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2022 Fantasy Football Running Back Tiers: Taylor, CMC, Ekeler Lead The Way

Will Desvallees Aug 10th 2:53 PM EDT.

In a typical PPR league, most fantasy football owners are selecting Johnathan Taylor with the first pick of drafts. Then Christian McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler usually come off the board before fantasy owners begin to consider wide receivers.

Savvy fantasy football owners draft at least four running backs so we’ve broken up the top 48 running backs into eight tiers. Let’s examine tier-by-tier the state of this year’s running backs from a fantasy football standpoint.

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Tier 1: The Elite Three

  • Johnathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
  • Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
  • Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

Analysis: Jonathan Taylor, Christian McCaffrey, and Austin Ekeler are the top three fantasy running backs in the league. Each of these players should be drafted within the first five overall selections of fantasy football drafts in 2022. Taylor had an outstanding season in 2021. He rushed for 1,811 yards and 18 touchdowns. He also caught 40 passes last season for 360 receiving yards and two touchdown receptions. While Taylor is a true rusher, Austin Ekeler serves as a receiver as much as a running back for the Chargers. Last season, Ekeler ran the ball for 912 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. As an RB, he had a whopping 70 receptions for 647 yards and eight touchdowns. Both Taylor and Ekeler produced 20 total touchdowns each in 2021. If healthy, Christian McCaffrey is equally capable of pumping out such numbers. However, CMC has only played 10 games over the last two seasons: three games played in 2020 and seven games played in 2021. In 2018 and 2019, McCaffrey was essentially a more efficient and powerful version of Austin Ekeler. McCaffrey had 1,965 yards and 13 touchdowns from scrimmage in 2018, and a whopping 2,392 scrimmage yards in 2019. He produced 32 total touchdowns over those two seasons. Unfortunately, McCaffrey has missed the majority of the last two seasons. If he can stay healthy in 2022, he could easily produce more than Taylor or Ekeler this year. 

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Tier 2: Second-Round Targets

Analysis: With the exception of Derrick Henry and perhaps Dalvin Cook, most of these running backs will go in the second round of most 2022 fantasy football drafts. Without a question, the top RB in Tier 2 is Derrick Henry. Henry sustained a foot injury and only played in eight games last season. Still, he produced 937 rushing yards (117.1 yards per game) and 10 touchdowns before his season came to an end. Before getting injured last season, Henry was hands down the best RB in the league, producing numbers that were way bigger than Jon Taylor’s. In 2020, Henry joined the 2000+ rushing yard club with 17 touchdowns and averaged a whopping 126.7 yards per game. These guys are still among the elite at running back in the NFL. That said, Henry doesn’t help much in the passing game. 

Alvin Kamara slowed down last season in his first year without Drew Brees. He still rushed for 898 yards but only got in the endzone four times. Kamara also had 439 receiving yards and five touchdown catches. His numbers were significantly better in 2020 when AK went for 932 rushing yards (5.0 yards per carry) and 16 rushing touchdowns in addition to 756 receiving yards for five touchdown receptions. Kamara had 21 touchdowns in 2020, but only nine total touchdowns last season. Dalvin Cook is comparable to Kamara as the two are good at catching passes. Still, Cook is targeted less by Kirk Cousins in comparison to the quantity of targets Kamara racks up. Cook also had a bit of a down year. While he rushed for 1,159 yards, he only recorded six touchdowns. Cook, like Kamara, was hot in 2020. He ran the ball for 1,557 yards (5.0 yards per carry) to march into the endzone 16 times. Fantasy owners should consider Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook pretty even to one another. The only difference is that Kamara gets more targets and therefore produces more receptions than Cook would through the course of the season while Cook will probably tally more rushing yards.

Two AFC North running backs who should get drafted in the second round are Joe Mixon of the Bengals and Najee Harris of the Steelers. After being limited in 2020 due to injury, Mixon bounced back last season to rush for 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also caught 42 passes for 314 receiving yards and three touchdown catches. The Bengals' success last season came at the hands of their powerful receiving corps. If opposing defenses try to suffocate WRs Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins when they face the Bengals, you’ll see more rushing attempts from Mixon in 2022 than in 2021. Steelers’ RB Najee Harris had a stellar rookie campaign in 2021. He produced 1,200 rushing yards, 467 receiving yards, and 10 total touchdowns. Since Ben Roethlisberger is out of Pittsburgh and the team has very few options at quarterback heading into this season, expect Najee Harris to produce more in his sophomore season than he did in his impressive rookie campaign. 

If any of these guys drop to the third round, drafting them is a no-brainer.

Tier 3: Low-End RB1s / Top-End RB2s

Analysis: Third tier backs are no longer the elites we went through in Tiers 1 and 2. However, you can find these guys in the early-to-middle rounds of your draft. For fantasy owners planning on drafting a QB, WR, or TE in the first or second round, these running backs could be your solution. RB D’Andre Swift is the Lions’ best option at the position. Jared Goff only produced 19 passing touchdowns and a career-low 3,245 yards passing. Goff isn’t the only reason to blame for the Lions’ rough offense. Besides WR Amon-Ra St. Brown, Detroit has a weak receiving corps ranked 21st among all teams according to PFF’s NFL Receiving Corps Rankings. Fortunately, the Lions have a strong offensive line which could create more gaps for RB D’Andre Swift to run through opposing defenses. Swift is trending upwards for the Lions as he enters his third season. Another young RB with promise is Javonte Williams of the Denver Broncos. In his rookie season last year, Williams rushed for 903 yards and four touchdowns and caught for 316 receiving yards and three touchdown catches. 

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Tier 4: Boom or Bust Candidates

Analysis: Tier 4 brings together a group of solid running backs who for various reasons, could be boom or busts this season. Beginning with Ezekiel Eliott, he’s been less efficient over the last few seasons. Zeke has seen his rushing attempts drop for four consecutive seasons. While Elliott had 12 total touchdowns in 2021, his numbers over the last few seasons have been in decline, or at the very best stagnant (and that is generous). James Conner has dealt with injuries in recent years but is now the Cardinals’ best option at RB. Last season, the Cardinals used him to bulldoze in the endzone. While he had just 752 rushing yards last season, Conner had 15 rushing touchdowns. Injuries and lack of yardage could be concerns for fantasy owners heading into this season. However, Conner absolutely knows how to get in the end zone as he finished the 2021 season with 18 total touchdowns.

In Jacksonville, Travis Etienne missed his entire rookie season (2021) and is yet to play an NFL game. However, he was sensational for Clemson playing alongside Trevor Lawrence. Both Lawrence (No. 1 pick in 2021 Draft) and Etienne (No. 25 pick in 2021 Draft) were selected in the first round for the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 2021 Draft. The idea would be to recreate the chemistry Etienne and Lawrence developed together for the Tigers. While Etienne could have an unbelievable season after missing the entirety of his rookie season, he hasn’t played an NFL game yet. Heading into the 2022 season, Travis Etienne is the definition of a “boom or bust” option. 

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Tier 5: Young Guns & Vets

Analysis: Most of the guys in Tier 4 are still within their first few NFL seasons. This includes Breece Hall, Elijah Mitchell, Clyde-Edwards Helaire, J.K. Dobbins, and AJ Dillon are within their first three seasons in the league. Also in this tier are RBs like Cordarelle Patterson of the Falcons and Miles Sanders with a little more yardage and games in the books than the young guys above.

Dobbins and Edwards-Helaire are talented running backs who have been plagued by injuries in the first two seasons. He rushed for 805 yards and nine touchdowns in his rookie season (2020) but was ruled out for the entirety of last season after tearing his ACL in a preseason game against the Commanders. Clyde Edwards-Helaire played in 13 games in 2020, and 10 games in 2021. Various injuries have kept him off the field. Both of these guys are entering their third year and are expected to be healthy entering the season. While Dobbins will likely be the Ravens’ top option, the Kansas City Chiefs signed Ronald Jones this offseason which could take some snaps away from Edwards-Helaire. This could especially be the case if Andy Reid chooses to be conservative with his young back in 2022. In San Francisco, Elijah Mitchell had a great rookie season in 2021. He had 207 rushing attempts to rush for 963 yards (4.7 yards per carry) and five touchdowns. The 49ers sixth round pick in last year’s NFL Draft had a promising first season that he can expand on in 2022. Meanwhile, the New York Jets are counting on their second-rounder (No. 36 overall pick in 2022 NFL Draft) Breece Hall to carry the load for them. 

Cordarelle Patterson had a breakout season for the Falcons in 2021. The wideout turned running back rushed the ball for 618 yards and six touchdowns in addition to 52 receptions for 548 receiving yards (10.5 yards per catch) for five touchdown catches. He could very well build on what he achieved last season. In addition, Patterson has dual-position eligibility (WR & RB) in certain fantasy football leagues which makes him even more interesting to target in the late rounds. He will be the Falcons' best option at RB in 2022. Likewise, Miles Sanders of the Philadelphia Eagles is heading into his fourth season in the league and is hoping to “get the respect that he finally deserves” in 2022 when asked by reporters at camp what was his main source of motivation heading into this season. Last season, Sanders played 12 games and rushed for 754 yards averaging an impressive 5.5 yards per carry but failed to get in the end zone once. In 2020, he carried the ball for 867 yards averaging 5.3 yards per carry, and got into the endzone six times. Still, he is the Eagles' best option at the position heading into 2022. Not recording a single touchdown last season was a definite let down to fantasy owners, but his efficiency per rushing attempt was impressive, tying for fourth in the NFL with Tony Pollard, Nick Chubb, and Jonathan Taylor last season in YPC.

Tier 6: Flex Options Earning More Carries

Analysis: Tier 6 has two of the top handcuff options at the running back position in Tony Pollard and Kareem Hunt (should he remain with the Cleveland Browns after requesting a trade). 

Likewise, Kareem Hunt of the Cleveland Browns splits carries with Nick Chubb. Hunt only got to play in eight games for the Browns last season, but still produced 386 rushing yards and five touchdowns. If he stays healthy and plays in 15 or 16 games for the Browns this season he could be a steal in 2022 fantasy football drafts. Hunt matched his NFL career-high average of 4.9 yards per carry in 2021, which he only achieved in his rookie season with the Chiefs (2017) when he produced 272 rushing attempts for 1,327 yards and eight touchdowns.

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That said, Rashaad Penny of the Seattle Seahawks likely has the most value of the five running backs in this tier. Tony Pollard was tied for the fourth-most yards per carry last season (5.5 YPC) and is starting to earn more carries for the Dallas Cowboys while RB1 Zeke Elliott, who averaged 4.2 yards per carry last season, continues to lose rushing attempts progressively each season. For the Seahawks, Penny will likely be their best option at the position. Penny filled in for Chris Carson in 2021 after he severely injured his neck and consequently retired before training camp this season. In Penny’s sophomore season for the Seahawks, he carried the ball for 749 yards and six touchdowns. It’s important to remember that he didn’t play much in the first few games of last season before Carson was ruled out. 

Chase Edmonds will make his debut with the Miami Dolphins this year after beginning the 2021 season as the Arizona Cardinals’ top option at the running back position. However, Edmonds suffered an injury and was surpassed on Arizona’s depth chart by James Conner. Edmonds is a great pass-catching running back but it remains to be seen whether he has the endurance to be a true three-down back in the NFL. He’ll likely split carries with other members of the Dolphins, though he is likely Miami’s top running back entering 2022. And it’s difficult to predict how James Cook will perform in his rookie season with Josh Allen’s Buffalo Bills. He could be an absolute steal or it could take him some time to adjust to the NFL level.

The running backs in Tier 6 should not be touched before the 10th or 11th rounds of most 2022 fantasy football drafts.

Tier 7: Deep League Backups

Analysis: All of the running backs in Tier 7 split carries with another running back on their respective teams. Still they share less of the load than their teams’ best options. For example, Alexander Mattison of the Vikings plays behind Dalvin Cook. Last season, Mattison played in 16 games for the Vikings. He rushed for 491 yards and three touchdowns and got 228 receiving yards for one end zone grab. Likewise, Rhamondre Stevenson will back up Damien Harris in New England, James Robinson will back up Travis Etienne in Jacksonville, Mark Ingram II will back up Alvin Kamara in New Orleans, and Darrell Henderson will back up Cam Akers in Los Angeles. Though they are true RB2s, these backs are reliable options and will certainly start if their respective teams’ top options get injured. 

It remains unclear the role Ronald Jones will have with the Chiefs and Kenneth Walker III will have with the Seahawks. Jones was signed by the Chiefs and didn’t get to play much last year for Tampa Bay while backing up Leonard Fournette. However, in 2019 and 2020, Jones produced at least 1000+ total yards from scrimmage and a minimum of six total touchdowns. He could get more rushing attempts than people think, especially if the Chiefs choose to limit Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s carries to avoid further injury next season. 

In Seattle, Chris Carson is out of the picture. It was reported in July that Carson failed his physical evaluation which showed how serious his neck injury was, ultimately pushing the RB to call it a career. Rashaad Penny will begin the season as the starter but Walker should still see some carries. Still, Walker likely won’t have a ton of value entering the 2022 fantasy football season. The same can be said of James Robinson in Jacksonville who is behind Travis Etienne on the depth chart, Darrell Henderson who is behind Cam Akers, Mark Ingram who is behind Alvin Kamara, and Rhamondre Stevenson who is behind Damien Harris on New England’s depth chart. Devin Singletary is the one player in this tier who could begin the season as Buffalo’s starter, however, there is a reason the Bills drafted James Cook in this year’s draft. Singletary will likely split carries with Cook though Singletary does have a bit of extra appeal in PPR formats.

Tier 8: Fourth-String Fantasy RBs

Analysis: Tier 8 is full of a bunch of dart throws, backups, and potential handcuffs. Michael Carter will have immense value should Breece Hall go down with an injury. The same could be said of Spiller if Ekeler suffers an injury, as well as Khalil Herbert should David Montgomery go down again in 2022 as he did in 2021. Rookie Tyler Allgeier could see a significant number of carries if Cordarelle Patterson’s 2021 breakout campaign proves to be a fluke. However, none of these players have standalone value outside of perhaps Dameon Pierce, who could prove to be Houston’s workhorse running back.

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