Running back has long been one of the most desired positions for young football players. You get the ball, you get to score touchdowns, and you even get to catch passes sometimes. So the best athletes, who don't get chosen to play quarterback, have long gravitated towards the position. But with the way they're being treated by the NFL, you have to wonder if that's going to change in the future.
Just three short years ago, Todd Gurley was the best running back in Fantasy on a per-game basis and last year he could not find a job. Dozens of other former stars at the position have had to accept backup roles, or at least contracts that suggest they are backups, just to stay in the league. And judging by the 2022 free-agent class, their ranks are about to get bigger. Former superstars David Johnson, Devonta Freeman, and Le'Veon Bell are all unrestricted free agents, though none figure to factor in as anything remotely close to a starter in 2022 unless something goes horribly wrong for a team.
What's the point of this to lead off a Fantasy Football article? It's that there are likely going to be some pretty wild swings in value based simply off who gets a job in the next couple of months. Below I'll rank my top 10 running backs available on the open market as well as some of the leftovers who could have an impact. Then I'll go through who has a need and try to play matchmaker. Then in two weeks we can all sit back and see how similarly the NFL values these backs.
DEN Denver • #25
Age: 29 • Experience: 8 yrs.
Fantasy managers with Javonte Williams on their roster are just hoping Gordon goes somewhere, anywhere, to free up Williams. The Broncos have publicly indicated they'd like to have Gordon back, but I would expect a player of his pedigree will have at least one job offer that involves a bigger role. Gordon has scored at least nine touchdowns in each of the past six seasons and still has top-15 upside in the right situation.
James Conner RB
ARI Arizona • #6
Age: 27 • Experience: 6 yrs.
A lot of people thought Conner was done heading into last year, and boy did he prove them wrong. The soon-to-be 27-year-old averaged 105 yards per game in his final seven games and scored 18 touchdowns on the season. Conner's injury history is the only thing that might keep NFL teams from signing him to a feature role.
TB Tampa Bay • #7
Age: 27 • Experience: 6 yrs.
Fournette averaged 90 yards per game last year and has averaged 4.3 catches per game since the start of the 2019 season. He's a true dual threat back, who, like Gordon and Conner could project as a top-15 back in the right situation. These three backs form a clear top tier for me, but it will be interesting to see how the NFL views them if they don't sign with their old teams.
MIA Miami • #2
Age: 26 • Experience: 5 yrs.
Edmonds is younger than the first three guys on this list, he won't turn 26 until April, but he also doesn't have near the same track record. The 116 carries he saw last year was a career high, so it seems likely he'll be viewed as more of a third-down back or a 1B in a committee. The only problem with that is that he's never averaged more than 6 yards per target, which is pretty average for an NFL back. For example, Conner averaged 9.6 in the same offense last year.
Ronald Jones RB
KC Kansas City • #2
Age: 24 • Experience: 4 yrs.
I'm not what you might call a Ronald Jones truther, but I do believe the 24-year-old deserves at least one chance away from Bruce Arians. Jones has failed to develop in the passing game, so he probably fits best in an offense that either has a pass-catching back already or doesn't throw to its running backs all that much. He could be a real problem for an aging veteran if he lands as a backup somewhere.
SEA Seattle • #20
Age: 26 • Experience: 5 yrs.
I have a hard time evaluating Penny. He was incredible in the last month of the 2021 season, with at least 135 yards rushing in four of his final five games. But he also has 280 career carries in 37 games spread across four seasons. All indications are that he'll be heading back to the Seahawks, who still have Chris Carson on the roster. That sounds like a headache for 2022 draft season.
MIA Miami • #31
Age: 30 • Experience: 7 yrs.
Mostert is almost like an older model of Penny. He's been productive and explosive when healthy, but he's really had a hard time staying healthy. He also turns 30 years old in August. I could see a situation where the 49ers or Dolphins bring him on as a backup or a 1B in a committee.
Sony Michel RB
MIA Miami • #34
Age: 27 • Experience: 5 yrs.
Maybe Michel's age gets him a better market than Mostert, but he hasn't been near the difference maker. The 27-year-old has never had a 1,000-yard season as a rusher and doesn't do anything particularly well in the passing game.
WAS Washington • #23
Age: 28 • Experience: 6 yrs.
McKissic is another back who I expect will re-sign with his team, much to the chagrin of Fantasy managers with Antonio Gibson. McKissic adds value as a pass catcher and could have some value as a deep PPR flex if he stays in Washington.
James White RB
NE New England • #28
Age: 30 • Experience: 9 yrs.
While White is more accomplished than McKissic, he's also two years older and he didn't have much of a market last offseason. The best landing spot for him may be a return to New England but he could also follow Josh McDaniels to Las Vegas.
Five best opportunities
Conner and Edmonds combined for 2,030 total yards and 20 touchdowns last year. If one back were to produce even 60% of those numbers, he'd be a Fantasy start. And this is not a one-year thing. In 2020 Edmonds and Kenyan Drake produced 1,942 yards and 15 touchdowns in 16 games. Kliff Kingsbury's offenses have produced big running back numbers, and any back who earns even 60% of the work there could be a star.
Best fit: Conner coming back without Edmonds.
This is a bit of an unknown because Tampa Bay currently has Kyle Trask as its starting quarterback, Ke'Shawn Vaughn as its No. 1 running back, Cameron Brate as its top tight end, and Tyler Johnson as its No. 2 receiver. In other words, the Bucs have a lot of holes to fill. But the right back could take a huge share of the workload due to the lack of competition, and I would expect Tampa Bay to be more run-heavy assuming it doesn't have a Pro Bowl quarterback.
Best fit: Fournette coming back without Jones.
The Falcons caught lightning in the bottle for the first half of the season with Cordarrelle Patterson, but I would really be surprised if they settled for a Patterson-Mike Davis duo again in 2022. For one thing, Patterson faded hard in the second half of the season, and he's about to turn 31 years old. This is one of the most likely teams to draft a running back, but if they don't there could be a ton of targets and carries available for a lead back.
Best fit: Melvin Gordon
With Mike McDaniel taking over in Miami, there will be a lot of parallels drawn between the 49ers success in the running game and what McDaniel tries to do with the Dolphins. They have a lot of work to do on the offensive line before any of that makes sense and they do still have Myles Gaskin on the roster. For that reason, I'm not expecting a big splash at this position. It might even be a ripple like bringing in former 49ers Mostert and Wilson. I do think the fact that Gaskin is still there may mean they're just looking for an early downs back.
Best fit: Ronald Jones.
The Texans have already re-signed Rex Burkhead, but it's highly unlikely they expect him to be their lead back. I would expect them to bring someone in to split the work in the running game and handle most of the passing downs work. They could just bring back David Johnson to do that, but I presume they'd like to get younger. I wonder if another former Cardinal could fit the bill.
Best fit: Chase Edmonds.