2022 Free Agency Preview: Running Backs


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2022 Free Agency Preview: Running Backs

The official start to the 2022 NFL season is quickly approaching with the league year and free agency opening at 4 p.m. on March 16. Teams will be able to begin signing free agents and any trades agreed to prior to the new league year will become official starting on that date.

There are a couple of other key dates to remember before the league year officially kicks off. Teams had to designate franchise players by March 8. The NFL also has a legal negotiating window from March 14-16 when teams can start contacting and negotiating with the agents of unrestricted free agents. We’ll hear of some deals breaking throughout that window, even though they can’t become official.

With that said, it’s time to start breaking down the 2022 free agency class, which includes Leonard Fournette, James Conner, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Melvin Gordon at the RB position. Be sure to follow Fantasy Points throughout free agency for in-depth breakdowns of every major (and minor) move. We’ll be tracking every off-season transaction from a fantasy perspective through our “Off-season Tracker” articles and Graham Barfield’s “Fantasy Fallout” pieces. We’ll also be constantly updating our Best Ball rankings if you’re looking to get an early start to draft season.

NOTE: Players are loosely ranked based on talent, age, plus previous and expected future fantasy relevance.

Unrestricted Free Agents

Free Agency information courtesy of OverTheCap.com

Potentially Fantasy Relevant

Leonard Fournette (TB, 27) — “Unrestricted Lenny” got a new lease on life when the pathetic Jaguars released him in August of 2020, clearing him to sign with the Buccaneers, where he first went on a fantastic playoff run en route to a Super Bowl title, then re-established himself as a fantasy superstar in 2021, finishing 4th among all RBs at 18.3 FPG. A hamstring injury cut his regular-season short, but the flier the Bucs took on him worked spectacularly for both sides. Both Fournette and Ronald Jones are UFAs, and the Bucs are obviously in a retooling mode following the retirement of Tom Brady. Fournette isn’t sure he’ll be back, but he gives any team who signs him a versatile, three-down RB who is a way better receiver than people think, with two seasons of 69 or more catches on his resume.

Potential landing spot: Honestly, the best fit for Fournette, if touches are what he craves, is staying in Tampa Bay. He’s still relatively young and can handle a massive workload.

Cordarrelle Patterson (Atl, 31) — One of the breakout stars of the 2021 NFL season, the former first-round WR who had merely dabbled as a running back in the past switched to the position full-time in 2021 with the Falcons. Patterson garnered 1166 yards from scrimmage and 11 TD in 16 games, and finished 9th among all RBs in total fantasy points. However, he totally wore down with his heavily increased workload, generating just 100 yards from scrimmage on 37 touches over his final four games of the year and finishing the season with a 14.7 FPG average. Prior to that, Patterson averaged an exceptional 17.7 FPG — he was a legitimate RB1 who was a waiver-wire pickup. He faded for fantasy teams down the stretch, likely owing to playing an entirely new position, but he certainly aided his chances of earning a solid deal on the open market with his versatility.

Potential landing spot: Patterson would be an interesting fit in Miami. The Dolphins need to drastically improve their RB situation, but he could also give new coach Mike McDaniel a little bit of the Deebo Samuel factor with his versatility.

James Conner (Ari, 27) — Conner was one of the best value signings of the 2021 off-season, and one of the best value picks in all of fantasy football, as he generated 1127 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns for the Cardinals in 15 games. Conner finished 5th among all RBs in total PPR fantasy points, and 9th among them with 17.2 FPG. Of course, as has been the case for much of his career, he was unable to put a full campaign together, with ankle, foot, and rib injuries slowing him down late in 2021. But he was a hard-charging back, excellent in the red zone and surprisingly good as a receiver — he averaged 3.7 YPC but 10.1 YPR. Conner’s hard-nosed playstyle and injury history likely don’t lend himself to being a true “feature” back (he split time in Arizona with Chase Edmonds), but he does a lot of things that coaches love.

Potential landing spot: If Conner doesn’t return to the Cardinals, could his versatility make him an option for someone like the Chiefs, where Darrel Williams and Jerick McKinnon are free agents?

Melvin Gordon (Den, 29) — Make no mistake about it. Gordon was a thorn in the side of fantasy players everywhere, because his presence didn’t allow Javonte Williams to truly establish himself as a fantasy star in his rookie season. But here’s the thing — Gordon was good in 2021. He posted 203/918/8 rushing and 28/213/2 receiving in 16 games, finishing 18th among RBs in total fantasy points and 24th among them in FPG (12.3). Gordon himself even acknowledged that fans seemed to be frustrated he was playing so much, which given his production, was certainly unfair.

Gordon is excellent at the goal line, decent in the passing game, and solid as a blocker. That will make him a valuable asset for coaches on the open market.

Potential landing spot: The Seahawks are in full rebuild mode, but without Russell Wilson in town, Pete Carroll can live his dream and run the ball 70% of the time. Even if Seattle re-signs Rashaad Penny, they’ll need to do more at the position given Penny’s injury history.

Chase Edmonds (Ari, 26) — Edmonds was expected to be the more productive fantasy back in Arizona, even splitting with James Conner, because of his receiving prowess. But Conner both did more than expected in that department and absolutely dominated Edmonds in red-zone/goal-line work. Conner scored 18 TD to Edmonds’ 2, and also played more games — 15 to 12 (Edmonds dealt with a high ankle sprain and a rib injury). Still, Edmonds caught 43 passes in those 12 games, and now has 96 receptions over his last two seasons. He’s best suited as a complementary back, but he’s one who can come in and give a spark in long-yardage situations. He’ll continue to be a valuable PPR piece depending on landing spot.

Potential landing spot: The expectation here is that the Cardinals will re-sign one of Conner or Edmonds, while adding someone cheaper through the NFL Draft to fill the other role. The prediction? They go with Edmonds, who is younger and, despite missing more games than Conner last season, doesn’t have the injury baggage.

Rashaad Penny (Sea, 26) — Yes, any Penny evaluation needs to come with the biggest asterisk this side of Barry Bonds. But, damn, he was good last year when he was finally activated midseason after an early calf injury and then a later hamstring injury. Through Week 12, Penny had 17 carries for 43 yards and couldn’t stay off the trainer’s table. It was looking like his career might be over, let alone his ability to get a decent payday in the off-season. And then Weeks 13 through 18 happened. The number of running backs who scored more PPR fantasy points over that stretch than Penny? Zero. Nil. Nada. And he averaged 6.9 yards per carry on 102 totes during that span to boot.

Yes, Penny has so many injuries on his body that he looks like the Operation board game. But that magical six-game stretch is going to get him at least a nice incentive-laden deal.

Potential landing spot: With the Seahawks leaning fully into a run-first approach following the Russell Wilson trade, you have to imagine bringing Penny back — with some insurance — will be one of their first moves. Remember, Chris Carson might never play football again.

Sony Michel (LAR, 27) — Following the loss of Cam Akers last summer to an Achilles tear, Rams GM Les Snead acquired Michel from the Patriots for two Day 3 picks. At the time, it seemed like an overpay for an oft-injured grinder, but it turned into a particularly shrewd move for the “all-in” Rams, who had some stability in their backfield after losing Akers and — correctly — not being able to rely on Darrell Henderson. Michel posted 208/845/4 rushing and 21/128/1 receiving, and finished 31st overall among RBs in PPR fantasy points. Michel’s role waned late in the season when Akers made a miraculous recovery and Henderson got healthy for the playoffs, but Michel stabilized the run game early for Sean McVay. Michel has his second Super Bowl ring in four seasons to show for it, and he put some solid tape out there. He’s not likely to land a lucrative multi-year deal, but he showed his value and, perhaps most importantly for him, didn’t miss a single game.

Darrel Williams (KC, 27) — A coaches’ and fan favorite in Kansas City, Williams had a career year in 2021, posting 144/558/6 rushing (3.9 YPC) and 47/452/2 receiving on 57 targets (9.6 YPR) while having to spend a lot of time in the starting lineup as Clyde Edwards-Helaire battled injuries yet again. However, with CEH back in the rotation in the playoffs and Jerick McKinnon emerging, Williams fell out of that rotation when he went down with a toe issue. He was inactive in the divisional round against the Bills and didn’t get a single touch in the AFC Championship loss to the Bengals. Despite Williams’ reliability in the passing game and in pass pro, he simply hasn’t been close to as effective as CEH on a per-run basis, and he’s better suited as a complementary back. Indeed, he could be back with the Chiefs in that role, but he might find more money elsewhere. For our purposes, we know he can put up fantasy numbers when called upon — he averaged 17.5 FPG in the games that CEH missed in 2021, which would have been good for 9th among all RBs if extrapolated over the full 2021 NFL season.

JD McKissic (Was, 29) — McKissic has 123 receptions over the last two years with The Team/Commanders, and he’s been a huge foil to the fantasy exploits of Antonio Gibson. McKissic missed six games in 2021 with concussion and neck issues. Gibson played in five of those six games, averaging 16.9 FPG in games without McKissic, compared to 14.0 FPG in games with him. McKissic is a very good hurry-up back, and apparently the ‘Ders want to bring him back, which is bad news for anyone who wants Gibson — who, like McKissic, was a WR in college — to be unleashed as a pass catcher. McKissic has a skillset that would be desirable to multiple teams on the market, but Washington seems like it wants to keep an extra weapon for reclamation project Carson Wentz. We’ll see what happens. Dynasty investors in Gibson wait with bated breath.

Duke Johnson (Mia, 29) — The fantasy industry always has beef with coaches, and often, those beefs are merely because a player doesn’t have a big enough role to be a constantly useful fantasy star. More often than not, the coaches are justified in their decisions, but for Dukie, his usage had always been bizarre, and with multiple teams. Well, in 2021, we finally got to see what an unleashed Dukie looked like — he had two games with 20 or more carries and 100 or more rushing yards, the first time either of those things had happened in his entire NFL career. And he accomplished them over the last month of the season on a team where he’d be toiling away on the practice squad. Bizarre. But instantly, he was more effective for the Dolphins than either Myles Gaskin or Salvon Ahmed, and it remains to be seen how new coach Mike McDaniel might look at Johnson. But he certainly showed last year that just maybe he had been underutilized in both his Cleveland and Houston days.

Devonta Freeman (Bal, 30) — Freeman was one of multiple dusty veterans the Ravens brought in to try to salvage their woeful injury luck at the RB position, and over the course of the full season, he was likely their best option. In 16 games, Freeman posted 133/576/5 rushing and 34/190/1 receiving. Freeman’s best stretch of the season came from Weeks 9 through 14, a six-game run over which he had at least 10 carries in every game and ranked as the overall RB20 in PPR fantasy points. But he slowed down over the final four weeks of the year, and years of injuries might have taken their toll on Freeman. His 2021 tape shows he could be a decent #3 option somewhere, but it surely won’t be on more than a one-year deal.

Latavius Murray (Bal, 32) — Murray hit the market at a fortuitous time for the Ravens, as they had brutally lost JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards to knee injuries in short order. Though older and a couple steps slower, Murray was a good fit for the Ravens’ downhill rushing attack, posting 119/501/6 rushing, though he caught just 10 passes in 14 games. Heading into his age 32 season, Murray can be a straight-line grinder who can succeed in the red zone, but he’s simply not a lead back.

David Johnson (Hou, 31) — In 13 games with the Texans in 2021, Johnson averaged a career-low 3.4 YPC on 67 carries and a career-low 7.0 YPR on 32 receptions. Yes, you need to grade on a curve because he played for the Texans, but Johnson has now averaged under 4.0 YPC in three of his last four seasons, turns 31 next December, and is coming off a season in which he looked like total dust. A team that values receiving in a back could give him a shot on a one-year deal, however.

D’Onta Foreman (Ten, 26) — Foreman, who tore his Achilles in 2018 with the Texans and missed virtually two full seasons because of it, resurrected his career with the Titans by handling himself exceptionally well in a tough situation. Filling in for the injured Derrick Henry, Foreman posted 133/566/3 rushing and 9/123 receiving, all career-best numbers for a guy who suffered a career-threatening injury a number of seasons ago. Given how well Foreman adapted to Tennessee’s downhill, run-heavy scheme and kept them on track, and the fact that the Titans released 2020 draft bust Darrynton Evans prior to free agency, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see Foreman locked up in Nashville as Henry’s handcuff.

Jeff Wilson (SF, 27) — A league-winner down the stretch in the 2020 NFL season, Wilson missed the first half of the 2021 season with a knee injury, and was less efficient and effective overall when he did return, posting 79/294/2 rushing (3.7) YPC and merely 7/31 receiving in nine games. While he did have a 100-yard rushing performance for the injured Elijah Mitchell in Week 15, he eventually fell completely out of the rotation by the time the playoffs started, and then suffered an ankle injury playing special teams to boot. That special teams experience will give Wilson a market, but it may not be in San Francisco, which already has Mitchell and Trey Sermon on rookie deals, and is also interested in bringing back Raheem Mostert.

Raheem Mostert (SF, 30) — Mostert carried the ball exactly twice before suffering yet another knee injury that ended his season in Week 1 of the 2021 season, which opened the door for the emergence of Elijah Mitchell. Mostert has missed 33 games over the last four years, but remains a favorite of coach Kyle Shanahan and is expected to generate interest from former OC Mike McDaniel’s Dolphins. Mostert turns 30 in April and you have to imagine all the injuries might have sapped his explosiveness at this stage. But it appears he will definitely get a chance to show his stuff.

Justin Jackson (LAC, 26) — Jackson’s never played a full season in the NFL — he’s missed 22 of a possible 65 games — so injuries are a concern, but he’s a slasher who can contribute in the passing game when called upon. Jackson won a lot of folks a semifinal matchup when filling in for the COVID-stricken Austin Ekeler in Week 16 of 2021, posting 11/64/2 rushing and 8/98 receiving against the Texans, which ranked him as the top RB for the week. His landing spot will be interesting — he was the best backup RB on the Chargers in 2021, but the Chargers also have 2020 rookie Joshua Kelley and 2021 rookie Larry Rountree under contract.

Tarik Cohen (Chi, 27) — Cohen has missed all but three games the last two seasons with a knee injury, and the Bears released him this week with an injury designation. He’s got a lot to prove, but he caught 203 passes in the three seasons from 2017-2019, so he has a desirable skill set as a rotational back. But, you know, health.

James White (NE, 30) — White missed all but three games in the 2021 NFL season with a hip injury, the first time he’s played fewer than 14 games since his rookie year in 2014. White has expressed interest in returning to the Patriots, and he’s obviously a favorite of coach Bill Belichick, but it’s possible teams looking for a veteran third-down back — Josh McDaniels with the Raiders, perhaps? — would take a look at White.

Devontae Booker (NYG, 30) — Booker worked his way into a rotation with Saquon Barkley in 2021, which said more about Barkley’s injuries and struggles than anything about Booker. That’s evident, because one of the first things the new regime under GM Joe Schoen and coach Brian Daboll did when they took over with the Giants is… release Booker outright. Still, he had 185 touches in 2021, the most since his rookie season, and he had multiple RB1 weeks filling in for Barkley. He can play on all three downs, but he’s not very good.

Phillip Lindsay (Mia, 28) — Lindsay was one of the worst backs in the NFL the last couple seasons, bottoming out with 88/249/1 (2.8 YPC) with the Texans and Dolphins in 2021. He couldn’t stick with the Texans, and then he couldn’t infiltrate one of the worst run games of the NFL with Miami in any meaningful way. He’s a fan favorite because of his style, but he’s not very good.

Marlon Mack (Ind, 26) — Mack re-signed with the Colts last year on a one-year deal after tearing his Achilles in Week 1 of 2020. The problem for Mack — who was healthy enough to play — is that every touch he got took one away from Jonathan Taylor, which the Colts realized soon enough was a huge mistake. The Colts couldn’t find a trade partner for Mack before the trade deadline, and he was basically a healthy scratch for the entire second half of the season. He’s still young enough, and presumably healthy enough, to generate interest on the market. He ran for 1091 yards and 8 TD in 2019 before his 2020 injury.

Royce Freeman (Hou, 26) — Freeman’s just 26 and can catch the ball reasonably well and play in short yardage, but he’s been the definition of “Just a Guy” in his NFL career, averaging 3.8 YPC on 353 carries, and 6.2 YPR on 79 receptions. Quite frankly, he’s best suited as a #3 RB somewhere, given he has special teams experience.

Other UFAs

Giovani Bernard (TB, 31)

Matt Breida (Buf, 27)

Jordan Howard (Phi, 28)

Wayne Gallman (Min, 28)

Malcolm Brown (Mia, 29)

Tevin Coleman (NYJ, 29)

Peyton Barber (LV, 28)

Damien Williams (Chi, 30)

Jalen Richard (LV, 29)

Kalen Ballage (Pit, 27)

Le’Veon Bell (TB, 30)

Alex Collins (Sea, 28)

Corey Clement (Dal, 28)

Ty Montgomery (NO, 29)

Brandon Bolden (NE, 32)

Ameer Abdullah (Car, 29)

Darrynton Evans (Ten, 24)

Carlos Hyde (Jax, 32)

Adrian Peterson (Sea, 37)

Dwayne Washington (NO, 28)

Trenton Cannon (SF, 28)

Buddy Howell (LAR, 26)

Jordan Wilkins (Ten, 28)

Taiwan Jones (Buf, 34)

Patrick Ricard (Bal, 28) — Fullback.

Elijhaa Penny (NYG, 29) — Fullback.

Andy Janovich (Cle, 29) — Fullback.

Michael Burton (KC, 30) — Fullback.

Nick Bawden (NYJ, 26) — Fullback.

Restricted Free Agents

Free Agency information courtesy of OverTheCap.com

Potentially Fantasy Relevant

D’Ernest Johnson (Cle, 26) — Without putting too fine a point on it, Johnson was the best #3 back in the NFL in 2021, behind Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. In 17 games, he posted 100/534/3 rushing and 19/137 receiving. But in three games in which Johnson received at least 10 carries, he blew up. He posted 66/368/2 rushing (5.6 YPC) and 10/90 receiving, averaging 22.6 FPG. Over the course of the full season, that would have ranked ahead of Jonathan Taylor’s 22.1 FPG. As a restricted free agent, it’s hard to imagine the Browns won’t tender him given how their team is built around the run. He showed a hell of a lot.

Boston Scott (Phi, 27) — Scott has been a very productive reserve back for the Eagles the last three seasons, and he filled in admirably yet again in 2021 when Miles Sanders went down with his yearly injury. Scott managed 87 carries for 373 yards and a career-best 7 rushing TD, and he did his best work for fantasy players in the playoffs, totaling 10.1 FP in Week 16 (semifinals) and 24.6 FP in Week 17 (finals). A good receiver who is also very strong at the goal line, Scott would fit as a useful #2 on a club given his special-teams acumen, but he could also be too valuable to the Eagles to let go without a tender.

Other RFAs

Derrick Gore (KC, 28) — Gore is an exclusive-rights free agent.

Qadree Ollison (Atl, 26) — Ollison is an exclusive-rights free agent.

Patrick Laird (Mia, 27)

Ryan Nall (Chi, 27)

Alec Ingold (LV, 26) — Fullback.

Jakob Johnson (NE, 28) — Fullback.

Khari Blasingame (Ten, 26) — Fullback.

Andrew Beck (Den, 26) — Fullback.

Cullen Gillaspia (NYG, 27) — Fullback.

Ty Williams (Bal, 26) — Williams is an exclusive-rights free agent.

Dexter Williams (Cle, 25) — Williams is an exclusive-rights free agent.

Mekhi Sargent (Jax, 25) — Sargent is an exclusive-rights free agent.

Adrian Killins (Den, 24) — Killins is an exclusive-rights free agent.

Joe Dolan, a professional in the fantasy football industry for over a decade, is the managing editor of Fantasy Points. He specializes in balancing analytics and unique observation with his personality and conversational tone in his writing, podcasting, and radio work.