The goal of this piece is to take a quick peek back at some of the running backs I was in/out on in 2022 and whether being in/out on that player worked favorably in 2022 fantasy football. The idea here isn’t to just victory lap or own up to Ls — I’m happy to do both — but to come away with takeaways that can be used moving forward into 2023 to ensure we are making the right decisions when drafting/ranking RBs in 2023.
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Fantasy Football Running Back Season Recap, Advice & Takeaways
Josh Jacobs was arguably the most valuable fantasy asset during the fantasy football regular season based on his finish as the RB2 overall in relation to his super cheap draft-day ADP. The market was convinced that Jacobs would become part of a dreaded RB-by-committee under new head coach Josh McDaniels, but that was hardly the case. He was a full-blown bellcow for the Raiders leading the NFL in touches through 17 weeks. And as easy as it is to say that, “nobody could have predicted this outcome for Jacobs” that’s just not accurate.
During the 2022 draft season, I wrote on Jacobs, “The team also drafted Zamir White in the fourth round, but I would not expect too much from White in year one based on Josh McDaniels’ track record from New England of not featuring Day 3 rookie RBs. There’s an outcome that the new head coach is more likely to run Jacobs into the ground on an expiring contract as he did with Dion Lewis, LeGarrette Blount and Shane Vereen during his Patriots tenure. And besides, the red-zone role is the most significant for fantasy points, and that looks to be clearly in Jacobs’ grasp.”
Unfortunately, I fell victim to the peer pressure of my colleagues and other industry minds to label Jacobs as a bust despite his suppressed ADP and the fact that I knew in the back of my head McDaniels could use him in a three-down role. Everybody was overly obsessed with the team “hating” Jacobs by playing him in the meaningless Hall of Fame Game. But we overlooked everything other factors that project massive RB seasons.
Jacobs was an impending free agent – which has a strong correlation to productivity at running back the year before the player hits the market. The Raiders were a quality offense with the addition of Davante Adams – a transaction I initially thought was great for Jacobs to see more goal-line opportunities. The backfield itself was deemed “ambiguous” based on Jacobs’ suppressed ADP. And lastly, Jacobs had a long proven track record of fantasy production and was coming off career highs as a receiver. When in doubt, draft the guy who has a proven track record of production. In 2021, Jacobs was the RB13 and one of just four RBs that finished inside the top 16 that posted a 0% bust rate.
The Big Dog continues to feast and make those that fade him suffer. Derrick Henry made fantasy drafters (and me) that overlooked him look silly in 2021, finishing the season as the RB4 overall and in points per game (18.3). He finished second in carries and third in rushing yards (23.4 touches per game) while also posting career highs in targets, receptions and yards per route run. The bad offensive situation hardly influenced Henry’s fantasy numbers and he did not seem hampered at all by the foot injury that knocked him out of the second half of the 2021 season. Fading Henry in 2022 was betting on him to finally hit the wall playing behind a shaky offensive line. And that bet did not go well. But another year of a heavy workload combined with a Titans’ 2023 outlook with major questions on offense, will have me concerned about drafting Henry yet again. I’d rather miss out drafting Henry a year too early, than a year too late. He’s going to have to overcome adverse surroundings for a second straight season entering his age 29-season. I cannot say at this time whether I’ll be in/out on Henry because it will likely come down to the price of admission. There are obvious red flags with his profile, but his consistent yearly production is so tough to beat.
By far my biggest hit at the running back position was being all-in on Giants running back Saquon Barkley. He was finally healthy while playing in a much better offensive environment and reaped the rewards. The 2023 free agent finished as the RB5 overall and in points per game, as he was able to recapture his explosive upside as both a rusher and receiver. He also scored 10 rushing TDs with 23 carries inside the 10-yard line. In 2021, Barkley totaled just 13 red-zone touches all season. Just goes to show that you want to target young impending FA RBs in improved offensive situations that project to earn high volume with proven records of production. We could easily see Jonathan Taylor post a similar season in 2023 after an injury-plagued disaster season with Indianapolis.
Ezekiel Elliott (RB – DAL) & Tony Pollard (RB – DAL)
I was vehemently against drafting Ezekiel Elliott across all formats. I was convinced that his best days were behind him and that Tony Pollard was the clear-cut better running back in the Dallas backfield. And I felt like the stance was mostly correct. Zeke finished as RB19 versus Pollard’s RB7 status. Elliott posted career lows in yards per carry (3.8), receptions and targets. But he was an absolute TD monster, finishing second in expected touchdowns with 12 real rushing scores. Only Joe Mixon and Jamaal Williams totaled more carries inside the 10-yard line than Elliott. And ultimately the scoring was what made Zeke a usable fantasy asset especially after he returned from injury. He scored 8 TDs from Weeks 11-17. I don’t think it was a bad process fading Elliott based on how inefficient he was as a rusher, but any RB that has projectable goal-line duties in a high-powered offense possesses an upside that needs to be considered in some capacity. I didn’t value that enough with Zeke (or Jamaal Williams or Miles Sanders) and I missed out on some high-scoring weeks/running backs as a result. However, I would not have felt so bad missing out on Elliot had I not been drafting more of Pollard. It would make sense that if you are strongly fading one running back on an offense then you should be higher on the other running back. And I should have been higher on Pollard naturally by just being lower on Elliott.
I wasn’t actively fading Jones at his ADP in drafts, but I warned everyone about the small sample-size trap and overly projecting his receiving usage without Davante Adams on the roster. People were expecting Jones to lead the Packers in receptions and receiving yards, which did not come to fruition. Although his 59 catches did rank second on the team behind only Allen Lazard. Jones caught fewer passes than the year before. His catches per game (3.5) were identical to the year before. He saw a career-high in targets (72), but that was based on his 17 games played. His 4.3 targets per game were also identical to the year before. And Jones was the epitome of a boom-or-bust running back that his fantasy managers are too familiar with that isn’t super obvious based on his RB9 finish and RB12 status in points per game. The main takeaway here is that you need to be careful with these sample size arguments for an entire player’s outlook. Especially when the said argument provides evidence that the favorable in/out Adams splits were heavily influenced by additional Packers players missing time in those games. It’s worth taking a deep dive into splits that look great and are easily digestible to make sure they are legitimate.
Easily my biggest hit from the middle-to-late rounds was pounding the table for Rhamondre Stevenson. It was a simple bet on him building on an excellent rookie season. Obviously, Damien Harris going down with an injury helped ignite Stevenson’s 2022 campaign, but Stevenson was being worked in more than Harris even when both guys were healthy. From a data standpoint, Stevenson was PFF’s highest-graded rookie RB in 2021… which placed him into a tier with the likes of Jonathan Taylor, Josh Jacobs, Nick Chubb and Alvin Kamara – all who were top-8 fantasy RBs in their second seasons. Stevenson delivered an RB10 finish in PPR leagues coming up just short of top-8 status but was a rock-solid fantasy draft pick. As we look forward to 2023, the RB that could take that Stevenson-type second-year leap could be another Day 3 rookie running back that I loved coming out last season: Tyler Allgeier. The Falcons rookie RB took home the crown as PFF’s highest-graded rookie RB in 2022 (86.7) among RBs with at least 75 carries.
ETN’s RB16 finish doesn’t do him the correct justice based on his slow start at the gates. Remember that 2022 was essentially Travis Etienne’s rookie year after he missed the entire 2021 season. And it wasn’t until Week 7 that the second-year RB took over the backfield after the team traded away James Robinson. From Weeks 7-17 – removing the game versus Baltimore when Etienne left with an injury – the Jaguars running back averaged 15 fantasy points per game (RB8 in points per game) and was the standing RB10 in total half-points scored. His success – as was the same success for rookie Breece Hall before his injury – is a reminder that you want to take shots on these younger unknown RBs that fall into RB dead zone. They are the best bet at returning value with the most upside. Etienne will most likely be criticized for a lack of targets in the passing game, but the receiving role is still his. In the Wildcard round, ETN ran a route on 77% of team dropbacks. Elite number. I believe that his lack of actual targets is tied to the Jaguars’ trio of top pass-catchers all staying healthy this season. The Jaguars had the fewest missed games combined due to injuries in the NFL in 22022. That number will almost certainly regress positively in Etienne’s direction (assuming he doesn’t get hurt) in 2023.
Kenneth Walker stood as the RB8 from Weeks 6-17 after Rashaad Penny was placed on IR with a season-ending injury. The rookie was the RB9 in points per game. If you remove the two games he missed due to injury (Weeks 13/14) he averaged 16.4 fantasy points per game, which would have placed him as the RB8 in points per game. I was out on Walker early on during the draft process, but his early injuries throughout the preseason eventually made him a draft-day steal. We all knew that Rashaad Penny was never going to be “the guy” for the long run based on his injury track record and that Walker would likely take over RB1 duties as an uber-talented second-round pick. Again, as we discussed in the WR Hits and Misses piece, overvaluing early-season opportunities can cause drafters to miss out on guys with league-winning potential as Walker showed. It’s truly a balancing act that drafters need to consider to draft with both the start of the season and the end of the year in mind. In fact, Walker was actually the better rookie running back versus Houston Texans RB Dameon Pierce, although the latter was much more productive to start the season.
I don’t ever think that aggressively drafting a player with a super strong skillset is a bad process. In the case of D’Andre Swift, that was the main argument for him. He’s a slick receiver and explosive with the ball in his hands. But the part of his game that was missing – and partly a projection – was the red zone role in the Lions offense. If Swift took on the red-zone role – which inevitably was retained by Jamaal Williams – he would have undoubtedly been an RB1 in fantasy football. But he never got the chance which lead him to finish as a back-end RB2 at the conclusion of the season. Projecting roles is always going to be finicky business, and sometimes you’ll get burned if it doesn’t play out in your favor.
Although A.J. Dillon showed signs of life down the stretch, he was a huge bust for the majority of the fantasy season. And that was him playing in a split backfield on an offense that struggled for the majority of the season. If you are going to invest high-end draft capital into a running back that is a No. 2 (or 1B) on a roster, they need to be in an offense that creates weekly scoring chances. For most of the 2022 season, Green Bay was not that offense. And there was a case to be made that the Browns offense would also struggle, making Kareem Hunt a tough bet to also deliver. Hunt’s bizarre declined usage is what really held him back, but highly drafting No. 2 RBs in offenses with major question marks or turnovers is a tough sell.
Reflecting on Cam Akers‘ 2022 season is truly painful. He was a total zero from the get-go, essentially getting benched in Week 1. And then he looked like he was going to be outright cut by the Rams.I was just so fixated on his “role” that I forgot to take a step back and acknowledge his downside if the Rams were to take a step back on offense. When the sole reason for taking a running back early is hyper-focused on offense, workload/volume and team environment, it’s a risky proposition. Eventually – Week 13 to be exact – Akers did inherit the Rams RB1 role and he delivered as the RB4 during the last six weeks. But it was a little too late for most fantasy managers who couldn’t survive the dead 3rd/4th round pick that Akers was to start the first 12 weeks of the season. With LA massively overhauling things, Akers will be a truly polarizing player in 2023 fantasy drafts. Did he do enough in the final 6 weeks to retain bell-cow-type usage under a potential new coach? Only time will tell. The good news is that Sean McVay intends to return to Los Angeles, which bodes well for Akers to remain the go-to guy in the backfield.
- Identify running backs with the potential to see/possess goal-line roles in high-scoring offenses. Pinpointing a team’s primary red-zone back is an easy way to hit on a fantasy running back.
- If you are low on the “starter” you should naturally be higher on the No.2 RB in the same backfield.
- Target impending free agent running backs. Biggest hits from 2022 include Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley, Tony Pollard, Miles Sanders and Jamaal Williams.
- Notable free agents at the end of the 2023 season include: Derrick Henry, Austin Ekeler, Chase Edmonds, Cordarrelle Patterson, Gus Edwards, D’Andre Swift, Jonathan Taylor, Cam Akers, J.K. Dobbins, A.J. Dillon and Antonio Gibson. Joe Mixon and Clyde Edwards-Helaire have club options in their contracts.
- Target running backs on quality offenses (offenses ADP deemed above average).
- Aim for running backs on teams that have no clear-cut starter – ambiguous backfields. This is where breakout running backs are often found.
- Volume is and remains king.
- When in doubt, draft the guy who has a proven track record.
- Do not prioritize running backs on offenses that have not yet proven to be above average while treading lightly on running backs that don’t have a lot of job security. With running backs, ask yourself: What would it take for RB “X” to lose the starting job?
If you want to dive deeper into fantasy football, be sure to check out our award-winning slate of Fantasy Football Tools as you navigate your season. From our Start/Sit Assistant – which provides your optimal lineup based on accurate consensus projections – to our Waiver Wire Assistant – which allows you to quickly see which available players will improve your team and by how much – we’ve got you covered this fantasy football season.
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