Fantasy News & Analysis

NFL Free Agency Fantasy Football Primer: Running Backs

Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson (84) runs against Washington Football Team linebacker Jon Bostic (53) during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL playoffs are in full swing, but chances are you are already looking ahead to the 2022 season. Nothing marks the start of a brand new year better than NFL free agency, which is sure to involve plenty of player movement, especially at the running back position.

The Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, New York Jets, Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks are among the teams that will be in the market to acquire a half back through free agency or trade.


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I’ll break down the most notable impending running back free agents — in addition to some potential trade/cut candidates to widen the scope — through a fantasy football lens to prepare you for the 2022 season. This primer should also help you make optimal trades in your dynasty leagues

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CORDARELLE PATTERSON

Nobody saw the Patterson ninth-year breakout coming. Unless, of course, you foresaw ex-Chicago Bears passing game coordinator Dave Ragone coming in as the Atlanta Falcons’ new offensive coordinator just to install Patterson in a hybrid RB/WR role. 

For most of the season, fantasy football’s RB7 was a revelation and a player who changed the tide of leagues as a waiver-wire acquisition

Patterson's only issue is that he stumbled across the fantasy football finish line, failing to eclipse more than nine fantasy points or 30 rushing yards in his last four games. The team also used him more in a committee alongside Mike Davis

Nonetheless, the more bizarre part is that Patterson took a backseat in the receiving game despite his wide receiver background, totaling just seven targets in his final four games after averaging nearly five targets per game. Patterson’s 25% target rate per route ranked No. 1 among all running backs. 

Still, even with the poor end to the season, Patterson’s best free agency fit for fantasy would be returning to Atlanta. He is such a specialized talent who needs to be used in a particular manner, which was executed to near perfection under Arthur Smith’s tutelage. 

However, the Falcons’ current salary cap situation 27th in available cap space doesn’t exactly enthrall confidence that they will be able to re-sign the 31-year old running back. With so many holes on the roster, it would be malpractice for the Falcons to overpay for Patterson. 

So, ultimately, it seems like Patterson will sign with another team this offseason, which does not bode well for him to produce anything close to his 2021 season even if he does reclaim a notable receiving role.

Coaches sign players to big contracts with high hopes that don’t always pan out(i.e. Kenny Golladay and Jonnu Smith)

Without Patterson, Davis, Qadree Ollison and Caleb Huntley round out the running back room. The Falcons should add more bodies to their backfield in free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft. Davis graded as PFF’s third-worst running back in 2021. 

LEONARD FOURNETTE

Nobody has a wider range of outcomes than Fournette in 2022. If he returns to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a modest contract, there’s no doubt that he will be a fantasy RB1 with Tom Brady under center. 

Fournette ranked fifth in fantasy points and fourth in expected fantasy points per game before his Week 15 injury, leading all running in receptions (62). Upon his return to the lineup for the Buccaneers’ playoff matchup against the Los Angeles Rams, Fournette reclaimed bell-cow duties, playing 86% of the Tampa Bay's offensive snaps to go with 22 touches for 107 yards from scrimmage.

Ke’Shawn Vaughn is the only Buccaneers running back under contract for next season Ronald Jones and Giovani Bernard are both free agents so he has interesting dynasty appeal if Fournette does depart to another team. If that happens, Fournette would likely fall into the fantasy RB2 conversation. Most teams that he would land with would be an obvious downgrade from the high-flying Buccaneers offense. 

JAMES CONNER AND CHASE EDMONDS

Conner rounds out the 2021 running back trio, alongside Fournette and Patterson, that changed the fantasy football landscape in 2021, as each player delivered a top-10 running back season at a fraction of their draft-day cost.

I should have acknowledged that Conner had top-10 fantasy RB potential considering he already has a top-end fantasy season on his resume (RB7, 2018). 

The ex-Pittsburgh Steeler was the perfect running back to target in the mid-to-later rounds because he had a real shot of carving out a role as the Arizona goal-line back. That’s exactly how things shook out, as Conner finished the 2021 season tied for second in goal-line carries and third in touchdowns (18).

Conner even received extensive work in the passing game with Edmonds out of the lineup from Weeks 9-14 and Week 18. In those six games, Conner averaged 26.2 fantasy points and 5.5 targets per game while running a route on 61% of the Cardinals’ dropbacks. Conner's route participation would have ranked second among all running backs in 2021 (behind Najee Harris, 66%). 

His receiving game prowess — PFF’s fourth-highest graded receiving running back — along with capable depth in Jonathan Ward and Eno Benjamin may make Edmonds the more expendable of the top two Cardinals free-agent backs. 

Through four seasons, Edmonds has yet to really cement himself as a true three-down back due to durability concerns, as he missed seven games this past season. When healthy, there’s no denying that Edmonds can be a viable fantasy option because of his receiving and explosiveness.

His five yards per carry (eighth) and spot-start usage/production in Weeks 16-17 without Conner in the lineup — 23.9 expected fantasy points per game — showcases a running back who can deliver massive fantasy upside any given week. 

Ideally, for fantasy purposes, only one of Conner/Edmonds returns to Arizona, as it will provide fantasy managers with another locked-and-loaded fantasy RB1 to draft. 

SONY MICHEL

Michel’s 2021 season is less about him and more about Cam Akers. Not to discredit Michel for a season in which he ranked third in rushing yards and first in carries over the final six weeks, as he performed admirably in relief of Darrell Henderson Jr., but he was immediately supplanted by Akers once the second-year back was deemed healthy enough to play a full-time role.

In the Rams’ divisional playoff win versus the Buccaneers, Akers played 81% of the Los Angeles' offensive snaps and out-touched Michel 27 to 3. 

Sean McVay’s one-RB offense has been consistent all season, as the team's lead back has averaged north of 20 touches per game. 

Akers appears to be dialed in for that role in 2022 and beyond while Michel will probably be looking for work elsewhere. Just be aware that Michel’s counting stats from the 2021 season are heavily boosted by him playing a highly-coveted role in the Rams’ offense. There’s no guarantee that role exists on his new team in 2022. 


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MELVIN GORDON III

Only two rookie running backs finished inside the top-15 in route participation in 2021: Najee Harris (first) and Javonte Williams (13th).

The fact that Williams was able to carve out such a large receiving role as a rookie while also working in tandem with Gordon demonstrates his sky-high ceiling. We got a glimpse of his potential when he scored 27 fantasy points against the Kansas City Chiefs without Gordon in the lineup. Williams also finished second in forced missed tackles and first in missed tackles forced per attempt (31%).

If Gordon is not retained by the Denver Broncos, Williams is a lock first-rounder in 2022 fantasy football drafts and would skyrocket further up dynasty rankings.

The thought of Williams playing a three-down role is salivating but don’t let his increased role make you overlook MG3’s seriously underrated 2021 campaign.

The 29-year old running back was efficient across the board, ranking eighth in both PFF rushing grade (83.4) and forced missed tackles (45) while compiling 231 touches (16th).

Gordon is bound to be written off by fantasy draft pundits this offseason due to his age, but he proved that he still has gas in the tank in 2021. If he lands on a high-powered offense and has the potential to receive goal-line touches, he could easily become a screaming value in 2022 like Conner or Fournette last year. 

RASHAAD PENNY

No running back boosted their real-life free-agent value or fantasy football stock more than Penny to close out the 2021 season. The former first-rounder ran hotter than the sun over the Seahawks’ final five games after taking over the starting gig. He ranked first in PFF rushing grade (91.1), yards after contact per attempt (5.27) and fantasy points scored above expectation (+48.8).

Penny was a full-blown workhorse who averaged 19.4 touches per game and seems primed to garner heavy interest on the open market at just 26 years old. Seattle may try to bring him back, but that may depend on Chris Carson’s status coming off his neck injury. Carson has never played a full season but is under contract in 2022. 

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RAHEEM MOSTERT AND JEFF WILSON JR.

After raising some concerns about Elijah Mitchell’s job security in 2022, I have lessened my stance because the 49ers’ backfield will be very different next season due to Mostert, Wilson and JaMycal Hasty hitting the open market this offseason.

That leaves Mitchell as the entrenched bell-cow with 2021 third-rounder Trey Sermon as his primary backup. Unless Mitchell suffers an injury — not unusual for a 49er running back — Sermon probably will stay irrelevant.

The coaches have trusted Mitchell so much during the 49ers' 2021 postseason run, feeding him 27, 21, 21, 22, 27, 27 and 17 carries in his past seven starts. The rookie has lived up to the lofty workload, averaging 92 rushing yards per game. 

JAMES WHITE AND BRANDON BOLDEN

Crazy stat: Dynasty riser Damien Harris led all running backs during the 2021 regular season in fantasy points per snap. As PFF’s highest-graded running back (91.8) over the past two seasons, Harris needs to be held in extremely high regard. With one more year on his rookie deal, New England has all the incentive to ride Harris for the entire 2022 season.

The best part is that Harris can still be acquired in some leagues at a slight discount because Rhamondre Stevenson‘s hype is so strong. The Stevenson hype will almost undoubtedly keep Harris’ start-up ADP and trade value at below-market costs.

Harris and Stevenson has a chance to capture a larger receiving role in New England’s passing game because New England's incumbent pass-catching backs — White and Bolden — are impending free agents

DARREL WILLIAMS AND JERICK MCKINNON

One of the biggest fallers in my recent dynasty rankings update is Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who dealt with injuries throughout the season but was mediocre at best when healthy. His rushing efficiency metrics were worse than his rookie season, and he took a back seat to Williams as the team’s preferred pass-catcher out of the backfield. When Williams was injured during the postseason, the team opted to feature Jerick McKinnon instead of CEH. 

The second-year back finished 59th out of 64 qualifying running backs in yards after contact per attempt (2.4) and third-to-last in target rate per route run at the running back position (13%).

Yet, the former first-round pick’s saving grace could be based on how the Chiefs address running back in free agency. Williams and McKinnon are free agents, so CEH could sit atop the Chiefs' depth chart sooner rather than later. Conversely, a key veteran addition could spell disaster for his fantasy value. 

D’ERNEST JOHNSON

As a restricted free agent, the Cleveland Browns could put a mid-to-high round tender on Johnson to prevent another team from adding him. He is certainly capable of being more than a third-stringer after an extremely impressive 2021 campaign that saw him finish as PFF’s highest-graded rusher (90.6). 

Johnson also delivered in his three starts, averaging a whopping 22.6 fantasy points per game. He’s a great player to stash in dynasty with the hope that he finds more opportunity in 2022 and beyond. 

Kareem Hunt’s contract ends at the end of the 2022 season, so the Browns could move on from him a year early and elevate Johnson to the No. 2 on the depth chart. 

DAVID JOHNSON AND ROYCE FREEMAN

Need a cheap starting running back? Look no further than Rex Burkhead, who inked a contract extension with the Texans through the 2022 season. Burkhead is the only running back currently on the active roster because the others are free agents

Obviously, the Texans will acquire other running backs, but Burkhead’s receiving role — sixth in route participation the last four weeks — does provide fantasy value. 

JALEN RICHARD

Trust Josh Jacobs next season and through the Raiders’ playoff run. He smashed career-highs in all receiving categories in 2021, and there’s no reason to think that will go away with third-down running back Richard potentially out the door. 

JUSTIN JACKSON

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Hopefully, the Chargers make great use of the second-most salary cap space in the league and re-sign Jackson, who proved himself to his team and fantasy managers alike while filling in for Austin Ekeler for the fantasy football playoffs in Week 16 to the tune of 30 fantasy points.

If he signs elsewhere, the offseason debate between Larry Rountree versus Joshua Kelley as the Chargers' handcuff to draft will rage on.

TEVIN COLEMAN

Michael Carter was at his best in 2021 when Coleman missed time. From Weeks 7-9 with the veteran sidelined, Carter averaged 19 touches per game and a 66% snap share.

The rookie’s receiving numbers are inflated because he had Mike “The Checkdown King” White at quarterback, but nevertheless, the usage suggests Carter leads this backfield in 2022 with Coleman removed from the equation. 

J.D. MCKISSIC

Antonio Gibson’s strong finish to the season was fueled by McKissic’s injury. Gibson ran a route on 56% of Washington's dropbacks and owned a 17% target share in the five games McKissic missed. In the other 12 games, the Memphis product owned an 8% target share and ran a route on 36% of the team's dropbacks.

It’s clear that Gibson’s path to top-tier usage can be unlocked if the Football Team does not retain McKissic in free agency or add on another pass-catching specialist RB.

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