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2022 Fantasy Football: Travis Etienne and other RBs to target

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Jacksonville Jaguars Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

With Week 1 of the 2022 NFL season just around the corner, fantasy football takes are out in full force. Today I’m going to highlight several running backs I’d recommend targeting in your leagues this year, including Jacksonville Jaguars RB Travis Etienne.

The wide receiver version of this article is available for $free.99 here.

ADP values are from Fantasy Football Calculator’s PPR data as of September 2nd.

Ezekiel Elliott

ADP: 28 (RB15)

I get that the Dallas Cowboys offensive line isn’t what it once was and that Ekeziel Elliott is another year older. But I think those two facts, along with the presence of backup Tony Pollard, have been overblown and made Zeke undervalued in drafts this year.

The Elliott vs. Pollard debate is a good example of how “real life” football impacts fantasy football. Some fantasy experts have been calling for the younger and more explosive player to take over the backfield outright. However, as Football Outsiders’ Derrik Klassen explained in depth last September, Elliott’s consistency between the tackles and in pass protection are vital to the offense’s structure and success.

…both players are valuable, the fun player should keep getting specialized touches, and the do-it-all bellcow back should continue to be just that. It’s true that Pollard can be a scarier threat than Elliott on a given play, but the offense’s foundation is much sturdier with Elliott handling the majority of snaps and carries.

Derrik knows it. I know it. Jerry Jones knows it.

I think health would be the only factor preventing Elliott from losing significant touches to Pollard and not scoring double-digit touchdowns. But Elliott has only missed two games in the past four years. He’s also rushed for over 975 yards in each of his first six seasons in the NFL and ranks third in red zone carries since 2019 (when offensive coordinator Kellen Moore took over).

It’s not often that you have the opportunity to draft a high-volume running back on a high-scoring offense in the “dead zone” of fantasy drafts.

James Conner

ADP: 29 (RB16)

Speaking of veteran backs who are going to score a lot of touchdowns…

I’m not overly concerned with James Conner’s injury history considering the Arizona Cardinals let Chase Edmonds walk in free agency and re-signed Conner to a three-year, $21 million contract this offseason.

If you read my wide receiver article you already know that touchdowns are, in fact, good. Conner ranked second in the league in rushing scores last year -- maybe he could see some regression, but he also ranked second in goal line carries and now has less competition for touches. Kliff Kingsbury’s Cardinals rank sixth in red zone rush attempts since 2019 and quarterback Kyler Murray isn’t a goal line vulture like Josh Allen or Jalen Hurts or prime Cam Newton (spoilers).

Conner being drafted as RB16 despite finishing as RB5 last season and looking at an even better backfield situation doesn’t make any sense.

Travis Etienne

ADP: 34 (RB17)

In my experience, while opportunity is an important factor it is also overrated in fantasy football. One of the first fantasy football articles I ever wrote argued that Christian McCaffrey wasn’t worth the 1.01 pick in 2019 because of Cam Newton’s goal line usage, and CMC promptly scored the second-most fantasy points ever by a running back in a single season. Jonathan Taylor was one of my top fades of 2021 due in part to the presence of Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines, and Taylor went on to pace the position in touchdowns and fantasy points.

Injuries did help create opportunity in those two situations, but in Travis Etienne’s case, his main competition for touches in James Robinson is already hurt. That lets us worry less about factors like snap count distribution or red zone usage or target share.

In the cases of 2019 McCaffrey and 2021 Taylor, talent simply rose to the top. I’m saying Etienne will be the best running back in fantasy in 2022… but I can’t rule it out either. That’s how good he might be, and that’s the type of players worth betting on.

Here’s some dopamine courtesy of SI Jaguar Report’s John Shipley, who doesn’t throw around hype willy-nilly, from August:

Travis Etienne has been one of the stars of training camp for the Jaguars. He has consistently created big plays as a rusher and as a pass-catcher and has really showcased a balanced skill-set; he has been able to break tackles from linebackers and defensive linemen, he has shown vision, he has proven to be a mismatch on linebackers in the passing game, and his pass-protection is far ahead of where it was in last year’s camp. He also was able to take several big hits earlier this week and shrug them off like they were nothing.

“I need that! I haven’t played in so long, I want to get tackled. I need to get tackled just to get my body back acclimated with that,” Etienne said. “I’ve just been at home, working out, chilling on the couch, stuff like that, so to come out here and get some bumps and bruises. I miss that contact. It may sound crazy, but I miss kind of being in those car crashes.”

Rashaad Penny

ADP: 67 (RB28)

Similar to Etienne, a bet on Rashaad Penny is a bet on pure talent overcoming an offense you have to talk yourself into and backfield competition with a good player albeit one coming off injury. (Seattle Seahawks first round pick Kenneth Walker III recently had hernia surgery.)

Doug Martin and Jay Ajayi come to mind as running backs who dominated for a stretch of one season but never quite turned into anything after that. But Penny didn’t just dominate for a stretch -- he dom-in-at-ed. To the tune of six scores and 706 yards on 102 carries (6.9 yards per rush!) and in six games (117.7 per game!), to be exact.

He was also incredibly efficient at San Diego State even when handling large workloads, and was quietly a good albeit injured rusher throughout his first three years in Seattle before breaking out late last year.

I completely get it if you pass on Penny in the first half of drafts considering his murky environment and past injury history. But if you’re like me and you like to bet on good players, Penny is a name to keep an eye on in the middle rounds.

Dameon Pierce

ADP: 75 (RB32

Quick story: in 2019 I was a sophomore at UF interning for the Gators communications department. In between passing out stat sheets in the press box during the Orange & Blue spring game, I noticed two offensive players whose names I made sure to look up. They were Kyle Pitts and Dameon Pierce.

Pitts eventually became a Heisman candidate and the eighth overall pick of the NFL Draft. Pierce isn’t as talented as his former teammate, but he was heavily underutilized at Florida comparatively. I screamed at Dan Mullen on the television every Saturday last year along with every other Gators fan to give Pierce more touches.

His underwhelming production in four full seasons at Florida is part of what made him a fourth-round draft pick, as well as lacking long speed. But Pierce has the type of well-rounded game that coaches not named Mullen should love, like fierce pass protection and the ability to move piles in addition to great burst and vision.

If you’ve been following fantasy this offseason you know that Pierce was the biggest winner of the 2022 preseason. I’m simply here to tell you that I’m not surprised. Like the Gators spring game three years ago, this is just a sign of things to come for Houston Texans rookie Dameon Pierce.

P.S. My Pierce player comp is Marshawn Lynch. He’s a great interview and shows the same kind of on-field antics as well:

Jerrick McKinnon

ADP: n/a

I like targeting Nyheim Hines and J.D. McKissic (in that order) in later rounds. They’re not the type of players who will win you your league if opportunity opens up in front of them, but instead they have a consistent week-to-week workload via the passing game.

However, those players are occasionally drafted before the draft round ticker requires two digits, while Chiefs running back Jerrick McKinnon is available for free in standard 10-man leagues. Media reports and preseason usage both indicate that McKinnon is as locked into Kansas City‘s 3rd down role as Clyde Edwards-Helaire is locked into the starting role on early downs.

The 30-year-old “Jet” McKinnon showed flashes of his former self during the 2021 playoffs:

Thank you for reading and good luck this season! Once again, the wide receivers version of this article is available here.