Fantasy News & Analysis

Analyzing the top-eight free agent running backs for the 2022 fantasy football season

Houston, Texas, USA; Seattle Seahawks running back Rashaad Penny (20) rushes against the Houston Texans in the first quarter at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

There are over 30 running backs heading into NFL free agency for the 2022 season. This piece analyzes and categorizes the top-eight fantasy football options based on PFF grades, underlying efficiency metrics and historical utilization.

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Categorization buckets:

  • Every-down options
  • Complementary/passing-down options
  • Early-down options

Glossary:

MTF/Att = missed tackles forced per attempt
YCO = yards after contact per attempt
Explosive rush = 10-plus yard attempts
TPRR = targets per route run
YPRR = yards per route run

EVERY-DOWN OPTIONS

Player Age PFF Grade PFF Rush Grade PFF Rec Grade PFF Pass Block Grade MTF/Att YCO/Att Explosive Rush % Target Share TPRR YPRR
James Conner 27 82.9 73.2 86.2 88.5 0.20 2.81 0.07 0.07 0.17 1.61
Rashaad Penny 26 80.5 83.7 49.5 71.0 0.23 4.52 0.16 0.02 0.07 0.49
Melvin Gordon III 29 77.8 83.4 52.9 41.4 0.22 3.12 0.11 0.07 0.14 0.86
Leonard Fournette 27 73.9 79.1 62.9 52.2 0.16 3.15 0.08 0.12 0.23 1.26

These backs have demonstrated an ability to play on early downs and in passing situations, creating RB1 potential if they land in a wide-open depth chart on a solid offense.

James Conner

Conner earned the fifth-highest PFF grade at running back (82.9) out of 68 backs with at least 200 snaps. He was exemplary in the passing game, delivering the third-highest receiving and second-highest pass-blocking grades for running backs.

However, his explosive rushing rate was down for the third consecutive year, which creates some concern heading into his age-27 season. Fortunately, his missed tackles forced per attempt and yards after contact haven't shown signs of deterioration.

Conner's underlying rushing metrics with difference versus the three-year league average (2019-2021) in parentheses:

2019 2020 2021
MTF/Att 0.12 (-0.05) 0.21 (+0.04) 0.20 (+0.03)
YCO/Att 2.75 (-0.18) 2.87 (-0.06) 2.81 (-0.12)
Explosive Rush Rate 14% (+3.5) 11% (+0.5) 7% (-3.5)

We will likely see regression in his rushing touchdowns — which are 4 above expectation — but Conner has shown an ability to earn short-down-and-distance opportunities. That skill set, plus his ability to hold down passing snaps, keep him on the field in high-leverage situations. In games where Chase Edmonds played less than 5% of plays, Conner posted RB1, RB17, RB7, RB12, RB2 and RB1 finishes.

Conner ranks as the No. 3 PFF running back free agent.

Leonard Fournette

Fournette finished the regular season with the No. 23 PFF running back grade (73.9) and the No. 15 rushing grade among backs (79.1).

Fournette's underlying rushing metrics with difference versus the three-year league average in parentheses:

2019 2020 2021
MTF/Att 0.16 (-0.01) 0.11 (-0.6) 0.16 (-0.01)
YCO/Att 3.34 (+0.41) 2.71 (-0.22) 3.15 (+0.22)
Explosive Rush Rate 7% (-3.5) 12% (+1.5) 8% (-2.5)

The former No. 4 overall pick returned to his 2019 levels in multiple underlying rushing metrics, which indicates he hasn't started to decline in skills heading into his age-27 campaign. He is a below-average back in missed tackles forced and explosive run rate but delivers above-average yardage after contact.

Fournette isn't anything special as a receiver, but the Buccaneers' coaching staff and Tom Brady trust him — which says a lot. He risks turning into an early-down back minus the receiving role if he signs somewhere with a competent route-running option, making a return to Tampa Bay the optimal situation, assuming Brady is back.

Fournette ranks as the No. 2 PFF running back free agent.

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Rashaad Penny

Penny eclipsed 100 rushing attempts for the first time in his four-year career in 2021 and finally flashed the talent that made him a first-round selection for the Seahawks in 2018. While availability will remain a concern for any team making a bet on Penny, the upside is far less wear and tear than his free-agent peers — as evidenced by his 83.7 PFF rush grade.

Penny's underlying rushing metrics with difference versus the three-year league average in parentheses:

2018 2019 2021
MTF/Att 0.14 (-0.03) 0.17 (-) 0.23 (+0.06)
YCO/Att 3.40 (+0.47) 3.12 (+0.19) 4.52 (+1.59)
Explosive Rush Rate 15% (+4.5) 12% (+0.5) 16% (+5.5)

*Excluding 2020 when Penny only played 36 snaps.

We are dealing with small sample sizes across the board with Penny, but he has eclipsed 12 touches eight times in four seasons. He has delivered 16.8, 18.9, 26.7, 26.8, 6.4, 19.5, 32.5 and 25.0 PPR points in those contests.

Early in his career, he was utilized more on passing downs during small stretches, indicating some potential untapped upside. However, he has the least experience on passing downs of this group, which could keep him in a two-down role.

Penny ranks as PFF's No. 7 running back free agent.

Melvin Gordon III

Gordon will enter the 2022 season with 1,503 attempts — the fourth-most of active players — and a decline in production could hit at any time. However, predicting these things isn't an exact science, and he has avoided the cliff so far.

Gordon's underlying rushing metrics with difference versus the three-year league average in parentheses:

2019 2020 2021
MTF/Att 0.17 (-) 0.24 (+0.07) 0.22 (+0.05)
YCO/Att 2.46 (-0.47) 3.11 (+0.18) 3.12 (+0.19)
Explosive Rush Rate 9% (-1.5) 12% (+1.5) 11% (+0.5)

The eighth-year veteran most likely finds a home as an early-down option in a committee, but he has been an every-down option in the past. If he lands in a situation on a team without a capable receiving-down option, he has the potential to play the majority of snaps.

Gordon is PFF's sixth-ranked free-agent running back.

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COMPLEMENTARY AND PASSING-DOWN OPTIONS

Player Age PFF Grade PFF Rush Grade PFF Rec Grade PFF Pass Block Grade MTF/Att YCO Explosive Rush % Target Share TPRR YPRR
Cordarrelle Patterson 31 82.0 64.3 91.4 52.7 0.14 2.96 0.13 0.12 0.26 2.23
Chase Edmonds 26 67.9 73.5 61.0 50.9 0.13 2.77 0.16 0.09 0.20 1.23

These backs are mismatches out of the backfield with an ability to run a variety of routes past the line of scrimmage. They have also demonstrated the ability to operate in a broader role than just passing downs.

Cordarrelle Patterson

Patterson was the surprise performer of the 2021 fantasy season, finishing as the RB18 in fantasy points per game (14.6). His previous career-high in rushing attempts was 64, which he more than doubled with 153.

He finished the season as the No. 5-graded running back (82.0) and earned the No. 2 receiving grade (91.4) among running backs. The nine-year vet lined up all over the formation and registered a whopping 2.25 YPRR — the third most at the position.

Nov 28, 2021; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Atlanta Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson (84) runs with the ball in the first half against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Patterson's underlying rushing metrics with difference versus the three-year league average in parentheses:

2019 2020 2021
MTF/Att 0.19 (+0.02) 0.14 (-0.03)
YCO/Att 2.97 (+0.04) 2.96 (+0.03)
Explosive Rush Rate 9% (-1.5) 13% (+2.5)

Entering his age-31 season, he carries more upside than most backs at this age, thanks to his receiving chops. However, it has taken eight seasons for a coaching staff to figure out how to maximize the veteran, making landing his landing spot more critical than most. Returning to Arthur Smith and the Falcons is the optimal situation.

Patterson is PFF's No. 1 ranked free-agent running back heading into the offseason.

Chase Edmonds

Edmonds finished the season with the fourth-highest explosive rush rate out of backs with at least 100 attempts and has faired well in that department over his career.

Edmonds' underlying rushing metrics with difference versus the three-year league average in parentheses:

2019 2020 2021
MTF/Att 0.16 (-0.01) 0.23 (+0.06) 0.13 (-0.03)
YCO/Att 2.95 (+0.02) 2.64 (-0.29) 2.77 (-0.16)
Explosive Rush Rate 15% (+3.5) 11% (+0.5) 16% (+5.5)

The fifth-year veteran is average to below average across most metrics but will only be 26 heading into the 2022 season. Edmonds could land in a situation that allows for more, but his most likely fit is a rotational back. He has never handled more than 25% of the Cardinals' carries in four seasons.

Edmonds is PFF's No. 4 ranked free-agent running back.

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EARLY-DOWN OPTIONS

Player Age PFF Grade PFF Rush Grade PFF Rec Grade PFF Pass Block Grade MTF/Att YCO Explosive Rush % Target Share TPRR YPRR
Sony Michel 27 65.8 73.2 44.0 64.9 0.18 2.87 0.10 0.05 0.12 0.51
Ronald Jones 25 62.0 67.2 55.3 12.4 0.13 2.53 0.08 0.02 0.13 0.70

These backs haven't historically been strong receivers out of the backfield but can contribute as two-down bangers.

Sony Michel

Michel took over the Rams backfield down the stretch but couldn't parlay his every-down role in a top-5 offense into much fantasy value. He only registered two top-12 ranks in six games as the lead option. Of the 68 backs with at least 200 snaps, he ranked 43rd in PFF overall grade.

Michel's underlying rushing metrics with difference versus the three-year league average in parentheses:

2019 2020 2021
MTF/Att 0.15 (-0.02) 0.15 (-0.02) 0.18 (+0.01)
YCO/Att 2.55 (-0.38) 3.41 (+0.48) 2.87 (-0.06)
Explosive Rush Rate 9% (-1.5) 15% (+4.5) 10% (-0.5)

As a receiver, Michel's PFF receiving grade (44.0) ranks as the second-worst of all free-agent running backs. His pass-blocking grade (64.9) wasn't bad, but he doesn't bring much upside to the passing game.

Michel's most likely path to value is landing an early-down role on a winning team, which could support a low-end RB2 grade. However, if he lands that role on a losing team, he will be RB3 material.

Michel is PFF's No. 5 ranked free-agent running back.

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Ronald Jones

In a so-far forgettable career, Jones had his most forgettable season — hitting career lows in all categories below. Additionally, he didn't improve his standing as a potential every-down option. Out of 97 running backs, he ranked 96th in pass block grade (12.4).

Jones' underlying rushing metrics with difference versus the three-year league average in parentheses:

2019 2020 2021
MTF/Att 0.20 (+0.03) 0.16 (-0.01) 0.13 (-0.04)
YCO/Att 2.96 (+0.03) 3.65 (+0.72) 2.53 (-0.40)
Explosive Rush Rate 20% (+9.5) 16% (+5.5) 8% (-2.5)

Before 2021, Jones had shown some promise as a rusher, which could land him a chance with another team as an early-down option. He will only be 25 years old and has a high-second-round draft pedigree.

Like Michel, Jones will need to land in a two-way committee situation where he handles most early-down work — preferably in a top-16 offense — to provide fantasy value in 2022. On a bad team, game scripts will be tough to navigate.

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