2022 Free Agency Primer: Big Name Running Backs to Monitor
The paint hasn’t even dried on the 2021 fantasy football season. Heck, the NFL regular season isn’t even over yet. But the best fantasy managers are the ones who stay a step ahead. And while it’s hard to project what will happen three months from now, it’s always fun to take a glance into what the future might hold.
In this case, we’re talking about running backs. While this year’s running back class doesn’t feature a marquee name like Aaron Jones from last season, it’s filled with plenty of fantasy viable tailbacks. I’m going to keep this list to the most relevant names, so I apologize to more obscure runners like Tevin Coleman and Boston Scott, who are mainly complementary pieces.
Let’s dig into the 2022 tailback free agency class and predict their fates.
Melvin Gordon (RB – DEN): RB21 in half-PPR formats
Gordon has put up a solid season considering he was inserted into a pretty even timeshare with Javonte Williams from the beginning of the season. But there could be change coming to Denver. It wouldn’t stun me if the Broncos moved on from Vic Fangio, which would mean that the regime that brought in Gordon would be entirely gone.
And even if Fangio stays, I suspect Denver will look to hand the keys over to Williams, who finished as the RB17 this season.
Prediction: Gordon goes, and Javonte Williams goes in Round 2 of fantasy drafts as a result. Gordon finds a new job and joins another timeshare, thus limiting his fantasy ceiling.
The flyer the Buccaneers took on Fournette keeps paying big dividends. After a breakout performance last postseason, Fournette finished as the RB5 in fantasy before suffering a hamstring injury that knocked him out for the rest of the regular season.
I suspect Tampa would love to bring Fournette back, and he may be willing to take a discount if Tom Brady returns. But the financials make this a really tricky situation. The Buccaneers are projected to have more than $31 million in cap space heading into the 2022 offseason. But key players like Chris Godwin, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ryan Jensen, Ndamukong Suh and Rob Gronkowski all will be needing new deals too. And Fournette is definitely due for a raise. The Bucs will have some tough decisions to make.
Prediction: Brady returns for perhaps a chance at a three-peat, and the Buccaneers find a way to bring Fournette back. He remains a low-end RB1 / high-end RB2 heading into 2022, while Ronald Jones moves on.
Patterson emerged practically out of nowhere to finish the season as a top 10 fantasy tailback. But it’s fair to wonder whether Patterson’s breakout year was a fluke. After an incredible start to the season, Patterson put up 12.9 fantasy points or fewer in five of his final six outings.
Now, Patterson hits the open market as one of the most intriguing free agents out there. But it’s no sure thing that Atlanta will bring him back, as they have just $11 million in projected cap space this offseason.
Prediction: Atlanta brings Patterson back on a short-term deal, but Patterson doesn’t produce nearly as much in 2022 once opponents figure him out.
Interestingly, Arizona’s backfield tandem could both hit the open market this season. Conner has had a tremendous season, but his fantasy value has been primarily tied to his 14 rushing touchdowns. Conner had five games where he didn’t score a rushing touchdown this season and only cracked double-digits in one of those games. He’s a nice early down and red zone option, but the odds of him repeating this season feel really low. He also isn’t the most durable, as evidenced by his recent absences to close out the year.
As for Edmonds, he brings a little more of a diverse skillset and offers much more value as a pass catcher. However, he suffered from Conner’s red zone proficiency, as he only got in the end zone twice this season.
The Cardinals have more than $21 million in projected cap space. And while both tailbacks could be due for raises, they certainly won’t break the bank from a cap hit perspective.
Prediction: Both Edmonds and Conner return to Arizona, making for one of the league’s most obvious timeshares.
Rashaad Penny (RB – SEA): RB47
Penny’s finish to the 2021 season certainly has given Seattle something to think about. After being a non-factor for most of the season, Penny exploded on the scene starting in Week 14 and ran for at least 137 yards in three of his final four games. The injury-prone, 25-year-old back finally showed some of the promise many saw in him coming out of San Diego State.
Now the question is, was this small sample size enough for Seattle to commit to Penny once again? His durability is clearly a concern, as he’s missed 28 games through his first four seasons. But Seattle also doesn’t have any viable answers at the position. Chris Carson‘s career might be over and DeeJay Dallas is just another guy. Seattle will have more than $50 million in cap space to work with.
Prediction: The Seahawks give Penny a cheap, short-term deal and pair him up with either Carson or another free agent back like James Conner should he leave Arizona. Given his durability concerns, Penny is probably best suited for a timeshare. He enters the 2022 season as an RB3 with upside.
Sony Michel (RB – LAR): RB30
Michel is another tailback who emerged late and has now given his team something to think about. Michel has done an admirable job filling in for the injured Darrell Henderson, putting up at least 12.5 fantasy points in four of his last five outings.
However, the Rams are currently in salary cap hell and have gone all in on winning it all this season. Los Angeles is projected to have $4 million in cap space. Plus, Cam Akers should be fully recovered from an Achilles injury. And Henderson is still under contract.
Prediction: After a strong playoff showing, the Rams part ways with Michel, who signs on as a starting back elsewhere. Michel enters 2022 as an RB3 with upside.
Williams is a really interesting free agent. He’s mainly been the backup to Clyde Edwards-Helaire. But when he’s been put in a starting role, he’s mostly delivered. Williams has nearly 1,000 all-purpose yards and eight touchdowns despite starting just six games this season. And with Edwards-Helaire not exactly delivering on his potential, the door is definitely open to Williams coming back.
Prediction: Williams returns to Kansas City, continuing to serve in his current role. He will primarily be a high priority handcuff in 2022.
Whether you’re new to fantasy football or a seasoned pro, our Fantasy Football 101: Strategy Tips & Advicepage is for you. You can get started with How to Manage Early-Season Injury Problems or head to more advanced strategy – like How to Effectively Assess the Quality of Your Team – to learn more.