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The Fantasy Optimist: What Are the Highest Ceilings Among the Second Tier of Fantasy RBs?

NFL Fantasy



Michael Dolan

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Fantasy football championships aren’t won in the early rounds of drafts. Anyone can draft a stud with their first or second round picks, but finding consistent production as the draft goes on is a much more daunting task. Typically, the person who wins your league is the one who found a gem (or a few) in those mid-to-late rounds and received top level production for well below a top-level price tag.


In this miniseries, I’ll walk through some of the less heralded fantasy players, identify what their ceilings are, and discuss the likelihood of them reaching those ceilings. In part two of this series, I’ll evaluate the running backs ranked 21st-30th according to FTN’s expert rankings. I covered quarterbacks Tuesday.

RB21: Antonio Gibson, Washington Commanders

Ceiling: Top 10

In his two NFL seasons, Antonio Gibson has finished as the RB12 and RB10 in half-PPR. He’s a dual-threat back who eclipsed 1,000 yards on the ground last year and nearly hit the 300-yard receiving mark as well. While Gibson’s a safe bet to finish as a fringe RB1 again this season, he’ll likely have a tough time climbing much higher than that.

Gibson played receiver at the University of Memphis. Since entering the NFL though, fantasy managers have held their breath hoping to see his receiving skills on display more often. Unfortunately, during Gibson’s two NFL seasons he’s played second fiddle on passing downs to J.D. McKissic which has put a ceiling on his fantasy upside. 

Likelihood: High

We’ve seen Gibson post solid numbers throughout his first two seasons, but Washington went out of their way to re-sign McKissic and also drafted a running back (Brian Robinson) in the third round of this year’s draft. The talent is there for Gibson, but all signs indicate Washington wants to deploy a committee backfield this season which would limit Gibson’s upside.

RB22: J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens

J.K. Dobbins Fantasy Optimist RBs

Ceiling: Top 5

The Ravens have been a historically great rushing offense these past few years, but injuries in 2021 led to a down year from the entire group. If Baltimore can return to form this season (a very likely scenario), J.K. Dobbins could finish the season as the lead back on the NFL’s best rushing attack.

During his rookie campaign in 2020, Dobbins averaged a ridiculous 6.0 yards per carry working behind Mark Ingram. Many predicted that with Ingram out of the picture in 2021, Dobbins would experience a massive breakout. Unfortunately, a torn ACL last preseason prevented that from happening, but given the timing of his injury Dobbins should be fully healthy entering 2022. Health is a big question mark surrounding Dobbins this year, but if he manages to stay on the field all season long, he could vault into fantasy football’s elite tier of backs.

Likelihood: Moderate

Were it not for the injury concerns, Dobbins’ likelihood of achieving a top-five finish would be considered high. Unfortunately, returning from an ACL tear is no easy task, and there’s a very real chance he experiences a slow start to the season.

RB23: Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders

Ceiling: Top 5

Josh Jacobs is entering a contract year, and there’s a world where the Raiders run the former first-round pick into the ground before letting him hit free agency. While a massive workload may not be great for Jacobs’ long term-outlook, it’d be great news for his 2022 fantasy season. 

Jacobs has eclipsed 1,000 yards from scrimmage in each of his three NFL seasons despite missing at least one game all three years. He’s clearly the best back in Las Vegas, and he possesses a three-down skillset that could warrant the workhorse treatment. In what should be an improved Raiders’ offense this year, the arrow is pointing up for Jacobs entering year four.

Likelihood: Moderate

With the addition of Davante Adams, the Raiders should take a major step forward offensively this year. Even if Adams’ presence leads to more of a pass-happy attack, Jacobs should be on the field enough to be a beneficiary of an improved offense. Cracking the top five is no easy task, but Jacobs has the talent and the situation he’s in may be enough for him to pull it off.


RB24: AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers

Ceiling: Top 10

It’s not a reach to say AJ Dillon will be Aaron Rodgers’ second best weapon behind Aaron Jones this year. It’s also not a reach to assume a Rodgers-led offense can be one of the best in the league. The combination of these two factors means a top-10 finish is very much within the realm of possibilities for Dillon, even though he’s the No. 2 back on his own team.

Many reports out of Green Bay are expecting the Packers to have Jones and Dillon share the field quite a bit this year. If those reports wind up being true, Dillon should have enough opportunities to accumulate fantasy points as more than just a change of pace back.

Likelihood: Low

While the talent is there for Dillon, we can’t ignore the fact that it’s rare for one team to have two top 10 RBs. Dillon has posted finishes of just RB79 and RB23 these past two seasons, so vaulting into the top 10 would require quite the jump.

RB25: Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles

Ceiling: Top 5

Miles Sanders‘ situation alone is enough to warrant a top-five ceiling. He’s the clear RB1 on what was the league’s No. 1 rushing offense last year, and he’ll once again be running behind the NFL’s best offensive line. Throw in the fact that Jalen Hurts, A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert should demand plenty of attention from opposing defenders, and Sanders could have some truck-sized holes to run through in 2022.

We’ve seen flashes of brilliance throughout Sanders’ first three years in the league. He boasts an impressive 5.1 yards per carry on his career, and that number bumped up to 5.5 last season. Unfortunately, his brilliance has oftentimes been overshadowed by inconsistency and nagging injuries. The talent and the situation are there for Sanders, and if 2022 is the year he puts it all together, he possesses league-winning upside.

Likelihood: Low

We’ve seen plenty of boom weeks from Sanders in the past, but all the mouths to feed in Philadelphia will make it difficult for him to usurp some of the league’s workhorse backs. However, Sanders is in a contract year, and if he stays healthy and the Eagles opt to run him into the ground… watch out.

RB26: Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco 49ers

Ceiling: Top 5

Ever since Kyle Shanahan’s arrival San Francisco has been one of the league’s best rushing offenses. With Trey Lance likely under center in 2022, their ground game could become even scarier, and Elijah Mitchell could be a huge beneficiary. 

Mitchell had a productive rookie campaign where he nearly hit the 1,000-yard rushing mark despite playing in just 11 games. He may cede some rushing attempts to Lance in year two, but Lance’s presence should open up rushing lanes that make life easier for Mitchell and the rest of the 49ers’ backfield. If Mitchell holds onto the No. 1 role in this offense and stays healthy all season long, 1,500-plus rushing yards and double-digit touchdowns are in the realm of possibility.

Likelihood: Low

Even if the 49ers are an elite rushing offense again this year, guessing who the RB1 will be by season’s end is a dart throw. Much to the chagrin of fantasy owners, Shanahan loves to rotate his backs, and there could be weeks where Mitchell inexplicably isn’t a part of the game plan. San Francisco spending third-round picks on running backs in back-to-back years (Trey Sermon and Tyrion Davis-Price) doesn’t inspire much hope for Mitchell’s job security either.

RB27: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs

Clyde Edwards-Helaire Fantasy Optimist RBs

Ceiling: Top 10

Clyde Edwards-Helaire finishing the season as a top-10 back is more so a bet on Andy Reid’s RB1 than it is on the individual player. While it hasn’t fully clicked at the NFL level for CEH yet, one of his common player comparisons has been one of Reid’s all-time great weapons – Brian Westbrook. Westbrook was an undersized, dual-threat back (much like CEH) who Reid used as a weapon all over the field and consistently posted RB1 seasons. 

Expecting Westbrook-like numbers from CEH is wishful thinking, but it wouldn’t be crazy to see Kansas City’s former first-round pick follow a similar timeline. Westbrook didn’t truly break out until his third year in the league, but once he did, he never looked back. There’s a world where everything clicks in year three for CEH too, and if that happens a top-10 finish is certainly in the realm of possibility.

Likelihood: Low

While the situation for CEH is appealing, Year 3 breakouts for running backs aren’t particularly common, and he’s yet to show much on an NFL field. If there’s anyone worth betting on to be a late bloomer though, the guy Joe Burrow called the best player he’s ever played with wouldn’t be a bad bet.


B28: Damien Harris, New England Patriots

Ceiling: Top 10

Damien Harris’ ceiling is all about rushing touchdowns. He found the end zone 15 times last year – all on the ground – and could very well achieve double-digit touchdowns again this season. The Patriots ran the ball well above the league-average rate last year, and though they may pass the ball more in Mac Jones’ second season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them continue to lean on their power running game near the end zone.

We’ve seen Patriots’ running backs – think LeGarrette Blount in 2016 – achieve top-10 finishes before due to a disproportionate amount of touchdowns. Bill Belichick likes to rotate his backs, but he typically has a guy he trusts near the goal line to finish drives. Harris was that guy last year, and if he earns that role again in 2022 it could lead to plenty of fantasy points.

Likelihood: Low

Harris likely won’t see much receiving work and probably won’t be near the top of the yardage leaderboards, but he could have enough opportunities in the red zone to sneak into the top 10 anyway. Banking on touchdowns is a risky proposition in fantasy, but at cost, there may not be a better bet for touchdowns than Damien Harris.

RB29: Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns

Ceiling: Top 15

Kareem Hunt is a fantastic option for fantasy managers who prefer to wait when selecting their second (or even first) running back. Even as the second fiddle to Nick Chubb in Cleveland’s powerful rushing attack, Hunt has proven to be a player you can start with confidence even when Chubb’s healthy.

Hunt has missed some time these past few seasons, but when he’s been on the field, he’s posted solid numbers. During his three seasons in Cleveland, Hunt averaged 9.2, 12.5 and 12.4 fantasy points per game. Over the course of a full season, those averages would consistently put him in the mid-RB2 range, which is likely where he’ll finish 2022 as well.

Likelihood: High

When drafting Hunt, you’re not crossing your fingers and hoping he reaches a sky-high ceiling. Instead, he’s a safer pick who can confidently fill one of those pesky RB spots in your starting lineup for the cost of a mid-round selection.

RB30: Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills

Ceiling: Top 15

Devin Singletary has a chance to be the Bills’ RB1 this year, but even if he earns that role, it’s unlikely he gets the workhorse treatment. While he may not get the volume required to finish the season as a high-end RB1, Singletary could reap the benefits of being the No. 1 back on arguably the league’s best offense.

While Singletary’s rushing totals have been modest, they’ve improved every year he’s been in the league, and he eclipsed the 1,000 yards from scrimmage mark for the first time last year. If the improvement keeps coming and a few more touchdowns come his way, Singletary could finish the season as a solid RB2.

Likelihood: Low

The Bills spending a second-round pick on James Cook is a major red flag for Singletary. Cook could easily demand the lion’s share of the passing down work right out of the gates and chew into some of Singletary’s rush attempts as well. Throw in the fact that Josh Allen is the team’s pseudo goal-line back, and Singletary’s path to reaching his top-15 ceiling starts to look bleak.

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