Top 60 Fantasy Football Running Backs for 2022

Erik Smith ranks his top running backs for fantasy football drafts ahead of the 2022 season.

Tier 1

 

1. Jonathan Taylor (Indianapolis Colts) – If you’re having fun with your friends in a home league, Taylor is the pick where you will sleep easier at night. He’s locked and loaded as a top-five running back every year for the foreseeable future with a perfect combination of youth (23 years old), prior production, and elite athleticism (99th percentile speed score). Last year Taylor was the RB1 in total fantasy points and the RB2 in points per game to Derrick Henry‘s abbreviated campaign. His rushing attempts per game jumped from 15.5 in his rookie year to 19.5 last season, as he was leaned on heavily in an offense led by Carson Wentz. His jump in passing game usage was a bit more muted, up from 2.6 targets per game in his rookie year to 3 per game last year. He scored 20 total touchdowns and had the league’s highest Juke Rate (44.4%) in the league according to FantasyData.

Taylor was awesome last year and is a deserving RB1 in drafts, but he was barely better than Austin Ekeler on a point-per-game basis. If you look at the best points per game numbers from running backs over the past three seasons, Christian McCaffrey‘s 2019 (30 ppg), Alvin Kamara’s 2020 (25 ppg), Dalvin Cook’s 2020 (24 ppg), and Derrick Henry’s first half of last year (24 ppg) are all a significant amount above Taylor’s 2021 production of 22 points per game. Outside of Henry, who averaged an astronomical 27 rushing attempts per game during his big stretch, these rushers all have a leg up on Taylor due to the passing work. CMC averaged 9 targets per game in 2019, Kamara averaged 7 targets a game in 2020, and Cook averaged 4 targets a game to go along with a massive 22 rushing attempts per game. Taylor has to improve on his 3 targets per game to have that massive year unless the Colts are going to up his rushing attempts from his 19.5 per game last year.

Sure, Taylor could find ways to reach that elite-level RB1 season. He’s an ultra-talented player in a good offensive scheme. But the only players who scored a rushing touchdown on a higher % of rushes than Taylor’s 5.4% last year were James Conner and Damien Harris, who scored a touchdown on 7.4% of their rushing attempts, Kenneth Gainwell and Kareem Hunt on very low volume, and Ekeler who is primarily used in the passing game anyway. None of this is to talk you out of Taylor as the 1.01 in drafts. But I do want you to give serious consideration to the next player on this list, and really consider how much risk you are willing to take on for a shot at an elite fantasy season.

 

2. Christian McCaffrey (Carolina Panthers) – If you’re playing in best ball for an overall prize, or have a “2nd place is first loser” mentality, McCaffrey is the pick at 1.01, not Taylor. McCaffrey’s 2019 season is nearly 100 PPR points more than the second-best running back season over the past three seasons and 4 points per game better than the next player. During that season. McCaffrey was targeted 142 times, nearly nine times a game, while still receiving 18 carries per game. Nobody possesses the ceiling that McCaffrey does in fantasy, and at 26 years old there are reasons to think that he still has another elite season left in him.

For McCaffrey, the injuries are the issue, of course. Oddly enough there were no real injury red flags until 2020 when he suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 2 and missed 6 games. He returned only to sprain his shoulder in Week 9 and missed 4 games, and then came back and developed a thigh strain in week 14 and missed 4 games. Then last year, McCaffrey missed 5 games with a Week 3 hamstring strain, sprained his other ankle in Week 12, and would miss the rest of the season as a result. It would be easier to write McCaffrey off if he had a single injury that kept holding him back or had developed a bad knee like Todd Gurley that sapped his explosiveness. But each of McCaffrey’s injuries has been a different issue, which feels like bad luck, and he has still been excellent when on the field.

These are obviously small sample sizes as McCaffrey played in just seven games in 2021, but CMC had the third-best Breakaway Rate in the league per FantasyData (percentage of carries of 15+ yards), the seventh-best Juke Rate, played his typical 70% or more snaps in three of his healthy games, and was among the best running backs in targets per game. He still has it when healthy.

Nobody can reach McCaffrey’s highs. Even in his two years lost to injury, his points per game and target-per-game numbers were elite. Carolina has invested in its offensive line and now has Baker Mayfield, a slightly more capable QB than Sam Darnold. If McCaffrey stays healthy, he almost certainly will be the RB1 overall in fantasy. And we probably want to take him over Taylor if we can even get 13 games from CMC. It all comes down to risk tolerance and your stance on if McCaffrey is truly “injury prone”. But don’t lose sight of the fact that McCaffrey is still our best fantasy football running back.

 

3. Austin Ekeler (Los Angeles Chargers) – Ekeler shed the stereotype last year that he was just a passing game running back that couldn’t handle a workload, putting up virtually as many points per game as Taylor last year on his way to and RB2 overall season. Ekeler is still obviously an elite pass-catching option, topping 5 targets per game in each of the past three seasons, something that only McCaffrey and Kamara can claim. As an added bonus, Ekeler gets to catch passes from Justin Herbert, putting him in one of the most desirable positions possible for a receiving back in the NFL. With a relatively thin supporting cast after Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, Ekeler is locked into a high-volume pass-catching role, and with Allen entering his age 30 season and Williams’ up and down production in the past, Herbert will need Ekeler all season long.

There are a few knocks on Ekeler, starting with the fact that he enters his age 27 season which is a scary number for most running backs. And Ekeler has expressed a desire for another running back on the Chargers to step up and give him a breather, something they hope that fourth-round rookie Isaiah Spiller can provide. Ekeler also did run hot on rushing touchdowns last season, scoring 12 on just 206 rushing attempts for a rate of 5.8%, among the highest in the league at running back.

But overall, his passing game usage with Herbert is just too good to pass up. Even if his age is a concern, Ekeler’s 889 career touches are significantly less than the other top-end running backs at age 27 or older, as Elliott, Henry, Kamara, and Cook all have 1,200 touches or more in their careers. Ekeler scored eight receiving touchdowns last year, the second time in the past three years where he has reached that number, giving him a variety of ways to reach paydirt. He’s clearly the RB3 in my rankings and is the last of the running backs that I would take over the Cooper Kupp/Justin Jefferson/Ja’Marr Chase tier of elite wide receivers in the first round.

 

4. Najee Harris (Pittsburgh Steelers) – Harris produced a season equal to Joe Mixon’s best season on a points-per-game basis in his 2021 rookie year. Harris saw an elite 5.5 targets per game, targets which Ryan Heath showed are earned and not a result of the quarterback. So if you are worried about the change from Ben Roethlisberger to Mitchell Trubisky or Kenny Pickett or even Mason Rudolph at quarterback, Harris’ target share is likely to stay steady regardless of who is under center. Najee also had an extremely low rushing touchdown rate (2.3%) and could have easily scored more than 10 total TDs last year on his league-leading 381 touches.

Obviously, the worry is the offense tanks going from Roethlisberger to Trubisky and Pickett. I don’t worry as much about the offense being worse, as it was already pretty bad. But Pittsburgh did manage to run the 9th most plays last year despite being just 23rd in yardage. So there were a lot of chances for Najee to touch the ball, and those could decrease this year. The Steelers had the 4th most passing attempts last year and the 5th fewest rushing attempts, two numbers that could converge in 2022. We would rather have Harris catching the ball in PPR leagues, however, so that is another concern with his overall volume.

But what keeps me drafting Harris is the pass-catching ability (2021’s RB leader in target share), his age (24), and his usage. Najee led the league with an 84% snap share last year, second among running backs was David Montgomery with 75%, and Derrick Henry was the only other player over 70%! Harris’ workload was so massive that even if he does come off the field more in 2022, he’s likely to remain among the very most used running backs in all of the league.

There’s another article from Ryan Heath that keeps me coming back to draft Harris, and that is his league-winning running backs article from last year. Harris ticks almost every box for a potential league-winning running back with an average draft position in the 7-11 range as he enters his age 24 season, and the former 24th overall pick in the NFL Draft boasts a 91st percentile speed score and a 14.5% NFL target share. The only knock against him is the Steelers’ win total of 7 on DraftKings, but this is the least important of the metrics and isn’t as bad as some other running backs drafted early on worse teams than Pittsburgh.

Once the top three running backs and receivers are off the board, it’s between Harris and Stefon Diggs for me. If you want a first-round running back and are picking in the back half of the first, Harris is my pick, as I talked about on the QB List Podcast.

 

5. Derrick Henry (Tenessee Titans) – Henry starts this season with a concerning 1,495 career touches, entering a frightening-for-a-running-back age 28 season, and fresh off a broken bone in his foot that derailed his 2021 season (though he did return for the Titans’ lone playoff game). His team situation has gotten worse, as the Titans are now without A.J. Brown and PFF ranks their offensive line 27th in the league, a significant drop from years past. They absolutely need Taylor Lewan to be healthy and good again. This feels like a team on decline and a big part of me wants to be a year early getting out on Henry.

But at the end of the day, the Titans are absolutely going to base their offense around Henry, the defense has talent (ask Joe Burrow after taking 9 sacks against Tennessee in the Divisional Round), and very few running backs after this tier have ever shown the elite upside that Henry has. Before the injury last year, Henry was averaging a staggering 27 rushing attempts per game and 24 PPR points per game, both by far the top numbers at running back in 2021. He even saw a slight uptick in targets with 2.5 per game. Previous seasons saw Henry average 20 PPR points per game, numbers that still would have finished as the RB3 last year. Henry’s 39% Juke Rate trailed only Taylor, and he still had the 12th most breakaway runs in the NFL despite missing over half the season.

Henry deserves to be going in the first round of drafts as we hope for one more elite season, but due to his ADP, I have not been drafting him often. On average he has gone fifth overall in PPR leagues, and I would draft all of Jefferson, Chase, Harris, and even Diggs ahead of him, who all have lower ADPs. But starting at pick 9 in drafts, depending on how the board falls, he should be on your radar if drafting first-round running backs is your preference.

 

6. Dalvin Cook (Minnesota Vikings) – Henry and Cook are super close in my rankings, and you could make an argument for either, and I wouldn’t flinch. Cook was originally down a tier for me due to some off-the-field concerns, but his legal situation has gone silent, and it sure seems like Cook is set to play the whole season at this point. Cook has shown the elite ceiling that we look for, posting a 24-point per game season just in 2020. Cook’s numbers slipped last year due to just six rushing touchdowns on the season, and his targets per game dropped for the third straight year to 3.8 per game, a concerning trend. Cook is also entering a worrisome age 27 season for a running back and has 1,200 career touches under his belt.

New head coach Kevin O’Connell, the former Rams offensive coordinator, seems like a good bet to up the passing volume, and we are hearing all of the right things out of camp to suggest a nice passing-game role from Cook. But we’ve seen offenses struggle in the first year with a new coordinator before, and we aren’t necessarily 100% sure that the Vikings will use Cook the same way former head coach Mike Zimmer did. After all, Cook had the league’s fourth-highest running back snap share at 71%, and there were only 16 running backs in the whole league that topped 60%. Could they spell Cook more with capable backup Alexander Mattison?

Despite some age and usage concerns, Cook has shown us a ceiling that only McCaffrey, Kamara, and Henry have been in the ballpark of over the past three seasons, and the names that will follow on this list require us to do quite a bit of projecting to get into the elite territory. If this Vikings offense is more modern under the new coaching staff, we could certainly see Cook return to the top of the fantasy football running back hierarchy.

 

7. D’Andre Swift (Detroit Lions) – Swift is a late addition to the first tier for me. He produced a really solid 16 PPR points per game and an elite six targets per game last year. He plays behind what may be an excellent offensive line, as PFF ranks them as the third best in the league heading into the preseason. Swift is just 23 years old, and there’s not a ton of competition behind him on the depth chart, as he already pulled away from Jamaal Williams last year, and the rest of the backfield consists of Jermar Jefferson, Craig Reynolds, and Justin Jackson. Swift is locked in as an RB1 and only health and Jared Goff can hold him back from reaching higher in the rankings.

There are a few points that were keeping Swift out of the top tier for me, however. One is my slight concern with his durability, as he has missed three games in each of his first two seasons in the league. And while his targets per game and target share (18.4% in 2021) are elite, he’s been banged up, maxing out at 11.6 carries per game last season. We certainly want our running backs catching passes more so than running the ball in PPR leagues, so this isn’t a deal breaker. But that usage was more in line with Ekeler than Harris. Ekeler has the benefit of playing with Herbert at quarterback, which led to 20 combined touchdowns last year compared to Harris’ 10 and Swift’s 7. So while Harris has similar quarterback concerns as Swift does, Harris played a full season while averaging nearly 6 more rushing attempts per game and nearly matching Swift in passing game usage.

Swift was on pace to top Harris last year before the Week 12 shoulder sprain caused him to miss three games and come back limited for the final two. He was flirting with the elite tier of running backs on a points-per-game basis. Trying to play doctor and predict injuries in fantasy football is a dangerous game and one that we should avoid for the most part. Swift checks most boxes for a league-winning running back, and I am happily drafting him at the back of the first round or early second round of drafts. At some point, we need to see Swift put it all together, as his best fantasy season of 209 PPR points leaves a bit to be desired. Hopefully, this is the year Swift stays on the field for 17 games.

 

Tier 2

 

8. Alvin Kamara (New Orleans Saints) – Kamara would be a Tier 1 player if not for his potential looming suspension. And I fully acknowledge that this ranking may be too low. Kamara was the RB6 last year in fantasy points per game and has seen elite passing game usage in the past. Last year, Kamara was still good in the passing game, receiving just over 5 targets a game, but that number was down a full two targets per game in his first year without Drew Brees. His work shifted to the running game, where Kamara set a career-high with 240 rushing attempts after previously failing to reach 200 in a single season.

This year provides a new hurdle with Sean Payton no longer calling plays after retiring over the offseason. I find myself fading this entire Saints offense without one of the league’s best coaches and play-callers, coupled with Jameis Winston returning from ACL surgery. Kamara also sees increased target competition with the potential return of Michael Thomas, the addition of Jarvis Landry, and the first-round pick invested in Chris Olave to revamp this wide receiver corps.

Kamara enters his age 27 season with 1,285 career touches and without both Brees and Payton for the first time. Oh, and the threat of a multiple-game suspension hangs over his head. General consensus is that there is a video of the alleged incident, and if it were to ever leak to the public, the NFL would be forced into suspending the star running back. Maybe Kamara is a screaming value and looks like the fantasy star of old by season’s end. But this is a headache that I would rather just avoid for the 2022 season.

 

9. Joe Mixon (Cincinnati Bengals) – Mixon is a year younger than a lot of the “aging” fantasy running backs at 26 years old, but he has amassed a good deal of usage in his career with 1,275 career touches. Mixon produced his finest season to date last year with Burrow lifting the offense, as Mixon scored 16 total touchdowns, breaking double-digits for the first time in this five-year career. In case you forgot, quarterback play matters in the NFL! Outside of the touchdowns, this was a fairly typical Mixon season; 1,205 yards rushing, 4.1 yards per rush, 48 targets, and 314 receiving yards. He had a disappointing Juke Rate according to FantasyData at 22.8% (35th among running backs) and his Breakaway Rate was just 23rd at 4.5%. An improved offensive line will certainly improve that, however, as Mixon was often met in the backfield last year behind an awful run-blocking unit. We could certainly see the touchdowns stick, and improved rushing efficiency in 2022.

The passing game work is what holds Mixon out of the top tier, however. This article really sticks with me from The Athletic’s Paul Dehner Jr. Starting in Week 13 against the Chargers and all the way through the Super Bowl, Mixon played on under two third-down snaps per game on average. They tried to use Mixon more early in the season but went away from it during the year’s most crucial moments, whether due to Mixon’s lack of pass-blocking ability or simply to keep him fresh. The Bengals chose to give the passing work to Samaje Perine, who isn’t really even a third-down back. And second-year pass-catcher Chris Evans could make a push for more work in that area in 2022.

I like Mixon as a running back on a good offense that should likely score a bunch of touchdowns. I’m just not sure how much better it gets than last year’s RB7 point-per-game finish. His ADP of 11 overall is too rich for me, but I would gladly scoop him up in the mid-second round if I went with an elite WR in the first.

 

10. Javonte Williams (Denver Broncos) – Williams is our first running back that requires us to project quite a big jump to pay off on his ADP, and I’m ok with that. Williams is just a really talented running back that I want to be early on, and with an ADP sneaking into the second round already, he needs to be ranked highly in order to draft him. Williams ranked ninth among running backs in Juke Rate at 33%, had the 11th best Yards Created per attempt in 2021, and maybe most importantly earned the trust of the coaching staff in the passing game as a rookie with a 10% target share. All of this production came on just a 50% snap share as he shared the work with Melvin Gordon, who returns to Denver on a one-year deal. And there is the concern for Williams’ breakout prospects.

A lot has changed from last season in Denver, however. For one, the offense upgrades from Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock at quarterback to Russell Wilson, which puts every Bronco on the fantasy breakout radar, and we can’t understate how big this is for everyone’s touchdown potential, including Williams. Secondly, Vic Fangio and his defensive-oriented coaching staff are out, and Nathaniel Hackett, former Packers’ offensive coordinator, is in. And while Gordon does return to potentially split work, he did not receive a contract that suggests a massive workload. Gordon signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract, enters his age 29 season, and has a whopping 1,761 NFL touches under his belt. We don’t know that this is the year that Williams takes over, but it’s probably coming sooner rather than later.

Wiliams is a tackle-breaker extraordinaire that can contribute in the passing game. He put up 12 fantasy points per game last year playing in a split backfield on a bad offense and suddenly sees a massive upgrade at quarterback. The main knock on Williams outside of the split work, according to Ryan Heath’s league-winning running backs article, is his speed score, which comes in at a mediocre 40th percentile from his athletic profile coming out of college. The rest of his profile hints at a massive breakout — we just need this new coaching staff to give him the workload to make that happen.

 

11. Leonard Fournette (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) – If you want to take Fournette over Javonte Williams I don’t blame you, as Lombardi Lenny also has an elite quarterback, an excellent situation, and unlike Williams has shown the elite fantasy production in the past. Fournette has racked up sneaky-elite targets per game numbers recently with six targets per game last year and nearly seven per game back in 2019. The passing game work is really the source of his production; his touchdown rate wasn’t outrageous last year as he scored 10 total times across 14 games. Fournette was the RB4 on a point-per-game basis in 2021 and is probably a value at his current ADP approaching the end of the second round.

And yet I keep coming back to these older running backs and wanting to get out ahead of them before the age cliff hits. Fournette enters his age 27 season with 1,182 touches in his NFL career, and we’ve seen lackluster efficiency from the former fourth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. His Breakaway Rate last year was just 24th in the league despite playing in some very favorable circumstances. His Juke Rate was 34th among running backs, and he has a new rookie to fend off after the Buccaneers drafted Rachaad White in the 3rd round this year. White’s 19% college target share lands him in the 98th percentile, and his 84th percentile Speed Score is likely more juice than Fournette has at this stage of his career.

The past says that White has a lot of work to do to earn the trust of Tom Brady in the passing game, so we should expect one more productive season from Fournette in 2022. Just know that if somehow White starts grabbing passing snaps this could go south quickly for Fournette, as much of his fantasy production relies on those 69 receptions from last year.

 

12. Aaron Jones (Green Bay Packers) – Jones has been a favorite of mine for years, and the fact that he is entering his age 28 season certainly is a shock to the system. Jones has been an efficient runner his whole career, ripping off yearly yard per rush rates of 4.6 to 5.5 every year for a career average of 5.1. Jones is the 8th most efficient rusher of all time with that 5.1 yards per carry, and when you take out the quarterbacks ahead of him on that list, Jones is the fifth most efficient running back of all time if his career ended today.

Jones had a down year last year due to just 10 touchdowns (down from a peak of 19 in 2019) and dropping below 200 carries, all the way down to 171 attempts. Jones’ passing volume was still good with 4.3 targets per game last year and a 13% target share, which is a reason for optimism with Jones in 2022. With Davante Adams gone and the Packers receiving corps looking like a major liability, Jones should be used more than ever in the passing game. And even though he will split work with A.J. Dillon, the Packers will likely still be winning a lot in an otherwise mediocre NFC North, even if they aren’t the same passing offense. I would expect the Packers’ offense to rely heavily on their talented running backs this year, making Jones a solid back-end RB1.

 

13. Saquon Barkley (New York Giants) – Barkley is likely to be one of the more divisive running backs in fantasy drafts this year. There’s the camp that sees his 194 combined targets over the first 29 games of his career in 2018 and 2019 and an ADP of 23 overall as a screaming value on a potential league-winner. And then there’s the camp that hasn’t seen that player over the past two seasons as Barkley recovered from a torn ACL in 2020 and battled a Week 5 ankle sprain in 2021 that caused him to miss three games.

The Giants thankfully turned over their coaching staff this offseason, and Brian Daboll comes over from Buffalo hoping to rejuvenate this offense. The Giants have not signaled that they are worried about Barkley, as their depth chart currently consists of Barkley, Matt Breida, and some roster filler. I tend to fall in between the two camps here; I’m not sure Barkley has regained the explosiveness that made him a touchdown threat from any distance on the field, so I don’t see the league-winning upside anymore. But Barkley has almost no competition behind him and should be featured in the passing game, so a big season is certainly possible.

Barkley grades out poorly from last year with just five 15+ yard runs on 162 rushing attempts, but the ankle injury and ACL recovery could certainly be the reason. Barkley will need to improve on his decent 4.4 targets per game last year and show he can hit the home runs again to regain his past glory. I haven’t drafted Barkley much this offseason in the second round, and I’ll probably need to see big things from training camp to get fully on board.

 

14. Nick Chubb (Cleveland Browns) – We know what Chubb is at this point, possibly the league’s best pure runner (5.3 career yards per carry, sixth-best all-time) who doesn’t catch passes and has never truly broken out for fantasy purposes. Chubb is as rock solid as they come, scoring between 15 and 17 fantasy points per game over the last three years. His passing game work is nonexistent, however, averaging under two targets per game over the past two seasons. Chubb also doesn’t see the field as much as our elite fantasy options, registering just a 52% snaps share last year, 26th in the league at running back.

Chubb definitely ranks higher in standard leagues, and if Deshaun Watson plays much he gets a big boost. We’ve never seen Chubb playing with a quarterback of Watson’s talent before, which should increase his touchdown totals from the 8-12 scores he’s been at during his four-year career. But Chubb enters his age 27 season at exactly 1,000 career touches, and without the passing game work, it is hard to see him reaching much higher than his current levels of production. He’s not a target of mine do to the lack of upside, but he’s a reliable RB1/2 if that’s what you are looking for in your drafts.

 

Tier 3

 

15. James Conner (Arizona Cardinals) – Conner came out of nowhere in his first year in Arizona to finish as the RB9 in points per game as most of the fantasy community had left him for dead as an injury-prone plodder. But when you spike an 18-touchdown season, it’s amazing how that can change your fantasy outlook. This season sees Conner coming into drafts with a third-round ADP, so the stakes in drafting him are much higher than they were last year.

Be careful expecting a true bell cow with Conner, as he had a 58% snap share last year, averaged only 13.5 carries per game, and averaged under three targets per game. Conner averaged the lowest yards per rushing attempt in his career last year at 3.7, so this really all was about the touchdowns. He could certainly score double-digit touchdowns again an offense led by Kyler Murray, and it was nice to see 10.1 yards per reception and a 95% catch rate that produced 375 receiving yards on just 39 targets. I’m generally skipping most of this tier of running back and Conner is no different; he may be a reliable RB2 for your team, but I just don’t see the upside without another fortunate touchdown total.

 

16. Breece Hall (New York Jets) – Part of the intrigue with Hall is the unknown. A second-round pick by the Jets at 36th overall, Hall will be competing with Michael Carter who was a 4th-round pick the prior year. Hall is the superior prospect, however, with a 98th percentile speed score and a 10% college target share. He’s being drafted in this running back dead zone, not because of a lack of talent, but because we just aren’t sure what kind of opportunity he will receive in his rookie year.

Sometimes we just need to embrace the unknown at running back, however, and Hall is my most drafted running back from this current tier. You can get him in the fourth or fifth round generally, and after Hall I just don’t see many potential league-winning running backs, barring injury-related breakouts. He’s a shot at an RB1 if you haven’t drafted one yet, so he’s a great fit for team builds where you’ve drafted wide receivers in the first three wounds. I’m also occasionally taking him if I got a Javonte Williams or Joe Mixon as a lower-tier RB1, and I want some extra upside at the position. I’m not generally drafting Hall if I got a Tier 1 running back, but he’s a hail mary at the position if you missed the early studs.

 

17. Cam Akers (Los Angeles Rams) – We’ve fallen in love with Akers as a prospect in the fantasy community, and I was all over him during his rookie year in the league in 2020. But Akers suffered a rib injury in Week 2 of his rookie year which helped stall his incorporation into the offense, and it was Week 12 before he got a serious shot to prove himself. After three-straight games of double-digit carries, Akers sprained his ankle and missed another game before returning for the finale. And then, last July, Akers tore his Achilles and missed all but Week 18 of the regular season where he received 13 snaps.

Akers oddly has seen some of his heaviest usage in the NFL playoffs, where his rookie year he dominated the work in two playoff games, and then returned last year after the Achilles injury to help with the Rams’ Super Bowl victory. Akers saw double-digit carries in all four playoff games and received 53%, 81%, 39%, and 57% of the offensive snaps throughout. The production wasn’t there in last year’s playoffs as Akers did not score a touchdown and topped out at 55 yards rushing on the ground, but just being on the field so soon after an Achilles tear was a monumental achievement.

Now we are tasked with what to do with Akers in our fantasy football leagues, and I’m unfortunately finding it hard to get on board. The Rams have certainly signaled that he’s their guy, as the backfield competition amounts to Darrell Henderson Jr. and some late-round draft picks over the past two years. Akers’ upside lies in the potential to score a boatload of touchdowns in an excellent offense, think James Conner from last year. But the rest of the evidence doesn’t point towards a fantasy breakout.

Akers has received just 1.2 targets per game in his career during the regular season and 2.2 per game during the postseason, and we just haven’t seen these Rams running backs replicate anything in the passing game resembling the heyday of Todd Gurley. Barring a dramatic turnaround in the receiving department, that means that we are reliant on volume and touchdowns from Akers. It would not be surprising for Akers to suffer some nagging injuries as he gets back up to speed from his missed season, making him too rich for me with an ADP in the third round. I would rather take a wide receiver in this range.

 

18. Ezekiel Elliott (Dallas Cowboys) – Cowboys owner Jerry Jones may keep forcing Elliott into the bell cow role for the Cowboys offense, but that doesn’t mean we should expect the good old days from Elliott. As he enters his age 27 season, Elliott has a whopping 1,938 career touches to his name, and has seen his efficiency fall off a cliff, though the company line from last year is that he played through a partially torn PCL. Regardless, these are the things that happen as a running back enters the back half of their career, and Elliott has seen most of his efficiency stats fade down from his early career peak.

Elliott’s 14.8 fantasy points per game last year was the RB17 overall, and his passing game work continues to drop in terms of volume and efficiency. The 12 touchdowns from last year were certainly nice, and he will likely be right around 10 touchdowns again this year. But Tony Pollard waits to potentially spell him more than in the past, and I’d be surprised to see Elliott’s 66% snap share from last year do anything but decrease. We may get one more RB1 season out of Zeke if everything breaks right, but again, I want to be out on these older running backs a year early, as opposed to left holding the bag when they fall off the age cliff.

 

19. David Montgomery (Chicago Bears) – Montgomery would actually be above Elliott if not for a new coaching staff that puts Montgomery’s usage a bit in question, and he might deserve to be ahead of Elliott regardless. Montgomery has, after all, outscored Elliott on a per-game basis over the last two seasons and is two years younger. Montgomery now has two straight seasons with around four targets per game, and has given us extreme volume when healthy, always a plus for fantasy football purposes.

I do worry if he will be used as often under the new coaching staff, as Montgomery’s 75% snap share was second to only Najee Harris last year. If this staff uses Montgomery the same way, then he’s a value here in drafts, especially in an offense that desperately lacks playmakers around Justin Fields at quarterback. But I worry that this new staff won’t use the running backs in the same way, and second-year running back Khalil Herbert impressed last year as a rookie and could factor into the offense more on a weekly basis in 2022. This is speculation at this point, but nothing in Montgomery’s underlying metrics points towards a running back that needs to be on the field at such a high percentage. If this Bears offense had a bit more of a ceiling this season, I could get on board with Montgomery. But it looks like there are currently too many ways where this goes south.

 

20. Travis Etienne Jr. (Jacksonville Jaguars) – Etienne has been drawing rave reviews out of camp, and has been slowly crawling up my rankings despite my overall skepticism about drafting him. Etienne has yet to play an NFL snap after suffering a Lisfranc injury last year in the preseason. His profile out of college was that of a pass-catcher with an 80th percentile Speed Score and a 12% target share, and the Jaguars desperately need a playmaker to help Trevor Lawrence along with his development.

My main concern with Etienne is just the workload, as I can’t see many scenarios where the Jaguars force a huge workload onto him for the duration of the season. He probably didn’t profile as a workhorse before the injury, and the Jaguars would be wise to ease him along in a year that they are unlikely to be serious contenders. James Robinson is recovering from an Achilles injury but did not land on the PUP list, so he will be Etienne’s backfield complement at some point.

Etienne is an upside play and the type of bet I generally like to make since he could see a solid target share, but I’m always hesitant to bet on these players their first year back from a major injury. His price is too rich for me in the fourth, but if Robinson looks on track to play early and it causes Etienne to drop as a result, I’ll gladly buy the dip. Etienne was never going to command the full backfield anyway, competition for touches should be baked into his price already.

 

 

Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

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