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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 position has to do with how you view the upside, the floor, and the risk of injury. This discussion begins in option 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 it’s the consensus No. 1 pick. Just don’t take consent as unquestionable. Because there are at least two backs who claim 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 both last seasons together. It’s not hard to make an argument against it. But you must be clear that when you do so, you are making an inferiority argument, not a reverse argument. And above is what wins Fantasy Football championships.

The truth is, we’re just not very good at assessing how likely an injury is to occur. Some say it’s more likely for guys who had a lot of touches last year, others will say that guys who were injured in previous years are the backs to avoid. I say, at best it should be used as a tiebreaker, and in most cases, you’d be better off ignoring it.

So I have Henry and McCaffrey ahead of Taylor right? Not exactly. McCaffrey projects more PPR Fantasy points in the projections below, Taylor is still technically first on the rankings page. The key for me to decide between the two is the type of league I’m in. In bigger tournaments or high stakes leagues, I prefer McCaffrey. It’s on my Scott Fish Bowl roster and is the right choice if you’re taking a big swing. I would use the same strategy in a home league, assuming you know more and try harder than most teams in your leagues. But in a typical 12-team league where six teams make the playoffs and most are competitive, I value Taylor’s safety enough to rank him No. 1.

Return of the strategy plan

Once you get past 1.01, the conversation remains the same, just with different players. How scared are you of Dalvin Cook’s injury history or Alvin Kamara’s suspension chances? Shooting for the moon with young potential stars JK Dobbins, Travis Etienne and Cam Akers as they return from major injuries? Will Kyle Shanahan finally be left with a running back? Will Josh McDaniels let catch back passes with his signature?

My general positioning strategy is pretty agnostic. I have seven backs in my first round and 15 in the first two. I feel safer drafting in the first two rounds, but I won’t shy away from a start that includes a combination like Justin Jefferson and Mark Andrews. If I haven’t gone back in the first two rounds, that will probably change in Round 3 because David Montgomery is almost always there. If it’s not, we might go Zero-RB.

There are a lot of mid-range backs that are appealing this year, which really tests the dead zone. If you end up drafting guards in rounds 4-6, make them young guards, preferably with cuts and reverse 3s.

Miles Sanders and Clyde Edwards-Helaire are potential starters that go past Round 6 in some drafts. collect them if they do. After this point, you should be thinking almost entirely about potential upside. You need an elevator pitch on how the back becomes a top 12 pick or you need to strongly consider removing them from your draft. When it comes to backups, remember that it’s more likely for one behind an average starter to turn a profit than one behind a first-round pick, even if that sounds counterintuitive.

Now let’s get into the layers, flares and bodices in place:

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Numbers you need to know

4.5 — Ezekiel Elliot is averaging 4.5 yards per touch since the start of the 2020 season. Tony Pollard is averaging 5.7 in the same stretch.
67 — James Cook caught 67 passes in his four years at Georgia. He’ll fill in for Devin Singletary if he wins a role.
134 — Rashaad Penny has averaged 134 rushing yards per game over his last five games of 2021. Has upside for the league if he can stay healthy.
0 — Miles Sanders didn’t score a rushing touchdown last year despite the Eagles leading 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 back in catches this year.
27 — Current Giants running backs not named Saquon Barkley combined for 27 NFL games last year.
18.3 — Cardinals running backs have averaged 18.3 touchdowns per year over the last three seasons.
309 — The Texans have 309 consecutive sacks dating back to last year, second 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’s no shortage of running backs available if you want to focus on quarterbacks and pass in the first five-plus rounds. I tried to include a good mix of floor guys and upside because I’d like to start with some hits while I wait for the backups to win jobs. For this version, I am using the Fantasy Pros PPR ADP. For the most part, the recommended round is one round earlier than the player is actually drafted. You can’t be too cute to have your guys running back if you punt in the first few 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

Sorting with handcuffs

Below are the top 10 PPR tight ends 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 championship winner should Nick get hurt Chubb. Bernard’s role probably wouldn’t change. So while Hunt can be versatile in a PPR league even without an injury, he’s also the No. 1 tight end. I don’t traditionally handcuff my starters, but I don’t mind taking someone else’s handcuffs. Also, if you’re in a non-PPR league, guys like Trey Sermon, AJ Dillon, and Gus Edwards are worth a push.

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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