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By the Numbers

Early Round RB Targets and Legendary Scenarios

by Pat Kerrane
Updated On: September 2, 2021, 11:01 am ET

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Earlier this month I profiled the 36 seasons since 2000 where a running back had a legendary season, defined as 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 who have paths to both 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 major 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.

 

This profile has generated some interesting conversation on Twitter, including pushback that offensive line play is predictable enough to be worth considering in running back selections:

There was also a cool visualization applying the target profile to the early round running backs, from Astute Alligator:

And another cool visualization from Sam Sherman:

It’s been a joy to see this type of analysis, since I was hoping my last article would spur exactly these types of conversations. I highly recommend checking out all three of these, and also thinking through the target profile yourself.

For the objective information on each running back, I've created my own chart below:

Legendary candidates chart

(ADP is from FFPC Main Event Drafts from Fantasy Mojo, Fantasy Points Over Expectation and Green Zone Opportunities from RotoViz, Yards per Route Run and Elusive Rating from Pro Football Focus).

For the subjective parts of the legendary running back profile, I'm doing something that a chart isn't really equipped to handle. For each running back being selected in the first two rounds of high stakes drafts, I'll be imagining two scenarios from the perspective of a hypothetical 2021 season: a legendary scenario and a silent killer scenario.

The legendary scenario will detail how each running back was able to hit 23+ points per game. The silent killer idea is something I'm borrowing from Mike Leone. Essentially, these are scenarios where the running back is a bust, but not an obvious 2020 Joe Mixon style bust. These are more in the 2020 Ezekiel Elliot or Kenyan Drake style of bust, where the player stays healthy and puts up decent points, but still ends up being a selection that damages fantasy teams. Silent killers are especially deadly in managed leagues where similar production is often available on the waiver wire. There's obviously substantially more room for downside from the silent killer scenarios, since these assume good health for the running backs, as well as their quarterbacks and offensive lines.

Both scenarios are grounded in the statistical profile for each player, and what I can reasonably extrapolate from those profiles going forward. I’ve also added some color as an exercise in thinking through potential outcomes, and frankly, for fun. Following these two scenarios, I detail how I’ve been drafting each player, and then provide a recommendation for each running back in managed league drafts.

For the record, the NFL is so chaotic that I expect to be wrong about exactly 100% of these scenarios--but thinking through the outcomes that we’re betting on with a draft selection can help illuminate the strength of the pick.

Christian McCaffrey

Legendary Scenario

McCaffrey led the league in running back snap rate in 2020 despite leaving two games early with injury, setting him up for an even higher rate in 2021.

In 2021, McCaffrey's snap percentage fails to match 2019’s absurd 93%, but he still sees over 85% of snaps. This allows McCaffrey to build on 2020’s 5.7 receptions per game and once again eclipse 6.0, as he did in 2018 and 2019. He remains highly efficient in the passing game, reclaiming his title as the NFL’s premier receiving back.

McCaffrey isn’t able to sustain his 2 TD per game pace from 2020, but he dominates goal line work nonetheless, seeing 2+ green zone opportunities per game for the fourth straight season. McCaffrey also remains an efficient rusher for the fourth straight season.

The Panthers offensive line doesn’t exceed it’s below average expectations, and Sam Darnold can’t fully shake off the Adam Gase stink. But McCaffrey’s receiving talent and target volume, combined with his goal line role is simply unstoppable. McCaffrey wins leagues, cements his status as the second coming of Marshall Faulk, and converts a high percentage of snake draft home leagues to auctions in 2022.

Silent Killer Scenario 

McCaffrey’s snap share dips from 2020’s 77% to a more standard workhorse percentage of 70%. Most of the lost snaps are of the early down, between the 20s variety and don’t have a big impact. But he also loses a few receptions and goal line snaps, which hurt a bit. 

McCaffrey easily clears 4+ receptions per game and plays efficiently as a receiver. But he runs bad at the goal line, scoring 12 TDs on slightly less than 2 green zone opportunities per game.

In 2020, McCaffrey was atrocious in Pro Football Focus’ breakaway run percentage. This proves to be a warning sign when McCaffrey’s 2021 long speed resembles late career Le’Veon Bell’s. Chuba Hubbard shows significantly better breakaway ability and also begins to earn more goal line work as the season progresses. 

McCaffrey still puts up 18.5 PPR points per game, but strong seasons from other first round fantasy picks create a distinct disadvantage for McCaffrey teams. He falls to the 1.05 in 2022 drafts as fantasy touts predict a further decline. 

How I’m Drafting

I celebrate every time I draw the 1.01, regardless of format. McCaffrey isn’t a lock for a legendary season by any means, but his receiving and goal line profiles are so strong that things have to go very wrong for him not to at least hit 20+ points per game this season, as long as he stays healthy--and his upside is unmatched. 

Managed League Recommendation: Pray for the 1.01

 

Dalvin Cook

Legendary Scenario 

In 2020 Dalvin Cook saw 3.9 targets per game. In 2021 his targets per game improve to 4.9, allowing him to hit 4+ receptions per game for the first time in his career. He also plays a bit more efficiently as a receiver, nearly matching his 2019 career high in YPRR of 1.93.

Cook maintains a strong goal line role of over 2.5 green zone opportunities per game, as he did in 2020. And although his rushing efficiency falls off from 2020’s absurd highs, he still produces above expectations.

Cook misses only one game and plays 16 games for the first time in his career. In fantasy championship week, he takes a screen pass 75 yards to house in Lambeau, securing his place in Vikings lore and in fantasy managers’ hearts.

Silent Killer Scenario

Not only is Cook unable to hit 4+ receptions per game for the first time in his career, he dips below 2020’s 3.1 receptions per game to match his rookie season average of 2.8. The culprit is an improved Vikings defense, which limits passing volume by allowing Mike Zimmer to play conservatively with a lead. 

As a rusher, Cook has a strong season, but he can’t keep up his 3.2 fantasy points over expectation from 2020. He remains efficient on the ground, just not off the charts.

For the fifth straight season he misses 2+ games--fortunately, unrelated to his shoulder. Cook finishes 2021 with 17.5 PPR points per game in 14 games played.

In 2022, fantasy managers select him in the early second round, looking for a bounce back season from the 27-year-old.

How I’m drafting

For most of the offseason, I’ve taken Cook at the 1.02. I’ve begun to cool on him a bit though. In tight end premium I prefer Travis Kelce. And I’ve recently bumped Cook down to RB3 on my board. 

Managed League Recommendation: Target

 

Alvin Kamara

Legendary Scenario

In 2021, Jameis Winston has some hiccups at quarterback, but more or less remains the starter for the full season. Marquez Callaway provides a deep element to the New Orleans passing game that has been missing for years, and sets up Alvin Kamara to dominate in the short passing game. Kamara opens up the season with 13 receptions in a Packers shootout, as the Saints deploy him like a Miami-era Jarvis Landry with a goal line role.

Michael Thomas returns mid-season, bringing Kamara’s DraftKings salary to below $9,000 for the first time since Week 2. But Thomas is clearly less than 100% in his return and ultimately fails to connect with Winston as completely as he did with Drew Brees. Following Thomas' return, Kamara never matches his early season receiving heights, but he remains heavily involved in the passing game throughout 2021.

On the ground Kamara isn’t able to deliver another 6 TD performance in the fantasy championship, but he hits 2+ green zone opportunities per game for the third time in his career, scoring 20 TDs in a full 17 game season. Tony Jones operates as the secondary running back but his preseason juice evaporates against first string defenses. Down the stretch, Kamara turns into a true bellcow running back for the first time in his career, compensating for reduced receptions as Michael Thomas begins to look more like himself again. With an elite offensive line leading the way and an increasingly potent passing attack, late-season 2021 Kamara resembles 2017 Todd Gurley in his ability to carve up nickel packages on the ground. It’s not a perfect resemblance to 2017 Gurley of course, since Kamara has a much bigger role in the passing game. 

Much like in 2019, when Saquon Barkley was drafted ahead of Christian McCaffrey, Kamara’s fantasy managers rejoice at their good fortune in drawing the 1.03.

Silent Killer Scenario

The Saints offense writhes between a mistake riddled Winton affair and a low volume Taysom Hill slog. Kamara has his share of high-volume receiving games but plenty more like Hill’s first career start in 2020, when Kamara had just one target. 

Kamara rushes the ball well, but loses carries to both Latavius Murray and Tony Jones. With the year looking lost by mid-season, Sean Payton sharply eases up on Kamara’s workload--knowing his star running back has two big years on his contract in 2022 and 2023. As a result, Kamara sees less than 2 green zone opportunities per game for the third time in his career. He doesn’t fall all the way back to his 2019 pace of 6 TDs in 14 games, but manages just 9 TDs in 16 games played. Kamara averages just 16 PPR points per game in an instantly forgettable Saints season.

2022 drafters immediately get back on board, as excitement builds for new Saints quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo.

How I’m drafting

Kamara has an unusually volatile range of outcomes, even for a running back. He can relatively easily ruin fantasy teams without getting injured. Yet, if any running back can outscore a healthy Christian McCaffrey, it’s Alvin Kamara. I have Kamara at 1.02 on my board.

Managed League Recommendation: Priority Target
 

Derrick Henry

Legendary Scenario

It turns out that Derrick Henry’s lack of passing game usage prior to 2021 had more to do with former Titans OC Arthur Smith than we realized. 

When new Titans OC Todd Downing was with the Raiders in 2017, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard combined for a 16% target share. Starter Marshawn Lynch saw another 6%.

Downing sets out to create a similar dynamic in 2021, with Darrynton Evans playing the Washington and Richard roles. That quickly falls apart however, as Evans isn’t up to the task when healthy, and is rarely at full health. Henry continues to shine, and eventually, begins to stay on the field for all three downs. Usually, he’s used as a pass blocker, but he also mixes in highlight reel check downs runs with the defense's attention deep downfield.

Henry nearly triples his 2020 receiving total to match 2020 Dalvin Cook’s 3.1 receptions per game. He remains unstoppable on the ground as well. And although he falls short of another 2,000 yard season, Henry racks up 18 TDs on his way to a 23.5 point per game finish.

Silent Killer Scenario

It turns out that the lesson of Todd Downing’s 2017 (his only season as an offensive coordinator) wasn’t a tendency to throw to the running back, but a tendency to play slow. Per pace guru Pat Thorman, Downing’s Raiders finished 30th in situation-neutral pace and 30th in plays per game.

Arthur Smith is a mad scientist, willing to play up-tempo bullyball in shootout game scripts. Downing is not, and runs a much more conventional ground-and-pound attack in 2021. This robs Henry of high value touches and big play opportunities. 

Downing, at least, does include more running back receptions in his offense, but there’s a distinct lack of designed screens that could get Henry rumbling downfield. Instead, Tennessee’s running back receptions are primarily of the dump off variety. These occur in obvious passing situations, with Henry, as he was in 2020, on the bench.

Henry remains indestructible, rushing for over 1,500 yards in a full 17 game season, adding 15 TDs and another 200 yards through the air. The final result, unfortunately resembles Nick Chubb’s 2019-20 output of just under 17 PPR points per game. That doesn’t get it done as a top-five pick. 

How I’m drafting

I’m fading Derrick Henry in all season long formats. Even after rushing for over 2,000 yards in 2020, he was 6 TDs short of 23+ points per game season. Like Denny Carter, I’m not willing to bet on Derrick Henry to slow down. But because Henry does't get targeted, I can fade him without betting against his talent. Henry does have a very narrow path to legendary season, I'm just betting against it. And honestly... I'd get over it if he stiff arms my fade position and buries my fantasy season--because who doesn’t want to watch Derrick Henry score long TDs on screen passes? But as fun as that would be, I don’t think it’s particularly likely.

My primary exposure to the Big Dog this season will be coming in DFS tournaments in the month of DeHember.

Managed League Recommendation: Fade 
 

Ezekiel Elliott

Legendary Scenario

Dak Prescott’s shoulder injury goes down as a classic case of preseason panic, and CeeDee Lamb’s emergence allows the 2021 Cowboys not only to recapture 2020’s passing bonanza, but to sustain it for an entire season.  

The Dallas passing game doesn’t need to lean on Elliott as a receiver; it’s too efficient. But opposing defenses simply cannot account for Elliott while trying to slow down Lamb, Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Zeke chews up yards on frequent check-downs. And even while losing some snaps to Tony Pollard, Elliott catches over 4 passes per game for the first time since 2018. Having shed some weight, Elliott is also able to shake off 2020’s inefficiency and produces over a point above expectations as a receiver for the first time since 2017. 

While Pollard occasionally steals receptions, he simply isn’t involved near the goal line. In 2020, Elliott led Pollard 17 to 1 in green zone opportunities through the first five games when Prescott was playing. He led Pollard 33 to 6 over the full season. In 2021, the gulf remains just as wide, allowing Elliott to score the vast majority of running back touchdowns. Prescott throws for plenty of TDs and even runs a few in as well. But Elliott, behind an elite offensive line, still feasts on over a TD per game. 

Combined with his revitalized receiving profile, Elliott puts up 24 points per game and silences the haters.

Silent Killer Scenario

It turns out that when Ezekiel Elliott left 42.3 fantasy points on the field in 2020, finishing dead last in FPOE… that was a red flag. It’s generally not a good sign when a running back is coming off a season where he was less efficient than Benny Snell, Frank Gore, Peyton Barber and Kalen Ballage. 2021 does not turn out to be an exception to that rule. An improved Cowboys offense with Prescott playing a full season definitely helps matters, but there’s only so much that can be done for a running back in decline.

Tony Pollard, who ran 15+ routes in all three of the Cowboys final games of 2020, becomes a major thorn in Elliott’s side as a receiver. Elliott, who ran less than 15 routes in two of those three games, still plays plenty of passing snaps--but for the fifth time in six seasons, Zeke fails to reach 4+ receptions per game.

Elliott also loses goal line snaps to Rico Dowdle… just kidding.

Elliott retains a monopoly on goal line duties, with just over two per game. But he runs bad on converting his opportunities into TDs. Not as bad as 2020, when he had 8 TDs in 15 games, on 2.2 green zone opportunities per game… but his 13 TDs in 16 games are still a bit disappointing given what 2021 could have been. 

Elliott technically turns in a bounce-back season in 2021, increasing from 15.6 points per game in 2020 to 17.5. Given his early first round ADP however, he still proves to be a major drag on fantasy rosters.

How I’m drafting

Elliott’s lock on goal line duties isn’t something I was giving him enough credit for early this summer. So I’ve gotten more consistent about mixing him into my best ball portfolio--despite a draft cost that I find fairly egregious. If the Cowboys offensive line and passing attack return to elite play, as expected, Elliott has immense scoring upside. 

On the other hand, Elliott was flat out awful in 2020. I’m comfortable betting on players to recover from down seasons, especially in cases like Elliott where the surrounding cast was hit with injuries. However, I’d strongly prefer to bet on a bounce-back season at a discount, especially when the bounce-back I’m betting on would be coming from an aging workhorse running back.

I’ll probably finish about even with the field on Zeke in best ball or slightly under, but Elliott is unlikely to be a part of my managed league portfolio. His most realistic path to becoming a legend is to run extremely pure on TDs, in a way we haven’t seen from him since his rookie 2016 season.

In managed leagues, where I have the ability to add breakout running back options on the waiver wire, Elliott’s first round ADP is simply too pricey for me. 

Managed League Recommendation: Fade 
 

Austin Ekeler

Legendary Scenario

In 2019, Alvin Kamara saw 1.5 green zone opportunities per game and scored only six TDs. The following season he went down in fantasy history with a legendary 21 TD campaign on 2.1 green zone opportunities per game.

Austin Ekeler's new offensive coordinator has been with the Saints since 2016. So it’s no surprise then, when Joe Lombardi demonstrates that he knows exactly how to deploy an elite receiving back.

In 2021, Ekeler remains a focal point of the passing attack, seeing 5.5 receptions per game and delivering 2.1 yards per route run. Even better, Lombardi increases Ekeler’s green zone opportunities from 2020’s 1.5 per game to 2.0. Ekeler rewards that trust by delivering 18 TDs in 17 games played. 

Operating as Kamara-west, Ekeler delivers 23 points per game in 2021. Fantasy managers who pair him with an elite wide receiver win their leagues at an extremely high rate. 

Silent Killer Scenario

Unlike Alvin Kamara, Austin Ekeler doesn’t have a history of green zone opportunities. Kamara’s 2.1 green zone opportunities per game in 2020 wasn’t even close to his best season. That came in 2018, with 2.8. In fact, Kamara’s down 2019 of 1.5 green zone opportunities per game matches Austin Ekeler’s high water mark in 2020. This difference in goal line deployment shouldn’t be a huge shock since Kamara entered the NFL 23 pounds heavier than Ekeler.

In 2021 things don’t improve. Joshua Kelley, Justin Jackson and Larry Rountree combine to steal enough goal line work that Ekeler falls back to his 2019 levels of 1.1 green zone opportunities per game. Ekeler ran hot that season, with 11 TDs. In 2021, he does not. Ekeler scores just 7 TDs in a full 17 game season. 

Ekeler keeps doing his thing as a receiver, however. He sees 5+ receptions per game for the third straight year. His averages 17 PPR points per game for the season, which is technically an improvement on his injury marred 2020. But with a first round ADP and multiple wide receivers selected after him scoring 20+ points per game, Ekeler’s fantasy managers struggle to keep pace.

How I’m drafting

I struggle with Austin Ekeler. On the one hand it’s so simple… if he gets a goal line role, he smashes.

Ekeler is as locked into a high-volume receiving role as any back in the league, so why not bank the receptions and then hope the goal line role materializes under a new coaching staff? In managed leagues, that’s ultimately not a bet I’m willing to make in the first round or early second round. The Chargers have multiple running backs on the depth chart that are better suited to a traditional short yardage role. And as an undersized back, it’s unlikely any coaching staff will fully commit to him at the goal line. He’s also likely to lose a few rushing TDs to Justin Herbert. Despite rare receiving volume and talent, I’m of the opinion that a first to early second round price comes with too much opportunity cost to select Ekeler.

Managed League Recommendation: Fade

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Aaron Jones

Legendary Scenario

For the first time in his five year career, Aaron Jones catches 4+ passes a game. He’s aided by a change of backfield running mate. Jamaal Williams averaged 2.5 receptions per game in his two seasons under Matt LaFleur. AJ Dillon brings a bruising rushing element that Williams did not, but is far less involved as a receiver in 2021. Dillon posts a Nick Chubb-ian 1.3 receptions per game. That leave plenty of room for Jones in the receiving game. 

Jones’ receiving advantage also leads to TDs. Aaron Rodgers continues to favor the passing game at the goal line in 2021 and Jones reaches 2+ green zone opportunities for the first time in his career. He scores 20 TDs in 17 games on his way to a 23.5 point per game season that wins leagues from the back half of drafts. 

Silent Killer Scenario

In 2019, Aaron Jones scored 19 TDs in 16 games. So we’ve seen him deliver huge value as a TD scorer. Jones ran extremely hot in 2019, however. Seven of his 19 TDs came from outside of the green zone. He only had 1.4 green zone opportunities per game. To give you an idea of how hot he ran, Alvin Kamara was at 1.5 that season and scored just six TDs. All 36 legendary seasons since 2000 have included at least 1.5 green zone opportunities per game. Jones is an incredibly talented back, but he’s never been set up for a legendary season.

In 2021 Jones doesn’t run as hot as the sun. Even worse, AJ Dillon is good. Not just good at the goal line--where he’s dominant--but good as a receiver too. Dillon isn’t a space back by any means, but his 2021 answers the question: what if Ronald Jones didn’t drop everything? The answer turns out to be 2.5 receptions per game, with a healthy dose of chunk-yardage screens. 

Jones is involved both as a receiver and at the goal line, but both roles are lacking. He sets a new career high with 3.4 receptions per game, but fails to top his 2020 career high of 1.8 green zone opportunities per game. As a 27-year-old (in December), and with a middling offensive line, Jones doesn’t score nearly as many long TDs as he did in his 2019 peak. 

Jones still manages 16 points per game, which is useful, but he’s outscored by 2021’s waiver wire hero, who surprisingly turns out to be [REDACTED]. 

How I’m Drafting

If AJ Dillon is a disaster as a receiver, and Kylin Hill doesn’t play much in 2021, Jones has a credible path to legendary upside. The problem is that the Packers don’t pass their running backs that much overall. Therefore, Jones needs to earn the vast majority of passing snaps, which is possible, but a little risky to bank on with a first round pick. 

Jones also needs to expand on his goal line role to realistically turn in a legendary season. That is likely to prove very difficult with Dillon replacing Jamaal Williams. Williams was already siphoning off goal line work from Jones, and Dillon is better built for that task. 

In an offense that looked more likely to lean on him as a receiver, Jones would be highly intriguing. But because of where Jones currently is--both in real life and in drafts--I don’t plan to select him in managed leagues.

Managed League Recommendation: Fade

 

Jonathan Taylor

Legendary Scenario

In 2021, Jonathan Taylor becomes a clear workhorse in his second season. The idea of Taylor seeing a sub-50% snap share, as happened seven times in 2020, becomes laughable. Taylor’s clear lead-back duties help him eat into Nyheim Hines’ receiving role. His receiving volume is also aided by the Colts' schedule, which pits them against the NFC West. All four games are high scoring affairs, where Taylor averages 5.5 receptions per game. The fact that two of these games are in Weeks 1 and 2, with Carson Wentz immobile and looking to check down, is especially helpful. Taylor averages 4.1 receptions per game for the entirety of 2021.

Taylor’s rushing production is somewhat streaky. He’s at his best when the Colts can lean on him in positive game scripts. As a result he appears in 30% of GPP lineups when the Colts host the Texans in Week 6. The chalk hits when Taylor delivers not one, but two 30+ yard rushing TDs, which have contrarians crying into their sour beers. 

Behind a top-three offensive line, Taylor is unstoppable at the goal line. He scores 20 TDs in 16 games on 2.3 green zone opportunities per game. Taylor delivers a 25 point per game season in 2021, and is regularly selected at the 1.01 in 2022 drafts. 

Silent Killer Scenario

Taylor sees a slight uptick in backfield target share, but Nyheim Hines refuses to go away. As a result, Taylor’s 2021 receiving game log looks a lot like his 2020 game log--when he caught fewer than four passes in 11 of 15 games. Taylor averages just 2.3 receptions per game, matching Nick Chubb’s 2019. This slight decrease from Taylor’s 2.4 receptions per game in 2020 is partly due to Colts running back receptions falling across the board, caused by the quarterback change of Philip Rivers to Carson Wentz

Taylor has a strong goal line role, increasing from 2020’s 1.7 to 1.9 green zone opportunities per game. But the Colts offensive line is hampered by nagging injuries and doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Taylor matches his 12 TDs from 2020 in 16 games played, but gets unlucky in a few big spots. None more tilting than when Marlon Mack scores multiple TDs against Houston, filling Twitter with vulture .GIFs while contrarian GPP bros gloat on their streams. 

Taylor finishes the year with 16 points per game. He becomes a polarizing selection in 2022, eventually settling into the early second round.

How I’m Drafting

Taylor is incredibly talented, is entering his second season at just 22 years old, runs behind an elite offensive line, and is a big play threat in the receiving game. Unfortunately, he has a thin path to a high-volume receiving role. This is very disappointing, but not disqualifying, at least not as a second round pick. 

The recent discount on Taylor has put him in a range where I’m comfortable betting on  / hoping for a Dalvin Cook or Todd Gurley style of legendary season. In other words, an explosive, TD rich season with sufficient, but not otherworldly receiving volume. 

I’m overweight on Taylor in best ball, and while I have yet to draft Taylor on a Main Event team, I would very much like to get a share in the early second round.

Managed League Recommendation: Target

 

Saquon Barkley

Legendary Scenario

In 2021, Saquon Barkley averages just 60% of snaps through the first three weeks. He shows major signs of life in Week 3 however, catching 6 passes and scoring a TD in an up-tempo loss to the Falcons. In Week 4, the 1-2 Giants lean on their star running back on the road in New Orleans. It doesn’t work, but the now 1-3 Giants can’t afford to turn back, and Barkley sees an 75%+ snap share the rest of the way.  

Barkley ultimately doesn’t recapture the 5.7 receptions per game he saw from Eli Manning as a rookie; Daniel Jones simply isn’t that elite. Saquon does build on the 4.0 receptions he saw from Jones in an injury marred 2019, however. He sees 4.5 receptions per game in 2021 and becomes increasingly more effective after the catch. This allows him to overcome modest rushing efficiency behind a below average offensive line.

The Giants offense overall isn’t particularly potent, so goal line opportunities aren’t plentiful. But when in close, there’s simply no other option than to lean on Barkley. Barkley matches his 2018 career high with 2.2 green zone opportunities per game, scoring 17 TDs in a 17 game season. 

Barkley starts slow, but averages 23 points per game over the full year. He goes wild in three shootouts with the Cowboys, Eagles and the Justin Fields led Bears, which happily happen to be the three weeks of the 2021 fantasy playoffs. Entering 2022 at just 25 years old, he is selected at the 1.02 in 2022 drafts.

Silent Killer Scenario

Barkley begins to look more and more like himself as the season goes on. But this coincides with the Giants beginning to fully deploy Kadarius Toney. The Clapper spends long hours designing his trickiest trick plays for the rookie; stunningly, Garrett’s deep thoughts don’t propel the Giants offense efficiently downfield. As a result, Toney’s 2021 season is most effective in explaining why the 2020 highlight machine produced just 15% of Florida’s receiving yards over his four-year career. The secondary purpose of Toney’s 2021 is to limit Barkley’s receiving role to under three receptions per game. Barkley’s usage is ultimately similar to Ezekiel Elliott’s 2018 season, when he averaged 2.6 receptions per game, under Jason Garrett

Barkley’s goal line role is similar to 2019, when he scored eight TDs in 13 games on 1.6 green zone opportunities per game. Barkley is more efficient on his opportunity in 2021, scoring 12 TDs in a full 17 games.

Unfortunately, Barkley isn’t as efficient as a rusher in general. He doesn’t quite look like himself to begin the season, even on a limited workload. Behind the league’s worst offensive line, he averages just 3.9 yards per carry, on his way to a 14 point per game season.

Drafters hold their nose when selecting Barkley in the late second round of early 2022 drafts, but his ADP quickly begins to rise as fantasy managers dream about his receiving upside in an Eric Bieniemy offense. 

How I’m Drafting

Unless Barkley is further along in his recovery than generally assumed, he has a somewhat thin path to a legendary 2021 season.

However, Barkley's upside in the back half of 2021 is much easier to get excited about. In managed leagues with playoffs, I’m willing to risk some nauseating downside scenarios for the upside of entering the fantasy playoffs with a fully recovered Barkley in a workhorse role. I have selected him in two of my 10 Main Event drafts so far. And while I’m not necessarily planning to add him on any of the remaining five, I do think Barkley has paths to being the player you needed to select in the back half of drafts this year.

Managed League Recommendation: Target
 

Najee Harris

Legendary Scenario

In 2021, Najee Harris matches Le’Veon Bell's rookie year snap share of 77%, which leads the NFL.   

Unlike Bell, Harris is able to hit 4+ receptions per game as a rookie, joining Saquon Barkley, Reggie Bush, Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey as the only rookie running backs to meet this threshold since 2000. 

Like Bell, Harris sees 2+ green zone opportunities per game. He joins Bell, Barkley and Sony Michel as the only rookies to meet that threshold since 2010. 

Unlike Bell, Harris is efficient at the goal line, overpowering defenders. He also consistently rips off chunk gains between the 20s.

Harris scores 19 TDs in a full 17 game season and adds significant value as a receiver, producing a legendary season of 23.5 points per game that is an absolute cheat code in second round.

Silent Killer Scenario

Najee Harris matches Le’Veon Bell's rookie year snap share of 77%, which leads the NFL in 2021.

Like Bell, Harris fails to hit 4+ receptions per game as a rookie. Harris is involved as a pass catcher but the passing offense runs through Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster rather than a rookie running back. Harris does at least best James Conner’s 2.7 receptions per game from 2020, finishing with 3.1.

Like Bell, Harris sees 2+ green zone opportunities per game. And like Bell, Harris is inefficient with those opportunities. He does slightly better than Bell’s 8 TDs in 13 games, scoring 11 TDs in 17 games behind a bottom five offensive line. Luckily, he’s also more efficient than Bell’s 3.5 YPC as a rookie, matching James Conner’s 4.3 YPC from 2020.

Harris averages 15 PPR points per game. This is an increase of 2.3 points per game over James Conner’s 2020--but it’s still a disappointing outcome for drafters in the second round.

Harris' drafters from the 1-2 turn against him. He opens 2022 drafts in the early third before eventually climbing into the late second.

How I’m Drafting

I've mixed in Harris in best ball when he's been discounted--not for his upside, but because in the late second to early third round, his weekly score is likely to be useful in the builds I like. I’m still firmly underweight though.

In managed leagues, he’s much less appealing and, oddly, more expensive. Harris has a ready path to 20+ points per game, but it would be genuinely shocking for him to pull off a legendary season behind a very poor offensive line with very strong target competition at wide receiver. He is a fairly high floor running back, assuming his skill immediately translates to the NFL and he stays fully healthy… which should never be assumed when high draft capital is involved.

In my most recent drafts he’s gone 2.07, 2.06, 2.04… and 2.01. At that ADP he’s one of the easiest fades in the draft. If you see Najee Harris in my high stakes portfolio, my account was hacked.

Managed League Recommendation: Fade  
 

Antonio Gibson

Legendary Scenario

In 2021, J.D. McKissic continues to play a substantial percentage of third downs, but cedes some of that work to Antonio Gibson as the season progresses. McKissic’s receptions per game drop from 2020’s 5.0 to 2.5--in line with what Giovani Bernard averaged from 2018-2020.

The passing offense overall shifts away from running backs. Moving from Alex Smith to Ryan Fitzpatrick will do that. So while McKissic loses 2.5 receptions per game, Gibson only gains 1.5. Most of Gibson’s additional work actually comes on early down screens, but he begins to see a few more check downs as the season wears on. Getting the second-year former wideout more involved as a receiver turns out to be a point of emphasis for Ron Rivera and Scott Turner in 2021. This allows Gibson to average 4.1 receptions per game.

Although McKissic remains a nuisance, Gibson thoroughly sidelines Peyton Barber. Barber’s 0.9 green zone opportunities per game in 2020 drop to 0.3 in 2021, with Gibson picking up the slack. (Update: Peyton Barber was released as part of Washington's final cuts.) 

Gibson also sees additional opportunity at the goal line thanks to an improved offense overall, with Ryan Fitzpatrick making sure there are always points on the scoreboard. As a result, Gibson is able to average 2.2 green zone opportunities per game. Playing behind a top 10 offensive line, Gibson is able to score 18 TDs in 15 games played.

Gibson averages 23.5 PPR points per game, providing a huge boost to teams who paired him with an elite wide receiver.

When J.D. McKissic departs in free agency in 2022, Gibson has a brief stint as the best ball 1.01, until the Football Team signs free agent James White

Silent Killer Scenario

Gibson sees a slight uptick in his usage as a receiver, but Fitzpatrick turns out to be far more interested in pushing the ball downfield than dumping off to a running back. The outlook for Gibson gets worse as the season goes on. Dyami Brown emerges as a strong secondary wide receiver, and Jarret Patterson flashes enough to begin rotating in as an additional pass-catching specialist. Gibson’s passing snaps actually decrease as the season goes on. He averages 2.8 receptions per game.

Gibson sees a slight uptick in goal line usage, but he doesn’t have a complete lock on goal line duties. McKissic plays in hurry-up situations early the season, even at the goal line. He is eventually phased out of that role, but in favor of Patterson, not Gibson. In Week 3 it dawns on Gibson’s fantasy managers that they messed up with their second round pick, when McKissic scores two short TDs in a shootout with the Bills.

When he is used at the goal line, Gibson isn’t nearly as efficient as he was in 2020. He sees 1.9 green opportunities per game but manages just 9 TDs in 15 games--in line with Ezekiel Elliott’s 2018 scoring efficiency.  

Gibson finishes with 14 fantasy points per game in 15 games. He is outscored by Josh Jacobs, despite a gap in ADP of nearly three rounds. Gibson touts, desperate to forget this, spend February attempting to reconnect with nature.

How I’m Drafting

Gibson’s upside is tantalizing. His path to a McCaffrey/Barkley level receiving workload and snap share is a little thin, but given his profile as a former wide receiver turned workhorse running back, it’s possible he works into that role over the course of the season. Even better, Gibson doesn’t need that type of role to deliver a legendary season.

Given Washington’s potential for strong offensive play, along with Gibson’s explosive athleticism and receiving ability, it’s easy to envision a highly efficient season. This would allow Gibson to deliver a 23+ point per game season without the insane receiving workloads we’ve seen from McCaffrey and Barkley. Gibson still needs to see role growth for this to play out, but as a second-year player, a moderate role increase is highly plausible. 

On the other hand, Gibson ran hot on TDs in 2020, so he’s battling regression there already. He’s also in an offense that should pass less to running backs than when Alex Smith was under center. With these two factors at play, it’s easy to imagine Gibson staying healthy and still averaging fewer fantasy points than he did last season, in which case, his ADP will look laughably expensive in retrospect.

I’m overweight on Gibson in best ball, but the discounts on Jonathan Taylor and Saquon Barkley have made it difficult to truly load up. There's also major wide receiver opportunity cost in selecting Gibson, which doesn't make it prudent to go all in.

I currently have Gibson on two of 10 Main Event teams. In my remaining five drafts I’ll be prioritizing getting some exposure to Taylor first, but I’m not completely opposed to adding another Gibson share.

Managed League Recommendation: Target 
 

Nick Chubb

Legendary Scenario

Shortly before 2021 kicks off, Kareem Hunt is traded to the Rams for their 2031 first round pick, leaving Chubb as a clear workhorse back for the first time in his career. With the backfield to himself, Chubb averages 4.1 receptions per game. Behind the league’s best offensive line, Chubb scores 19 TDs in 16 games, on 2.5 green zone opportunities per game. 

Chubb averages 25 points per game, winning leagues easily on a second round ADP. His 2022 outlook is complicated when the Browns sign free agent Melvin Gordon.

Silent Killer Scenario

Chubb repeats his 2020 averages of 1.3 receptions per game and 1.8 green zone opportunities per game, but does not run hot on TDs. Like he did in 2019, he averages a TD every other game, and finishes with just 13 PPR points per game.

How I’m Drafting

If Hunt were to miss time, Chubb has phenomenal upside. Chubb can also be quite useful even alongside Hunt on well-constructed best ball teams, by filling one of the running back spots every week. For that reason, I’m interested in upping my exposure to Chubb in best ball tournaments with playoff weeks. In those formats, I may be able to get to the playoffs with Chubb doing his normal thing. Then, were things to then break right come playoff time, Chubb has the upside to win a large field tournament. I'll still likely be heavily underweight on Chubb relative to the field, however.

In managed leagues, I do not plan to draft Chubb. His profile with Hunt in the lineup is one that can be easily arbitraged with draft capital in the double digit rounds, or even off the waiver wire. 

Managed League Recommendation: Fade 
 

Joe Mixon

Legendary Scenario

With Giovani Bernard out of the picture, Joe Mixon finally delivers on the three-down promise drafters have been betting on since his rookie season. New backup Samaje Perine averaged just 1.1 receptions per game in the 10 games Mixon missed in 2020, while Bernard averaged 3.1. The swap from Bernard to Perine in 2021 helps Mixon’s receptions jump from 3.5 to 4.2 per game, clearing 4+ receptions for the first time in his career.

Mixon is also aided by a suddenly prolific Bengals passing attack. Joe Burrow has a few up-and-down starts to begin the season, but quickly settles into carving up defenses with Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd

Burrow’s mobility isn’t what it was pre-ACL tear. The Bengals also lack a reliable tight end. As a result, when in close Cincinnati leans on their running game. Mixon enjoys 2.5 green zone opportunities per game, clearing 2+ for the first time in his career. The Bengals offensive line is buoyed by fourth round rookie D'Ante Smith successfully converting from tackle to guard. The line isn’t dominant by any means, but it isn’t a disaster. Mixon leaves a few TDs on the field, but still scores an impressive 17 TDs in 16 games played, shattering his previous career high of 9 TDs. 

Mixon averages 24 points per game as the goal line hammer for an elite NFL passing game. Play-call-regression becomes the trending topic of the 2022 offseason, as analysts who didn’t draft Mixon harp on Cincinnati's unsustainable play-calling tendencies at the goal line. Mixon is drafted as 2022’s 1.05, as some drafters grow concerned about the buzz that Chris Evans may see an expanded receiving role.

Silent Killer Scenario

Mixon actually played without Bernard once before, over a four game stretch in 2018. Mixon’s receptions increased without Bernard… but just barely, moving from 3.0 per game to 3.25. It’s actually been Bernard who has gained opportunity as a receiver when Mixon has missed time, rather than the opposite. Bernard saw his receptions jump from 2.25 to 3.33 in his 12 games without Mixon since 2018. Moreover, Mixon has a career YPRR closer to Nick Chubb’s than Dalvin Cook’s. His receiving profile has genuine red flags, beyond opportunity. 

In 2021, Mixon confirms what the doubters suspected. The hard cap on his receiving value hasn’t been Bernard, but Mixon himself. Mixon sees 3.1 receptions per game but is inefficient on a per route basis and has trouble finding the end zone. As a result, the Bengals increasingly rely on their incredible wide receiver trio to move them down the field.

And when the Bengals get down to the goal line, they keep leaning on their wide receivers. With Higgins emerging as a young Allen Robinson, Burrow increasingly locked in with Chase, and with Boyd as shifty as ever, there’s really no defending the Bengals receivers when Burrow is clicking. Unfortunately, Burrow isn’t always clicking. Burrow has bright spots but also takes plenty of big hits and spends multiple games completely out of sync. The offense is solid overall, but isn’t good enough to prop up a running back on opportunity alone. 

Mixon sees 1.8 green zone opportunities per game for the third time in his career, scoring 8 TDs in 16 games, as he did in 2019. He averages 16 points per game.

How I’m Drafting

Mixon needs his team’s passing game to repeatedly set him up at the goal line to have a realistic chance at a legendary season. The thing is… it could happen. Moreover, Perine’s lack of a pass catching profile gives Mixon a strong chance of hitting 4+ receptions per game. If he gets the TDs as well, he’s likely to turn in a season closer to Todd Gurley’s 2017 than to Derrick Henry’s 2020. 

The problem is that Mixon feels so situation dependent that it’s hard for me to really get excited about him. Given his offensive line, and a career elusive rating of 41.9 (the lowest among all early drafted running backs), it’s pretty hard for me to envision Mixon ripping off long TDs, or even consistently delivering chunk gains. Instead I think he needs to hit a Christian McCaffrey level snap share, where he’s soaking up receiving volume and all of the backfield’s TDs. Considering his backups are Samaje Perine and a sixth round rookie, that’s certainly possible.

Mixon feels like a more expensive version of 2020 Chris Carson. He doesn’t have a very strong path to a legendary season, but if he stays healthy he can easily deliver value on an ADP. I plan to draft more of Mixon in best ball, to bring my position closer to where I’m at on Zeke. He’s very unlikely to be a part of my high stakes portfolio though, as I’m extremely hesitant to bet on situation based running backs in the early rounds… especially when their situation isn’t even ideal. After writing up his 2021 scenarios, I’m definitely more nervous about fading Mixon, but I’m still fading him.

Managed League Recommendation: Fade 
 

Clyde Edwards-Helaire

Legendary Scenario

In 2021, Clyde Edwards-Helaire takes full control of the Chiefs backfield, operating as a true three-down workhorse. Even better, CEH has Darrel Williams’ snaps, but not Williams’ empty-calorie role. The Chiefs use Edwards-Helaire as a bona fide weapon, and his receptions jump from 2.8 to 4.5 per game. 

The Chiefs revamped offensive line is even better than expected, gelling into a top-five unit in 2021. This allows Edwards-Helaire to regularly deliver chunk gains as a rusher. At the goal line CEH maintain his vise grip on snaps. He receives 2.2 green zone opportunities per game and scores 18 TDs in 16 games. 

Edwards-Helaire scores 23 points per game, delivering massive win rates for teams that scooped him in the third round of late August drafts. CEH begins 2022 drafts as the 1.02. A slew of TD regression thought pieces bring his ADP down to 1.03 before 2022 kicks off.

Silent Killer Scenario

In their second seasons as starters, Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy saw big receiving role increases under Andy Reid. But those running backs didn’t play with Patrick Mahomes. Kareem Hunt went from playing with Alex Smith as a rookie to Patrick Mahomes as a sophomore and saw his receptions drop from 3.3 to 2.4 per game. The switch to Mahomes was obviously incredible for the offense overall, but it dealt a major blow to running back target volume. That was true even despite having a starting running back in Hunt who is now a receiving specialist.

Mahomes’ effect on running back receptions hasn't just been limited to Hunt. In Reid’s first five seasons with the Chiefs, running backs averaged a 25% target share. Over the past three seasons with Patrick Mahomes under center, running backs averaged just 18% of targets with a peak of 19%. 

In 2021, Mahomes continues this trend. Edwards-Helaire takes over Darrel Williams’ third down role, but that role was only good for 1.1 receptions per game in 2020, leaving Edwards-Helaire short of 4+ receptions per game. Worse, Jerick McKinnon’s legs find a second lease on life and he rotates in for occasional series. McKinnon doesn’t have a lock on third downs like Williams did, instead he’s a three-down breather back who gets a few drives to himself. He steals the occasional screen and dump-off pass, which Edwards-Helaire was not in a position to spare. Edwards-Helaire sees 3.2 receptions per game. He’s not inefficient, like he was as a rookie, but he’s not particularly dynamic either, finishing with a 1.13 YPPR.

Edwards-Helaire sees a bump in green zone opportunities as well, but only to an extent. As a somewhat smaller running back, the Chiefs never really lean on him in short yardage. No other running back takes his place, but Kansas City is pass-happy at the goal line. Mahomes also scrambles for a career high five TDs. Edwards-Helaire averages 1.7 green zone opportunities per game and is inefficient, scoring nine TDs in 16 games.

Edwards-Helaire scores 14.5 points per game, falling far short of the billing in “hero RB” builds. He slips to the late fourth round of early 2022 drafts, amid rumors that the Chiefs may pursue Ronald Jones in free agency. But the Chiefs ultimately decide to recommit to their first round pick, rather than upgrading their early down rushing attack. At least one fantasy analyst finds solace in the knowledge that LeSean McCoy also scored only nine TDs in his second season, before exploding for 20 TDs the following year. Reid obliges the hype, indicating a desire to get Edwards-Helaire going at the goal line in 2022. CEH’s ADP settles into the 2-3 turn. 

How I’m Drafting

I’m underweight on Edwards-Helaire in best ball, but not in a huge way. Personally, I think his path to a legendary season is thinner than people generally appreciate, because in a Mahomes offense, he can have a three-down role and still fall short of 4+ receptions per game. That said, I’m happy to take the recent discount that has him slipping into the third round. At that price, you’re no longer passing on wide receivers with strong paths to top five finishes.

I have yet to take Edwards-Helaire in high stakes, but in my most recent draft he fell to 3.07. Had I been in a mid-round draft slot, I would have run to the podium with the pick. 

Managed League Recommendation: Target while at a discount. 

That technically wraps up the running backs being selected in the first two rounds of drafts but there’s one more that I want to cover.
 

D'Andre Swift

Legendary Scenario

Anthony Lynn wasn’t kidding when he called D’Andre Swift his “B” back, (ie. space RB). But this designation ends up being a good thing. Austin Ekeler was also Anthony Lynn’s "B" back, and Ekeler averaged 5.6 receptions per game from 2019-2020.

In 2021, Swift doesn’t get all the way to Ekeler’s level, but Lynn’s emphasis on receiving helps take his receptions from 3.5 to 5.0 per game. Swift builds on his strong receiving efficiency as a rookie as well, finishing the season with 1.8 YPRR. 

Unlike Ekeler, Swift also has a goal line role. Jamaal Williams earns a green zone opportunity per game, as he did in 2020. But Swift is the far more effective goal line back, and his green zone opportunities increase over the season, jumping his average from 1.5 in 2020 to 2.0 per game.

The Lions offensive line proves its elite status when Jared Goff looks somewhat competent for much of 2021. This affords the Lions more scoring opportunities than expected. But the elite unit also allows Swift to emerge as one of the game’s premier big play threats. He scores 19 TDs in 15 games. 

Swift scores 23 points per game and fundamentally alters the fantasy landscape from the fourth round of drafts. With Williams a 2022 cut candidate, Swift opens 2022 drafts as the 1.01. With Williams ultimately retained and Jermar Jefferson making noise in training camp, Swift settles in as 2022’s 1.04.

Silent Killer Scenario

Jefferson doesn’t wait to make noise until the summer of 2022, he makes noise in Week 1 of 2021. With Swift not ready for a full workload, Jefferson, who handled 85% of Oregon State’s backfield touches in 2020, turns heads in a part time role to open the season. Swift ultimately leads the backfield in touches, but the Lions are once again a three-man committee in 2021. Jefferson isn’t very involved as a receiver, but Williams is. For all the “A” and “B” back talk, Williams and Swift have fairly similar roles. Williams handles 2.5 receptions per game, with Swift seeing 3.3. 

Swift, Williams and Jefferson all see work at the goal line, a place that the Lions don’t frequent very often. Swift manages just 1.1 green zone opportunities per game, leading to just 6 TDs. Swift puts up 12.5 points per game.

Twitter supernovas when the Lions decide to run it back with Dan Campbell and Jared Goff in 2021. Swift falls to the seventh round in some high stakes drafts, but settles in as a fifth round pick.

How I’m drafting

Swift has a fairly narrow path to a true legendary season. He’s unlikely to see 5.5+ receptions per game like we’ve seen from part time pass catching stars, Kamara and Ekeler. And he’s also unlikely to produce an elite TD season with Jared Goff as his quarterback and a split snap share. That said… Swift is currently being drafted outside of the range where a path to a true legendary outcome is an absolute must. If Swift hits 90% of his legendary scenario and scores 21 points per game from the fourth round, he will still be to be an absolute smash. His ADP provides a rare margin for error for a running back with Swift’s receiving and goal line profile.

Swift is currently my highest owned early round running back in best ball (followed by Gibson and Taylor). 

I’ve selected Swift at the 3.10 in the Main Event, and came within one pick of also selecting him at the 4.08. While his slow recovery from a groin injury is definitely a concern, his coaches seem mostly to be eyeing his conditioning level, rather than the injury itself at this point. With his health concerns being accompanied by a dip in ADP, I’m happy to continue drafting him.

Managed League Recommendation: Priority Target in the fourth round