It's pretty easy to talk yourself into the top running backs for your Fantasy Football draft. Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, and the rest of them are going at the top of drafts for a reason, after all. Because most of them have already demonstrated that elite upside, you don't really even need to talk yourself into them. The reasons to like them are self-evident.
Oh sure, you might like one guy more than the other, or you might think one guy is more like a second-round pick than a first-rounder. But generally speaking, you'll see a lot more reasons to like the top running backs than the opposite.
Which makes sense! There's a lot to like about them. However, on two episodes of Fantasy Football Today earlier this week, we talked about what could go wrong for the top 16 picks in ADP in our Everyone's A Bust series, and I wanted to continue that discussion today by taking a look at what could go wrong for each of the top 12 running backs:
It's a useful exercise, I think, because we're so trained to think about everything that can go right for, say, McCaffrey. He's been a historically productive running back for Fantasy, and even in 2020, when he missed 13 games, he still led the league in per-game scoring in PPR leagues. He's a dominant force, and is going to be the top pick in your league.But there are still ways his season could go south, just like there are for every player.
Here's the FFT team's top-12 running backs by consensus rankings and the case for how their seasons could go sideways.
- Christian McCaffrey -- If we're not including injuries, this becomes a nearly impossible task for McCaffrey. Even concerns about Sam Darnold shouldn't really scare you away, because McCaffrey had his best season -- and one of the best all time for a running back -- with Kyle Allen starting 12 games and Will Frier starting two others. If there's one way McCaffrey's season could go wrong, maybe his role in the passing game won't be quite as robust as what it has been in the past -- he was on pace for 101 targets in his three games in 2020, but 10 of them came in one game, and he and Mike Davis combined for just 89 in 15 games. McCaffrey had 124 and 143 in 2018 and 2019, so maybe he's not quite as much of a cinch for the top spot if he doesn't have that passing game role? It's not the strongest argument, but when McCaffrey is viewed as the consensus No. 1 pick, finishing sixth or eighth at RB might put you in a bit of a hole.
- Dalvin Cook -- Again, if we're ignoring injury risk, it's hard to make too strong a case against Cook. However, it may not be right to just entirely ignore injury risk here, because Cook probably carries more than anyone in his tier. He's missed two games in each of the last two seasons, and obviously, we remember him missing 17 of his first 32 games with a torn ACL and then hamstring injuries. For a guy who gets as much work as Cook does -- 25.4 touches per game in 2020! -- and who has had trouble with injuries in the past, there's always a heightened risk of injury. You're drafting Cook coming off a 356-touch season in just 14 games, during which he also had career-best rushing efficiency and touchdown rates. Front a production standpoint, the floor is very high, but you're drafting a guy who is likely to see at least some regression from his career season and who also carries more risk than most of the elite backs of breaking down.
- Alvin Kamara -- We know Kamara is an elite back when he gets to play with Drew Brees. It's at least a somewhat open question as to whether he can be without him. Kamara has played eight games without Brees starting in his career and has averaged 17.98 Fantasy points per game. That's still really, really good, of course, but it would have been good for 10th in points per game in 2020. And he was at just 14.2 points per game in the four games Taysom Hill started last season. The problem there was that Kamara averaged just four targets per game in Hill's starts. I expect we'll see an increase in rushing work for Kamara no matter if Hill or Jameis Winston starts at QB, but if it's Hill in there, we have reason to believe Kamara's days of being a No. 1 Fantasy RB are numbered.
- Derrick Henry -- Because he is seemingly guaranteed to be one of the leaders in carries every season, Henry probably carries one of the higher floors for Fantasy. If he gets to 300 carries, he's probably going to be a must-start Fantasy RB no matter what. The question is whether he can continue to sustain his otherworldly efficiency while holding up to the workload. Because he doesn't have a receiving role to buoy his numbers, Henry has to be one of the most productive rushers in the league to be a must-start Fantasy RB. What if he gets his 300 carries but averaged 4.5 Y/A and only scores 10 touchdowns? Add on his receiving production from the last two seasons, and you get to 236 PPR points -- a solid season that would make him an RB2 on a per-game basis, but not worth the top-six pick you'll have to invest.
- Aaron Jones -- What if A.J. Dillon is just a truly special player? Jones has never had huge workloads while splitting with Jamaal Williams, but he's been an elite Fantasy back then to incredible efficiency. But what if Dillon is just so good that he forces something closer to a 50-50 split? What if he's so dominant near the goal line that he gets more than a 50-50 split of those valuable touches? It seems unlikely after Jones signed the sixth-largest contract among running backs, but it doesn't seem out of the question.
- Ezekiel Elliott -- The Cowboys are basically tied to Elliott for the next two years before his dead cap hit drops to $6.7 million in 2023, so they still have an incentive to keep him as the lead back. However, Tony Pollard sure looked like he had more burst than Elliott last season, and with his own cap hit sitting at just $1.13 million for 2022, it's not unreasonable to think the Cowboys could turn to him as the lead back if he once again shows more than Elliott this season. The Cowboys are at a point where they seem pretty desperate to turn this team into a winner, and it's possible they won't have as much patience for Elliott if he isn't getting the job done.
- Jonathan Taylor -- Well, we might be seeing what the worst-case scenario for Taylor is with the Colts starting QB, right guard, and center dealing with injuries in camp. This is a team without much playmaking, so Taylor figures to get fed, but if the offense around him is no good, there's only so much upside he can have. We also saw last season that Frank Reich isn't afraid to pull Taylor off the field if he isn't getting the job done, and while it seems unlikely that would happen again given how good he was at the end of the season, you can't totally discount the possibility. Hey, the point of the exercise is to try to make the case, after all.
- Austin Ekeler -- Ekeler is such a good receiver that we're just kind of assuming that the change in coaching staff won't impact his usage much. And, given the fact that Joe Lombardi is installing a very similar offense to the one the Saints have run in recent seasons, that seems like a safe assumption. But it's not a guarantee. If Ekeler falls from the 100-target range to, say, 80 or so, that could prove very costly since he doesn't have a huge role in the running game to fall back on.
- Nick Chubb -- Chubb is a lot like Derrick Henry, except he's about 90% as good and gets about 80% as many carries. We've seen how things can go wrong for Chubb before, like when he averaged just 12.9 PPR points per game in eight games after Kareem Hunt was activated in 2019. And that happened while he was on a near-1,400-yard pace. Still, his combination of volume and big-play ability give Chubb a high floor, so the case against drafting him is less about how things can go wrong and more about the fact that he has a much narrower path to a 20-plus PPG season than most of the other backs on this list.
- Saquon Barkley -- It's probably easier to make the case against Barkley right now than anyone else here. It's still not 100% clear he's going to be ready for Week 1 since we're still waiting for him to get cleared to participate in training camp, and obviously we don't know how he's going to look coming off that torn ACL. Generally speaking, most players bounce back from the injury, but it's not a 100% success rate, and it is surprising that his progress seems to be relatively sluggish. Oh, and the offense around him just may not be any good -- Daniel Jones and Jason Garrett don't exactly inspire much confidence, I'm sorry to say. So, you've got health risk, performance risk, and team risk. Yeah, there's a lot of ways this one could go wrong. You're paying for the potential RB1 upside here.
- Joe Mixon -- You just have to point to the past to see how Mixon could disappoint you. He's been more like a poor man's Chubb than anything else in his career, a high-volume rusher who relies on finding the end zone to put together a big game because he doesn't catch many passes. We're hoping that changes with Giovani Bernard out of the picture, and we saw Mixon on pace for a career-high 69 targets when healthy last season. But rookie Chris Evans is drawing positive reviews in camp as a pass-catcher, and it's possible that role never fully materializes for Mixon. In which case, he'd once again be relying on finding the end zone a lot on an offense that may not live up to expectations.
- Najee Harris -- There are a lot of assumptions being baked into Harris' top-12 ranking right now. There's the assumption that he'll be a difference maker in the NFL to start with; not a given, even for highly drafted running backs out of Alabama. Then, there's the assumption that he'll have a highly valuable role in Pittsburgh's offense, especially as a receiver. That's based at least in part on the performance of Le'Veon Bell and James Conner in the past, but this is a new offense the Steelers are running, so we may not see that same usage. Oh, and then there's the assumption that the Steelers' offense will be a valuable one to be a part of. That has historically been the case, of course, but they're installing a new offense, they've got a 39-year-old QB who looked every bit his age in 2020, and a completely rebuilt-on-the-fly offensive line. Yeah, this could get ugly.