Running back is the most complicated fantasy position in 2022, like it always is. The bell cow is a vanishing thing. Injuries are inevitable, and they’re hard (some would say closer to impossible) to project. A bunch of talented runners are headed into their late 20s, an age where efficiency often tanks. And some of the biggest names on the board — backs who are still commanding a juicy ADP — are coming off lousy or lost seasons, for one reason or another.
Your plan should be fluid entering the draft room, but you’ll probably assemble a roster that follows one of three standard running back builds:
You might opt for Robust RB, which means you’ll attack the position early. On a Robust roster, two early picks (perhaps more) will target this position.
Perhaps you’ll prefer an Anchor RB, which is the concept of getting one primary back to hang your hat on (likely in Round 1 or 2) and then focusing on the other positions. This is my most common build, not that it’s necessarily right. You know your room better than I do.
There’s also a case for Zero RB, where you don’t use any high draft capital on the position. The idea here is that you’ll assemble a deep RB room — you just won’t grab the big-name backs. And hopefully, the inevitable NFL chaos to follow in the fall will filter value onto your roster, as you’ve tried to assemble a group that will benefit from maximum entropy.
To be clear, I think any fantasy manager should take some of those Zero RB principles and apply them to their roster build and seasonal strategy. You want a bunch of running backs on your bench; some with playable value on Week 1, and some with high theoretical ceilings if they get the right break. And any experienced fantasy manager knows we’ll be actively competing for fresh RB talent on the waiver wire; that’s why it’s critical to acquire some of those guys early, if possible. You want to roster them before waiver and trade value go through the roof.
Here’s what I’m likely to do with my early running back strategy, based on what draft slot I hold. For this exercise, assume a 12-team snake draft, where 2 RBs and 3 WRs are started weekly.
If I have an early pick . . .
If I have a middle-round pick . . .
I’ll strongly consider Austin Ekeler or Dalvin Cook. Otherwise, I’m back to the receiver well.
If I have a late-round pick . . .
I’ll hope one of the middle-round targets slipped to me, or I’ll look at guys like Najee Harris or Joe Mixon. I am unlikely to take Derrick Henry at his current ADP, concerned about his career arc and the downward trend of the Titans offense.
Second round, if I don’t have a running back yet . . .
This is where Aaron Jones is a perfect pick, mixing a sturdy floor with some upside. I will also consider Leonard Fournette and D’Andre Swift proactively. And if my first pick was a running back, I’ll likely start assembling the best receiver room I can. Anchor RB isn’t a personal mandate, but it’s certainly my preference.
Three Proactive Picks for Me
• I consider Aaron Jones a perfect second-round pick, as the Packers transition to an offense where Jones and A.J. Dillon are the featured pieces. Dillon isn't a bad receiver but Jones shines in that area, and while Aaron Rodgers is unlikely to stay in MVP contention, he can steer this offense into scoring position regularly.
• Wheels up on Travis Etienne Jr., who's looked healthy and explosive all summer. The Jaguars finally have mature coaching in the building, and Etienne already has a pass-catching rapport with his former Clemson teammate, Trevor Lawrence.
• I can't guarantee you Javonte Williams will shove Melvin Gordon out of the way; it certainly didn't happen last year, and Gordon looked surprisingly spry. But Williams is seven years younger, which makes his ceiling more exciting. I'll strongly consider Williams in the third round as a play-to-win pick, and could perhaps take him in the second if things get a little off script in my room,
Three Players I'm not eager to Pick
• Alvin Kamara lost Drew Brees a year ago, now he's into life without Sean Payton. The Saints' offensive line is weaker than it's been since Kamara went pro. The team also has much more target competition this season, boosting the wideout room. And although Kamara's suspension risk appears low at this point in time, it's not zero, either.
• Derrick Henry has handled an absurd workload dating back to college, and the Titans will routinely ask him to run inside, where you get tackled by the heaviest defenders. The arc of Tennessee's offense also concerns me; where are the other playmakers? The Titans snuck into the AFC's No. 1 seed last year; I don't think they're a playoff team this season.
• Perhaps Ezekiel Elliott will keep a heavy market share in Dallas, given his contract status and the backward way that team thinks at times. But we can't ignore that Tony Pollard's efficiency was much better than Zeke's last year. I'd rather be a season early than a season late.
Top 22 running backs for '22
1. Jonathan Taylor — Has never missed a practice or game at any level.
2. Christian McCaffrey — Is he injury-prone or injury-unlucky? Heavy passing work gives him a chance to withstand the season, getting tackled by the lighter defenders.
3. Austin Ekeler — Some touchdown giveback expected, but still a featured cog on a loaded offense.
4. Dalvin Cook — Needs maintenance now and then, but new coaching staff is exciting.
5. Najee Harris — Assuredly a bell cow, especially given the mediocre options behind him.
6. Joe Mixon — Not a heavy-volume receiver, but a primary back tied to a strong offense. Line has been upgraded.
7. Derrick Henry
8. Aaron Jones
9. D’Andre Swift — Lions like Jamaal Williams more than the fantasy public, but it’s Swift who has the ceiling.
10. Leonard Fournette — In the Tom Brady circle of trust, and that’s the catbird seat.
11. Saquon Barkley — Most of the drumbeat has been positive, though the line is still below league average.
13. Javonte Williams
14. Breece Hall — Profile suggests he can hit the ground running, and Jets' offensive infrastructure can be solid if they figure out quarterback. Maybe Joe Flacco opening the season wouldn’t be a bad thing.
15. Ezekiel Elliott
16. Alvin Kamara
17. James Conner — Touchdown regression could hit hard and I don’t trust Kliff Kingsbury.
19. Cam Akers — Over a year removed from Achilles tear, though Darrell Henderson also expected to see plenty of work.
20. Travis Etienne Jr.
21. A.J. Dillon — Packers need running backs to be featured keys to the offense, and Dillon could command closer and short-yardage roles.
22. Devin Singletary — Will have to share with others, but we can’t ignore how good he looked down the stretch in 2022.
Sleeper means something different to everyone, but five RB sleepers (or ADP beaters) to know
(In no particular order)
• Brian Robinson Jr. — Antonio Gibson opens year in Washington's doghouse, and even if he works his way out, Robinson might be the designated scorer.
• Chase Edmonds —Follow the money; he's the back Miami invested in. Positive touchdown regression is likely.
• D'Ernest Johnson — Showed Cleveland he could play last year, and Kareem Hunt might be moving.