New Running Back Pairings: Examining Changing Backfields (2022 Fantasy Football)
Between free agency and the NFL Draft, backfield situations shook up entering 2022. Let’s take a look at new duos (and trios!) manning the backfields across the league.
Player rankings based on our redraft Expert Consensus Rankings for half-PPR leagues.
New Running Back Duos: Examining Changing Backfields
The Cardinals re-signed their RB1 from a season ago to a three-year, $21 million extension this offseason, locking him in as their guy for the foreseeable future. It’s a great signing for fantasy football because it puts Conner firmly in the top-12 running back conversation, especially with Chase Edmonds landing in Miami.
The ex-Steelers running back finished the 2021 season tied for second in goal-line carries and third in touchdowns (18). Conner received extensive work in the passing game with Edmonds out of the lineup from Weeks 9-14 and Week 18. Conner averaged 26.2 fantasy points and 5.5 targets per game in those six games while running a route on 61% of the Cardinals’ dropbacks. His RB finishes in half-point scoring during those weeks: RB1, RB16, RB8, RB11, RB2, and RB3.
Former teammate Patrick Mahomes vouched for Williams, informing Arizona that he was a back he both liked/trusted. Williams posted 1,000 yards from scrimmage, scored 8 TDs and had zero fumbles on 191 touches in 2021.
He also proved that he could shoulder the load with Clyde Edwards-Helaire sidelined with injury. In the six games that Williams was the clear-cut starter in the Chiefs backfield, he averaged 19 fantasy points per game (PPR) on 18.3 touches per game. Also averaged nearly 100 yards from scrimmage (96.3).
Williams is the James Conner backup to target across all formats, as he’d likely inherit the RB1 role should the injury-prone starter go down. His body of work as a receiver and goal-line back present him immediate fantasy RB1 upside.
The former UDFA led the Chiefs backfield in red-zone touches and averaged 4.5 receptions per game as the starter in 2021. His 47 catches overall ranked ninth.
Buffalo invested second-round draft capital into a rookie James Cook this offseason, but that’s no reason to totally write off last year’s starting tailback Devin Singletary. The fourth-year back was unleashed down the stretch for the Bills, finishing as the RB3 in PPR scoring over the final six weeks of the season – 17 fantasy points per game. He gained the coaching staff’s trust by earning 54-plus snaps to close out the season, the highest snap number Singletary saw all season dating back to Week 1.
Buffalo also didn’t let off the Motor Singletary when the team hit the playoffs, with the RB1 averaging nearly 20 fantasy points per game from the Wild Card Round through the Divisonal Round.
With a proven track record and two years of bell-cow back usage in spurts, don’t be surprised when PFF’s fourth-ranked running back in rushes of 15-plus yards and seventh-ranked player in forced missed tackles in 2021 is the highly sought-after RB breakout that emerges from a high-octane ambiguous backfield.
Rookie running back James Cook has immediate sleeper fantasy appeal across all PPR formats based on his second-round draft capital, pass-catching prowess, explosiveness, and offensive situation. The 5-foot-11, 199-pound running back has more than enough heft to manage a decent workload, especially as a receiver out of the backfield. The 5-foot-7, 203-pound Devin Singletary was the RB3 over the last six weeks of the regular season when the Bills entrenched him as the featured guy. Cook with an ECR of RB44 seems priced closer to their floor than his ceiling considering Round 2 running backs have finished as top-36 running backs more than half the time (55%) since 2013.
In fact, $2.1 million of Burkhead’s $2.35 million contract is fully guaranteed.
We could easily see Mack released as much as we could see him become the team’s starting running back. Because the former Colts running back has been completely off-the-grid the past two seasons after tearing his Achilles at the start of 2020. Since his 1,000-yard campaign in 2019, Mack has totaled 32 carries for 127 yards.
There’s a chance that PFF’s highest-graded running back from the FBS (92.0) in 2021 carves out a role on early downs even though the team added Marlon Mack this offseason. News flash, people – Mack signed a one-year, $two-million deal with Houston, and it’s less than the team is paying Rex Burkhead..1 million of Burkhead’s $2.35 million contract is fully guaranteed.
We could easily see Mack released as much as we could see Pierce become the team’s starting running back.
Although my one reservation with Pierce is that traditionally New England has been very stingy about featuring rookie running backs historically – especially ones drafted late. During Nick Caserio’s tenure with the Patriots, Stevan Ridley’s 87 carries were the most for any non-first-round rookie running back.
It was until Caserio left New England for Houston, that Rhamondre Stevenson broke that mark with 133 carries in 2021.
Not to mention, there’s clearly an affinity with veteran running backs that Texans can’t seem to quit. They force-fed David Johnson and Mark Ingram II among other veterans last season, despite having some younger players they could give reps to.
Caserio’s post-draft press conference cited Pierce as someone that needs to earn a role and be a factor on special teams. So pump the brakes on Pierce RB1 szn ever so slightly.
The fact Pierce never fully took over Florida’s backfield does raise red flags. His 12% career dominator rating is eerily similar to Trey Sermon (12%) from last season, and Sermon struggled to separate himself from the pack in his rookie campaign.
Even during his breakout senior season, the 5-foot-10 and 218-pound running back earned just a 22% dominator rating while sharing the backfield alongside fellow draft-eligible running back Malik Davis.
However, I am willing to offer some benefit of the doubt after Pierce never topped 106 carries in college.
There may have been some underlying issue with former Gators head coach Dan Mullen that prevented Pierce from seeing a more featured role. Case in point: Pierce only had two games with double-digit carries in 2021, both of which came after Mullen was fired toward the end of the season.
Pierce’s lackluster dominator rating doesn’t capture his coach’s potential ineptitude. The fact Pierce competed with NFL talent like Jordan Scarlett and La’Mical Perine very early in his college career paints a better picture of how his impact will be felt in years to come. But from the get-go, I doubt we see Pierce be a major fantasy factor to start the 2022 season.
The highest-paid running back on the Houston Texans roster is Rex Burkhead. $2.1 million of Burkhead’s $2.35 million contract is fully guaranteed. Meanwhile, Marlon Mack signed a 1-year $2 million deal, and rookie Dameon Pierce was drafted in the fourth round.
I envision Mack/Pierce duking out work on early downs, while Burkhead slides in as the primary pass-catching back after he ranked sixth in route participation over the last four weeks of the 2021 season. The receiving role is the one to target in this backfield for a team that projects to be playing from behind frequently.
Not to mention that Burkhead came over from the New England Patriots last year alongside general manager Nick Caserio, so there’s a built-in connection from management to the field. It’s no coincidence that Burkhead nearly doubled his career highs in rushing attempts, rushing yards, and games started in his first year with Houston in 2021.
And over the past two seasons, Burkhead has flashed a high weekly fantasy ceiling. He’s crested 22-plus weekly fantasy points thrice since 2020. Mack has totaled 21.5 fantasy points over that span.
Kansas City Chiefs
CEH finished 59th out of 64 qualifying running backs in yards after contact per attempt (2.4) and third-to-last in target rate per route run at the running back position (13%). The poor rushing efficiency is bearable, but the poor receiving usage is hard to ignore. Especially considering his calling card out of LSU was catching balls out of the backfield.
Some may also feel that the Ronald Jones addition is the final nail in the coffin for CEH, but it’s not that black and white. Don’t get me wrong though – Jones is a significant threat to earn more carries than Edwards-Helaire after the former first-rounder posted worse rushing efficiency numbers than his rookie season. But full transparency – Jones was not much better ranking 51st in the same category (2.5).
It’s actually a positive sign for Edwards-Helaire that the team brought in Jones instead of re-signing McKinnon or Williams. Those ex-Chiefs backs were proven pass-catchers and limited CEH’s role as a receiver.
I’d presume that Edwards-Helaire will fully take over the primary pass-catching role – which was the reason why the Chiefs drafted him in the 1st round in any way – while also working in tandem with Jones as a rusher on early downs.
Jones splitting work might also help keep CEH healthy after his 10 missed games the past two seasons.
The former Buccaneer took a major step backward in 2021, being regulated to strict backup duties after losing out on the starting gig in Tampa Bay to Leonard Fournette. And even when loaded to take on the bell-cow role with Fournette sidelined during the end of the season, RoJo failed to fire.
He earned 20 carries in Week 16 versus the Panthers but totaled just 65 yards. The plodding runner also finished 51st out of 64 qualifying running backs in yards after contact per attempt (2.5).
Jones is a one-dimensional grinder back, whose fantasy value will be super reliant on carry-volume, offensive line play, and overall offensive efficiency.
That in itself means he will have fantasy appeal as a late-round running back in redraft if he can carve out a role on early-down and/or at the goal-line in a high-powered Chiefs offense.
Los Angeles Chargers
Austin Ekeler isn’t used as a true three-down workhorse, but it’s hard to tell based on the actual amount of touches he sees in the Los Angeles Chargers offense. At 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, Ekeler finished 8th in the NFL in total touches (276) and 14th in touches per game (17.2).
But the raw touches hardly showcase the fantasy value Ekeler possesses, because he often commands an extremely high-share of high-value targets ie. targets and red-zone opportunities.
His 13.9% target share and 70 receptions ranked second behind only Najee Harris. Ekeler’s 18 red-zone touchdowns and 63 red-zone touches ranked first and second respectively.
With such a secure role as a receiver out of the backfield and as a featured red-zone weapon in a high-powered offense, it’s hard to imagine a healthy Ekeler not returning at least top-5 fantasy status in 2022. He wrapped a bow on the 2021 season as the RB3 in points per game and RB2 overall in half-point scoring.
The Chargers are no strangers to taking shots on bigger but unathletic running backs on Day 3 of the NFL Draft. Joshua Kelley was the guy in 2020 and Larry Rountree was the guy in 2021.
Isaiah Spiller represents the latest rehash of the Chargers trying to find an appropriate thunder to Austin Ekeler‘s lightning, and I for one think Spiller is already the best bet currently on the roster. The former Texas A&M running back has the capacity for three-down spot start duties with an all-encompassing skill set and desirable size – 6-feet and 217 pounds .
Spiller should be a solid producer for the Chargers if given the opportunity although his lack of top-notch speed could keep him from being elite. He had only eight carries of 20-plus yards in 2021.
But I’d be hard-pressed to ignore his impressive age-adjusted production as one of his most encouraging traits. Since Day 1 at Texas A&M, Spiller has been the lead dog for the Aggies.
As a true freshman in 2019, he scored 10 rushing touchdowns and finished 16th in the nation in yards after contact per attempt en route to a 22% dominator rating.
The power running back capped off his first year in impressive fashion with back-to-back seasons of 1,000 rushing yards and 100 missed tackles. Spiller also displayed receiving prowess, commanding at least an 8% target share and an average of 25 receptions per season.
With Justin Jackson still an unsigned free agent, Spiller looks slated for instant impact in Year 1.
This past year Chase Edmonds was viewed as the Arizona starting running back alongside James Conner. He stood as the RB21 through the first six weeks prior to suffering an ankle injury. Edmonds ranked fourth in the NFL in receptions among running backs (four catches and five targets per game).
Edmonds won’t ever be a true three-down back due to durability concerns, as he missed seven games this past season. But used properly and kept healthy, there’s no denying Edmonds can be a viable fantasy option because of his receiving and explosiveness.
His spot-start usage/production in Weeks 16-17 without James Conner in the lineup – 23.9 expected fantasy points per game – showcases a running back who can deliver massive fantasy upside any given week.
In 14 career games when Edmonds has commanded at least 11 touches – his average fantasy finish is RB18 (PPR).
Edmonds should see plenty of work in a Dolphins backfield splitting snaps with Sony Michel and Raheem Mostert. Considering Gaskins’ fantasy spike weeks in 2021 all came from his receiving usage, Edmonds should find similar success in that role with Miami.
The late signing of running back Mostert and Michel might have some fantasy gamers soured on Edmonds. However, Edmonds was never going to see a full bell-cow workload. Losing out on some early-down carries to Mostert or Michel was to be expected. I’d still prefer Edmonds in fantasy due to the pass-catching and hope the other signings keeps his ADP at a value.
Give credit to Sony Michel after he ranked third in rushing yards and first in carries over the final six weeks of the 2021 season. The former Rams running back performed admirably in relief of Darrell Henderson Jr., but he was immediately supplanted by Cam Akers once the second-year back was deemed healthy enough to play a full-time role.
He signed a 1 year, $1.75M contract with the Miami Dolphins this offseason, joining a backfield with Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert. Michel offers the least explosiveness of the bunch but has the most proven track record of shouldering a workload that translates into fantasy production at 5-foot-11 and 216 pounds.
Considering neither Edmonds nor Mostert (entering age 30-season) have ever commanded a consistent three-down workload, Michel has super interesting appeal if he becomes the No. 1 runner in the Miami backfield. Don’t rule it out despite his very mediocre one-year contract.
With all the new additions Miami has made in the backfield this offseason, Myles Gaskin seems like the odd-man out. Can’t imagine he has any fantasy role unless injuries thrust him into action. The 2019 7th-round pick finished with the second-worst yards after contact per attempt average (2.2) in 2021 among 61 RBs with at least 70 carries.
New York Jets
My highest-ranked rookie running back is Breece Hall. The Jets selected the Iowa State product at the top of Round 2, signifying his status as the team’s locked-in RB1 for the foreseeable future. Hall’s three-down skill set suggests he never has to come off the field, and the sheer volume he garners will vault him into redraft top-20 running back territory.
The Iowa State product totaled over 4,500 yards from scrimmage, 50 touchdowns and 80 catches over three seasons in the college ranks.
A workload of approximately 240 touches – based on ESPN fantasy analyst Mike Clay’s projections and how many touches the cumulative Jets RB1 earned last season – would place Hall inside the top-15 considering every running back last season that hit that threshold finished inside that ranking.
2021 fourth-rounder Michael Carter had his moments as a rookie, but the Jets know he’s just a No. 2 running back. Anticipate Hall to shoulder 15-20 touches per game based on the workload that Carter received last season when Tevin Coleman missed time.
From Weeks 7-9 with Coleman sidelined, Carter averaged 19 touches per game and a 66% snap share. Upon Coleman’s return from injury in Week 10, Carter averaged 14 touches per game and a 55% snap share in the games they played together.
RIP Michael Carter RB1 szn. The Jets drafted workhorse running back Breece Hall at the top of the 2nd round, but even considered trading up for him in Round 1 before selecting him 36th overall. The draft capital shows New York’s commitment towards Hall being their clear-cut RB1 for 2022 and beyond, which makes Carter nothing more than a hand-cuff. It’s a reminder to always sell high on Day 3 running backs that flash as rookies; they can be easily replaced and likely won’t “survive” draft after draft without investment from their team.
Carter’s looking anywhere between five-to-eight touches per game with Hall entrenched as the bellcow, making the former UNC back near obsolete as anything other than a backup with some upside.
From Weeks 7-9 with Tevin Coleman sidelined, Carter averaged 19 touches per game and a 66% snap share. He also finished 10th in yards after contact per attempt (3.4) and third in PFF’s elusive rating.
Carter’s receiving ability also fueled four top-17 weekly finishes in 2021, three of which were inside the top-13 in games that featured quarterback check-down king Mike White under center.
Kenneth Walker could also emerge from camp as the starter. Walker’s 99th percentile college dominator and 96th percentile speed score will be a welcome sight for Pete Carroll. We know the Seahawks want to establish the hell out of it with one of Drew Lock or Geno Smith looking like a possible Week 1 starter at quarterback. Since 2018 the Seahawks are third in neutral script rushing rate, so the volume will be there to support one elite-level back or tandem of backs with weekly RB2 or high RB3 potential.
Rashaad Penny was excellent to close the season in 2021. In Weeks 14-18, he averaged 18.4 rushing attempts and 134.2 rushing yards per game as the RB1 in fantasy football. He only ran a route on 32.2% (per PFF) of Russell Wilson‘s dropbacks last year, so don’t expect up from him in the passing game. His rushing prowess is legit, though. Penny could be stuck in a committee with Kenneth Walker, but don’t rule out him running away with the job for 2022.
Sadly Chris Carson was sidelined last season after Week 4 with a neck issue. It’s uncertain if we ever see Carson lace up his cleats again. The Seahawks have already prepared for the 2022 season and beyond without Carson by resigning Rashaad Penny and drafting Kenneth Walker. Continue to monitor Carson’s situation through camp, but it’s looking bleak right now.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Workhorse Uncle Lenn is back to trigger the haters in 2022. In Weeks 4-14, Leonard Fournette played less than 61% of the team’s snaps in only two games. Over that stretch, he averaged 19.7 touches and 103 total yards per game as the RB5 in fantasy. Fournette was also fantastic in the passing game. In that sample, he led all running backs in targets (63) and was fourth in receiving yards (344). Rachaad White might be his heir apparent, but Tampa Bay has Super Bowl aspirations, and it’s difficult to envision Tom Brady trusting a rookie in the backfield to protect him.
Despite inking Leonard Fournette to a new three-year deal, resigning Giovani Bernard, and still having incumbent Ke’Shawn Vaughn on the roster, the team spent a third-round draft pick on Rachaad White. White followed up his final season at Arizona State, where he racked up 3.38 yards after contact per attempt and 2.25 yards per route run (ninth, minimum 20 targets per PFF) by blowing up the combine. White finished with an 84th percentile speed score and 87th percentile burst score. This looks like a crowded backfield on paper, but the team has shown the willingness to utilize one back as a do-it-all rusher and receiver. This would leave White as the Uncle Len backup plan with workhorse upside if the injury bug bit Fournette.
FantasyPros Staff Consensus 2022 Redraft Fantasy Football Rankings
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