out of nowhere is how you get a leg-up on the competition. For example, Danny Woodhead.

Danny Woodhead averaged a mere 25 receptions/season prior to exploding in 2013 with 76 catches and finishing as RB12 in PPR leagues (RB19 in standard). While that placed him firmly as an RB2/Flex on any roster, the stage was set for 2015 (his next full season) where he caught 81 balls in route to being RB3 and RB12, respectively. All this while sporting just 93 attempts. 

Woodhead won a lot of folks championships those years. Since then, the pass-catching back has become even more common, with guys like Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey taking the throne while replacing rushes with targets. But those are household names now; to reiterate, the real value is predicting who’s next.

And so here we are. Below is my list of Top 3 Sleepers that catch balls. Remember, even if 2022 is their only great season, you should be able to get these guys for a ham sandwich; and if they take you to the promised land, it might be the best investment you’ve ever made.

Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys

Since being drafted by Dallas in 2019, Pollard has cut into Ezekiel Elliott’s workload more and more each year, not just as a pass-catcher, but also as a rusher. Additionally, James Washington is no Amari Cooper, so there will be targets to go around. In 2021, Pollard surpassed 1,000 scrimmage yards for the first time despite only playing 15 games, but only found paydirt twice. While that’s definitely an anomaly, I suspect an increase in touches and tuddies for 2022. Plus, this is the final year of his contract, so Pollard will be looking to secure a bag.

Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts

Make no mistake, Jonathan Taylor is a verified three-down back. But Hines, at age 25, is entering the prime of his career and just got a QB (Matt Ryan) who loves to check down. In his four seasons as the Colts’ backup, he has averaged over 50 catches; watch for a major bump here, especially since coach Frank Reich recently alluded to using Hines in the slot.

AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers

Dillon is a large back at 6’0, 247, but has proven himself versatile, hauling in 34 of 37 targets last season. His usage in the passing game doubled in the second half of the season (just ten catches through week 8), so if you’re into trends, there’s that. We all know Aaron Rodgers is down a trusted target with Davante Adams departing in free agency, so watch for this young back to get more looks and up his stats in 2022.

Honorable Mentions:

J.D. McKissic, Washington Commanders. With the Commanders re-signing him, his stock goes up. The Washington front office obviously trusts him and plans to use him, especially since he turned down the objectively better Buffalo Bills to return to Washington for the same offer. In 2021, he caught 43 passes despite not playing the last five weeks of the season. This made his two-season total dating back to 2020 123 receptions for 983 yards, trailing only Kamara and Ekeler during that timeframe. If he stays healthy, he could become a weekly flex option and possibly RB2.

James Conner, Arizona Cardinals. Analysts are bearish on Conner, but not I; the situation smells much too close to that of Austin Ekeler. With the departure of Chase Edmonds, Conner is set to lead an electric backfield, even if the Cardinals add a tailback in the draft. While maybe not quite a sleeper, as his 18 touchdowns in 2021 placed him at RB5, don’t believe the hype (or lack thereof) that Conner will experience a major drop-off in 2022. Quarterbacks tend to trust guys that haul in 37 of 39 targets.

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