2022 Dynasty Fantasy Football Rankings: Running Back Tier Breakdown
Published: Apr 25, 2022
Before the NFL Draft commences at the end of the week, we’re continuing the dynasty fantasy football coverage here with some rankings and tiers to help those dynasty managers sort out their player evaluations and see how players are ranked. Since the Super Bowl, NFL Combine, and NFL’s free agency, we’ve covered the beginnings of joining dynasty leagues and covered some of the finer points of the dynasty format to help you get your feet wet.
The rankings and tiers breakdowns we’ve covered so far are:
In these tiers for the running back position, many factors come into play with grouping these running backs into tiers. These tiers are based on several factors, including (in no order):
- Fantasy Football Production
- Future Projections
- Player Contract
- Specific Team Situations
Having that baseline projection of tiers and rankings at your disposal helps you decide between one or more players in your startup drafts.
Note: Listed with each running back is their age in September 2022, when the NFL season begins.
Dynasty Fantasy Football Running Back Tiers
The Age Apex
Before diving straight into running back tiers, a lot of the discussion will revolve around one key aspect of player evaluation regarding dynasty - the “Age Apex”. We talked about it briefly in my earlier dynasty fantasy football piece “Win Now or Rebuilding?” when looking for the types of running backs to target in a startup draft.
The peak production age for running backs is between ages 24 to 26, with those ages making up almost 46% of total RB1 seasons since 2000. Almost 70% of RB1 seasons since 2000 have come from running backs 26 or younger.
Youth rules the day at the running backs, especially in dynasty. While there have been a few outliers (Adrian Peterson, Cordarrelle Patterson in 2021) that have posted RB1 seasons at advanced ages, it pays to have youth on your side.
RB1 Seasons from 2000-2021
% of RB1 Seasons
Age certainly isn’t an “end all be all” when trying to be predictive at the position, as we see 26-year-old running backs with the most RB1 seasons of any age. That was in part thanks to a whopping SIX running backs in 2021 posting an RB1 season at age-26.
Simply put, age 24 to age 26 is the top of the curve in the above graph, or the “age apex”. It’s obviously possible to have success later on in careers and post top-12 fantasy finishes at the position. When it comes to valuing running backs, I’d rather be trading them a year too early than a year too late, especially when it comes to the steep and precipitous drop when we get after age-28.
TIER 1 - The “Youth is Served” Tier
- Jonathan Taylor, IND (23)
- Najee Harris, PIT (24)
- Javonte Williams, DEN (22)
- D’Andre Swift, DET (23)
If you’re going to make sizable bets on not only RB1 production but elite, league-winning seasons, make it from this tier. Taylor was the RB1 last season and is poised to continue his elite production.
Harris was incredibly dominant in just how much opportunity he received in his team’s offense, earning a whopping 86% of all opportunities (carries and targets) to Pittsburgh running backs. Despite earning over 300 carries last season, Harris “only” finished with 1,200 rushing yards (3.9 yards per attempt). Imagine if the Pittsburgh offensive line improves? Harris could have blown the doors off of Taylor’s overall RB1 season. He might be behind the curve athletically, but nobody gets more volume than Harris.
It’s looking like Melvin Gordon may not be back in Denver, so Williams may just be the next big thing in dynasty fantasy football. He’s the youngest in the tier and now has a sizable upgrade to the offensive ecosystem with Russell Wilson at quarterback, new head coach Nathaniel Hackett, and offensive coordinator Justin Outten. The pieces are in place for Williams to be a dynasty stalwart for the better part of this decade.
The only missing off of Swift’s plate is the rushing volume. He’s a talented runner and he’s a quality pass-catcher, but he’s got to stay healthy to deliver on that promise, having missed seven games of 33 possible games to start his career. At times, the Lions preferred to run more Jamaal Williams, leaving a reduced ceiling for Swift. As the Lions continue their rebuild, Swift should be a pillar the Lions build around.
A quick note - if Breece Hall gets Day 1 or Day 2 NFL Draft capital and isn’t drafted to a horrible landing spot like Houston or Atlanta, then he immediately vaults into this tier of running back based on college three-down production and age. Hall will be 21 when the 2022 season begins.
TIER 2 - The “Weekly Wheelmen” Tier
- Christian McCaffrey, CAR (26)
- Joe Mixon, CIN (26)
- Austin Ekeler, LAC (27)
- Dalvin Cook, MIN (27)
- Nick Chubb, CLE (26)
- Saquon Barkley, NYG (25)
- Alvin Kamara, NO (27)
These are the big-ticket assets, that have had production in the past, and are still productive, but the roller coaster heading up and up is getting near the top. Is there more climbing? Are some headed for the descent? These weekly producers drive your fantasy team at the top of the age apex.
There isn’t a productive running back when healthy like McCaffrey. Removing the two games where he left early and didn’t return to the game, McCaffrey never finished worse than RB15 in PPR. He had FOUR overall RB4 or better finishes. He’s still awesome. He just doesn’t have the youth to fall back on.
Mixon finally put together the season people have been hoping for, seemingly since the Carter administration. He finished as the RB4 and was one of seven running backs to finish with 18+ fantasy points per game. Mixon being in that burgeoning Bengals’ offense with so many passing-game weapons should elongate his dynasty ceiling as he heads into his late-20s.
Just two seasons ago, Barkley and Kamara were dynasty startup top-three selections, but now, both are as polarizing as they get in dynasty. With Barkley, his terrible offense and injury woes continued to take a toll. Barkley had one top-12 weekly finish after Week 11 and was just ordinary. There is no more polarizing dynasty running back than Barkley.
In the case of Kamara, he had the most carries of his career with 240 last season but was very inefficient with them, only putting up a 3.7 yards per attempt average. Typically, Kamara has had receiving work to fall on, but he only caught 47 passes, which was by far a career-worst. Add in potential discipline from the NFL stemming from an arrest on the weekend of the Pro Bowl, and you’ve got somebody that’s going to need to thrive in an uncertain New Orleans (and personal) future in 2022.
TIER 3 - The “Elite Contenders” Tier
- Antonio Gibson, WAS (24)
- J.K. Dobbins, BAL (23)
- Travis Etienne, JAC (23)
- Cam Akers, LAR (23)
- David Montgomery, CHI (25)
- Josh Jacobs, LV (24)
A bunch of young guns reside in this tier and are ready to either join the elites in the above tiers. Some have top-12 finishes already, but most have unrealized potential but are waiting for their chance. They all have age on their side for years of production and are on rookie contracts.
Akers, Dobbins, and Etienne all either lost huge portions of 2021 or lost them entirely in the case of Dobbins and Etienne. Akers came back from a miraculous Achilles’ tendon tear to help pace the Rams to a Super Bowl win, but the Rams are unlikely to give Akers a lot of work in the receiving aspect. That leaves Akers to need to be efficient running the ball, but with Darrell Henderson still in tow, that prospect seems rather bleak. Akers will get the offseason to continue his recovery, and we’ll see if Akers can begin to make up for lost time in 2021.
It’s kind of amazing how much Washington has mishandled the development of Gibson, considering he’s a former wide receiver playing running back, and the team shoots itself in the foot as they almost refuse to put his receiving work on full display. Gibson ran for over 1,000 yards last season, and the receiving work is the last piece of the puzzle towards ascending into the lofty first two tiers in dynasty. Sadly, as long as J.D. McKissic is employed by the Commanders, this likely isn’t happening.
Montgomery has gotten a lot of hate over the last couple of seasons for being a “boring” option, but all he’s done is produce, with three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons from scrimmage. The ceiling isn’t terribly high for Montgomery, but he’s shown receiving chops and earned high rushing volume. Chicago figures to be one of the worst teams in the NFL in 2021, so it remains to be seen whether Monty can still produce at a high level given the depressed state of the Bears offense in 2022.
TIER 4 - The “Ready to Slide Down the Age Apex” Tier
- Derrick Henry, TEN (28)
- Aaron Jones, GB (27)
- Ezekiel Elliott, DAL (27)
- James Conner, ARI (27)
- Leonard Fournette, TB (27)
There’s nothing wrong with these running backs at all. Every single one of these running backs finished as a top-12 running back in 2021, with Henry finishing as RB1 in fantasy points per game (24.2) in his truncated eight-game 2021. In fact, all of these running backs should lead their respective franchises in rushing attempts and opportunities next season, given a clean bill of health.
Henry has been amazingly productive and has been close to an anomaly in fantasy football and dynasty. Is it possible that Henry’s combined 681 carries from 2019-2020 caught up to him in 2021 with his Jones fracture in his foot? I mean, sure. How long can he keep up this kind of volume without wear and tear taking a bigger toll? Historically, huge volume workloads like Henry has the past few seasons don’t bode well for running backs. Shaun Alexander had 3 consecutive 325+ carry seasons, then two injury-marred seasons, and was out of the league entirely by age-31. Or Henry could be the anomaly and continue production into his late-20s, but betting on the anomaly is a bet casinos would roll out the red carpet for you to bet.
Jones and Elliott are tough because while they have been productive and are in sound offensive systems, there are two elephants in the room: A.J. Dillon and Tony Pollard. Each gained a sizable share of the running back market share on their teams. Elliott can at least survive on pure volume and touchdown equity, with the second-most snaps of any running back in 2021 and a stranglehold on touches inside the 20-yard line. Jones may not be so lucky, as his touches have been more managed than any elite fantasy running back, with just 14.9 touches per game. Add in Dillon’s work in the red zone and Jones screams “depreciating asset” already.
TIER 5 - The “Young and Volatile” Tier
- A.J. Dillon, GB (24)
- Elijah Mitchell, SF (24)
- Michael Carter, NYJ (23)
- Tony Pollard, DAL (25)
- Damien Harris, NE (25)
- Clyde Edwards-Helaire, KC (23)
- Chase Edmonds, MIA (26)
- Miles Sanders, PHI (25)
- Rhamondre Stevenson, NE (24)
- Kareem Hunt, CLE (27)
- James Robinson, JAC (24)
- Rashaad Penny, SEA (26)
- Devin Singletary, BUF (25)
Volatility is the name of the game here as there are a ton of options that could either jump into higher tiers or be just dust very soon if they don’t produce, find a new home, or some combination of the two.
After being a consensus 1.01 or 1.02 in dynasty rookie drafts just two seasons ago, Edwards-Helaire is close to becoming bench fodder and having his dynasty value vaporized if he doesn’t produce or keep Ronald Jones II off the field. Lauded for his ability to catch passes heading into the NFL, Edwards-Helaire has not done so in his first two seasons, catching 54 passes in his first two seasons combined. Just because a running back is drafted by an elite franchise, that doesn’t mean he’s automatically an ascendent star in dynasty. CEH is the case study for talent over NFL Draft landing spot in dynasty player evaluation discussion.
Mitchell was awesome for the 49ers and averaged over 20 opportunities per game in 2021, but as we know, Kyle Shanahan loves to rip fantasy managers’ hearts and laugh at anybody who dares predict the San Francisco backfield touches. As a 2021 sixth-round pick, he played ahead of third-round pick Trey Sermon and never lost his grip on the job. We just want to see more of Mitchell in 2022 before anointing him as a consistent, worthwhile dynasty asset.
Sanders is a curious case - one that is hard to decipher considering the Eagles’ offense that wants to run the ball. One of the biggest projection errors for anybody in fantasy, manager or analyst, is trying to project running back touches. That’s virtually impossible to do for Philadelphia. Sanders has the best opportunity as an Eagles to build his dynasty value, but he just needs to, you know, actually do it. If not, he’s likely a part-time player whose time has passed him by.
TIER 6 - The “Outlier” Tier
- Cordarrelle Patterson, ATL (31)
Patterson’s flame fizzled out at the end of 2021, but that fire was stoked and burning bright especially in the beginning of the season as he coasted to a top-12 fantasy finish. Patterson is a “buyer beware” case that may be just too dangerous to even touch unless you already roster him. His usage in what looks to be a bad Atlanta team that has no Calvin Ridley or Matt Ryan could be widely volatile week to week. He has some Cooper Kupp to him, and by that, I mean he likely had the best season he’ll ever have in the NFL, so there’s nowhere else to go but down.
TIER 7 - Kevin’s Famous “ZeroRB” Tier
- Melvin Gordon, DEN (29)
- Ronald Jones II, KC (25)
- Alexander Mattison, MIN (24)
- Darrell Henderson, LAR (25)
- Gus Edwards, BAL (27)
- J.D. McKissic, WAS (29)
- Kenneth Gainwell, PHI (23)
- Chris Carson, SEA (28)
- Trey Sermon, SF (23)
- Khalil Herbert, CHI (24)
- Marlon Mack, HOU (26)
- Nyheim Hines, IND (25)
- Raheem Mostert, MIA (30)
- D’Ernest Johnson, CLE (26)
- Jamaal Williams, DET (27)
- Kenyan Drake, LVR (28)
- Ke’Shawn Vaughn, TB (25)
- Sony Michel, FA (27)
- Zack Moss, BUF (24)
- Myles Gaskin, MIA (25)
- D’Onta Foreman, CAR (26)
- Justin Jackson, LAC (27)
- Samaje Perine, CIN (27)
- Darrel Williams, FA (27)
This may be one of the only times I’ll get to talk about ZeroRB here, so I’m going to take advantage of it. This is essentially the tier of PPR-focused running backs, elite backup running backs, handcuffs, and contingency plays at the position. If you built a potential winning dynasty roster with wide receivers, quarterbacks, and tight ends, these were likely the running backs you were rostering before acquiring the younger running backs necessary to compete for a championship.
There are some attractive situations to target here, like Mostert and Jones - both are reclamation projects who are either getting a new lease on life with a new team.
Some are younger running backs that have lost their initial luster, like Moss, Gaskin, Vaughn, Gainwell, Henderson, and Sermon could be huge contingency values if something happens to the running backs ahead of them. All have the talent to claim a job for a stretch and piece together production.
TIER 8 - The “Dart Throw” Tier
- Chuba Hubbard, CAR (23)
- Ty Johnson, NYJ (25)
- Mike Davis, ATL (29)
- Jaret Patterson, WAS (22)
- Eno Benjamin, ARI (23)
- Chris Evans, CIN (24)
- Jeff Wilson Jr., SF (26)
- Jermar Jefferson, DET (22)
- Boston Scott, PHI (27)
- James White, NE (30)
- Dontrell Hilliard, TEN (27)
- Kene Nwangwu, MIN (24)
- Tony Jones Jr., NO (24)
- Travis Homer, SEA (24)
- Damien Williams, ATL (30)
- Salvon Ahmed, MIA (23)
- Anthony McFarland, PIT (24)
- Ty’Son Williams, BAL (26)
- Devonta Freeman, FA (30)
- David Johnson, HOU (30)
Toss a dart out here at any of these running backs at the end of your dynasty benches. Some of the younger backs like Patterson, Jefferson, and Ahmed have promise but are two or three running backs deep from seeing any substantial opportunity. The older backs like White, D. Johnson, and Davis are on their last legs and seem to be a nagging cough away from the dynasty glue factory. If you get some sustained production from this tier, your best bet is to trade them while you can in a limited window.
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