Fantasy Football Exit Interview: Running backs surprisingly sturdy in 2022

Fantasy football seasons are usually defined by the running backs. This is the opposite of the real NFL, of course, where the quarterbacks are everything. In our fake game about a game, solving backfields is critical if you want the end-of-season glory.

Running back analysis and picking has become trickier in recent years, given the constant injury fear at the position and the NFL’s trend toward committee backfields. But I’m happy to note that in hindsight, the fantasy backfield board of 2022 held up surprisingly well.

I went back to the Top-30 backs from early September ADP, and graded them in three colors: green for guys who popped, yellow for middling-returns, and red for anyone you’d regret drafting. It’s a simple scoring system, not meant to be intricate — this is back-of-envelope stuff.

The returns were better than I’d generally expect. I came up with 10 backs in green (fun), 12 yellow backs (manageable, if frustrating at times), and eight red backs (look out below).

Let’s see what the color groups tell us, and we'll tuck in takeaways at the bottom.

The Greens

Christian McCaffrey did just fine in Carolina, and then smashed in San Francisco, as expected. A full year with Kyle Shanahan sounds like a blast.

Austin Ekeler wasn’t an efficiency darling, but he gobbled up a ton of pass-game work and applied tons of touchdown deodorant. Now the Chargers are looking for a new offensive coordinator.

Much of Austin Ekeler's fantasy production came via the air this season. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Much of Austin Ekeler's fantasy production came via the air this season. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Derrick Henry maintained his rushing efficiency despite problems around him, and his pass-catching work was surprisingly useful. Here’s hoping Tennessee’s next offensive voice recognizes it’s a good idea to let Henry be tackled by the corners and safeties once in a while; let’s keep those catches forward.

Saquon Barkley continues to fade as a receiver, but he got his groove back on the ground and landed as the RB6. He’s a fascinating free agent to be.

Nick Chubb is probably the best pure runner in the league (secondary metrics love him), though the Browns remain reluctant to throw him the ball much.

Travis Etienne spread his wings in his NFL debut, to the point that the Jaguars sent James Robinson packing midseason. Jacksonville is still surprisingly reluctant to throw the ball to Etienne, for some reason.

Dameon Pierce was in the Rookie of the Year mix before an ankle injury knocked him out in early December. Houston’s messy offense didn’t keep Pierce from fantasy relevance.

Josh Jacobs was the No. 1 right answer in fantasy backfields this year, smashing despite a dysfunctional year otherwise in Las Vegas. He still doesn’t have a touchdown catch in his career, but he charted the best yards per target of his career and has 107 catches the last two years. Perfect timing for Jacobs; he's a free agent.

Rhamondre Stevenson was the only thing you could bear to watch in New England. Damien Harris isn’t a bad back, but Stevenson threw him out of the way. Stevenson ran unlucky in the touchdown column; that might be a 2023 correction.

Tony Pollard had to share with Ezekiel Elliott all year, but Pollard nonetheless finished RB7, a stunning rank given that he was never really the primary option. All of the efficiency metrics point to Pollard as a star, Elliott as a fading player.

[Other positional exit interviews: Quarterbacks | Tight Ends]

The Yellows

Dalvin Cook lacked explosiveness down the stretch and looks like a popular fade entering 2023.

Najee Harris once again couldn’t make it to 4.0 a carry, and he lost 68 touches from the previous year. Being saddled with Pittsburgh’s sluggish offense didn't help, though Harris is obviously part of that story.

Joe Mixon scored five times against the Panthers (the best running back game of the year), but only four times against the rest of the league. Alvin Kamara bagged a hat trick versus the Raiders, and just one touchdown otherwise. Mixon hasn’t been a splashy player for several years, and Kamara’s efficiency has slacked for two seasons. Kamara also might be looking at a 2023 suspension. I'm not eager to draft either of these guys moving forward.

Aaron Jones finished as the RB9, and could make a case for a green tag. I’d argue he never brought that much upside to any week, but he did maintain his efficiency levels and the Packers continued to spot him regular touchdown catches (11 in two years).

Leonard Fournette somehow carved out an RB15 finish, in part because Tom Brady wanted the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible. But the arrow is pointed in the wrong direction.

James Conner never plays full seasons and he wasn’t expected to match 2021’s touchdown bonanza, but he was playable in all of his healthy weeks, despite the Arizona chaos around him.

Ezekiel Elliott remains the sacred cow in Dallas, though Pollard’s role did expand. Zeke averaged just 3.9 yards per touch (Pollard was at 5.9), but 12 rushing touchdowns (seven of them one-yard plunges) were welcome deodorant.

Cam Akers is a tough grade, because he struggled early and almost got booted off the Rams roster. The Akers manager in your league is screaming for a red grade. But anyone who took the plunge on Akers down the stretch was rewarded: his final six weeks charted RB7, RB23, RB23, RB1, RB4, and RB10. (Somewhere out there is a fantasy manager who had nothing in the backfield, then timed the market just right on Akers and Jerick McKinnon en route to a championship.)

A.J. Dillon lost a little juice as a receiver but otherwise his season was similar to his 2021 log. He didn’t outkick his ADP, nor did he torpedo you.

David Montgomery was constantly hampered by the limited Chicago offense, and what little production the team could manage went to Justin Fields.

Antonio Gibson saw his stock fall all summer to the point that you were drafting him hoping to get a single. That's about what he was, useful in a flex way but never an upside play.

The Reds

Jonathan Taylor had never missed a practice, let alone a game, before 2022. This year that ended, with an ankle injury washing out the final six games. Taylor could only manage a RB34 showing for the 11 games he did play, albeit that’s a statement about the Colts shipwrecked offense.

Injuries limited Jonathan Taylor's production this season. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Injuries limited Jonathan Taylor's production this season. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

If only the Lions liked D’Andre Swift as much as his fantasy managers do. The Lions turned Jamaal Williams into their designated touchdown guy, and Swift had nine games with 10 touches or fewer. At some point, we have to listen to teams when they show us how they feel about a player.

Javonte Williams tore up his knee in September, one of many low points in Denver’s lost season.

Breece Hall had league-winner written all over him before tearing an ACL and meniscus in Week 7.

Elijah Mitchell suffered two MCL injuries and eventually had to deal with the arrival of superhero Christian McCaffrey.

J.K. Dobbins was an explosive runner when he finally returned, but the Ravens rarely throw to their backs and the touchdown equity just wasn’t there. If you want to bump Dobbins into the yellows, I won't argue with you.

Chase Edmonds was a follow-the-money pick in the summer, but the Dolphins quickly soured on him, eventually trading him to Denver. Nothing to see here.

The “CEH is MEH” joke keeps playing for Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who could be the third-best back on the Kansas City roster. CEH was passed by a seventh-round pick (Isiah Pacheco) and a 30-year-old journeyman (Jerick McKinnon) this year.

Useful Finds Outside RB30 on Draft Day

How did we let Miles Sanders slide to RB33? Score one for positive touchdown regression. Although Jalen Hurts remains a dynamic runner and scorer, Sanders still got ample opportunities and crushed his summer ADP. Surprisingly, the Eagles have stopped throwing the ball to Sanders — he looked like an exciting receiver in his rookie year, but he hasn’t made it past 200 receiving yards since. This year’s catch log: 20-78-0.

Kenneth Walker was pushing Rashaad Penny to begin with, and then it became a moot point when Penny got hurt in Week 5. Walker didn’t blow the league up, but he justified his NFL draft cost and crushed his ADP. His passing metrics were ordinary, but at least Seattle was willing to throw him the ball.

Pacheco, Rachaad White and Brian Robinson all had useful weeks as rookies. All of their backfields were crowded. Robinson is a hero for playing at all, coming back from a shocking gunshot wound right before the season.

Tyler Allgeier separated himself in the Atlanta backfield by year’s end, and was the second-best rookie runner, trailing only Walker. Allgeier regularly gained more yards than the blocking set up for him. He can play.

D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard were surprisingly useful after the Panthers traded McCaffrey.

Jerick McKinnon was sitting on one touchdown as the calendar hit December; after that, he spiked nine glorious times (eight times on receptions). It took a while for the Chiefs to recognize McKinnon was an easy button, but after recognition set in, they kept pressing it.

Jamaal Williams was coming off the board in the RB50-60 range, and he led the NFL in rushing touchdowns. He’s not getting enough credit for being a home-run hitter in 2022.

Takeaways, Take Me Away

Next year is a scary age year for the Class of 2017, with just about everyone settling into an age-28 season. That’s been a dangerous zone in recent history. The primary age-28 backs for next year: Ekeler, Chubb, Jamaal Williams, Cook, Elliott, Kamara, Conner and Fournette. Ekeler and Chubb I'm going to marinate on, but everyone else on this list worries me.

This year’s Top-10 backs all had double-digit touchdowns. There isn’t a screaming “positive regression coming” candidate like Sanders was this season, but I suspect Stevenson, Etienne, Allgeier and Pierce are looking at likely touchdown increases.

Jamaal Williams and Sanders used touchdown deodorant to offset the fact that they weren’t used in the passing game. Elliott’s receiving chops have also left the building; despite a bushel of touchdowns, he was barely inside the RB2 cutline. I’m petrified to draft Zeke next year, and reluctant to take Williams and Sanders at expectant prices. Williams and Sanders are also headed into free agency.

We’re a long way from digging in on 2023 strategy, but I’ll probably look for a lot of Anchor RB builds yet again, the idea that you hang your hat on one high-ADP back while you’re primarily attacking the receiver position. After that, you do what pretty much every good manager does — you look to get lucky in the middle rounds, in the late rounds, and on the wire.