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Best Ball Running Backs Pairings To Target (2022 Fantasy Football)

Best Ball Running Backs Pairings To Target (2022 Fantasy Football)
cameraBest Ball Running Backs Pairings To Target (2022 Fantasy Football)

Thank goodness for fantasy football! If it only needed to become more apparent, this offseason demonstrates the de-valuation of the running back position. Not only was no running back drafted in the first round, but there was honestly zero thought for one being taken. Meanwhile, while other positions continue to skyrocket in average annual salary, the running back position has remained stagnant.

This makes sense since the position is the least valuable and most replaceable. However, it’s a shame that a position that is part of what makes football exciting can’t be more recognized, especially since it’s the position that takes the most beating. One day, perhaps we should look into different contract structures for running backs, but, for now, we can thank fantasy football for helping prop up so many talented players.

Standard redraft leagues will eventually take over as the primary format soon enough, but best-ball formats will be prevalent for the next few months. As my mother likes to say, this is the perfect type of league for the average individual. After all, you pick the players, and your best scoring lineup is automated for you. Enough with those start/sit decisions, am I right?

There are many different strategies surrounding the running back position in best-ball formats. The most popular one tends to be avoiding it altogether, hence why it’s called the “zero-RB” strategy. Yet, as Hayden Winks of Underdog Fantasy recently looked at, it isn’t the most profitable strategy.

To me, this makes sense. As the NFL continues to evolve into a passing-centric league, it will be much easier to find strong production at the wide receiver position. At the same time, we can count the number of true three-down backs with just two hands; there are more backfield committees every year than before. The zero-RB strategy can work if implemented properly – you don’t need to have as much depth at wide receiver if your early picks are going there – but it does appear as though the running back position was generally undervalued in best-ball formats last season.

The idea of pairing running backs is an interesting concept. After all, “pairing” is generally reserved for the quarterback position, though the concept of finding running backs who complement together is intriguing. Today, let’s go over early best-ball six running back targets that fit distinctively into three groups of players. You can mix and match, creating the perfect pairing for your best-ball team. Who will you be hoping takes you to the top? Let’s get right into it!

Stats via Pro Football Focus
FFPC ADP via RotoBaller
Underdog Fantasy ADP via

Best Ball Running Back Pairings

Three-Down Backs That Are Currently Undervalued

It is quite hard to find a running back with a true three-down role that isn’t a bonafide first-round pick. Thus, when that opportunity presents itself to draft a player with that role, you have to jump on that opportunity.

Leonard Fournette finished as the RB4 in both points per game and PFF-expected fantasy points per game this past season. He signed a three-year contract to remain in the same role and now is being drafted as the RB12 in Underdog Fantasy drafts and the RB13 in FFPC drafts? That doesn’t seem to add up. Last season, the 27-year-old set career highs in PFF rushing grade (79.2) and yards/attempt (4.5), as he was a good fit in offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich’s gap-heavy rushing scheme.

Most importantly, though, Fournette was on pace for 101 targets last season, which we can tie back to a) being the lead running back for Tom Brady and b) getting the coveted role in passing situations. Third-round rookie Rachaad White will likely be involved somewhat, but likely in a limited capacity, a la Giovanni Bernard. As part of the same offense, why wouldn’t they continue to flirt with the 80% snap shares he saw during the stretch run of the season? It’s hard for me to see him, barring injury, not being a top-ten PPR running back this season, while he could easily flirt with top-five status again.

Ironically, you generally want to fade running backs on their second contract, yet James Conner is also in that stage of his career right now. Sometimes, you have to throw away your biases when a value presents itself. Is Conner going to replicate 18 total touchdowns again? Almost certainly not. What he won’t have to deal with this season, however, is a major backfield split with Chase Edmonds.

For context, Edmonds was injured from Weeks 9 to 14. During this span, Conner saw his production take a significant step forward, finishing with the second-most PPR points per game and ranking sixth in PFF PPR expected points per game. In terms of his workload, he was averaging 17 carries and 5.2 targets per game, which is quite a hefty workload. Obviously, you can’t extrapolate those numbers. However, you can expect an uptick in the overall workload.

Especially after trading for receiver Marquise Brown, the Cardinals are bound to have a productive offense once again this season. The backups on the roster are former seventh-round pick Eno Benjamin and sixth-round pick Keontay Ingram, and he’s going to have all of the goal-line equity and a sizable role. While there are concerns about the potential injury issues or his lack of efficiency (3.7 yards/attempt), which doesn’t align with his 73.7 PFF rushing grade, buy into that. Feasibly, you could easily be getting two RB1s when neither is even priced as such. That, in my opinion, would be a home run haul.

Running Backs Being Discounted After Struggling While Injuries

Want to take the ultimate gamble? Taking one or two of these running backs could be the way to do so. There is a chance that things could bottom out, but unlike some of the other running backs outside of the top ten, there is a definite three-down upside.

Let’s start with Saquon Barkley, a highly complex evaluation before this season. Last season, he was a high-risk, high-reward pick coming off of a torn ACL. When he was coming off of back-to-back top-ten finishes from Weeks 3 to 4, he suffered an ankle injury, which kept him out until Week 11. After that, he wasn’t the same, and the overall numbers aren’t pretty.

That being said, may I remind you of Barkley’s numbers over the first two seasons of his career? During this span, he averaged 4.83 yards/attempt, 3.29 yards after contact/attempt, and a 12.1% explosive run rate. Those are all quite strong numbers and speak to Barkley’s overall talent. Now, the question is: was Barkley’s decrease in performance (3.7 yards/attempt, 6% explosive run rate) simply due to injury, or are his best days behind him?

For me, I’ll bet on the former. Barkley gets a massive upgrade in play-calling with head coach Brian Daboll, while there remains zero running back competition on the roster. The two factors create quite the ceiling with him, making him quite the enticing option. The peak production for running backs tends to come in the second year following an ACL tear, and the combination of talent and volume could all come together this season.

Cam Akers, meanwhile, may possess an even higher upside that ranked sixth in points per game and fifth in yards per play last season. After making a miraculous return just about six months after having surgery on his torn Achilles, he struggled mightily, averaging just 2.4 yards/carry with a bad 39.6 PFF rushing grade. Do keep in mind that he almost certainly had no business being on a football field, meaning that his overall production should be discounted.

Instead, what should be more focused on is the fact that head coach Sean McVay gave him an 81% snap share in the divisional round against the Bucs, per Pro Football Focus’ Dwain McFarland, and was using him similarly like that before the running back suffered an injury in the conference championship game. As evident by this and how Akers was used down the stretch of the 2020 season, he is clearly someone that McVay, a coach that has preferred to have a singular three-down back, wants to entrust with a large workload.

Remember, Akers impressed as a rookie with a 77.6 PFF rushing grade and was a well-regarded prospect coming out of Florida State. Even if he’s not the most explosive runner, we saw what Darrell Henderson and Sony Michel could do when given three-down roles in this offense last year. Henderson could remain involved, but I think there’s a better chance Akers takes the clear lead-back role than we are giving him credit for. He’s a very intriguing high-upside pick that fits the criteria we were looking for here.

Running Backs Who Should Contribute Strongly In The Passing Game

Neither of these running backs plays on high-end offenses, but they should be the lead backs with considerable equity in the passing game. At the end of the day, that translates to fantasy points.

I promised myself I would stop talking about running backs on a second contract, but money can talk, and Chase Edmonds is in a nice spot with the Dolphins. As an explosive (12.3% career explosive run rate) rusher who has thrived on zone concepts, going to new head coach Mike McDaniel’s zone-rushing system is a tremendous fit, especially for an offense that projects to lean towards the run this season. After posting an extremely high 15.3% explosive rush rate last year, this is undoubtedly a dynamic player you want to bet on.

Most importantly, Edmonds is being placed in an offense with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who was very conservative last year with an average depth of target of just 7.4 yards. Edmonds is a very productive receiver with 1.28 yards/route run over his past two seasons and hasn’t been a player targeted in the screen game. The Dolphins gave him decent money ($12 million over two years) to sign with them and made him a priority by bringing him on the first day of free agency. Sure, Raheem Mostert will serve as a nice change-of-pack running back, but the odds are that Edmonds sees a considerable role that keeps him as a fantasy-friendly option. While he’s not being drafted as a top-30 running back, he’s a tremendous value.

The running back of this duo that garners all of the excitement is Travis Etienne. The 2021 first-round pick missed all of his rookie season after undergoing Lisfranc surgery, but there appear to be no indications of him having to be limited at all come training camp. This is great news and another sign that you could be in line for a strong sophomore season.

Overall his college career at Clemson, Etienne’s numbers were off the charts; he averaged 4.51 yards after contact/attempt, had a 19.6% explosive run rate, and averaged 0.32 missed tackles/attempt. In his final season, he earned a 90.9 PFF receiving grade and now is likely to see a very nice workload in Jacksonville. With James Robinson suffering a torn Achilles in January, it’s doubtful he’ll be ready for the start of the season. Regardless, the Jaguars are likely to have a lot of negative game scripts, opening up a lot of opportunities for Etienne in the passing game. With him, you’re banking on a very explosive player with a lot of upside in the receiving game. Plus, there’s the bonus of an even more prominent role if Robinson’s injury delays him further. That’s a gamble you ought to be more than willing to take.

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