One, two, one, two, three, four…People moving out, people moving in…Ball of confusion. Oh yeah, that’s what the world is today. Woo, hey, hey…Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today), 1970, by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
I heard the Temptations song in my head while I was taking my first deep dive into fantasy football the other day. If you follow me at CreativeSports, you know I’ve been busy this spring and summer writing about fantasy baseball and managing three teams. But it’s August, so it’s high time to look at football, and it really is confusing at first blush.
It was three months ago that I wrote about fantasy football for the first time this year. It was right before the NFL draft, and I recapped the offseason moves that have rocked the foundation of the league and left fantasy analysts and pundits in the midst of this ball of confusion. If you didn’t read the column, do so before you read this column.
Since we’re talking about 1970, I recalled sneaking into an R-rated movie that year starring Elliott Gould. The movie was about the crazy world of a college campus. I remember Candice Bergen was his girlfriend, and boy was she hot back in those days. Harrison Ford had a small role in the film. Back in those days the world was turned upside down.
So, what does this have to do with fantasy football? Plenty. All of the player movement is confusing, but the key is getting yourself straightened out before the draft. To that end, I’m going to help you by focusing on the first two rounds. As I’ve said before, you can’t win your league in the first two rounds but you can certainly lose it with a key mistake.
For instance, let’s say that you decide to implement a zero RB strategy. You choose to draft Cooper Kupp, or Justin Jefferson in the first round and pick up Travis Kelce in the second. It’s likely that you just made that key mistake and are on your way to not winning your league this year. I’m not saying zero RB is a flawed strategy, but this is not the year for it.
In my opinion, zero RB is a better strategy when there are only a handful of elite wide receivers and the rest are mediocre. That’s simply not the case this year. If you wait until the third or fourth round to draft a wide receiver, you’re still going to be able to get A.J. Brown, Mike Evans and Keenan Allen. And there’s Michael Pittman, D.J. Moore and a host of others even deeper in the draft.
If you wait until the third or fourth round to get your running backs, you’re going to be sucking air. You simply must get a running back in the first two rounds, and you’d be better off to get two. Working from this premise, I’m going to take a look at the top 23 running backs in this year’s draft and give you my thoughts on who you should take and who you should fade.
If you have the No. 1 pick, it’s easy. Jonathan Taylor is the No. 1 pick overall. Taylor rushed for 1,811 yards last year, catching 40 of 51 targets across 17 games. Taylor 19.5 carries per game make him a true workhorse running back. In addition, Taylor also led the NFL in red-zone touches (92). Taylor’s 42 carries inside the 10-yard line were 12 more than the next-closest back (Damien Harris, 30).
Pairing Taylor’s elite red-zone usage with his ascending role as a receiver – 11th in routes run and sixth in route participation in 2021 – makes him worthy of the first pick in the draft. The arrival of Matt Ryan only helps Taylor’s stock continue to rise since no quarterback targeted running backs more than the new Colts quarterback did in 2021 – 8.6 targets per game.
CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY, RB, CAROLINA (ADP 2)
When healthy, CMC is the best player in fantasy football. This is a running back who puts up quarterback numbers. He played in four games in 2021 with at least a 50% snap share and his PPR fantasy finishes were RB1, RB3, RB4 and RB3. If he stays healthy in 2022, he can win you a league title. The problem is that he’s only suited up in 10 games in the past two seasons. Worth the risk.
AUSTIN EKELER, RB, LA CHARGERS (ADP 3)
Ekeler isn’t used as a true three-down back, but it’s hard to tell based on his numbers. He finished 8th in the NFL in total touches (276) and 14th in touches per game (17.2). His 13.9% target share and 70 receptions ranked second behind only Najee Harris. Ekeler’s 18 red-zone touchdowns and 63 red-zone touches ranked first and second respectively. Draft with confidence.
DERRICK HENRY, RB, TENNESSEE (ADP 5)
Henry led the position in fantasy PPR points per game (23.4) through eight weeks in 2021. He averaged 29.6 touches per game – seven more than the next closest running back before his injury. But after the injury, the Titans will certainly reduce his workload, and the lack of pass-game usage is a problem in PPR leagues, although his 20 targets in eight games was a record pace. Worth the risk.
NAJEE HARRIS, RB, PITTSBURGH (ADP 7)
I drafted Harris in the second round last year, had buyer’s remorse after the first game and traded him away. My trading partner won the league championship. The Steelers rookie managed a league-leading 381 touches but only rushed for 307 yards. Can you count on him to catch another 74 passes with Ben Roethlisberger no longer checking down to him on every other play? Fade him.
DALVIN COOK, RB, MINNESOTA (ADP 8)
Cook is a workhorse back when healthy, and he averaged 22 touches per game (5th) and 15.2 fantasy points per game (RB11) last year. But the consensus No. 2 pick from 2021 has fallen to the back of Round 1, and I don’t know why since positive touchdown regression is coming. His 15 goal-line carries ranked fourth in the NFL last season, but he had only three scores. Draft with confidence.
JOE MIXON, RB, CINCINNATI (ADP 11)
Mixon is the last of the running backs to feel very good about in the first round based on his easily projected large workload within an ascending offense. The Bengals running back finished 2021 third in total touches (334) and sixth in touches per game (20.9). Mixon also ranked third in goal-line carries (16) and tied Jonathan Taylor/James Conner in red-zone touchdowns. Draft with confidence.
D’ANDRE SWIFT, RB, DETROIT (ADP 13)
Swift was RB9 in points per game in 10 games played before his injury. He led all running backs in receptions (53) and averaged nearly 19 touches per game. That would have ranked 9th-best last season. But Swift has failed to claim a role as the team’s bell cow back while struggling with injuries including a concussion in 2020 and an A/C joint sprain in 2021. Fade him at current ADP.
NICK CHUBB, RB, CLEVELAND (ADP 17)
I would prefer to have Chubb as my RB2 (not RB1). A good back gets better when Deshaun Watson takes charge under center midseason. During his four-year career, the Browns running back has never averaged fewer than five yards per carry. The problem is a lack of volume as Chubb has never been an every-down back and his role as a receiver also leaves a lot to be desired. Okay at ADP.
ALVIN KAMARA, RB, NEW ORLEANS (ADP 18)
Kamara has finished as an RB1 in PPR formats in every season of his five-year career, but there’s a reason why he’s being drafted late in the second round. A suspension looms as a result of his February arrest and charges of battery, and insiders say a six-game suspension is likely. In the six full games with Jameis Winston under center, he was the RB5 in fantasy, averaging 5.5 targets. Risky.
JAVONTE WILLIAMS, RB, DENVER (ADP 19)
Williams finished 13th in touches last season (246, 14.6 per game), while sharing touches with Melvin Gordon, and he may take another step forward in the passing game after finishing as one of two rookie RBs inside the top-15 in route participation in 2021. In spite of quarterback upgrade, Williams still has a split workload in what is clearly a better offensive environment. Risky at ADP.
AARON JONES, RB, GREEN BAY (ADP 21)
I would take Jones ahead of Swift, Chubb, Kamara and Williams in spite of the rise of A.J. Dillon. With Devante Adams gone, I expect him to catch more balls from Aaron Rodgers. When Adams has missed time in the past, Jones has been a target and receptions monster, averaging close to 4.5 catches, 6 targets, 48.5 receiving yards and 23 PPR points per game. Draft with confidence.
LEONARD FOURNETTE, RB, TAMPA BAY (ADP 22)
I have mixed feelings about Fournette, especially with reports that he showed up overweight to camp after signing a three-year deal worth $21 million up to $24 million. His contract positions him to continue his bell-cow role after playing 86% of Tampa Bay’s offensive snaps and rushing for 812 yards in 14 games. He was also targeted 84 times by Tom Brady, catching 69 balls. Okay at ADP.
SAQUON BARKLEY, RB, NY GIANTS (ADP 23)
Once a top-five fantasy football selection, Barkley has fallen into the third round in many drafts because of his inability to stay healthy. Under a new coaching staff and vastly improved offensive line, there’s reason to buy back in on Barkley. In five games last season when Barkley played a full snap share with Daniel Jones, the Giants RB averaged 16.2 PPR points per game (RB10). Okay at ADP.
JAMES CONNOR, RB, ARIZONA (ADP 28)
I’d be happy with Connor as my RB2 and thrilled to have him as my RB3. With Chase Edmonds gone, Conner could finish as a top-12 running back. He finished the 2021 season tied for second in goal-line carries and third in touchdowns (18). Conner also received extensive work in the passing game with Edmonds out of the lineup from Weeks 9-14 and Week 18. Draft with confidence.
EZEKIEL ELLIOTT, RB, DALLAS (ADP 30)
Like Barkley, Elliott has fallen from a top-five spot into the third round. This could be related to a partially torn PCL suffered in 2021. But his advancing age and the toll of the NFL is also part of it. Elliott has amassed 1,938 touches (22 per game) over his six-year career, never handling less than 268 touches in any season. But with the rise of Tony Pollard, his volume will drop. Okay at ADP.
CAM AKERS, RB, LA RAMS (ADP 31)
Akers draft stock was clearly hurt by the fact that he averaged an abysmal 2.4 yards per carry last year after returning from his Achilles injury. But his production is partially related to the juggernaut of run defenses he faced – San Francisco 49ers (twice) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In the Rams’ divisional playoff win versus the Buccaneers, Akers played 81% of the offensive snaps. Okay at ADP.
DAVID MONTGOMERY, RB, CHICAGO (ADP 33)
Montgomery finished as the RB12 and RB6 in each of the last two seasons, and the Bears’ receiving weapons are depleted outside of Darnell Mooney and Cole Kmet, so that could mean plenty of check downs. Montgomery has seen an 80%-90% opportunity share over the last two seasons which was the key to his success. The problem is the new regime has no ties to Montgomery. Risky.
ANTONIO GIBSON, RB, WASHINGTON (ADP 38)
Gibson has been RB16 and RB17 in fantasy points per game the last two years. He also ranked tenth in yards per route run and fifth in evaded tackles. He was tied for seventh in carries inside the five-yard line and eighth in weighted opportunities. However, his pass game usage is capped with J.D. McKissic and now the goal line work could be in jeopardy with the arrival of Brian Robinson. Fade.
JOSH JACOBS, RB, LAS VEGAS (ADP 40)
The Raiders offense looks to reach new heights in 2022 with Davante Adams on the team and that benefits Jacobs since it means more scoring opportunities for the primary red-zone back. New head coach Josh McDaniels is likely to run Jacobs into the ground on an expiring contract as he did with Dion Lewis, LeGarrette Blount and Shane Vereen during his Patriots tenure. Draft with confidence.
BREECE HALL, RB, NY JETS (ADP 44)
The Jets selected the Iowa State product at the top of Round 2, and he’s locked-in as their RB1. Hall’s three-down skill set means he never has to come off the field, and the sheer volume he garners will put him in top-20 running back territory. Hall totaled over 4,500 yards from scrimmage, 50 touchdowns and 80 catches over three seasons in the college ranks. Draft with confidence at current ADP.
TRAVIS ETIENNE JR., JACKSONVILLE (ADP 48)
Hopes were high when Etienne was selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. However, his rookie season was cut short by a preseason Lisfranc injury. His ADP is now suppressed by the potential time share with James Robinson, but the latter could be limited coming back from a torn Achilles injury suffered on December 26th. Draft with confidence at current ADP.
J.K. DOBBINS, RB, BALTIMORE (ADP 50)
Dobbins’ limited use in the passing game in 2020 hurt his fantasy production. Now, he’s coming off a season-ending ACL injury and will likely begin the season on the PUP list. When Dobbins returns, there is still the problem of a time share with Gus Williams and you should expect zero-to-little pass-game work with Jackson’s tendency to not check down to running backs. Fade him.
Thomas L. Seltzer, AKA Doubting Thomas, writes about baseball and football for CreativeSports. You can follow Thomas on Twitter@ThomasLSeltzer1.