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USATSI

How you view the running back position in 2022 has to do with how you view upside, floor, and injury risk. That discussion starts at pick 1.01.

Jonathan Taylor led all running backs in Fantasy points in 2021 and is still just 23 years old. So it makes sense why he's the consensus No. 1 overall pick. Just don't take consensus to mean undisputed. Because there are at least two backs with a claim to more upside. 

For one thing, Derrick Henry outscored Taylor by 1.6 FPPG last year. And Christian McCaffrey averaged six more Fantasy points per game from 2019-20 than Henry did in 2021. In fact, Taylor's 2021 ranks 12 amongst running backs in the last five years. That being said, Henry will turn 29 before Taylor turns 24, and McCaffrey has only played 10 games in the past two seasons combined. It's not hard to craft an argument against either. But you need to be clear that when you do, you're making a floor argument, not an upside argument. And upside is what wins Fantasy Football leagues.

The truth is, we just aren't very good at assessing how likely an injury is to happen. Some say it's more likely for guys who had a ton of touches last year, others will say the guys who got hurt in prior years are the backs to shy away from. I say, at best it should be used as a tiebreaker, and in most instances, you'd be better off ignoring it. 

So I have Henry and McCaffrey ahead of Taylor right? Kind of. McCaffrey does project for more PPR Fantasy points in the projections below, and I rank him higher in full PPR. The key for me in deciding between the two is the type of league I'm in. In larger tournaments or high-stakes leagues, I prefer McCaffrey. He's on my Scott Fish Bowl roster and he's the right pick if you're swinging big. I'd use the same strategy in a home league, assuming you know more and try harder than most of the teams in your leagues. But in a standard 12-team league where six teams make the playoffs and most everyone is competitive, I understand the perceived safety of Taylor if someone wants to take him No. 1. 

Running back draft strategy

Once you get past 1.01, the discussion remains the same, just with different players. How scared are you of Dalvin Cook's injury history? Do you shoot for the moon with young potential stars J.K. Dobbins, Travis Etienne, and Cam Akers as they work their way back from major injuries? Will Kyle Shanahan finally stick with one running back? Will Josh McDaniels let his feature back catch passes?

My general positional strategy is pretty agnostic. I have seven backs in my first round and 15 in the first two. I feel more secure when I draft a running back in the first two rounds, but I won't shy away from a start that includes a combo like Justin Jefferson and Mark Andrews. If I haven't taken a back in the first two rounds, that will probably change in Round 3, because David Montgomery is almost always there. If he's not, we may be going Zero-RB.

There are plenty of mid-range backs who are appealing this year, which really puts the dead zone to the test. If you end up drafting backs in Rounds 4-6, make them young backs, preferably with pass-catching chops and three-down upside. 

Miles Sanders and Clyde Edwards-Helaire are potential starters who fall past Round 6 in some drafts; scoop them up if they do. After that point, you should be thinking almost entirely of potential upside. You need an elevator pitch as to how a back becomes a top-12 option or you need to strongly consider taking them off your draft board. As for backups, remember it's more likely for a back behind a mediocre starter to return profit than one behind a first-round pick, even if that sounds counterintuitive. 

Now let's get into the sleepers, breakouts, and busts at the position:

Running Back Sleepers
Projections powered by Sportsline
ATL Atlanta • #25
Age: 22 • Experience: Rookie
Fantasy Breakdown (PPR)
OVERALL RNK
123rd
RB RNK
46th
PROJ PTS
165.5
SOS
2
ADP
124
We used to have Dameon Pierce here, but he broke out before the season even started. Like Pierce, Allgeier has a great opportunity in a bad offense, if he can surpass a couple of journeyman veterans. Allgeier is a bruiser who has very little chance of earning significant targets because both Cordarrelle Patterson and Damien Williams are on the roster. But all indications are the Falcons prefer Allgeier as their early-downs back, which should give him instant flex appeal. Arthur Smith would love to be more run-heavy and Allgeier gives them that ability if their defense can keep them in the game. I project Allgeier for 200-plus carries and he has upside beyond that if Patterson or Williams gets hurt.
BUF Buffalo • #20
Age: 26 • Experience: 5 yrs.
Fantasy Breakdown (PPR)
OVERALL RNK
100th
RB RNK
39th
PROJ PTS
158.3
SOS
27
ADP
142
2021 Stats
RUYDS
276
REC
40
REYDS
310
TD
3
FPTS/G
6.6
Hines had a bit of a down year last year, but the Colts have spent the offseason telling anyone who will listen that he's going to bounce back. Remember, this is a back who finished RB18 in 2020 when Philip Rivers was his quarterback. Matt Ryan is far more similar to Rivers as opposed to Carson Wentz. There should be more pass attempts in Indianapolis this year, and a higher percentage of them should go to the running backs. Hines has an excellent chance to finish second on the team in receptions behind Michael Pittman.
DET Detroit • #30
Age: 27 • Experience: 6 yrs.
Fantasy Breakdown (PPR)
OVERALL RNK
136th
RB RNK
53rd
PROJ PTS
128.9
SOS
26
ADP
174
2021 Stats
RUYDS
601
REC
26
REYDS
157
TD
3
FPTS/G
9.2
No one likes to think about it, because D'Andre Swift is so much more fun, but Jamaal Williams is a poor man's Kareem Hunt. He'll earn 40% of the running back touches and produce like a low-end flex if Swift is healthy and he becomes and 18-touch, top-20 back if Swift gets hurt again.
Running Back Breakouts
Projections powered by Sportsline
DEN Denver • #33
Age: 22 • Experience: 2 yrs.
Fantasy Breakdown (PPR)
OVERALL RNK
29th
RB RNK
14th
PROJ PTS
233.7
SOS
14
ADP
25
2021 Stats
RUYDS
903
REC
43
REYDS
316
TD
7
FPTS/G
12.1
Javonte Williams was everyone's favorite breakout before Melvin Gordon's return. And while I'm ranking Williams lower now than I was then, I'm not backing off the breakout. The Broncos' new system, much like the Packers' old system, will have more than enough room for multiple backs. While Williams will have to share, we expect him to start the year as the 1A, instead of an even split like 2021. And Gordon is 29 years old, so it's probably worth remembering that Williams scored 29.8 PPR Fantasy points in his lone game without Gordon.
BAL Baltimore • #27
Age: 23 • Experience: 3 yrs.
Fantasy Breakdown (PPR)
OVERALL RNK
58th
RB RNK
22nd
PROJ PTS
202
SOS
25
ADP
35
As of the time I'm writing this, Dobbins still hasn't been fully cleared, though could still be ready for Week 1. His breakout may come a little later as he fully recovers from his torn ACL but once he gets going I don't expect he'll look back. Dobbins averaged 6.0 yards per carry in his rookie season and was the No. 11 back in PPR scoring over the final five weeks of the season. His upside is even higher after the increase in running back targets we saw from the Ravens backfield last year. Anything you think Nick Chubb could be, put Dobbins right there with him.
GB Green Bay • #28
Age: 24 • Experience: 3 yrs.
Fantasy Breakdown (PPR)
OVERALL RNK
46th
RB RNK
17th
PROJ PTS
187.5
SOS
17
ADP
60
2021 Stats
RUYDS
803
REC
34
REYDS
313
TD
7
FPTS/G
10.9
Aaron Jones is the Packers' best skill position player. A.J. Dillon is second. The dearth of talent at wide receiver means both Jones and Dillon will be on the field a lot, with Aaron Rodgers speculating both could catch 50 passes. Dillon in an RB2 as long as Jones stays healthy and a league-winner if Jones gets hurt.
Running Back Busts
Projections powered by Sportsline
PIT Pittsburgh • #22
Age: 24 • Experience: 2 yrs.
Fantasy Breakdown (PPR)
OVERALL RNK
12th
RB RNK
8th
PROJ PTS
309.3
SOS
18
ADP
6
2021 Stats
RUYDS
1200
REC
74
REYDS
467
TD
10
FPTS/G
17.7
I'm stretching the bust label a bit here, because I'm fine with Harris in Round 2, but I don't believe he'll live up to his ADP. For one thing, I'm not sure the Steelers' offense will be any better this year, which makes it hard to project a big efficiency or touchdown spike. And Harris will need it because he was RB8 per game in 2021 despite leading all running backs in catches. No matter what you think of Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett, we should all be pretty certain they won't target their running backs as much as Ben Roethlisberger did. I project Harris for 13 fewer catches, and the floor is lower than that. Let someone else take him in Round 1.
DAL Dallas • #21
Age: 27 • Experience: 7 yrs.
Fantasy Breakdown (PPR)
OVERALL RNK
52nd
RB RNK
21st
PROJ PTS
192.5
SOS
11
ADP
31
2021 Stats
RUYDS
1002
REC
47
REYDS
287
TD
12
FPTS/G
14.8
One way or another, we're going to be wrong about Ezekiel Elliott. Because if he's his old self again, Round 3 is a steal. But Tony Pollard was better in just about every measurable way last year and there aren't a lot of people who have made a profit betting on a bounce-back from a 27-year-old running back. Elliott possesses both league-winning upside and lineup-crushing downside, and I don't feel comfortable spending a top-30 pick on that type of profile when he's sharing the lineup with a young talented back.
NE New England • #37
Age: 25 • Experience: 4 yrs.
Fantasy Breakdown (PPR)
OVERALL RNK
90th
RB RNK
35th
PROJ PTS
182
SOS
30
ADP
51
2021 Stats
RUYDS
929
REC
18
REYDS
132
TD
15
FPTS/G
14
Harris' ADP would be fine in non-PPR, but would still make me nervous. It terrifies me in full PPR. Harris didn't top 11 carries once in his final five games with Rhamondre Stevenson, and Foxborough has been buzzing with positive reports about Stevenson this summer. Add in a heavy dose of Bill Belichick and you can see how this could go wrong as early as Week 1. Worse yet is Harris' lack of upside in PPR. Week 18 last year was his first game with more than two catches.

Numbers to know

4.5 -- Ezekiel Elliot has averaged 4.5 yards per touch since the start of the 2020 season. Tony Pollard has averaged 5.7 in the same stretch.
67 -- James Cook caught 67 passes in his four years at Georgia. He will cap Devin Singletary's upside if he earns a role.
134 -- Rashaad Penny averaged 134 rushing yards per game in his final five games of 2021. He has league-winning upside if he can stay healthy.
0 -- Miles Sanders did not score a rushing touchdown last year despite the fact that the Eagles led the NFL with 25 rushing touchdowns.
26 -- Aaron Jones saw 26 targets in four games without Davante Adams in 2019. He's a dark horse to lead running backs in catches this year.
27 -- Current Giants running backs not named Saquon Barkley combined for 27 carries in the NFL last year.
18.3 -- Cardinals running backs have averaged 18.3 touchdowns per year over the past three seasons.
309 -- The Texans have 309 running back opportunities to replace from last year, the second-most in the league.
146 -- Falcons running backs led the NFL with 146 targets last year.

Zero-RB targets

I'll update this list as ADP solidifies, but for now, there is no shortage of running backs available if you want to focus on quarterback and pass catchers in the first five-plus rounds. I tried to include a good mix of floor and upside guys because I would like to have some pass-catching backs to start while I wait for the backups to gain jobs. For this version, I'm using FantasyPros PPR ADP. For the most part, the suggested round is a round earlier than the player is actually being drafted. You can't be too cute getting your guys at running back if you punt on the early rounds.

Round 6 - Dameon Pierce, A.J. Dillon, Clyde Edwards-Helaire
Round 7 - Tony Pollard, Miles Sanders, Antonio Gibson
Round 8 - Rhamondre Stevenson, James Robinson
Round 9 - Kenneth Walker, Michael Carter
Round 10 - Alexander Mattison, Nyheim Hines, Darrell Henderson, Tyler Allgeier
Round 11 - Isiah Pacheco, Raheem Mostert, Mark Ingram
Round 12 or later - Khalil Herbert, Jamaal Williams

Handcuff rankings

Below are the top 10 PPR handcuffs to draft on Draft Day. Obviously, Kareem Hunt is much more than a handcuff, but the reason he's on this list, and someone like Giovani Bernard is not, is the fact that Hunt could be a league-winner in the event Nick Chubb gets hurt. Bernard's role wouldn't likely change. So, while Hunt can be a flex in a PPR league even without an injury, he's also one of the best handcuffs. I don't traditionally draft handcuffs to my starters, but I don't mind taking someone else's. Also, if you're in a non-PPR league, guys like Trey Sermon, A.J. Dillon, and Gus Edwards deserve a boost.

1. A.J. Dillon
2. Kareem Hunt
3. Tony Pollard
4. Michael Carter
5. Melvin Gordon
6. Rhamondre Stevenson
7. Darrell Henderson
8. Mark Ingram
9. Alexander Mattison
10. Khalil Herbert

Tiers

Projections