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Pope’s Pick 6: Running Backs to Target in Fantasy in 2022

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Welcome to Pope’s Pick 6. Twice a week I’ll be bringing you a quick look at my fantasy football thoughts in quick-hit form. Today: Running backs to target in fantasy in 2022.

 

Running back is one of the hardest positions to predict in fantasy football between injury and aging and a change in general RB philosophy that has led to an increase in committee backfields. This has opened doors for more fantasy-relevant players but arguably fewer high-end options.

With all of this in mind, it makes it even more crucial to do your pre-draft homework, to help you find those potential busts and breakouts. That’s where this can come in handy — these are six running backs I’m targeting in fantasy football in 2022. 

Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings 

Dalvin Cook was the RB16 in PPR for 2016, though he missed four games along the way (by points per game, he was RB11). Even with the injury absences, Cook topped 1,000 yards on the ground for the third year in a row. His slight downfall last year was in finding the end zone — he scored only 6 touchdowns in 2021 after 13 in 2019 and 17 in 2020. His workload stayed pretty steady — 19.2 carries and 3.8 targets per game after 20.1 and 4.2, respectively, in 2019-2020 combined. 

Dalvin Cook 2022 Fantasy Football Running Back Targets

As we look toward the 2022 season, there is a fair amount of reason to expect Cook to reach new heights, primarily the arrival of new head coach Kevin O’Connell. As a coordinator, O’Connell helped lead the Rams to become one of the league’s most electric offenses, finishing in the top 10 in passing attempts, yards and touchdowns last year. In 2020, the Rams offense was top 15 in passing and rushing attempts. Cook will likely be a focal point of the offense again in 2022, and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see an increase in his work in the passing game. The same or more work for Cook in an offense that should be better overall would mean more total fantasy points and a better fantasy finish. 

Saquon Barkley, New York Giants 

Saquon Barkley tore his ACL only two games into the 2020 season, and we haven’t seen his best since. That problem was made worse by an ankle sprain last season, after which he didn’t look the same again all season. He played 13 games in 2021 but never really got it going, producing only 593 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 162 carries. He was a bit more productive as a receiver — 41 receptions for 263 yards and 2 touchdowns on 4.3 targets a game — but even that was down from his 2018 and 2019 numbers. In addition to his injury, he was hurt by the team’s overall offense struggling. The Giants scored only 258 points last year, second fewest in the league and one of only two teams under 280. Daniel Jones played only 11 games, and the backup options were among the league’s worst performers. That offense on the team level makes it almost impossible to produce any viable fantasy options.

That could change in 2022 with the arrival of new head coach Brian Daboll. He helped turned the Bills offense around in his tenure there, leaving it as one of the most electric offenses in the league. And with Barkley having another year of recovery from his ACL tear and further removed from the ankle issues, and with the Giants offensive line somewhat improved, we could see him return to numbers more like his 2018 heyday. 

 

Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers 

Aaron Jones has been one of fantasy’s most consistent running backs over the last three years. His work in the receiving game is a big contributor to that, as he’s topped 60 targets three years in a row. He was the RB11 in 2021 in only 15 games. That came with the emergence of AJ Dillon, who saw his carries jump from 46 as a rookie to 187 last year. That resulted in Jones seeing only 11.4 carries per game in 2021 after 14.8 in 2019 and 14.4 in 2020.

Dillon’s rise to relevance has some fantasy managers thinking Jones’ fantasy ceiling is capped now, but that’s not necessarily the case. The departure of top target Davante Adams opens up huge opportunity for Jones in the passing game, especially with no rock-solid No. 1 receiver arriving in Adams’ place. There’s a clear need for a reliable target in the passing game in Green Bay, and Jones is as likely a candidate as anyone to fill that role for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. He’s likely in store for a career-high in targets, which would more than offset his reduction in ground work and set him up for big-time success in PPR. Assuming he stays healthy for 2022, Jones’ work as a receiver should be enough to put him in position to be a top-five running back in PPR.

David Montgomery, Chicago Bears

David Montgomery has been a focal point of the Bears offense almost since he entered the league. He was a bit rocky as a rookie in 2019, but he went off in 2020 for 1,070 rushing yards and 438 receiving, both still career-bests. He was the RB4 in PPR that year, putting up 17.7 fantasy points per game. He took a small step back in 2021, in part due to missing four games to injury, though his PPG also dropped to 14.0. Before the injury that cost him Weeks 5-8, though, Montgomery was putting up career-best numbers on the ground, with 17.3 carries and 77.3 yards per game and 3 touchdowns in four games. His four-game production before the injury would have produced an RB8 finish over 17 games.

Heading into 2022, the entire Bears team is in serious flux — there’s a new head coach (Matt Eberflus) and a new general manager (Ryan Poles), with many of the big names (Allen Robinson, Khalil Mack, Eddie Goldman, Tarik Cohen and more) from the previous regime moving on. However, one thing will remain the same, and that’s the running game serving as the foundation of this offense. That starts and ends with Montgomery, who could easily set career highs in usage in 2022, and that could easily lead to a top-12 fantasy finish if he stays healthy. 

Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars 

Travis Etienne 2022 Fantasy Football Running Back Targets

Hopes were high for Travis Etienne in 2021 after the Jaguars drafted him in the first round to pair with fellow first-round rookie (and Etienne’s college teammate at Clemson) Trevor Lawrence. Those hopes were cut off quickly, though, as Etienne suffered a Lisfranc injury in the preseason and was lost for the season. Now, though, Etienne is a year removed from the injury, and backfieldmate James Robinson is recovering from a late-season Achilles tear, setting Etienne up for a huge workload in 2022. 

While at Clemson, Etienne was a dynamo, producing 6,107 scrimmage yards. He topped 1,000 yards on the ground in 2018 and 2019, and while that fell to 914 in his senior year in 2020, he offset that by putting up a career-high 588 yards receiving. He scored 78 touchdowns in his four years. With Robinson likely to miss the start of the season as he recovers (if he returns at all — Achilles tears can be career-enders or at least career-disruptors), Etienne is set up to dominate work in this backfield — the backups if Robinson isn’t available include Snoop Conner, Ryquell Armstead and not much else. In other words, don’t be surprised if Etienne flirts with 300-plus touches in 2022, which would result in big-time fantasy output even if he isn’t efficient with the touches. If he’s efficient at all, it would make him a big-time sleeper for a top-five fantasy finish. 

James Cook, Buffalo Bills 

James Cook was the third running back off the board in this year’s draft, but he arguably landed in the best situation of those three. The Bills offense is the most electric in the league right now, and the obvious area where it could stand to improve is in the backfield. Cook was a real threat at Georgia the last four years, totaling 2,233 scrimmage yards and 20 touchdowns. He’s best used as a receiver, with route-running ability and strong hands, and the Bills appeared determined to upgrade their backfield receiving game this offseason. The team agreed to terms with J.D. McKissic before he changed his mind and returned to Washington. They then brought in Duke Johnson. But they doubled down by drafting Cook, which really seems to indicate an intention to use a running back with pass-catching acumen in 2022.

Last season, the Bills targeted running backs 91 times, the team’s most in three years. If we can expect that number to grow in 2022, Cook will be the perfect player to take advantage of that. And if he can absorb any of incumbent Devin Singletary’s ground work as well, Cook would start to display extreme upside, especially as part of the offense that put up the third-most points in the league last year.

 
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