I recently came across an article on NFL.com by Adam Rank, listing his 11 fantasy sleepers for the 2014. Also included in the article were the top ten sleepers predicted by NFL writers Michael Fabiano, Marcus Grant, and Jason Smith. Rank, Fabiano and Grant all had something in common, in that they believe Jacksonville running back Toby Gerhart will be a fantasy sleeper this year – or in Grant’s case, the fantasy sleeper after ranking him number-one on his list.
Gerhart will be entering his fifth year as an NFL player, and his stats don’t reflect any quality of note. In his four years with the Minnesota Vikings, the former second round pick has amassed 1,305 yards on the ground and has scored a combined total of eight touchdowns – both rushing and receiving. But people do believe the talent is there, and he is the favourite to take the Jaguars’ starting running back spot which was vacated by Maurice Jones-Drew.
One thing which hasn’t helped Gerhart so far in his professional career is having Adrian Peterson to compete with. Aside from the end of the 2011 season when he saw more of the pigskin after Peterson went down with an injury against the Redskins, Gerhart’s chances have been fairly limited. In that same season, the then-sophomore managed career high totals of 531 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns from 109 touches, and 23 receptions. Last season, Maurice Jones-Drew had 803 yards from 234 rushing attempts, and a further 314 yards receiving in only 15 starts for the Jaguars. If Gerhart gets a workload similar to that, then he will have the opportunity to be a very productive fantasy player – if his 2011 season and potential is anything to go by.
The competition for the Jaguars’ starting running back role will be between Gerhart, Jordan Todman, and Denard Robinson – who can line up as both a running back and a wide receiver. Todman and Robinson will probably be used as change-of-pace backs, with the likely competition being for second place on the depth chart, rather than first. The Jaguars also drafted running back Storm Johnson. Although after being picked in the seventh round, he isn’t expected to make any immediate impact.
But will all the hyperbole surrounding Gerhart transfer into a productive season? Whilst he is now in a more-than-ideal situation in Jacksonville, he will behind a subpar offensive line. Sports on Earth writer Mike Tanier recently ranked the Jaguars’ line as 31 out of 32, bettering only the Baltimore Ravens – and they didn’t fare any better with Pro Football Focus, who also graded the Jaguars as having the worst run blocking offensive line in 2013. In comparison, PFF rated the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line as the sixth-best in the league last season. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the former Stanford Cardinal will be hit a lot more, and may have to work harder for his yards on the field than he did wearing purple.
However, he has recently drawn comparisons to Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch – most notably from himself – thanks to his power running style and build. Even with a poor offensive line of their own, the Seahawks managed to win a Super Bowl, and Lynch put up 1,257 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 16 regular season starts. It may be a struggle, but Gerhart could still find a lot of success behind a bad line.
He will also be playing on a rebuilding team, which could impact the back’s fantasy value. The one knock that this could have on his game is limited touchdown potential. The Jaguars aren’t expected to be a high-scoring team in 2014, so while Gerhart may be a big help in moving the chains – especially with his ability to generate yards after contact – he may not get to see the end zone as much as his owners would like, or is projected. But Gerhart may get more touches with Chad Henne under center, whose main targets will be Cecil Shorts, as well as rookies Marquise Lee and Allen Robinson. There will be no Justin Blackmon to throw to, who was suspended indefinitely back in November.
There may be a significant risk in taking Toby Gerhart early on. Although he has been in the NFL for a while, he is still an unproven player, and it is hard to clarify his ceiling. The situation he finds himself in will excite his fantasy owners, and the potential for a productive season is there. Whether he is a viable fantasy RB1 is unclear, but at worst he should be a solid RB2. The good thing about Gerhart is that he will most probably be available in later rounds, minimising that risk that he carries. Bigger names will likely come off the board before him, barring a reach, but expect his pre-draft stock to continue rising.