I drafted Jonathan Taylor… five times. Five times I had the first pick and I took JT. CMC, Ekeler and Henry were all close in my rankings but I always took Taylor. Unsurprisingly, I lost every one of those leagues. I know I’m not the only one either. Taylor was so good in 2022, he was the obvious guy to take first up. So what went wrong? Today we’re looking at the running back sleepers and busts from the 2022 fantasy season. If you missed our look at the quarterbacks, go check out that article too.
For the sake of this article, I’m assuming PPR, with ADP using the FantasyPros consensus and final rankings based on points per game from Weeks 1 to 17. This is important as the aim of this article is to look for the underlying cause of positional finishes so that we apply our knowledge next season. Injuries only get in the way of that analysis.
Let’s start with the sleepers. We’ll be looking not only at guys providing league-winning RB1 value but also players who unexpectedly became fantasy starters during the season. Hence I’ve broken our sleepers into a few categories which are listed below with the players I’m using in this analysis from this season:
Studs who boomed (guys we expected to lead their teams in carries who exceeded expectations):
Josh Jacobs – RB3, drafted as RB20 (late fourth round)
Saquon Barkley – RB5, drafted as RB11 (late second round)
Nick Chubb – RB6, drafted as RB13 (late second round)
Miles Sanders – RB14, drafted as RB33 (early eighth round)
Backups who boomed (guys we expected to be backups who ended up in lead roles):
Tony Pollard – RB7, drafted as RB34 (mid-eighth round)
Rhamondre Stevenson – RB13, drafted as RB36 (early ninth round)
Jamaal Williams – RB18, drafted as RB49 (late fourteenth round)
Backups who got lucky (guys who got the lead role after a starter’s injury or trade)
Kenneth Walker – RB17, drafted as RB40 (mid-tenth round)
Latavius Murray – RB34, undrafted (*wasn’t with the team at the start of the season)
Khalil Herbert – RB38, drafted as RB51 (mid-fifteenth round)
Donta Foreman – RB44, undrafted
Samaje Perine – RB45, undrafted
Isaih Pacheco – RB49, drafted as RB55 (late sixteenth round)
Backups who created a committee (guys who worked their way from a backup role to a committee and became low-end starters or bye-week options)
Raheem Mostert – RB30, drafted as RB44 (mid-twelfth round)
Jeff Wilson – RB35, undrafted
Tyler Allgeier – RB36, drafted as RB52 (late fifteenth round)
Brian Robinson – RB37, drafted as RB47 (mid-thirteenth round)
Third-Down Backs (guys whose role as the passing back became unexpectedly fruitful, not these aren’t mentioned in the article as they’re so hard to predict)
Jerick McKinnon – RB 27, undrafted
Now let’s look at what caused these sleepers to boom (or at least become feasible starters) and consider what these factors mean for 2023:
- Draft runners with new play-callers who can be drafted as a bargain:
We discussed this in our QB article, but a change in play-caller causes a change in usage. Sometimes this can mean a team becomes more run-heavy, sometimes it can make them pass-heavy, and on occasion, it just makes the whole team better. Regardless, it creates change and change creates opportunities for value. The key here though is to search for value. We’re not looking for guys being drafted at their ceiling or whose boom potential is baked in, we’re drafting guys whose upside isn’t being truly considered.
14 teams made a play-calling switch, here are some notable ones and the players on our list who benefitted: Raiders (Jacobs), Giants (Barkley), Lions (Williams), Eagles (Sanders), Dolphins (Mostert and Wilson), Broncos (Murray), Panthers (Foreman, plus CMC was effective) and Bears (Herbert). Additionally, the Texans (Pierce), Bills (Singletary) and Jaguars (Etienne) also had players who outperformed expectations. So that’s 11 of 14 teams, that seems like great odds then! Well, it’s not that simple. Remember that many of the above teams also had a player bust and we couldn’t have easily predicted who the best selection was from each of these teams. Change can also lead to a drop in value. So check out the bust section of this article for the downside.
- Draft talented backups
By now it’s a well-established fantasy strategy that you should draft backup running backs. Backs get injured easily (though less so this season than most) and that makes backups who are likely to take over the lead role very valuable. Their value doesn’t just lie in injury possibilities though, sometimes the backups are just too talented to deny. It didn’t take a genius to recognize that these guys were very talented backs, but they all entered the season as backups and ended up in a valuable role: Pollard (behind Elliott), Stevenson (behind Harris), Walker (behind Penny), Wilson (behind Mitchell initially), Mostert (behind Edmonds), Robinson (behind Gibson), Allgeier (behind Patterson). That even doesn’t include backs like Herbert, Foreman, Perine, Pacheco and others who weren’t obviously the best player but benefitted from injuries or trades. You need to fill your roster with upside players. They won’t always pay off but the gamble is worth it.
- Draft players who dominate the goal line.
TDs provide the most fantasy points. Incredible fantasy analysis I know. And rushing within 5 yards of the goal line is a great way to get TDs. So which players do this most? Our sleepers of course! The top four guys in this category were Kenneth Walker, Josh Jacobs, Derrick Henry and Jamaal Williams. This is hardly surprising, considering who the QBs on these teams are, I know who I’d rather trust with the ball. Plenty of other sleepers are high on this list too, as Nick Chubb, Rhamondre Stevenson, and Saquon Barkley are all in the top dozen while Donta Foreman and Travis Etienne were heavily involved once they took over the lead role. This is a tricky one though, as it’s not exactly easy to predict this usage for next season, so keep it in mind but only if the value is right.
- Some players are just really good, others have amazing schemes
At some stage, you just need to acknowledge that a player is an amazing talent and draft accordingly. Some studs are obvious: CMC and Derrick Henry are early picks you can rely on, but there are others who just seem to overcome expectations every year. Nick Chubb is the big name here. He’s a massively talented runner and sometimes early in drafts, you need that safety. After five years of averaging over five yards/carry, trust him. Others get by on amazing running schemes. JK Dobbins and Miles Sanders regularly look amazing thanks to the enormous running danger of their quarterback: when Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts are healthy, they open up massive lanes for their backs. Find the value in these sorts of schemes and draft accordingly. Also, beware of players leaving these schemes (eg. Tony Pollard and Miles Sanders for 2023)
- Draft rookie running backs
Rookie runners are super effective every year. They’re not fool-proof (they get injured or have odd things happen) but if they were drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, they’re a good chance to provide top fantasy value. Since 2017, nine rookie running backs have started off as a workhorse back. Two were injured during the season, one was Clyde Edwards-Helaire and the other six all overwhelmingly out-performed their ADP. The same is true of those going into a committee or some high-upside backup role. There have been 18 of these since 2017 with the majority outperforming their ADP and eight finishing as an RB2 or higher, which is amazing when they usually weren’t the starting back to begin the season. This isn’t a foolproof approach but if in doubt, lean towards the rookie.
Now let’s talk about the busts. Nothing can tank your season more than a first-round pick that underperforms. For the sake of this article, we’ll be ignoring injury busts, as they’re not predictable or informative. We’ll focus on performance-based busts. Once again, I’ve broken our busts into categories (remember finishes are in PPR on a per-game basis):
Early-round picks who busted:
Jonathan Taylor – RB20 (Drafted early first round)
Najee Harris – RB22 (Drafted mid-first round)
Alvin Kamara – RB19 (Drafted early second round)
D’Andre Swift – RB21 (Drafted early second round)
Anticipated starters who lost that role or some volume:
David Montgomery – RB26 (Drafted late third round)
Cam Akers – RB41 (Drafted early fourth round)
Clyde Edwards-Helaire – RB39 (Drafted early fifth round)
Players expected to be in a committee that turned into backups:
Kareem Hunt – RB55 (Drafted early eighth round)
Melvin Gordon – RB48 (Drafted mid-ninth round)
James Robinson – RB47 (Drafted early tenth round)
Michael Carter – RB53 (Drafted early tenth round)
James Cook – RB60 (Drafted late tenth round)
Darrell Henderson – RB54 (Drafted late tenth round)
Players drafted as high-upside handcuffs who didn’t pay off:
Alexander Mattison – RB74 (Drafted early eleventh round)
Kenneth Gainwell – RB70 (Drafted late twelfth round)
Third down backs who lost their role:
Nyheim Hines – RB82 (Drafted mid-twelfth round)
JD McKissic – RB68 (Drafted mid-thirteenth round)
So what went wrong? Let’s break down a few issues to look out for next time:
- Beware players with bad defenses.
This is a big concern for stud runners and the reason is obvious. Defenses who concede a lot of points need to throw to keep up, and that often hurts their running backs. The five defenses who had the most points against them included the Bears (Montgomery busted), Vikings (Cook underperformed a little), Lions (Swift busted) and Colts (Taylor busted). This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but the defense’s quality should be baked into the running back’s cost. This was one of the major things holding back Jonathan Taylor, though he also got unlucky with some very poor play-calling and some injuries.
- Understand the difference between a good running back and a back who was in a good situation.
As fantasy football fans, we can often get caught up in fantasy numbers and forget that NFL coaches are only interested in how a player can help a team. Players like Clyde Edwards-Helaire, James Robinson, Michael Carter, Darrell Henderson and Kareem Hunt have regularly been out-performed by less vaunted teammates and held up by a good O-line or their situation. They were viable late-round handcuff selections but don’t expect these types of players to offer anything without an injury. They’re even worse picks when in a committee or in a starting competition, as the risk of losing their role is huge.
- Beware the injured or aging runner.
This was less of an issue this year than most, but sometimes backs just aren’t as good anymore while others enter the season injured and you need to bake that into their price. Cam Akers is a prime example of a back with an existing injury. We knew he was injured, and we knew he was a big risk but he went flying up draft boards. He remains a talented back and is a good bounce-back option, but he was a poor option in 2022. Melvin Gordon is an example of an aging back who just doesn’t have it anymore. Don’t be caught up by name recognition.
- TD regression can be a season-long issue.
Two years ago, Alvin Kamara had 21 TDs, this year he had 4. That can partly be down to the play-calling and quarterbacking which certainly hurt his receiving, and there were also other issues surrounding Kamara’s struggles, but TD variance can have a major impact on fantasy results. Even last year’s 9 TDs would have meant Kamara finished as the RB6, instead, he was the RB19.
- Rookie volume rarely lasts, don’t chase last season’s production.
Rookies often have very high volume but as a player’s career continues, this will often drop off. Najee Harris was a prime example, as his historic 2021 production was never going to continue into 2022. While I can’t say I expected such a drastic drop-off, that concern alone should have dropped him down draft boards. This is particularly true of rookies but applies to any player who had a boom year which is based on unsustainable metrics. Third down backs regularly fall into this category, as we saw from players like Nyheim Hines and JD McKissic.
- Handcuffs not paying off is NOT a bust.
Alexander Mattison didn’t pay off this year, that’s not a bust! Sometimes top handcuff options simply don’t get an opportunity because their starter stays healthy in a given season. Still, draft them next year. Remember though, we’re looking for talented backs in good situations, not just the backups to the best fantasy options.
Fantasy football is tough, there are so many unpredictable metrics that can’t be anticipated or controlled. But we can at least consider these possibilities when drafting players. Check out my running back rankings at ffdfantasyfootball.com or if you have any thoughts or questions, you can find me @thefantasyfirstdown on Instagram (where I answer all questions) and @fantasyfirstdwn on Twitter. In two weeks, we’ll be looking at WR sleepers and busts from 2022.