21. Elijah Mitchell (San Francisco 49ers) – Kyle Shanahan’s running back roulette is the primary driving force behind Mitchell being overlooked in many fantasy football drafts after a breakout 2021 rookie campaign, but his lack of passing game work is also a huge factor. His 15 fantasy points per game last year were extremely impressive last year considering he received under two targets a game and scored a touchdown on under 2.5% of his rushing attempts.
Mitchell was an old-school volume runner in 2021, receiving the fourth biggest rushing workload per game with 18.8 carries per game. Mitchell played only 11 games due to missed games from a shoulder injury, a finger fracture, and a combination of a concussion and a knee sprain. He also played through a rib injury. And yet Shanahan kept going back to him, and Mitchell produced a 100-yard rushing game in five of his 11 games.
Mitchell had a solid 64% snap share in the games that he did play, good for 13th best in the league, and there is certainly some explosiveness in this rushing game that could be further unlocked due to Trey Lance starting at quarterback. But we’ve generally been better off drafting the cheaper of the 49ers running backs each year, and they did draft Tyrion Davis-Price in the third round of this year’s draft for added competition. With such an uncertain backfield and a lack of passing game work, I have a hard time justifying Mitchell in the fifth round of drafts, despite how good he looked in his rookie year.
22. Miles Sanders (Philadelphia Eagles) – Sanders was headed down the right path last year at the start of the season, where he played 60% or more of the Eagles’ offensive snaps through the first six games. But Sanders missed most of the next four weeks with an ankle sprain, and later would miss the final two games with a broken hand. This was a continuation of 2020’s issues, where he missed four games with hamstring and knee injuries. But there was more than just health that went wrong in 2021.
You’ve probably heard by now, but Sanders scored zero touchdowns last year on 163 touches. That’s awfully tough for a starting running back to do. Sanders also saw his targets fall off in his first year playing with Jalen Hurts, by more than a target per game down to 2.8 targets per game. Already through camp, we’ve seen conflicting reports about who the lead back is in the offense, Sanders or Kenneth Gainwell, as they seem to be splitting work with the starting unit. Sanders could slide further down these ranks but I’m trying not to overreact to early training camp news. Gainwell is also just a fifth-round pick and profiles as more of a Nyheim Hines-type than a workhorse, so there is still hope for Sanders to lead this backfield.
Sanders gets the not over a few names below him because of the relative lack of competition for touches in the backfield beyond Gainwell, and for the fact that he plays in what could be an excellent running game. The Eagles have PFF’s top offensive line heading into the season, and this offense looks set to be explosive if they can lean into their strengths. I’m still reluctant to buy into Sanders, but these players are full of question marks from here on out, so Sanders gets the nod because of his situation.
23. Antonio Gibson (Washington Commanders) – Gibson actually has a similar profile to Sanders and has produced similar results, posting back-to-back 14 point per game seasons. Unlike the Eagles, however, the Commanders made moves to bolster their running back room this offseason. Washington brought back J.D. McKissic after he hit free agency, a roadblock for Gibson in the passing game. And then they drafted Brian Robinson Jr. in the third round of the NFL Draft, a player that profiles as a potential goalline threat. Gibson seems to have rubbed his coaches the wrong way at some point, whether due to his six fumbles last year or his stress fracture in his shin that he played through but seemed to sap his efficiency.
Combined with the competition, Gibson also plays for a lesser offense in Washington. Their offensive line grades out to closer to the middle of the pack for PFF at 15 overall, and Carson Wentz is at best a middle-of-the-pack quarterback at this stage of his career. Gibson’s 99th percentile speed score coming out of college still intrigues me, but it doesn’t seem like this coaching staff is ever going to use him in the pass-catching role that we hoped, as Gibson has stalled out at just over three targets per game. His athletic profile and age are in his favor, but he’s just an RB2 unless we see a drastic development this year.
24. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (Kansas City Chiefs) – After a disappointing season in 2021, word came from CEH that he underwent gall bladder surgery during the previous offseason and was down to 160 pounds recovering from surgery. Maybe this is the reason for his disappointing 2021 season where his targets per game dropped from four per game to just over two per game, his carries per game dropped from 14 to 12, and his fantasy scoring dropped from 13.5 points per game to 11.8.
It’s hard to know how to judge Edwards-Helaire’s 2021 season now, but it doesn’t look good in a vacuum. A 51% snap share, a Juke Rate that ranked 38th overall, and just three rushes out of 119 that went for 15 yards or more paint an ugly picture. CEH was usurped by Jerrick McKinnon at times down the stretch, and there’s a chance that we just undervalued CEH as a prospect when the Chiefs surprisingly took him at the end of the first round in 2020. There’s always the potential for a good season playing with Patrick Mahomes, but it is hard to see CEH excelling in a touchdown-scoring role at this point, and he’s just never been as involved in the passing game as we initially hoped, cratering all the way down to a 7% target share last year. I’ll grab Edwards-Helaire when he falls in drafts, but even the sixth round is earlier than I would take him at this point.
25. J.K. Dobbins (Baltimore Ravens) – I love Dobbins as a talent, but coming off of an ACL/LCL tear puts him in doubt for the season opener. And when he does return, we are looking at a player that has failed to draw targets while playing with Lamar Jackson, despite his apparent ability as a receiver. I expect Dobbins’ workload to be lower than we would like early on, and even when he gets back to full speed he will need to rely on his efficiency and run hot on touchdowns.
The risk is too high and the ceiling is too low for me to use a pick on Dobbins in the fifth round, and nine times out of ten I am taking a receiver in this range of the draft anyway. During Dobbins’ hot stretch to end his rookie 2020 season, he never saw more than two targets in any one of his final nine games, with just one total catch over his last five games. A player with that profile needs an outlier volume and touchdown total, tough bets this year coming back from such a serious injury.
26. Josh Jacobs (Las Vegas Raiders) – I’m probably too low on Jacobs, but I’m getting bad vibes out of this Las Vegas backfield. Josh McDaniels comes over from New England, and while we don’t know for sure that he will employ their dreaded running back committee, all of the team’s actions thus far point towards that being the case. A seemingly full running back room already with Jacobs and Kenyan Drake in-house, the Raiders also brought in former Patriot Brandon Bolden, drafted Zamir White in the fourth round, signed pass-catcher Ameer Abdullah, and even just recently added Austin Walter. It’s not that any one of these names is a worry on their own, but the trend is obviously pointing towards several backs getting work.
Even as a bell cow, Jacobs hasn’t exactly broken out. He’s been a steady 14 or 15-point-per-game contributor the past three years, but 21 different active running backs have produced a better rate over that same stretch. His 63% snap share seems more likely to drop this year than go up, his Juke Rate and Yards Created per attempt were mediocre last year, and his Breakaway Rate ranked 38th among qualified running backs. Throw in that this is the last year of Jacobs’ deal in Las Vegas, and it feels likely that he has a lesser role this year than in years past.
27. AJ Dillon (Green Bay Packers) – Dillon is my first handcuff on this list, and for the reasons why I love this setup for the Packers’ running backs, check out my Aaron Jones write-up above. Dillon obviously looks set to smash this ranking if Jones were to miss any significant time, and Jones is entering that age for running backs where injuries tend to become an issue. Even without an injury to Jones, Dillon has some stand-alone value as well.
Dillon still managed a 42.6% snap share last season with Jones active for 15 games, and Dillon had nine games with 10 or more carries even while splitting the work. I was also impressed by his ability as a receiver, as Dillon had a 92% catch rate and seemed more capable of making difficult catches than I ever expected from his massive frame. While he had plenty of games where the passing work wasn’t there, Dillon did have a game with six receptions and a game with five receptions, in addition to two games with four receptions, showing an ability to be more than just a bulldozer on the ground.
We could use a healthy offensive line in Green Bay to increase this running game’s efficiency, but Dillon should be a target in drafts for his massive upside. He’s not the safest pick to be a weekly contributor, but the depth chart is empty behind Dillon and Jones, and Aaron Rodgers is going to need them without his favorite target, Davante Adams, around in 2022.
28. Chase Edmonds (Miami Dolphins) – Edmonds finished as the RB28 in points per game last year despite scoring just 2 touchdowns, which gives him some upside in Miami if he can experience some positive touchdown regression. Edmonds has an 8% career target share and last year it was up to 11%, and he was given the biggest contract in this new-look Miami backfield. I don’t anticipate Raheem Mostert being an obstacle with his injury past and entering his age 30 season, and Myles Gaskin can’t be held in that high of regard by the new coaching staff considering all the new pieces brought in to seemingly replace him. Sony Michel may be a nuisance stealing goalline work and he could certainly eat up some garbage time rushing, but Edmonds has the best combination of talent, passing game ability, and commitment from the new coaching staff.
With Mike McDaniel leading the way and bringing the San Francisco rushing attack along with him, I’m very interested to see how this backfield plays out, and Edmonds is my primary target to get a piece of the action. He’s often available in the eighth round and feels like just as good of an RB2 as some names going three rounds ahead of him. I’ve been drafting him all offseason and would recommend that you come out of your drafts with him as a part of your backfield.
29. Tony Pollard (Dallas Cowboys) – You could probably make a case for Pollard over A.J. Dillon if not for the stubborn Cowboys owner Jerry Jones who seems intent on forcing the issue with Ezekiel Elliott as the lead back. Pollard is still just a Zeke injury away from a huge boost in value, and they may actually need to use him more regardless due to the missing weapons in the passing game. Pollard had a 34% snap share last year which should go up, the question is just by how much. He produced the sixth highest Juke Rate according to FantasyData last year and the fourth highest breakaway rate among all running backs, and while those numbers would likely come down with increased volume, the Cowboys should still try to see how much more they can get from this talented fourth-year player.
Pollard has been trapped behind Zeke for so long now that we may have lost sight of his profile out of college, which was that of a fourth-round pick with a 68th percentile speed score. He profiled best as a passing game threat which is still the role I see him in, but he still may be more efficient than Elliott on the ground with an equal workload at this stage of their careers. I’m not sure how Pollard would fare as a true every-down back if Elliott went down with an injury, but his fantasy outlook would certainly skyrocket. Pollard is a nice upside play as a part of your RB2 group, don’t shy away just because you may not be able to start him in Week 1. He could be a difference maker if things break his way.
30. Kareem Hunt (Cleveland Browns) – When Nick Chubb misses games, Hunt is supposed to be a league winner. At least that’s what we thought for years in our fantasy football drafts. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way for Hunt when he’s gotten his shot. Last year Chubb missed Weeks 6 and 7 and Hunt managed just 14 carries for 66 yards and 3 catches on three targets for 12 yards on 69% of the snaps in Week 6, but suffered a calf injury and missed the next five weeks. In 2020 Chubb went on IR from Weeks 5-8 and Hunt responded with… two total touchdowns in four weeks, highs of 20 carries and 72 yards, and a few games with three catches and 20 receiving yards. That’s not what we had hoped for in the fantasy community.
Sure this is a small sample size and doesn’t guarantee that Hunt can’t take advantage of a Chubb injury this year, but his elite upside is a bit more questionable than we once thought. There have been some rumors of Hunt being traded or released before the season, but we are getting into camp and that feels like a stretch at this point. Even if Hunt landed on a new team, look around the league and tell me the spot where you would want him to land. There aren’t a lot of empty seats at running back this time of the year.
Hunt has scored in the 13 or 14-point-per-game range over the last three seasons, as he certainly has a role on a weekly basis and can fill in as your RB2 or flex. He will see three or more targets per game and score some touchdowns, but entering his age 27 season and coming off an injury-shortened 2021, his stock has slipped. Maybe Deshaun Watson lifts this offense to new heights, but Hunt is still trapped behind Chubb on this Browns roster.
31. Melvin Gordon III (Denver Broncos) – Much like Hunt, Gordon is a talented veteran rusher on what should be a good offense, but there’s a more talented rusher in front of him that caps his upside. Gordon signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract to return to Denver and enters his age 29 season. Gordon has 1,761 NFL touches in his career, so if we are placing bets on who suffers an injury or fades as the year goes on, my bet is on Gordon, not Javonte Williams.
Gordon was a tough one for me to rank, as he has still produced 12+ PPR points per game the last two years in this disappointing Broncos offense, and with Russell Wilson in place, the sky is the limit for this unit. Gordon may be a cheap source of touchdowns, but he has seen his passing game usage crater, from 4.6 targets per game in his last year for the Chargers in 2019 to just 2.4 last year. Williams was able to take work from Gordon in the passing game as a rookie, which isn’t a great sign. I can understand drafting Gordon in the eighth or ninth round for some playable weeks and upside in the event of a Williams injury. But I’m just generally fading the running backs at this age.
32. Rhamondre Stevenson (New England Patriots) – I’m letting the camp hype get to me, and I’ve moved Stevenson above fellow teammate Damien Harris, and he can probably move up another two to five spots if the news continues. Stevenson is trying to become the Patriots’ pass-catching option out of the backfield as James White slowly returns from injury, and the pass-catching automatically gives him a higher ceiling than Harris, who scored about as many touchdowns as he possibly could have last year and still topped out at 14 PPR points per game. If Stevenson is able to blend the pass-catching role in this offense with between-the-tackles rushing ability, we may finally have something here in this New England backfield.
Stevenson did well to even see the field as a rookie under Bill Belichick last year, and FantasyData liked what they saw out of him statistically. Stevenson ranked fifth among NFL running backs with a 35% Juke Rate, and the former fourth-round pick came on strong last year with double-digit carries in six of his final nine games. I’m not as high on Stevenson as some in the community, as his college profile, draft capital, and placement in one of the NFL’s biggest timeshares doesn’t scream league winner to me. But Stevenson could be better than Harris was last year as a PPR asset, which puts him solidly on the RB2 radar throughout the offseason.
33. Devin Singletary (Buffalo Bills) – I really wanted to get rookie running back James Cook above his teammate Singletary in my rankings. But at the end of the day, I have to acknowledge that this is a Bills team with Super Bowl aspirations that may ease in the rookie as he learns the offense and the speed of the NFL. Singletary was left for dead in fantasy circles before last year’s touchdown explosion down the stretch. Singletary had just 6 touchdowns on 374 career touches heading into last season before ripping off 6 touchdowns in his final four games of the regular season. He equaled his career touchdown total on just 84 total touches! Singletary was between 68% and 93% of the snaps over that four-game stretch as Zack Moss was used as a true backup. Singletary even continued his insane touchdown pace in the playoffs, scoring three touchdowns across two games.
All of that still just amounted to 11.6 fantasy points per game on the season, and just under three targets per game in this high-volume Buffalo passing attack isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire. Buffalo brings in Cook as a second-round pick and Moss is still around for now, so it seems unlikely that this team is going to feed Singletary as a workhorse all year in 2022. Singletary had the seventh highest percentage of rushes into a light box last year at 71%, and he did produce the eighth-best breakaway rate in the NFL at 7.4%. There are reasons to like Singletary this year, but his seventh-round ADP is a bit rich for me, and if he goes back to a more sustainable touchdown rate and doesn’t add passing game work, it’s hard to get the math to add up for consistent fantasy production from Singletary.
34. Damien Harris (New England Patriots) – Harris has been falling in my ranks as the Rhamondre Stevenson hype grows, and I’ve made the leap and flip-flopped them in my ranks. The primary reason for the change is that Harris is entirely touchdown-dependent. He scored a respectable 14 fantasy points per game last year but had under two targets per game and only 13.5 rushing attempts per game. That’s possible when you score 15 touchdowns on just 220 touches, and his 7.4% rushing touchdown rate was among the highest in the league. That number is primed for regression, but I do still have interest in the goalline back in the Patriots offense, so keep an eye on the news to see how this backfield shakes out. For now, Stevenson has the upside with his potential pass-catching role.
35. James Cook (Buffalo Bills) – The big question with Cook is, how quickly can he get up to speed with the offense and earn the trust of a Super Bowl contender in the passing game? Devin Singletary has topped out at 50 targets in each of the past two seasons, and at times lost passing work to Zack Moss. What if Cook comes in and demands targets in a top-five passing offense? As we know, running backs earn their targets depending on their ability in the passing game, not due to the quarterback’s tendency to throw to the position. While we don’t know that Cook will demand targets, there’s at least a chance that does, with a 78th percentile Speed Score and solid production in the passing game at the University of Georgia. Oh, he’s also Dalvin Cook‘s younger brother, though he’s not the same level of prospect.
In Week 2 last year, Moss averaged 3.5 targets a game over his first 7 games, while Singletary averaged just over 3 per game. Moss has just been bad and injured so far in his NFL career, but it sure seemed like the Bills were trying to find someone to give the passing game work to even last year. If Moss falls out of favor and Cook can pick up the finer details of pass protection, a receiving role in Buffalo is something that we need to take notice of. I find myself taking Cook quite often as a late-round flier, as there is very little risk with his 1oth round ADP.
36. Rashaad Penny (Seattle Seahawks) – I was drafting a lot of Penny early in the offseason in best ball drafts at a reduced price, but his ADP has jumped recently and I’ve cooled a bit. But Penny is intriguing at the right price, and his end-of-season 2021 production was off the charts. Penny got healthy for practically the first time in his career in 2021, as he came into last season with just 823 career rushing yards total across three seasons. Penny didn’t play over 40% of the snaps in a single game until Week 13 last year but blew up down the stretch. Penny rushed for 137 yards and two touchdowns on just 16 carries in Week 14, 135 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries in Week 16, 170 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries in Week 17, and 23 carries for 190 yards and one touchdown in the season finale. Penny was literally a league winner last year.
Penny returned to the Seahawks on a one-year deal, but so much has changed. Russell Wilson is gone and barring a late Jimmy Garoppolo signing, Penny’s quarterback will be either Geno Smith or Drew Lock. Seattle also drafted Kenneth Walker in the second round of the NFL Draft for added backfield competition. Penny’s hot stretch makes him an intriguing pick with big upside, but we do have to remember he has some red flags. His injury history is hard to overlook, and during last year’s hot stretch of games, Penny had just five targets. Penny is a nice depth piece, and if Garoppolo ends up in Seattle he likely jumps up the ranks. But there’s probably a reason why it took Penny nearly four full years to break out, so keep expectations in check.
37. Cordarrelle Patterson (Atlanta Falcons) – It’s just really hard for me to get on board with a 31-year-old running back, no matter how good they were last year. Patterson was the shock of the early season, ripping off catches and touchdowns and coming out of nowhere to be a weekly RB1. Patterson wasn’t even playing on all that many snaps early on, but he was used in creative ways, averaging nearly six targets per game and scoring seven total touchdowns over his first eight games.
The wheels fell off for Patterson after Week 10, where he suffered a sprained ankle against the Cowboys. Patterson missed Week 11 and actually returned to post a 100-yard rushing game and two touchdowns against the Jaguars, and had a few moments over the final weeks. But after the injury, Patterson saw his targets crater to just under three targets per game. Patterson could be a value in leagues where he plummets down the board due to his age, and the backfield competition is just as weak as it was last year in Atlanta. But Patterson goes from Matt Ryan to Marcus Mariota at quarterback, and don’t forget that this is a running back that was generally topping out at 50% of the offensive snaps.
38. Ken Walker III (Seattle Seahawks) – The second-round rookie has to battle Rashaad Penny for touches in an offense that may be starting Geno Smith in Week 1, so I’ve had a hard time getting hyped up to make this pick in my best ball drafts over the summer. And it sure doesn’t help that the Seahawks have the worst offensive line in the league according to PFF’s preseason rankings.
Walker has a fun profile with a 96th percentile Speed Score, and he does have the draft capital we look for. He doesn’t profile as a pass-catcher based on his college production, but we’ve seen running backs overcome that before. The toughest part of buying into Walker is that he and Penny will likely battle for the same early down work, and the pass-catching role is a big unknown. If Walker isn’t the 3rd down back and splits time with Penny, Walker is unlikely to be playable early on in fantasy leagues. But he’s worth a shot late in drafts, as he could just be a good player, and there’s the upside of the likely Penny injury opening up a huge role. The quarterback situation probably holds him back from a true breakout, but if Seattle lands Jimmy Garoppolo we may need to reassess our ranking on Walker.
39. Kenneth Gainwell (Philadelphia Eagles) – The Eagles have been rotating Gainwell and Miles Sanders in as the first-string running back every other day it seems in training camp, making Gainwell an intriguing name to watch running behind the league’s best offensive line. I do think Gainwell profiles more as a pass-catcher 3rd down option, so I’m not sure that I see the breakout here. But he may very well be a usable player, as the fifth-round rookie generally played 30% of the snaps or more last year and had some weeks with spiked usage — two weeks with eight targets, one with seven, one with five, and two with four. Gainwell even had five catches for 49 yards and a touchdown in the Eagles playoff game.
Gainwell’s work just wasn’t consistent last year, as his 27% snap share was second highest on the team but was siphoned off by Jordan Howard (23%), Boston Scott (20%), and Jason Huntley (12%). Howard is gone from Philadelphia as of writing, Scott enters his age 27 season, and the Eagles didn’t bring in much beyond UDFA Kennedy Brooks. If this backfield is more condensed between Sanders and Gainwell this year, both running backs may be a value in this offense with nice upside.
40. Darrell Henderson Jr. (Los Angeles Rams) – I’m coming out of almost every draft with Henderson, as he’s going off the board as the RB44 in the 11th round or later. At that price, I’ll take shot after shot on this 24-year-old in an excellent offense. Henderson had double-digit carries in 9 of the Rams’ first 11 weeks and scored eight touchdowns as Cam Akers was out with an Achilles injury. He was a low-end RB1 in fantasy leagues during that stretch. Sure, Henderson has proven to have trouble staying on the field, and he suffered an MCL injury and missed a ton of time to end the season. But Henderson did return in the Super Bowl, and while he only saw four carries working behind Akers (who was ineffective, by the way) he racked up 5 targets for 43 receiving yards in the biggest game of the year.
The depth chart behind Akers and Henderson is weak. Kyren Williams, a fifth-round rookie who profiles as a 3rd down back, is already rehabbing from foot surgery and we aren’t sure when he will be back. He also has a 9th percentile Speed Score and doesn’t have the draft capital to profile as an NFL player. And there’s almost no depth after that. Jake Funk? Xavier Jones?
The worst-case scenario is that Henderson is a nice handcuff in an excellent offense, and if Akers runs into any nagging injuries in his first full year back from an Achilles injury, Henderson steps in as a solid RB2 play for those weeks. Best case, the Rams are smart and don’t want to overload Akers in an attempt to keep him fresh all year, and Henderson has some stand-alone value in a 60/40 or 70/30 backfield split. Henderson’s injury worries are already baked into this ADP, and I’m scooping him up in most of my drafts this off-season.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)