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 running back position has to do with how you view upside, floor, and injury risk. That discussion starts at pick 1.01.

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

For one thing, Derrick Henry outscored 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 will turn 29 before Taylor turns 24, and McCaffrey has only played 10 games in the past two seasons combined. It’s not hard to craft an argument against either. But you need to be clear that when you do, you’re making a floor argument, not an upside argument. And upside is what wins Fantasy Football leagues.

The truth is, we just aren’t very good at assessing how likely an injury is to happen. Some say it’s more likely for guys who had a ton of touches last year, others will say the guys who got hurt in prior years are the backs to shy away from. I say, at best it should be used as a tiebreaker, and in most instances, you’d be better off ignoring it.

So I have Henry and McCaffrey ahead of Taylor right? Not exactly. McCaffrey does project for more PPR Fantasy points in the projections below, Taylor is still technically ranked first on our rankings page. The key for me in deciding between the two is the type of league I’m in. In larger tournaments or high-stakes leagues, I prefer McCaffrey. He’s on my Scott Fish Bowl roster and he’s the right pick if you’re swinging big. I’d 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 everyone is competitive, I do 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 of Dalvin Cook’s injury history or Alvin Kamara’s suspension odds? Do you shoot 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 one running back? Will Josh McDaniels let his feature back catch passes?

My general positional strategy is pretty agnostic. I have seven backs in my first round and 15 in the first two. I feel more secure when I draft a running back in the first two rounds, but I won’t shy away from a start that includes a combo 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 may be going Zero-RB.

There are plenty of mid-range backs who are 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 be thinking almost entirely of potential upside. You need an elevator pitch as to how a back becomes a top-12 option or you need to strongly consider taking them off your draft board. As for backups, remember it’s more likely for a back behind a mediocre starter to return profit than one behind a first-round pick, even if that sounds counterintuitive.

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

Projections powered by

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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 in the same stretch.
67 — James Cook caught 67 passes in his four years at Georgia. He will cap Devin Singletary’s upside if he earns 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 fact that the Eagles led 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’ running 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 opportunities to replace from last year., the 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 ADP solidifies, but for now, there is no shortage of running backs available if you want to focus on quarterback and pass catchers in the first five-plus rounds. I tried to include a good mix of floor and upside guys because I would like to have some pass-catching backs to start while I wait for the backups to gain jobs. For this version, I’m using Fantasy Pros PPR ADP. For the most part, the suggested round is a round earlier than the player is actually being drafted. You can’t be too cute getting your guys at running back if you punt on 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 rankings

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 wouldn’t likely change. So, while Hunt can be a flex in a PPR league even without an injury, he’s also the No. 1 hand cuff. I don’t traditionally draft handcuffs to my starters, 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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