4 Must-Have Running Backs (2022 Fantasy Football)
As the dust settles from free agency, the fantasy community turns its attention to draft season (heck, the true degenerates are already elbows deep in best balls and dynasty startups as it is). The RB position has been a fickle beast lately with injuries and general wear and tear, so it’s essential to draft them correctly. While the injury bug could hit any time, here are some RBs you want to roster in 2022.
Austin Ekeler (RB – LAC)
I know this doesn’t seem like the hottest of takes, but WHY Austin Ekeler is worthy of a high first-round pick still needs to be pointed out. Ekeler finished last season as the RB2 overall in PPR formats while ranking first in targets (94), first in receiving yards (647), first in total TDs (20), second in receptions (70), second in FPPG (21.5), second in routes run (393), second in RZ touches (63), and third in fantasy points per opportunity (1.15). His role in the passing game is as bankable as anyone’s in the game, as his 5.1 receptions per game over the past three seasons trails only Christian McCaffrey (RB – CAR), and the latter has only played ten full games in two years.
Ekeler’s dominator rating, a running back’s percentage of total team yards and team TDs generated on offense, was 31%. That is a significant number given the high-powered passing offense the Chargers feature, and the 31% mark was fourth in the NFL among all RBs. If there’s one downside to Ekeler, it’s the potential for TD regression (he had 20 TDs last year while combining for 25 over the previous four seasons), but this isn’t enough of a knock to downgrade Ekeler in your rankings overall.
Again, we know Ekeler is worthy of his current ADP (3.7) but is it fair to say that Ekeler now deserves to be drafted over any running back not named Jonathan Taylor (RB – IND)? I think it is, especially when you consider Christian McCaffrey’s recent injury history, the likelihood of playing in a stagnant offense, and Derrick Henry’s (RB – TEN) yearly potential for hitting the age wall.
Joe Mixon (RB – CIN)
Last year I screamed to the heavens about Joe Mixon to all who would listen, and it was the one major take I was able to hang my hat on as he finished as the RB4 overall in PPR formats (I was also down on Deebo Samuel (WR – SF), but that’s another story…). Despite Mixon’s season, there still seems to be some hesitancy to admit that last year wasn’t an outlier. His early ADP shows him coming off the board as the RB9, behind Cam Akers (RB – LAR) (still recovering from a significant injury, general concerns over efficiency – 2.6 YPC in last year’s playoffs) and Javonte Williams (RB – DEN) (not yet even confirmed as the bellcow back in DEN). At that price tag, there is still value to be had with Mixon, and there are reasons to hope that Mixon can match (or even, gulp, EXCEED) last season’s production.
Despite Jonah Williams’ (DE – LAR) impressive PFF grade at left tackle, the Bengals still had the 20th ranked OL in the league, making it remarkable that they made their run at a Super Bowl. This offseason, they have committed to addressing the line with the signings of La’el Collins (OL – CIN), Alex Cappa (OT – CIN), and Ted Karras (OL – CIN). Mixon’s 292 carries were third in the NFL, and running behind a retooled line should only help him and the rest of the Bengals’ offense. Despite being billed as a pass-first offense, CIN was fifth in the NFL in run plays per game, with 30.8.
The one downside of Mixon’s game last year was his role in the passing game, but there’s some reason for hope there. The beefed-up O-line offers the potential for more play-action, and they utilized Mixon a lot more as a passing back at the end of the year (13 catches on 14 targets in the final two games).
Josh Jacobs (RB – LV)
My “this year’s Joe Mixon” is Josh Jacobs, and it pains me a bit to say because I’ve been epically below the field on him the last few seasons. Jacobs is currently coming off the board as the consensus RB18 despite finishing RB13 in PPR formats last year, and his late-season usage offers a ton of reasons he could crack the top ten this season.
Kenyan Drake (RB – LV) was a thorn in Jacobs’ side for a good portion of the early season, keeping his ceiling low as the third-down back. Still, once Drake went down, Jacobs was heavily utilized in that role while also receiving actual workhorse volume (93% carry share over the final four weeks of the year). After Jon Gruden left, the Raiders used play-action at a much higher frequency, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue under new HC Josh McDaniels.
Jacobs gets a bad rep during the draft season for “not being involved enough in the passing game,” but it bears mentioning that he was top 12 in both target share with 12.4% and routes run with 253. He was also fifth in the NFL in receptions with 54 despite Drake dominating the passing downs at the beginning of the year. Jacobs was also efficient in his receptions with an 84.4% catch rate, the 7th best among RBs.
Damien Harris (RB – NE)
Let’s start with the downside. Damien Harris’ 42.9% snap share was 42nd among all NFL RBs, and he only had 20 total targets for the entire season. He also only ran 117 routes at a 25.2% clip, so you have to accept that Harris will not contribute to the passing game.
So, where is the appeal? First off, Harris still managed to finish RB18 in PPR formats on his rushing skill and efficiency alone, and his ADP currently has him going RB27 in said formats, so you’re unlocking a ton of room for value here. Harris fell just shy of 1,000 yards rushing and finished tenth in the NFL in that category.
His real value comes in the red zone, though. Harris saw 46 red zone opportunities last season (12th in the league), and he scored 15 rushing TDs (some guy named Jonathan Taylor is the only RB who had more). It’s fair to assume that Harris will not see TD regression with his clear role as THE goal-line runner despite the Patriots having Rhamondre Stevenson (RB – NE) to use as a combo back. The sub-50% snap share shouldn’t be a considerable worry either, as his health will benefit from less usage than the guys who will see 300+ touches. Draft away at his high-end RB3 range, and know you’re getting fringe RB1 upside.