SleepersAugust 7, 2012

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Sleeper Watch

By R.J. White

The running back hijinx of Mike Shanahan are well-documented, with names like Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell and others coming to mind. It seems as if the Redskins coach may be up to some “Shenanihans” yet again. When mock draft season began, owners jumped on Roy Helu as a viable fantasy starter, an RB2 on most teams. I bypassed the talented back in all leagues, preferring to pick up Tim Hightower in the 10th or 11th round, knowing we were probably in for some Shenanihans and that the Washington coach likes Hightower a lot. But with Hightower still recovering from a torn ACL and unable to practice, one would figure Helu’s path to fantasy relevance is clear. Not so fast. I give you Evan Royster.

Royster, like Helu, is a second-year back fighting to catch Shanahan’s eye, and he may be succeeding. Royster was named the starter for Washington’s first preseason game over the more celebrated Helu. A CSN Washington article at the end of July quotes the coach as saying, “You can’t tackle him,” as well as other positive remarks. ESPN’s Dan Graziano gets the sense from people within the Washington organization that they believe Royster has a higher ceiling than Helu.

A guy with an ADP of 144 on Aug. 7 that looks like he may have the inside track on starting at RB is, simply put, a steal. He finds himself drafted a round or two after players with far less of a chance at starting, including David Wilson, Daniel Thomas and others. On the upside of landing a starter in the late rounds alone, you should be grabbing him. But is there any evidence that he won’t flop as a starter? Oh, you’d better believe it.

Royster gradually picked up extensive work late in 2011, starting in Week 14 with a six-carry, 44-yard performance against the Patriots. Next up was a 36-yard clunker on 10 carries against the Giants. Then the fireworks happened. After Helu was stuffed for just 53 yards on 23 carries against the same Giants, he was deactivated in Week 16 with ankle and toe injuries. That left Royster to shoulder the load against the Vikings, and he responded with 132 yards on 19 carries, which works out to 6.9 yards per carry. This against a Vikings defense which gave just 107 rushing yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry in 2011.

Next up was a Philadelphia defense that improved over the second half. Helu, though still banged up, was active for the game and picked up 53 yards and a TD. However, most of that came through the air, as he managed just five rushing yards on four carries. Royster, however, kept rolling, rushing for 113 yards on 20 carries while adding 52 yards on five receptions. Coming into the game, the Eagles had given up just 81 rushing yards to the Cowboys in Week 16 and 94 rushing yards to the Jets in Week 15. Then Royster completely carved them up, ending his year with 5.9 yard-per-carry average on 56 carries.

Is it worth overreacting to two games’ worth of performances? No. But it can’t be ignored, not when the player in question is starting the first preseason game for his team. Have we seen a similar scenario to this? I think we have, and it’ll surprise me if you’ve forgotten the guy already.

Arian Foster was a no-name player with just one game of significant work (13 carries, 34 yards) in 2009 heading into Week 16 of that season. He then posted two big performances to close out the year, first getting 19 carries in Week 16 (like Royster) before ending the year with 20 carries in Week 17 (like Royster). You know what he did next.

Is Evan Royster Arian Foster? No. But he did virtually the same thing that Foster did before the latter established himself as the best running back in football. Heading into 2010, Foster was the clear starter and it was reflected in his ADP, which put him in the end of the third round. The fantasy world’s infatuation with Roy Helu has caused Royster to slip by largely unnoticed. Take advantage of it by picking him up a few rounds before his ADP would suggest. It still won’t cost you much, and you could be looking at the next fantasy breakout.

R.J. White is the head editor at the Cafe and has previously written for FanHouse, Razzball and FanDuel. Catch up with him in the forums under the name daullaz. Follow him on Twitter; don't follow him in real life.
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