The running back position is the most polarizing one in fantasy football. Some will say RBs don't matter, while others build their entire fantasy draft strategy around the position. While we may not see as many running backs go in the first round as we have in recent years, at least half the picks in the first round are guaranteed to be running backs -- if not more. But the question isn't just should you draft a running back early, there is also the big challenge of choosing the right running back. Last year there were debates between Ezekiel Elliott and Jonathan Taylor in the first round. If you chose right you may have won a championship and if you chose wrong, well, you likely didn't. As we take early looks ahead to the 2022 season, let's try to decipher who the right early-round RBs will be this season!
Early Top 12 RBs Heading Into 2022
1) Jonathan Taylor should be the unquestioned RB1 heading into 2022. JT finished as the top scoring fantasy RB by far -- with only Austin Ekeler finishing within 70 fantasy points of him. Taylor averaged nearly 130 yards per week and scored 20 touchdowns. He was also consistently good, scoring over 18 fantasy points in 12 games, the most among all running backs. I do not have to convince you how good JT was in 2021 or why he should continue to be great, as he is just 23 years old and will once again be running behind one of the better offensive lines in football on a team that has clearly built its offense around him. But Taylor is not without red flags. Last year he caught just 40 balls and had one catch or fewer in seven games. Plus, 20 touchdowns is tough to duplicate. Throughout NFL history there have been 55 previous cases when a player scored 18 or more touchdowns -- the average for those players the following season was 12 TDs (11.9, actually). Only nine times did they score 18-plus again the following season. If Taylor has TD regression hit, he could struggle to repeat as the overall RB1. Still, if the Colts decide to feature him more in the passing game, he could run away with the position once again.
2) Austin Ekeler finished as the overall RB2 in 2021, scoring over 40 more fantasy points than the RB3 (Najee Harris). He averaged over 21 fantasy PPG and finished as a top-four fantasy RB for the second time in three years. He still leads the position in catches since 2019, and his 5.1 catches per game in that span is second only to Christian McCaffrey. Ekeler again led all RBs in receiving yards last year and will again be the lead back in a high powered offense with a great QB. We already know he will be the lead passing-down back for the Chargers, but this past season showed that he can in fact be a goal-line runner. He finished in the top six in attempts and TDs from within the 5-yard line last season. Ekeler should once again be a safe bet as a high-end fantasy pick given what he adds as a receiver. The only concern for him, much like with Taylor, is TD regression.
3) Christian McCaffrey has played just 10 games combined in the past two seasons, meaning a lot of people will fade him as a first-round pick. But not enough, as he is still going inside the first five picks in many early drafts. The reason is the last time we saw CMC stay healthy over the course of a full season he scored the second-most fantasy points in NFL history. Plus, the injuries when you break them down are not as severe as they get made out to be. McCaffrey suffered a high-ankle sprain, an AC joint sprain (shoulder), a thigh injury, a hamstring strain and an ankle sprain on the other foot than the high ankle one. None of those are repeat injuries and are more so from playing a physical position in a physical sport. Some will say the touches took a toll on CMC, but I think you can argue this is just bad luck and recency bias. Perhaps the Panthers limit CMC more this year, but even if they do, it's more of a net positive as it helps keep him on the field. He already logs more snaps than any RB and it's not even close. McCaffrey remains the safest bet to score 25 fantasy points any time he steps on the field because he is an RB1 and WR1 all built in one. If you want to fade the best fantasy asset in recent history than sure, you can do that. But CMC remains the biggest threat to Taylor and every RB to finish as the top scorer if he stays healthy.
4) Derrick Henry has been a beast and finally look set to finish as the top scoring fantasy RB last year until he was injured. Henry had a metal plate inserted into his foot after breaking it. Henry returned for the playoffs but was clearly not right after rushing 20 times for just 62 yards. Prior to injury, he was averaging 24.2 fantasy PPG, the most among all running backs. What you have to especially like about Henry is that the Titans were finally throwing him the ball more. Henry averaged 2.5 targets and 2.3 catches per game, which may not sound like a bunch, but both were career highs for the big man. Henry is definitely in the top tier of fantasy RBs and could go off the board anywhere in the first four picks. The only concern is whether the foot is fully healed and there are lasting effects.
5) Najee Harris finished as the overall RB3 in fantasy, joining Taylor and Ekeler as the only ones to top 300 fantasy points at the position. His 17.7 fantasy PPG finished eighth amongst the position. Harris was a beast leading all RBs with 381 touches -- the most by any rookie since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2001. He also led all RBs playing 84% of snaps -- no other back topped 70%. Harris also sneakily led all running backs with 74 catches in 2021. Perhaps the loss of Ben Roethlisberger leads to fewer dump offs, but if the new QB can sling the ball better downfield it could just help create space near the line of scrimmage. Harris showed that he can both play at a high level and handle the volume that was thrown his way. Do not expect that to change as long as Mike Tomlin is there in Pittsburgh. Because of volume alone, Harris is worthy of being a top-five fantasy RB.
6) Joe Mixon was originally in my top-five fantasy RBs, but fell just outside of it as of now. Mixon finished this past season as the overall RB4 and was the RB7 in terms of points per game. His 20.8 touches per game were sixth at the position and his career high 16 touchdowns were fourth. He will once again be tied to a high-powered passing attack that should help open things near the line of scrimmage for him. The knock on Mixon is the lack of pass game usage he consistently saw -- averaging just three targets per game in 2021, barely putting him in the top 35 at the RB position. That was enough to keep him lower than Harris, and there is a legit debate between him and Dalvin Cook. But after the top five RBs are off the board, Mixon is right there in the discussion to be the next off the board.
7) Dalvin Cook finished as the RB16 in total points and RB11 in fantasy PPG in 2021. That is a falloff after finishing inside the top three in both categories in 2020. Still, Cook averaged nearly 22 touches per game in 2021, which was still in the top five among RBs. He has now topped 21 touches per game in three straight seasons. Cook is always going to produce at a high level as long as he is on the field. The only issue is he has never played a full season. He has missed at least two games every year and this past season missed four. The Vikings have a great backup in Alexander Mattison, so you can handcuff the two and get consistent RB1 production -- but the cause for concern is if the Vikings and their new coaches decided to feature Mattison more each week to keep Cook healthy. Still, Cook is a borderline top-five RB who can finish any week as the top scorer.
8) Javonte Williams at eight may seem high to many, but the truth is he has the potential to finish even higher. He is the answer to the question, who is this year's Jonathan Taylor? Williams finished as the RB17 overall and the RB26 in PPG, but that was largely because of the role he was playing. In the five games he had 16-or-more touches, he averaged 18.9 fantasy PPG, and in the one game without Melvin Gordon he scored 29.8 fantasy points and finished as the RB1. Gordon is currently set to become a free agent, and while beat reporters indicate the Broncos would love to have Gordon back, he is far from a top priority. They drafted Williams to take over the backfield in 2022 and that is exactly what we should see happen. Williams led the NFL in missed tackles forced per carry in 2021 after leading the NCAA in 2020. He is shifty and has explosive traits that are very easy to get excited about. Whoever the Broncos bring in at RB could affect this, but the expectation is they bring in more of a complementary back. Who the Broncos QB is will also greatly affect Williams and actually could push him further up this list.
9)D'Andre Swift is another one that may seem high at nine overall, but that's what people were saying to me when I ranked him as an RB1 this time last year. Swift finished this past season as the overall RB15 and was the RB10 in fantasy PPG. His six targets per game led all RBs and he was fourth in target share at the position (14%). Swift has shown that his floor is being a high-end RB2, but he has the skill set to finish much higher. He is a great receiver and we know what he can do on the ground. The concern is the offense around him, but that did not hold Swift back in 2021. As long as he remains such an important part of the passing game, he has a strong chance of finishing as an RB1 in PPR, with upside to outperform that.
10) Alvin Kamara as a backend RB1 would have seemed crazy in the years leading up to 2022. But last season, his first without Drew Brees, Kamara finished as the RB8. He was the RB6 in fantasy PPG and has never finished worst than ninth at the position. There was plenty to like with Kamara in 2022 -- he averaged a career-high 22 touches per game and once again topped 17 fantasy PPG for the fifth straight year. He has averaged over 95 yards per game in each season, as well. There are also reasons not to be so optimistic, however. He averaged a career-low 5.2 targets and 3.6 catches per game. In total, he caught just 47 passes, after topping 80 receptions in each of his prior seasons. Also, when he had a quality backup, his production sunk. He averaged 12.5 fantasy PPG with Mark Ingram and 20.5 with other backups. Perhaps that is nothing to be concerned about, but it could show an indication to want to get a second back more involved moving forward. It's what they had previously done in past seasons. Plus, we currently don't know who his QB will be, and this will be his first season without Sean Payton at the helm. That's a lot of changes and unknowns, all on an offense that is void of much talent around him. Kamara still likely sees enough volume to finish as an RB1, but there are more causes for concern with him than ever before.
11) Elijah Mitchell was purely an afterthought for much of the summer last year and now we are talking about him as an RB1? Well, I am not sure everyone will, but I certainly am. Mitchell finished as the RB26 this past season but was the RB15 in fantasy PPG, averaging 15.0. His 20.6 touches per game ranked seventh at the position, as did his 100 scrimmage yards per game. But the real reason to get excited for Mitchell is because whenever he was healthy, he was the lead back in a great offensive system. The Niners already were a run-heavy team, running the ball on nearly 48% of their plays, the fourth highest in the NFL. Now add in a new wrinkle that is a running QB and it should only help open up lanes for Mitchell. This is about trusting a system that has time-and-time again took unheard of RBs and made them key fantasy assets. Mitchell looked the part all season and should see enough volume to warrant being in the RB1 discussion. The only cause for concern, and I admit it's a big one, is he had 19 receptions over 11 games last year. The lack of catches limits his ceiling. It's also possible Mitchell slides out of the top 12 if Saquon Barkley and Cam Akers look fully healthy this summer. But at the lowest, Mitchell should be a high-end RB2.
12) Saquon Barkley is still an RB1 despite finishing as the RB30 overall and the RB34 in fantasy PPG. Barkley struggled to return from an ACL tear, and then a midseason high-ankle sprain did not do him any favors. He averaged just 15.6 touches per game and he only topped 20 touches or 100 scrimmage yards twice all year. Still, we know the talent and upside he possess if he can get back to his pre-surgery self. Having the full offseason to further recover should help, as should having an improved scheme and play-calling led by new coach Brian Daboll. Many might be reluctant to trust Barkley after last season, but a strong summer will only lead to his ADP shooting up once again.