Dynasty Football: Breakout Rookie Running Backs

Rachaad White
Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

Word on the fantasy football Twitter streets is that Elon Musk and his SpaceX team are in secret development on a prototype that more and more people in the industry are calling a ‘fantasy football time machine’ behind closed doors.

I can only imagine getting my hands on that type of technology so I could travel back in time to when my home league drafted.

I’d brazenly and braggadociously scoop up all the breakout rookie running backs and then shove it in all my league mates’ faces. Pupping AC/DC’s T.N.T. as my walk-up music, I would swagger up to the running back sticker pile, find Alvin Kamara’s rookie sticker, slam it on the board, and gloat all the way to the league championship.

Sure, it sounds expensive and to be completely honest, like a total waste of time machine equity. But man, would it feel absolutely incredible.

The sad truth is that we cannot predict the future or travel through time (yet). However, I’ll make the case that reading this article might just be the next best thing when it comes to finding breakout rookie running backs.

Last year we successfully predicted Najee Harris’s breakout, Javonte Williams’s accession, and Elijah Mitchell’s path to fantasy league winner. Jump in my Delorian and I’ll crank up the 1.21 gigawatts of energy we need to journey back through RB space and time to fantasy glory!

Our mission: Retrieve and analyze NFL running back data from 2015 to 2021 to understand the criteria needed for a rookie running back to successfully break out.

We will use the data to help predict which 2022 NFL rookie running backs have a path to breaking out. We will then assign actionable fantasy value to each back so you can look like a rookie genius when you draft them this summer and all without having to build a time machine or buy plutonium on the dark web again.

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Rookie Running Backs: Fantasy Football Breakout Backs

The Process 

Everyone loves a good process story and I have one for you! Think Miles Teller on the beach in the new Top Gun movie playing football with his shirt off. Sweaty. Lots of gyrating and pointing. Only with more website scrolling, so much number crunching, and considerably less sand in your underwear.

Here’s how it all went down. I wanted a better understanding of how rookie running backs assimilate into the NFL. And also, how to exploit that information to make as much money as possible from my family, friends, and sworn enemies in fantasy football this season.

That meant dedicating my summer to data mining PFF.com, FantasyData.com, StatMuse.com, PlayerProfliler.com, and 4for4.com. I compiled data on rookie running backs from the 2015-2021 seasons, organized it, ran it through the Elon Musk supercomputers, sorted it based on a variety of fantasy-relevant data points, and color-coded it to make it easy to understand and use.

The Data 

Nimble’s Numbers: Rookie Running Back Data 2015-2021

The Observations 

After reviewing the running back data from 2015-to 2021, several trends emerged that we can use to evaluate and project the 2021 rookie running back class. The criteria for rookie success that stood out as being the most important to rookie success are:

  • Volume/touches
  • Pass-catching ability
  • Draft capital
  • Offensive Scheme

Using these data points as predictors, we will evaluate the running backs selected in the 2022 NFL Draft.  We will also predict when they will break out during the 2022 season.

“Break out” in this article will be defined as a running back who averages at least 12 points per game, which is RB2/3 range or roughly defined, as a player you would start each week on your fantasy team.

Volume is King, Efficiency is Queen

Touches and Efficiency are Key

In an absolute shocker to no one, “running back touches” was the greatest indicator of fantasy success for the majority of rookie running backs analyzed. Every back who touched the ball 250 times or more averaged over 14.7 fantasy points per game (except David Montgomery in 2019).

Last season, Najee Harris touched the football 381 times. Which is the second-most ever by a rookie running back behind George Rodgers 394 in 1981. We tend to discount rookies for their inexperience in their respective new offenses. But the data points to their value when given the lion’s share of the backfield volume.

We’ve established that touches matter, but what you do with those touches matters just as much. As evidenced by Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey, two of the most efficient backs in my data sample, who averaged 1.56 and 1.16 fantasy points per touch respectively.

81 of Kamara’s 201 and 80 of McCaffrey’s 197 touches were catches, which are rookie fantasy gold in PPR leagues. For perspective, Jonathan Taylor out-touched Kamara by 134 touches as a rookie but was outscored by 62 fantasy points.

Not all touches are created equally. For every Alvin Kamara, there’s a Melvin Gordon, who averaged one whole point per touch less than Kamara as a rookie. Talk about the long haul, it would take Gordon three times the touches to score the same amount of points as Kamara. Gordon was the only 1st round pick in my model who had over 200 touches and scored less than 110 fantasy points.

Target PPR Backs 

There was no surprise that some of the most successful rookies were threats on the ground, as well as through the air. Running backs who catch passes are valuable and rookie running backs who do it are even more valuable when compared to their fellow rookies. 6 out of the top 10 (60%) pass-catching backs in my sample averaged over 1.1 fantasy points per touch.

The added value gained from being featured in your offenses’ passing game results in greater efficiency and more points per touch. This is particularly useful when you are comparing backs and projecting their ceilings in their new offenses. Pass-catching backs like James Cook and Dameon Pierce all carry increased value given their potential to be utilized as legitimate receiving options out of the backfield.

Draft Capital Matters  

Top 20 Rookie Performances 2015-2021

  • 1st Round Picks – 8 out 25 (32%)
  • 2nd Round Picks – 7 out of 25 (28%)
  • 3rd Round Picks – 5 out of 25 (20%)
  • 4th – Undrafted – 5 out of 20 (20%)

60% of the top-scoring rookie running backs were 1st and 2nd round picks. A whopping 80% of the top 25 scoring backs were drafted in the top three rounds of their respective NFL drafts.

This means that most of the top rookie production will come from the backs you expect it from. Which shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone.

One outlier, James Robinson, was a true unicorn two years ago. He stepped into the perfect situation for immediate fantasy success. Juxtaposed this with Elijah Mitchell. He found himself in the friendly running back confines of a Kyle Shanahan offensive scheme.

I mean Raheem Mostert’s children are set for life. It’s important to frame rookie running back through these lenses when projecting potential breakouts, sleepers, and studs for the 2022 NFL season.

Round 1 

Teams that invest their 1st round draft capital in a running back normally expect an immediate return on their investment. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Najee Harris best illustrate this principle.

Last season he wracked up the most touches (381) in 40 years! Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliot had over 350 touches in their rookie campaigns, which led to well over 300 fantasy points for both.

With the expectation of an injured Travis Etienne last season and Pete Carrol’s unnecessary selection of Rashaad Penny in 2018, round-one backs consistently see close to 200 touches per season. 55% of the players scored 200 fantasy points or more, with 72% scoring at least 175 points.

Only Melvin Gordon (2015), Rashaad Penny (2018), and Sony Michel (2018) failed to average over 13 fantasy points per game. There were no running backs selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

Round 2 

Over the last 7 seasons, running backs drafted in round two average roughly 27% fewer fantasy points per season than backs drafted in round one, 157.5 to 215. They were also out-touched on average by 69 touches.

This doesn’t mean that backs drafted in round 2 will not break out, it just means that their path to breaking out isn’t always as immediate.

Take Jonathan Taylor for example. Through the first 10 weeks of the 2021 season, he was averaging 12.6 rushing attempts per week and was only scoring 11.9 points per game for fantasy managers. In weeks 11-17, Taylor’s role in the Colts’ offense increased and he averaged 19.8 rushing attempts per game and scored 24.28 points per game.

Cam Akers sat around on the shelf, nursing injuries and getting acclimated to Sean McVay’s offense until he finally broke out in week 12, scoring 14.4 points, which was good enough for RB16, firmly in the mid-RB2 range.

Breece Hall (RB) – New York Jets – Pick 36

The Jets selected Iowa State running back Breece Hall with the fourth pick of the second round, making him the first running back taken in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Hall currently has the highest rooking running back ADP, being drafted as the overall RB20, at the end of the fourth round in 12 Team PPR leagues.

For some perspective, last season Najee Harris was the consensus first running back drafted. According to data from FantastFootballCalculator.com, he was flying off PPR draft boards at the 2.01 pick.

Harris finished the season as the overall RB3 with 300.7 PPR points. There’s no chance in hell that Hall sees 381 touches this year, so what should our fantasy expectations be for this season?

Hall profiles as a three-down back with speed, strength, and versatility at the goal line. His closest Player Profiler comp is some guy you probably never heard of named ‘Jonathan Taylor.’

Which is a good sign. And much like Taylor, Hall isn’t expected to be a true workhorse back in his first season, but work in committee with second-year back Michael Carter.

Last season the Jets rushed the ball 324 times and targeted backs 120 times in the passing game. Roughly 450 touches should be on the table for Jets’ running backs this season. Hall should see roughly 250 opportunities or around 55% of the total running back touches.

According to the running back data, his range of outcomes is a strong RB2 with weekly RB1 upside to a middling RB3.

I lean towards the former in Hall’s case. The Jets are a team on the offensive rise under young quarterback Zach Wilson. With an offensive line that PFF ranks 13th in the NFL, the Jets will look to establish the run this season.

I’m projecting Hall will finish as the overall RB17 this season, meaning that he will outperform his current ADP, making his value at the end of the fourth round.

Kenneth Walker III (RB) – Seattle Seahawks – Pick 41

The Seattle Seahawks and Pete Carroll moved on from Russell Wilson this past offseason. In a move that rocked the NFL, they traded him for Drew Lock and Noah Fant. Initial word from Seahawks’camp is that Lock and Geno Smith will be participating in possibly the saddest quarterback competition in recent NFL memory. Carroll may want to Evan Silva it up and Establish the Run. Unfortunately, PFF ranks the Seahawks’ offensive line dead last in the NFL.

DraftKings currently has the Over/Under for Seahawks wins set at 5.5, one of the lowest in the NFL. All of this to say is that the Seahawks are going to be bad in 2022. What should we expect from Walker in a bad offense with the league’s oldest head coach who just traded away Russell Wilson?

420. Not only is that every Seattle Seahawk fan’s favorite number, but it’s also the number of running back touches up for grabs in 2022. Chris Carson’s neck may keep him out indefinitely, making Rashad Penny the only real competition for Walker heading into Seahawks training camp. Walker has explosive 4.39 breakaway speed, solid hands out of the backfield, and LaDainian Tomlinson’s as his closet player comp. Just saying (wink).

Walker is currently being drafted as the RB33, with Rashad Penny being drafted one pick later. This uncertainty creates an opportunity if you are willing to roll the dice on  Walker’s potential upside. I, for one, am willing to risk a mid-eight-round pick based on the potential volume he could see as the Seahawks’ lead back.

James Cook (RB) – Buffalo Bills – Pick 63

James Cooks might not have the running back skillset of Breece Hall or Kenneth Walker, but he has something even more important in fantasy football. He was drafted by a high-scoring offense with one of the best young quarterbacks in the game.

Oh, and they just happen to need a passing-down back. The hype within the fantasy football community is slowly trickling out to the home leagues. He’s still a great value at RB37, coming off the board at the end of round nine.

The Buffalo Bills were not run-heavy in 2021, featuring only 386 touches (313 rushing attempts and 73 completions) to backs. Devin Singletary accounted for 59% of all running back touches with 228. Despite Singletary’s late-season showing, he’s far from a stranglehold on the Bills’ 2022 backfield.

I expect Cook to see immediate success as the pass-catching or PPR back in the offense. He’ll have an opportunity to supplant Singletary as the teams leading fantasy back. I’ll be targeting him in most of my PPR redraft leagues in 2022.

Rounds 3-4 

The mid-round running backs in the sample can be classified into “Boom” or “Bust” categories led by studs like Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt juxtaposed with complete duds like Benny Snell and Samaje Perine.

Once again the key to success is all about volume and PPR targets and draft capital. The top 5 scoring backs in this sample all were drafted in round 3.

There’s a steep drop-off of talent and opportunity once the 4th round rolls around. Not one running back drafted in round 4 has truly broken out.

Michael Carter did his best impersonation of a break-out for a month. But unfortunately, it was over before it could become anything that moved the fantasy needle.

Rachaad White (RB) – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Pick 91

Tom Brady retired and then unretired this past offseason, possibly you caught wind of the news yourself. It’s great news for the NFL, the Bucs, and rookie running back Rachaad White’s fantasy upside.

White’s 16% target share last year at Arizona State included 43 receptions on 50 targets and a 10.6 YPR. Ronald Jones has moved onto Kansas City opening up 125 touches in a high-powered offense helmed by the GOAT.

Last season Brady peppered Bucs backs with 141 targets. Gio Bernard will be 32 years old in November and it took Ke’Shawn Vaughn two years to get on the field.

We know they aren’t the future. White has sneaky upside as a late-round running back sleeper. If he goes undrafted in your league, he will make a sharp early-season waiver wire claim.

Tyrion Davis-Price (RB) – San Francisco 49ers – Pick 93

Death, taxes, and Kyle Shanahan getting all hot and bothered while drafting a running back every year. It’s like he just can’t help himself when he sees a running back that fits his scheme and he has to indulge his sweet “RB” tooth.

Last year he double-dipped, snagging both Trey Sermon and Elijah Mitchell. The former being one of the biggest rookie 2021 running back busts and the latter being the running back breakout of 2021.

So who going to be the 49ers’ backfield lighting in a bottle for the 2022 season? The consensus around the fantasy football industry is that Elijah Mitchell will handle more of the bell-cow role for the 49ers’ offense, and use Davis-Price as a bruising change of pace back who can put his foot in the ground and get that extra yard between the tackles.

John Chapman of the 49er Rush Podcast believes that Davis-Price has the potential to see red zone opportunities as their goal-line back.

Currently, he is being drafted as RB63 or not being drafted at all in most leagues. This makes him a great sleeper pick at the end of your draft or a player you can snag early off the waiver wire.

Brian Robinson Jr. (RB) – Washington Commanders – Pick 98

The Commanders (terrible name) had an interesting offseason in the running backs room. J.D. McKissic walked away from a deal with the Buffalo Bills at the last second, saying he had “unfinished business in Washington” whatever that mean. And then they drafted Brian Robinson from Alabama. Interestingly enough, their 69th player from the Crimson Tide in the Ron Rivera era.

Robinson enters an offense that loves running backs. Just last year Antonio Gibson rushed 258 times and caught 42 passes. He lead the then Football Team with 1,300 total yards and 10 touchdowns. McKissic added another 600 total yards and four touchdowns.

The bad news for Robinson is that both of these players are still on the team. So why did the Commanders draft Robinson and what should we expect his fantasy contribution to be this season?

Robinson was the Alabama Crimson Tide’s feature back in 2021, rushing 271 times for 1343 yards and 14 touchdowns. He added another 35 receptions for 296 receiving yards. Reports from Commanders’ mini-camps have been glowing. NBC Sports Washington Peter Hailey reported that Robinson has been getting the better of linebackers in pass protection. This has impressed running backs coach Randy Jordan.

It should be noted that Robinson might be the best pure running back on the Commanders roster given Antonio Gibson’s recent conversion to the position. Robinson should start the season as the goal-line back, which means ultimately he’s here to kill Antonio Gibson’s fantasy upside.

I expect him to carve out a consistent role for himself in the Commanders’ offense. He has the potential to be fantasy relevant if either McKissic or Gibson gets banged up during the long season.

Dameon Pierce (RB) – Houston Texans– Pick 107

The Houston Texans running backs ranked 32nd last year and their current depth chart boasts Marlon Mack and Rex Burkhead. Two formidable running backs, in 2018. It’s 2022 and Dameon Pierce finds himself with an opportunity to outright win the job as the Texans starting running back. Doug Farrar from USA Today entitled his feature article on Pierce, “Why Florida’s Dameon Pierce is the best running back in the 2022 NFL draft.”

PFF also has tagged Pierce as one of their 2022 sleepers. As training camp marinates, don’t be surprised to see Pierce’s ADP steadily climbing up draft boards. He’s already being drafted six spots ahead of Marlon Mack, as the RB42 according to 4for4.com, so the secret is getting out.

Zamir White (RB) – Las Vegas Raiders – Pick 122

Las Vegas Raiders signed long-time New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to be their new head coach this offseason. In New England, McDaniels has a long history of using a running back by committee approach.

He often utilized multiple backs during a game. The Raiders backfield may appear to be crowded at first glance, but it might just be ripe for the picking.

Raiders declined running back Josh Jacobs’s fifth-year option in the offseason. Kenyan Drake is recovering from an ankle injury which means that the door is open for White to see playing time.

White’s imposing combination of power and speed has many in the local and national media predicting that his could be a sizeable role. He will probably get off to a slower start. like most late-round running backs. He is someone to watch and could see an expanded role in the Raiders’ offense come to the heart of the season.

Isaiah Spiller (RB) – Los Angeles Chargers – Pick 123

One thing Isaiah Spiller has going for him already is that Chargers great LaDainian Tomlinson has already given him a ringing endorsement. Jeff Tarpley from 247Sports.com reported that Tomlinson told reports in June, “I think Isaiah with his size and his speed, his athletic ability I think he can add a different dimension to the offense.” The Chargers agree with him.

With the departure of Justin Jackson, there are close to 100 touches-up grabs in the Chargers offense. Spiller amassed over 1,200 all-purpose yards in both of his last two seasons at Texas A&M and has totaled 73 receptions during his collegiate career.

He should slide into his role as Austin Ekeler’s compliment, as neither Joshua Kelley nor Larry Rountree impressed with their 3.1 and 2.4 YPC last season.

Spiller is currently being drafted as the overall RB45. He’s a flex option with upside if anything unfavorable were to happen to Austin Ekeler. I don’t believe in handcuffs clogging up your bench. Spiller is more than that and should be rostered all season.

Pierre Strong (RB) – New England Patriots – Pick 127

The New England Patriots drafted Pierre Strong Jr. to ultimately replace aging pass-catching back James White (30). Last season, White missed most of the season with a hip injury. He signed a two-year five million dollar contract in the offseason, but there is no guarantee he comes back at full strength.

Strong Jr. has blazing 4.37 speed and dynamic quickness in the open field. If there is one PPR back who could emerge from the Patriots Thunder Dome of running backs, it could be Strong Jr. He’s not worth drafting in any redraft leagues, but if anything happens to White, he’s in fantasy play.

Hassan Haskins (RB) – Tennesse Titans – Pick 131

According to Emma Healy of Nashville Tennessean, Hassan Haskins’s time at Michigan prepared him well for his new role behind Derrick Herny.  “Coming into college, I wasn’t starting right away,” Haskins said. “I had to work my way.

Now, I’ve got to do the same thing — just keep working. It may not be tomorrow, it may not be a couple of years, but one day when you keep working and get better, you’re gonna make a role on this team.”

We saw last year that there was a role to be had as Derrick Henry’s backup after he missed half the season with a fractured foot.

With an ADP in the mid-70s, Haskins isn’t worth drafting, but every Derrick Henry manager should know his name and be ready to pounce should any tragedy befall King Henry.

Rounds 5 – Undrafted

Tyler Allgeier (RB) – Atlanta Falcons – Pick 151

The Atlanta Falcons finished last season among the bottom four teams in total team rushing attempts, rushing yards, and average yards per carry. In the offseason, they drafted the 5’11” 221lbs running back Tyler Allgeier out of BYU. Allgeier rushed for over 1,600 yards last and 23 touchdowns last season in college.

Thomas Ashworth from Fanside reported that ” New Falcons running backs coach Michael Pitre told reporter, and analyst, Tori McElhaney that this could be one of the reasons he’s so productive on the offensive side of the ball. Jake Ciely is planting his flag on Allgeier and I am as well. Coming off draft boards as the overall RB50, he is basically free at the end of your draft. What do you have to lose?

Snoop Conner (RB) – Jacksonville Jaguars – Pick 154

Last season the Jacksonville Jaguars lost both of their starting running backs Travis Etienne and James Robinson to season-ending injuries. With both players coming back from their respective injuries, Jacksonville drafted Snoop Conner from Ole Miss. Conner should see playing time with Robinson still on the PUP list and Eitenne serving as lighting to his thunder.

Paul Charchian of GuillotineLeague.com already sees the writing on the wall for Conner to potentially serve as the Jaguars’ primary goal-line back. With an ADP of RB80, Conner should be available at the end of your drafts or off the waiver wire the first few weeks of the season.

Jerome Ford (RB) – Cleveland Browns – Pick 156

Good news bad news situation for Jerome Ford. Good news. He is drafted by one of the run heaviest offenses in the league. Yay! Bad new times. The Cleveland Browns already employ Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and D’Ernest Johnson as running backs on this same team. Ford will not be fantasy relevant unless the whole running backs room, minus himself, gets trapped in an undisclosed elevator during the game. Next year though…

Kyren Williams (RB) – Los Angeles Rams – Pick 164

The LA Rams and coach Sean McVay traded up to snag Kyren Williams in April’s NFL Draft. The Rams like Williams’s three-down capability, including his route running ability. According to Stu Jackson from TheRams.com, “Lance Zierlein suggested on his NFL draft profile that the way the Patriots deployed James White, Dion Lewis, and Brandon Bolden could serve as the blueprint for Williams’ utilization in the league.”

The Rams only targeted running backs 73 times out of the backfield in 2022. Williams should be able to expand the Rams’ running back route tree. Potentially carving out a passing-down role in the offense for himself along the way.

He’s a player that is being drafted as the overall RB71. He should gain steam and become fantasy relevant towards the second half of the season.

Ty Chandler  (RB) – Minnesota Vikings – Pick 169

The Minnesota Vikings currently feature one of the best backfields in the NFL. Perennial first-round pick Dalvin, and his forever handcuff, Alexander “Don’t call me Maddison” Mattison, have a vice grip on the running back touches. Ty Chandler is handcuffs handcuff.

He won’t be on anyone’s radar or roster until Dalvin Cook pulls his hammy a month into the season. Until that time, it might be important for you to file away that Chandler has 4.38 speed. Tuck that one in your cap for a rainy day and keep scrolling.

Round 6 

Kevin Harris (RB) – New England Patriots – Pick 183

How many running backs did the New England Patriots draft? Too many if you are the guy writing this article, but I digress. I learned a long time ago to never question Bill Belicheck. Instead, you curse him like the rest of the fantasy football community like an embittered lover.

Rookie Kevin Harris is a massive power back from, South Carolina. His massive calves have been the early talk of Patriot mini-camps. Currently, Harris is sitting behind Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, James White, and rookie Pierre Strong Jr. on the depth chart. Unless something dramatic happens, check back next year on Harris. In the meantime, you can follow his calves on TikTok.

Keaontay Ingram (RB) – Arizona Cardinals – Pick 201

This offseason, the Arizona Cardinals let versatile pass-catcher Chase Edmonds fly the coup to Miami. Enter 6th round draft pick, Keaontay Ingram, from USC. Ingram caught 89 receptions for 671 and six touchdowns during his collegiate career.

He has the size and strength needed to catch the ball out of the backfield. He also will be able to spell James Conner between the tackles. Ingram will probably go undrafted in most fantasy leagues, making him a wait and waiver wire watch candidate.

Trestan Ebner (RB) – Chicago Bears – Pick 203

Trestan Ebnar profiles as what some in the Chicago media have dubbed “a bigger version of Tarik Cohen” according to Erik Lambert of the Sports Mockery. Currently, Ebnar sits at the button of the Bears’ official running back depth chart. His 4.43 speed, makes him someone you should be aware of this season. Just in case a role for him in the offense becomes available.

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