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

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

This year, more than I can ever remember, the way you view the running back position has to do with how you view upside, the floor and injury risk. The discussion that begins at Peak 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 sides with more contrary claims.

For one thing, Derrick Henry outscored Taylor by 1.6 FPPG last year. And Christian McCaffrey averaged six more fantasy points than Henry from 2019-2020 to 2021. It’s not hard to make an argument against either. But you have to be clear that when you do, you’re making a floor argument, not a counterargument. And upside wins fantasy football leagues.

The truth is, we’re not very good at assessing how likely an injury is. Some say guys who got a ton of touches last year are more likely to have it, while others will say guys who got hurt in previous years should steer clear. I say, at best it should be used as a tiebreaker, and in most cases, you’re better off ignoring it.

So I have Henry and McCaffrey ahead of Taylor? That is not the case. While McCaffrey projects for more PPR fantasy points in the projections below, Taylor still technically ranks first on our rankings page. The key factor for me in deciding between the two is the type of league I’m in. He’s on my Scott Fish Bowl roster and if you’re swinging big, he’s the right pick. I would use the same strategy in the home league, assuming you know more and try harder than most teams in your league. But in a standard 12-team league where six teams make the playoffs and most are competitive, I value Taylor’s perceived safety 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 of Dalvin Cook’s injury history or Alvin Kamara’s suspension? 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 be a running back? Will Josh McDaniels let his feature back catch passes?

My general positioning strategy is pretty agnostic. I have seven backs in the first round and 15 in the first two. I feel safer when I draft a running back in the first two rounds, but I wouldn’t shy away from starting to include a combo like Justin Jefferson and Mark Andrews. If I don’t fall behind in the first two rounds, that will probably change in Round 3, because David Montgomery is almost always there. Without him, we might be going to zero-arbs.

There are a lot of mid-range backs who are applying this year, which really puts the dead zone to the test. If you end up drafting backs in rounds 4-6, draft them young backs, especially those with pass-catching chops and three-down upside.

Miles Sanders and Clyde Edwards-Helaire are potential starters who go past Round 6 in some drafts; If they do after this point, you should think almost entirely of potential upside. You need an elevator pitch to figure out how a back becomes a top-12 option or strongly consider taking them off your draft board. As for backups, keep in mind that a middle starter is more likely to return back-to-back profits than someone behind a first-round pick, even if it seems counterintuitive.

Now let’s move on to sleepers, breakouts and busts in positions:

Projection driven by

Projection driven by

Projection driven by

Number to know

4.5 — Ezekiel Elliott has averaged 4.5 yards per touch since the start of the 2020 season. Tony Pollard averaged 5.7 in the same stretch.
67 — James Cook caught 67 passes in his four years at Georgia. He would cap Devin Singletary’s upside if he earns a role.
134 — Rashad Penny averaged 134 rushing yards per game over his final five games of 2021. If he can stay healthy, he has league-winning upside
0 — Miles Sanders didn’t score a rushing touchdown last year as the Eagles led the NFL with 25 rushing touchdowns.
26 — Aaron Jones has seen 26 targets in 2019 in four games without Davante Adams. He is a dark horse to lead running backs in catches this year
27 — A current Giants running back not named Saquon Barkley led the NFL for 27 carries last year.
18.3 — Cardinals running backs have averaged 18.3 touchdowns per year over the last three seasons.
309 — The Texans have 309 running back opportunities to replace from last year, second-most in the league.
146 — Falcons’ running backs led the NFL with 146 targets last year.

Zero-RB targets

I’ll update this list as ADPs firm up, but for now, there’s no shortage of running backs 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 wanted to get some pass-catching backs to start while waiting for backups to gain jobs. For this version, I’m using the Fantasy Professional PPR ADP. For the most part, the proposed round is one round before the player is drafted. If you punt in the first round, you can’t be too nice to your guys running back.

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

Handcuff ranking

Below are the top 10 PPR handcuffs to draft on draft day. Obviously, Kareem Hunt is much more than 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 if Nick Chubb gets hurt. Bernard’s role probably won’t change. So, while Hunt may be a flex in a PPR league without an injury, he’s also the No. 1 pitcher. I don’t traditionally handcuff my starters, but I don’t mind someone else taking over. Also, if you’re in a non-PPR league, guys like Trey Sarmon, AJ Dillon, and Gus Edwards are worth cheering for.

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

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