Fantasy Football Running Back Preview: Sleepers, Breakouts, Busts, Projections, Zero-RB Targets and More

Fantasy Football Running Back Preview: Sleepers, Breakouts, Busts, Projections, Zero-RB Targets and More

This year, more than I can ever remember, how you view the back position has to do with how you view upside, floor and injury risk. That discussion starts at election 1.01.

Jonathan Taylor led all running backs in Fantasy points in 2021 and is still only 23 years old. So it makes perfect sense why he’s the consensus No. 1 overall pick. Just don’t take consensus to mean undisputed. Because there are at least two backers with a claim to more upside.

First, Derrick Henry outpaced Taylor by 1.6 FPPG last year. And Christian McCaffrey averaged six more Fantasy points per game from 2019-2020 than Henry did in 2021. Henry turns 29 before Taylor turns 24, and McCaffrey has played just 10 games over the past two seasons combined. It’s not hard to make an argument against either. But you need to be clear that when you do that, you’re making a floor argument, not an upside argument. And the upside is what wins Fantasy Football leagues.

The truth is that we are just not very good at assessing how likely an injury is to occur. Some say it’s more likely for guys who had a ton of touches last year, others would say the guys who were injured in previous years are the backs to shy away from. I say, at best it should be used as a tiebreaker, and in most cases it’s better to ignore it.

So I have Henry and McCaffrey ahead of Taylor, right? Not exactly. McCaffrey projects for more PPR Fantasy points in the projections below, Taylor is still technically ranked first on our rankings page. The key for me in choosing between the two is what type of league I’m in. In bigger tournaments or high stakes leagues I prefer McCaffrey. He’s on my Scott Fish Bowl list and he’s the right choice if you’re swinging big. I would use the same strategy in a home league, assuming you know more and try harder than most of the teams in your leagues. But in a standard 12-team league where six teams make the playoffs and most all are competitive, I value the perceived safety of Taylor enough to rank him No. 1.

Running Back draft strategy

Once you get past 1.01, the discussion remains the same, just with different players. How scared are you about Dalvin Cook’s injury history or Alvin Kamara’s suspension odds? Are you shooting for the moon with young potential stars JK Dobbins, Travis Etienne and Cam Akers as they work their way back from major injuries? Will Kyle Shanahan finally stick with a running back? Will Josh McDaniels let his feature back catch passes?

My overall positioning strategy is fairly agnostic. I have seven backs in my first round and 15 in the first two. I feel more confident drafting a running back in the first two rounds, but I won’t shy away from a start that includes a combination like Justin Jefferson and Mark Andrews. If I haven’t taken a back in the first two rounds, that will probably change in round 3 because David Montgomery is almost always there. If he’s not, we can go Zero-RB.

There are plenty of mid-range defenders appealing this year, which really puts the dead zone to the test. If you end up drafting backs in rounds 4-6, make them young backs, preferably with pass-catching chops and three-down upside.

Miles Sanders and Clyde Edwards-Helaire are potential starters who fall past Round 6 in some drafts; scoop them up if they do. After that point, you should think almost exclusively about potential upside. You need an elevator pitch for how a back will be a top-12 option, or you need to strongly consider taking them off your draft board. As for backups, remember that a running back behind a mediocre starter is more likely to turn a profit than one behind a first-round pick, as counterintuitive as it sounds.

Now let’s get into the sleepers, breakouts and busts at the position:

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Numbers to know

4.5 — Ezekiel Elliot has averaged 4.5 yards per touch since the start of the 2020 season. Tony Pollard averaged 5.7 over the same stretch.
67 — James Cook caught 67 passes during his four years at Georgia. He will limit the upside of Devin Singletary if given a role.
134 — Rashaad Penny averaged 134 rushing yards per game in his final five games of 2021. He has league-winning upside if he can stay healthy.
0 — Miles Sanders did not score a rushing touchdown last year despite the Eagles leading the NFL with 25 rushing touchdowns.
26 — Aaron Jones saw 26 targets in four games without Davante Adams in 2019. He’s a dark horse to lead running backs in catches this year.
27 — Current Giants’ backs not named Saquon Barkley combined for 27 carries in the NFL last year.
18.3 — Cardinals’ running backs have averaged 18.3 touchdowns per year over the past three seasons.
309 — The Texans have 309 running back options to replace from last year, the second most in the league.
146 — The Falcons’ running backs led the NFL with 146 targets last year.

Zero-RB goals

I’ll update this list as ADP solidifies, but for now there’s no shortage of running backs available if you want to focus on quarterbacks and pass catchers in the first five-plus rounds. I tried to include a good mix of floor and upside guys because I want some pass-catching backs to start while I wait for the backups to get jobs. For this build, I’m using Fantasy Pro’s PPR ADP. Most of the time, the suggested round is one round earlier than the player is actually drafted. You can’t be too sweet on your guys running back if you’re betting in the early rounds.

Round 6 – Miles Sanders, Kareem Hunt, Tony Pollard
Round 7 – Chase Edmonds, Kenneth Walker
Round 8 – Michael Carter, Rhamondre Stevenson
Round 9 – James Cook, Nyheim Hines
Round 10 – Dameon Pierce, Tyler Allgeier, Alexander Mattison
Round 11 – Mark Ingram, Isaiah Spiller
Round 12 or later – Khalil Herbert, Rachaad White, Kenneth Gainwell, D’Onta Foreman, Marlon Mack

Handcuff ratings

Below are the top 10 PPR handcuffs to draft on Draft Day. Obviously, Kareem Hunt is much more than a handcuff, but the reason he’s on this list, and not someone like Giovani Bernard, is the fact that Hunt could be a league winner in the event Nick Chubb gets hurt. Bernard’s role is unlikely to change. So while Hunt can be a flex in a PPR league even without an injury, he’s also #1 handcuffed. Traditionally, I don’t handcuff my entrees, but I don’t mind taking someone else’s. Also, if you’re in a non-PPR league, guys like Trey Sermon, AJ Dillon, and Gus Edwards deserve a boost.

1. Kareem Hunt
2. AJ Dillon
3. Tony Pollard
4. Kenneth Walker
5. Rhamondre Stevenson
6. Melvin Gordon
7. Michael Carter
8. Mark Ingram
9. Alexander Mattison
10. Khalil Herbert

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