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Under the Radar Running Back Signings - Fantasy Football Risers or Fallers?

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Is this the best NFL offseason ever? Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, Russell Wilson, and Khalil Mack have all been traded, 10 new head coaches have been hired, and Tom Brady has managed to retire and un-retire. Every day, there's a new storyline to uncover!

This exciting offseason has carried over to the running back position. Prior to free agency, we profiled the top-ten players available on the open market. Now, most of those players have determined where they'll be playing in 2022, causing ripple effects in terms of their fantasy outlook.

Today, we will be covering risers and fallers at the running back position. For some, they've landed in the perfect spot, and should see their stocks move up considerable. For others, though, that is not the case. Making matters even more complicated, there are other effects with each running back signing- another player on the depth chart is affected. As you'll see with the "losers," that's the category most players with dropped stocks fall into; incumbent players have little to gain and everything to lose with free agency. So, which players should be moving up your draft board, and which players should you be more skeptical of now?

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Running Back Free Agency Risers

Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Ever since he was drafted with the fourth overall pick, high expectations have been placed on Leonard Fournette to become a top-tier running back. In fact, that hype extends to his early college career at LSU, where he rushed for 1953 yards and 22 touchdowns as a freshman.

Unfortunately, this hype never materialized during Fournette's early career. Yes, he ran for 1000 yards in two of the first three years of his career, but it did not come with much efficiency (3.95 yards/carry). After just three years with the team, the Jaguars cut ties with him, where he found himself with the Bucs.

This served as a second change for Fournette. Although his regular-season performance wasn't spectacular in 2020, he emerged as the lead back over Ronald Jones II with a strong postseason run in 2020, and that carried over into 2021. After the first two weeks of the season, he assumed a three-down role, and until he got injured in Week 15, he was starting to see elite 80% snap shares.

Between Weeks 4 and 14, Fournette averaged 14.7 carries per game and 6.2 targets per game. Especially on a productive offense, that is an elite level of volume. Plus, it came with a career-best season in terms of efficiency. His 79.2 PFF rushing grade, 3.15 yards after contact/attempt, and 4.5 yards/carry were all career-best numbers, while he was plenty effective as a receiver (83 targets, 454 receiving yards) as well. Heck, he even improved substantially as a pass blocker (52.2 PFF pass-block grade) as well!

Now, Fournette is back with the Bucs on a three-year deal, with no other running back competition at all. A three-down back playing with an offense led by Tom Brady? Sign me up! Really, there is a strong case for Fournette to be made as a top-five running back in 2022, as he was last season. At the beginning of the offseason, Fournette's best landing spot was probably back in Tampa Bay, and that was WITHOUT Tom Brady. Now, he's back with the Bucs and Brady? That's the epitome of a free agency winner!

James Conner, Arizona Cardinals

James Conner, on the other hand, followed a much different trajectory than Fournette. After an elite 1765-yard season as a sophomore in college, he battle through cancer, somehow making his way back onto the field. From there, he was drafted at the end of the third round by the Steelers, where he was mainly seen as an insurance policy to Le'Veon Bell.

When Bell decided to sit out the 2018 season due to a contract dispute, Conner suddenly was thrust into limelight. Overall, he was very impressive, and found himself as the lead back for Pittsburgh moving forward. Unfortunately, even though he remained effective (4.3 yards/carry) despite one of the lowest-graded offensive lines by Pro Football Focus, the Steelers did not make an attempt to re-sign him, and he ended up signing with the Cardinals on a modest one year, $1.75 million contract.

Why the lack of interest? Well, it all comes down to health for Conner. Prior to last season, he had missed a combined 12 games of the possible 48 he could play in, and teams clearly were considered about his reliability. Even with missing two games in 2021, though, his season could not have gone better from a fantasy standpoint.

Overall, Conner finished as the RB8, which is quite impressive considering he missed multiple games. Now, he finds himself back with the team where he made that happen after signing a three-year deal with them. Yes, he won't repeat 18 touchdowns again, but he still had the second-most expected rushing touchdowns (11), per PFF, which speaks to the goal-line role he had.

Most importantly, though, Conner's role is going to be tough to beat. See, head coach Kliff Kingsbury has preferred to have just one running back handle 80-90% of the snaps, but he had to split work between Conner and Chase Edmonds last year. When Edmonds was injured between Weeks 9-14, however, he averaged 17 carries and 5.2 targets per game, and ranked as the RB2 in points per game during this span. We've seen Kingsbury be completely comfortable giving Conner a true three-down role, and the upside is through the roof.

Conner's underlying metrics (74.5 PFF rushing grade) also don't match with his 3.7 yards/carry from last season; positive regression can be expected. Every week where Edmonds was out, Conner was being consistently ranked as a consensus top-10 back. Yes, injuries are a factor here, but that almost certainly will be baked into his draft price. This, similarly to Fournette, was easily the best-case scenario for him, and all signs are pointing to a top-notch season for the 26-year-old.

Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos

Let's be clear; this could all go away in a second. At any point, the Broncos could decide to re-sign Melvin Gordon III, leaving Javonte Williams in a similar timeshare to last year.

Yet, we're a month into the offseason, and Gordon is still a free agent. If we read the tea leaves, that would indicate that the team may have moved on from Gordon, or would only bring him back at a certain price. For that to be the case, there has to be clear faith in Williams to be THE GUY next season, which should be our expectation as of now.

In my opinion, it is hard to find five more talented running backs than Williams. A second-round pick out of North Carolina, his college profile was off the charts, with dominant carries like this becoming the norm for him:

Based on his clear talent, many were excited about the possibilities of Williams being a "league winner" if he could secure the lead-back role from Gordon later in the season. Even though that didn't happen, he still was perfectly competent (RB15 in total points, RB24 in points per game), clearly performing as the better of the two backs.

Plus, Williams also demonstrated other qualities that make him an even more tantalizing talent coming into this season. His 3.42 yards after contact/attempt (ninth), 63 missed tackles forced (second), and 25 explosive runs (seventh) all were amongst the best at his position, while he also served as the team's top receiving back. A ultra-talented rusher who is already trusted as a receiver sounds like a three-down back to me!

Oh, and did I mention that the Broncos just happened to trade for star quarterback Russell Wilson, while also hiring former Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett as their head coach? All of a sudden, Williams will be the lead back of an emerging offense, and for a play-caller who hasn't been afraid to rank near the top of the league in rush attempts previously. Right now, there is a path for Williams to potentially even finish as THE RB1 this season; there are no warts to be concerned about if the completion is similar. We'll have to get through the rest of free agency and the draft, but all signs are pointing up for Williams as a clear first-round pick in redraft leagues this season.

 

Running Back Free Agency Losers

Antonio Gibson, Washington Commanders

Ever since he was drafted by Washington as a player converting from wide receiver to tight end, there has been a considerable amount of excitement about Antonio Gibson's future fantasy value. After all, he was coming into the NFL with established receiving ability (obviously), good size (6'2", 220 pounds), and almost zero tread on his tries. That sounded like the epitome of a three-down back.

Of course, with an 85.2 PFF rushing grade and 4.7 yards/carry in his rookie season, Gibson did nothing to quell the hype surrounding him. In fact, it continued to grow considerably. Prior to the 2021 season, he was the #12 running back and a consistent second-round pick, per Fantasy Pros average draft position; backup quarterback Kyle Allen going as far as to say Gibson would be given the "Christian McCaffrey role", and many chose to believe it.

Sadly, Gibson was not able to wrestle allow the receiving duties from JD McKissic. Meanwhile, his explosive run rate, missed tackles forced rate, and PFF rushing grade fell considerably, as did his overall efficiency (four yards/carry). At the same time, with McKissic out of the picture after Week 12, he ranked as a top-10 running back in both points per game and PFF expected points per game. With McKissic set to be a free agent, there was plenty of reason to be optimistic about Gibson's outlook in his third season.

Everything seemed to be going to plan; McKissic appeared to be signing with the Buffalo Bills, paving the way for Gibson to finally receive a true three-down role. Then, McKissic backed out of the deal with Buffalo, instead re-signing with Washington the following day. Thus, in a matter of one day, our hopes and dreams were crushed!

In an offense that doesn't project to be very strong, Gibson is in a tricky position. Then there is this:

It might to be time to accept that Gibson simply won't develop into the elite fantasy asset that many hoped he could become. It's unfortunate, and a bit bizarre that a former college receiver isn't tasked with catching more passes, but here we are. At this point, it's hard to see the value being there to make him an optimal draft pick. Sadly, teams continue to not care about our fantasy teams!

J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens

To be fair, this has nothing to do with any moves that have taken placed in free agency yet. Sometimes, though, you just have to read the writing on the wall.

Remember our discussion about Melvin Gordon III's free agency status earlier? Well, if reports are true, there may be some steam with regards to his new landing spot:

By no means is Gordon III just an ordinary running back. He's earned a PFF rushing grade over 83 in back-to-back seasons, and was a top-10 back in missed tackles forced and explosive runs last year. Now, insert him in Baltimore, one of the league's most-friendly rushing schemes, and his efficiency will only go up.

This is all bad news for J.K. Dobbins. With an 81.6 PFF rushing grade and 3.47 yards after contact/attempt, Dobbins was stellar as a rookie. At the same time, with the extension of running back Gus Edwards last offseason, there are no indications that the Ravens were going to let him serve as a true lead back. Now, add in the injury, the interest in Gordon III, and also the fact that they are meeting with several running back prospects, and his outlook gets muddier.

This news in the offseason wasn't exactly encouraging regarding Dobbins:

Does the team's heavy interest in running backs in free agency and the draft make you any more confident about Dobbins fully recovering and reaching his peak ceiling this year? To me, there are clear red flags that cannot be ignored. He's an incredibly talented player, but there are too many concerns regarding his overall touch volume that stick out like a massively sore thumb.

Chuba Hubbard, Carolina Panthers

Remember when Chuba Hubbard was the premier waiver-wire pickup after Christian McCaffrey got injured in Week 3? Pepperidge Farm remembers.

Initially with McCaffrey out, Hubbard, a fourth-round rookie from Oklahoma State, ranked 26th in PPR points per game. Overall, in games without McCaffrey, that number fell to 36th, as he started to fall out of favor for Ameer Abdullah during the final weeks of the season.

There was good reason for Carolina to phase Hubbard out of a three-down role; he didn't particularly impress. His 64.9 overall PFF grade isn't particularly expiring, while he had just 13 explosive runs (10+ yards or more) on 172 carries. For perspective, that explosive run rate ranked ninth-worst amongst running backs with at least 80 carries, and he struggled mightily in the receiving game as well (51.4 PFF receiving grade).

Had he remained the handcuff to McCaffrey, though, Hubbard still would've had some late-round appeal. Instead, the Panthers moved quickly to sign D'Onta Foreman, indicating that he'll be the clear backup to McCaffrey this season. Let me put it this way; you don't sign a player on the opening days of free agency only to have him split carries with a player you went out of your way not to play at the end of the year.

In best-ball drafts, Foreman becomes the intriguing late-round upside option should McCaffrey miss any time. At this point, any excitement left over Hubbard has evaporated, and he is a player you can take off of your draft board. Hopefully, none of this matters, and McCaffrey stays healthy, but we have to prepare for all scenarios. Just make sure to do so with the right player!



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Predicting what will happen from one season to the next is hard. But we know what defenses looked vulnerable and could still be vulnerable. So here are what could be favorable matchups when fantasy football crunch time happens.Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers received five total writing awards and 13 award nominations by the Fantasy... Read More


brandon aiyuk fantasy football rankings news NFL DFS lineup picks

Who Is Standing Out In NFL Training Camps? Fantasy Football Sleepers To Draft

As NFL training camps rage on and preseason games get underway, keen fantasy managers are looking to find the best players for their roster this upcoming season. Sometimes, all it takes is some solid detective work during camp to find the most impactful, up-and-coming players. Understanding workloads, training camp reps, and positional battles could give... Read More


Aaron Rodgers - Fantasy Football Rankings, Draft Targets, NFL Injury News

Aaron Rodgers: 2022 Fantasy Football Draft Sleeper and Undervalued Quarterback

If you want to win your fantasy league, you have to hit on the right sleepers. Every year, players get identified as mid/late round picks that you HAVE to draft. You've probably seen 15 different Twitter threads just today about sleepers. But some of these sleepers wind up being bad. You have to make sure... Read More


Derrick Henry - Fantasy Football Rankings NFL Injury News, DFS Picks

Updated Fantasy Football Staff Rankings

    Fantasy Football Rankings by NFL Position ALL - QB - RB - WR - TE - DEF Above you will find all of RotoBaller's fantasy football rankings, tiers, player news and stats for your 2022 fantasy football leagues. Our Ranking Wizard displays our staff's fantasy football rankings for various league formats, all in one easy place. Here's what you'll find: Fantasy Football PPR... Read More


Treylon Burks - Fantasy Football Rankings, NFL Rookies, Draft Sleepers

Preseason NFL Depth Charts Analysis: Interesting Trends for Fantasy Football

Now that we've reached the point in the year where NFL teams are playing preseason games, we've also reached the point where teams are putting out their unofficial preseason depth charts. On one hand, these are unofficial. But on the other hand, it can be fun to read into things. So, let's do examine some... Read More


Jakeem Grant Sr. Is Out For The Season, Who Will Replace Grant?

The Cleveland Browns signed All-Pro return specialist Jakeem Grant Sr. to a three-year, $10 million contract in the offseason in an attempt to improve their return game. Based on the contract, the Cleveland front office obviously prioritized upgrading the return game heading into 2022. Unfortunately, Cleveland got bad news when Grant went down during Tuesday's... Read More


Is Christian McCaffrey Healthy? Is McCaffrey Worth Drafting Early for Fantasy Football

After an incredible 2019 season, Christian McCaffrey has dealt with injuries both of the past two seasons. This was further amplified by the draft capital fantasy managers spent on him, which was in many cases the No. 1 overall pick. The disappointment these injuries created is hard to forgive and forget but 2022 is a... Read More


Wan'Dale Robinson - Fantasy Football Rankings, NFL Rookies, Draft Sleepers

Wan'Dale Robinson - 2022 Fantasy Football Draft Sleeper and Undervalued Wide Receiver

It can sometimes be tricky trying to decipher whether or not a certain rookie player is going to be worth taking in fantasy football drafts. There aren't numbers to go off from a previous season in the NFL and some teams choose to deploy rookies differently than others. Amid all the uncertainty, Wan'Dale Robinson of... Read More


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