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Fantasy RB Rankings: Three brand names vs. three rising stars — who should you draft?

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Fantasy is always about tolerance. It requires walking the line between acknowledging data and trusting one’s gut. The upside of the unknown can be tempting while the promise of consistent production can be deceiving.

So, as managers, we aim to stay ahead of the curve.

Running back is a notoriously volatile position. Yet, the most popular draft strategy includes some elements of early RB. The uncertainty surrounding the top-ranked 2022 options, however, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Jonathan Taylor remains the consensus RB1 … despite a change in QB.

Austin Ekeler should continue to be a PPR monster … even with the addition of Isaiah Spiller.

Dalvin Cook rounds out the top-three … with the hopes that Wes Phillips’ promise of offensive balance won’t negatively impact him.

[Set, hut, hike! Create or join a fantasy football league now!]

After that, things get even stickier.

Below I’ll examine three fantasy mainstays (all of whom are ranked inside the top-12 RBs) who could be leapfrogged by three of the virtual game’s rising stars (each ranked outside of the top-20).

Vet fantasy RBs vs. up-and-comers. (Photo by Moe Haider / Yahoo Sports)
3 Vet RBs vs. The New School — who will deliver better fantasy production? (Photo by Moe Haider / Yahoo Sports)

Derrick Henry (RB4) vs Breece Hall (RB22)

Derrick Henry’s cliff has long been pondered.

After clearing 300 carries in back-to-back seasons, concerns over his odometer reading had managers second-guessing his ability to post top-three fantasy numbers for a third consecutive campaign.

In Week 8 those fears were realized when fantasy’s most prolific producer broke his foot.

In true anomalistic fashion, Henry missed just 10 weeks, returning in the divisional round of the playoffs. He carried the ball 20 times for 62 rushing yards and 1 TD, averaging 3.1 YPC. It would be his second-least efficient effort of the season — the first being the week he suffered the injury.

But YPC is a noisy stat, right? And he had a steel plate in his foot. Plus, he’ll have had MONTHS to rehab. I mean, we’re not talking about any ‘ole RB. We’re talking about the focal point of the Titans' offense.

This is King Henry.

But this is also a back with over 1,400 pro carries to his name. On a team that will feed him, but is devoid of field stretchers. He has certainly earned the trust of the fantasy community. But is that enough to draft him No. 3 overall? Or could there be a later-round option with enough upside to make up for the gap in draft capital spent?

Breece Hall is NOT Derrick Henry. NO ONE is Derrick Henry … which makes doubting his comeback all the more complicated — and Twitter agrees:

But Hall did rush for 3,941 yards in college (Henry recorded 3,591 over his three years at Alabama … certainly not apples to apples, but just FYI) and does project to be a workhorse back at the next level.

He’s also surrounded by more receiving talent and could post shockingly efficient numbers in the Jets’ retooled offense. Even with Michael Carter likely to share the load and dominate the bulk of the pass-catching work, Hall could flirt with 270 touches throughout the season. That’s fewer than Henry’s projected 300 (if Henry stays healthy for all 17 weeks), but under the tutelage of Shanahan protege Mike LaFleur he figures to flourish in a scheme designed to maximize upside.

Christian McCaffrey (RB5) vs J.K. Dobbins (RB23)

Thirty touches per game are great when they translate to 400+ touches per season. Not so much when that sort of workload leads to injury.

Christian McCaffrey has played in just 10 games over the last two seasons. A cascade of lower-body injuries (that began to materialize with a knee strain in Week 9 of the 2019 season) has derailed the dynamic RB. I’m not a doctor, but in writing the Rest vs. Rust series, I have learned that recurrent issues in a specific location (and side) of the body generally don’t reverse course for the bulk of professional athletes.

Given Carolina’s offseason moves, the Panthers appear braced for another run-focused season. To their credit, they’ve attempted to fortify the offensive line (the run-blocking unit earned a 31st-ranked stuffed rate of 21%) with the additions of Bradley Bozeman, Austin Corbett and rookie “Ickey” Ekwonu. The squad also added power runner D’Onta Foreman, who memorably shouldered the load for the aforementioned Derrick Henry last season.

All of these tweaks (and the absence of a change at QB or a massive bolstering of the WR corps) reveal a reliance on the ground game. There’s no way to tell, however, whether it also signals a reduction in CMC’s workload. Fewer carries would likely benefit the longevity of his career, but it would also mean an obvious reduction in weekly opportunities.

That’s a hefty conundrum to weigh at the No. 6 spot of a 16-round draft.

Or, you could ask the same number of questions three rounds later. That’s when J.K. Dobbins is coming off the board.

J.K. Dobbins of the Baltimore Ravens
Could J.K. Dobbins replicate CMC's production? (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Ironically, he held an overall ADP of 28.28 heading into last fall, before tearing his ACL in late August. Now he’s going even later! Admittedly, Dobbins’ situation isn’t perfect — the Ravens drafted passing-down specialist Tyler Badie and added Mike Davis (and his 3.6 YPC) to the backfield — but he’s an ideal fit for Ravens Ball™.

Dobbins is a downhill runner with plus power and fearless determination. His ability in short-yardage and goal-line situations is particularly eye-popping, as evidenced by his 21 rushing touchdowns (the most in the Big Ten) in 2019 at Ohio State. Interestingly, both Latavius Murray and Devonta Freeman were frequent Dobbins comps throughout the draft process. They were also Baltimore’s lead rushers (in Dobbins' stead) throughout 2021.

Harbaugh has a type … and Dobbins — who, before last year’s knee issue, never missed a contest due to injury — is it.

Dobbins will be vultured at the goal line. Lamar Jackson is his QB, after all. Gus Edwards or Davis might get some shine in the red area as well. But is it possible that Foreman was brought in to protect McCaffrey from the goal-line hurt, too? Could Chuba Hubbard take a tiny leap and be used to keep CMC fresh? Given the discrepancy in ADP, I’d prefer clearer answers to those last questions.

Alvin Kamara (RB12) vs Travis Etienne (RB25)

Alvin Kamara’s legal woes will coincide with the Saints training camp, as the RB’s hearing has been pushed to August. If probable cause is found at said hearing then Kamara would need to report for arraignment likely 30 days later.

One could expect, then, the trial to commence at some point during the NFL regular season.

In addition to a pending trial, as discussed on the Yahoo Fantasy Football Forecast, the nearly 27-year-old’s situation will be less than ripe for fantasy production. Sans Drew Brees in 2021, Kamara recorded a career-high number of carries (18.5/gm) and a career-low number of targets (5.2/gm). From Weeks 1-7, with Jameis Winston under center, Kamara averaged 19 carries per game and 4 catches per contest. That was, of course, without Michael Thomas on the field.

It could be argued that the 5-foot-10, 214-pound back is not built for that sort of shift in workload. And evidence of that argument could be established via the four games he missed due to injury (which was a career-high number of games missed). With Thomas returning and route-runner extraordinaire Chris Olave added, it’s feasible to believe that Kamara could see even fewer targets in 2022.

Roughly 25 picks later, though, another pass-catching back could be scooped at a relative discount.

Travis Etienne was fantasy’s consensus RB25 last summer before suffering a Lisfranc injury in mid-late August. Currently, he’s the Yahoo consensus … wait for it … RB25.

So we’re still high on the guy!

Drafted No. 25 overall — just a few spots after his former college QB — Etienne has got that get-off. A big-play threat whenever the ball is in his hands, the Clemson product owns elite acceleration and an uncanny ability to spin and slip through a variety of tackles. Recording 16 career touchdowns of 40+ yards in college, there’s no denying his prowess in space. He’s also a deft pass-catcher who converted 48 of 58 balls for 588 receiving yards (12 games) and averaged 12.3 YPR over his senior campaign.

Throughout last spring’s draft process he was comped to Alvin Kamara — which is why we’re here.

Jacksonville made an effort to invest in Trevor Lawrence over the free agency period, making it rain to bring in the pass-catching talents of Evan Engram, Christian Kirk and Zay Jones. Couple that with Doug Pederson’s penchant for an RBBC and it would seem, then, that Etienne’s opportunities as a rusher and receiver would be compromised.

Except James Robinson is working his way back from a ruptured Achilles (suffered in Week 16) and "ETN"’s only other short-yardage competition is a fifth-round rookie named Snoop Conner. Plus, Kirk and Jones are new to Lawrence, whereas Lawrence and ETN connected on 95 passes for 1,083 yards and seven receiving scores over their three years (2018-2020) as Tigers together.

A young quarterback needs that sort of safety valve (even with Brandon Scherff in the lineup) and Etienne appears up for the challenge.

He’ll flirt with 4-5 looks per game, which is on par with what Kamara figures to draw in NO this season.

So, you've heard the cases for both sides. Are you siding with the vets in 2022 drafts, or are you taking the risk with the young guns?

Engage with Liz on social @LizLoza_FF

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