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2022 Running Back Sleepers: Fantasy Football Early Draft Targets

Devin Singletary - Fantasy Football Rankings, Draft Sleepers, NFL Injury News

With the Rams, led by Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, and Matthew Stafford, defeating the Bengals in Super Bowl LVI by a score of 23-20, we have finally wrapped up the longest season in NFL history. With so much chaos, injuries, and breakouts, this was quite the rollercoaster year for fantasy football.

So, we should take a break, right? Nope! There is no true offseason for fantasy football, and it is never too early to look ahead to next year! Believe it or not, you can already partake in best-ball drafts on Underdog Fantasy, while preparation for other drafts is in full swing.

With that in mind, it would behoove us to look for some targets for next season. Today, we'll be focusing specifically on the running back position.

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Looking Back

Last season, as is becoming the norm, running backs were hit hard with injuries. The consensus top-three running backs from the preseason, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, and Alvin Kamara, all missed multiple games last season. That is not ideal, to say the least.

As a result, there are is a population of drafters that would prefer to avoid running backs at the top of the draft. Personally, I don't like to have a rigid strategy and want to adjust to each draft differently. Based on research done, this was a strong year for those who drafted running backs early, per Betsperts and 4for4 Football data analytics manager Sam Hoppen:

What strategy will be optimal in 2022? That is left to be determined. Regardless, it's obviously better to get as much value as possible, right? With that being said, these four running backs are optimal targets at their expected prices. Whether it's in the early rounds or later on, I guarantee there is at least one running back in here that can fit your draft strategy. Who are these four players? Let us find out!

 

Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos

Heading into the 2021 NFL Draft, there were a lot of reasons to be intrigued by Javonte Williams' skillset. After all, this is a player who ranked in the 94th percentile in yards/carry (7.3) at North Carolina, while he also entered the draft young for his class. All signs pointed him to be a very effective runner after contact, as you can see here.

Williams didn't get drafted in the first round, but he was still a coveted commodity. To ensure that the Miami Dolphins were not able to draft him at the top of the second round, the Denver Broncos traded up to the 35th overall pick and made sure to select him. Clearly, this is a player they have a lot of faith in.

Unfortunately for those expecting an immediate impact from Williams, Denver wasn't the optimal landing spot. They already had Melvin Gordon III, who was under contract for $8 million, and it was likely the team was going to split duties with him. Williams was still drafted high with optimism that he'd take over the role eventually, though that never came to fruition.

Despite that, Williams certainly made his presence felt. He ranked ninth in yards after contact/carry (3.42), finished as the RB17, and was the team's main receiving back. Plus, in the one game Gordon missed, Williams played a true three-down role, carrying the ball 23 times and commanding seven targets in the process. This was a glimpse into what the future holds for Williams, which can come next season.

See, Gordon III is a free agent, and all signs are pointing to him departing. Gordon has stated that he doesn't want to take a backseat to Williams and hinted that the team has been preparing Williams to take over the lead role. Additionally, the logic behind drafting Williams and getting the most out of him during his rookie year dwindles if he doesn't see a larger workload. After all, why would you trade up to the top of the second-round for a part-time player?

If Williams does indeed become the three-down back, his ceiling is through the roof. We are well aware of the skills he brings to the table as both a runner and receiver, and it's likely the Broncos' offense will improve next season. They're in the running for several high-end quarterbacks, and also benefit from the hiring of head coach Nathaniel Hackett, who will bring stability to the offensive side of the ball. In other words, all is pointing towards Williams ascending into a star next season. When that happens, you'll want him on your fantasy team. Perhaps his stock rises enough for him to be drafted in the first round, but if he's available at the back-end there or in the second round, he's a no-brainer anchor to your team next season.

 

Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams

We've reached an all-time high when it comes to athletic performance and recovery. After all, when Cam Akers tore his Achilles in July, who could imagine he'd be able to take the football field by January? That would have been unheard of just a few years ago!

Yet, that's exactly what Akers did. Now, let's not act like he led the Rams to a Super Bowl. He averaged just 2.4 yards/carry, "earned" a 39.6 PFF rushing grade, and rushed for just 21 yards on 13 carries in the Super Bowl. That being said, there are actually a lot of positives to take away from here.

Despite the fact that he was coming back from a severe injury, head coach Sean McVay demonstrated total faith in Akers. He established himself as the clear lead back with 16.75 carries per game in the postseason, which is a notable amount in spite of several factors that didn't go his way: the inefficiency, two fumbles in the divisional round, as well as an injury suffered in the conference championship game. Clearly, the team is enamored with Akers.

After returning so quickly from an Achilles tear, wouldn't you expect a running back to experience some early struggles? Let's not forget what Akers showed us in his rookie season last year; he earned a 77.6 PFF rushing grade, took over as the lead back by the end of the season, and showcased the ability to make plays after contact. Meanwhile, coming out of college, he ranked in the 91st percentile in dominator rating and commanded a strong 12.3% target share. Add in the fact that his 4.47 40-yard dash at 217 pounds gave him a speed score in the 90th percentile, and he would appear to have all the tools you're looking for.

As the head coach of the Rams, Sean McVay has strongly preferred to have one lead back. We both saw Darrell Henderson and Sony Michel were able to produce when they were the starting running back, while he's even been able to manufacture production from the likes of C.J. Anderson in the past. It's very difficult to project efficiency, but when you know the volume is going to be there, you have to take a chance on him. As they say, draft players with top-notch roles for high-scoring offenses. Stick to that philosophy, and you could come out of the second round with a gem in Akers.

 

Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills

Full disclaimer: of these four players, Devin Singletary is currently my favorite running back target. What isn't there to like?

Singletary's journey in the NFL starts with him being drafted in the third round of the 2019 draft. After averaging five yards per carry and over three yards after carry/contact, many expected him to emerge as the team's lead back moving forward. However, the team drafted Zack Moss in the third round of the 2020 draft, which certainly negatively impacted Singletary. While his peripheral numbers were still strong, he only averaged 7.9 fantasy points per game and was expected to be in a timeshare with Moss heading into 2021.

In fact, Moss was the higher drafted running back and started to take over the backfield in the middle of the season. However, this wasn't it from Singletary. From Weeks 12 to 18, Moss was a healthy scratch three times and only received 21 carries in that time frame. Singletary, on the other hand, carried the ball 105 times and took over as the three-down back.

With how productive the Bills offense is, we've been waiting for one running back to take over that coveted role. Thus, it's no surprise that from Week 14 on, Singletary averaged 18.3 points per game, while he finished amongst the top-10 running backs in each of the final four games. If you had him on your fantasy team, he may have taken you to the promised land.

While it's a little worrisome that it took Singletary until his third season to finally be the team's true lead back, let's not act like he isn't a talented back. He's averaging 4.6 yards/carry for his career, 3.08 yards after contact/attempt, and was PFF's 11th-highest graded rusher last season. There's no reason for the Bills to be looking towards the draft to add to their backfield, and with how Singletary finished the season, I don't expect him to. The upside here is a top-10 running back, which we saw at the end of the year. Depending on where he is going in drafts, that sounds like a potentially great value to me!

 

Rashaad Penny, Free Agent

Let's do a blind resume activity. This player led the league in yards after contact/carry (4.52), was the #1 running back over the final five weeks of the season, and is a former first-round pick. Who is this player? That would be Rashaad Penny, who could be a really strong value in drafts next season.

Many were surprised when the Seahawks drafted Penny in the first round of the 2018 draft, but it's easy to see what they saw in him. He ranked in the 98th percentile in college dominator rating, averaged 7.8 yards/per carry, and also had a 93rd percentile speed score. With that type of profile, why wasn't he a more coveted prospect?

Sadly for Penny, his career has been anything but smooth-sailing thus far. Over the first three years of his career, he had just 165 carries due to various injuries, leading to Seattle declining his fifth-year option. A calf injury caused him to be a non-factor through Week 12, but it all came together afterward.

During that span, Penny was PFF's highest-graded rusher. Furthermore, he averaged 6.4 yards/carry, ranked second in missed tackles forced (27th), and led the league in rushing. Meanwhile, his explosiveness was on full display:

The lack of track record for Penny, as well as the injuries he's suffered, is certainly a red flag. Plus, he also doesn't know where his current landing spot will be, he's a pending free agent. That being said, he may be one of the most talented running backs in the NFL, and his first-round draft capital is certainly going to help his free agency case. If he gets a lead-back role, the ceiling he offers is through the roof. I'm not recommending drafting Penny to be an anchor of your fantasy team, but in the middle rounds, this is a shot worth taking. Especially if you're in current best-ball drafts, where his stock is currently impacted by his status as a free agent. This is a player that you need to target. He's not your ordinary Penny. In fact, he may be a dime.



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