*** Rankings below based on 0.5 PPR leagues
Jonathan Taylor became “THE RB1” in fantasy football in 2021, rushing for more than 1,800 yards and scoring 20 total TDs for the Colts and his fantasy owners. Taylor is your undisputed RB1 and the smart move for the first overall pick in fantasy drafts. He’s the only high end RB entering 2022 without legitimate questions.
The tier 2 group boasts superstar rushers, but each enters the 2022 season with some level of concern…enough to keep the RB out of Jonathan Taylor’s tier. Let’s run through the concerns in rapid fire succession:
Austin Ekeler: Potential TD regression, with rookie RB Isaiah Spiller a threat to vulture carries and some TDs.
Christian McCaffrey: No. 1 overall ceiling, but played in only 10/32 games over last two years.
Derrick Henry: Returns from serious injury, now 28 years old (young for life purposes, but older for RBs).
Najee Harris: Likely reduction in touches, especially in the passing game.
Dalvin Cook: Injury concerns, never having played a full season.
Christian McCaffrey is the ultimate wild card here, as his ceiling leapfrogs even that of Jonathan Taylor. But history doesn’t favor RBs coming back after two successive seasons of incurring significant injuries. If you want to draft for highest ceiling, go for it – just don’t let the pundits on Twitter sucker you into thinking that McCaffrey comes without major risk. Ekeler ultimately snags the RB2 spot for me because he’s the safest out of the group, with a relatively high ceiling. Henry has the highest ceiling after McCaffrey, but his success will ultimately come down to health…so keep an eye on any such news. Harris comes with a high floor due to volume, so he’s another player on the safe side of the ledger. Cook’s health will ultimately decide where he lands among this group. Setting aside Cook’s rookie season (when he only played in four games due to an ACL tear), he’s averaged missing roughly three games per year.
The tier 2 group will also go in first rounds of fantasy drafts, with the order in the eye of each beholder. You can easily make arguments for ranking these players differently, but I’d ultimately suggest making one of Ekeler, McCaffrey or Henry as your RB2.
The line between the bottom of tier 2 and the top of tier 3 remains blurred, as you can justify elevating Joe Mixon and D’Andre Swift up a tier. Mixon’s well rounded skill set and role in the Bengals’ electric offense extenuates his ceiling. Swift follows, as he’s a dynamic rusher running behind a great offensive line, with a key role in the passing game as well. Don’t waste an ounce of your energy fretting about Leonard Fournette’s weight…he’s the clear go-to back for the Bucs, and he’ll be ready to go when the games count in September.
Javonte Williams’ fans rightfully bemoaned Melvin Gordon’s return to the Broncos, as Williams would otherwise be a first round pick in fantasy drafts. In any event, Williams will be the team’s clear leader in RB touches. Chubb may be the best pure runner in football, but his limitations in the passing game put a cap on his ceiling. Saquon Barkley has struggled with injuries through his NFL career, but with new head coach Brian Daboll installing a modern offense, don’t be surprised if Barkley has a renaissance in 2022.
Will Alvin Kamara get suspended? The latest intel points to Kamara's suspension occurring in 2023, so he's ranked here accordingly. Next question - will Packers’ RB AJ Dillon syphon an increased number of carries from Aaron Jones? The worry persists, which is why Jones ranks as RB11 and not higher.
Cardinals’ RB James Conner has both positive and negative factors impacting his value. The bad news…he faces potential TD regression, as 7.5% of his touches resulting in TDs in 2021 is not sustainable. But the Cardinals also gave Chase Edmonds the boot, meaning Connor should increase his total touches substantially, protecting against some of the TD regression.
Moving next to the Jaguars, second year RB Travis Etienne missed his entire rookie season due to a Lisfranc injury. Etienne played with Jags’ QB Trevor Lawrence at Clemson, and while he’ll likely split carries in some fashion with incumbent RB James Robinson, Etienne should be the team's most frequent ball carrier...with a key role in the passing game to boot.
Lastly, Cam Akers struggled in the playoff last season after missing almost the whole regular season with an achilles injury. Don’t hold Akers’ 2021 playoff performance against him, as clearly didn’t look healthy. Akers should be fully healed now, and look for a bounce back to his 2020 form.
The tier 3 group should come off the board starting at the end of round 1 / top of round 2, with the group gone by mid to end of round 3.
Moving to tier 4, we’ve got a mix of safe veterans with limited ceilings, young up and comers, and players who face potential timeshares. David Montgomery doesn’t wow much on tape or in the stat sheet, averaging under 4 yards per carry for his career. But health permitting, he’s a safe bet for 1,000 yards and 7-8 TDs…translating to a solid RB2. Cowboys’ RB Ezekiel Elliott has been drafted as an RB1 for several years, but he’s on the down side of his career….even if team owner Jerry Jones doesn’t see it. Elliott has averaged 4.5, 4.0 and 4.2 yards per carry over the past three seasons, while teammate Tony Pollard has averaged 5.3, 4.3 and 5.5 YPC over the same time, running behind the same offensive line. Pollard will continue to get a solid amount of carries in the Cowboys’ offense (BUT NOT NEARLY ENOUGH!), which limits Zeke’s value.
Let’s take a look at the upside play of the tier 4 group - Jets’ rookie RB Breece Hall. The Iowa State alum figures to wrestle away starting duties from incumbent Michael Carter, and while carries may be shared, Hall should be the primary back involved in the passing game. That’s an RB2 with upside for more.
J.K. Dobbins also missed all of the 2021 season with an injury, but he shined during his rookie 2020 season – 805 yards and 9 TDs while averaging 6 yards a carry! If the Ravens made Dobbins their featured back, he’d be an RB1. It’s not yet clear if Dobbins will be ready by Week 1, so keep an eye on his health. But there’s no doubt that Dobbins has game breaking ability…if he gets the carries.
Washington’s NFL team has not only a new name, but a new RB that could create additional chaos in the Commanders’ carry distributions. Antonio Gibson leads the crew, with JD McKissic as the primary pass catching option and Jaret Patterson also taking some carries here and there. The team felt that it didn’t have enough RBs, so they went ahead and drafted Brian Robinson Jr with their third round pick. It’s not exactly clear whose carries Robinson will syphon off, but don’t expect Gibson to get a bump in usage. So he’s a limited upside RB2….as is Raiders’ RB Josh Jacobs. The Raiders primarily use Jacobs on rushing downs, and with a Belichick disciple (Josh McDaniels) taking over as head coach, the likelihood of Jacobs’ workload increasing is negligible.
We close the book on tier 4 with 49ers’ RB Elijah Mitchell. The second year back looked fantastic in his rookie year, unexpectedly seizing the lead role for the 49ers. Two issues that could impact Mitchell’s usage for 2022 – the rumored desire by Kyle Shanahan to spread out carries among RBs (watch out for rookie Tyrion Davis-Price), and relatedly, a rushing-capable QB in Trey Lance (taking over for Jimmy Garoppolo), who will also impact the carry distribution percentages.
The tier 4 group should be selected starting towards the end of round 3 / beginning of round 4, and continuing through round 5.
Among the tier 5 group are a handful of players who could become RB1s if things break their way during the season. AJ Dillon, Tony Pollard and Rhamondre Stevenson each become easy RB1s if their respective teams’ starters get injured. Seahawks starter Rashaad Penny showed his RB1 talent down the stretch of the 2021 season, but good health has evaded him throughout his NFL career. We also have starting rushers whom are relatively safe but somewhat limited in upside, due to number of touches.
Miles Sanders plays in an offense with a rushing focused QB and carries spread among RBs, while Clyde Edwards-Helaire and the Chiefs’ rushing game rightfully plays second fiddle to QB Patrick Mahomes’ prolific passing offense. Chase Edmonds joins the Dolphins, likely to lead the team’s running backs in touches in new coach Mike McDaniels’ offense, but Raheem Mostert and others will be in the equation as well. Patriots’ RB Damien Harris has Rhamondre Stevenson as the 1B to his 1A, but in a prolific rushing attack, both players land in RB3/flex territory.
The Falcons’ Cordarrelle Patterson was one of the breakout stories of the 2021 season. Will the magic repeat for 2022? You should temper any such expectations, given his age, the team’s downgrade at QB and potential competition from Damien Williams and rookie Tyler Allgeier.
Melvin Gordon appears to be the 1B to Javonte Williams’ 1A, but expect a larger split of touches in favor of Williams than in 2021. We wrap up tier 5 with Kareem Hunt of the Browns, who will primarily serve as the team’s passing down back, with a handful of carries intermixed each game.
Rounds 6 – 7 make sense for the tier 5 group.
We’ll take a quick look at each of the final tiers. My favorites from the tier 6 group are the three rookies – Ken Walker, James Cook and Dameon Pierce. Once you drop into the lower tiers, upside plays should be your focus. Cook should be valuable right away as a pass catching option out of the backfield, while Walker and Pierce could very well take over lead RB duties at some point during the season. Devin Singletary should lead the Bills in rushing carries this season, but as mentioned, Cook will factor into the mix, as will Zack Moss. Darrell Henderson, Michael Carter and Gus Edwards (health permitting) should each have a role as active parts of their team’s offensive plans, albeit none currently sits as the team’s primary rusher.
These RBs should be targeted in the mid part of your fantasy drafts (rounds 8 and onward).
Looking at tier 7, you notice that we’re now strictly looking at lower ends of timeshares and backups. Dalvin Cook owners should make it a priority to snag Alexander Mattison as well as a handcuff. A few other favorites of mine from this group:
Nyheim Hines – Will spell Jonathan Taylor while also playing role in passing game.
Isaiah Spiller – Looks to be on his way to securing the RB2 role with the Chargers.
Khalil Herbert – Saw what he can do as the lead back, in case he gets another opportunity.
Mark Ingram – If Alvin Kamara misses any time due to suspension, Ingram will be a solid RB2 for those games.
I’ve noted above the general rounds in which the RBs in each tier should be drafted, so I won’t regurgitate that information here. But taking a macro level view of the situation, you should target at least 1 RB from within the top 3 tiers, with your second RB coming from no lower than tier 5. Yes, this guidance differs from previous seasons, where RBs were must-drafts much earlier. This season we have less sure things at RB and more depth (given more timeshares), so it’s not as imperative to lock in your RBs right away. I would also suggest targeting RBs who are one incident away from potential RB1 status (i.e. Tony Pollard, Rhamondre Stevenson Alexander Mattison, Ken Walker, etc.) as you get into the mid parts of your drafts, along with some top rookies such as James Cook, Dameon Pierce, and Isaiah Spiller (to go along with the aforementioned Walker). The theme here – draft for upside at RB with your mid to later round picks.
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