NFL Exit Interview: Fantasy football running back, as maddening as ever

When it comes to running backs and fantasy football, sometimes I think the more we know, the less we understand.

We know bell cows can swing leagues and be seismic factors in championship teams. We also know bell cows are a dying breed in the league.

We know the position has a high attrition rate. Injuries overwhelm this position more than any other in fantasy football.

We know the key age for backs keeps getting younger and younger.

And we know that every opposing manager in our league is going to be borderline obsessed with the makeup of their running back room. This doesn’t mean these opponents will necessarily draft running backs early, but every skillful fantasy manager is going to work on running back depth constantly, and any plausible waiver-wire add in the backfield is generally battled for, contested.

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Let’s try to find some commonalty from the best scoring running backs this year and see if we can learn anything from it.

The best fantasy backs this year were generally in their age-26 season at latest

If you examine the top-20 PPR backs, only hybrid Cordarrelle Patterson (RB9), Aaron Jones (RB11) and Melvin Gordon (RB20) charted at age 27 or higher. Keep in mind, part of this reflects that talent comes into the league younger in the modern game. Most talented skill players don’t matriculate for four collegiate seasons.

Contrast this to earlier eras, when most rookie backs were 23. Heck, Billy Sims was 25 when he landed in Detroit.

Players understand their earning power is a small window. It makes sense to join the NFL as soon as you’re coveted. You can’t blame anyone who grasps this concept.

The most important fantasy backs were on good teams

Obvious, for sure. This is a correlation most sharp gamers know.

Jonathan Taylor’s Colts were shockingly bounced from the playoffs in Week 18, but Indianapolis was a winning team essentially all year. Austin Ekeler, the RB2, was also on a strong contender. Patterson and Gibson were the only top-12 backs on losing teams, and no one tied to a horrible team had a great fantasy year (D’Andre Swift finished RB15, running with the 2021 Detroit Lions, a team that covered like crazy but seldom won).

The most useful fantasy backs did something in the passing game

Again, we’re not breaking news here. Among the top-25 finishers, only Nick Chubb (20-174-1) and Damien Harris (18-132-0) were minimized in the running game. Surprisingly, Cook’s pass-game usage and effectiveness fell through the floor.

Sometimes fantasy backs keep their PPR chops despite efficiency stats that beg for a new team approach. Consider Ezekiel Elliott, who was RB7. His yards per target has decreased for five straight seasons, and his YPC dropped to 6.1 last year. Still, the Cowboys kept Zeke as a bell cow, perhaps playing to his contract, perhaps unsure if Tony Pollard could handle an expanded role.

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) had a relatively successful fantasy football season
Ezekiel Elliott finished as fantasy football's RB7 in PPR despite diminished efficiency. (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Elliott and Pollard were also dinged up during the year, which is part of the problem we always have with running backs. There are two kinds of backs in the NFL, those who are currently hurt and those who are likely to be hurt soon. I don’t mean to be glib about this, it’s just a fact of life in this demanding sport.

Touchdown deodorant pays the bills

Every back in the top 14 has at least nine touchdowns, and every back in the top 25 had at least seven, except for Cook (six scores in 13 games). Six-point plays are obviously a huge part of fantasy glory.

It’s interesting to note that most of the primary backs didn’t have a rushing quarterback blocking their path. James Conner finished RB5 in part because Kyler Murray’s rushing was not consistent all year, and only Devin Singletary (RB18) charted despite a touchdown-gobbling quarterback in his own huddle.

Let’s pour one out for Miles Sanders, who somehow touched the ball 163 times and didn’t have a single touchdown. Jalen Hurts got in Sanders’s way as much as anything else. Other backs who were notably touchdown-unlucky were Chase Edmonds, Pollard, and whatever’s left of Saquon Barkley. Sony Michel’s five touchdowns were also modest given 229 touches.

Fantasy Champions pick winners from crowded situations

Take a step back and consider the wide receiver position. Anyone who found a reason to rank Cooper Kupp over Robert Woods or Deebo Samuel over Brandon Aiyuk back in August had a huge edge on the competition. If you parlayed both of those takes, you’re probably building a trophy case right now.

Middle-round values are generally available if you can pick right among the nebulous backfields. Maybe you saw Leonard Fournette (RB6) as the class of a messy Tampa Bay situation. Perhaps you understood the Cardinals would fit better for Conner than Edmonds. Patterson was the knuckleballer of the year, but he certainly wasn’t anyone’s priority in the summer, and some managers even got him for a modest amount of FAAB back in September. Singletary’s useful playoff run was welcome for managers who preferred him to Zack Moss (or even Matt Breida).

We should also give a nod to Elijah Mitchell, who was a strong RB1/2 for most of the year, stepping forward in an offense where Raheem Mostert quickly got hurt and Trey Sermon turned out to be a monstrous bust.

A word about Jonathan Taylor, 2021 league winner

It's one of my biggest regrets of the year, how I played Taylor last August. He was a green-light player for me through midsummer and at one point I had him third or fourth overall on my cheat sheet. But when the Colts had summer injuries to QB Carson Wentz and star lineman Quenton Nelson, I moved Taylor down. I also was mildly concerned that the Colts might force Taylor to share more with other backs, no matter that he's the one generational talent they have at tailback.

For a few weeks, my Taylor concern looked validated. The Colts started 0-3, and Taylor didn't have a touchdown in September (or a game over 64 yards rushing). And head coach Frank Reich was reluctant to ride Taylor into the ground; Taylor didn't see 20 carries in a single game until Week 10, the middle of November.

Of course, by then, Taylor was already smashing, even if he was mildly underutilized. And eventually, the offense went all-in on Taylor, and he ended the season as the first or second-most critical fantasy player, depending on how you view Kupp. Jonathan Taylor will be on plenty of magazine covers next year and will be the first or second pick in most drafts, barring injury.

Jonathan Taylor #28 of the Indianapolis Colts
Jonathan Taylor was one of Scott Pianowski's biggest regrets of 2021. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

Maybe I underestimated Reich's ability to adapt in-season. Maybe I worried too much about Wentz potentially sinking the offense, though I do not think he had a great year. Perhaps I put too much concern into Indy's offensive injuries in the summer. It could be a combination of things. In any event, we have to own our misses and this was surely my worst one of the year. I still had a +EV season, but getting this wrong is going to sting for a while.

This is the game we've chosen. You try to learn something and come back stronger the next year.

Some early (if in pencil) takeaways for Running Backs in 2022

• We used to turn on backs in their age-30 seasons, but I think that number needs to get smaller. Anyone into an age-27 season makes me at least a little nervous. Put it up another year or two and they become reactive picks for me, not proactive ones — provided the market doesn’t mark them as notable discounts.

I can spin this a different way; whenever possible, I want my early back choices to be on their first contract. I can make allowances for later depth picks; by the middle of your draft, everyone you take has an obvious downside anyway. If they didn’t, they wouldn't be available to you.

• I’m still likely to employ an Anchors Aweigh approach to the backfield next year, where I’d like to take one possible stab at a bell cow, and then focus on building premium depth elsewhere. And like almost every one of my competitors, I’ll stock my running back room as much as I can.

• At times in the past I’ve been willing to give an affordable back a pass if he was the only show in town on a presumed-losing team, but I’m less likely to play that card going forward. Mike Davis and Myles Gaskin didn’t do anyone any favors in 2021.

• As wonderful as the Cam Akers comeback has been, he’s looked sluggish in the playoffs. I suspect his possible breakout might be 2023, not 2022. I understand how strong the urge can be to double down on a player; my hunch says he’ll be mildly overdrafted in the spring and summer.

Early 2022 RB Rankings

Ranking at least 3-4 months before my Best Ball season kicks in, this list doesn’t mean too much. But rankings are fun. Here’s an early Running Back Board for 2022, in pencil. Keep in mind, a high ranking here doesn’t mean I’m going after the player. I’ll probably have two wide receivers among my first three picks in most of my 2022 drafts.

Jonathan Taylor - green light

Austin Ekeler - green light

Derrick Henry - yellow light

Dalvin Cook - yellow light

Najee Harris - green light

Joe Mixon - yellow light

Christian McCaffrey - yellow/red light

Javonte Williams - green light

Alvin Kamara - yellow light

Antonio Gibson - green/yellow light

Nick Chubb - yellow light

David Montgomery - yellow light

Leonard Fournette - yellow/red light

Aaron Jones - yellow light

Cam Akers - yellow light

Saquon Barkley - red light

No, there’s not a lot of green in there. Perhaps some rookie backs will crash the party; I don't like to rank them until we know where they have landed. And I realize some of the takeaways in this column contradict each other; at some point, you can talk yourself out of almost any player. But it’s the most challenging fantasy position for a reason.

You never stop trying to solve the running back puzzle.