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James Conner, Leonard Fournette and Cordarelle Patterson changed the landscape in fantasy football leagues, as each player delivered a top-10 running back season at a fraction of the draft-day cost. I should have acknowledged that Conner and Fournette finishing as top-10 fantasy RBs was not out of the question considering they already have those top-end seasons on their resumes.
They were the perfect running backs to target in the mind-to-later rounds, and I, unfortunately, was not high enough on either player during draft season. I labeled Fournette a bust based on his 2020 regular season, and instead recommended Ronald Jones as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back to draft. Huge mistake by me.
2022 RUNNING BACK RANKINGS
|20||Travis Etienne Jr.||JAC||4|
|38||Melvin Gordon III||DEN||6|
|41||Darrell Henderson Jr.||LAR||6|
|44||Ronald Jones II||TB||6|
|60||Jeff Wilson Jr.||SF||7|
|73||Mark Ingram II||NO||7|
|83||Wayne Gallman Jr.||MIN||7|
2021 RUNNING BACK STRATEGY AND 2022 APPLICATION
There are four major takeaways fantasy managers can take from last season in regards to drafting running backs in fantasy football:
- Target running backs on quality offenses.
- Aim for running backs on teams that have no clear-cut starter — ambiguous backfield.
- Volume is and remains king.
- When in doubt, draft the guy who has a proven track record.
Following the first two lessons would have guaranteed exposure to players such as Conner and Fournette, but it also would have led to exposure to the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Rams, Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers‘ backfields.
Running backs such as Patterson, Darrel Williams, Devin Singletary, Sony Michel, Rashaad Penny and Elijah Mitchell didn’t deliver consistent play all year due to their paths to becoming fantasy-relevant ranging across the board, but they all were on offenses ADP deemed above average, meaning they had untapped fantasy RB1 potential if the opportunity struck.
Those are the running back traits fantasy drafters need to target after the first few rounds, especially when there are general question marks about who the “starter” in the offense actually is.
With so many impending free-agent running backs — Patterson, Fournette, Michel, Conner, Penny, Chase Edmonds and Melvin Gordon III — 2022 is going to present its fair share of ambiguous backfields for savvy fantasy drafters to target.
It also brings up the question of whether or not zero-RB is the best strategy for 2022 fantasy football. With all the injuries and other unforeseen circumstances at running back in 2021, it seems like the logical approach.
I still believe that fantasy managers shouldn’t be super strict with any particular strategy. If anything, I think going in with a hero-RB — one stud running back drafted early on — is still my preferred approach, as it enables fantasy managers to plug in a reliable player into the RB1 slot because, again, not all WRs/TEs are bulletproof in the first few rounds. So, even if fantasy managers deploy a good zero-RB strategy — as I did in several leagues in 2021— drafting Calvin Ridley, Allen Robinson, Robert Woods, Julio Jones, Kyle Pitts, George Kittle, Darren Waller, etc. hurt those teams substantially.
Going hero RB, meanwhile, allows fantasy managers to plug in an RB2 with whatever waiver wire pickup of the week comes to light.
As another interesting tidbit, many of the later-round running back hits were playing on either one-year deals or expiring contracts. So, it might be wise to target RBs who are playing in contract years, as they have all the incentive to ball out, and their teams have all the incentive to run them into the ground.
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As for takeaway No. 3 — any running back slated for high-end volume has to be held in high regard.
Efficiency metrics, such as PFF rushing grade, yards after contact and forced missed tackles, are great for evaluating a players’ upside, but the workload is still the major determinant of fantasy success.
2021 RUNNING BACK HITS
Volume was what drove me to draft Joe Mixon and Najee Harris aggressively in the second round of fantasy drafts. Mixon was the Cincinnati Bengals’ bell-cow before his injury in 2020, so it was a no-brainer to go back to him in an ascending offense.
Harris was selected in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have an extended history of featuring one running back in the offense. Harris would go on to lead the NFL in touches in 2021, which provided him a secure fantasy floor.
Even Ezekiel Elliott was a good player to draft in the first round to an extent because he was a No. 1 back on a high-powered offense. Although his production dwindled as the season chugged along, he was out there every week scoring fantasy points.
Chasing volume at running back continues to be a viable approach, but be wary — not all situations are created equally, particularly when the lead back is not super defined on a roster, such as Miles Sanders, Myles Gaskin, Mike Davis and Zack Moss.
I was pretty firm in my stance on fading Sanders and Davis because of my fear that they would lose work due to a new coaching staff implementing running back by committees. That turned out to be the correct process, as neither Sanders nor Davis delivered on their back-end RB2 draft capital. Drafted in Rounds 3-5, they fit the mold of the dreaded dead-zone running back— the draft range in which running backs fail to return value based on ADP.
Cam Akers didn’t have a chance to hit at his summer ADP due to injury, but all indications were that he was on the cusp of a breakout season.
every time I research or write about Cam Akers I just fall more in love
— Andrew Erickson™ (@AndrewErickson_) July 13, 2021
Fantasy gamers were robbed of Akers’ availability due to an Achilles injury, but the way Sean McVay deployed a 1RB system between the healthiest versions of Darrell Henderson Jr. and Sony Michel has me taking theoretical victory laps on my Akers call.
Michel and Henderson combined to run a route on 82% of the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive dropbacks in 2021. They also combined for 336 touches — third-most among all RBs, 19.7 per game — when operating as the true lead back through 17 games.
Akers has a chance to capture that role in 2022.
He’s already staking his claim as the favorite to take over the backfield as the Rams make their playoff run.
In the team’s wild-card playoff victory over the Arizona Cardinals, Akers led the backfield with a 54% snap share and 19 touches to Michel’s 40% snap share and 13 touches. The second-year back also ran a route on 52% of Matthew Stafford’s dropbacks. This all came to fruition in just his second game back from a torn Achilles just six months ago. Madness.
Early on in the pre-draft process, Elijah Mitchell stood out to me as 2021’s version of James Robinson. So, when Week 1 came around and Trey Sermon was made a healthy scratch, I knew it was game on for Mitchell. Then, Raheem Mostert went down for the season, and I made sure Mitchell was my No. 1 priority off the Week 2 waiver wire.
Don't sleep on Elijah Mitchell pic.twitter.com/ihXkn1w8y2
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) April 19, 2021
My only regret is I didn’t trust my own rookie rankings process more than blindly following the San Francisco 49ers’ running back draft order. I won’t make that mistake again with the upcoming 2022 NFL Draft Class.
2021 RUNNING BACK MISSES
I dabbled in Myles Gaskin somewhat across my own fantasy leagues because he established himself as the workhorse in 2020. For the most part, he retained the role in 2021, leading the Miami Dolphins with 13.1 touches per game.
However, drafting Gaskin in Round 4/5 on an offense that has a lot of question marks was enough of a red flag to go elsewhere with that draft capital. Cooper Kupp’s ADP was right there next to Gaskin. Woof.
The Dolphins running back would eventually lose work to street free-agent Duke Johnson Jr. toward the end of the 2021 season.
The lesson here is to not prioritize running backs on offenses that have not yet proven to be above average while treading lightly on running backs that don’t have a lot of job security. With running backs, ask yourself: What would it take for RB “X” to lose the starting job? In Gaskin’s case, I don’t think Miami ever felt that it had to feed him a ton of volume.
Running backs who should be approached with the same interrogation in 2022 include Elijah Mitchell, Michael Carter, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Devin Singletary. Each will undoubtedly be the first running back drafted on their team in fantasy drafts, but we don't know how long they will remain starters.
Singletary's ADP, in particular, will be fascinating to watch, as he is following Fournette's footsteps due to his massive playoff workload.
The Buffalo Bills‘ newly entrenched RB1 has averaged 20.5 fantasy points per game (second), an 81% snap share and 84% backfield touch share over the last six weeks.
Bills RB touches last six weeks
Devin Singletary – 113
Zack Moss – 17
Matt Breida – 4
Singletary doing his best Lombardi Lenny impression from last season.
— Andrew Erickson™ (@AndrewErickson_) January 18, 2022
Singletary’s late-season surge hit hard because I was all aboard the Zack Moss train during the draft season. In my Bills fantasy team preview, I initially thought both were undervalued because they each had a shot at leading the backfield in a top-scoring offense. That’s a good process.
I leaned toward Moss because I figured he had a better shot at earning goal-line opportunities. However, I didn’t adjust expectations during the preseason when Singletary was playing ahead of Moss, or when Moss was flat-out inactive in Week 1. I also neglected Singletary’s NFL track record that was vastly superior to Moss.
After he was made inactive, I should have leaped off the Moss bandwagon, but I remained stubborn. Learn from me and be more open to the possibilities of these ambiguous backfields.
I was concerned about Taylor's potential to be in a committee with Nyheim Hines, lack of general pass-game work and Carson Wentz/offensive line issues to start the season. Although I recognized Taylor did possess a top-5 fantasy ceiling, I didn’t account for his room to grow.
After playing just a 70% snap share once in 2020, Taylor surpassed that number in nine contests in 2021, including eight weeks during the team’s last eight games. Taylor also led the NFL in red-zone touches (92), which was not that surprising considering he ranked fifth in that category as a rookie.
A similar sentiment can be made for Jacobs, who was left for dead by basically everybody despite the fact he has a decent sample size as a receiver in college, and he ranked third in red-zone touches in 2020.
He was written off because of the Las Vegas Raiders’ tough projected schedule, but he ultimately prevailed as the RB13 overall. The takeaway here is analyzing whether the market acknowledges the cost of a running back’s role changing. Both Taylor and Jacobs' price tags were based on neither taking a step forward as a receiver when it still was within their range of outcomes.
Austin Ekeler had primary goal-line duties in his range of outcomes under a new coaching staff and ended the season second in red-zone touches (62). Identifying a team’s primary red-zone back is an easy way to hit on a fantasy running back.
I faded Henry as a first-round pick in 2021, and the results were suboptimal. The Tennessee Titans running back led the position in fantasy PPR points per game (23.4) through eight weeks and bested his 2020 2,000-yard campaign by more than 2.5 PPR points per game.
Henry getting hurt bailed me out, but I’m not willing to double-down on that happening again in 2022. His guaranteed volume makes him near bulletproof.
Barkley is one case where volume didn’t overcome the situation. The New York Giants offense was an utter train wreck, and I’ll admit I started lowering of the Giants' weapons as the 2021 season got closer — except for Barkley, who I thought would be a locked-and-loaded fantasy RB1. However, the Giants running back ended 2021 with just three weekly RB1 finishes — zero after Week 5.
Injuries and bad situations should have made Barkley an obvious fade at the top of fantasy drafts. When there are multiple ways a guy can fail, he can’t be taken at the Round 1/Round 2 turn.
Barkley will be much cheaper to draft in 2022, so I’ll likely target him depending on where his ADP settles. The volume should still be there, and the situation in New York can only go up from here.
As a free agent in 2023 Barkley could be a breakout running back due to playing on an expiring contract, as the team has all incentive to run him into the ground. In addition, he has an RB2 overall finish on his resume.
With a full offseason healthy, Barkley has major bounce-back appeal in 2022.