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2022 Early Round RB Targets and Legendary Scenarios

D'Andre Swift

D’Andre Swift


It’s the heart of draft season, so it’s time to dive deep into this year’s early-round running backs to determine which have the most legendary upside.

As I wrote last year, early running back selections have worked in fantasy football because they can deliver massive, season-defining production when they hit. But chasing these outcomes requires avoiding a minefield of devastating early-round busts. As a result, the running back dead zone begins at the 1.01. The reason the dead zone reveals itself in Round 3 is because running back upside begins to dry up at that point, allowing scoring averages to reflect the full risk of RB bust rates. But in actuality, running back selections have been sinking teams since the start of the draft.

But risks be damned. If genuinely league-winning outcomes are available in the early rounds, we want to attempt to hit on them. With that goal in mind, I profiled the 36 seasons since 2000 in which a running back had a legendary season—scoring 23+ PPR points per game while playing 12+ games. These 36 seasons reveal some key similarities that can help identify the next legendary running backs, using the following target profile:

  • A path to 4+ receptions per game.
  • A path to 2+ green zone opportunities per game.
  • Strongly prioritize versatile running backs with paths to high-volume receiving and goal line roles.
  • A path to strong, ideally elite, offensive line play.
  • A path to an efficient passing offense--unless the passing offense has a chance to run through the running back.
  • Be skeptical of running backs who entered the NFL below 210 pounds—unless the running back has a clear lock on goal line duties.
  • Apply extra scrutiny to running backs 26 and older.
  • Excluding rare prospect profiles, remain very price sensitive on rookies.
  • Prioritize second-year players, and be skeptical in assuming significant role increases for non-second-year players.
  • Prioritize running backs who have flashed the elite talent required to deliver high-end efficiency.
  • Strongly prioritize running backs who have flashed elite receiving ability.

Unfortunately, running backs can quickly be a drag on your roster when they don’t reach a legendary ceiling. Obviously, Christian McCaffrey hurt teams last year; he got hurt. But even players who say healthy can be “silent killers,” an idea popularized by Mike Leone. Essentially, these are scenarios where a running back is a bust, but not in an obvious way. For example, Ezekiel Elliott has been a silent killer for the last two seasons. He’s played 32 of 33 possible games but had below-average best ball win rates in both years. Elliott has been even less valuable in managed leagues where startable running backs can be found on waivers.

2021 Results

Interestingly, we did not technically have a legendary running back season in 2021. Derrick Henry scored enough points to qualify (23.4), but his eight-game season ultimately hurt drafters as much as it helped them. Jonathan Taylor nearly got there with 22.1 PPR points per game, and Austin Ekeler wasn’t far behind with 21.4. Because both Taylor and Ekeler hit from outside the top half of the first round, both were hugely important selections in 2021 drafts.

2022 Outlook

Like last year, I’ll cover the potential legendary outcomes for all of 2022’s highly drafted running backs. I’ll also cover their silent killer scenarios and who I’m targeting. The legendary and silent killer scenarios are written from a post-2022 perspective. I have seen the future, my friends.

The profiles below cover every running back in the first two rounds of drafts, in order of FFPC Footballguys Tournament ADP.

Jonathan Taylor

Legendary Scenario

Taylor had an unreal 2021 but still fell short of a 23-points-per-game legendary season. As it turns out... that was Carson Wentz‘s fault.

Matt Ryan captains a more efficient and productive Colts offense in 2022, behind a top-5 offensive line. The Colts actually run less frequently in neutral game script, but Taylor has more opportunities to salt away games.

Matt Ryan‘s famously conservative play at the goal line is a boon for Taylor. He sets a new career high in receiving TDs and is an absolute hammer as a goal line rusher.

Nyheim Hines makes for the occasionally frustrating week, but Taylor’s talent is simply undeniable. As the Colts turn their attention to their playoff positioning, they increasingly lean on Taylor. The third-year superstar turns in 25 points per game, in the mold of vintage Todd Gurley.

Silent Killer Scenario

Matt Ryan finished below Carson Wentz in EPA per play in 2021. He makes it two years in a row in 2022. The 37-year-old is overly conservative, and the Colts devolve into a predictable attack.

With defenses primarily focused on taking away the run and Nyheim Hines mixing in regularly on passing downs, Taylor’s weekly floor takes a major hit. The occasional defensive coordinator falls asleep at the wheel, allowing Taylor to deliver some glorious spike weeks. But he falls below 19 points per game, and his fantasy managers fail to keep pace.

How to Play It

It’s hard to make a case that Taylor has the highest ceiling at running back this season. With a career mark of 2.4 reception per game, he doesn’t have a realistic path to the earth-shattering 29.3 points per game season that Christian McCaffrey recorded in 2019. However, Taylor is rather obviously the best running back in football. So while he doesn’t have the highest ceiling on the board, he has a clear path to a legendary season. Taylor is a nonhyperbolic generational talent behind a potentially elite offensive line and is likely getting a quarterback upgrade. No reason to overthink this one.

Managed League Recommendation: Priority Target

Christian McCaffrey

Legendary Scenario

With Baker Mayfield under center, the Panthers’ offense takes a step forward in 2022. They remain frustrating and inconsistent, but Mayfield mixes in some highlight plays as he partially recaptures his 2020 form.

Better quarterback play helps make up for mediocre offensive line play. Mostly as a result of the line play, McCaffrey is inefficient as a rusher between the 20s. But he owns the goal line work, which includes plenty of targets and handoffs. Mayfield also grows to rely on McCaffrey in the short game, and the running back is functionally a gadget/slot receiver in terms of his route concepts.

McCaffrey doesn’t get back to his 2019 form, but no one complains when he scores 26 points per game in his first (mostly) healthy campaign in three years.

Silent Killer Scenario

Mayfield’s poor 2021 season was not simply the result of nagging injuries. And, somehow... playing for the Panthers doesn’t make things better.

Ben McAdoo, who last oversaw an offense in 2017, looks overmatched all season. He eventually begins bringing in D’Onta Foreman at the goal line, explaining to reporters that Foreman is filling the team’s “Orleans Darkwa role.”

The Panthers also play slow and run heavy in an effort to keep games close and Matt Rhule employed. McCaffrey gets his share of carries, but many of them are empty-calorie between the 20s handoffs.

McCaffrey sees plenty of targets, but mainly of the check down / dump off variety. And the 26-year-old looks just a hair slower getting up-field on screen passes than in years past. He still sees over 5 targets per game, but a lack of big plays and TDs keep his fantasy output below 19 points per game.

How to Play It

McCaffrey is at some risk of an Alvin Kamara 2021-type season. Kamara saw 5.2 targets per game last season, but his rushing efficiency cratered, and he was stuck in a slow-paced uninspiring offense. Like 2021 Kamara, McCaffrey is entering his age-26 season. Since 2010, only Jamaal Charles has hit 23+ points per game after turning 26. This isn’t to say that McCaffrey is doomed to decline. But with the Panthers likely to have a middling offensive line with mediocre-poor offensive efficiency, McCaffrey can’t afford any decline this season.

But... we’re talking about a player who should easily lead the NFL in running back targets if healthy. As a result, McCaffrey can put up a league-winning season with thoroughly mediocre play from Mayfield, as long as the Panthers pass at a sufficient rate. With their defense expected to be below average, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Managed League Recommendation: Priority Target

Austin Ekeler

Legendary Scenario

The Chargers’ 2021 defense was a liability at times, most notably letting up 41 points to an inferior Texans squad. In 2022 they transform into an elite unit. Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack harass quarterbacks while Derwin James and J.C. Jackson shut things down on the backend.

Ekeler does most of his damage through the air, but he still benefits from a Chargers offense that is comfortable taking the check down while playing from ahead. And Ekeler remains the primary goal line back on a powerhouse Justin Herbert-led offense.

Once again, the Chargers’ backup running backs fail to step up in a meaningful way. Isaiah Spiller eventually emerges as a more capable backup than Joshua Kelley, but he is still very much a backup, and his rise is slowed by nagging injuries. And the Chargers, hell bent on securing a high playoff seed after last year’s gut-wrenching playoff miss, feature Ekeler in every high leverage situation.

Ekeler builds on his career 2021, setting a career-high in targets and rushing efficiently behind a top-5 offensive line.

Silent Killer Scenario

Ekeler, in his age-27 season, sees his yards per route run decline for the third straight year. Once capable of an elite 2.74 mark, Ekeler fails to match his 1.55 average from 2021, setting a career-low in receiving efficiency.

Ekeler sees nearly five targets per game, but Isaiah Spiller also proves to be a capable receiver. With Brandon Staley planning the season around a Super Bowl run, he eases Ekeler’s workload once Spiller proves his reliability.

Ekeler remains the Chargers’ clear lead back, but he scores more like a low-end RB1 than a mid-first-round fantasy pick.

How to Play It

Ekeler plays below 210 pounds, which has been a red flag in terms of goal line usage. He also hasn’t had a goal line role outside of 2020. However, Ekeler averaged 1.8 goal line opportunities per game last season, which is a borderline elite mark. So despite his size and usage under previous coaching regimes, Ekeler—on an elite offense with a very good offensive line—has a ton of TD upside.

The main risk for Ekeler is that Isaiah Spiller emerges as a capable rotational player. With his all-around skill set, Spiller could steal just enough receiving work goal line opportunities to be annoying. Fortunately, Spiller appears to be behind Joshua Kelley for the time being. He’s also dealing with an ankle injury that has his Week 1 status in doubt. I would expect Spiller to eventually be the No. 2, but he had plenty of red flags as a prospect and doesn’t appear close to eating into Ekeler’s role.

Managed League Recommendation: Target

Dalvin Cook

Legendary Scenario

The Kevin O’Connell Vikings move away from Mike Zimmer‘s ground and pound approach to a modern, somewhat balanced, but pass-first offense. As a result, Cook sees fewer rushing attempts than his 249 in 2021. But Cook is deadly efficient on the work that he does get, and his receptions jump from 2.6 per game to a career-high 4.1. Many of those are designed looks intended to get Cook in space. In combination with a highly efficient rushing season, Cook’s big plays through the air draw comparisons to vintage Todd Gurley. Like 2018 Todd Gurley, he racks up over 20 TDs. Justin Jefferson draws a rare level of attention in the red zone, and Cook takes full advantage.

While the Vikings’ offensive line isn’t anything to get excited about, it plays well enough to support a highly efficient passing offense. And the Vikings don’t shy away from high-scoring game environments. After Cook scores 4 TDs against the floundering Giants in Week 16, “did you make your fantasy championship?” more or less doubles as “did you draft Dalvin Cook?”

Silent Killer Scenario

Justin Jefferson draws plenty of attention at the goal line... but that doesn’t come close to slowing him down. Like Cooper Kupp in 2021, Jefferson leads all players in green zone (inside the 10-yard line) targets. Cook actually sees slightly fewer goal line looks than in 2021, despite a more potent offense. As a result, Cook falls short of double-digit TDs.

O’Connell seeks to avoid comparisons to Todd Gurley‘s short-lived brilliance and instead utilizes Cook more like Nick Chubb, rotating in Alexander Mattison to keep his best runner fresh and healthy for high leverage situations. On a smaller than expected workload, Cook is excellent, but a middling-poor Vikings offensive line prevents him from hitting elite rushing efficiency.

Cook is solid, scoring nearly 16 points per game, but with a late first-round ADP, it’s not enough to keep most of his fantasy managers above water.

How to Play It

Cook has never hit 4+ receptions per game in his five NFL seasons. And while the Rams have been pass-first, they don’t tend to throw to their running backs a ton. Cam Akers has hit 4+ receptions just once in 19 career games. Darrell Henderson has hit 4+ receptions just three times in the last two seasons (28 games). Sony Michel had three receptions or less in all 21 of his Rams appearances. Malcolm Brown hit 4+ receptions just once in 18 games in 2020. Of course, it’s always possible that Cook consolidates receiving work in a way that Rams running backs were unable to. But that’s far from a given with Alexander Mattison a capable receiver, and rookie Ty Chandler an intriguing space back. Cook’s real path to a legendary season is to be wildly efficient in an offense far more modern than we’re used to. Because Cook doesn’t have an elite receiving profile, he has a pretty narrow path.

Cook makes a lot of sense in best ball, where non-legendary outcomes are more valuable. But with a late first-round ADP, managed-league drafters could find themselves with a much more expensive version of Nick Chubb. Then again, Cook is pretty interesting when he falls to the second round of managed leagues, which happens somewhat regularly. He could have a huge impact at that price with a more realistic ceiling outcome of 20-22 points per game.

Managed League Recommendation: Target if he falls to the 2nd round

Najee Harris

Legendary Scenario

In 2022, Harris reminds drafters that writing off a highly drafted three-down workhorse after an inefficient rookie season is... dangerous. Fantasy managers who feared he was the next Trent Richardson instead see him flash shades of Le’Veon Bell.

Like Bell, in his second season, Harris more than doubles his yardage total on 15+ yard runs, racking up over 400 breakaway yards. Harris’ breakaway rate remains sub-elite, but he gets plenty of opportunities with a league-leading snap share. The Steelers offensive line remains below average, but they utilize the mobility of their quarterbacks in the run game, allowing Harris to get to the second level at a higher rate.

Harris improves dramatically in the receiving game, seeing his YPRR jump from 0.97 to 1.25. He remains well below Bell’s sophomore mark of 1.72 but at least surpasses Leonard Fournette‘s 2021 receiving efficiency. Like Fournette, Harris becomes adept at getting up to speed quickly on dump-offs and using his size against smaller defenders in space. Harris sees a similar number of targets to his rookie season but does way more with them, hitting nearly 600 receiving yards and 2,000 yards from scrimmage. With 18 total TDs, Harris clears 23 points per game and wins leagues from the back half of the first round.

Silent Killer Scenario

Harris was known to be a powerful tackle breaker at Alabama, but there were concerns about his ability to hit big plays. That concern showed up in a big way in his rookie season; Harris ranked RB38 in breakaway rate, with just 16% of his yards coming on 15+ yard runs. The fact that his primary red flag as a prospect immediately reared its head in his rookie season... was not an accident.

Harris takes a small step forward behind a slightly improved offensive line, hitting big runs at a 2021 Joe Mixon level of 20% instead of his Josh Jacobs-ian rookie showing. But on an inefficient Steelers offense, he falls well short of an elite TD total, and average rushing efficiency simply isn’t enough.

Harris continues to operate as the exclusive passing down back, but Trubisky and Pickett scramble more often than Ben Roethlisberger did in 2021, leading to fewer check-down opportunities. Harris’ lack of big plays also drags him down in the passing game. After finishing RB51 with 0.97 YPRR as a rookie, He improves in his second season but remains a volume-based PPR play rather than a dynamic receiving weapon. With less receiving volume, Harris declines from his highly productive rookie year.

How to Play It

Harris needs to make major improvements on his rookie season efficiency. But with an offensive line projected to be below-average or worse, and a passing offense that is very unlikely to be highly efficient, Harris is in a tough spot. Going off the board in the late first round, with an ADP of RB5, Harris is a great bet for a huge snap share but not a great bet for a league-winning season. Nevertheless, because he is a second-year player, I think he makes sense at the right price. I recently selected him at 2.05 in the Main Event, which is about as late as you’ll see him go. Still, even in the mid-second, he’s more of a median-projection bet than a ceiling play... and paying up for projectable running back volume from players with uncertain talent has been extremely dangerous.

Managed League Recommendation: Fade

Derrick Henry

Legendary Scenario

After averaging 29.6 touches per game in 2021, including a career-high 2.25 receptions, Henry picks up where he left off before his Jones fracture. Without A.J. Brown on the roster, the Titans have precisely one star on offense and act accordingly.

Defenses key on Henry, but the Titans hit enough play action passes downfield to keep them slightly on their heels. Henry leads the league in facing 8+ man boxes, but that occasionally works to his advantage; when he powers through stacked fronts, there’s no one able (or willing) to tackle the runaway freight train at the second level.

Henry, behind a mediocre offensive line, isn’t particularly efficient in 2022. But he’s able to maintain league-average efficiency on a superhuman workload. Fantasy nerds are (somehow) surprised when Henry singlehandedly buries the hapless Texans in Week 16. He then shows the Cowboys what a real “keystone” running back looks like in Week 17, combining for six TDs over the two-game stretch. The path to a 2022 fantasy crown runs through King Henry.

Silent Killer Scenario

Before his Jones fracture, Henry ranked RB24 in NFL Next Gen’s rush yards over expected / attempt. He wasn’t terrible, but his efficiency was a far cry from his RB5 finish in 2020. And in his 2021 Divisional Round return, Henry was highly inefficient. His -0.31 rush yards over expected / attempt would have ranked RB44 in the 2021 regular season.

The Titans attempt to run their offense through Henry in 2022, but the deck is stacked against the declining running back. The Titans’ offensive line takes a big step back as 31-year-old Taylor Lewan continues to drop off, and the rest of the line fails to come together. Blocking is a legitimate liability.

And defenses are simply not afraid of the Titans’ passing attack. First of all, they are highly predictable. After leading the league with a -12% pass rate over expected on 1st-and-10 in 2021, the Titans are even more conservative in 2022. When they do pass, it’s usually because the down-and-distance requires it, which opposing defenses are fully aware of.

The Titans occasionally experiment with opening up the passing game, but they don’t have the playmakers to feel comfortable with that approach. Robert Woods is a capable receiving option but not a downfield playmaker. Woods’ average depth of target was 8.7 or below in his final three seasons for the Rams. And coming off a torn ACL, the 30-year-old is limited primarily to underneath routes. Treylon Burks muddles through a mostly lost rookie year, leaving Nick Westbrook-Ikhine as the Titans’ main downfield threat. Defenses gleefully stack the box.

Henry’s efficiency tails off even further as he nears his 29th birthday in January. His workload also begins to dip as well as the Titans look increasingly boxed out of the playoffs in the loaded AFC. Henry’s fantasy managers get off to a decent start but are left out in the cold in the fantasy playoffs.

How to Play It

Henry is 28, going on 29; he has a career 1.1 receptions per game with no shot at hitting the 4+ threshold this season; his offensive line could be quite poor; his goal line workload is uncertain because of concerns surrounding the offense as a whole. In other words, Henry looks nothing like previous legendary running backs. But to say that Henry is a unique NFL running back is a pretty big understatement.

The Titans appear fully committed to running their offense through Henry this season. Their approach last season yielded over 23 points per game for the two-down superstar. That outcome is certainly in play once again; however, drafting Henry means taking on a ton of risk. Sometimes going as high as the 1.03 in high-stakes drafts, I’m willing to fade the Big Dog... again... this season.

Managed League Recommendation: Fade

D’Andre Swift

Legendary Scenario

Swift, who averaged 4.2 receptions per game in 2021, maintains a strong role in the passing game. And he remains a big play threat through the air, averaging over 1.5 YPRR, slightly increasing his career average. He also takes a step forward as a TD scorer. After splitting goal line carries with Jamaal Williams, he takes a 2:1 lead in 2022.

The Lions also take a step forward on offense. After scoring just 325 points in 2021 (ahead of only the Falcons, Bears, Jets, Panthers, Texans, Giants, and Jaguars), the Lions are no longer a bottom-of-the-barrel offense in 2022. While far from high-flying, the addition of D.J. Chark, the return of T.J. Hockenson, and a step forward from Amon-Ra St. Brown make the Lions legitimately frisky through the air.

Swift gets in on the early season fun, but the Lions hit a mid-season slump as defenses increasingly dare Goff to beat them deep. Coming off a broken ankle, Chark isn’t fully up to that task. Things take a dramatic shift when Jameson Williams finally makes his Lions debut. His game-breaking speed is exactly what the Lions have been missing and finally forces defenses to respect the deep game, opening up rushing lanes and screen pass opportunities for Swift.

Meanwhile, the Lions’ offensive line gels into arguably the best unit in the NFL. Swift rarely sees a true workhorse snap share, but his receiving and goal line roles still give him an extremely valuable workload. He puts together a great but slightly sub-legendary season for the first 14 weeks of the year, then rips off a legendary three-game stretch against the Jets, Panthers, and Bears in Weeks 15-17. Playing consistently with a lead, the Lions lean on their elite offensive line, vaulting Swift to over 25 points per game in the fantasy playoffs, silencing the hyenas.

Silent Killer Scenario

The Lions’ offensive line is excellent in 2022, but there’s only so much they can do for a running back who seems unwilling to run between the tackles. After finishing RB44 in rush yards over expected / attempt in 2021, Swift improves as a rusher but remains inefficient. Like Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who finished RB36 behind a great line in 2021, Swift’s rushing inefficiency begins to frustrate both fans and coaches. Jamaal Williams starts to mix in more on early downs. He lacks the big play upside Swift provides, but he more consistently reads his blocks and hits the right hole.

Swift continues to lead the way in the receiving game, but his targets drop from his 2021 peak. Amon-Ra St. Brown sees slightly more downfield work than he did as a rookie, but his aDOT remains below 9.0. Similarly, T.J. Hockenson remains an underneath option. D.J. Chark is asked to run deep routes regularly, but Goff rarely looks his way, instead getting the ball out quickly to St. Brown and Hockenson. Jameson Williams eventually takes over the Chark role, but Goff still strongly prefers quick underneath throws. This dynamic limits Swift’s check-down opportunities and makes it hard to hit big plays on screens with defenses bunched up.

He takes a slight step back from his 2021 fantasy season. With nearly a two-round jump in ADP, his decrease in production is extremely costly for his fantasy managers.

How to Play It

Swift requires a bit of a leap of faith. He was genuinely bad as a between-the-tackles runner in 2021, which could impact his workload if it continues in 2022. And while an improved offensive line should help, it will also raise the Lions’ expectations for Swift. If he continues to struggle as a traditional rusher, he could quickly lose work to Jamaal Williams.

Then again, Swift has repeatedly flashed big play upside on a high-value workload and cannot be scripted out of games. He will also be playing behind what could be an elite offensive line. And while Swift’s between-the-tackles efficiency is a legitimate red flag, he doesn’t need to become elite at that part of his game.... because what Swift does well, he does very well.

Swift has a career breakaway percentage of 29%, just a tick below Todd Gurley‘s 31% rate from his legendary 2017-18 stretch. Among early-drafted running backs, only Jonathan Taylor, and Aaron Jones have a higher rate over the last two seasons. Swift’s big play ability has helped make him an efficient fantasy producer, despite having some areas to clean up in his game. For his career, Swift has been above expectations as both a rusher and receiver in both PFF’s and RotoViz’s expected points models. If Swift can earn a slightly bigger share of the rushing workload in his third season, he has a very strong setup to deliver a legendary 2022.

Managed League Recommendation: Target

Saquon Barkley

Legendary Scenario

Brian Daboll, a man willing to play Devin Singletary on 100% of snaps in a playoff game, has no trouble leaning on a fully healthy Saquon Barkley in 2022. In 2021, Barkley played 84% of snaps in Week 2 while coming off an ACL tear; he then ramped up to 90% by Week 4 before injuring his ankle. In 2022, Barkley has no issues returning to a 2019-style workload when he finished RB3 in snap share.

Barkley isn’t just on the field a lot; he’s a vital component of the Giants’ passing attack. Daboll relishes flexing him into the slot to create what is functionally a 4WR set. With the same personnel, he also occasionally rotates Wan’Dale Robinson into the backfield, making Barkley a true slot receiver. At the goal line, things get exciting, with Barkley benefiting from some of the creative passing concepts that allowed Isaiah McKenzie to score six TDs as a part-time player in 2020.

A few bonus receiving TDs are nice, but Barkley’s main scoring upside comes from a complete lockdown on the goal line rushing workload. Robinson sees some gadget carries between the 20s, and Matt Breida works in from time to time, but the Giants don’t get cute on goal-to-go rushing attempts.

It’s good that Barkley gets all the work because the Giants’ passing offense is highly inconsistent, and their offensive line play is mediocre. As a result, Barkley’s rushing efficiency is hit or miss on a weekly basis, and he scores just 14 TDs. But Barkley tops 100 receptions with 1.5+ YPRR. Barkley fails to match his career-high 1,307 rushing yards from 2018 but still turns in a legendary season of 23.5 PPR points per game.

Silent Killer Scenario

Barkley plays a ton of snaps in 2022, but unfortunately, he plays them for the 2022 Giants. In what becomes a lesson in the limits of coaching, Daniel Jones is horrible in his final season for the G-men. The Giants’ poor offensive line makes it hard for them to sustain drives. And their defense is a major liability, forcing them into a ton of obvious passing situations. As he did in 2021, Jones struggles badly against defenses that know he’s about to drop back. He once again finishes well outside the top 20 quarterbacks in EPA per play.

Barkley’s role is also far more traditional than training camp “slot snaps” hype led drafters to believe. He operates in a Najee Harris do-everything role, but Daboll is a bit more cautious with Barkley, keeping his snap share below 80%. Wan’Dale Robinson is annoyingly involved at the goal line. The Giants handpicked weapon benefits from Daboll’s creative play designs, with Barkley more frequently acting as a decoy. He doubles 2021’s TD total but still finishes with less than 10.

Barkley more or less pays off his early offseason third-round ADP, but drafters that chased him up to the 1/2 turn are hurt by his inconsistent season. The Giants end their year meekly against the Vikings and Colts in Weeks 16-17. Both games are low-scoring losses in which Barkley doesn’t hit an explosive play. Fantasy managers are left hoping the rest of their lineup can win them a championship.

How to Play It

It’s been several years since Barkley has been a difference-making fantasy player, but let’s not forget that he delivered a legendary season of 24 points per game in his first NFL season. Barkley has dealt with several major injuries but has continually dominated snaps whenever healthy. And the Giants have almost no choice but to treat him as an every-snap player in 2022.

The Giants will likely be below-average in 2022 and could be quite bad. However, Barkley’s receiving ability keeps his hopes for a legendary season alive even in that context. Notably, Barkley can hit big plays as a receiver. Over his career, Barkley has hit 15+ yard receptions on 11% of his targets, a rate that slightly trails Jonathan Taylor (13%) and Alvin Kamara (12%), matches Joe Mixon and Todd Gurley, and bests Nick Chubb (10%) and D’Andre Swift (10%). By comparison, Najee Harris was at 5% as a rookie, which matched Devin Singletary and bests just Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman, Kalen Ballage, Marlon Mack, Peyton Barber, and Carlos Hyde among RBs with 50+ targets since 2018. Getting all the receiving snaps is awesome, but big play ability is also highly preferred, particularly when on a bad team.

Managed League Recommendation: Target

Joe Mixon

Legendary Scenario

After playing behind a shambles of an offensive line in 2021, Mixon suddenly enjoys outstanding blocking in 2022. Coming of a TD per game in 2021, in 2022, he totals 20+ TDs as the goal line hammer on an elite offense. He also rekindles his big play ability, topping 500 breakaway yards for the first time since 2018. With defenses unable to key on the run and much improved offensive line play, Mixon reminds the haters how good he can be.

Improved offensive line play allows the Bengals to avoid significant regression in their passing efficiency. But Zac Taylor still prefers to keep things balanced when given the opportunity, sometimes to a fault. As a clear two-down back, Mixon is a big beneficiary of Taylor’s philosophical leanings. He racks up toches in favorable situations, smashing his career high in rushing yards against defenses understandably terrified of stacking the box against him.

Mixon isn’t a huge factor in the passing game; he continues to cede snaps to Samaje Perine and Chris Evans on third downs. But he gets enough targets on early downs to hit 3+ receptions per game, as he did in his six-game 2020. In doing so, he becomes the second running back since 2010 to hit 23+ PPR points with less than 4.0 receptions per game, joining Dalvin Cook (2020). He also becomes the second running back since 2010 to deliver a legendary season at 26 or older, joining Jamaal Charles (2013).

Silent Killer Scenario

The Bengals improved offensive line allows the Bengals to play more optimally. Instead of game plans designed to keep Burrow upright and healthy, Taylor presses his advantage in 2022. The Bengals were balanced in 2021, with a 1% pass rate over expected, but they were borderline pass-heavy in 2020 with a 4% PROE. With a star quarterback and the ability to protect him, Taylor lets it rip in 2022, passing 5% more than expected. In 2022, only the Chiefs, Buccaneers, Bills, and Chargers are as committed to the pass.

The success of this approach is impossible to argue with. Ja’Marr Chase emerges as the best wide receiver in football, and Tee Higgins is an unfair advantage as a secondary target. Tyler Boyd is routinely open as a check-down option, and even Hayden Hurst is functional as an underneath outlet. As a result, Mixon is rarely needed as an early down receiver, outside of screen passes, which, to be fair, he frequently rips for big gains.

The Bengals sometimes unleash Mixon when ahead; he combines for 250 yards and 4 TDs against the Panthers and Steelers in Weeks 9-11. But the Bengals also play the season with the Super Bowl in mind; Mixon is pulled from several lopsided wins, hurting his TD total.

Mixon also has a tendency to get phased out of back-and-forth games. In the Bengals’ final six games against the Chiefs, Browns, Buccaneers, Patriots, Bills, and Ravens, Mixon reaches 100 total yards just once. As he did in 2019, Mixon scores less than 15 PPR points per game, a brutal outcome for drafters on the 1/2 turn.

How to Play It

On the one hand, Mixon is a pretty simple bet. If the Bengals are a great offense and continue operating with a balanced approach, Mixon just has to run good on TDs to have a great season. But, on the other hand, if Mixon doesn’t score a ton of TDs this season, he basically has zero path to a legendary season... because he is a pure two-down running back.

Mixon saw just 9% of his snaps on third or fourth down in 2021. Even compared to a player like Jonathan Taylor, that is very low. Taylor saw 21% of his snaps on third and fourth down and out-snapped Nyheim Hines 161 to 83 on those downs. Mixon was out-snapped 175 to 78 by Perine on third and fourth down, with Chris Evans (43) a little close for comfort.

Theoretically, Mixon could see more work in passing situations this season, but the Bengals seem more intrigued by the possibility of Evans taking on more of that work. Evans only saw 19 targets as a rookie but delivered an elite 2.11 YPRR. He could emerge as the Bengals’ Nyheim Hines, cementing Mixon as an early down back.

Mixon has an obvious path to a legendary season, but it’s also a very narrow path. If the Bengals’ passing game faces negative regression, it won’t be good enough to power a monster TD season for Mixon. And if the passing game is too good, the team’s scoring could occur primarily through the air, also boxing Mixon out of a legendary season. Mixon profiles as a potential legend in the early 2000s, but unless Zac Taylor is Pete Carroll-conservative, Mixon is a thin bet in the modern era.

Managed League Recommendation: Fade

Alvin Kamara

Legendary Scenario

In a classic oversight, youth-chasing drafters spend 2022 searching for the next Alvin Kamara, only to miss one of the all-time great seasons... from Alvin Kamara.

The 2022 Saints don’t return to a Brees-era-style passing game, but they are also far different than the 2021 squad. In what becomes stupefyingly obvious in retrospect, the return of Michael Thomas and the additions of Chris Olave and Jarvis Landry lead to a much more pass-friendly offense in 2022. That approach turns Kamara’s 47 catches in 2021—his only season with less than 80 receptions—into a bizarre anomaly.

Kamara’s career-high 240 carries in 2021 is not an outlier, though. With little else in the run game, the Saints lean on their superstar running back as both a rusher and receiver. Behind a top-5 offensive line, Kamara tops 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his career and totals over 20 TDs for the second time. His receptions drop from a Brees-era 5.5 per game to 4.7, but he still hits 80 receptions and over 700 receiving yards in his first-career 17-game season. Kamara’s Week 15 demolition of the Falcons goes down in fantasy playoffs lore.

Silent Killer Scenario

In his first four seasons in the NFL, Kamara averaged 11.2 carries and 5.5 receptions per game. In eight games with Jameis Winston in 2021, Kamara averaged 19 carries and 4 receptions per game. In retrospect, drafting Kamara in 2022 like he had a chance to return to his Payton/Brees glory days is a classic case of wishcasting. Instead, Kamara continues to operate as a more traditional running back.

Kamara’s new role is hurt by the fact that the Saints’ offensive line is not what it once was. The unit isn’t bad in 2022, but it’s no longer elite, leading Kamara to produce fairly average rushing production. Moreover, without a reliable secondary rusher, Kamara sees far more work between the 20s than is ideal for a 27-year-old receiving specialist. By the time December rolls around, there are whispers that he has lost a step.

The Saints’ offense also remains solidly run-first. Fortunately, when they do pass, they’re efficient. But the Saints’ elite defense allows Dennis Allen to keep Jameis Winston‘s attempts on the low side, which has the side effect of keeping Kamara’s receptions to just below 4 per game. As a result, Kamara becomes an inconsistent fantasy option. His ceiling weeks are elite, but he needs a TD or a random target spike to be anything more than an RB2.

How to Play It

Kamara’s risk of a suspension has created huge swings in his ADP this summer, but at this point, he seems unlikely to miss time before 2023. But Kamara still comes with significant risk. Older running backs have not fared well in recent seasons, including former receiving superstars. After an 80-reception 2016, David Johnson’s next healthy season saw him drop from 25.6 points per game to just 15.4 in his 16-game, age-27 2018. After over 4 receptions per game in his legendary 2018, Melvin Gordon collapsed to 15.3 ppg in a 12-game age-26 season. Finally, at age 27, Le’Veon Bell cratered from an 85 reception 22.9 ppg season to just 14.3 in 15 games. All three players went in the first two rounds of best ball drafts and delivered devastating sub-4% win rates.

The falloffs of these former stars are a sobering reminder of how quickly a league-winner can turn into an albatross. And Kamara showed some worrying signs in 2021. His receptions per game dropped from 5.5 to just 3.6 in 2021 (4.0 in seven games with Winston). And his rushing efficiency cratered. After finishing RB13 in rush yards over expected / attempt in 2020, Kamara dropped to RB48 in 2021. He also dropped from RB11 to RB41 in breakaway percentage, RB13 to RB26 in elusive rating and RB2 to RB9 in YPRR.

The Saints could also be a far more productive passing offense in 2022. Still, Kamara was highly inefficient with Jameis Winston under center, and Winston was stunningly efficient on low volume last year. Kamara was a steal in the third round of early August drafts, but I don’t feel comfortable prioritizing him in Round 2.

Managed League Recommendation: Cold-sweat-inducing Fade

Aaron Jones

Legendary Scenario

It turns out that when a Day 3 wide receiver is dominating training camp headlines... that’s not a great sign for the state of the wide receiver position. As a result of poor wide receiver play, the Packers offense looks discombobulated in Week 1 against the Vikings. They then ride AJ Dillon to victory against the Bears in Week 2. But against the Buccaneers in Week 3, they fully embrace using Aaron Jones as a passing game weapon. As he did in the playoffs against the 49ers, Jones sees 10 targets and produces nearly 200 total yards.

A.J. Dillon impresses as a bread-and-butter rusher, totaling nearly 1,000 yards. But Jones rips off big plays on the ground, nearly clearing 1,000 yards as well. More importantly, Jones nearly doubles his career-high of 52 receptions. Finally, and crucially, Jones revives his 2019 scoring ability, delivering nearly 20 TDs.

By the time the Packers face the Vikings again in Week 17, Jones is in the midst of an early-career Alvin Kamara season. His 7-75-2 receiving line brings home championship belts.

Silent Killer Scenario

Green Bay’s receiving game isn’t as dominant as in years past, but the Packers’ defense is a genuine force. Naysayers argue that the unit is simply feasting on bad opponents, which is inarguably true. But the results are the same. The Packers make quick work of the Giants, Jets, Commanders, Lions, and Bears. With a more run-heavy approach on offense combined with their typical glacial offensive pace, the Packers rapidly drain time off the clock when ahead. Those who snooze their alarms miss the entire first half of the Packers’ London game vs. the Giants.

High-end offenses like the Buccaneers, Bills, Cowboys, and Rams are able to push the Packers back to a more pass-heavy approach, but by mid-season, the wide receiver group comes into its own. Romeo Doubs develops a strong connection with Rodgers, while Christian Watson is a capable field stretcher who can hit big plays in the screen game. The veteran options aren’t consistent producers, but they are where Rodgers needs them to be more often than not.

The end result is that Jones is a very talented committee back on a slow, balanced offense. For the second straight season, he fails to hit 1,000 rushing yards. He also produces less than 500 receiving yards, as he has done in every season of his career. Approaching his 28th birthday, Jones looks slightly less explosive down the stretch, prompting Dillon to rocket up dynasty rankings.

How to Play It

Entering his age-28 season, Jones is a risky bet. That would be true even if he wasn’t sharing a backfield with a talented young running back. But as is, drafting Jones in managed leagues requires betting on him to crush his career-highs in receptions and reverse a multi-year downtrend in fantasy scoring, just as A.J. Dillon looks poised to get more work.

But... that’s more possible than it might seem. Jones is coming off impressive rushing efficiency and a career-high in YPRR. He’s an older back but has never been overworked and isn’t showing signs of decline. It’s also distinctly possible that the loss of Davante Adams could lead to a consistently high-volume receiving role for Jones. But Jones strikes me as a better pick in best ball formats where solid production with occasional spike week upside goes a bit further.

Managed League Recommendation: Fade

Javonte Williams

Legendary Scenario

As the 2022 season plays out, Javonte Williams faders realize that they were far too concerned about the return of Melvin Gordon and not nearly high enough on the addition of Russell Wilson.

The Broncos offense is a force to be reckoned with. The attack is built around play action and big plays downfield but also incorporates a healthy dose of the run game. Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon split the early down work to begin the season, but as time goes on, the second-year player cannot be kept off the field. Williams’ signature elusiveness continues to pop, and he again finishes top-5 in PFF’s elusive rating. He also hits big plays more frequently. After finishing RB16 in breakaway percentage and RB13 in rush yards over expected / attempt as a rookie, Williams’ second season is reminiscent of peak Melvin Gordon. Like Gordon, he lacks elite long speed, but that doesn’t stop him from regularly hitting long runs.

Also, like Gordon, Williams is competent as a receiver. But his receiving ability isn’t what makes the difference for him in the passing game. Instead, Williams emerges as an ultra-reliable pass protector for Wilson. After finishing RB17 in PFF’s pass blocking grades in 2021, he jumps into the top 10 in 2022. Melvin Gordon, who finished RB50 in 2021 and RB66 in 2020, does not endear himself to his new quarterback and coaching staff. Williams ultimately becomes a feature of the two-minute drill and third down offenses, serving as an efficient outlet receiver in addition to a reliable blocker.

Williams also sees his role at the goal line grow. Gordon remains annoyingly involved on short-yardage work, but there are a lot more goal line opportunities to go around in 2022. Williams rushes for nearly 1,500 rushing yards, adding nearly 20 rushing TDs, becoming a legend in his second season.

Silent Killer Scenario

Williams improves as a rusher in 2022, but his production remains sub-elite. The issue is partly the Broncos’ offensive line, which is genuinely bad in pass protection. This keeps the Broncos’ offense from consistently delivering on its elite upside. In an outcome that absolutely guts best ball bros, poor offensive line play turns the Broncos’ much-hyped Week 17 trip to Kanas City into an uninspiring 24-17 defensive victory for the Chiefs.

The Broncos’ blocking also contributes to frustrating inefficiency at the goal line. In 2021, Williams and Gordon combined for 43 rushes inside the 10-yard line, which they converted for just 9 combined TDs. The inefficiency continues in 2022, and just as frustratingly, so does the split goal line workload. Williams hit double-digit TDs in 2022 but falls well short of the elite scoring profile needed to tilt fantasy leagues.

Williams eventually becomes the primary passing-down back ahead of Gordon, but Gordon still mixes in somewhat regularly. And frustratingly, Williams’ blocking ability leads to... blocking. Williams runs a route on less than 80% of his pass-blocking snaps, making him the Broncos version of A.J. Dillon rather than Aaron Jones.

Williams impresses once again as a rusher, topping 1,000 yards and distancing himself from Gordon as the season progresses. But with multiple league-winning wide receivers emerging from the 2/3 turn, Williams’ opportunity cost looks devastating in retrospect.

How to Play It

When selected in the second round, Williams carries substantial risk of being 2022’s Antonio Gibson (we’re all trying to find the guy who did this). Gibson scored a respectable 14.4 points per game and held his own in best ball because he played 16 games.

But I can tell you firsthand that he was a bummer in managed leagues. With Gibson, it turned out that he didn’t have much of a weekly ceiling with JD McKissic in the mix. He also just didn’t live up to the hype talent-wise. Similarly, you really have to quint to see a scenario where Williams delivers a legendary season without a Melvin Gordon injury. Williams has flashed some exciting talent, but while capable as a receiver and breakaway runner, he’s not elite in either area. Instead, he profiles as a potentially elite chunk play runner in the mold of Chiefs-era Kareem Hunt. Even if he hits that high-end comp, Williams will likely need a true workhorse snap share to hit 23 points per game (which Hunt never has).

But Williams occasionally falls to the third round, and at that price, he has the potential to emerge as the next D’Andre Swift. Swift had the same 8.2% best ball win rate as Gibson last season because he got hurt at the end of the year. But with bankable weekly production from a third-round ADP, Swift was an absolute joy to roster in managed leagues last year. Williams could easily match or surpass Swift’s 16.1 points per game and has the potential to improve as the season goes on. That makes him a clear target for me in best ball and a target in managed leagues at a discount.

Managed League Recommendation: Target if he falls to the 3rd round

Leonard Fournette

Legendary Scenario

If you’re trying to score points on a Tom Brady offense... it helps if Tom Brady trusts you. And once again, in 2022, Leonard Fournette is the only running back that Tom Brady trusts.

As he did in 2021, Fournette catches nearly 5 balls per game and rumbles his way to over 500 receiving yards. He runs hot on receiving TDs, tripling his previous career-high to score 6 receiving TDs.

Fournette is the clear lead back as a rusher, setting a career-high with 1,200 rushing yards and doubling his previous career-high in rushing TDs with 18. Tired of covering himself in glory, Brady prefers to hand off to his buddy Lenny at the goal line.

Fournette crushes his previous career-high of 18.3 points per game, hitting 23 points per game on the nose. In a Week 17 obliteration of the Panthers, Fournette caps his fantasy season with a 30+ point outing.

Silent Killer Scenario

In 2021, Leonard Fournette took control of the Buccaneers backfield from a fantasy perspective, but he quietly did not have the entire backfield to himself. In his 15 games played (including the playoffs), Fournette logged 103 third and fourth down snaps, only barely edging out Giovani Bernard, who recorded 93. In 2022, Bernard is a minor thorn in Fournette’s side on passing downs; Rachaad White is a major thorn in Fournette’s side on early downs.

White operates as a classic change of pace back rather than making a play for the starting job. But White doesn’t just mix in for low-value carries between the 20s. After flashing elite receiving efficiency at Arizona State, White operates as an explosive outlet receiver for Brady. Like Patriots-era Rex Burkhead, who played 84% of his career snaps for the Patriots on 1st and 2nd down, White rarely sees work on third downs. But also like Patriots-era Burkhead, White records over 2 receptions per game. White’s role also increases as the season progresses, making Fournette a nerve-wracking start in the fantasy playoffs.

Fournette remains the clear lead back in Tampa Bay, but his snaps are down from 2021. Behind an injury-bitten offensive line, his rushing efficiency also tails off. For the fourth time in his six-year career, he averages less than 4 yards per carry. Fournette still totals over 1,100 yards and 10 TDs, but his per-game average drops from 18.3 to below 15.

How to Play It

Fournette’s ADP is surprisingly reasonable in drafts; he sometimes falls to the early-mid third of best ball drafts, and I’ve happily taken him there. In best ball, I’m not going to stress about his late-season snap share at that cost. But in managed leagues, Fournette is a lot less attractive. Because he smashed expectations in 2021 and is again set up to dominate backfield touches for a high-scoring offense, Fournette seems like a high-ceiling option. But it’s important to remember that 2021’s career year was still 5 points per game below the legendary threshold. With a plethora of high-ceiling wide receiver options at the 2/3 turn, selecting a running back who turns 28 in January should at least come with a proven ceiling. Instead, it requires betting on a back who has topped out at 18.3 points per game while producing negative career efficiency. Fournette’s primary path to a legendary season is scoring an ungodly number of TDs. That’s certainly possible, but there are other bets I’d rather make.

Managed League Recommendation: Fade