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Dynasty Fantasy Football: Potential 2022 Breakout Running Backs

Which players are most likely to be on the brink of a 2022 breakout?

AJ Dillon

I’ve been writing up common breakout players for 2022. Last time, we looked at the most likely wide receivers to hit a higher level of production. This time, we’re going to tackle running backs using similar trends.

Let’s consider who might break out next year.

The Top 12

In any given season, around 41% of running backs who finished in the top 12 the year before repeat inside the top 12 (PPR scoring) – around five players (4.9 since 2009.) Last year it was Jonathan Taylor, Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara, Aaron Jones, and Josh Jacobs.

On average, one to two players in the top 12 have returned after having missed the previous year because of injury, missed time, or just lack of production. Last year we had an above-average number of returns, four: Austin Ekeler, Joe Mixon, Leonard Fournette, and James Conner.

That leaves an average of six running backs (5.8 since 2009) who break out for the first time each year. Last year we only had three: Najee Harris, Antonio Gibson, and Cordarrelle Patterson.

Now let’s see what’s going on with the position more broadly.

What do we know?

2021 was a bad year for running backs. The position has declined over the last four years as the top 12 have averaged fewer PPG each of the last four years. 2021 underwhelmed even more as it bottomed out the trend and dipped below the overall average since 2009 for the first time (17.4 PPG, the average since 2009 is 18.1).

Worse, while wide receivers have always represented a majority of the top 36 overall players (flex ranks), over the last two years the running backs took a further step back, producing just 27% and 33% (respectively) instead of closer to the 38% average.

The last time we saw this big of a drop-off in flex power was before 2016. That year, Ezekiel Elliot and Jordan Howard both produced top-12 seasons as rookies. The bounce-back was aided by two second-year players, David Johnson – who had broken out in his rookie year – and Jay Ajayi.

The 2022 class is generally considered to be a deep but underwhelming running back group. However, given the 2016 precedence and the drop in new breakouts last year, I think we could expect to see some rookie surprises. The return of Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley could also help replenish the position.

So, let’s look for the most common breakout candidates.

Who breaks out?

Over 30% of all running back breakouts in a season come from the first three years of a running back career. We also see a top-12 breakout in second and third-year running backs around 61% of seasons. Most breakouts into the top 12 have already finished inside the top 36 before (64% for year-two breakouts and 70% for year-three breakouts).

Running back breakouts are less likely than wide receivers (though still a majority) to have averaged higher point-per-game levels, with only 53% of breakouts beating the PPG average since 2009.

Recent trends suggest we have seen a drop in the top 12 breakouts inside the first three years and outside of the fourth round.

Table Description automatically generated

In short, we should expect to see more breakouts at the position this year. The most common are players in their second and third years, but we could also see a spike in later-year players with less draft capital.

Ultimately while we should expect breakouts in 2022, the position has been hitting relatively close to expected overall in terms of breakout trends, on average.

Shall we skip to the results?

Common breakouts for 2022

Outside of the hopeful involvement of the rookie class, here are the most likely current players to break out into the top 12 in 2022.

Javonte Williams, RB DEN

D’Andre Swift, RB DET

I’m grouping these because they are already expected based on their ADP rank. At this point, in dynasty, Williams and Swift are already valued as if they have broken out. That makes for an awkward position where the risk may be in keeping them on a roster. However, based on breakout trends, it is reasonable to expect that they could produce the points we need from them as well.

JK Dobbins, RB BAL

Dobbins has a limited share of a great offense that likes to run and wants to run more this year based on their draft choices. It’s not impossible to argue that it leads to a top 12 season in 2022. But without having to argue about it very much, I can tell you this would be the year it would happen if it’s going to.

AJ Dillon, RB GB

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB KC

Of the most common breakout candidates, I think both Dillon and Edwards-Helaire are the ones who offer interesting potential at the best value. Neither is currently ranked inside the top 20 and Helaire is currently valued as a non-starter at RB26 in startups.

They mark an interesting mirror image of Swift and Williams, where it’s almost impossible not to see them as trade targets because their value is far too low for their potential this year.

Anyway, that’s about all I have time for right now. Next time we’ll talk tight end breakouts, but for now, if you are interested in the table, I’ve included it in my projection sheet on Patreon.

Peter Howard
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Dynasty Fantasy Football: Potential 2022 Breakout Running Backs
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