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Three running backs primed to become fantasy football breakouts in 2017

Ravens quarterback Ryan Mallett runs a drill with running back Danny Woodhead. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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There are many ways to go about selecting running backs in your fantasy football draft. You can emulate The Washington Post’s own Mike Hume (who can be heard, along with co-hosts Des Bieler and Jeff Dooley, on “the Fantasy Football Beat” podcast) and draft running backs early and often. Or you can sit back and follow the Zero RB strategy, steering clear of running backs until the fifth or sixth round of a draft. You could even just go with the best player available, waiting until the running back position offers the best value relative to the other positions.

No matter what strategy you employ on draft day, you must get rushers who will deliver the goods in the form of fantasy points, and here are three running backs who appear poised to have a breakout season in 2017.

Three quarterbacks primed to become fantasy football breakouts in 2017

Mike Gillislee, New England Patriots, 5.04 ADP

The Patriots signed Gillislee, a restricted free agent from the Buffalo Bills, after a season of 101 carries for 577 yards and eight touchdowns. More than half (3.3) of those league-leading 5.7 yards per carry occurred after contact, per the game-charters at Pro Football Focus, making him one of the most elusive backs in 2016. Gillislee also posted an above-average success rating across the entire line of scrimmage despite the Bills’ offensive line allowing their rusher to be stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage 22 percent of the time (22nd in NFL).

Gillislee also averaged more yards per carry (4.2) than LeGarrette Blount (3.3) against eight or more defenders in the box last season, which should help improve New England’s power running game — the Patriots converted just 59 percent of runs on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go, into a first down or touchdown, a surprisingly below-average rate (63 percent) for a championship-caliber team. Gillislee, meanwhile, converted 15 of 16 opportunities for the Bills last season, making him a perfect goal-to-go rushing threat for New England in 2017.

Bilal Powell, New York Jets, 6.02 ADP

Powell had 131 carries for 722 yards and three touchdowns last season, adding 388 yards and two touchdowns via passes caught out of the backfield, making him Pro Football Focus’s fifth-highest rated back last season.

He outperformed 31-year-old Matt Forte, producing almost as many plays better than 15 yards (14) as Forte (16) despite 59 fewer touches, with a higher average of yards per carry after contact and more missed tackles.

Name Touches Yds/Att after contact Missed tackles Plays 15+ yards
Bilal Powell 189 3.2 34 14
Matt Forte 248 2.4 24 16

Powell also is likely to get your fantasy team off to a fast start. The Jets have one of the easiest schedules in defenses faced in 2017, with smooth sailing through the first half of the season.

And let’s face it, the Jets don’t have many skilled offensive players they can feature after the team parted ways with wide receivers Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall and lost top receiver Quincy Enunwa to a neck injury.

Danny Woodhead, Baltimore Ravens, 4.07 ADP

A year removed from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Woodhead signed a three-year, $8.8 million contract with the Ravens this offseason to serve as their passing downs back, filling the void left by fullback Kyle Juszczyk (37 receptions on 49 targets last season) and injured running back Kenneth Dixon (30 catches on 41 targets). Overall, Baltimore lost a league-high 56 percent of its 2016 targets this offseason.

And the Ravens like to use those targets on running backs. Last season, they targeted running backs 156 times, second-most only to the New Orleans Saints, accounting for 23 percent of pass attempts, the fourth-most in the NFL last season.

Team Targets to RB in 2016 % of targets in 2016
Browns 139 25%
Saints 163 24%
Patriots 130 24%
Ravens 156 23%
Jets 123 22%

The potential loss of injured quarterback Joe Flacco could be an issue, but Woodhead would provide the ultimate safety valve for backup Ryan Mallet on short throws within nine yards of the line of scrimmage. On those passes, Woodhead has gained 8.9 yards per reception — 8.7 yards per reception after the catch — since 2014, a significant leap over the average YAC in that span.

Oddly, the loss of Flacco also could work to Woodhead’s advantage. Any team losing its starting quarterback would be expected to get worse, which means more situations playing from behind. Last season, the Ravens passed 73 percent of the time when trailing, compared with 58 percent when tied and 54 percent when ahead. Garbage-time fantasy points count just as much as those scored in the clutch, giving Woodhead ample opportunity to outperform his average draft position. And this is particularly true in point-per-reception leagues.

Read more fantasy football news and analysis:

Five critical draft errors that will crush owners in 2017

Most overrated, underrated running backs in PPR leagues

Most overrated, underrated wide receivers in PPR leagues

Most overrated, underrated quarterbacks in PPR leagues

Most overrated, underrated tight ends in PPR leagues

Five late-round picks worth reaching for

Five stars who could struggle early

The key stat to look at before you start your fantasy football draft

The most and least efficient players at each position

Players who will be helped or hurt by their schedules in fantasy football this year